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Nick Dwyer is Making Tracks

Travelling the world, combining exotic cultures with classic Kiwi tunes—it's Nick Dwyer's dream job, and National Geographic is among his many fans. By Martyn Pepperell.

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Portraits by Nick Ruechel

Travelling the world, combining exotic cultures with classic Kiwi tunes—it’s Nick Dwyer’s dream job, and National Geographic is among his many fans.

Magazine Layout

The Kingsland train station grounds and its surrounding cluster of cafes and small shops is a colourful little part of Auckland. The smell of freshly brewed coffee mixes with cut flowers. Music blares, locals stop to talk on the street and it’s a short walk down a driveway to the offices of boutique TV production company Two Heads.

Inside, Auckland radio and TV personality Nick Dwyer sits on a couch with his hood pulled up, eyes on the Macbook resting on his lap. Clocking my arrival, Dwyer puts his computer to one side and leaps up to greet me. As high-energy in person as he is on air, Dwyer is a dynamo of enthusiasm. That quality is tempered by Dean Cornish, the relatively subdued chap sitting on a workstation chair in front of a large video screen. Cornish is best known as the producer/ director of the Intrepid Journeys series, but right now he’s Dwyer’s key collaborator on Making Tracks II, the second season of their music and travel television show. It is screening locally on C4 this month and—in a licensing coup—internationally next year via National Geographic’s Nat Geo Music TV channel.

Still in the editing stages, Dwyer and Cornish have cued up several short clips to show me. First, an emotional interpretation of The Mt Raskil Preservation Society’s ‘Bathe In the River’ rendered by Ghanian/Romanian singer Wanlov the Kubolor. Next, an instrumental steel-pan troupe version of Supergroove’s ‘Can’t Get Enough’ by Trinidad and Tobago’s Phase II Pan Groove, and English post-rock band The Invisible tackling Chris Knox’s sole commercial hit ‘Not Given Lightly’. The filming is vivid, the music strong, but what is this all about?

Screened in New Zealand in 2008, the first season of Making Tracks realised a long-held dream for Dwyer. Born in 1979, Dwyer has been involved in music radio and music television for virtually half of his life. He’s held posts with Max TV, MTV, C4, bFM and George FM among others, established a name for himself as a nightclub DJ, and worked closely with the international Red Bull Music Academy. By the late 2000s, Dwyer had a considerable degree of local market penetration and, with the assistance of Cornish and friends Nick Ward and James Anderson, the team at Two Heads, he was ready to do something bigger.

“I think a lot of people feel like television can be a) entertaining or b) thought-provoking, but never the two shall meet, which I don’t agree with.” Intensely passionate about what he describes as “new music and crazy new sounds from abroad” as well as local music, Making Tracks let Dwyer indulge his musical loves and operate within the paradigms of entertainment and education.

The show concept was simple: he would travel to far-flung locales such as Brazil, Israel and Jamaica, meet local musicians and return home with their cover versions of classic New Zealand songs, rendered in distinctive regional styles, as well as interviews and travel footage. “We created a show where the audience gets taken on a journey around the world,” says Dwyer. “They learn about cultures, social contexts, get to find out about the incredible music these nations are proud of. Then they see something they know from home, translated into a new context.”

While Making Tracks had its dramatic moments, including a taxi in China driving off with the crew’s gear, the end result made for some surprising modern travel/music television. Following the screening of that first season, Dwyer heard that National Geographic had launched a 24-hour music television channel called Nat Geo Music TV. He took a punt and sent in a copy of the series.

“It was always a geeky little idea of mine that maybe in five or six years I would start doing some work for National Geographic,” he says. “I was hoping for nothing more than to get on their radar. Anyway, they turned around and said, ‘This is the best music television show we’ve ever seen, we’d like to buy it please.’ I sure wasn’t expecting that.”

Due to difficulties involving international music clearance and other legalities, Dwyer wasn’t able to license Making Tracks to National Geographic for broadcast. However, it did indicate it would be interested in purchasing a presale if he made a second series that was fit for international broadcast.

Although most travel shows function on what Cornish describes as a two-year turnaround, it was around September last year that the duo and Two Heads started discussing a new series that, thanks to National Geographic’s interest, would be geared towards both local and international broadcast and, as such, sharper in focus, content, colour and character.

Plotting a travel path that would, over two separate trips, see them visit Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago, Ghana, Lebanon, Japan, the UK, France and the Ukraine, getting Making Tracks II up and running was a process many in the television industry will relate to. In Cornish’s words, “It is a standard story for commissions on New Zealand on Air. You basically propose to the network and get a broadcast commitment. Then, once the network has said, ‘Yes, we will play this programme, we are interested, here is an idea of the timeslot,’ you approach New Zealand on Air with the proposal and they decide if it has merit or not.”

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Unfortunately, says Cornish, “the money you get isn’t enough to make this kind of show, so you have to find a hell of a lot more sponsorship.” And while having National Geographic’s interest in licensing their completed show for international broadcast put more financial resources on the table, Dwyer says they still “... really had to go out there and put our caps out”. With Mondo Travel coming on board as well as support from the likes of Telecom, Serato, the British Council and what Cornish describes as “a small number of other sponsors who don’t expect anything in return, but are generous enough to be involved”, the architecture was in place to get the new series off the ground.

The next set of big difficulties? Making contact with and securing commitment from musicians in the various destinations who would be interested in covering a New Zealand song, arranging some tightly knit work schedules to make optimum use of the team’s time in each region and, most importantly, getting all the associated international music licensing paperwork completely down pat. It wasn’t the easiest of exercises, but by hook or by crook, they got there in the end, and started filming earlier this year. As Cornish says, “Once you start the machine rolling, you have to get everything done in a certain amount of time ... It has to be tightly choreographed.” While aspects of the project ran smoothly, other parts involuntarily ruptured at points, causing last-minute changes of plan. Says Cornish: “We kind of had an idea of where we wanted to end up, but with different countries, cultures and time zones, the route can be a bit more circuitous then you expect.”

As many in creative industries know, eleventh hour changes, as stressful as they are, can often lead to amazing things. This was particularly true in London, where a series of potential covering artists fell through one after another, leading Dwyer, Cornish and their filming team to a haunting post-rock band called The Invisible who delivered a stellar, emotionally true remake of ‘Not Given Lightly’ by Chris Knox within 48 hours of being contacted.

“We couldn’t have found a better band than The Invisible if we had tried,” enthuses Cornish. “London was the closest we came to a fail to deliver, but we did end up getting the right people in the end.” Working on a schedule that saw them in each country for around five days, generally spending half a day travelling and sleeping about four hours a night, it wasn’t until they arrived home that they were able to look at the results with any clarity. “The show is stronger than any of us thought it would be,” says Cornish.

And while they are excited about the local and international screenings, with their licensing all properly sorted Making Tracks II will also be available in a number of other fan-friendly formats, to let the songs have lives of their own, says Dwyer. First, an album of the covers from season two and then a DVD release of the season that will be loaded with extra interviews and live performances. “If you’re a music fan, you’ll get so much out of it,” Dwyer says. Each release will be lovingly packaged with an extensive booklet of photographs and liner notes on the countries, cultures and characters featured, designed, says Dwyer, to give context to the visual and audio content. He also throws around the idea of some of the overseas musicians featured on the show perhaps touring through New Zealand over summer.

Dwyer and Cornish have a full afternoon of editing to get back into at Two Heads. With The Invisible’s version of ‘Not Given Lightly’ playing on repeat in my mind, I watch Dwyer practically bounce with enthusiasm back across the road to the studio. Enthusiasm, talent, work ethic and luck—these are the factors that will get you where you really want to be, and Dwyer, well, he’s got all of the above.

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Martyn Pepperell is a Wellington based writer, publicist, radio host and DJ