February/March 2016

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Zaine Griff

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Zaine Griff

Since the time he joined The Human Instinct (one of Aotearoa’s most distinguished ‘underground’ bands) Zaine Griff has been on an amazing musical journey that saw him recording and touring in the UK and Europe as well as building relationships with some of the biggest names in the business. Born in Auckland (and back then known as Glenn Mikkelson), Zaine was in London at the height of New Romantic era and had the distinction of recording with an incredible array of pedigree artists, including the late David Bowie on updated versions of Space Oddity and Panic in Detroit (included on the RYKO edition of Scary Monsters). After 10 years abroad Zaine returned to NZ, maintaining a career that continues to endure. He has recently released his sixth solo album, titled ‘Mood Swings’.

What can you remember about this photo being taken?

When I released my second album ‘Figvres’ in London, my record company helped me organise an art exhibition of my paintings because my storyboard for the video of Figvres had paintings and pencil visions – frame-by-frame images of the album.

Without realising what I had done, I simply believed that if I was to direct a video I needed to see the imagery in my head. And that is how the exhibition got off the ground. I insisted that the proceeds went to the Music Therapy Charity, which it did. I raised 3000 pounds and donated it to autistic children who could learn music through vibration. The photo was taken by Mick Karn of the band Japan, who then handed the camera back to Mark Wardel. Mark also exhibited paintings in the exhibition of his visions of ‘Figvres’.

Were there childhood indicators that pointed to your adult passion for music and songwriting?

Yes, my mother was always singing along to Frank Sinatra, Sergio Mendes, and just forever singing. She bought me my first guitars. My cousin Max Thomson was in a band called The Pleasers and was on TV on Saturday nights. On Sundays Dad would take me around to his house. Max loaned me all his Dylan collection. My parents couldn’t handle that. Another cousin, John Staines, showed me chords on the guitar. The first song I learnt was Colours by Donovan. When I met Donovan in London many years later I told him that. He was blown away.

What was your point of entry into the music business? How did you get to join the Human Instinct?

I played constantly during my school years at Avondale Intermediate and Avondale College. I formed a band with fellow student Peter Greenwood and rehearsed in St Judes Church Hall in Avondale on weekend afternoons. We got gigs by putting them on ourselves because nobody would hire us – I don’t blame them as we were all learning. But we started to build a following. When our keyboard player got into trouble we disbanded. We were called The Fable.

I answered a ‘bass player wanted’ advert and landed the job with a band called Madison Kate. We had the residency at the Montmartre nightclub in Auckland city. Suddenly I was in a position of turning fulltime, even though I was barely out of school.

Phil Warren (future deputy Mayor of Auckland) who managed the Montmartre in Lorne Street, noticed the club was too small as we were pulling bigger crowds every week. So he had us move over to Hatchett’s in Cook St. (also known as Molly Hatchett’s). It was a much bigger venue that pulled even bigger crowds when Phil invited The Human Instinct to share the billing with us.

We played alternating sets, one hour on, one hour off. And then it happened – Maurice Greer approached me to join the band and my world was turned upside-down. Neil Edwards, the current bassist showed me all the bass parts and I started playing all night in both bands, until we shifted to Christchurch where the Greer brothers had built Christies nightclub.

How was that time in Human Instinct, musically and professionally?

Actually it wasn’t as easy that all sounds. My parents were hell bent that I get out of this music scene – and even worse news for everyone was that my school girlfriend was pregnant. The Human Instinct had a bad reputation and my family was not happy with our decision and how dramatic our young lives had become. We married and raced off to Christchurch.

After a few months we made our way to Wellington and played at Ali Baba’s nightclub, then back to Auckland for a residency at Granny’s nightclub. We played five to six nights a week from 10pm to 3am. By now The Human Instinct were playing some of my songs and encouraged me to write more. Our guitarist John Donoghue always edited my songs. He taught me to strip back my lyrics and not to overload lines.

Martin Hope was the lead guitarist and was an incredible musician who I respect to this day.
Working so much together made us very tight. I always knew when Maurice was going to launch into a drum fill and I knew just which fill he would use. We could read each other. Other bands like Ticket and Split Enz would come and see us, especially at Shanty Town, the new club the Greer brothers had built.

We went into Stebbing Recording Studios again in 1974, and recorded ‘The Hustler’ album, then flew to Tahiti to do some concerts.

Nine months later we were back in Stebbing recording the ‘Peg Leg’ album – which was finally released in 2002. Tahiti opened my eyes to the world and Maurice opened my mind to imagine the world outside NZ. In September 1974, together with my wife and child, we boarded a flight to London. We had two suitcases, three guitars and reel-to-reel tapes of my songs The Human Instinct had recorded.

What were your expectations of the UK and how did reality compare?

I had this belief that English musicians were the best and I wanted to be part of that sound. I loved the music that was coming out of the UK. Sparks, Cockney Rebel, Roxy Music, Bowie etc. I had a six-month visa and told everyone we would be home after that. I didn’t know it would be 10 years before I would see NZ again.

Once more, I answered an advert for a bass player, this time in Melody Maker, and landed the job. They were a young glamour band called Baby Face. They had an agent who had them working everywhere over the UK. At first it was like being paid to sightsee, and then things really changed when singer Johnny Wakelin wanted us to back him for his first solo album ‘Black Superman’. Alan Coates our guitarist and I arranged most of the tracks.

The outcome of that album was the first single release, In Zaire, which raced to #4 in the UK charts and #1 in many other territories in the world. We were then shuttled to TV music shows all over Europe. We did Top Of The Pops three times, so it was an excellent way to train with cameras.

I met [ex-pat Kiwi musician] Chris Thompson around the time I was working with Baby Face. I knew Chris from Granny’s in Auckland. It was his wife Ricki that suggested I take dance classes at the Dance Studio in Floral St., Covent Garden, which she managed. It was here that I met and eventually studied under Lindsay Kemp. Chris had just auditioned for Manfred Mann Earth Band.

Your time spent studying with Lindsay Kemp must have been very inspiring?

I spent a year studying with Lindsay Kemp and was asked to join his Theatre Company in his production of Flowers. I learnt so much from Lindsay to do with theatrics and dramatics, it gave me the ability to become a true performer.

So within a year I was acting on a West End stage. I put my music on hold and devoted myself to his magic world. Each night there were always high profile artists, actors and musicians. Pink Floyd always seemed to be in the audience along with Kate Bush who also studied under Lindsay. Mick Jagger, Quentin Crisp… they were all inspired by his theatre, the lights and drama.

When Lindsay was offered a season in Australia I opted out, I didn’t want to leave London. I was inspired to see how much more I could get out of this industry. It was Lindsay Kemp that pushed me off the cliff and allowed me to fly. He gave me the courage. He had heard my material and insisted that I should never work in a band environment but instead create a solo career and use musicians when I saw fit.

At first I couldn’t quite see his vision, but what he was suggesting made sense economically. Use musicians you want to get the job done. He mentored Kate Bush the same way. He provided a much bigger window to look through. Everyone in the Lindsay Kemp Theatre Company later came to my shows. Everyone was encouraging.

How did you come to work with the likes of acclaimed American producer Tony Visconti?

One thing leads to another. I worked very closely with certain musicians. Clive Edwards on drums, Steve Bolton guitar, Matt Irving bass and keyboardist Bernard Clark. I had a network to pull on. I played so many gigs because my booking agent worked my schedule hard. The gigs got a following. They also got me publishing and management. The management got me a recording deal. The recording deal hooked me up with producer Tony Visconti and through these sessions I bonded with Hans Zimmer who is now a very successful music composer for films.

Before I worked with Tony Visconti producing my first album, Warner put me in the studio with Colin Thurston. Colin engineered for Visconti on Bowie’s ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and the ‘Lodger’ albums. Things didn’t work out with Colin, but in those sessions I met Hans Zimmer and Hans and I worked together from that day onward, combining his own projects and mine.

Warner then put me with Tony Visconti and everything went really well from the word go. I thought it was all a bit too close being produced by Bowie’s producer.

Everything was labeled in those days. I was labeled to be in Bowie’s camp. And then, out of the blue, Tony played some of my tracks to Bowie and Bowie wanted me to record with him using my band.

Tony was always searching for a unique sound. He was the first producer to use the Harmonizer on the snare. With me he phased the hi-hat. He also insisted I play bass. I had done hundreds of gigs as a front man and now he wanted me to get back to basics and play bass – because he felt as a composer and singer I could express myself fully rhythmically.

He was right. My first album, ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ was very live and tight. Tony’s production of my album has stood the test of time. It was a privilege and an amazing experience to work with Tony and for him to allow me into his life – he is a great guy. To play bass for Bowie was a great experience.

Hans and I co-produced my second album, ‘Figvres’ together. I had to convince Warner Bros. that we could produce a great album. When I played Reading Festival in 1979 we were the first to ever use computers live.

That is Hans for you. A pioneer of music. He was way ahead of everyone else, and that is what I saw in him. With life, yes there was luck, like meeting Hans, but equally there was bad luck.

So many ups and downs. Life becomes a muddle sometimes. I always panicked about whether I could trust people or not.

Who were some of the other bands around and the venues you played in that New Romantic era?

I met electronic musician and producer Richard Burgess when PolyGram wanted him to produce me. I spent time with Richard discussing and planning the project, but unfortunately it didn’t materialise. I knew Steve Strange because he would always came to Legends nightclub that my manager owned. He would have a drink before he set out to The Blitz.

Steve was the leader of fashion and he had large group of followers who went everywhere with him. He and I used to hang out at clubs together, like the Embassy and Legends. Steve was always around – we would be at openings and launching of venues, as this is what we did to promote ourselves. So when it came to my art exhibition, Steve was there in the photo along with Mark Wardel and Richard Burgess.

I guess the band I hung out with mostly was Ultravox. When they were not working on the road or in the studio Warren Cann drummed for me. He and I recorded two albums together, ‘Figvres’ and ‘The Heldon Project’. Later on Midge Ure of Ultravox produced me. David Sylvian and Japan invited me to support them at the Lyceum.

So I knew Mick Karn, David Sylvian and Steve Jansen really well. They introduced me to Yukihiro Takahashi from Yellow Magic Orchestra who played drums for me on my ‘Figvres’ album.

In return he invited me to write and sing with him on his solo project ‘What Me Worry!’. I guess Gary Numan invited me to do backing vocals on his ‘Beserker’ album because we were hanging out in the New Wave orbit. Simple Minds used to come to my gigs and I was always at theirs. That was just how it was. Mick from Simple Minds used my couch several times to get some shuteye.

You’ve had good success in placing some of your songs with other name artists. How have you managed that?

When I left NZ I had with me nine songs I had written and recorded with The Human Instinct. On the strength of those songs I got a publishing deal with Chappell’s Publishing Company. The deal was 70-30% split in my favour and a cash advance that was enough to keep me going a year.

I was managed by Campbell Palmer Enterprises, Dee Harrington was my personal manager. Later I managed myself. That was a bad choice. I suffered for that. Good management is crucial and everyone needs a team to support them. An artist can’t do it alone. Record companies do not want to deal with artists in music business. They want to deal with someone strong in the business of doing business.

You’ve also (more recently) gigged in Japan – how was that?

A Japanese promoter contacted me and set up two shows for me at the Marz Club in Shinjuku Tokyo. He imports retro acts. Two weeks before Steve Strange was on that same stage and a month before that Television had played there. Not long after I returned from Japan Steve Strange died. My biggest fan base is Japan. The first week ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ was released there it sold 20,000 copies. I love both Japan and its people.

At the end of 2012 Toyah invited me to support her at the O2 in London. I stayed in Covent Garden. I had the privilege to have Clive Edwards on drums and Steve Bolton on guitar, my old crew. It was something else… and for me to look out in the audience and see so many fans from the ’80s was a blast.

What had brought you back to NZ in 1984?

A number of reasons brought me back. Firstly my mother was very ill. I hadn’t been home in 10 years and on top of this I was extremely burnt out. I believe that had I not come home then I wouldn’t have lasted another 10 years.

The social aspect and the business aspect of music did not allow for a personal life. Relationships were destroyed. I was constantly insecure. I guess I needed to ground myself. I was certainly a different person when I came home from the one that left. Totally.

When did you find your own voice, as a singer and songwriter?

When I left The Lindsay Kemp Theatre Company, Alan Coates from Baby Face called to say that the band Screemer were in need of a bassist / vocalist. I reluctantly joined the band. Screemer was signed to Arista Records who put us in the studio with producer Phil Wainman (The Sweet). I felt like a puppet. I felt glam rock was already over. I played Andrew Bailey, (head of A&R at Arista) some demos I had done.

moments the human instinct

A year later they dropped Screemer and signed me and put me in the studio with Manfred Mann and Chris Thompson producing. Although these sessions were never released they were used to get me a deal with Warner Bros. I was performing over 175 live shows a year. I found my voice in the rehearsal studio and constant performing.

How does the writing process work for you?

I feel I write without being conscious of writing. I pick up my guitar and four or five hours later I have an abundance of ideas that will either be treated as a candidate or not. To write you have to succumb to it and allow the love you have for music to flow, never hold back. It is not a discipline – it is a natural instinct for me.

Your newly released album is called ‘Mood Swings’. How you intend to promote it here and overseas?

I set out to write and produce an album (‘Mood Swings’) that was reminiscent of how I knew London to be in the ’80s. I co-produced it with Hugh Nettar. The album is already launched here in NZ and will be released in Japan on March 16. I now have a manager in England ready with a press release and following up on promoters there. The album is selling through my website and all download sites. It is hard for me in NZ as not many people here have heard of Zaine Griff as much as they have in other territories.

Who would you consider made the biggest impression on you and why?

Perhaps David Bowie, because he taught me the art of relaxing into your work. How many artists walk out from the control room into the studio… run say eight bars for Visconti to get a sound… and then deliver in one take? He did it with every track. I have never done that. He was simply a true professional.

Ray Davies of the Kinks. He was also charming, friendly and endearing. It was great to play bass for The Kinks on ‘The Misfits’ album. But thinking back perhaps being in Basing Street Studios with Marvin Gaye was hard to beat. His producer invited me into his studio when I finished recording in Studio 2 late into the night. He said come down. Oh my god, now there was an artist! He was singing After The Dance for British television. He was a truly gentle person. I could see his genius in his eyes.

A worst professional experience?

Probably with producer Mickie Most. He never turned up to the studio on the first day and blamed me for not working without him.

What skills do you see as being crucial to surviving in the music business now?

I tell all songwriters that for every 10 to 12 songs you write you may be close to composing one thing worthwhile. Never ever be content with what you write. Keep at it and never forget the art of arrangement.

What are five personal favourite records that never fail to brighten your day?

Talk Talk – ‘It’s My Life’ (and their entire collection); Marvin Gaye – ‘I Want You’; Stravinsky – ‘Rite of Spring’; Marcus Millar – ‘Tales’; Malcolm McLaren – ‘Waltz Darling’.

A favourite book about music that you have read (and why)?

Life of Stravinsky – Rite of Spring by Peter Hill. Stravinsky was a genius – how could anyone write the music to Nijinsky’s ballet without being mad? Stravinsky to me was the first punk musician on this planet.

The best advice you ever got was…?

“Do what you want and become who you want to be… every day.” – Celestino Coranado (Spanish film director and director of The Lindsay Kemp Company).

With hindsight, what is most important to you in music and in life?

Success is personal. It is individual. It is unique. I had no idea I would achieve what I did in the mediums of music and art. Find success everyday in whatever you do and it will flow into your life. As entertainers, we are here to give, to share our art. Give to your audience… that is what we are here for. To me this is life.