Strawpeople: Radio Punks to Muso Sophisticates
JOURNEY INTO SOUND
In my youth Aotearoa (New Zealand) offered little that was homegrown to shout about. A few indy bands (The Knobz, Blam Blam Blam, Pop Mechanix, Dave McArtney and his Flamingoes) and a few Split Enz tracks (Dirty Creature, Giant Heartbeat and much of Waiata). Like Wales, New Zealand was a bit slow on the uptake of music as a career and there were obvious reasons to that.
Firstly, there wasn’t much infrastructure or money in Kiwi talent. Even the (Split) ENZ relied on a bailout from Creative NZ (the arts council). Secondly the bleak truth was that most bands either left for Australia or split up and got ‘real jobs’ prior to going there.
On my return to the long white cloud in 2001, out of work and in need of something to do, I set up my own project RE:COVERED – to investigate the rich diversity of imagery decorating the music or what little music there was. During research in Welly libraries music section – the sound bar – I came across something interesting.
I noticed about five albums with the name Strawpeople on. It took a few months more before I got round to listening to them. Bored of my predicament my curiosity got the better of me and their best of 1990-2000 was selected and slammed into the library CD player purely to get an overview. WOW! What a revelation! At last there was something I could truly ‘get’ or appreciate emanating from the land that party raised me.
SOUND DESIGN FROM ANOTHER HEMISPHERE
The band, if that is the right word, comprised of student radio alumnus Paul Casserly and Mark Tierney – probably the closest New Zealand had to sound designers at that time. Together with a clutch of female singers and some groovy tunes and samples (it was the age of samples) they pulled off something unique.
Poppy, electronic, yet predominantly studio bound and more importantly critically sound; kind of like a Kiwi Saint Etienne who themselves had intended to use different female talent before settling on Sarah Cracknell.
Casserly and Tierney fused electronics with strings, trumpets and double bass adding finesse to music influenced by the commercial Beats International, The artiness of Saint Etienne, and the depth of Blue Lines period Massive Attack. Add to this a weighty selection of warbling women; mainly a core trio of Stephanie Taueuihi, Fiona McDonald and Leza Corban and voila!
Of the few things electronic before Strawpeople I can only think of The Body Electric’s Pulsing – which drove me nuts at the time c1981. Unknowing it was a four track 12” – it just seemed one long repeat synth motif. One of the guys responsible, Alan Jansson later went on to Sisters Underground (In the Neighbourhood) and OMC’s massive global hit How Bizarre.
So New Zealand was getting its groove on in the nineties. Released on the independent Pagan Records, 1990’s Hemisphere is a fledgling baby finding its way in the world of sound and visual identity (the familiar logo wasn’t formed yet).
Hemisphere sees them sketching out ideas, and in some instances it sounds like a demo or a trial run. It’s also one of the few releases that made it to vinyl. Unknown to most it had taken Strawpeople six years to evolve to this point.
Beautiful Skin is attempted as a synth workout but comes nowhere near the atmospheric film noir it would be four years later on Broadcast. In 2020 I asked Mark Tierney why this and other songs were redone multiple times. “Totally on me, you’ll note that stopped when I left! I have a restless mind when it comes to songs; I always think they could be improved or put into a different context.”
He continues… “I like ALL the versions of Beautiful Skin. I still do it today; the version of BONES I put out recently is actually the 4th version of that song. I have another track MALIBU LOVE that’s on its second full re-record. I get a bit obsessed.” It just goes to show how chilled Casserly was to allow it and go with the flow. More on Mark’s solo record in due course but back to Hemispheres and 1990.
Sly and the title song are good indications of later stylings and Full Power tingles with the vibe that made Soul II Soul buzz around that time. McDonald sings only one song, their second single Blue, but clearly there was something about her the guys liked as she’s the only one who graduated to their next outing, Worldservice.
Love Explodes (sung by Stephanie) is a wonderful single so it’s somewhat surprising to see it didn’t chart. But it did show they had their finger on the creative trigger. Recorded mostly in July 91 with additional recording the following March it features one of the few Strawpeople tracks co-produced by an outsider – Daniel Barnes.
McDonald also receives producer credits on four songs, one of them the original take on Dreamchild. World Service reached #30 and got them the Producer of the Year gong. Of its 12 tracks, seven are recut for Broadcast!
Have a Little Faith and Slide both got single release on Cassette! Featuring the bold black typography that also features in the albums booklet and a barcode on the front – very cool for NZ. The art was handled separately by Alfred Lee, Polly Walker (photography) and a layout artist Richard Kingsford. Both Hemisphere and World Service serve as kind of officially released demos.
But it’s 1994’s phenomenal Broadcast for which they are best known, albeit almost exclusively in New Zealand. Much of the record regurgitates several songs from their first two so adding to an already complicated discography.
Crying kicks things off followed by that cover of The Church’s Under the Milky Way – it sounds dated now but as I said it was bang on time at the time though Steve Kilbey apparently hated it. I wonder what John Hiatt thought of his song Have a Little Faith, simply titled Faith for this version given the Strawpeople treatment; a piano/vocal from which a reliable groove comes into play.
McDonald’s Dreamchild and Tierney’s fave Trick with a Knife are also rekindled to be coasted by Turn of the Century this time featuring Stephanie Taueuihi which has elements of Deep Forest, so they were definitely on the zeitgeist.
“We were doing everything we could to be creative” – Mark Tierney, October 2018
Sweet Disorder features Leza Corban on vocals and another underrated Kiwi muso Greg Johnson on trumpet. The video was shot in Hong Kong, according to Corban there was no reason for going there but they were able to purely because record company budgets at that time allowed for such luxuries.
Tierney, speaking on Radio NZ in October 2018 says Sweet Disorder is the first time they were purposely direct and emotive with lyrics. Before that every attempt to be ambiguous and intellectual was equally purposeful. The track is simply stunning, unlike anything attempted before in NZ and they make it sound easy.
Corban (speaking to me in 2020) adds the song was “born from a jingle we did for World Vision which had a similar flavour and they wrote the song after that. I did the jingle and then the song.” Bearing all that in mind it’s hard to believe that even in New Zealand it barely made the top 30!
TO DIE FOR
Wings of Desire was chosen by Director Gus Van Sandt for his 1995 movie ‘To Die For.’ Both Casserly and Tierney saw the film in London’s Leicester Square and were in Tierney’s words on Cloud 187 when they came out of the cinema having heard their song play for a full six minutes during a vital scene.
I’ve not seen To Die For myself but I did see his Kurt Cobain inspired Last Days which was dreadful. Enough said, so back to Broadcast and its closing throw of the dice. Re-surface is a rehash of Surface on which Greg Johnson’s Salvation Army brass sounds hip, if New Zealand wasn’t cool, it was now.
Broadcast stayed on the New Zealand chart for almost a year peaking at #7 (some sources say #3). Testament to its craft but the real tragedy is that no-one beyond its shores knew of its existence.
Nowadays in the global market place New Zealand has successfully pitched Lorde, The Naked and Famous, and Brooke Fraser but in 1994 an international hit album was crudely overlooked even if it was well deserved.
It all left its toll on Mark Tierney, he says “I left because I was doing too many other things (jingles, music videos, commercials, producing) and I wasn’t really being a good bandmate. All the effort that went into Broadcast kind of burned me out on Strawpeople.”
Unfortunately it was a bit more than that, an acrimonious head to head with Casserly over how Taller Than God should sound sealed his departure, he hasn’t seen Casserly since. With Tierney bought out of the band, he turned to A&R and in 1996 another electro-soul outfit NV issued their sole album on PolyGram who themselves were bought out by Universal. Tierney recalls the time…
“I signed to a big commercials company out of Sydney, had my own production company making commercials, and made TV documentaries for TVNZ and TV3. I then went to work for PolyGram as Special Projects/A&R where I also co-created ‘Popstars’ the first of the TV singing competitions which sold globally which UK impresario Simon Fuller turned into the Pop Idol/American Idol colossus.”
SOMETHING BEGINNING WITH V
But as noted earlier this left the song slate clean, no more reinterpretations. Thus, 1996 effectively saw the rebirth of Strawpeople for Vicarious; stripped down to just Casserly with Fiona McDonald and this is reflected in Wayne Conway’s artwork by using the core colours of silver (or grey) and purple (or deep pink for the inner imagery). The band/brand logo stays the same. Reaching the top five in NZ, it’s as high as they would climb.
The very word ‘vicarious’ emanates from the Latin for substitute and its dictionary definition is described thus: 1 experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person: this catalogue brings vicarious pleasure in luxury living. 2 acting or done for another: a vicarious atonement.
Taller Than God and slow burning jazz of Porcelain Hands both excel McDonald’s brilliance as singer and songwriter. She again receives a co-producer credit while Chris van de Geer of the future band Stellar* engineers and plays alongside future bandmate, drummer Andrew McLaren. Greg Johnson also guests again.
Gypsies recalls a kind of early morning jazz – ‘I’m leaving the city, the streets are still wet’ and for late night, Spoiler makes good. Problem? While Casserly and Co can make world class music in this calibre, too much of the same can wash it all away. McDonald scooped Best Female award three times before embarking on her solo voyage. In 1999 she returned to the Flying Nun label for ‘A Different Hunger’ which went top 10.
Despite the best efforts of Sony NZ, Vicarious did get a push in Europe (I saw it myself a decade later in Geneva!) And according to Discogs, Taller Than God received German and European releases but the chart eluded them. I don’t know if they received any airplay, even in Australia.
In some territories Vicarious goes under the banner Vicarious2 and has the same artwork as remix album 100 Street Transistors again with stunning visuals by Wayne Conway of The Family who also handled Broadcast and Vicarious.
Having temporarily vacated her guest slot for Strawpeople, McDonald launched her somewhat abrasive debut A Different Hunger. Elements of ‘Hunger’ wouldn’t seem too out of place on a Strawpeople disc but a lot is menacing dark rock (such as the single Sin Again). Wish I Was A Man continues to carve a dirty grunge vein – ‘Wish I was a man, drag that razor down my face’ she sings like Jenny Morris with a migraine.
The record travels to other plains in the style of Portishead or Massive Attack’s Mezzanine for Blue Wails and bluesy introspection I Don’t Care. Most odd is the bubblegum respite Breathe which sounds like a cut that didn’t make the first Madonna album. Bury Me again slides back into darkness – Shihad’s Jon Toogood roughing things up nicely.
That same year Tierney said goodbye to New Zealand. Here’s Mark again… “I left in 1999 when I gave up music completely and moved to Atlanta to work in software. I spent the next six years in the US and Europe.”
For Strawpeople, the albums become fewer from this point and in 2000 (the literal turn of the century) we get two. A ‘best of’ in November and preceding it, NO NEW MESSAGES. From the bright n’ breezy cover of The Cars Drive (their highest charting single #7 sung by Bic Runga) and the subliminal Scared of Flying (Corban), it then runs a similar ‘late night jazz’ terrain of Vicarious.
Nonetheless there are diamonds in the rough; It’s Not Enough would do Dusty Springfield proud and I Believe which brings back vocal mainstay Stephanie Taueuihi is what the Human League should sound like. It’s good but as the title suggests, there’s no new messages. The sound had become more or less stagnated and their time in the land of Kiwi cool was wavering as the album peaked at 10, cue another four year absence.
COUNTING THE BEAT
Count Backwards From 10 (relating to the game hide and seek) took time to surface. Casserly speaking at the time said, ‘it’s like boat building, you have to get it right otherwise it’ll sink.’ The album cover art by Karl Maugham seems a good analogy for the title but an odd choice compared to the music. A conflict of band image, identity and their music is still something that occurs in some Kiwi and Australian acts.
Opener Driving Around certainly has a fresh and funky vibe to it. But it also offers intrigue in its sample vocal ‘You know where we are now? We are on the other side of the mirror’ which might have provided a better title had Stevie Nicks not thought of it first.
It’s followed by first single No One Like You sung this time by Pearl Runga, and written by her sister and Stellar* front woman Boh, meaning all three sisters have contributed to Strawpeople. Love My Way continues the Corban tradition with Leza taking the lead. Though it is odd to hear her singing the Psychedelic Furs even if it is done in a Kiwiana acoustic synth-pop.
The drum and bass rhymic pulse of Winter (the only vocal by Mahinarangi Tocker – no longer with us) is beautiful as it is haunting especially during its middle breaks of ‘I am waiting for something to happen, I am waiting for nothing in particular.’ They even try out moody indie rock with Wire sung by rookie Jordan Reyne which is fairly successful and then there’s The Andy Warhol Effect.
This time the album peaks at #20. Strawpeople were cool but no longer had the power to sail into the top 10. The pop crown in NZ had slipped to… yep, Stellar* and in turn to The Naked and Famous. As a studio band they can’t even go out and tour so Count Backwards remains -understandably – their swansong.
A SWEET DISORDER AT THE SOULFUL SKYDECK
Strawpeople may have quietly ceased but its cast lingered in the shadows of the Auckland night. Or should I say the bright lights? I’ve never met Casserly or Tierney in person but in 2010 while attending the Skydeck I became aware of a female DJ going under the name Leza Lee which of course meant nothing to me.
However going through the Sky City website her real identity is revealed; Leza Corban! Oh my god is that who that was! When would she be back!? A dolt at the Skytower says she won’t be but this turns out to be utter nonsense. I emailed Leza herself, and the following is adapted from my 2012 book Year Amid Winter…
A few weeks’ later and I gratefully witness her true calling in person for the first time with just a keyboard player (Karl Benton) to guide her. She greeted me from the stage – now I can’t say that’s happened before – and told me not to clap, just enjoy. A heart as deep and warm as her voice, but how could I not acknowledge her range, even better in reality than on record.
She sang a selection of soul songs, some well known (Love TKO) and others like a stripped down version of The Eagles I Can’t Tell You Why and the four hours seemed to glide by in what felt like only moments. Simply wonderful and with hardly anyone else there to see her sing warts and all as Kiwi acts leave little hiding space for the few flaws that occurred but that’s what is so good about New Zealand’s artists.
The professionalism of major acts is assured and effortless and ‘pop idol’ (which bizarrely as mentioned a while back Tierney kind of co-invented) is bathed in a glossy sheen but somehow seeing a more human side like a keyboard hitting a wrong note made it all the more beguiling and she still shone through.
Anyway what I was saying is her lack of audience was an insulting injustice. More so that both she and Benton had it seemed taken time with the repertoire in setting certain songs against the late evening sun and playing the more dusky numbers as the sky shifted to an electric blue outside.
I had to admire her as she told me candidly of her being content plying the corporate route rather than the record company solo deal and the potential ‘bargain bins’ that beckoned in an era of declining sales. Perhaps this was a business model for the future – avant-soul – touring without albums.
To my knowledge the only physically released Corban work is the few tracks she sang with Strawpeople (she later confirmed this). And to that end the fact there is no ‘Leza’ album on the shelves means that I’ll never tire of the songs she performed that evening. I’ve witnessed a rare bird in action because I won’t see her elsewhere.
Like the waiting sky, my chaperone for the night walk home, I leave an emotional combination of electrified and kind of blue, that I may never see or hear her perform them again (I was about to leave for Turkey, she also announces this from the stage). Nearly ten years later, we are still friends. My only regret is not being able to sample her Lebanese cooking! But… what of Casserly and Tierney, what happened to them?
BEYOND BROADCAST: SOUND TO SCREEN
Ironically both went into TV media albeit in different hemispheres; Casserly in NZ, and Tierney in London then LA so to some extent they are kindred spirits and media brothers. The writing was clear in the titles: Worldservice, Broadcast, No New Messages – a keen awareness of the media world around them. Even before Count Backwards From 10 came out Casserly was involved in moving pictures on the satirical show Eating Media Lunch 2003-2008.
The following year he along with Jeremy Wells (also ex of 95bFM) produced Birdland, celebrating Aotearoa’s avian inhabitants and their followers. Weird when you consider my own pictorial book Birds of Our Neighbourhood was intended around that time, perhaps we passed each other on Tiri Tiri bird reserve without knowing it.
In 2010 Casserly formed Perendale Productions with Wells and writer Jodie Molloy to produce adverts, documentaries (Grand Tour about the NZSO in Europe, and Radio Punks)(2015) looking at the underground pioneers of student radio from which Casserly and Tierney themselves arrived, music videos and corporate work – such as the EPK for Crowded House’s 2010 release Intriguer.
Speaking about Radio Punks on RNZ, Casserly says the student station was a magnet for nerds, it was a cool place to go – almost like a miniature university of media studies. He became a programme director, also magazine editor and later began the sonic experiments with Tierney that would become Strawpeople.
By 2016 he was handling video content for Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa which sounds right up my street and narrating How Clean is Your House? Another documentary this time examining the work of Kiwi fine artist Colin McCahon. Also of interest to me coming from an arts background.
While Casserly has more or less retired from music and with money from music sales abysmal, it’s not difficult to see why, even Count Backwards was most likely loss making. Tierney, now in his 50s re-surfaced (literally) in October 2018 with a single Drowning (with yet another female lead actress/singer Emma Ejwertz) and an aptly titled album Exhibition (on LA based 4th and Montana).
Old habits die hard and Exhibition comes with its own cover version – this time of a Tom Waits song Martha, so you can kind of see what he brought to the Strawpeople table back in the day. But Tierney says maturity is key to this latest record rather than the 20-somethings that demanded specific performances back in nineties Auckland.
Between 2005-2016 he produced documentaries and adverts in London, Miami, Copenhagen, and LA with among others: BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Amazon and it’s a project of the latter which fell through leaving him with time on his hands, hence his reconnecting with Matty J, another Kiwi in California, who guested on Worldservice. It’s fair to say the restless creative nomad Tierney has done incredibly well in the highly competitive media world.
Tierney calls the album a vacation for the soul and the single a ‘nostalgia bomb’ picking up pretty much where he left off in the nineties so does this mean Exhibition is Vicarious according to MT? Not so says the man himself. What he did say (on Radio NZ) was that the musicians were culled from Craig’s List in LA!
Like Strawpeople it’s arty with a lot of alternate ‘mixes’ and ‘versions’ and a Part 2 without Part 1. Tierney adds he always laughs when someone says it sounds like Strawpeople and obviously there’s a reason for that. Let’s have a quick listen…
Bones choral beginnings ‘oh oh here are the bones of the 20th century, here are the ruins of all that is left of me’ – give way to ambient about half way through. It’s a nice touch and a good start. Shelter is the most Strawpeople of the lot and the best choice for a single (if we were talking in terms of singles).
Cabazon Part 2 (whenever I come across one of these – Fleetwood Mac’s You and I Part 2 as a case study – I always wonder what the part one is and why it was discarded). Anyway Cabazon is like a dreamy opera set against a slow beat (see This Mortal Coil’s Blood album or Dead Can Dance). From that you can deduce there’s a pretty strong 4AD vibe about it.
But Tierney likes to surprise us and here he throws the curve ball of an unexpected brass section. The song then takes on the appearance of a downbeat New Orleans procession with military drums so he clearly he has artistic vision. Those are the highlights for me and yes it does sound a tad like his old day job.
As a side note to the album is a literal online exhibition and physical magazine (both photographic) and featuring more female than just their vocals if you know what I mean. You could call it exhibitionism. Aside the music he sidelines in painting and filmmaking.
And speaking of the vocalists, how about those women? Leza still does corporate gigs and also devotes a lot of her time as a vocal coach to future talent. Stephanie went into health work following a stint in acting and Fiona McDonald is somewhat at home in real estate.
Maintaining a career in media and arts in New Zealand is extremely difficult which is why a lot of musicians work on other artists albums, this practice might still be the case today (it’s difficult for me to gauge having left NZ in 2011, but it was essential in Strawpeople’s nineties).
In an interview for Radio NZ in October 2018, Tierney states that LA is home for now but he is still a Kiwi at heart and has no intention of giving up his passport for a US one. He also hints at moving back to London. All in all Strawpeople, backed by Sony NZ, managed six albums not including their aforementioned best of and remix album (100 Street Transistors).
What is Strawpeople’s legacy? They gave New Zealand music a voice for the nineties; not just one single or one album but many with a reasonable consistency. This paved the way for other Kiwi artists making electronic music.
But Strawpeople’s brand was electronics imbued with a human soul to the performances; be it the women fronting the songs, Greg Johnson, Joost Langveld, Steve Harrop, or those behind the mixing console especially Chris van de Geer, Mark Tierney and Paul Casserly.
What would it have been otherwise? Probably an empty orchestra, a bank of sonic ideas with no one to play them. It took the guys bold tenacity to drag New Zealand music from the indie-rock of eighties student bands into the brave new world of sampling and electronics, and thank god they succeeded.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
My thanks to Mark Tierney and Leza Corban for generous correspondence for this piece.
Thanks for reading here. Need a writer? MEDIA, Need a teacher? UNIVERSITY. Don’t forget to stay tuned with Kulture Kiosk via The Atlas or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world. Blog includes affiliate links. Playlist and credits follow…
Culture – The Knobz
There is No Depression in New Zealand – Blam Blam Blam
Remember the Alamo – Dave McArtney and the Flamingos
Jumping Out a Window – Pop Mechanix
In the Neighbourhood – Sisters Underground
Love Explodes – Strawpeople
Only Love Can Break Your Heart – Saint Etienne
Unfinished Sympathy – Massive Attack
Under the Milky Way – Strawpeople
Turn of the Century – Strawpeople
Sweet Disorder – Strawpeople
Beautiful Skin (Broadcast version) – Strawpeople
Taller Than God – Strawpeople
Porcelain Hands – Strawpeople
Blue Wails – Fiona McDonald
I Believe – Strawpeople
Scared of Flying – Strawpeople
Driving Around – Strawpeople
Winter – Strawpeople
No One Like You – Strawpeople
Love My Way – Strawpeople
Drowning – Mark Tierney
Bones (Choral Version) – Mark Tierney
Shelter (Emme Lentino version) – Mark Tierney
D.D and E – This Mortal Coil
Cabazon Part 2 – Mark Tierney
Re-surface – Strawpeople
Photo Credits: album covers from discogs.com.
95bFM from their website.
Have a Little Faith cassette cover, and Vicarious inner images retouched by KH.
Hemisphere alternate cover by KH.
To Die For from Wiki/Columbia Pictures.
Perendale screenshot from their site.
Radio Punks detail from a Radio NZ flyer.
Volume graphic poster from mixcloud.com
Carol McCahon images from my personal archive.
Mark Tierney covers from 4thmontana.com