It was late last century when Vorn Colgan first got in touch with NZ Musician, proffering a CD-R debut album entitled, ‘Normal The Normal Normal’, for review. (See Chris Knox’s praising commentary below.) He followed that up with ‘Not Quite As Good, a difficult second album by Vorn’, and in the years since has delivered four more such self-recorded and self-released rekkids. With each comes a polite, direct and inevitably wildly humorous personal entreaty for review. Casual genius stuff. Now, in 2014, comes Vorn album #7, ‘More Songs About Girls And The Apocalypse’, once again to distinct critical praise. Wellington-based Colgan is a model citizen of the just-get-on-and-do-it mould, and Vorn is just one of his musical outlets. Knowing full well that we couldn’t write anything half as entertaining, NZM instead asked Michael Hollywood to simply pose him some questions.
Apparently when I was three I used to curl up right under the speaker of my parents’ stereo and listen to Peter and the Wolf. As this was the only recorded instance of my ever doing anything even vaguely adorable, they thought it would be a good idea to encourage me, so they got me keyboard lessons. I imagine they regret that decision every day of their lives…
Ten years of keyboard lessons, four or five of violin, then I started teaching myself things, starting with guitar, about age 14. I did music papers at university too, but I didn’t take it very seriously because it was the ’90s and it was totally uncool to actually want to learn things.
Or do things. I was definitely infected by the faux-punk ethos of that era where theoretical knowledge and technical ability were somehow supposed to suck the ‘soul’ out of your music, as if being good at something is somehow inauthentic. Damn the ’90s sucked. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
Vorn started out as the name for all my solo recorded output, then I started taking the tunes out with a live band. We used to change the band name every time we played a gig (Vorn and the Alopecia Trio! Vorn and his Backing Bland!), but then our original keyboard player left and took all the band-name ideas with him.
Now we generally play out under the Vorn moniker, which is just awkward for everyone frankly. Who wants to tell people they play drums in Vorn? Hopefully the band will tire of this kind of shenanigans soon, and give themselves a name. It’s all very well calling the project Vorn, because we’re doing my songs, but everyone in the group is incredibly talented in their own right, they’re the ones responsible for the live sound being as awesome as it is, and they’re increasingly influential on the sound of the albums as well. Right, that’s my homework for the week, I’m going to get the band to name themselves.
I remember reading a Don McGlashan interview where he said that back in his day the sheer impossibility of commercial success in NZ meant that bands here tended to make exactly the kind of music they wanted – there was no mass audience to pander to, so why pander? Things have changed somewhat in the last 15 years or so, but the vast majority of Kiwi musicians still have no chance of making a living at it. Which poses challenges, but also gives you this total freedom to do whatever you want – it’s not like you’ve got some major label breathing down your neck trying to A&R you to death.
As for critical acclaim, it’s great! I’d much rather get a good review than a bad one. But you don’t write for critics, or even particularly for listeners. You write, and you write, and the stuff you think people might like, you release. Second guessing people’s potential responses is a recipe for creative disaster.
It’s not really some genius marketing strategy – New Zealand is small-town NZ. There are, what? Four main centres? With, like, three bars each which support original music? That’s 12 gigs a year, if you can get them. And in the big towns everyone’s jaded, gigged out, tired of going to watch their mate’s band play to 20 people; the venues have no microphones because some douche muso stole them last week, so you bring your own and pay the soundperson (who is getting about 10 bucks an hour on a good night, has at least one other job, and is bone-tired of entitled musicians expecting a clapped-out PA to sound like Wembley Stadium, and could not possibly give less of a fuck) to plug them in for you.
In the provinces you get places like the Cabana, Space Monster, Mussell Inn, Frank’s (in Greymouth, RIP), The Mayfair – all awesome places that look after you, and people turn up to watch music because they appreciate you driving six hours to try and entertain them. What’s not to like?
Laptop! Microphone! Go! I’ve met some talented engineers, and been in some flash studios, and I understand why people are into that big-studio recording process. But if there’s one single thing that makes this exact time in history a better time for musicians than any other, it’s that for the price of a week in a big studio, you can buy enough gear to record like four albums. Which, while they may not have that studio shine, actually sound pretty good! It’s a genuine revolution.
I’m not much of a gear head. But I wouldn’t have dragged my 1973 Jansen 6forty up and down all those stairs for 20 years if it didn’t sound completely perfect in every way. A Hotcake is also awesome, but only if it has the switch in the middle instead of the suck knob. In your face late adopters – my Hotcake is cooler than yours.
My songs are my children. They frustrate and disappoint me equally, but the youngest ones demand more attention, whereas the eldest are more capable of looking after themselves. So I guess I prefer the new album, because it needs me. It’s interview answers like this that lead to that commercial failure you were asking about earlier.
I kind of see that song as the album’s centerpiece, and I threw everything including the kitchen sink at it – everyone in the band plays a couple of different instruments and sings. Thomas (Liggett, violinist extraordinary) worked out all the string arrangements, there’s guest soprano action from my then-flatmate Jasmine Toynbee, and the outro was kindly translated by nasty-Latin-word specialist Neha Patel. It’s definitely fun working with so many talented people, though DIY recording means you’re generally working with one person at a time, and no-one gets to hear the end product till you’re done fiddling with sliders and tearing out hair. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved, and apologise if your bit got buried in the mix.
It’s not an autobiography though. Out of the 70-odd songs I’ve made public, only four of them are based entirely on real things that happened to me – Drowning Kittens, Get Better Work Stories, The Family Planning Song and Upper Hutt Symphony. But they’re still not just bald statements of fact – the ‘real-life’ elements are tweaked, edited, exaggerated or underplayed, in order to fit into the structure of a pop song.
I strongly believe songs should not be just entries from your diary set to music. Writing from life doesn’t mean writing exclusively from your life. You take things from your life, sure, but also from your friends’ lives, from literature, film, music, from your imagination – it’s supposed to be a transformative process, not just a laundry-list of your personal hang ups. If you’re going to release a song publicly, you have to believe that some member of the public might find the thing interesting in some way.
When you asked about critical acclaim before, I said you don’t write with critics or a particular audience in mind, but you don’t write for yourself either. You write so the song doesn’t suck. If you’re just writing for approval from others, the song will suck. If you’re just writing for yourself, the song will suck. When you’ve found the point in the middle where the song doesn’t suck, you’re done writing.
Side project is my middle name. At the moment GMF are recording a new album which is guaranteed to be a crossover smash hit. And I’m one half of the Wellington Sea Shanty Society – which was described by someone on reddit (who hadn’t heard us) as “…probably a bunch of hipsters misappropriating and mocking rich maritime culture for irony value. Was she/he right? Come see us and find out!
JP Young. Listen to ‘Anniversary Day’, it’s pretty much perfect. Also it’s a concept album about a shark attack. Come on.
Hoping the song has stopped sucking, so I can stop writing. And regretting the one spelling mistake in this interview that I failed to spot.
Reviewing Vorn’s debut, ‘Normal The Normal Normal’, in NZM’s October/November 1999 issue, Chris Knox had this to say: ‘A four-track recording of unfettered originality and tuneful invention. From big rock to wimpy ballad, this bedroom auteur always adds his perspective to the genre he chooses to plunder and deform… Get him while he’s hot doggy, cos hot he sure is.’