You can call New Zealand music a lot of things, but pretentious isn’t one of them. If its national music scene reflects a country’s values, you could do far worse than one of the friendliest, least racist, and most gender equitable countries in the world. Never destined to play in the big leagues (unless that league is one for rugby), art has always been a huge source of pride for the Kiwis. When aiming high results in mockery, you focus on earning respect and having fun, and if the rest of the world catches on, cool.
New Zealand’s most notable musical output, from Split Enz, Crowded House via OMC’s “How Bizarre” to Kimbra and Lorde, pop music is just a sliver of insight into the national hive-mind. As famous as these artists are, each espouses the national DIY approach. As soon as the rest of the world picks up on what a Kiwi is putting down— ever since Auckland psych-rockers the La De Das won ‘Best Australian Disco Band’ in Go-Set’s 1968 pop poll—we’ve been misrepresenting and awarding New Zealand’s icons as our own.
To understand what’s special about New Zealand music, just ask them. When asked to vote for their favourite national song of all time the answer was a song by a postman from the city Upper Hutt called Wayne Mason. His song, a folky paean to the natural virtues of the country called “Nature”, has barely been heard by anyone who hasn’t spent significant time on that side of the Tasman. Released in 1969 Mason’s band The Fourmyula didn’t play “Nature” live until asked to at a house party in 1999. “The main thing is we’ll all have a laugh, and so will our audience, hopefully,” said their drummer of a recent reunion show.
It’s a far cry from the headline grabbing, chart topping, record breaking talent of Lorde, but in many respects, the country is now a very different place. Once defined by their isolation, acts like Lorde and Kimbra are the first generation of New Zealand musicians to have have influence in not only their own regional market, but also globally. As Lorde said in an interview with Faster/Louder’s Duncan Grieve, “We live in New Zealand, and the culture in New Zealand with musicians is to watch everyone kind of fuck it up a few times before they get it right. I don’t feel like that’s really a thing anywhere else.”
The sadly defunct festival Camp A Low Hum (CALH) best exemplifies this distinctive mix of friendship and music. With no sponsorship, no security, little publicity and no delineation between band and crowd, CALH was a uniquely Kiwi event. Evolving originally out of a private party and only announcing its lineup via a program handed out upon arrival, its ‘renegade stage’ (a PA, stage and mixer and a chalkboard allowing bands to form and play at the festival) was as popular as any of its international ‘headliners’. To put it simply in the words of festival organiser/party thrower/Kiwi ‘personality’ Blink as he said in a recent interview, “fuck egos”.
The ease with which Kiwi bands take on different genres without the associated cultural baggage is a mark of many of their acts. Fat Freddy’s Drop are only the most notable of dozens of Kiwi dub bands; Unknown Mortal Orchestra channel American psych rock better than almost anyone; and Flight of the Conchords foregrounded their Kiwi roots to allow a naïve take on dozens of styles of music in a way an American never could. While “Royals” has been described as “deeply racist” American academics, Lorde’s critique of hip hop’s problematic lifestyle was certainly never intended that way, making this the most notable clash of the regional artist and internet audience.
Whether this spate of international successes will result in a generation of musicians writing for an international audience instead of just their compatriots remains to be seen. Either way, those future stars are being raised in a tight, friendly underfunded country, with a rich vein of creativity that isn’t drying up anytime soon.