December/January 2014

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Barry Saunders

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Barry Saunders

Barry Saunders has had a charmed and distinguished career that began when he formed his first band, Orange, to play the Christchurch club circuit in early 1970. Barry played in a number of other bands both here and overseas before the Warratahs added their more-than considerable contribution to Aotearoa’s musical songbook. As writer and broadcaster Chris Bourke once wrote, ‘Warratahs earned their reputation by playing … what seems like a tiny wooden hall down the end of every gravel road in NZ… like the main trunk line and the Edmonds Cookbook the place wouldnt be the same without them.’ Barry continues to be a prolific in his output, both as a solo act and with the Warratahs.

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

This is Orange, which was Graham Lambie, Jay Peters, Kim Bryant, me and Ian Upsall. It was shot by Kevin Hill in April 1970, on the rocks at Redcliffs in Christchurch. [Left to right: Graham Lambie, Jay Peters, Kim Bryant, Barry Saunders, Ian Upsall.]

What was your point of entry into the music business? Did your family encourage you?

Music is really the first thing I remember. Both my parents had a lot of music in them – they didn’t play instruments, but you don’t need to. At about nine we shifted from Taranaki to Lincoln College where the students used to do concerts playing skiffle and early rock with acoustic instruments. That sound and feel got right inside me.

My mother bought me a Hofner guitar, I heard Lonnie Donegan doing Rock Island Line and that was it! We had lots of country records in the Jimmie Rogers, Hank Snow vein, so all this became my musical life. Even the train that ran through the back of the farm – all the music and imagery fits.

At a later point we shifted into Halswell. I went to Hillmorton High and played in school bands. After a couple of years my father suggested I might want to leave school and play music, which, for the time was quite a big thing. Anyway a few months later Im bouncing between a job at the railways and playing music.

152 HERO MOMENTS Orange. Sumner Christchurch April 1970. Photo By Kevin Hill (3)Bands sprung up all over Christchurch in that era – it must have left an indelible mark on you as a young kid. How did Orange evolve and break into the scene?

Like a lot of bands we started as a blues band, although we included the Doors, Electric Flag and all sorts of things. Then Trevor Spitz gave us a residency at the Scene nightclub but made it clear that we play some chart/pop things as well. I think we made a pretty good pop rock band as we had the Hammond and Jay was really good at putting harmonies together. We also played a lot of dances around the city, a lot of which were put together by Jim Wilson… basic PA systems with only the vocals through them.

I think a lot of our appeal was that we managed to keep it as a pop and rock band and also we looked and felt like a band. There was a wild streak around Christchurch then. We used to do a great version of Sly and the Family Stone’s Wanna Take you Higher. A bunch of heavies from Riccarton made us play it three times in a row which we did – it was the only way we were going to escape with our lives. That sort of thing happened a lot back then.

Why did Orange call it a day and what became of the other guys in the photo?

We won the Battle of the Bands and did some trips away to Dunedin, West Coast etc. which was great. It was my first realisation that there was a bit more to it than the music and that the bigger picture was a sort of ticket to ride. NZ wasn’t connected the way it is now so sometimes it was like travelling to another planet. I remember us driving over the Kilmog into Dunedin in our Morris rental van into the beautiful grey city with smoke coming up from the chimneys! Those sort of images stay with you forever, just as we were also exposed to music which has stayed with us forever, such as the Band albums, ‘Stage Fright’ and ‘Cahoots’.

I don’t think we called it a day. The club folded and we didn’t know what else to do. Everybody kept playing for a long time in various ways. Graham Lambie died 20 years ago and I haven’t kept up with the others much. Ian Upsall is a sailor on the high seas. Kim Bryant has a cleaning business in Christchurch and Jay Peters is chief flying instructor at the Canterbury Aero Club. He still plays a lot.

You went to the UK, sailing on the Australis. What were your musical aspirations and what did that part of your life contribute to you being the singer/songwriter youve become?

My friend Richard Burgess got me a job in an Irish/country band about a week after arriving in London. It was great! I was very young and the beautiful chaos and madness of an Irish band in London was sort of like being in a washing machine full of alcohol with a bit of music thrown in. The trad stuff was genetically in me and the country things reconnected me with the music Id heard growing up.

I think I gathered up some of this experience and little parts of it are in my own songs. Richard went on to make a name as a producer of acts like Spandau Ballet etc and now works in the music part of the Smithsonian in Washington – we still talk quite a bit.

I also had a job working for WEA, in New Oxford Street. I worked for Derek Taylor. He had been the promotions man for The Beatles so knew a thing or two about stuff. He was kind of fearless and eccentric. The WEA building was home to people coming from overseas, people like Tom Waits used to be around, the guys from AC/DC made the place home for a while. We used to go down to Shaftesbury Avenue and spend hours on the pinball machines. They were cool guys.

My job was to send out singles to radio. When WEA released Rod Stewart’s Sailing John Peel played it and whole country went mad! But I had forgotten to send it out and so for a while no one played it or could get hold of it. The actual words from his management were, “We love Kiwi but, he’s gotta go,” – so that was a big full stop for me in record land!

Was NZ a different place – and were you a different person – when you returned?

NZ was just the same. I suppose I had changed in the respect that I now thought of myself as a musician. I think I had also realised that I’m one of those people that operates best in NZ, that I was somehow connected to the land and the light and all the stuff I’d grown up with, so staying on in a place where I didn’t have those feelings or connections wasn’t going to work for me.

You joined the re-formed Wellington band Rockinghorse in 1977, which included Wayne Mason.

It was good to be in Wellington and playing with good musicians but the band already had a couple of directions and I suppose I just added another. I think that version of Rockinghorse lasted a couple of years.

Then in 1979 there was the Tigers.

I suppose that was a bit of a musical detour. The band was based around Nick Theobald’s songs. (Nick is currently in the Warratahs). I sang the single Red Dress – next thing we were on a sort of mini tidal wave which went to Sydney, along with a whole bunch of other bands from NZ. Australia was alive with music at that time so we ended up one of hundreds of bands in the inner city, but we did an Australian-wide tour with Eric Burdon that was great! It was a very formative time for me after the Tigers as I wrote a bunch of things like Maureen etc. – songs which I felt connected to.

How did that pave the way for the Warratahs? You’ve frequently said that you knew how the band should sound.

I had a feeling for a country-based band with acoustic instruments like piano, violin, drums with brushes etc. This was in a climate where there was a lot of synth pop and dinosaur rock on the radio, so how we cut through is anyone’s guess. That was the line up, it was good for the songs and brilliant to sing with and even though the band has changed a lot those elements still remain.

We did three nights a week at the Cricketers Arms on Tory St, Wellington. It was a concrete bunker that looked like it had been built by the East Germans or something. It had two floors, with mostly rock acts playing up top and us in the middle bar, one of those situations where the music just brought everyone together. A lot of the film people used to come in, but the crowds were a real cross section. That time at the Cricketers made us a band, very quickly, and not just musically but also as a bunch of people had come together like that.

It seemed that the Warratahs slotted into the live touring cycle very quickly after releasing the debut single Hands Of My Heart and album.
We did many miles. We also had Pagan alongside us and Warwick Attwell‘s film clips which got played a lot. The band and the music were very transportable so touring was good – also the constant movement and the imagery wove its way into our music and songs. We worked Australia quite a lot, played the Tamworth Festival three times, but it was the inner-city crowds in Sydney and Melbourne which were best for us. There came a sort of crossroads where we had to decide wether or not to live in Australia, but we ended up staying in NZ.

How big was that Interislander TV commercial for the Warratahs?

The band was already a name by then. We’d been offered a couple of commercials but turned them down. I ran into Rob Winch one day in Oriental Bay, he asked me to come and sing a demo, which I think may have been the vocal used. So next thing we are sitting at a table with a bunch of people and a big bowl of fruit on it talking about filming on the big white boat. It all felt pretty good as this is what we did anyway, and now we were getting paid for it! When it went to air it was like a missile that lobbed right into mid NZ! You couldn’t window shop. They still give us travel. It’s a good thing.

You told me once that the Warratahs have had about seven rehearsals in 25 years! How does the creative process work – is it different from your other bands?

Maybe its one of those things that it pays not to think about too much, but the band has a sort of dynamo where you count it in and it just sort of happens. I think that makes it what it is. Most bands like things tight, but we feel best when we are loose.

You’ve said that it took a while for you to find your own voice, as a singer and a songwriter but you instinctively seemed to understand that in order to go forward you needed to grab a handful of the past to take along.

That’s what I meant by the country and Irish time (in London) and all the music, poems and experiences that you have pulled along with you are now part of your own big soup. I always wrote lyrics but for a long time didn’t quite have a place to put them.
I spent some time with Paul Hewson who had written most of Dragon’s songs, who said, ‘This is cool, but the world is full of bedsit songwriters so you better decide what to do with them.’ Tha’ts about when I decided to try to put some players around them and give them some sort of life.

Is there something that separates a Warratahs’ song from a Barry Saunders’ song?

Not much separates myself and the Waratahs’ music. I just got to a stage where I had so much stuff that I would also record on my own, I’ve got a melancholy side in the lyrics – I think that’s been part of my writing forever. I’m very suspicious of anyone or anything too happy. I’ve found people mostly ask for the darker songs so I guess they are hearing something of themselves in there.

How does the writing process work for you?

I don’t have a lot of control over it. Sometimes I try to write and a lot of time I try not to – I don’t know why. A blank piece of paper is a scary thing but I have always got the antennae out for some thought or picture of a song. They’re all out there somewhere. There’s a great Michael Leunig cartoon of a man running trying to catch something with a butterfly net – that’s me!

Who is the most imposing or endearing artist you have encountered?

I have toured with or supported a lot of people now – Tony Joe White, Dylan, and so on. When I played at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas I met Robbie Robertson (from the Band). He had big charisma in a sort of Bill Clinton-ish way. I said something like, ‘Man! When we were kids we lived in a freezing house by a river at the bottom of the world and your album ‘Stage Fright’ saved our lives!’ He said, ‘Yeah, I hear that a lot.’

What advice can you give aspiring songwriters about surviving in the music business?

Well, we live in a world where your dentist is likely to be making an album, so it’s harder to find some space, but if you like the idea of insecurity, panic, fear, music, love, excitement, then jump into the pool.

When are you going to publish your second book?

When I think of a title.

How do you define success?

Waking up in the morning.