by Danielle Street

Bernie Griffen: Diamonds In The Rough

by Danielle Street

Bernie Griffen: Diamonds In The Rough

If folk music is based around the tradition of storytelling then Bernie Griffen has a wealth of material to use. The Auckland music industry veteran’s veins flow with decades of fighting with the devil and being intimate with the sea. As he tells Danielle Street, his 61 years on earth have seen him imprisoned, battle heroin addiction, fall in love, raise a family, fish our coastal seas and manage a variety of musical enterprises. In turn, he has been left with an abundance of tales that have ambled their way to the ears of eager audiences from his band, Bernie Griffen and the Grifters.

He’s not afraid to talk about the darker corners of his past, but these days Bernie Griffen’s vices are of a milder sort. He ruefully puffs on a cigarette (a habit he has been battling to put behind him for years) as he recounts writing Feel So Sad, the simple blues track that crackles to life at the beginning of ‘Everything So Far’, the first album from his young/old band, Bernie Griffen and the Grifters. 


“I have travelled a long hard road and it’s in my history, and I think that enables me to be a better songwriter. At 20 I couldn’t have written that song – because the closer you get to death the more you think about it,” he says.

“I’ve been confronted with death many times over my life, because I’ve always been a reckless person and I’m always running up against that stuff. Smoking is a good example. It’s probably the worst thing I could do, yet I can’t stay stopped.”

The Grifters drifted together as a band over time, Steve Roach (guitar), Tony Daunt (upright bass) Dave Khan (fiddle and mandolin) and drummer Jerry Fraser drawn as if by some form of musical osmosis. They soon attracted a swaying and dancing following, admiring of the authenticity of Griffen’s voice and songs, and the band’s measured delivery.

The 10-track album ‘Everything So Far’, released on his own Flaming Pearl Records label, is an amalgamation of two promotional EPs recorded by the group. The second half of the album is songs from their 2011 self-titled debut, recorded by Nick Bollinger at MAINZ in Auckland, which sold out without any formal distribution.

The album’s leading five tracks are a set of more recent recordings engineered and produced by Karl Steven, whose current musical projects his own blues band, Heart Attack Alley. They were initially released as an EP back in 2011.

“A lot of producers just want to get it clean and straight, and when I talked to Karl I said I wanted to get it as live as possible. That’s our strength, and if we can capture that in a microphone you get the essence and the emotion of the songs. I didn’t want it too clean or too fancy, I just wanted to reflect what we do. And really it’s an introduction to us, most people don’t even know we exist.

The two parts of the album marry just fine, despite the separate recording processes. The older tracks are penned in the minor keys, while the more recent ones mostly lean on major keys, but a beautiful melancholy sound stitches the two together. Griffen’s world-weary vocals wail over the album, nodding at the tones of Neil Young, his sorrowful sound accentuated by the fiddle and slide guitar brought to the mix by bandmate Dave Khan. (Will Wood drums on the newer tracks.)

Griffen says he began in the music business as a teenager, playing in club corners for 10 bucks a gig. Despite his talents, as the years passed his demons kept him from ever truly reaching his calling as a musician, until The Grifters formed around him in 2010.

“When those guys came, they all came for no real reason. They just turned up and jammed with me,” he recalls. “Suddenly a sound emerged which I could hear in my head. I’ve always been able to hear in my head, but I never knew how to find it entirely, until those guys arrived. And it’s that they instinctively understand what I’m trying to get, and that is such a gift.”

Many of the songs on the album have been with Griffen for a long time. References to his dead father and his life on the water illustrate many a maelstrom he has endured – both literally and metaphorically.

“I was 19 years at sea. I ran 150-footers around this coast and the Southern Ocean. When I wrote the song South West Gale, it was snowing and it was New Year’s Day in the southern hemisphere. It was snowing on the hills and snowing on the boat, and I was just missing my family and I wrote that song. Shortly after that I stopped fishing.”

His more recent songs see Griffen humanise some of the current events in NZ society. Aptly described in review by Trevor Reekie as being ‘achingly poignant’, 29 Diamonds plays like a series of sad vignettes from the Pike River mine disaster. Griffen says such songs fall to the paper from his subconscious, triggered by things he finds upsetting or provoking.

“I kept on looking at the news sites and finding out what was happening at Pike River, because there is a really long history in folk music of the way the corporates treat miners. It’s terrible. They have a disaster, and all these guys want to do is say, ‘Sorry’, and forget about it. But of course, the families don’t forget about it and neither does the local community. And they will never give up on wanting to get their people back.”

No surprise that a man whose life has been so steeped himself in music, as a musician, a record label owner, distributor (he was IMNZ’s first chairman), Griffen says he will never give up writing music. His timeless style of storytelling and ability to echo the essence of human nature have driven him to compose enough for a second album, that he intends to record next year.

Unfortunately, The Grifters are drifting apart, and Griffen seems conscious of staring down the barrel of his own immortality, closing our interview with: “I’ve got a lot to say and I haven’t got all that much time to say it in.”