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April/May 2015

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Andrew Fagan

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Andrew Fagan

Andrew Fagan was back out on the road over new year with his band Fagan and The People –– who are loud, psychedelic, totally fearless and very funny. Given Fagan’’s back catalogue dating back to his formative days with the Ambitious Vegetables, a significant strike rate recorded with The Mockers, and his solo material, he has an enviable repertoire of songs to draw from. But there’’s more to Fagan than just great songs. He’’s a published poet, author (his book Swirly World Sails South is a wonderful memoir), father, broadcaster and a committed sailor who has made some fearless solo voyages that all have contributed to the man he has become. Andrew is a righteous raconteur and a generous spirit who has navigated a passage through a lifetime of musical terrains. Arohanui.

Can you remember when, where and who took this photo?

I remember it well. 35mm film shoot overnight making the video for One Black Friday, which RCA had us record in Sydney, back in 1985. The circus were set up at Victoria Park Auckland. They had a mad elephant tamer. He was as hard as nails! The photo was taken by Sally Tagg.

What was the inspiration for that song, One Black Friday?

Lyrically it was about the Queen Street riot, late 1984 at Aotea Square. We played first followed by Herbs and DD Smash (Dave Dobbyn). A few brown beer bottles were thrown at us and exploded on stage around us. It was one of those gigs where you had to keep your eyes open while singing. There were different layers of music enthusiasts in the audience. Up front while we played were our dedicated followers. Further back there were Herbs’’ fans who didn’’t really like us. Our songs were too fast and poppy for them, and what we were wearing (including makeup and black nail polish) seemed to antagonise them even more. I remember enjoying verbally abusing them in-between songs once the beer bottles started exploding, so that probably didn’’t help either.

You started out in the band the Ambitious Vegetables in Wellington. Was that your entry into the music business?

It was 1978 and I’’d just discovered The Sex Pistols. Charlie Mannell (the drummer) and I shared similar punk rock tastes and I went about finding anyone who could play an instrument and were up for spending their lunchtime in one of the music rooms at Rongotai College. Gordon Costello (the guitarist) was into Yes and could play Don’’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult. He was really a bit musically over-qualified but I managed to talk him into playing hard and fast.

Our first bass player couldn’’t really play but as an intellectual in the same Latin class as me he saw the appeal of punk rock. Later Gareth Curtis (who went on to become my songwriting partner in The Mockers) also managed to lower his musicality for a while to become the next bass player. I jumped around and shouted a lot. We played at our school assembly and did a cover of Pretty Vacant and an original called Mackay Wanks. Mackay was the authoritarian headmaster at the time and suddenly our reputation spread through the Wellington punk rock community.

Famous Fran Walsh (Peter Jackson’’s wife) was then the guitarist in a band called The Wall Sockets, and she invited us to play a lunchtime gig at Wellington Girls’’ College. Other late night support gigs followed at the likes of the Rock Theatre and The Last Resort and free Sunday arvo gigs in Cuba Mall with other alternative enthusiastic bands like Shoes This High, Life in the Fridge Exists, etc. We were away!

How and why did you go about forming The Mockers – who went on to establish such a massive audience in such a short time?

I got sick of constantly shouting and jumping around to super fast songs and wanted to try singing for a change. I also became enamoured with Gareth’’s melodic prolific song output so we thought it was time to get more musically serious.

We’’d seen and supported so many touring bands come through Wellington, Flight X7, Lip Service, The Techtones, Screaming Meemees, Pink Flamingos, etc. We compared ourselves to them and often felt frustrated that they had an audience nationally and we didn’’t. I started becoming envious of them all. To set up and play in a different town every night seemed to me like the way to live the dream! I wanted a go, but not everyone in the band at the time agreed. Hence multiple line-up changes over time. I couldn’’t think of anything more fun to do. It was also a great way to meet females.

In the university holidays I caught a bus to Auckland and met the manager of The Dabs, Ian Kingsford, who was sharing an office with Simon Grigg from Propellor Records at the time. Murray Cammick (Rip It Up) let me sleep on his couch. Kingsford began the exciting cycle of constant gigging to basically not many people, with the odd big support gig thrown in. His ability to handle and shrug off mounting totally self-delusional debt to PA, lighting and booking agent companies made the whole exercise possible.

Those were the days of constant six week regional tours with hire vans and JBL and Cerwin Vega PAs, light rigs and roadies that travelled with you everywhere. They got paid as a priority, we didn’’t. It was financially unrealistic but transient good fun. If we got a staff meal in a local pub then no per diems. If not, $5 a day. That often meant no meal, preferring to save the money for the bar. The level of collective debt we developed almost meant we couldn’’t stop. Another gig to drip feed the dosh to the booking agent or whoever was a necessary thing. But we were slowly becoming more popular as a pub band, and for the sake of the songs and the fun, it seemed worth persevering.

What are your memories of The Mockers’ recording sessions through the ’’80s and ’’90s in NZ and Oz?

The Mockers’’ first single The Good Old Days / Murder In Manners St was funded by TVNZ as part of a scheme they had in place in 1980 in order to have a sound recording that could be used for videos to be played on Radio With Pictures. Peter Blake was the main guy and saw The Mockers support Rick Bryant’‘s band Top Scientists at the Majestic Cabaret on Willis St., Wellington. Peter was very supportive and we were very keen. We even got paid a fee for it!

Trendy Lefties and Woke Up Today were recorded at Studio Two the Radio NZ Bowen St. complex which is now sadly no more. We paid for those from memory. Went to the Polygram factory in Kilbirnie and got them pressed there. Sat on the floor at home and put in the photocopied piece of paper sleeve into the clear plastic bags they came with. Took them to Chelsea Records (Jim Moss) in Manners St. Mall and sent them out and about. Roger Shepherd (pre Flying Nun) sold quite a few in Christchurch.

Once relocated to Auckland we got a downtime deal with Glyn Tucker Jnr at Mandrill Studios and signed to Reaction Records. Downtime meant when there were no paying clients in the studio so we got to do our recording. It took a long time, months and months, but we finally got there. ‘’Swear It’’s True’’ was the album that eventually went platinum. It was fun getting to work in a professional studio, but given the poverty stricken reality of our day to day lives as aspiring musicians we always felt slightly out of our depths as a band in such a well-appointed place. The discipline of playing in time and singing in tune was a novelty that we slowly became accustomed to.

RCA bought us off Reaction and bribed us with the rock’’n’’roll possibility of recording in Sydney. That resulted in the ‘‘Culprit And The King’‘ album that went gold in NZ. Staying at Bondi Beach in a famous rock’’n’’roll hotel with cockroaches that had seen really famous Australian rockers before was a gratifying step up in our minds.

Daily record company-funded per diems and a big seemingly endless budget (The Mockers still owe RCA 42,000 un-recouped Australian dollars) felt like hitting the big time! Recording in Glebe Studios and being taken out to dinner most nights for a few concentrated months by record company executives was as good as it got.

The Mockers had quite a steady strike rate of local ‘hits’. What was the reality of having a ‘hit’ record in NZ?

It used to be about having a record company that had a relationship with radio and could lobby on the band’’s behalf. That had to be combined with a potent live band that had built up an audience so that when the ‘radio peeps’ came to a gig they got swept along by the honest enthusiasm of the crowd. Then they hopefully thrashed your song because that’’s where the wider NZ audience at the time found their music.

Getting on one of the TV shows like Radio With Pictures, Ready To Roll and Shazam also helped. In the ’’80s it was a very centralised music scene and if you could combine the live gigs with the radio and TV play you were away. As long as you had a good song and an act that tickled the fancy of those paying attention then a ‘hit’ might eventuate. During The Mockers’’ ‘steady strike rate’ I was living on my boat on the mudflats in Auckland. It was fame without fortune, but I wasn’’t complaining.…

When did The Mockers begin to develop a business structure?

Never really. It was financially all about playing live gigs to chip away at the horrendous debt we’’d got ourselves into from those early pub touring years.

The band relocated to London in the late ’’80s. What were your expectations vs the reality once you arrived there?

After Steve Thorpe, our drummer, died in 1986 the whole foundation of ‘good times self-endulgent fun’ collapsed. We did another album with Peter Dawkins as producer, ‘’The Emperor’s New Clothes’’ but with Steve’’s death the guts had been knocked out of the band.

We’’d hit that ceiling that touring bands had to inevitably hit in NZ – been round and around too long, couldn’’t keep pulling a provincial crowd every three months –– and the touring live scene future for us as a band looked fairly dismal. It was in those days well precedented. Unless you moved to Oz you were basically doomed. I figured we were too poppy and nancy boyish for the Oz scene and opted for the UK.

In the UK I focused on trying to write good songs and got distracted by living on a mobile riverboat on the non-tidal Thames River. A couple of years went by that produced some compelling songs (from my perspective) then Geoff Hayden the bass player turned up, followed by Brett Adams, and we agreed it was worth exploiting our past NZ history by playing the usual London gigs to ex-pat NZers.

We came up with a batch of good new band songs but without local management to thrust us into the right business ears we got bogged down in the usual London scenario of everyone having their energies drained by simply trying to stay alive and get around in that over-crowded place. I liken those years to trying to slash your way through thick undergrowth with a guitar that should have been a machete; trying to get to the clearing at the top of the hill where the global audience was waiting. Sadly we didn’’t, and all that can be found are the bones of The Mockers……

Returning to NZ you recorded your first solo album with Sony. ‘’Blisters’’ is still a great album but never quite achieved the success it deserved. How do you look back on it?

I’’ve got no idea. But I have. At that stage I’’d become yesterday’’s man. So no matter what I offered up musically in NZ after The Mockers, it was destined to be dismissed by critics and of course our loyal young Mockers’ audience had grown up and moved onto other things. I’‘m still proud of Band of Rain (should have been a single) and Jerusalem. Having Shona Laing and Debbie Harwood do guest vocals on that song was great. They still turn up for the odd live occasion and I enjoy rubbing shoulders with them as we mutually belt out the harmonies! Big ups to Sony for funding the trip to Jerusalem to do the video for the song. It was historically important to print that moment as the sun came up over the Mount of Olives. Me in my gold suit at the blocked up Golden Gate above the Garden Of Gethsemane; fulfilling the messianic prophecy without being interfered with by any enemies…… I can’’t believe we got away with it.

By 1995 you were back in the UK and there were rumours that your song Empty was appropriated or at least influenced Blur’’s Song 2. Any truth in that?

Fast forwarding to 1995, a label in London expressed an interest in releasing ‘‘Blisters’’ the album, but we’’d moved on from then as a band and decided to call ourselves LIG. Our first single in the UK was called Empty. White label seven inch. Again, like 1980, I picked them up from the factory and sent them out to fanzines and radio stations, the envelopes full of music and the ambitious hope that the song might find an audience that would make our difficult relocation to London worth the effort.

Surprisingly the late John Peel (he of discerning taste) picked up on it and absolutely thrashed it on his BBC Radio One show. Gigging doors instantly opened and LIG found itself playing all over England. We were naturally looking for an old school ‘carry-me-financially-forever’ record deal and got close with Blur’’s label. Plenty of Camden London gigs ensued where the tyre-kicking record company scouts came along, and it turned into us versus a Scottish band called The Supernaturals. They won and went on to have a few minor hits. Meanwhile Blur had a chance to hear our song Empty and according to our booking agent and everyone else in the London-know, Blur ripped us off with their song called Song 2. The chords aren’’t the same, nor are the lyrics, but the attitude remains most similar.

What finally bought you and Karyn back to NZ?

As a day job in London I started working for bands that were more popular than mine and funded by record companies and their own success. (What a novel concept that was to witness!) It didn’’t take long to adjust to becoming a ‘roadie’. I was surrounded by many talented musicians who found it equally as uncomfortable as me to swallow the subservient nature of our employment. But in London it’’s a very common thing. Working at Sensible Music, a backline hire company, I utilised all the gear for live Camden gigs, late night band recordings et al. That was the only positive. Sensible Music was the Alladin’’s Cave mecca for any recording artist. Whatever guitar or drum or amp you wanted to use was there waiting. Often we’’d play a poxy new band night with the drum kit or bass rig that had just come off the back of a Bryan Adams or Wheatus European tour.

Our last LIG gig in the UK (Kevin Moody guitar / Craig Horne drums / Barbara Morgan bass) was with The Darkness in Essex. It was a bank holiday weekend gig organised by a local fanzine train spotter that chose to put a few ‘blatant lead singer show-off’ bands together on one hot afternoon bill.

Little did we suspect that that uncool Thin Lizzy-like dueling lead guitar solo (almost covers band) with their tops off would carry on from there and conquer the world. We drove back to Peckham afterwards with no expectations, other than getting out of London asap after seven years slightly wasted.

Your song Seven Years Not Wasted refers to the history of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. What excites you about those kind of stories?

Life can become a fairly mundane thing especially if you have fiscal and emotional (parent) responsibilities. It’’s easy to get bogged down doing what’’s expected of you in order to just economically survive and conform to other people’’s expectations.

Adventurers by the definition of the word bring something exciting to the table. It’’s naturally something to aspire to. Writing pop songs about it never felt like an issue to me. The Mockers’ song A Winter’s Tale was also about a loner who lived in Fiordland and dedicated his solitary life to creating a bird sanctuary on a small island. Sadly for him the rats or stoats managed to swim across and ended up getting them. Get Light (2011) is about the shipwreck survivors down at the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands and their desperate plight.

A passion for long distance solo voyages is one of your most remarkable points of difference. How much has sailing contributed to you and the man you have become?

I’’m not sure I’’ve become a ‘’man’’ but I am a male. Solo in my 5.4 metre sloop Swirly World there and back to Raoul Island (Kermedec Islands) in 1986. Navigating by sextant pre GPS convenience. There and back to Australia in 1994. A circumnavigation of NZ including a visit to the Auckland Islands in 2007. Multiple voyages to Waiheke Island from the Auckland Harbour Bridge and back, including one last week…… ha ha. Eleven years living on boats on the London canals and the Thames River. Nothing like being afloat. It makes living feel more worthwhile.

The present Fagan and the People band is quite a formidable line up of musical pedigree.

Yep, Fagan and the People has Darryn Harkness (New Telepathics/Loud Ghost) guitar and keyboards, Ronny Growler (Show Me Where It Hurts) on drums, Josh Rockfield guitar and Kurt Shanks (Delete Delete) plays bass. It’’s great to play with such seasoned and gifted musicians. They bring all my songs alive in a compelling way. The best band I’’ve had the pleasure of standing (and sitting) on a stage with.

Your recent single Ancestor is another great Andrew Fagan pop song. How do you look back on your catalogue of originals? I’’ve heard you say that the songs you wrote back in 1983 aren’’t that different to the songs you are writing now.

‘Pop’ is sometimes perceived as a derogatory term, and I get that, especially when you listen to some of the banal but ‘popular’ music that is extremely financially viable. But to me it’’s simply a format that constitutes accessibility and a potent tight form of delivering an ‘emotional capsule’ to other humans. I’’ve always tried to do that with my songwriting. Always tried to distill the emotional intent down to a very refined package called a ‘song’. For me it’’s usually the shorter the better. Don’’t make a song overstay its welcome. If people like it, they’’ll put it on repeat, like I do.

How much has the creative and the commercial process changed for you compared to the days with the Ambitious Vegetables and The Mockers?

The creative process hasn’’t changed. A drum beat looped up will get a song started, Empty and Blame Me come to mind. Walking without mental interference will start another one going. Doodling with a guitar also still works. The important part is recording and capturing that embryonic moment when the tune and attitude emerges. If it’’s not printed in some form quickly, then it will vanish forever. I’’ve lost so many tunes and lyrics I thought were great by not having a means to record them at hand.

The commercial process constitutes a paradigm shift of magnificent change. All hail the instant access to a global market that now exists for serious dedicated music practitioners. No need anymore to relocate to the northern hemisphere and waste your energy with a day job and all the energy-sapping activity that involves.

You’’ve played with many local and international artists. Who would you consider made the biggest impression on you and why?

Ian Dury And The Blockheads. Wellington Town Hall early ’’80s. Because Wilco Johnson the manic guitarist from Essex was on stage (ex-Dr Feelgood), and because Ian broke a real wine bottle on his own head and kept singing.

Worst professional experience?

Peaking too early on the rider before you go on stage. See New Year’s Eve show 1984.

What’’s the most important thing you can pass on to a young musician intent on a career as a professional musician?

Don’’t bother. Expect to remain an amateur and stay focused on the intent to create something you alone like. It’’s a short step to becoming a ‘professional’. All you need is an audience.

Is there one mistake that you learned more from than other mistakes?

It’’s a mistake to listen to the opinion of anyone who is not a music practitioner themselves – ie. everyone else in the music ‘industry’.

What are some personal favourite songs that never fail to brighten your day?

All the ones I do my singing and drumming practice to. Most of which I discovered and championed during five years of being the music programmer at Kiwi FM.

All Of This – The Naked And Famous; Delirium Tremens -– Elliot Brown; One More Night – – Elliot Brown; Can Of Worms –Phil Judd; Amputee Acrobat  -– Side Kick Nick; River Song –- New Telepathics; Be Like Me -– Popolice; Pendulum – –Dimmer; Motor Camp Lights -– Lindon Puffin; Into The Evening –- Lindon Puffin; Cortez The Killer (live) -– Neil Young; Hard On Me -– Richard Thompson (I’’m a sucker for a great guitar solo); Diesel Power -– The Prodigy; Loveless -– My Bloody Valentine.

What’’s the best book about music that you’’ve read?

The late Dave McArtney’’s Gutter Black. Tells his tale honestly and truly as it was.

What’’s the best book about sailing or exploration you’ve read?

Too many to mention, but at the moment it’’s called Half Safe by Ben Carlin (1955). The true story of an amphibious 18ft jeep that motored across the Atlantic in the early 1950s. Ben went on to circumnavigate the globe by land and sea. His jeep was so low in the water as to look waterlogged and totally unseaworthy. He set a phenomenal precedent of emotional, physical and mechanical perseverance. Makes sailing my boat easy by comparison.

The best advice you ever got was…?

Can’’t remember.

What would you consider is your proudest creative or individual achievement?

Having helped make a couple of humans.

www.AndrewFagan.co.nz
Facebook: FaganAndThePeople