Among the 30 or so tattoos that decorate Tony Daunt is a colourful rendition of a Gretsch hollow body electric guitar, mostly covered by the short-sleeved shirt on his upper left arm. A whimsical piece of art in its origin perhaps, given that he’s played bass for most of his musician life, these days it has a close match in the beautiful pearl jet Gretsch Country Classic he wields as lead singer and frontman of Tony Daunt & The Dauntless. Richard Thorne talked with him ahead of the release of his own debut album ‘The Gypsy’, the culmination of a life-long, and hard-won dream.
For someone who’s been a musician for well over 30 years, is clearly a talented songwriter, experienced bass player and more than competent frontman/guitar slinger, Tony Daunt is hardly well known.
There are an abundance of reasons, more on which later, but cutting to the chase, having just turned 50 he is about to release a first album of songs under his own name, or close to it, Tony Daunt & The Dauntless being him and a recently compiled band.
“This really is the ‘Tony Daunt project’ – they are a bunch of songs I’ve written over a period of time that didn’t fit into my current units. A lot of them I wrote while I was in Swampland, but they didn’t fit the format, or the guys don’t like them. They’ve just niggled away at me cos they are really good songs, I really like them.”
Swampland was a four-year long Auckland psycho-billy rock’n’roll outfit. It dried up when guitarist Thomas Landon-Lane headed to Germany, though Tony admits to running on a little bit of denial in hoping he’ll return.
Ahead of that he played bass with The Blue Roses and other similar Auckland country outfits, most enduringly Bernie Griffen & The Grifters. By the time that band was winding up he was ready to go.
“I had all my resentments, I was angry, it was time to get out there and play some rock’n’roll. I guess that’s why Swampland is fairly angry! I think Swampland deals with my anger issues and Tony Daunt & The Dauntless deals with my sadness. It’s my therapy!” he laughs.
He wouldn’t be alone in turning to music for self-therapy. Now eight years sober, Tony has an almost self-harming need to be open about alcohol abuse and a variety of other demons he’s been facing down for much of his life. Most of the songs on ‘The Gypsy’ are related to one or more.
Leaving NZ at 16, he hints at surprise that the authorities let him get on a plane to Brisbane, describing Australia as “…where I had my big party.” It lasted 23 years.
“I was living with a 17-year old girl I’d met here in NZ and we just got heavily into drugs and the gangster life and all that stuff. I was really into the punk scene over there and got involved with a couple of bands – bands that have come up again in the last few years when people have looked back at Brisbane in the ’80s.”
Aside from the drugs, he says, it was all about the music back then.
“I was a little punk rocker when I left Auckland in ’83, and gravitated to like-minded people in Brisbane. But it was a really different scene there, born of a place called Sandgate actually. I think it was the last train station out of Brisbane going north, and Sandgations were an interesting lot.
“The guys I was with were all into rockabilly as well, so I got exposed to The Gun Club and others that were punky enough for me, but at the same time had a country crossover. That was my first exposure to country music, and Australian country has some deeper, darker elements. Tex Perkins would be one of my biggest influences, definitely – he was in a band called Tex Deadly and the Dum Dums then – he’s from Sandgate.”
In the mid-1980s Queensland was a virtual police state, heading towards the end of the notoriously corrupt reign of Kiwi-born premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Tony and his crowd were staunchly left wing, disruptive and not afraid to stand out.
“It was really hard to be a punk rocker in Brisbane at that time, you couldn’t walk three abreast down the street, so we were pretty passionate about our music. The police were everywhere. I learnt that if I needed a lift home after a night out, if I stumbled about enough a police car would take me home. They’d ransack the house, but at least you’d get a free lift home!”
Band followed band, opportunities got squandered and triumphs repeatedly turned into disasters. Leaving Brisbane after 13 years, to follow his latest love interest to Melbourne, he was soon playing in a Brit-pop band called The Waiting Room.
“Again they were just about to get a record contact and we had a meeting in a pub where I was generally disruptive, drinking out of jugs and having arguments, and sabotaged the whole thing. So that was the end of that. I played in various bands but the behaviours were all the same – definitely not proud of that.”
“There was a whole 23-year period where I was playing rock’n’roll, but I was living the rock’n’roll lifestyle, without collecting the milestones.”
Most wouldn’t admit to any such faults but the days of denial seem well behind him and Tony talks easily about it now. He says he spent 23 years thinking the rest of the world had it in for him, recalling again those early Brisbane days, wearing a mohawk and getting beaten up for it by the local football team.
“And wondering, ‘Why did those bastards do that?’ And ‘I hate society’, when actually you’re the bit that’s the problem!”
When he made the decision to return to NZ a decade ago, he had literally come to the end of his rope.
“By that stage I was unemployable. I wasn’t functioning and needed to get myself sorted out. Once I made my mind up I just needed to get out, so using alco-logic I took everything I owned (amps, guitars, everything) down to a pawnbroker and just accepted the few hundred bucks they offered. Sold my guitar and just got enough for a ticket out. Crazy.”
Back in Auckland and around family it still took him a few years to find out how to get sober. There was no music in that period, he says he wouldn’t have shown up. What might have started as good intentions would have turned into a trip to the pub. He can’t really point to what finally kicked him clear of the bottle but eventually he got into de-tox and things moved from there.
Bernie Griffen played an important role in getting him back into music and on-stage. They’d known each other since when as a 15-year old he had rehearsed at Griffen’s space in Anzac Ave.
“We had that history, and when he ran into me back in Auckland he got me straight back into playing music. I was in rehab and life was pretty uncomfortable, I could have just as easily hidden under a rock somewhere. Bernie taught me lots of stuff that was really important – first of all he helped me live sober… and perform sober.”
They formed a duo called The Grifters and “…played some really, really bad shows.”
Tony also battles a perfectionist trait, and remains image conscious and evidently fastidious. Clean-shaven, his freshly trimmed black hair is immaculately gelled back. He hasn’t ever visited the States but wears only American clothing, buying Lucky brand shirts via e-Bay – the same place he found his gorgeous Country Classic guitar four years ago. He now owns two Gretsches.
“Bernie was all about, ‘She’ll be right, let’s go and do it.’ That was when he decided to go out and start singing, fronting a band – which he’d never done before – and that was the most valuable thing he taught me. From playing with The Grifters I learnt that I didn’t want to wait until I am that old, and all those fears I had I had to put aside me now. I’ve got the songs, I’ve got a mission that I’ve had since I was 17, and I have to go and do it.”
Tony Daunt & The Dauntless arose to fill the void left by Swampland’s hiatus.
“I ran into Sebi [Balazs Sebesteny] first and with just acoustic guitar and him on double bass we started to get some ideas about the direction I wanted to follow. How sad did it want to be sort of thing. Then we got Kevin Place in to play pedal steel – which is really important cos it’s the saddest instrument in the whole fucking world. It just reeks of melancholy!
“This is his first band playing pedal steel – he’s a perfectionist and still doesn’t think he’s good enough to play it in public. He is, it sounds amazing!”
Drummer Chris Kemp who was also in Swampland (as well as Labretta Suede & The Motel Six and All Torn Up) joined the group, which importantly includes backing singer Kati Ohens – joined on the album by Kendall Elise.
“The general idea was that it was my band and a vehicle for my songs. It does work that way quite a lot in that my songs end up sounding how I want them to sound.
“I’ve always written songs for bands I was in, sometimes the full set even, but have the lead guitarist or someone else to front it all. This is the first band where I have actually written the album and brought it to practice and said, ‘This is what we are going to do.’ So that makes it different.”
Teenager Louie Mortlock is the most recent addition. He didn’t play on the album, but Tony had recorded some acoustic guitar tracks that he liked so much he decided he had to employ an acoustic player.
“He has got this really deep voice and he’s about six foot four – he’s still at high school but he’s an amazing guitar player.”
The mood of ‘The Gypsy’ is forlorn, reminiscent of ‘Boatmans’ Call’-era Nick Cave. Song titles like Misery, Tied Up In Chains, Momma, Bleeding and Lonesome Highway tell their own story of sadness and despair. Though veiled by metaphor they are personally honest and candid songs. Tony maintains that’s not by design.
“I don’t know – I think it’s really cool sometimes! I can get to the end of something and be surprised by it myself. It’s really scary shit when I look back at the stuff I wrote when I was drinking and realise how much of that was about my current situation then – although at the time I never thought of it as being my current situation. I do that a lot. Even in some of the stuff on this album, at a sub conscious level.
“I don’t think there’s resolution in any of them really,” he shrugs with twinkling eyes and a wry smile. “There’s hope in some…”
The line, ‘I’ll take you by the hand… and take you by surprise…’ leads to the easy assumption Misery is about some stalking evil, when it’s about depression – something Tony has battled since childhood.
“It’s something that I live with I guess, not very well sometimes, but I’m getting better at it. You learn strategies and so forth.
“The album is definitely about love gone wrong but if I had to say it was anything it is related to depression – and relationships. Destructive relationships – I’m the king of those.”
After a life of very evident hurdles the album recording and release proved an easy process, for which he highly praises producer and RedRoom Studio’s owner Matt Smith.
“He’s Zenmaster 2000 – seriously – he’s a really calming influence with a million good ideas! That was great fun recording there.”
The release on Smith’s AAA Records is Tony’s first on any record label, and he’s excited by the opportunities it brings.
“There’s so much that comes from that. You can bash your head against the wall playing music as an independent for as long as you like, but if someone else adds their support then it attracts the support of others.”