|It may not seem glamorous, but there’s good money to be made with music tailored to children. Successful kid groups like The Wiggles sell out stadium-sized venues worldwide, and one good idea, like Craig Smith’s Wonky Donkey, can bring lucrative opportunities across a range of media. As recognised by the Children’s Song of the Year and Children’s Video of the Year awards, it is a specialist genre that often attracts new parents, and some hardy specialists like Captain Festus McBoyle. Silke Hartung met with Rich Manic to talk about his life as musical pirate.
Rich Manic used to be a screen printer by trade, with a shop on Auckland’s High St, taking care of the merchandise of bands like Head Like A Hole. After seven years of running the business, he got bored with it and moved via a job as caretaker in a school to working with children and music. Alas the pay was lousy. He felt the urge to make money with “…wild, wacky, wonderful things.”
Having previously played in Auckland rock bands such as the Manic Pop Junkies, Teen Shag Superstar and Runninghouse, he knew he enjoyed being on a stage. With an additional love for the theatrical, dressing up and make up, it seemed a natural choice, to become a pirate, says Manic. Soon, Captain Festus McBoyle was born.
As a musician, Manic is mainly a drummer, also admitting to very basic guitar skills. His pirate songs are usually written while in the shower, “…which is quite bizarre,” he admits, and can sometimes mean quite unpirate-like cleanliness due to abnormally long stays in the bathroom. In the early days of his pirating those song melodies were taken from the shower to partner in crime/guitarist Peter Toomey.
“He’s great, because you hum a song to him and he’ll come up with chords.”
The two share a similar upbringing on George Formby and Spike Milligan that Manic says very much influenced their music. Songs are often written using a pick ’n mix of actual historical facts, like for example the boats that came to NZ with early settlers, or family history around great-grandfather and great-grandmother Manic’s amputated legs.
Unfortunately Toomey didn’t like the performance side of the pirate life much, so Richard ‘Jesus’ Raine (The Twitch) turned into Fungal Finnegan, Festus McBoyle’s guitar-playing stage companion.
In the three years since their conception the captain and his mates have been travelling the length of the country performing. Starting with children’s birthday parties as Manic explains, but the fact that the pirates can roam (the high seas) makes them versatile. More and more they’re being invited to festivals, shopping centres, parades and schools – they even played on the Fan Trail for the Rugby World Cup.
Getting gigs takes a lot of promotion, all of which Manic currently does himself – a pirate’s life is not for everyone.
“Cold calling. That’s hard yacka, but it’s starting to get better with people calling us now more often. If you don’t ask you don’t get – and we can be cheeky, because we’re pirates!”
Earlier this year, ‘A Pirate’s Life – The Album’ was independently released. Unlike many other children’s acts, Captain Festus McBoyle’s songs avoid sugary messages, and rather bring just the right amount of “ew!” as a bonus. There’s something in the songs for all ages, some sounding like shanties, others reminding vaguely of the Mountain Goats, bound together with piratey story elements. Elliot Stewart’s album cover art is so gorgeous that I suggest they create a book alongside the next album.
“We’ve already got another two or three albums written and ready to record, it’s just a matter of finding the funds,” Manic responds.
Asked about the unique challenges that come with the territory of making music for children, he laughs.
“Kids! There are unlimited dynamics during gigs, and there’s always one who wants to give you grief!”
Once a pair of twins held on to his boots and wouldn’t let go, so he proceeded with the show, moving around with two giggling kids stuck to his leg.
“‘Are you alright down there? Hold on tight!’ The biggest challenge is to not step on a child!” He did. Once.
From a business point of view Manic says it’s a struggle for kids’ music writers to find distribution in NZ, where it seems American products are often preferred. He talks a lot about the pirates as a brand and the image of the act.
“I’ve only just realised that I’m sitting on a fully fledged business here.”
And it’s good business. For the second year in a row they were finalists for NZ‘s Children’s Music Awards. His crew has expanded with a new pirate, Adam Willis (Herbacious Pepperonicle aka Sir William Crust), and Manic can proudly say the bulk of his income comes from his music. A claim fewer Kiwi-based artists can make these days.