Graham Reid | | 7 min read
Earlier this year we not only favourably reviewed Luke Hurley's new album Happy Isles but also – because he has been such a singular and visible figure in recent New Zealand popular music – we invited him to tell us of his formative years.
They were fascinatiing and delivered in his own idiosyncratic style which we didn't change just to capture his voice.
But of course there was much more to come after that and so we here have Luke unfurl more of his story. Again, unmediated by Elsewhere.
Read on . . .
Was music an important part of your childhood and what are your earliest childhood memories of music which really affected you?
The preschool in Zanzibar was influenced by a musical culture that goes back eons. We in the west couldn't even dream of such ingenious integration of music and dance culture where it became your life language and security. Your identity in fact and so vital to that culture that the bells on our ankles were hand wrought to various pitches so the teacher could distinguish each person by sound and your whole time there was music. Every moment and every move. Singing too. I was making up songs in preschool.
Any western influence after leaving at 7 couldn't match that preschool experience and I have tried to recapture it since.
Was there a time when you felt it was going to be music and nothing else?
In my 7 to 11 period I do remember hearing age 8 the deep mystical totally involving and somewhat melancholy strains of music coming from a neighbours’ house drifting into my bedroom window on a day when I pulled a sickie from so called school. The one where I was put in the choir on account of my talent for singing only to be kicked out for playing up.
Anyways here were the deeply mystical strains of a music so indefinable that it sparked a fascination for how songs work. From that moment I felt in total awe of songwriting. I just could not believe it was humanly possible to create such exquisite stories intertwined with sounds from another vast and magical world. Well that was then and I do believe the song was (Beatles) Michelle. There's that bell again folks. Ankle bell?
The best world music in the world was preschool Zanzibar pre-revolution dance music of the ankles.
When you started on your music career were people around you supportive or did you have to find those people?
Hmmmmmmm. That's tricky to answer. For a start - career smacks of a world this musician perceives he has been kicked out of like when I got assed out of the choir. I had a middle class heritage but got frog-marched out of that too. Dropped out of school and dropped out of university and dropped out of my cold type compositing apprenticeship in the early days of computer assisted press. I could have had a well paid trade and work anywhere but the point was reached where the music obsession became a jealous mistress and monomania set in and I believed the old lie that one day I could be a big shot in a similar way the soldier recites Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (Wilfred Owen)
(Translation) It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country
There were many of the ‘play the game correctly’ career types that encouraged me hugely. The world I perceived as enemy territory was the first world to endorse my early songs. I decided to record and issue by hook or by crook assisted by Barry MaConnachie at 4X0 who recorded me, also John Nixon. People loved my music. I was totally amazed.
The first song of yours which you really felt proud of was . . .? And why that one?
Japanese Overdrive. I had been given a huge boost of confidence by virtue of inclusion in the lineup of Sweetwater 81 working with Steve Thomas in a theatre piece called Pink Bits playing right after my hero John Martyn and being mentioned by a reviewer in the Herald. So. You can imagine I felt like a sparrow on the eagles back full of reflected fame and future promise making a little pebble splash in the big pond.
On the way back to Dunedin I met a girl who gave me a lift in a brand new Japanese car and I was besotted not just with her, but with my imagination of her otherwise known as falling in love otherwise downgraded to infatuation. She inspired Japanese Overdrive and amazingly it is a love song derived from imagining a relationship that never materialised and that, dear Watson, is the best kinda inspiration you can get.
So a very well honed song did materialise and I just knew for sure it was significant when a friend of mine, Tony Nichol, called by and asked me to play for him the song I was currently writing. Much to my surprise he was stunned. He said. That’s f$&#ing brilliant
What a huuuuuuge encouragement coming from a guy who I perceived as being together. A winner from the world I was locked out of singing my praise! Amazing.
This led to my confidence in the demos, which I snuck into TVNZ’s building to post into the overnight courier bag to Avalon: Attention ‘Radio with Pictures’. That was the only rock show and only one channel for the whole country
So I eventually got a call from Brent Hansen Co producer of RWP begging me to stop sending these epistles as he called them. And I agreed and with great disappointment expected inevitable rejection but to my amazement he asked me which song I wanted to do? Japanese Overdrive.
He agreed that this was the song and to my utter disbelief decided to video me playing it in the Avalon main studio set crew and the whole nine yardbirds.
I was a Star for a day playing MY song. Written in a beat up old flat on the bones of my proverbial and nek minute on the strength of a few letters and cassettes I was in a whole new world with a future or so I believed. So Ii gets broadcast and from that day forth I had half of Dunedin telling me they had seen me on TV and that my guitar could do with a polish.
I had a lot of fun. Doing orientation tours on the strength of that one clip. It was huge fun. I was obsessed and wrote and recorded several albums and it all started when a winner told me I had a winning song.
Any one person you would call a mentor angel on your shoulder or invaluable fellow traveller?
There have been many. We gotta mention the guys who produced Reha and Happy Isles, Jan Bille and Ian MacAllister. They have magic ears and get a sound that's fresh and inspiring but I have to say the mentor of all mentors was dad and he often quoted Goethe’s famous advice. Something like.....
How can we come to know ourselves? Never by reflection, only by action. Learn to do your duty and you will soon know who you are. But what is your duty - the demands of the day.
And this one: ‘Use things and love people not the other way around.’
And he wrote a great book, that Charles Pierard is turning into a talking book.
Where and when was the first time you went on stage as a paid performer?
Diamond Lake Wanaka
I got this gig thru Marcus Turner who passed it on to me coz he didn’t want to be a rocker and I kinda did and that has to be the best gig ever. It was staged in the most beautiful spot with this stunning echo off the mountain sides and acts like NDT & Backdoor Blues Band also in their infancy and also playing for the almost first time for a dollar a minute. In spite of the low numbers the small crowd was extremely supportive. No one could wish for a better first real gig but there has never been a follow up. Robin Judkins got obsessed with sport instead.
Ever had stage fright or just a serious failure of nerve before going on stage?
One gig I did opening for the first time Narcs in the Cook - Dunedin. They had a huge sound system and their manager at the time. (Peter?) He gave me a massive sound and the songs I played were pretty intense and raw and at times inflammatory and the vibe was just amazing.
Anyways. I was shit scared at this gig. I. Something really mysterious about that particular night and those particular people. They knew how to create a stunning vibe. Great sound.
As a songwriter, do you carry a notebook or have a phone right there constantly to grab ideas they come? Or is your method something different?
The best method I discovered was to write stream of consciousness prose just typed on paper with a good ol IBM golf ball typewriter which for some reason I loved but servicing them was costly and replacing them costlier still.
Anyways I got the use of one at first & would go tap away endlessly all kinds of crazy ideas then go pick out the best put short phrases and then link them. That's kinda how I could write my early gems. It was a very rewarding process but when computers took over I lost interest in working this way and just got obsessed with performing and honing my guitar skills and my communication with people which is of course very absorbing.
Anyways now I use my phone and talk ideas into it. I use video to get images that inspire verbal responses.
Luke Hurley's most recent album Happy Isles – recorded in Lyttelton, pressed by Holiday Records in Auckland and also available digitally from his website here – is one which deserves serious attention.
Attractive cover by Justin Summerton too.