In 2002 the Runga sisters talked to Give It a Whirl director Mark Everton about their experiences in the 1990s New Zealand music industry. Bic Runga was five years on from the platinum-selling Drive, and the use of ‘Sway’ in films had brought her an international audience. She had just recorded her second album, Beautiful Collision. Boh Runga, with the band Stellar*, had been part of two platinum selling albums, and campaigns for international success.
Boh: I think when I was growing up and I was making my little compilation tapes off Radio U, half the time I didn’t realise that things were New Zealand music. You know, you’d be taping Ian Dury along with other bands, and actually along with New Zealand bands. At that stage, I was just taping all sorts of things and I didn’t realise until much later when I’d go to concerts at Jellie Park [Christchurch], that these people that I was – it’s true! – listening to were actual New Zealanders. So that was a bit of shock.
Bic: My first concert was the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, at the Dux de Lux in Christchurch when I was 15, and I don’t know how I got in, but I really liked that band a lot and I didn’t know where they were from …
Boh: No you just went and saw music and didn’t realise, you know? That’s just ignorant (laughs).
Bic: Oh I just wanted to be like Boh. She was six years older than me and …
Boh: (laughs) I still am.
Bic: (laughs) … and she used to get really dressed up to go and sing in pubs, and she had this hair that was like this high and it didn’t fit in the car. And she used to get dropped off by Dad and I’d sit in the back seat and Dad would wait all night for her to come home, like he’d just sit in the car park of the Papanui Tavern waiting for her (laughs), so sometimes I’d fall asleep in the back seat. I just wanted to be like her. So yeah it was definitely the only career option. You know, it was like, if I’d wanted to be a doctor or something it wouldn’t have been allowed.
Boh: No. I wanted to be a marine biologist (laughs). [I was] just playing in bands, playing in covers bands while being in high school and then straight out of high school. So I had a lot of fun … I’ve always played in bands, I’ve never done anything as a solo artist. I think it just came about from there [being] a real social aspect as well, it’s just hanging out with a bunch of people who want to play music.
Bic: Well Boh would make these little cassette tapes after she moved out of home and she was flatting, and her little compilation tapes came from the real world, you know? Like I was living at home and she made all these great tapes. She introduced me to a lot of music, like The Cure and all that kind of jangly English stuff. But then when I got to high school I kind of discovered Led Zeppelin and I don’t know, that’s where we sort of parted company.
Boh: You became a hippie.
Bic: Yeah I did turn into a hippie and you were a goth (laughs).
Boh: When it became incredibly serious was when Stellar started, when we basically put in all our money into making the demo. Before, it was a bit of a lark around. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and what I wanted to sing. I wasn’t that confident either, and I’d only started playing guitar again after a long break. Our guitarists kept leaving, so it was like, Oh I’ll make up some chords then. It was a bit like that, but Bic was a lot more focused from the word go. She was always songwriting.
Bic: I was playing the drums in the school, sort of concert band, and I was 11, and it was ‘Supertrooper’ by ABBA, and it was just trying to get to the end of the song without falling apart.
Boh: That’s a good one, you do that really well.
Bic: Yeah I still do that song, I like it. Playing the drums I had something to hide behind, I wouldn’t get up and sing and do a dance.
I wrote this really earnest kind of protest song when I was 14 and entered the Hornby Mall Talent Quest (laughs), and I think I came third. I won a Rick Astley LP and a John Farnham LP (laughs). It was such a harrowing experience that I didn’t write another song until I was about 19.
Boh: The first performance? I can’t really remember, I think we did – actually when Stellar was starting out we had some lame name that I can’t remember, “Four” or something (laughs). And we entered the Battle of The Bands. It was just awful, it was just getting out there and playing to two people – which didn’t actually change for a long time – and having people judge you.
Boh: There are a lot of expectations and I think there’s a lot of disappointment, you know? Not from just yourself or from the people around you, but from the general public. We are so small and so far away and so not in the real game plan of anyone overseas, that’s it’s quite hard to make any kind of dent. But you just gotta keep going really.
Bic: I think my record came out before Boh’s and I was about 21, and I heard it on the radio a few times, it actually got taken up by radio quite quickly, first with student radio and then more commercial radio, but I think the climate was a little different from how it is now. The only other really successful [New Zealand artist] around the time – or just before it – was Supergroove, and they had a major label release. So all the major labels were a bit more mindful of the fact that maybe a New Zealand band could have a big hit, and so I guess I was on the tail end of that wave …
The music community
Bic: I think it’s a great little community being a musician in this country. It’s really tiny and I had a lot of help making my second record from lots of different people, lots of guys from different bands like from Pluto and from Goldenhorse, and Neil Finn came and did a lot of the backing vocals and some piano, and Dave Dobbyn. It’s nice I think, it’s not competitive. I might be wrong, but it doesn’t feel that way to me.
Boh: I’m in a band so it’s kind of different. I don’t know whether it is competitive in a good way, I think it needs to be. You should actually say what you think, and lately I’ve been doing that and getting myself in big trouble. I don’t know, I’m tired of people being nice.
Bic: It’s probably happened to a lot of people before me, but you get picked up by an American record label and they promise you everything, and you sort of have these visions of grandeur. And you go over there and you get put up in a really nice apartment but you don’t realise how lucky you are, until it’s all sort of over. The difference between what the record company tells you internationally and what actually happens – they’re totally different things, unless you’re really lucky, and a lot of it is luck. I got moved over to New York and they put me up and I’d thought I had a really amazing time. But then two years of that got really … like being away from home, it’s quite hard to migrate away from New Zealand and you really have to do that if you want to make a career for yourself overseas, you can’t be here.
Boh: And you were by yourself as well, that first time.
Bic: Yeah, I really enjoy being overseas now because there are more resources for me. I take my band with me and they’re like my family when I go away. The industry there, you have to be quite extroverted and I don’t know, it just doesn’t suit me really. America and I don’t really understand each other (laughs). When I’m in America, I feel like my allies are the other musicians that I meet and there’s a code between us, that it is outside of the industry and the record company and all those sorts of things, those promises and the money and all that stuff.
Boh: It’s quite hard because [for me] it’s a little more difficult because there are four of us in the band, but I’m the focal point of the band. So they basically took me over there to go and meet people and stuff like this, which kind of made me feel a little odd … But we have made no headway at all overseas really. That is really very frustrating, but that’s just life.
I was told that we fall in this weird sort of space where they don’t really know where to put us. We’re not rock enough to be considered a rock band and we’re not pop enough to be considered a pop band, so we’re like falling between the lines, which I think was just another way of saying “look just come back to us at another stage” you know?
Bic: My first record came out in the States when it was kind of popular to be a female singer songwriter, whatever that’s meant to mean, but I never really subscribed to that whole sorority, that sisterhood. The Lilith Fair [festivals] – I did this tour – but I don’t know, it felt a little bit token to be just regarded as a female singer songwriter, ’cause I always thought I was just a songwriter. But now it’s not so fashionable, like just five years on. I’m still a songwriter, [and] regardless of the fashions, the trends, you just gotta keep doing what you’re doing and not get too swept away by what the industry is saying to you, about which club you belong to.
I just really hate thinking about the industry you know? It kinda consumes my thoughts and it’s a waste of energy thinking about it cause you know at the end of the day, it’s marketing guys and accountants just trying to find the next big thing, and you know it’s easy to start getting really negative about it, but it’s like “what would they know?” It’s these guys with no taste, that just make assumptions. It’s all luck as well, so I don’t know, I’m not bitter yet (laugh), but it’s close.
I think that really thinking about the industry and the record company and trying to second guess what might be the next big thing, or in fact [whether] you could be a part of it – it’s really detrimental to your creativity. It’s not part of music at all.
In 10 years’ time
Bic: I’d like to be a producer. I’ve only produced my records but I’ve learned a lot in the process and I’m going to Australia to produce a band in Melbourne. I’m really excited about that, they’ve invited me to do that so I’m kind of hoping that that will come to something. In 10 years, I’ll still be making music but probably behind the scenes because I suspect I’ll be quite fat (laughs) and …
Boh: Where the hell did that come from?
Bic: Oh you know, I just want to sit down and have a good eat (laughs), because I’m really tired of trying to look presentable because that’s boring after a while.
Boh: I’ll join you then – I love eating.
Bic: Yeah I’d rather work behind the scenes. I hate being photographed, it’s boring.
Boh: In 10 years? Crikey, I’ll be quite old then, six years older than her still. I don’t know, I’d like to try my hand at producing as well … I really love pop music. I like the idea of trying to create something fun and something that makes people forget themselves for four minutes. But I don’t think of myself as a pop star, anyway … It would be nice to retire in some beautiful island, breeding orchids and eating fresh fruit all the time.
The New Zealand Sound
Bic: I think New Zealand – the New Zealand sound – was maybe a bit more distinct in the 80s you know? Those Dunedin bands and the Flying Nun movement and all that stuff, but now it’s so … there’s a lot of hip hop and there’s a lot of girlie guitar pop – like the stuff I make – which kind of sounds roughly American, in a way.
Boh: Well it’s just production standards, I think, because it’s really accessible, a lot of bands are using Logic Audio, Pro Tools or whatever. They’re using very similar equipment so they’re actually making – I’m not saying they’re producing the same kind of sound, but their production is of a level. To a certain degree, radio’s kind of dictating it, they’re going “oh we like it all to sound like this.”
Bic: Yeah I think there’s more self-awareness among musicians about trying to have an international sound, which is not necessarily a good thing. But it just seems to be the flavour at the moment. I know The Datsuns have just been made the “Best Live Band” in the world according to NME magazine. Maybe they were more doing their own thing, I don’t know that they had the self-awareness that I just talked about. I think that self-awareness is probably the kiss of death really, when you start trying to cater to a radio format or something. I don’t know what The Datsuns had in mind but they’ve succeeded.
Boh: I don’t know whether The Datsuns had anything in mind, they’re just playing good rock music and they’re just doing what they do, and the rest of the world caught up with them … They’re really good at what they do.
Being an artist in New Zealand
Boh: I really like it, there’s something fantastic about getting in the studio and putting some beats out or something, and then coming up with a line or some kind of emotive thing.
You’ve really got to set the time aside to be creative and I think you need to surround yourself, you need to surround yourself with people who bring out the good things in you, which is true. When I went away on tour with Bic, that was so much fun because it was just hanging out with a whole new bunch of people – people that I’ve never played with before, so that was inspiring as well.
Bic: I love being on the road and I love being with my band. My band make my whole experience really, ’cause they’re so much fun and I just like the freedom. You don’t really belong anywhere in particular, you live out of a suitcase and the best part is the actual songwriting, which is the most free place you can go, so it’s a great job, I love it, it’s really cool. I think the success of Crowded House especially, when I was at intermediate school, they’d had a No.2 hit in America with ‘Don’t Dream Its Over’ and I was just so excited by that and suddenly being a musician in this country, it seemed possible. If you told me when I was 11 that I’d be working with Neil 10 years later, touring with him and having him perform on my record, I know I would’ve been bursting at the seams, my 11-year-old seams.
Further reading: Nick Bollinger on Give It A Whirl