Among our mid-level pop artists Anthonie Tonnon qualifies as an admirable journeyman. As Tono, his first EP titled ‘Love & Economics’ was released in 2008. Two years later came the ‘Fragile Thing’ EP, this time by Tono & The Finance Company, and followed under the same guise in 2013 with a debut album called ‘Up Here For Dancing’. Two years after that he is back as Anthonie Tonnon, with a sophomore album titled ‘Successor’. Between records, he has toured extensively, including the States and Australia, spent time writing news at Auckland’s 95bFM, writing for The Wireless and The Pantograph Punch, and being a freelance reporter for Radio NZ – among other roles. Anthonie Tonnon talked to Silke Hartung about the influence of touring on the production of an album and the hoped-for longevity of his still-building musical career.
The change from Tono & The Finance Company to his actual full name, Anthonie Tonnon, didn’t happen on a whim.
“Band names are things that should lose their original meaning. We made that name up in our flat in Dunedin when on TV there were 10 ads for finance companies… ‘Good credit, bad credit – we want you!’
“It was kind of like the housing market in Auckland that’s just so overblown, and it’s just so obvious something bad is going to happen. We didn’t realise it at first because it crashed so much bigger than anyone expected. The name never had the chance to settle into its own meaning, and people still had questions about it long after we wanted them to.
“I want to be a songwriter that’s still working in his 50s and 60s and I just don’t see Tono & The Finance Company as something that makes sense with that. I’m really into writers like Lou Reed, ,PJ Harvey… people we know under their own names who have a bit of a more writer-ly process.
“I was touring overseas at the time, and I knew as soon as there is a plane involved you really can’t take a band. I wanted to develop a show in which I wouldn’t feel like I was giving half the package, so I needed to get the semantics right, and the expectations.”
One effect of the name change is that he has now reclaimed his preferred nickname.
“My friends call me Tono still, it has now just become my private persona again. It makes much more sense to me to have ‘Anthonie Tonnon’ as that professional persona.”
‘Successor’ was co-produced between himself and Jonathan Pearce, ex-Artisan Guns, Cool Rainbows, sometimes Clap Clap Riot, who also recorded Tiny Ruins’ ‘Haunts’ EP.
Tono remembers that the two set limitations for themselves not to reach too high, for something too professional and hifi sounding, that they might then not get right.
“It’s much better to choose a sound that you can control. In our case that was by using Jono’s collection of tape machines. Right from the start we wanted to get a focus on performance. People always say NZ bands are so different from the rest of the world, but not as tight, and I kind of saw where that comes from. In the States I saw bands who were working out their material while touring.
“In NZ we record our album in our bedroom and then we learn how to play it. I didn’t want to make another record playing the songs 10 times better than I felt I recorded them while on tour, so I booked a hell of a lot of shows. Jonathan and I worked on producing the album around touring. This is the first time I haven’t done a record in a short space of time. I was always afraid of a long album project because I had always done it in an intense one or two week period. The last album was done in 11 days, and it’s great having that brief time because you’re forced to make decisions.”
From mid-2013 the pair spent a year on and off working on the album. In that time Tonnon played numerous shows locally and overseas, trying to give the songs more time to tighten up, or to find out through feedback from the audience what needed to be done to the material.
“You can just feel it somehow. If you play to a different audience you can then look at the songs at the end of the tour and go, ‘Ah, that’s not working, or that is working.’
Finally they recorded the album in various locations around Auckland, partly in Pearce’s garage, partly at The Lab in Mt Eden.
“Taking a year instead won’t make your album twice as good, it maybe won’t even make it 50% better. It might just make it 10% better – but maybe that’s worth a year!? Low-hanging fruit…”
His band hasn’t changed much since Finance Company days, including Stu Harwood (Proton Beast) on drums, Eddie Castelow (Dictaphone Blues) on bass and Jonathan Pearce playing guitar. Time aside, the major change between ‘Up Here For Dancing’ and ‘Successor’ lies in the lyrics. Tonnon’s approach to song narrative has evolved. Combining catchy melodies and sing-along hooks with his trademark wit, clever wording and quirky subjects, the new album is mostly written in the second person.
“That was a deliberate change in approach. I really like to get into character. That’s a trick that Randy Newman does, or Don McGlashan, but it’s also one that’s widely misunderstood – people don’t get that you’re singing in character! It’s really difficult to get that across. I take a character and a situation and I force the listener to inhabit that character and follow them around, even if they don’t like the character.
Not surprisingly, some of the songs are inspired by true stories.
“The big thing about this record is my infatuation for long-form journalism. My idea very early on was to make something that sounded like that. I wanted to transpose that art form.
“I just love the reporter-at-large. I love these journalistic stories that have taken six months to write and that follow people around. They don’t have to be totally true! he laughs. “They can bend the truth and they can play with it, but they’re gripping stories. A Friend From Argentina is based on an article in Metro magazine called Blow Time: Inside the Cocaine World of Auckland’s Smart Set, by Donna Chisholm.”
Ultimately, the lyrics along with the live performance, are all about engaging the audience, Tonnon explaining that he approaches a performance like a theatrical show, and some shows need interventions.
“Some gigs are really boring, unfortunately. We set ourselves some really bad traditions, this lack of trust between the audience and the performer. Everybody is lying about starting times, or when they’ll turn up. There’s a tendency at rock shows of paying attention for the first song, form a large semi circle in front of the stage well away from the band, and then after the second song to start talking. It’s terrible.
“I want to create something that breaks up the traditions. I’m not bothered about people talking – you’re fighting against something you can’t control. But I can perform. I know if I can do something strange, make people move their hands, and tell them to move forward like they’re a boat on the water, I create a sense of shock. People forget how to act, they stop what they’re doing and start taking in the show in a different way.
Those little interventions are, he says, improvised on the spot when he feels the gig needs it, his intention to keep people on their toes and trick the audience into having a good time.
Between albums, he undertook two extensive tours in the USA, three smaller Australian ones, two local tours with band and uncountable shows around NZ as a solo artist. His journalistic bent means he instinctively observes, even while performing.
“I think a lot of people in NZ want their music to do well overseas but they have no idea – and I had no idea! The internet doesn’t tell you! What I had seen in the States was that if you want to release it, you’d finish the record, then you’d find a label and it would be six months from signing to the record coming out. I knew it was going to take a long time. So I just waited for probably eight or nine months.
“If you’ve released it in NZ, put it on your Bandcamp, it’s not going to be released anywhere else. I made that mistake myself with ‘Up Here For Dancing’. They don’t want a second hand product. That’s really unfair, really unfortunate because you can do it the other way round, but you can’t release here first.”
It was a friend who sent his tape to a record label in Pennsylvania who liked the music.
“I found Wild Kindness in Pittsburgh and they’ve been so great. They’re in love with the same music I’m in love with, which is ’90s cassette tape music; the kind of scene that Bill Callahan came from. They’re a small label, but they’ve got the resources to do the things I could never afford to do, or would never have the people on the ground to do. I can release it myself over here but I could never do that in the States.
To release the album at home, he hesitantly bit the bullet and started Canapé King Records.
“Starting the record label is just cementing what I’ve always done. I’ve always been pretty good about running those things myself but I was almost reluctant to start a label because I never wanted to be good at those things.
“I always wanted to be a songwriter and focus on songwriting – that’s the job I’d rather do – but in NZ you’ve got to be a bit of a generalist. Everybody can do two jobs. I can do the business side. I thought about it, and a lot of my friends who are musicians are their own sound engineer, while I need someone to do that. I’m a producer, but I don’t have all that time to spend in front of a computer, either. My curse is to be my own manager at the moment.”
Tonnon reckons that he is not in his prime yet.
“I don’t think I will hit my stride with this kind of music until I’m at least in my mid-30s! Leonard Cohen couldn’t have come up with Suzanne when he was 23 – no one would have paid attention. I’m getting close to the music I want to make, with a very heavily narrative-based music, and rightly or wrongly I think this takes a long time to write, which requires experience. People take you a bit more seriously when you’re older. Look at people like Mark Kozelek – he’s 48. I think that age might be a sweet spot for me! I’m still figuring it all out.”