February/March 2014

by Richard Thorne

Goon: Uncomfortably Numb

by Richard Thorne

Goon: Uncomfortably Numb

There’s a business adage that if you want to get a job done promptly you should give it to someone who’s already busy. Christian Nicolson is certainly a busy man, or more accurately a very busy artist, with a reputation and active career on several artistic fronts; oil painting, pop art, graphic design, sculpture, music and, most recently, film making. Musically he is the songwriter, guitarist and singer of Goon, an Auckland three-piece who’ve just released their second album, ‘Flying Numb’. Richard Thorne caught up with Christian on a cicada-filled Auckland afternoon.

I volunteered to meet up with the head Goon, Christian Nicolson, at his home among the North Shore bays more for my own curiosity than his convenience. He’s a prolific artist – across a variety of disciplines – and I was intrigued to see just how artful (and chaotic) his working environment might be.

Full of art it certainly is, though with several studio spaces, two young daughters and wife who also works from home, there’s chaos aplenty as well. In the small lounge bookcases filled with videos (that’s VCR cassettes) attest to their shared passion for film, and scattered on almost every surface are instruments and props that are part of his own debut film-making venture, currently in production.

It’s called This Papier Mache Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy – which might provide you with some idea of the sci-fi craziness going into it. Others might be happy to write, or act in, or make props for, or film, produce or even direct a low budget movie, but this guy somehow seems happy to be doing all of the above.

Given all that, and a flourishing art career that has to pay the inevitable bills, it’s surely no surprise that it has been seven years since the last Goon album release (2007’s ‘Boy, Girl, Boy’). The three-piece, no longer in their 20s, all have careers and commitments outside of the band.

Christian says he loves Goon as a band but admits it has always been a challenge. Following the release of their debut EP in 2004, then drummer Gary Lawson announced that he was too busy with work and so plans for a big release tour were shelved. In 2007, with new stick man Andrew Taylor, Goon released their debut album. Soon after Christian became a dad, of twins, putting the kybosh on promoting that release heavily as well. Taylor left a few months later and it was some time before Andrew Stables joined. Fortunately he has fitted in well, indeed so well that he and bass player Rochelle (nee Laby) married a few years ago.

“Each time we lose a band member it always takes such a long time to recover. But we did recover. And here we are, still going. We’ve seen a lot of rival bands rise and fall. Success or not . We’re still here and I am proud of that.””

The upshot is that recording of their latest album ‘Flying Numb’ actually got started three years back and was heading towards completion in 2011 until Christian’s budding movie career took off – more on which later.

Two years down the track, Rochelle gave him an ultimatum to complete their recordings, and between his various other artistic commitments he finally managed to pull all the parts together.

“Their patience was running thin as well, ‘cos it’s been 11 years since Goon has been together as a three-piece. It’s hard to keep a group together that long, you’ve got to have things happening. Just going out and doing gigs with the same old people doesn’t always do it.””

By August last year, with about half the new album mastered and ready, he tested the water, sending some singles to bFM.

“The first one was It’s Alright. That got on the playist and then we sent through Be My Friend and that also got playlisted. Then just before Christmas we sent them Just Be Friends and that got played heaps – and all three of them got on the bFM Top 10 as well!”

Kiwi FM have also picked up on the new Goon tracks, though Christian admits he has held back some of the most poppy and catchy, with the idea of releasing them at the same time his new movie, in which they feature, was launched.

Of course finishing an album is one thing, finishing a self-produced movie is quite another. At the very earliest, he now estimates, that may be by the end of 2014. Having put filming on hold in order to finish off the album, as well as work on an art exhibition currently showing at Devonport’s Art By The Sea, he sounds none too confident that target will be met.

Flying Numb, which gives its name to the album, is a feature song in the movie. The album’s artwork (Christian’s of course, as are the screen-printed gig posters) draws inspiration from sci-fi but, he says, isn’t directly connected.

“As much as I am connected to the movie, I’m also aware that Goon is a different part of me. I wear different hats and I do try to keep them separate.””

Indeed, his musical persona, as shown in the album credits, is Christian Wray.

Goon rehearse at Earwig Studio in Birkenhead and when they perform often share the bill with Superturtle, the band of studio owner Darren McShane.

“We’re a good combination. Our audience seems to like both bands. We’re a little heavier that they are and it’s always good to have a bit of a shift in the weight of the music.”

Most Goon songs originate with Christian bringing a solo version to band practice, where it will get played over several months until ready for a live airing.

“We work through songs together and we are a good unit. When I bring something in it goes through the Goon machine, and everyone adds their flavour.””

Recording of most of the album parts took place in a very pokey space beneath his house. Again, art production paraphernalia and movie props dominate the available space, leaving just a few square metres for the scant tools of his music production trade. The set up is very basic, a laptop with ProTools and headphones. He happily admits that he isn’t very good at recording, leaving it to others to make it “sound professional”.

“We did the drums at another studio with Ben Stockwell, who helped us out at the beginning, but subsequently died. He set me up to record [here], showed me how to use ProTools and got me started. Then I started working with Tom, and I continued to record the bass, guitars and vocals here. Other musicians came around as well. Mark Bell added guitar and Paul Williams with his electric cello.””

Mixing was handled by 2013 Critics Choice Prize-finalist Tom Healey, who Christian met when Goon played a gig with Paquin.

“I mixed it then gave that to him and he mixed it better! That process was all happening while I was doing the movie. I sat on things for quite a few months cos I got distracted with the movie. I got it all mixed during 2012, with some final mixes and bits completed in 2013 and then I started in production of the movie again.”

The album mastering was handled by Zed Brooks. While mostly the songs are written by Christian and arranged by the band, Flying Numb came out of a jam and so the credits are shared. They thought it had a Flying Nun sound, so that became its working title.

“Then I decided to change it because Flying Numb had more interesting connotations and it kind of connected with the movie. It’s about going through life with your eyes closed. Until you wake up and smell the flowers and have a kind of epiphany, a journey I guess. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album and a strong name for marketing purposes.”

Speaking of which, with Rochelle now pregnant this may well be yet another Goon release that gets away without much in the way of promotion, on the live front at least.

Now, back to that movie about the giant papier mache boulder. Towards the end of 2011 a nationwide competition called Make My Movie was announced, promising to fund and aid the production of the winning entry. Stage one, from which a dozen contestants were to be chosen, simply involved providing a synopsis and poster. Christian’s proposal was “unexpectedly” selected,” which meant he (and his brother-in-law Andrew Beszant) then had to expand on the synopsis and promote their idea to voters. They got into the final four, and just before Christmas 2012 were told they’d made the (really) final two.

“At that point we had to write the whole movie – so Christmas was virtually out the window! We cancelled our holiday and wrote the movie instead… and came second.

“The other guys got their movie made and it was really good. Ever since then, because I knew it was a good idea, I’ve been trying to get it happening. After about a year trying to get funding I just decided to get on and make it.””

He used the money raised from a big art sale to buy a really good camera and started filming at the end of last year. A dozen friends have been involved in production to date, along with the seven core characters (Christian inevitably being one) and several dozen extras.

“It’s about three guys who get trapped in a low budget science fiction universe and have to try and find their way home. One of them changes into a sci-fi character and kind of loses himself, then the others have to figure out what caused that and if it will maybe happen to them.””

At this stage Goon don’t feature in the movie, but he’s obviously keen that they should.

“I might get the band in there yet, I mean, why not? Playing in some weird, wacky outfit and one of the songs. I still plan to do that – but I don’t know how much room there is – but it would be cool.””

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