Francisca Griffin is a much-loved songwriter and musician based in Port Chalmers, Dunedin. She’s dealt magic in various celebrated kiwi acts, including Look Blue Go Purple, Bel-Curves, The Cartilage Family and Cyclops. Currently, she records songs under her own name and plays them with her live band, The Bus Shelter Boys.
Gabriel Griffin is an exhilarating drummer, whos playing sounds closer to a rushing, roaring waterfall than some rule-bogged rock plod. His giddy workouts can be heard in groups like Sewage, Swallows Nest, and – yes, yes – The Bus Shelter Boys!
Francisca and Gabriel are mother and son, and they are bandmates, and we talk about that.
Francisca, when I listen to your record it sounds very natural. The colours that come out of it – I can hear the colours of New Zealand in there. You know, when you took us out walking around Back Beach that day, I remember thinking, yeah, that I could hear it in the music.
Do you hear it as well?
F: Well probably not because I make it, right. So for me it’s a completely different experience to people listening to it, and it’ll be, I think also, a completely different experience to Gabriel, who plays on it. Gabriel, you played, pretty much whatever you wanted – I only gave you instructions for ‘One Eye Open’ because I could really hear that, that drumming that I wanted for it.
Gabriel: You mean when we recorded it?
F: Yeah, when we recorded it – and, also when we’re playing live. Y’know when you learnt those songs that you weren’t on, on the record and you just did your own thing, and—
G: Well yea that’s the difference between when we play live and the record that you put out – because we play a fair few songs that aren’t on the record too.
F: Yes, that’s true we do that.
G: So I reckon Matt’s comment, about how the nature around you might influence the music you’re writing…
F: Oh yes absolutely. Surely. It totally does.
G: And because the ambience of going for a walk, y’know is something – the sound that you take in – so you’re gonna use that sound somehow, somewhere, if you’re a musician and writing songs.
F: Well true! What I was gonna say was – yeah that’s very true – but I don’t think I have any of those processes actually running through my head, it’s all intuitive. It’s really interesting hearing other people, and, you know, what they have to say about my songs – because, of course I’m influenced by my environment, and by my walks, and you know, by the people that I hang out with – of course, that’s kind of a given, but when you said, colours, that’s really interesting. So what colours? What do you mean by colours, Matthew?
Well y’know, apparently not everyone hears colours when they listen to music.
F: Ohh, you’re a synesthete!
I guess I am. I also don’t know if I’m making it up though, ha! I can for sure be informed by like a record sleeve or something, y’know? Sometimes there’ll be a record where two different covers came out for it, and so you sorta get to know one and then a little while later you see that that record had an alternate sleeve, and you hear it in a whole other way.
F: Yeah that’s true, yeah.
But I hear those kind of… today, I was thinking about Sam Hunt… y’know he got voted, at some stage, New Zealand’s worst dressed male
And he wrote this poem about – I guess he felt like he had to defend his dress sense or something, and so, he wrote this poem saying something like “the shirts I wear are the colours of the grey heron” etc. I don’t even remember how it goes, but he essentially said that he dresses like the colours of New Zealand, and yeah, I get that. He sorta does. So what I get from your music is these deep, mutey browns n the dark, mossy greens of our native bush. I feel like I hear that, and the kind of washed out greys. The estuaries – n yeah – there’s a kinda murkiness to it or a muted naturalness – do you know that kinda colour palette that I’m talking about?
F: Yip yip yip. Totally. Absolutely, yip.
I think that I hear that in your music.
F: Cool. That’s really cool. When you started talking about the colours, there’s this – a particular colour that the water gets some days. It is the most incredible blue-green colour. It’s just amazing – it glows – it’s so cool. And, I try to photograph it n I just can’t – and that really fascinates me. Of course, y’know, because you see a thing with your eyes – I see a thing with my eyes, and then I take a photo of it, and it’s like, no—no that’s not it. I’d have to go ‘round there with paint charts n do it that way, which is quite stupid really. Instead of looking at the beauty of the water, standing there with a paint chart in ya hand. Jesus.
Ha! But I know that feeling, yeah. I went running through the bush recently n it was just as the sun was coming up n it started shining down – kinda like cutting through the pongas, through the tops of the pongas, and it was like, it sort of seemed like, umm – it seemed electric. And I hadn’t seen light fall like that before, and I was running with someone and they were like “holy heck!” and we did the same thing, we straight away grabbed our cell-phones out of our bags and tried to take photos of it, but yeah..
F: Wouldn’t have worked.
No chance. What about you, Gabe, do you hear colours?
G: I wouldn’t say colours as much as… for me the experience is more a… it’s a ‘thought creator’ kind of thing. Where I’m often thinking, and I’ll get lost in what I’m thinking about while I’m listening to music. Or, especially watching live music as well, but, y’know, particularly if you have people who are creating it right in front of you, so it’s a far more ahh – personal experience, y’know? You’re thinking and your thought goes going off thinking and thinking and thinking. My most often thought, when I’m watching live music is that I would like to be playing the drums, ha! I see someone else playing them and I think “holy hell that looks like fun!” and it’s even funnier watching people that play instruments that I don’t play – just thinking about what they’re thinking about without knowing how to play that instrument is quite funny. But no, I’ve never really associated music or sound with colour so intently, y’know.
F: I’m gonna see what happens next time I’m watching some live music, and think about what colours it could be. That’s fascinating.
I was gonna ask about your work as a naturopath, and if that’s influenced you creatively?
F: Hmmm.. Y’know it’s that same thing. I don’t think I ever really thought about… Y’know I have thought about what I’m writing about, with words. But I just, when I start writing songs just on my guitar, cos that’s what I use, I just start with something and then work from there n sometimes it’s good and sometimes it sucks! Then words – I’ve started over the last, oh I don’t know, five or so years I will sit down and, some of my songs I’ve sat down and just written a grid of words – free association words, and then started writing lyrics with that. But it has to fit the music, y’know, there has to be some words that can then go with the music and then the rest of the lyrics will roll out, usually. Me and The Bus Shelter Boys made up three songs recently. Well I took three songs to them and they did their bits on them and they were really good n one of them is called ‘Wolf’ and, some of its words came from an Instant Kiwi crossword scratchy. Some of the words on it are – cos I wrote them down, and then I wrote them in a grid, and then the lyrics from that song just kinda grew around these four or five words. Yeah, kinda four or five words I wrote down, maybe six words. Gabe, you don’t write any lyrics, do you? For your songs, if you’re doing your thing, by yourself, you’ll just yell really won’t you?
G: Oh—yeah, yeah. The closest to writing lyrics I’ve ever done is come up with something on the night of a gig or something like that, and it’ll just be a phrase that was caught in my head and that I’d wanna scream over and over again. I haven’t really done that sort of performance for ages. In other bands, like in Swallows Nest, I wouldn’t say I ever wrote any of the lyrics but I know them all, y’know, quite personally now, so I can, if I want to at a certain time belt them out, sorta shit. Y’know?
F: While you’re playing?
G: Yip. Yeah, yeah.
F: Oh cool! Doing something like that, if you could do some singing as well, or some belting out – I’d like to see that! That’d be amazing. Without, y’know, losing your teeth on the microphone.
G: Well nah-nah it’d be without a microphone, kinda thing—y’know. Spur of the moment.
F: Right. Heh heh!
G: But nah, I don’t write anything like that.
Gabe, it sounds to me like you’re improvising a lot. Some of those more free-minded improv’ guys – like Cecil Taylor or somebody like that – are interesting to me cos they seem really creatively vital their whole lives, or at least it feels that way. They don’t seem to get stuck in creative ruts as much. In rock music there seems to be more emphasis on nostalgia, especially when somebody who’s celebrated – or whose earlier work’s been celebrated – gets to a later level in their career, there seems to be a larger focus on what has come before. Whereas the improv-y types seem to be just more in the moment. I wanted to know how you got into improvised music, and yeah, if your prefer that kind of music to tighter, more mapped out structures.
G: My first touches on anything like that would probably be mum showing be The Dead C. as a young kid, or, even just hearing things as a young kid, y’know maybe I wasn’t sure where I was at but I was hearing it – and mum used to take me to the recording studio when I was a wee baby as well, so there’s shit there that would have influenced me in some way. Realistically, when I went to high school, when I started writing songs with people it was always more fun to just make something up on the spot, and ‘cos we were all so fresh with music, and with each other it just seemed like a more fun thing to do, and one of my friends from that time, Ro, I still play with in Sewage—so luckily for me improvising just kind of came along as a fun thing to do early on. And every band that I play in these days that has songs, I never play those songs the exact same way twice. There’s formulas to them and everything but all the time I’m changing fills and the frills and that sort of shit, so improv’ influenced all of that as well. Bringing improvisation into songs.
How old was Gabriel when you played him The Dead C? Did you say a young child?
F: Oh probably a little older than three or four. Because when they were that young they’d just tell me to shut up and turn it off, because it was awful. They hated it. Ha! But I don’t actually play the Dead C… I love going to see The Dead C. but I don’t love listening to recordings of a lot of improvised stuff, just because of that thing you two said before, about it being – it’s the ‘now’. It’s immediate. And when it’s a recording, it’s recorded, y’know, and it’s glued down. Yeah I’d take Gabriel and Oscar and Alexander, and we would go visiting Michael (Morley), or we’d visit Robbie (Yeats) and there’d be all kinds of music at both of those houses – it would be mostly Robbie and Michael who were the free-noise-y uncles. I remember taking them all to Peter Gutteridge’s studio in Lower Stuart Street, when Peter was being particularly junkie, and, I took them to visit him so they could see what they would end up looking like if they did that!
G: Hard line.
F: I never said anything, I just took them to visit.
G: I do not remember that at all.
F: You were all a bit freaked out really.
When Shayne Carter was doing the rounds promoting his ‘Dead People I Have Known’ book, he came up to our pozzy (The Plant) in Blenheim. He was saying how he reckons bands who follow the golden egg suck, and how, in Dunedin in the 80’s the golden egg felt unobtainable. Without the threat of commercial success there was no clutter of intent and so the bands just got on with it n that helped the music to be good. Does that sound about right to you?
F: I don’t think it occurred to any of us, or for sure, it didn’t occur to many of us. It certainly didn’t occur to Look Blue Go Purple that there was a golden egg that we could pursue. A lot to do with that would be the fact that we were women. We had difficulty getting Roger (Shepherd) to release our first record. We got a grant to record it and he said he’d put it out, which was very nice of him. I remember having a conversation with him about pressing them, and he said he was going to press a certain amount, like 500, and I said “ohhh I don’t think that’s a good idea, you need to do more” and he didn’t, and the EP went to #14 on the charts and then stopped because they’d all sold. So from then on we were kind of taken seriously but… we didn’t get the same push as all the boy bands did. Although, we did also have the attitude that we weren’t all that interested in that, but yeah, I know Martin Phillips was desperate to be famous. And Shayne was pretty happy when all that happened… and then not happy when – with the Straitjacket Fits – the reality of the golden egg really came home for him. I don’t know if David Kilgour ever did or still does give a rat’s ass about any of that. I don’t know, I’m just sitting on the outside saying that. But no, the golden egg was not in any way something which seemed obtainable for any of us, because there wasn’t, and still is not that much support from… we’ll call it the mainstream. I know that now Independent Music New Zealand and APRA, and various publishers, like the publisher I’m with, are all trying, right now to lobby the government to put more money into New Zealand music, so that more of it gets into the ears of the Country. Because lots more music gets into the ears of this Country now than there was 30 years ago, which is really awesome, but it’s still just a bucket, when it could be one of those fuckin’ huge monsoon buckets of music that could be pouring into people’s ears. Of all sorts. Of every sort that there is!
What’s your own golden egg? Just being in the creative process?
G: Pretty much. It’s for the enjoyment y’know. Just exercising something in your life. Getting paid for it’s nice, but it doesn’t have to happen all the time! And y’know, making a product – even just posters and merchandise. Making a recording is like having a book that you’ve written.
F: I love that I was able to make that record and, for it to turn out the way it did is just astonishing and wonderful, and then with the money from that album I got to buy my dream guitar, not that I don’t love my other guitars but yeah it’s my dream guitar and every time I pick that up it’s just… it’s magic. I love it. Absolutely love it, and it’s the next thing too – me and the Bus Shelter Boys, we’ve got three new songs, and maybe by the next time we’re able to practice there might be another couple of songs n then, y’know some more songs after that n then we can make a record – who knows how it can make it into the world, but – I love that people bought this one, and I love that people buy music. I love that, I absolutely love that, I think it’s fantastic that people buy it because they like it, and because they like you… but I completely adore the making of the songs, the playing of the songs, talking about the songs, recording the songs, y’know that whole ‘before you put it out there’ thing. You know what I mean? What did you say, Gabriel, that a record’s like a book you just wrote?
F: So nice.
Y’know it seems to be a sort of rite of passage to get into music your parents hate. Did you ever have that, Gabe? I imagine your ma would’ve been pretty hard to shock!
G: Nah-nah, it’s sort of like that but it’s more like stuff that I would’ve brought into the house, lets say…
F: Lightning Bolt!!
G: All sorts, all sorts, like—mum you only just came to your first Swallows Nest gig at the beginning of this year, and we’ve been a band for two years now, something like that.
F: I liked it so much I bought a t-shirt. They were awesome. I really loved it – I think the other thing I really loved about it is, and I’ve noticed this from the photos and commentary from you after the tour Gabriel, is it’s a democracy.
G: But yeah, I think, getting into music because she doesn’t like it. I’ve never done that, but I’ve generated a lot of music into her life that she hates.
F: Ha! He’d go to plug his Ipod in and I’d say “no Lightning Bolt!” – fuckin’ awful band.
G: It’s hard to remember, yeah – but there’d be a lot of black metal that I played that you really wouldn’t have liked. Yeah, lots of heavy metal and stuff.
F: Yeah I really didn’t like that… never have.
I wonder if you would enjoy a live Lightning Bolt show?
F: Probably. Live music is absolutely an amazing thing! If the band is…
G: On point.
F: Yeah, definitely – on point, playing well, playing with each other – if they’re really in the zone with each other, but they’re also doing that democracy thing, Gabriel, that I was talking about with Swallows Nest – if they’re doing that as well then it’s gotta be a good gig. It doesn’t matter who it is… although… mmm, Six60? You’d have to really drag me to one of those and, umm, get me a bit drunk.
G: Yeah if you had a free ticket, y’know, you’d go.
F: If I had a free ticket, I miiight go… but if I had a choice between a Lightning Bolt concert and Six60 I’d choose Lightning bolt.
I know what you mean about the power of live music though. Cos we get to put shows on in this small, pretty conservative town, and the live experience seems to have a way of knocking peoples logical brains aside sometimes. Where it feels like another part of them begins to engage – often with music that they aren’t familiar with, or wouldn’t listen to from the safety of their own home. The tougher part is actually dragging people to those shows!
F: If you’re sitting there and trying to rationalise… if somebody’s saying “you’d go to a Lightning Bolt concert if they were having fun??” well that would be why I was going. If I’m watching a band it doesn’t matter what they’re playing as long as they’re in there themselves, and that there’s some kind of engagement going on.
I saw Lightning Bolt a few years ago.
It was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. What I took away from it is what a joyous experience it was. How happy everybody was in the audience, and how free and elated the band were. There was a lot of levity there, y’know. Really loving. I don’t know if you know Francisca but they play on the floor, or, made a habit of it for a long time, so people just crowd around them, and they were really conscious to make sure that everyone was okay, and they were sorta asking if… people who were shorter, if folks in the crowd could help them get up closer. It was a real community sort of experience. It felt great.
F: Yeah that’s what it felt like at the Swallows Nest concert. Everybody completely loved it and they were also, at the very same time, being really good to each other – being respectful of each other and being really inclusive of everybody. It was really good! Mmm, I like that.
F: Lovely… and I would like to say that I really, really – I love playing with Gabriel. He’s an amazing drummer, and he’s just no nonsense. It’s great!
You can listen to Francisca’s most recent album ‘The Spaces Between’ via her bandcamp page here, and/or buy it from the good record stores ~ the spaces between | Francisca Griffin (bandcamp.com)
Gabriel’s thrilling drum experiments in Sewage can be discovered just here, too ~ Music | Sewage (bandcamp.com)