by Lindon Puffin

The Eastern: Wire Tapped

by Lindon Puffin

The Eastern: Wire Tapped

It’s been a hell of a year for many Christchurch folk and a hell of a busy one for the Christchurch folk musicians involved with Lyttelton band The Eastern. In the aftermath of the February earthquake main man Adam McGrath offered his band’s services to perform anywhere for anything, a symbolic and well-received gesture of support and solidarity.

It was solidarity. The Eastern’s own home and recording space was almost as broken as the hue music venues that had of late been flourishing in their port township. ‘The Harbour Union’ compilation album was another local response, The Eastern featuring prominently in the music, recording and organisation of that exceptional collaborative project. Now they have a new album of their own, ‘Hope and Wire’, a 2-in-1 double CD, the first disc entitled ‘Hope’ and the second ‘Wire’, with all songs written by McGrath and his principle playing partner in The Eastern, Jess Shanks. Dedicated to ‘the people of Christchurch, especially on the eastside’, it was recorded by Ben Edwards… ‘on whatever he could borrow, in a lost house in Dallington.’ We asked fellow Lyttelton musician Lindon Puffin to reciprocate the favour extended him in NZM’s Dec/Jan 2012 issue, by interviewing Adam McGrath.

My first memory of you is playing in a Christchurch punk band called The Civilians or maybe it was Red Brick Brave? How did you make the transition from punk to folk?

I never wanted to be a ‘musician! (Please NZM editors and readers don’t beat me with the irony of this statement.) I just liked music. I’m a fan first and foremost. I fell into playing it…When the rock’n’roll bands broke up 1 figured that was that and moved along, I picked up an acoustic guitar by accident, ’cause it was sitting there, and I guess something was in me to start singing and writing.

A ways down the line I figured I could stay alive doing it and it seemed as valid as anything else. Mike Watt from The Minutemen calls his bass a broom, he thinks of himself as a worker with a tool, and that idea makes sense to me. I’ll take craft over art anytime.1 still like to think the difference though isn’t that great… it’s still the same three chords and maybe telling similar stories.

I like that punk rock is full of youth and vigour and guts and energy. When you’re exposed to The Clash and Black Flag and all them heavy hitters it cuts right through any image of the world you’d known up until that point. It becomes a soundtrack to all the new ideas that go explodingthrough your head when you’re young and it’s empowering, when you have very little to work with (materially or experience-wise). It gives you a track to run along and a method for expressing yourself, and maybe most importantly, keeps you from feeling alone.

Also I guess punk rock seemed honourable, folk music does too… you can play it without too much compromise and be happy in your work. Nowadays we try and keep with our youthful ideals as best we can, although maybe ’cause we’re a little older it sits nicely in a widescreen kind’a way. You get older, you see more. Punk rock is like a bullet, folk music like an arrow – they both do the same job, it’s just that one is speed and power and the other is slower, but has a nice arc.

I’ve seen one photo of the Eastern that looked to have about 20 people in it, though I think this was labeled ‘The Eastern Family: Who’s in the band at the moment?

We’ve always felt that the people actually playing the music don’t get anywhere alone. It takes a village! We exist due to the grace and goodwill of our friends and supporters, they are as much a part of the band as anyone who’s strumming. The folks playing mostly as of right now are me, who sings and plays guitar, Jess Shanks who plays banjo, guitar and sings, Flora Knight who plays fiddle, Charlotte Ivey who sings, Simon Hall who plays guitar and Jono Hopley who plays double bass. And we have a drummer who pops up from time to time called Shane Damaori.

A lot of acts like to use the tag ‘hardest working band in NZ’, but you guys actually do play a couple of hundred shows a year. Why do it?

The fact that we get to play anywhere is not something we take for granted. We consider it a gift that somehow must have landed in our laps by accident. ‘What, we get to play our songs to people?… and make a living out of it?’ And I’m not trying to have any false humility about it, it’s just that there’s part of me that feels like it’s some kind of mistake… Like there was a more talented better looking band that took a wrong turn somewhere and we got the gig by mistake, and any day someone’s gonna realise and say,’That’s it Eastern, times up; and that’ll be it and I’ll go back to the caretaking job I was doing before.

So with that in mind, we’ll take anything that comes our way and be thankful and grateful that today we get to play… ’cause tomorrow we may not be so lucky!

In the weeks following the Feb quake, there was a piece in the Christchurch Press where you were offering to play free shows in people’s backyards. Your phone number was even included. How many shows did you end up doing, and did you maybe regret having put yourself out there like that?

We played so many we lost count, over 50 in a month. It was totally mental and actually took a toll physically, especially as before that we’d been on tour and after that we did a month in Australia. Come June we were toast. We’d play somewhere then be running over town to the next, and then somewhere else, plus any other gigs we needed to play to make money. Plus trying to get that Harbour Union thing rollin’. I think me and Jess did 13 shows one weekend, Friday through Sunday. When we had the idea we figured we’d do 10 or so, but it went way beyond that, I had to turn my phone off and give up on the emails, it just went nuts. But I don’t regret a thing about it. It was hard but we got so much in return. We saw people not giving in to despair, It wanting things to happen for themselves, their /streets, their communities wanting to put life and hope into their homes and neighbourhoods. A chance to be together and share what was happening for them and celebrate that they were still here. We weren’t responsible for any of that, just a part of it, but it was such a gift to see the best of people. I wouldn’t trade that experience. It might be the best thing I’ve ever done, or will do.

Did these backyard shows lead to you getting offered the house where you ended up recording your new ‘Hope & Wire’ album?

Yeah, we played one of the shows in the Dallington house before they had to move out. It was so strange to see the house so full of life that night and come back 10 months later to an empty street and house. But the family were so gracious. It felt totally right. It was at once totally surreal and totally real all at the same time. You never expect to see the streets of a suburb in a city like that so empty and broken and left behind… and the change happens so quickly. Within a few months, it’s like people haven’t lived in the houses for years… but 500m up the road the houses are full, lawns mowed, kids playing etc.

Then you turn back round and it’s apocalyptic feeling. It becomes real because you see the earthquake every day, the broken houses, twisted bridges, dust everywhere… and this is months after the fact. For the two months we were there we felt a responsibility to life, to do the best work we could and put as much hope into the record as we could muster. The house was as important a part of the record as any of us, or any instrument was. It felt like we had to keep the house living for as long as we could, and each day we did that was a day the quake couldn’t take. It probably sounds overwrought to anyone else and a bit mad, but it was real and important for us.

How did you come to get the Woolston Brass Band to play on your song Let ‘Em Know?

We played at the national memorial in March – maybe the only time we’ll open for Prince William! I found it really moving, and a time where the grand gesture had some meaning and value. Anyways there were lots of performers there of all stripes and we shared our stage with the Woolston Brass Band. They were there with their uniforms and the weight of all of their history, and they played with so much power and guts and heart, and with such dignity it was really something to behold. For me it was the most moving part of the day.

So when Let ‘Em Know came out of that I figured I could only ask them to perform on it. Some phone calls and emails later they agreed with no fuss and genuine enthusiasm. They learnt the part real quick and recorded it just as fast. They were so generous and it was a real blessing to be able to record with them. Nothing sounds as powerful as a brass band close up, it gets right deep into your bones! Bands with lots of amps and angst have a lot of force but no power. The Woolston Brass Band know the difference and they don’t plug into anything! They are totally badass!

Why the hell did you decide to make a double album? And where did the ‘Hope and Wire’ title come from?

I know, the pretentiousness meter is well in the red! When we started we thought we wanted to make a record a year, the old fashioned way, and as we lost a year due to the quake maybe we felt we had to over-compensate? The Clash are my favourite band and I always joked our third would be a double like ‘London Calling: Someone called me on it, so we thought ‘Fuck it: Everyone had their doubts and so did I, but it all hangs together okay and although it’s a lot of songs it’s not too much over an hour of listening. So hopefully people won’t be to put off by it. Every song on the record is meant to have something positive and hopeful built in to it, even the angry ones and the tearjerkers

There has been a lot of sadness and unease round here and we thought if we put something out we wanted it to stand in opposition to that, to offer something good and to not wallow. Hence all ‘The Hope; however hopefully we’re not so hippy dippy to think that an ethereal concept like hope is enough, so ‘The Wire’ relates to the practical, the work, all the heavy stuff. Putting it together with the hands as well as the heart.

I know you’ve faced criticisms of being too Americana with your sound. How do you feel about that?

Well I sleep easy. If you’d never listened to us or only in a cursory way you might hear that and that’s fine, but I don’t sing about America. I sing about here, in just about every song. Every song is built here and has a home right here. The music we play and the instruments we use have as rich a tradition here as anything else. I’ve read Belich and King and Tony Simpson, I’ve listened to Johnny Devlin, The Bluestars, The Scavangers and Bill Wolfgram I know those records. I’m in deep with this country, I choose to live here and I guarantee I’ve seen more of this country and its roads and towns than most.

To really get in the dirt with NZ means more than wearing an outline of it on your shirt and playing beaches over New Years. We think and care about this place. We haven’t moved anywhere to make it, we still live in Lyttelton. We don’t big note about how some fella in New York mastered our shit, cause we do it in Christchurch.

We’d rather play in Paekakariki or Port Chalmers than South By Southwest, and sharing a stage with Upper Hutt Posse meant way more to me than sharing one with Fleetwood Mac. I’ve been to CBGB’s, played guitar in the back of Sun Studios late at night, been to Clarksdale Mississippi, bought records in Seattle and it was great… but I don’t sing about that shit. I sing about trying to find a mainland in these isles. I sing about the ghosts of NZ unions. I sing about growing up on a benefit on Shipley’s watch, marking stones in the Southern Alps, or being drunk and lost in Timaru. We play folk music and we tell our story and the stories of people we meet, that’s our gig. Flags are for nationalists and conservatives.

‘Hope And Wire’ has already shown up in the NZ charts. Does it feel like all that crazy touring has maybe come to fruition?

We are happy to have the record out and if it finds a place in anyone’s world, in whichever way they choose, we’re really proud. The charts are illusory and transitory and if you believe your success on them is a measure of your worth then you might be in trouble, ha hah. It’s nice to tell my mum.

In terms of all the shows, after all this time, it’s nice to discover that the old ways of doing things still work and have worth and value and you don’t have to be good at marketing or funding applications, or getting a certain amount of likes, or any of that shit to make stuff happen. If you put your head down and just get your work done it’ll figure itself out. The myriad of organisations and people in this country who perpetuate these ideas that there are actual pathways to some imagined success makes my head hurt.

A part of me wonders whether the whole quake experience has been good for The Eastern in terms of solidarity and providing a genuine platform for your folk ethos?

Your ethics and your ideals exist within the best parts of yourself.You would be very unwise to think that part of you is always easily tapped into and easily attained. You gotta work at the shit just as much as anything else. We have been beat up, inspired, schooled and been a witness to the past year with all its challenges, but I hope we’ve always tried to work to our best.

We’ve tried to make simple music devoid of airs and graces that can carry our hopes and ideas without too much threat of sinking. We believe in humour and heart, guts and solidarity, community and choice and hope and fairness and justice and of course the philosophy of the good time.We carry that and put it into the world as best we can. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t, but we never stop striving to find that in ourselves and honour it in others.

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