Interview with Bryce Kowalski – Critic – 1988.

Long time contributor to Critic (Otago University’s student paper) – under this pseudonym (and many others) Bryce has just left Dunedin. Before his departure we – at Critic- thought it might be interesting to talk to the man about his politics , his music and his new cuddly toy. (Editor’s Note – I have made one or two changes from the original interview to make the thing more relevant and readable).

INTRODUCTION

CRITIC – Where are you from originally – they aren’t too many ‘Kowalski’s about?

BRYCE – Here of course – Dunedin. You think I shifted here from Auckland or something?

CRITIC – I know that you went overseas a lot when you were young. Did these travel experiences leave you with any lasting impressions that have continued to impact on your life and work?

BRYCE – Naturally! My parents both worked for the University and they used to travel a lot. Until I reached the age of 16 I was pretty blasé about it all but that year(‘79) I spent a lot of time on my own doing various jobs in different parts of England and also went to Germany for a while. It was quite liberating to be treated as an adult by the people I worked with and I grew up pretty fast that year. I think that seeing other countries only made me appreciate this one more. In some other places I’d probably be one of the first against the wall as an obvious deviant and trouble-maker.

CRITIC – So what do you think are the main issues in the world today?

BRYCE – Getting rid of the cold war would be nice – it’s even starting to look like it may happen. The main reason I oppose war is that it’s just too hard on the planet. Once we’ve got the major powers talking to each other again and the nukes are gone or cut back we can then look at fixing some of the other major problems – starting with the environment.

CRYSTAL ZOOM! (1983 – 85)

CRITIC- You’ve been involved with various bands now for a number of years – starting with the somewhat ‘infamous’ Crystal Zoom! Tell us a bit about that?

BRYCE – A group of us had been talking about putting a band together called Crystal Zoom for a long time but in the years before we actually started playing we out up a ton of Crystal Zoom! graffiti up all over town ( and on the side of barns on State Highway One between Dunedin and Christchurch). We figured if people had heard of us they would think we were ‘BIG’. So we had the name itself long before we actually got the band together. There’s a funny story behind the name but I probably shouldn’t tell it here- I might get in trouble.

To start off the band was a basic four piece with me singing (shouting) Mike (Wilde) Weston on guitar, the incomparable Eric Neuman on bass and Nathan McConnell – later Nick Niell -on drums.. We had grown up with a lot of the so-called ‘Dunedin Sound’ – mostly a group of bands influenced by sixties American guitar music – but their style just wasn’t our cup of tea. Like a lot of new bands we started playing punk and thrash(both of can cover a multitude of musical sins) but gradually we go better and more versatile. We had gone out of our way to set ourselves apart from the prevailing ‘sound’ and for a while it was hard to get gigs so we started setting up our own at Coronation Hall in Maori Hill ( earlier ‘Punk’ bands like ‘The Enemy’ had done the same thing). We had absolutely no scruples and would play with anyone – The Mockers – Motorhead – Gamaunche.

Our ‘difficult’ approach turned off some of the cooler crowd .One well known musician friend said that he would never speak to me again after we played with The Mockers (which we did on several occasions over the years) and he never did again. We were completely brazen about promoting ourselves and would try and get into the Otago Daily Time’s Music Column every week and Rip It Up every month – even if we had to make something up. One time I put out this press release saying that we had all come out as New Zealand’s first all-gay band but the music reporter at the paper said that I was obviously drunk (not true) and wouldn’t use the story but other music papers did.

We were just way too un-hip to get a deal with Flying Nun Records so we put our our own cassette tapes – the first one was ‘ Hooked on Crystal Zoom’ (1984) and the tapes all came in this plush orange purse that Mike whipped up. Later that year we did ‘Live at the Ego Club’ with us and Gamaunche playing live at the Empire Tavern. That one came out in an orange Christmas stocking and we promoted it with a lot of posters of naked guys with just a little bit of orange fluff covering their willies. In 1985 we got a new rhythm section in the form of the amazing human drum machine, Barry Blackler and Dunedin legend, Rob Murphy on bass – both of whom had recently left popular Dunedin band, ‘The Idles’. Playing with these guys really picked up our game but in the middle of 1985 Mike and I moved up to Waiheke Island (in the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland) and set the band up there. Once again we needed a new rhythm section and this time we pulled in old friend, Rob – ‘Dick Libido’ -Brown on bass and Yoh – ‘Dr Rhythm’ on drums.

Yoh’s main claim to fame was that he had been the drummer in the Screaming Mee Mees ( a popular and successful early eighties band from Auckland). We recorded another tape – ‘More Base’(1985) – a mixture of live recordings from Dunedin with Rob and Barry and experimental stuff that we started doing on Waiheke while Mike was learning to use a four track tape recorder.

IDENTITY

CRITIC – I heard that you all started wearing masks up there whenever you played and if somebody asked for a band photo for an article or something you’d give them a picture of a tree or house or a rock.

BRYCE – Yeah – we always found it hard taking the whole thing seriously . We started trying to separate our ‘real’ personalities from our artistic ones (using fake names and masks etc) so that hopefully people would accept our performances on their face value and not just hate us straight-away – for being a bunch of uppity young wankers.

When I’m on stage I turn into a different person – in real life I’m more reserved – I could never have walked down the street ( well maybe I did occasionally) wearing the sort of bizarre stuff we wore on stage. That’s why so many bands disappointed us – just getting up in their street clothes. and playing their instruments. I always thought there should be clear distinction between the performer and the audience ( although of course you do get the odd interesting exceptions).

DUNEDIN SOUND ON 45

CRITIC – But you did eventually get something out on Flying Nun? – a single with a song called ‘Dunedin Sound on 45’ on one side and your own ‘Uptown Sheep’ on the other. It’s become something of a cult item and still gets quite a bit of play on the student stations. What was the story behind that?

BRYCE – Now that is funny story. One night we were playing at the Captain Cook Hotel ( with The Idles I think or maybe it was one of the ‘Battle of the Bands’) when this guy came up and said we were amazing and he would pay for us to record a single of ‘Uptown Sheep’ at the popular radio station (4X0) where he worked as a DJ. So he jacked it all up and we went down to 4X0 and did it – together with a ‘B’ side called “’I can’t get any sex. I can’t get any drugs, I can’t get any BMX’. Mike was pretty into the whole BMX(Bi-cycle Motor Cross) racing thing then and we all took the piss out of him about it. The recordings were OK but Flying Nun still wasn’t touching us with sharply pointed stick so we still didn’t have a record company – although our mates in the Idles had a good relationship with a Record Company called Jayrem in Wellington.

‘Uptown Sheep/Dunedin Sound on 45’ Cover Photo (Miffy Rees Photo)

At this time (1984/5) there were these terrible songs coming – medleys of perennial chestnuts with names like ‘Hooked on Classics” – all set over a permanent background of incredibly repetitive disco hand-claps – seemingly designed to make anyone with one iota of musical appreciation immediately kill themselves to block out the agony! So – being the little stirrer that I am – I suggested we do our own version and call it ‘Dunedin Sound on 45’. Some of our ‘Dunedin Sound’ musical contemporaries could see the humor in it and actually played many of their parts on the finished song – with us doing all the rest. But many of the local ‘hip priests’ just thought it was another one of our scams (which is naturally was) and didn’t want a bar of it.

Anyway we recorded this thing with Mike Chirnside – two songs by ‘The Clean’ songs, two from ‘The Chills’, and one each from ‘The Stones’, ‘The Verlaine’s’ and part of our own ‘Uptown Sheep’ on the end. Each song segued into the next with that infuriating disco hand clap shit in the background. We also did a dub version of it and recorded ‘Uptown Sheep’ in the backyard at Eric’s county retreat se we could have a double ‘A’ side single.

It eventually came out in 1985 on Flying Nun – 500 copies – no promotion – and someone had butchered (excuse the pun) the cover artwork but over the years its become a bit of a cult classic ( mainly because of the ‘famous’ names that appear on it rather than anything to do with our skill). You’d have trouble finding a copy anywhere for less than $30 now(Editor’s Note – now about $100) and I’ve lost my own copy. I remember I did get a royalty payment from FN once – $40 – I bought these trousers (points).

CRITIC- What prompted the move up to Waiheke Island in 1985? You guys seemed to be going pretty well before you left?

BRYCE- A lot of that was Rob and Barry – you couldn’t play badly with those guys behind you. I moved because I was in love with someone up there and Mike moved because I think he was fed up with Dunedin.

CRITIC – Was it productive?

BRYCE- I think it was – especially in terms of songs and new ideas. We got right into the whole hippy thing and started to examine every aspect of our lives. After one ‘experience’ we decided to totally divorce our real personalities from the band. That’s when we started wearing all the masks and making animal noises when people tried to talk to us and giving them pictures of trees or other objects to print instead of a picture of us. We were so tired of all those geeky band pictures and people saying the same rubbish over and over again. So – we did the ‘More Base’ recording – which does have some good stuff on it – but we had trouble gelling as alive act. The big masks made it hard to play and set up a real barrier between the band and the audience. A lot of people just didn’t get it. And our new rhythm section just wasn’t Rob and Barry – no disrespect to Dick and Dr Yoh – and we had trouble playing good consistent live performances. Mike and I started getting involved in other things – like I got job in an advertising agency through this guy I met on the ferry – and then there was a personal tragedy and the whole thing just disintegrated and I moved back to Dunedin.

LET’S GET NAKED (1986-92)

CRITIC – So when you got back to Dunedin in late 1985 you formed ‘Let’s Get Naked with Rob Murphy.

BRYCE- Before the Naked’s started Rob and me formed a covers band (together with John Fleury/Dixie Tunnicliffe/Nick Bucanan and Antony Baldwin) called ‘Good in Bed’ to play over Christmas and New Year. I love that name – should’ve kept it – I always tried to name bands so that they stood out from the rest on the back page of the Otago Daily Times

If you saw the names – ‘Taste Squad, Rocky Lox, The Shorts and Good in Bed which one might you spend a buck or two on? – if it was me I’d pick the one with the saucy name!

We had a lot of debauched fun and decided to form a new band and write some new songs – so Rob and me got together and wrote most of the songs off the first album in about a month – with him programming the drum machine and playing bass and me writing the lyrics. It started off with just the two of us recording at Mike Chirnside’s place in North East Valley and the first song was ‘Funky Dunedin’. Gradually the band started to grow until we had two front-men – myself and Ross McKenzie (ex lots of bands), Antony Baldwin on guitar (ditto) and Nils Olsen on sax. Later we ditched the drum machine in favor of Riki Agnew (drums)who Rob pinched from Cactus Club to play percussion (until we found out he could drum so well). This was the most stable line-up but there were a few other’s who went through the band at different times including Norman Duftie, Nick Bucanan, Darren Watson, and Robert Steele. It was the best when Riki was drumming but then he buggered off overseas and things slowly began to crap out. We were also really pissed off when the video for ‘Funky Dunedin’ didn’t come out – a long story there….

Let’s Get Naked – 1987
Front Row – Bruce Mahalski/Antony Baldwin
Back Row – Ross McKenzie/Rob Murphy/Nils Olsen/Riki Agnew

 

CRITIC – So do you think you’ll ever play again?

BRYCE- In 1989 Mike Weston and I re-recorded some Naked’s songs and some that hadn’t been recorded and put them out under the name – Bio-Hazard (before the US band made the name popular). I’d still like to play again with some of the guys – I’m still proud of some of the songs. We just never had that moment when opportunity meets preparation. There were a lot of good bands around at the time – it was a very competitive environment.

I love playing live – when you’re up there and the band is tight and you’re anticipating each others every move and you have this massive a mount of volume behind you – you can feel pretty fucking powerful – like a witch doctor in a cave. But when no–one comes, the PA breaks down, the drummer is drunk – you feel like slashing your wrists. Seriously! But when it works – its amazing – I can put on my stupid out-fit and my sunglasses and pretend to be someone else completely. The day- to-day personality can have a rest and I can let the beast roar! Everyone should try being in a band – there would be a lot less work for therapists….

THE CUDDLY BOMB(1989)

CRITIC – Why did you decide to get into soft – toys – particularly soft representations of nuclear missiles?

BRYCE – It probably had a lot to do with my mum who was a lecturer in animal behavior/child psychology (what’s the difference, right?). One day when I was about 5 she took my favorite soft toy off me and hid it – thinking that it was time I put away such childish things I guess. I don’t remember the incident but it obviously affected her. She spent years afterwards doing research on stuff like childhood attachments to soft toys and blankets to try and find out if children who resorted to such things were more developmentally retarded – in short- they weren’t.

Both my parents were also pretty involved in the peace movement so I was always worried about the world ‘blowing up!’

Anyway –one day a friend of mine – Tony Renouf – was playing around and he made himself a large replica bomb out of cardboard, foil and plastic. We got to talking and I decided that it’d be nice if bombs were cuddly. It took about 18 months to find a place in Auckland that could make them but they’re still not perfect. I want them to be soft yet sharp – which is kind of difficult to achieve. It’s definitely about sending a message to the Super Powers – a sort of cuddly ‘fuck you’ – I’ve even got a giant fake missile in my garden ( courtesy of Grant Skinner who did most of the work on it). So I’m prepared now – anyone stuffs we me and I’ll point my bomb at them! Hear that, Bush! (Editor’s Note – Bush Senior).

CRTIC –I hear there are different types?

BRYCE- Yeah- you’ve got your two basic colours – grey and white and then you have the air-force insignia of your choice – at the moment you can get American/ Russian/ Kiwi/ Ozzie/ French/British/Iranian and Libyan bombs (best sellers so far). You also get a certificate of ownership with each bomb which explains a bit about the concept.

CRITIC- So what is the concept?

BRYCE- I am trying to make a strong negative statement about nuclear weapons and particularly, their proliferation, as well as attempting to do something positive by giving some of the money raised from bomb sales to the Peace Movement.

CRITIC- Isn’t there a danger that the whole thing will be misinterpreted by the Peace Movement etc?

BRYCE – Sure – stuff like that happens to me all of the time. The main criticisms so far have been that they are too phallic ( look at a missile !!!) and that they ‘endorse’ violence – which is utter crap. (Editors Note – Later there was a big back-lash which effectively put this project out of business – I will try and reprise the cuddly bombs in another blog – there’s quite a bit more to this story including a twenty minute ‘video’ that Mike Weston and I produced to promote the thing – plus local news spots etc.)

POLITICS

CRITIC- Why do you set out to provoke people the way you do?

BRYCE- I guess I just feel that someone’s got to – I see myself as a moderating influence on the worst excesses of our times– if it weren’t for crazies like me harassing them all of the time the politicians would probably go completely over the top and do what they wanted. A lot of people say that the whole ‘peace and love’ thing that happened in the sixties changed nothing and all the hippies turned into lawyers and corporate types. I think that’s just cynical bullshit. If it hadn’t been for that movement at that time the Vietnam War would still be raging and probably the whole of Indo-China through to the Middle East would be series of large smoking holes ( not to mention the rest of the place).

Personally I am always amazed that World War Two ever stopped – perhaps it didn’t – hence the Cold War. I guess I am just driven to live the way I do. In a few years I’ll probably be living in the country and getting into self-sufficiency and other trendy eco- causes. Yep – I can dig it.

CRITIC- It seems suspiciously like you made up the questions to this interview as well as the answers?

BRYCE – Well – yeah!

 

All writing, images and products Copyright Bruce Mahalski 2009.

About artordeath

Artist and writer based in New Zealand.
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