The line between creativity and commerce is more blurred than any time since Coca-Cola discovered Santa Claus. Idealog profiles two endeavours in the fastest-blurring industry of all: music
Raves & airwaves
Kris Herbert meets the founders of Fabel
From a distance, James Meharry and Karyn South are mysterious characters. But up close, they are frank, open. And focused.
Theirs is anything but a common story, though it begins the same as many others: boy meets girl, and there goes the day job. In this case, girl gives up promising legal career to join boy as music promoter and then radio station director.
I watch the pair arrive on Meharry’s vintage Harley Davidson. Meharry is casual but immaculately dressed. South, in her boots and flowing black trench coat, with her smart auburn bob, would be as comfortable on a French espionage film set as she is in this Christchurch cafe.
Mentor Mike Godinet describes them as a “formidable team”: “They’ve both got a lot of skills and a lot of talent and they complement each other so well. James is a very creative visionary and Karyn is very pragmatic and onto the wrapping up and finishing and achieving.”
When we meet, they are in the throes of their busy event season—planning and executing outdoor gigs that bring huge musical line-ups to thousands of eager South Islanders. And alongside that, they now have an indie radio station to run.
They should be driven to distraction. But they are not the distracted types. Meharry talks passionately about “doing something because you want to do it—not because of the financial outcome. It’s not a what’s-in-it-for-me philosophy. It’s what’s in it for Christchurch or what’s in it for the people I work with.”
South relishes a challenge—loves it when people tell her that things can’t be done. “A big thing for me is getting the message out there to people who don’t necessarily follow the alternative music charts but who, once they’ve been exposed to it, really love the music. And I’ve seen that with my family and lots of lawyers I’ve hounded with my promotional material. It’s not about bands playing to the same tried and true 2,000—it’s about getting to 10,000 people from all walks of life.”
Both South and Meharry are born and bred Cantabrians. Meharry grew up in the working-class suburb of Linwood among the artistic fraternity of his grandmother, painter Doris Lusk, who lived on an adjoining property.
A scholarship to Christ’s College probably saved him from going off the rails. “By 12 or 13 I’d learned everything bad I needed to know, so getting locked up in a boarding school was probably just what I needed.”
Then, after quickly discovering that university didn’t suit him, Meharry began collecting private training diplomas and certificates in sculpture, fashion, graphic design, sound engineering and adult eduction. At 18, he sacrificed $25 each week from his $110 dole cheque to hire-purchase DJ equipment from Smiths City.
‘Rave’ wasn’t even a word in the New Zealand vocabulary then but Meharry had discovered European techno, rave, trip-hop and breakbeat culture from a series of couch-surfing travellers and their mix tapes. “As soon as I could string two tunes together I wanted to get into it.”
Rather than seeking a traditional venue, Meharry made his own—parties in houses, warehouses and the outdoors. “I was just putting on parties but essentially it was event management. I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of parties—playing at most of them.”
In 2001, having built up a name as a DJ and promoter, Meharry—by now better known by his DJ name Pylonz or PZ—started Fabel Music. It had limited success, partly because its launch coincided with the onset of the Napster-led online file-sharing movement that shook the music industry to its core.
“We were selling well for a niche, independent label but the environment around us was changing too rapidly for it to be an ongoing viable business.”
“I consider myself fortunate in that I’m not hooked on this affluenza buzz. I already know how rich I am because of where I live, who my friends are, the quality of life that we have”
This financial reality came around the same time that a sales rep position became available at Christchurch’s student radio station, RDU. Meharry, who had been involved with the station as a show host for many years, took up the opportunity and used his music industry connections to sell advertising.
By this time, South had been on the scene for a couple of years—the lawyer girlfriend of the DJ boyfriend. Though they grew up in the same city, the two had taken very different paths. South got her law degree and went to work as a criminal defence lawyer. At her first trial, the Crown solicitor approached her and suggested she think about working for the Crown. She did. And became a prosecutor at 25.
South enjoyed law but, she says, “The very nature of the job is that you are dealing with people who do bad things to each other and, at 30, I was unsure whether that’s what I wanted my whole adult career to be filled with—information about what are essentially people’s worst experiences.”
She had already worked with Meharry on a few of his music-related projects. “I enjoyed that and I really did have a strong belief in his ability in that area. So he convinced me over breakfast one morning that I really needed to hang up the spurs for a while and go into business full time with him.”
Much to her parents’ dismay, South agreed and made the jump. “I think one day I would like to return to law but right now we have a lot of projects on the go.”
Those projects include the many events they manage through Fabel Events—including tour gigs for Kiwi artists like Fat Freddy’s Drop, Shapeshifter, Fly My Pretties and international acts like Lee Scratch Perry and Jose Gonzalez. Despite—or possibly because of—industry talk that it couldn’t be done, Fabel have sold out the Christchurch Town Hall for every event they’ve held there.
In March, they put on the third Cheap As Chips gig at the University Oval. With tickets priced at just $25 (and free for under fives) the inclusive Sunday afternoon gig pulls thousands to hear a huge line-up of national and local acts.
But for the last year, South and Meharry’s main focus has been on turning around an ailing student radio station. “It’s a supertanker,” says South. “We’re turning it around and we’re on the arc.”
98.5FM is one of a handful of frequencies set aside when radio frequencies were deregulated in 1987 to ensure that there would be alternatives to commercial radio in the form of student, Maori and community stations. Deregulation triggered a buy-up of local radio stations, most of which have now been consumed by two large multinationals, RadioWorks and The Radio Network. But RDU, which started as Radio U in 1976, survived. Just.
For years, the University of Canterbury Student Association (UCSA) struggled to make the station financially viable. It tried running it as a private company, but four years ago the company went into liquidation. The station’s existence was at stake.
“UCSA was wanting to find a better outcome for RDU,” Meharry says. “I think they acknowledged that they weren’t the best people to be running a radio station. There were a lot of options being floated and at first I really didn’t consider it would be something we would be interested in doing, but I wasn’t very inspired by the options being discussed. None of them meant the RDU that we knew and loved would continue.
“It was always looming that if a solution couldn’t be reached, RDU could potentially be too much of a liability to continue.”
So Meharry and South put in a proposal to run the station and, after six months of negotiation, the UCSA agreed that they were the best people for the job.
“I think it was a combination of brains and passion,” says Meharry. “Karyn is very, very driven and I’m very passionate. We are a very strong team and they saw that this was the best chance that RDU had to continue and succeed.”
The changeover—once public—was met with fierce criticism by some students (and hosts), who feared the move would lead to mainstream commercialisation of the station and were affronted by the lack of wider student consultation over the decision.
“It was always going to be contentious,” says Meharry. “We know a lot of people really care about RDU and we know why they care about it,” says South. “We get it. That’s part of what we’re about.”
Meharry says what makes RDU special is that it is “definitively local”. With up to a dozen employed staff, a dozen regular volunteers and more than 100 DJs/hosts passing through the doors each week, there are many local personalities that go into RDU’s on-air character. South describes the station as “unafraid and prepared to laugh at itself”.
While that may make the station a little rough around the edges, Meharry says that roughness gives it “a realness that people are finding difficult to locate in an increasingly commercial radio environment”.
While the current focus is primarily on music, South is excited by RDU’s potential to become an alternative source of news and information—one that can incite debate among students and locals.
Meharry and South continue to expand their skill base. Engaging radio mentor Mike Godinet, accountant Stuart Stanley and consultants Mike Inder and Julia Hardacre, the pair have worked fiercely hard over the past year. “I take my hat off to Karyn to see through the problems that were a liability and sense the positives,” says Meharry. “It was a very big risk for us personally and financially and we’ve worked really hard over the last 12 months and are really proud of what we’ve achieved.”
“The work that I’ve done, this year in particular, outstrips the Crown prosecuting days hands down,” says South.
Although they take the business seriously, their motivation is clearly not financial. “I could have stuck it out in law and had a great career and been financially rewarded the way that well-paid lawyers are,” South says. “I consider myself fortunate in that I’m not hooked on this affluenza buzz. I already know how rich I am because of where I live, who my friends are, the quality of life that we have here. I was looking for a career that afforded me lifestyle and experiences with interesting, new people and that’s what attracted me.
Cash & Charlie Ash
Gena Tuffery meets the control freaks of Charlie Ash
I write ‘rambunctious’ with difficulty; Rosie Riggir says it with ease. The Auckland-based singer uses the word to describe Charlie Ash, the neo-punk band she leads—or, by one report, Leads. On a Loop DVD a now-replaced Charlie Ash synthesist accused Riggir of LSD: “That’s Lead Singer Disorder,” he said.
“Absolutely,” Riggir confirms. “You have to have LSD if you’re the LS.”
LSD sparks some alarming symptoms—the compulsion to truss up band mates in spray-painted pink pillow innards being but one of them. And if you can’t see how opening for Chicks on Speed dressed as clouds is part of the big business plan, don’t worry, it’s just because you haven’t heard the plan:
“It’s essential that we get famous,” says Riggir. “If you’re not famous then no one wants to come to your gigs; if no one wants to come to your gigs then no one wants to buy your albums; if no one buys your albums then no one gives a shit.”
And with the first Charlie Ash album due out in October, it’s essential to Riggir that her band mates give a shit about getting famous.
They do. Riggir, Charlie Ash co-founder Mailee Matthews and new additions Ben Michelson and Dave Khan put the pursuit of fame before everything—even pride. “It takes a lot to make me feel ridiculous,” says Matthews, who also plays with Fly My Pretties. “But I felt ridiculous in that cloud thing. And hot.”
Enduring a couple of years of pink cheeks, brought on by romping about in 45 home-made costumes, has paid off—these days the famous Charlie Ash stage wear is much cooler. The band opened the 2007 Air New Zealand Fashion Week clad in new wave threads designed by another event standout, Cybele. The performance was part of a new partnership that showcases both colourful brand and band whenever Charlie Ash perform. “It’s a good match,” says Matthews. “Cybele makes perfect Charlie Ash clothes.”
Making good matches is another group specialty. Riggir, especially, is aware of her band’s brand potential and is keen to see it grow.
“I want us to be more than a band,” she says. “I want us to be innovators, geniuses.” And what does that encompass? Movies? Books? Perfume ranges?
“All of it.”
“We like to control every facet of our band ourselves,” she says. “We hand-paint all our posters and do our own promotion—we’re always thinking about original ways of getting ourselves out there.”
That is, ways of getting out there in out there ways. Charlie Ash have played on the back of a truck busting through crowded city centres, performed various crowd-startling stunts and cropped up in unexpected places—like in BOX, the award-winning musical they launched their band with in the 2005 Fringe Festival. The production featured dancers, projectors and installations “so people would know we are here”.
“We like to control every facet of our band ourselves. We hand-paint all our posters and do our own promotion—we’re always thinking about original ways of getting ourselves out there”
If it seems chaotic, it’s an organised mayhem. “We’re a business-focused band,” says Matthews. “The only downside to that is that people can see you’re capable of doing it all, so sometimes don’t offer you help.”
Doesn’t matter. If Charlie Ash need help they’re not shy in asking for it. The band has a standing invitation to work in LA with fellow rambunctious rocker Juliette Lewis and her band The Licks, after Riggir “put out the SOS signal” while the groups were touring New Zealand together in 2006.
Others have also answered the distress call. Sally Tran stepped in to direct the video version of Charlie Ash hit ‘O’Baby’, on a budget of “about a grand”. She did it well; the animated clip won the Handle the Jandle award for Best Video in 2006. The following two Charlie Ash music videos, also nominated for awards, were made for nothing and $500 respectively. “We’re extremely good at maximising a small investment,” says Matthews. “It’s all about having a DIY attitude.”
This attitude has been put to good use on the Charlie Ash debut album. The group is recording it themselves, pulling in more favours from their mates in the industry and mixing it up with NZ On Air grants and support from Red Bull. Things could be different—there are three interested record labels standing by to hear the finished product—but back-to-front is the order that Charlie Ash prefers to do things. “There’s a lot of buzz around the album, and we’re confident one of [the labels] will come to the party,” says Matthews. “But we like producing it ourselves. We might even end up turning down [a label] in order to keep creative control; you know, just work with a distribution company.
“The whole industry has changed—you can cut out the middleman now. There’s more chance of a small independent making it, and we’re really into that—we’re part of this generation as well!”
Charlie Ash is well placed to make it on their own, with both founding members working in ‘helpful’ day jobs. Riggir clocks in at Arch Hill Recordings and Mystery Girl, the promotion company that brings over the big bands like Sonic Youth: “So she already knows what to do when it comes to releasing an album,” Matthews says. And if she didn’t, she could always ask her auntie, veteran Kiwi musician Patsy Riggir.
Meanwhile Matthews produces a magazine-style radio show, Upload, which airs on 25 Kiwi stations. “I can think of whoever I want to talk to in the creative world and call them up and pick their brains,” she says. “Of course I then apply that knowledge to my own band, like ‘Ooooh I wouldn’t do that—but that thing’s good’.”
Everyone in Charlie Ash agrees on one thing being good for them: touring. They plan to head off on a European sojourn once they have an album to pack in their hand luggage, but in the meantime they’re hitting the Australasian circuit. Hard.
After getting among the Rhythm and Vines on New Year’s Eve, Charlie Ash joined the Rhythm & Vines Cellar Tour in April, playing in main centres in New Zealand and Australia. They are, of course, also doing their own thing: slotting in exclusive Charlie Ash performances wherever they’ll fit. “It’s all about increasing our fan base at the moment,” says Matthews.
Then, there are always more immediate ways of doing that. “We’ve got a van with a PA system just so we can break into song wherever we go,” says Riggir. So she does: “Get outta my way! Get outta my way!” she sings, mimicking ’80s cartoon group Jem and the Holograms—“except we’re more like The Misfits. Jem is too much of a sookie, she’d never make it in the New Zealand music industry—or if she did she’d be Brooke Fraser.”
Clearly there are no sookies here—just a bunch of gutsy musicians determined to make it big. “We’ve kept every poster and every costume,” says Riggir. “It’s all to prepare for the day we have Charlie Ash: The Exhibition.”