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Monthly Archives: August 2012

West Coast tour

I’ve been on tour up the West Coast this week, playing three gigs at Fox Glacier, Westport and Nelson

I left early on Tuesday morning, winding my way through the Haast Pass to find the Coast laid out under a glorious sheet of blue, the mountains crowned in snow, vivid above their dark, forested flanks. The highway twists through towering kahikatea and rimu and skirts mirror-still lakes. I passed through ramshackle small towns where old bits of machinery rust in paddocks and buckling sheds and ancient Land Rovers are essential landscape features.

After playing my first gig at the Cook Saddle in Fox, I woke up to another beautiful morning and took the opportunity to walk around Lake Matheson in its finest reflective glory.

Lake Matheson, with Mount Cook in the background. Image copyright Bill Morris

After breakfast I continued north towards Greymouth, where the sunny weather had been clouded by the news that Solid Energy are preparing for big job losses in their underground coal operations. According to the newspaper report, the “easy coal” has all been taken – and in a depressed economic climate with a high New Zealand dollar, open cast mining is now the only way forward for the industry.

Greymouth’s Spring Creek mine is likely to be hard hit and following on from the Pike River disaster, this is a real kick in the guts for the town. Aside from a rich history based on coal mining, Greymouth lacks the tourist appeal of Fox Glacier or Franz Josef – mining still puts food on a lot of tables here. Coal is embedded in the town’s character as deeply as in the gnarled rock above it.

It’s the same story in Westport, which I drove through en route to the Star Tavern for my gig there yesterday. The Stockton mine on the plateau above the town employs 750 people and has given economic life to a town which had previously lain in the doldrums. However the nearby Denniston plateau has recently become a flashpoint for conservation after an Australian company announced plans to excavate there, with opponents arguing the unique flora and fauna in the area are simply too special to bulldoze for the coal below.

On the Coast, civilization exists tenuously in the face of foreboding and awesome wilderness. Green paddocks advance timidly to the fringes of the bush; towns become tiny beneath the massive buttress of the Southern Alps. Driving up the highway, you are met at every turn by extraordinary beauty.

This special place may be remote, but it represents a crucial front for the challenges facing this country. Here, conservation and economic concerns meet head-on. In the 80’s and 90’s, locals were at war with “greenies,” who successfully stopped logging of native trees here. The timber mills closed down, towns went quiet. Since then tourism has grown to be a major contributor to the region’s economy, but primary industries are still the real powerhouse, especially mining. How these often conflicting goals are reconciled on the West Coast will have major ramifications for this country in the future.

It would be nice to like to think that coal has had its day in the modern world – it’s a dirty, polluting form of energy which when mined in an open-cast manner requires large-scale environmental disturbance. But nonetheless, a substantial export market exists for it, mainly to fuel the rise of industrial China. And people on the Coast need work.

However the coal won’t last forever -the Stockton reserve has only another 20 years or so before it runs out, and the furore over Denniston may eventually prevent large scale mining there – so what then for places like Westport and Greymouth? I’m not sure whether tourism will ever be an economic replacement for mining on the West Coast, but I’d like to think so – this place is too precious to destroy, as are the people who make their home here.

Recording part Two : Finishing touches

On Monday I put the finishing touch on my album; a backing vocal courtesy of Hana Fahy. As I was discussing with a friend over the weekend, recording is like painting with water colours – a little dab of blue in the right place can lift the whole work and Hana’s vocal was that dab of blue, giving the last song on the record a whole new life that satisfyingly rounds off the album. It has been intensely fun listening to the final mixes over the weekend, knowing that I can now send the master off to be printed at last. I’m really thrilled with Tom Bell’s work in the mix and can’t wait to launch the album in a few weeks

Making this album has been a huge learning experience for me – here’s how it unfolded:

In October last year Tom set up his recording gear in the former TVNZ studio on Dowling street and Rob Falconer and Bob Scott spent a productive day recording rhythm tracks for about 11 songs.

Since then, Tom and I have been chipping away when we could find a chance between both our busy schedules and those of the musicians involved. I recorded my acoustic guitar parts and vocals, then started bringing in friends to lay down overdubs. We recorded Hana Fahy on the grand piano in Marama Hall. Don Ferns and Jason Horner played electric guitar at the Radio One studio. Tom dragged his recording kit all across Dunedin, from a suburban house in St Clair to a woolshed on the Purakanui back road. Mike Moroney and John Egenes pitched in parts they recorded themselves at home. Marcus Turner played sitar and Trevor Coleman added trumpet texture to a couple of tracks. Matt Langley sang backing vocals and John Dodd recorded a bass part. I think one of the best aspects of this whole process was being able to work with so many great musicians from Dunedin.

From the eleven songs I originally recorded, I pared it down to 9 – inevitably a couple of songs just weren’t coming together as well as the others, so they hit the floor, maybe to be resurrected for the next album. Several parts were re-recorded several times. Tom had to put up with my inexperience and musical deficiencies as a recording artist. But we’ve got there now and I’m pleased with it. The last job, which I will finish this afternoon, is to finalize the album artwork. For the cover, I’ve chosen this eye-catching photograph.

ImageThe picture is of an abandoned farmhouse at Hooper’s Inlet, on the back side of the Otago Peninsula . It was taken by my friend Billy Lobban and has been featured in New Zealand Geographic magazine. I thought it really summed up some of the themes of my record and was a strong image for the cover of the album, which will be called “Mud.”

Next job is to launch the album, which my new band the Mark IVs and I will be doing on September 15th at Chicks and then Saturday 16th at the New Edinburgh folk club. Hope to see you at one or both of those gigs!




AM Radio

Here’s a few lines from a song I ‘ve been playing around with over the last couple of weeks…

There’s an electric fence around my heart
it goes “tick-tick-tick” in the dark
Picking it up on the AM dial as I go driving
Through the ribcage of this land.

For the past year I’ve been driving a 1978 Ford Cortina with no seatbelts in the back and nothing but a factory-standard 1978 Ford radio for entertainment. The radio receives only AM and crackles out through one small speaker in the dashboard. People have said I should put a CD player and some fancy speakers in it but I say “No, no no!” For one thing, I don’t want to ruin the console by ripping out the factory radio and gouging a bigger hole for a CD player. For another, the radio fits the car; I feel a CD player would destroy the essential ’70s Cortina aesthetic I love so much. But the main reason I don’t want to is that I’ve discovered the little AM radio is one of the best things about the car!

Several times over the last few months I’ve found myself driving late at night, one hand on the wheel and the other on the tuner; in the cold winter air the AM stations come through loud and clear, fighting each other for attention on the dial. Some fade in and out as I weave between giant dark hills, in which case I go looking for something clearer. Other times I just tire of what’s on and to and try my chance on another frequency. You never know what you might find on the AM dial.

There’s racing and religion, small town talkback and big city community radio playing Bollywood hits. Somewhere north of Christchurch there’s rugby league commentary and by the time I get to Palmerston it’s Tammy Wynette and Marty Robbins. The big national stations tend to dominate  – Newstalk ZB and National Radio can be picked up most of the way along State Highway 1, but the most entertaining moments are when I wander into the broadcast shadow of one of the little community stations, just as they’re spinning Elvis for the oldies, or a woman named Sharon is digging out country music favourites for her small but regular following. I sort of feel that a journey through the AM dial late at night is like a trip through an alternate New Zealand. In this way the hours and the miles fly past, broken only by the occasional electric fence’s rhythmic signature invading the bandwidth, reminding me of the unseen herds of beasts out there in the dark…
And so the radio stays where it is!


Heading up the road in my Cortina

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been casting about for a name for my new band. After much discussion and thought I settled on Bill Morris and the Mark IVs, a reference to the 1978 Ford Cortina I drive.

What’s in a name?  What’s in a car? My first ever car was Ford Cortina, a piece of shit 1979 6 cylinder station wagon that let me down again and again, yet still retained a special place in my heart. I guess that’s what love is.  I love the sweeping lines on a Mk IV Cortina, its low-slung presence that is somehow awkward, but beautiful nonetheless. There is something really New Zealand about the Cortina. A lot of of them were brought into the country; many more were assembled here and we still have a disproportionate amount of them on the road, perhaps due to the less corrosive conditions in our atmosphere and slightly less stringent regulations around road fitness. The Cortina says something about New Zealand that I like – it’s unpretentious, yet has a class all of its own. Of course it’s not totally reliable and you often find yourself having to make running repairs. But because its design is simple and functional, it’s not hard to learn how to keep it ticking along. It’s a car that encourages self-reliance.

OK so maybe that’s all a bit euphemistic. The truth is that since I’ve owned a Cortina I’ve spent quite a bit of time

a) pushing it

b) under the bonnet trying to apply my meagre mechanical knowledge to get it moving again

c) getting towed

d) catching the bus.

But as I’ve already pointed out, true love is unconditional.

And so a month or so ago I took the Cortina on the road for its first big trip, up to Picton, then on to Nelson and back home. It ran pretty sweetly and I even took it on a bit of a gravel detour round Port Underwood, which it handled well.

I love travelling overland in New Zealand; heading out on the state highways and watching the landscape going past, taking hours to get to your destination and just enjoying the journey. Travelling overland, you see the country changing from trip to trip, from season to season, from year to year. Each journey becomes a part of your living experience of this land of ours.

I dislike the era of cheap jet travel that encourages people to fly everywhere. Sterile airports full of expensive food and garish advertising; insulting security checks by shitty-looking customs officers; being crammed into an Air New Zealand seat; being fed plastic crisps and a large thimbleful of water while a Big-Brother-esque screen flashes inane pop quizzes and All Black ads at you. Corporate smarminess. That’s getting from A to B – it’s not travelling. The journey should be as worthwhile as the destination or I’d rather stay at home.

OK, maybe I’m old-fashioned, but then we all know flying is bad for the environment, don’t we? I guess driving my own car up and down the country isn’t the best either, but the options are pretty limited, especially when you need to get to places like Nelson for a gig. Train travel seems to be almost non-existent here now and I’d certainly like to know why the government allows a plane flight to be cheaper than a bus ticket.

Anyway, in a couple of weeks I’m off again, travelling up the West Coast via Fox Glacier and Westport, then playing at the Boathouse in Nelson. I can’t wait. The Cortina might stay at home for this trip, I’ll see. I’m on a tight schedule and, well, no one ever said it was the most reliable of cars…! I think this classic New Zealand music video sort of sums it up…(Thanks for this one Jason)


Port is the place

I thought I’d write today about the place I live, Port Chalmers, because I find that as a songwriter the places I’ve lived in heavily influence my music and lyrics. As I wrote about in a previous post about a couple of Australian music heroes of mine, I like artists whose music is inescapably rooted in place.

 I like to research music, learn the political and social context from which it emerged and get a sense of the place the music came from. One of the great joys of watching the Bob Marley documentary at the film festival last week was absorbing the beautiful aerial shots of the green Jamaican hills and the streets of Kingston; understanding that this was the landscape that gave birth to Bob and from which his music emerged. When I listen to any of the great Delta blues players I’m transported to the American south; slapping insects in the heat, breathing in air thick with decaying vegetation, bouncing over cracked highways alongside cotton fields. I have never been to the American South or even America, so this vision is based on what little I’ve read or watched about the place. But it’s also based on the feel the music. I don’t believe great music emerges in isolation from its landscape –  it’s all there, tightly wound into its DNA. I love dropping the needle on a scratchy old record and being transported by it. If it’s the Clash I’m in late 70’s London – Notorious B.I.G. or Illmatic-era Nas and it’s the grimy concrete of New York, all places far beyond my own immediate experience. But I can go there through music – it’s like cheap tourism.

Port Chalmers in about 1873

As a songwriter, I’m drawn to places rich in history. That’s the first reason I love Port Chalmers. If you look at pictures of Port Chalmers from a hundred years ago, it looks much as it does today. Its four hotels still form the ramparts of the town. Chick’s Hotel has become well known in recent years to music followers and to travelling bands. Chick’s is one of the oldest hotels in New Zealand and the ghosts of long-vanished sailors, prostitutes; travellers and drunks inhabit its empty upstairs rooms. The fisheye mirror over the bar reflects its patrons through a lens in the fabric of time.

I like walking down the main street on a cold winter night, the smell of fish and chips drifting out from the two little little takeaway shops. The lights are on at Mackie’s where the regulars will be drinking Speights out of big bottles and taking bets on the greyhounds. At the bottom of the main street, the port hums and bangs away, container straddles like giant metal insects buzzing around amid a lake of blue fluorescence.

I love the constant movement of the town – the port operates 24 hours a day and at any time you might run into Indonesian sailors outside the supermarket or Ukrainian sea captains drinking vodka at one of the bars. In the summer cruise ships unload busloads of American tourists in beige shorts, crisp white sneakers and baseball caps. Then there’s the locals – your born and bred Port people; among them fishermen, wharfies, mechanics and builders. There are also the artists, musicians and others who have wandered here and never left, perhaps finding the same raw beauty in the place that I do. Some of them can be found mingling (albeit sometimes uncomfortably) late at night down at Chick’s.

I like to drink all this in, in the hope some of it finds its way into my songs now and again.

Album Nearing Completion: The Recording Process Part 1

Almost a year after Tom Bell first pushed record in a cold basement studio on Dowling studio, I’m pleased to say that my debut album “Mud” is almost ready to be printed. It’s been a long journey getting here but I’m very pleased with the results. It’s been a big learning process for me. Recording an album from your own pocket means calling in favours from friends, grabbing recording time when it’s possible and generally inching towards a finished product over many months.

We started almost a year ago, in a condemned basement studio in Dunedin’s Dowling street. The core group for the rhythm sections consisted of Bob Scott, better known for his work with the Bats and the Clean, and Rob Falconer, whose epic drumming underpins Operation Rolling Thunder. We were recording in the old television studio where much of New Zealand’s television was once created. Playschool was made here for many years. The weekend we had available to us to record was the last weekend of the studio’s existence – it was due to be deconstructed to form the entrance way to a carpark. All of the cladding had been ripped from the walls, exposing the stonework that formed the structure of Garrison Hall. A trailer full of insulating batts sat in the centre of the room and a cold draught crept in from the street.

Over a single day, we laid down the rhythm tracks in there – with me often teaching Rob and Bob the songs as we recorded them. They did an incredible job and nailed most of the tracks in a few takes or less. I remember finishing the day feeling intensely satisfied – at last my dream of recording an album was underway!

Listening to the mixes of the album now, I am impressed by the muscular precision of the bass and drums, which have really formed a solid foundation for the overdubbing work Tom and I have done since. One of the great privileges of working in Dunedin is to be able to work with artists of the calibre of Bob Scott and Rob Falconer.


Bob Marley documentary

A highlight of last week at the Dunedin International Film Festival was “Marley,” a two and half hour documentary about Bob Marley’s life. It was a haunting and well-rendered account of Bob’s story – and of his incredible and occasionally bizarre jouney from the tiny, impoverished rural mountain town of St Ann’s in Jamaica, to the global stage of musical super-stardom, and finally to the snowy mountains of Bavaria where he spent his final days, riddled with cancer; at just 36 a withered man with sunken eyes and the famous, defining dreadlocks fallen from his head.

I can remember the moment Bob first got through to me. I was eighteen, in Auckland. I was discovering the thrills and attractions of a big city for the first time, finding myself exposed to vast amounts of new music and a world far removed from my rural upbringings. I was hanging out with Daniel Pilkington, my friend and partner in crime in those days and Daniel had this album of Bob Marley tunes in ambient dub playing in the background. I can still vividly recall hearing that spooky chanted refrain of “Exodus” bleeding through the cloud of swirling electronics and dubbed out guitars.  It seemed to reach down into the depths of some primitive inner being; caught me unaware. I was transported, fascinated, converted in that moment. Over the coming months and years I drank deeply from that well, exploring Marley’s catalogue and the spectrum of 70’s Jamaican music, from Toots and Maytals to Burning Spear. However, while it was reggae I was traversing, it was really Bob that had me. Beyond Bob it was more academic – with Bob it was personal. I responded to his songwriting, the pounding groove of the music; laid-back yet militant, joyous yet aching. It thundered in my being in a way no music had before and spoke to me deeply, as it did to millions of people all around the world.
Years later, I still occasionally dip into Bob’s music.  Of course, in the intervening time I’ve explored many other forms of music and I guess in some ways I’ve really done my dash with reggae. But every now and then I’ll put on one of Bob’s albums – his brilliant breakthrough “Catch a Fire,” maybe, or “Natty Dread” or “Uprising,” his last album which contains two or three of his best songs. And if the moment is right, his music still reverberates in me just like it did when I first heard it.There are many truly great artists, but to me Bob Marley stands alone  – no one else set the world on fire in the same way he did. I think it’s because he was on a truly spiritual quest – the strength of his belief and sense of purpose gave him the power to achieve great things. And amid the sometimes confused tenets of Rastafari there exists a deep, universal truth that people all over the world could, and did respond to.  Bob brought a message of hope to the world, and his message burns as brightly three decades after his death as it did when he was in his prime.
Rest in Peace Bob, and thanks for the music.