I Believe You Are a Star, by Peter McLennan, (Dunbar Noon Publishing, 2013), 202 pp., $19.95
Magazine interviews have power and poignancy. The power comes from their immediacy; articles are read soon after being written, and interviewees express their thoughts of the moment, uncluttered by the weight of future events. The poignancy comes from their ephemerality; articles are written, presented, and then lost – often forever – and events roll on to consign the interviewees’ hopes and fears to dust.
It shows the respect to which New Zealand rock music is quickly becoming accustomed that there are authors willing to perform the cultural archaeology necessary to preserve these articles. Yet there’s a problem: any book that collects such interviews reverses both their immediacy and ephemerality. A book is permanent, and any words expressed may become no longer relevant. It thus becomes a snapshot in time, both of the subject and of the interviewer.
Peter McLennan’s I Believe You Are a Star is just such a collection, culled from his interviews, which first appeared in local publications between 1992 and 2003, with high-flying and up-and-coming New Zealand musicians. Though a slim volume, it is a veritable slice of life of the era’s New Zealand popular music scene. Journalist, editor, radio DJ, blogger, musician and all-round culture-hound McLennan is certainly knowledgeable in the field, and that shines through in the sensible way the interviews were conducted and guided.
The book is without doubt a ‘dipper’. Reading all forty-odd interviews from apex to base reveals the sometimes repetitive and formulaic nature of the interviewing process. Taken as individual readings, however, the works are a worthwhile addition to the shelves of New Zealand music writing. The book’s price is also, as Stinky Jim Pinckney puts it, ‘stupidly nice’.1 For less than the cost of a CD, this book packs in more than its share of value.
One of the slight snags with a compendium of articles by one author is that their personality may start to dominate. An interviewer is ideally a channel and arbiter, but one whose own personality is best subsumed. It’s a similar role to a sports referee; if a referee’s having a good game, you never notice them. By chance the very first interview in the book – with Shayne Carter – gives a musical analogy of this danger: ‘What I initially liked [about dance music was] that ethos where the audience was the star … You didn’t have some buffoon up there dictating what it was all about. But then it’s quite ironic that the DJ is the new rock star, which I think is really stupid.’
As a DJ is a channel for the music, so an interviewer is for his subjects. Thankfully, for the most part, McLennan’s a good listener rather than seeing himself as the star, and allows the musicians to speak for themselves. There are a few moments where the veil slips (such as the written asides in the Stinky Jim/Angus McNaughton interview), but in the main we are left with a fine oral history straight from the horses’ mouths.
The best interviews show more than just the public face of the entertainers. We get such glimpses behind the façade with Fiona McDonald and Salmonella Dub in this book, and also get a finely written life story of Tigilau Ness, elder statesman of the Pacific music scene. A slightly overawed HDU reveal their fan-boy side with their tales of rubbing shoulders with the famous, and also give a glimpse of the symbiosis involved in a band formed from disparate individuals. Mark de Clive Lowe’s evaluation of jazz in modern music and its relation to the world music scene provide much food for thought, and the book has its moving moments, too – most notably when Darcy Clay speaks of his plans for a future which tragically never happened.
McLennan’s interviews reveal the diversity of methods that musicians follow to get to where they are. There’s no single approach to the creative process, nor to the fight for fame and fortune. Neither is there a level playing field. We see some artists who have been lucky and found deals or grants; we also see those, such as the tiny Dawn Raid label, whose existence relied largely on the entrepreneurial nous of its founders, and an approach to financial survival only a couple of steps beyond cake stalls and raffles.
Paradoxically, the most focused, effective interviews are often those where the subject is reticent or unsure, and this is perhaps a good indication of McLennan’s skill. While it’s enjoyable to hear, for example, DJ Sir-Vere enthuse about world championship DJ battles, these free flows of thought often tell us little about the speaker. On the other hand, a pensively subdued Shayne Carter (can this really be the same guy who used to sneer out his lyrics with such terrifying glee?) allows for a much deeper conversation, and you feel that you are in the room performing the interview yourself. As the first article, Carter’s fine insights set the scene for what’s to come, showing an artist with a clear vision of where he intends to let his craft take him.
The few articles that are not strictly one-on-one interviews are for the most part very effective. It’s interesting to note the writer’s approach to these, particularly the excellent pieces on the Aotearoa Hiphop Summit and on graffiti art, which are written as extended strings of interviews.
The book has a very rough organisation by genre, and – with the largest articles at the back – provides what the author has referred to as ‘a sprawling overview of the music scene’.2 A chronological approach might have allowed a greater glimpse of the writer’s development (some early interviews, such as that with Solid Gold Hell, are less than brilliant, whereas later ones are very competently handled indeed). It might also have allowed us to revisit those artists who appear in several articles, such as Paddy Free. As a dipper, however, the ordering of articles is not of vital importance.
There are, to be sure, aspects of the book that are less than perfect. Despite an acknowledgement of additional proofreading, there are still a disturbing number of typographical errors. The stylistic approach of ensuring every article starts on the right-hand page also means that close to a tenth of the book is blank, a major flaw in such a slim volume. While there’s a reason for this in terms of design, surely it would have been more worthwhile to start articles on either side and use some of that blank space elsewhere. It might have been used, for example, for an appendix containing a paragraph or so of update on each artist interviewed, indicating whether their hopes came to fruition, or whether their dreams ended up in the two-dollar discount bin. Though the articles are snatches of ephemeral time, some ‘where are they now?’ grounding in the present would have been very welcome.
There is a somewhat uneven representation of subjects, with hiphop holding sway for much of the book – an artefact in part of the focus of the magazines for which the articles were written. This imbalance has been inadvertently exacerbated through the presence of a sole appendix, a timeline of local hiphop. The apparent weighting might have been alleviated if other sections, such as the listing of video directors that caps one article, had been similarly set apart. The articles’ magazine origins also unfortunately do not always allow for some subjects to be explored adequately. Two pages is not enough to discover Cloudboy, for example, and three paragraphs (in the Black Seeds and Paddy Free interviews) is woefully inadequate to cover a history of remixing. Interviews with both Kaya and Jakob, however, show that McLennan can handle short articles succinctly and effectively.
The book may have its faults, but it’s definitely a valuable contribution to the annals of Kiwi music. Shayne Carter (yet again) refers to freeform jamming: ‘I came up with some really beautiful music, and it was really educational … [but for] all those great lost moments, there were several that deserved to be lost.’ In this book, McLennan has provided us with the beautiful and the educational, culled a few interviews that might have been better lost, and saved a large group of great moments. This volume may be slightly tarnished in spots, but I believe it is a star nonetheless.
1 Review on Stinky Jim’s website at www.stinkyjim.com/index.php/tag/peter-mclennan
2 From an interview with Gareth Shute for The Corner website, www.thecorner.co.nz/2013/05/20/qa-peter-mclennan-on-his-new-book-i-believe-you-are-a-star
JAMES DIGNAN is a Dunedin writer, artist and musician, and a regular art reviewer for the Otago Daily Times.