A R T I C L E
Punk and Tikanga - An Interview with Wairehu Grant
By Barnaby Greebles
Living in Hamilton East five-odd years ago, you’d be hard-pressed not to have noticed the Lydia-Deetz-shock-of-hair and black-blazer donning recusant striding to and from town along one of the suburb’s main arterial routes. Advocates of Hamilton’s proud farming heritage and the delirium around the welsh rugby team’s visit to the city were prominent in my social sphere at the time. So, the regular visage of this gothic-clad footslogger reassured me there was more to the city than sport and milk.
Skipping forward the short few years since, Wairehu Grant’s list of musical projects has multiplied, his hair gel is presumably lost down the back of the dresser, he has embarked on a PhD examining indigenous punk identities, his academic career is blooming, and he still legs it to and from town. With scholarly commitments on the rise, Grant’s latest project, Half/Time, enables a space for his music to flow as and when it fits around his busy schedule.
With such a mealy PhD topic, I’m surprised to learn that he’s under the University of Waikato’s Screen and Media department. ‘Go figure,’ he says. Māori Punkologist and scholar, Sarsha-Leigh Douglas, a forebear in Grant’s field, connects the fight against colonial oppression with the control-eschewing tendencies common to punk subcultures. With lyrics such as ‘I own this house and I own this land and I’ve come to take what’s mine,’ this linkage resounds throughout much of Half/Time’s work, confirming my suspicion that there’s a strong tie between his studies and music. However, there’s also a more personal note to his work. In respect of his own tikanga, he explains he’s had something of an awakening, finding that his own musical and cultural inclinations are in many ways naturally compatible with te ao Māori.
This newfound boldness emerges strongly through the new Half/Time EP which shimmers with a post-punk, post-hardcore sheen redolent of the genres and cultures his studies are based around. Electronic drums and samples tinge his work with an industrial edge, and more reflective moments make for a balanced listen. His guitar wielding experience manifests through his easy hook-work and songs are prone to culminate in flagrant crescendos with impassioned chants (a good captain goes down with his ship, a great captain gets roasted over a spit, being a highlight) which are held aloft by the coalescence of his distorted riffery and jaunty beats.
HUP: Cool that you played No Future Fest. It sounded like a good line up. I grew up in Tauranga and my brother had his wedding reception at the Historic Village. Were the stages outdoors? From memory, there wasn't heaps of space in the buildings.
Grant: It was an amazing line-up as per usual with any gigs organised by Austin (Tauranga Music Sux/Your Enabler). I was pretty stoked to be asked to perform particularly since the Half/Time thing is quite new. That's funny that you mention your brother's wedding reception! I performed in the village chapel and several people mentioned to me afterwards that they had been to weddings in the same place. I think that the Historic village has had quite a bit of work done on it over recent years. The town hall and the upstairs balcony room were the larger spaces, with the chapel and the more recently added Jam Factory space being the smaller-mid size spaces. I think that having a multi-stage setup gave space for people to be divided into different spots depending what band they wanted to see. It's kind of inevitable with these things that at some point in the day you're gonna have two of your favourites playing at the same time, so it's good to not get too chopped early in the day so you can dart between if possible!
HUP: I'm seeing positive vibes around Instagram following No Future Fest and feeling a little left out for missing it. It sounds like there's a bit of a scene happening over there. Are you becoming a regular on Austin's roster? I saw on Cartoon Villain's Facebook you guys did a few gigs with Hemordroid. You're not going to leave us, are you?
Grant: Yeah, the Tauranga scene has been a pretty amazing thing to watch grow even just in the space time I've been associated. Ive been a part of a handful of shows organised by Austin over the past couple years. Back when I started my PhD in late 2019, I did an interview with Austin about the evolution of TMS that my supervisor Kyle Barrett and I developed into a book chapter for a book series called The Punk Reader. Unfortunately Cartoon Villain had our last gig back in August of 2019. The disbanding wasn't even over anything exciting or dramatic! At the time both Albert [Bannister; drums] and I were starting back in our own respective areas of study, and we just didn't have much time to continue writing and gigging together. Half/Time has been the first major project I've done since. I really missed playing live and putting another band together felt a bit daunting, so I just decided to go it on my own at least for a bit.
HUP: I've noticed a curve in your repertoire from gothic folk to garage rock to post-hardcore/noise rock, possibly with increased artistic influence as you've progressed. Tennis racket guitar to Bon Jovi with my cousin was formative for me. Is there a genre, experiences, or artists that sparked your musical journey?
Grant: My music taste darted around quite a bit growing up. When I was a wee one, I had dreadlocks (natural mind you!), a little rasta beanie with my name stitched onto it, and everyone of Bob Marley's onstage moves down pat. Obviously that shifted quite a bit! (although I still do love a bit of Uncle Bob). I started playing guitar around 10 or 11, getting occasional lessons from friends and teachers at school. I was the worlds least threatening bogan through high school which I think was a product of the rural setting in a lot of ways. I listened to nothing but Metallica, Zeppelin, Sabbath and Pantera and that was some of the stuff that got me started on electric guitar. My friends must be sick of hearing this by now, but the big shift for me was in my late teens when my dad started giving me his Zappa and Tom Waits CD's. I used to practice like crazy and I had a really great teacher through high school. But I kind of hit a point where making music with a kind of twisted sense of character became more appealing. Getting out and experiencing the local scene is probably what did the most for me overall though. Ultimately seeing my friends and friends of friends bands play is what prompted me to start carving out some stuff that was a bit more specific to the time and place that I'm in.
HUP: I used to often see you - this interesting looking guy with big hair - walking down Clyde Street, presumably to and from town. Does this mean you're studying at WINTEC?
Grant: Yeah, it seems like the hair was my main identifier for a while. I've gotten a lot lazier with it now. Yeah, I still walk in and out of town quite often. I'm a bit useless with vehicles and still haven't sat my restricted. But I've lived in Ham East most of my time in Hamilton and kind of got to enjoy the walks in-and-out; they're my only activity resembling exercise. Strange I've had a few people assume I go to or have gone to Wintec. Have had a lot of good friends complete degrees there over the years and I often head along to the end of year art and design showcase events because there's always some great work to see. I've been at Waikato Uni for a decade this year, which feels a bit insane to say out loud or type for that matter.
HUP: Cool that you're at Uni studying indigenous punk identities. A decade is a pretty epic effort. Are you near the end? Classical and electroacoustic constrained the music school when I was studying there in the late 90s/ early 2000s. Are you with the social sciences department? What was your major?
Grant: My official submission date for my thesis is in June 2022 so just a little over a year to go. Yeah, the music department at Waikato still gravitates around classical and electroacoustic for the most part. Funnily enough when I first started my undergrad studies, I was majoring in classical music theory on the recommendations of high school careers advisors and teachers (mistake!). It took me the better part of a year to realise that I wasn't really into it and I changed over to a creative technology major with screen and media as a minor. I ended up holding on to a few of the electroacoustic papers though and that actually ended up being where I really started to experiment with recording. We were taught the bare bones of Ableton Live back when I was in my first year and that's remained my go to production software. My academic record is a bit of a jumble really. I lecture in Screen and Media studies now and that's also the research area that my PhD falls under. Go figure.
HUP: You've clocked up an impressive list of past Hamilton-based bands you've been in. Did you grow up in Kirikiriroa?
Grant: There's been quite a few yeah haha. I was born here but didn't move here until I was in my second year of uni in 2013, and I mainly grew up around parts of rural Waikato. My dad was a sheep shearer when we were younger so we travelled a lot whenever he would start up in a new shed. Eventually we mainly stuck around Pirongia and Te Awamutu and those places are where I went to school. I didn't actually have next to any knowledge of the local music scene until I moved out of home. None of my friends through my teenage years went to local shows or talked about local acts unless they were bigger names. It was only when I joined my first band at 17 that I started to meet a few folk in the know and it kind of snowballed from there.
HUP: Is Half/Time the first instance where you've purposefully incorporated te ao Māori in your music?
Grant: I would say so in an immediate sense. A few years back a good friend, Tokerau Wilson (organiser of the Dunedin based Māori and Pasifika Goth Contemporary Art Exhibitions) told me something that seemed really simple but kind of changed things massively for me. What he said was basically "You identify as Māori right? Then that means that any work that you create is Māori." It really pushed me to free myself up a bit in terms of the work I was creating and wanted to create still. Meeting and speaking to other Māori (and other BIPOC) in alternative music/creative scenes was something that I always wanted through my teenage years but didn't really find until recently. I'm really thankful that it happened in any capacity and I've been massively inspired by all of the work I've been seeing by indigenous artists across Aotearoa.
HUP: Such a cute image - little rasta Bob Marley kid. Given the importance of whenua/ maunga, was tikanga difficult to observe while shifting around as a youngster? Did it play much of a role in your upbringing?
Grant: This is a pretty big question which would be pretty difficult to give a definitive answer to without taking up too much time! For now, the most concise answer I can give is that my relationship to Māoritanga has fluctuated a lot. When I was younger my whānau and I spent a lot of time at our marae, Mangatoatoa, which is just south of Kihikihi. I went to Kohanga there as a toddler and we would go to Sunday service on and off. As I moved into my teens I started to see less of this space. There's a lot of complicated stuff behind that divergence, and the tension of growing up as a visibly mixed-race person amongst a Pākehā majority in schools had a big part in that. Given that we mostly moved around the Waikato I don't know if the shifting around was the big reason for the distance I felt from te ao Māori, like a lot of folk I've met who ID as mixed-race or half-caste it was a self-imposed feeling, a fallout of feeling like my interests and passions didn't gel with what I saw as "being Māori" at the time. But like I said before in regard to what my friend Tokerau told me, that's changed to something much more self-defined now.
HUP: You mention in your Bandcamp blurb Half/Time emerged from the gloom of 2020. I've been pondering whether there could be any significance to the fact that your first song (I'm aware of) with te reo Māori title and lyrics is to do with Whakamā (Whakamā/Rama). The way kids were treated, especially by peers, when I was at school could easily have induced shame around taha Māori. Perhaps I'm reading into things too much though. You've obviously been encouraged by Tokerau Wilson and others. And I'm guessing your dissertation work has helped you explore this side of things? Is it more that Half/Time asserts and edifies ahurea tuakiri in its rightful place?
Grant: That's a pretty near spot-on interpretation of Whakamā/rama and some of the thoughts I had in mind while writing the song. The original experience it kind of sprang from was something that happened back when I was 5 years old at my first Primary school in Kawhia. My class had all been arranged into a kapa haka group and we were asked to perform in front of the whole school. As soon as the music started, I cried my eyes out and didn't stop until I was taken off stage by the teacher. Don't think I went anywhere near a stage again until I was 11 or 12. Even at that age it felt like a double pronged embarrassment which stuck with me for longer than it probably should have. Originally the song was going to be about the shame I felt from that experience and similar ones that happened throughout my life, so the first draft of the song was just called Whakamā. But when I realised the direction the lyrics were taking it made more sense to use the word whakamārama, to illuminate or explain. My grasp of te reo is still pretty underdeveloped at this stage. With the decision to write songs like Whakamā/rama and He Tangata I wanted to keep my use of te teo within my own range, but also challenge myself to learn a bit more as I go along. A good friend Kanauhea Wessels who is also doing her PhD at Waikato has been helping me with my reo and I'm really grateful to have her helping me along with this.
HUP: I'm curious about how your studies have influenced your musical style or tastes. It sounds like you've been interviewing lots of interesting characters? Would you say the range of perspectives you've encountered has helped you develop a more discerning sense of artistry or rather grounded your work within the traditions that you've found?
Grant: I definitely think the conversations that I've had with interviewees has shaped the music I'm making now with Half/Time. Maybe more so it's been the actions and work that I've seen from all of these artists. Some of the folk involved in the study were people that I knew reasonably well before, while others were people that I knew only through their work or through mutual friends in local creative scenes. A big goal I've had throughout this recent period is to build a sense of whakawhanaungatanga, a general sense of community between everybody that's involved, even if that just means making people aware of the work of other indigenous artists who they may not have been aware of previously. All of this has made me think a lot harder about the content of my own creative work, but it's also made me feel a lot more comfortable to trust my own instincts and not get too hung up on overanalysing my decisions. I had a really good chat with one of the interviewees from the study about how they felt utilising te reo in their music. Like me they were apprehensive because they weren't a fluent speaker, but the decision to commit to it anyway was something which felt important and necessary for them on a deeply personal level.
HUP: Has your PhD also challenged your stance around the meaning of art and music? Has the stereotypically polemical nature of punk had any place in this? Do you think there's an appetite at the moment, with the likes of Joe Talbot (Idles) proclaiming his feminist inclinations loudly on stage, to discard the dictum that politics in art alienates half of the audience?
Grant: I think a lot of those things had been bubbling away leading up to me starting the PhD. Around about the time that Albert and I started Cartoon Villain I had been starting to think a lot harder about the kind of work I wanted to be making. Being more involved in gig organisation and seeing the music and other creative work being put out in DIY creative circles definitely steered me in the direction that I feel like I'm headed. Funnily enough Idles were actually pretty big for me in that period as well. I remember a friend heard us play our song Don't Blink at a show and then asked me if I had ever heard any tracks by Idles. I looked them up the next day and was hooked straight away. A couple years ago my partner and I went and saw them in Wellington and I bumped in to Joe by the bar at Meow. I remember telling him that Idles were one of the reasons that I got back to playing heavy music again and he gave me a huge hug. It was pretty great to see an international band wandering around the crowd at their own show without any sense of pretentiousness. That's the thing I like about going to local punk and hardcore shows too, the messiness and lack of division between audience and performer. In terms of alienating half of an audience through political ideology, I feel like it's something that I aim for now! When you're critiquing hierarchy and prominent cultural beliefs it's bound to rub some people the wrong way.
HUP: To that end, would you consider Half/Time at all politically motivated? Aside from the self-reflective nature of your work, is there an anti/de-colonial slant behind some of the songs?
Grant: It's definitely what I'm going for. I think in the past I've been quite vague in addressing particular issues through my creative work, but with Half/Time I'm making an effort to speak directly to particular issues and events. Being enmeshed in pākehā centric regions of academia has been a bit of a wakeup call for how easily terms like 'decolonise' can be co-opted by the structures they're critiquing. More and more I see Māori and other indigenous creatives, scholars and people in general who want to move beyond defining our histories around the central pivot point of colonisation. This doesn't mean sweeping anything under the rug, or any sort of blanket forgiveness for past wrongs... which there are a lot of! The tracks so far kind of flit between historic accounts and more recent self-reflections, which I guess is my way of dealing with that whole post-colonial mess. Working on Half/Time by myself to start off with has been a pretty great exercise in stubbornness. I'm starting to find a way of going about things creatively that suits me best and expresses things that I've had on my mind for a while.
HUP: Also, on another note, do you produce/record your own stuff?
Grant: Yes, and it's out of necessity mostly! I've been doing live sound and DIY recording most of the time that I've been in Hamilton. It started as a bit of a side gig to make some money and after a while I realised how useful a skill it was for my own projects. Some friends and I (the Volume Collective) used to run a studio space on campus in the old Fridge recording studio and that's where I really started to get to better grips with recording. The issue I had for the longest time was that I would often get sucked in to constantly adjusting and overcorrecting my mixes. So with Half/Time I've gone out of my way to be more immediate with my decision making and just try to get things finished as quickly as possible. I'm using an old beat-up Zoom multimixer from the early 2000's to record all of my tracks and having the extra limitations has been helping me get less hung up on small distractions. The EP I just released is pretty patchy in terms of mixing and mastering, but I think it's my favourite stuff that I've produced so far in terms of song writing.
HUP: Having some background with classical music theory, do you find yourself writing music with the harmonic/counterpoint relationships in mind or more the chortles and twangs of other obsessive DIYers/nonconformists channelled through your own vortex?
Grant: My music teachers would be appalled by just how little I practice these days! My theory was average at best even when I was studying, and I definitely approach things more as a tinkerer. Electric guitar grabbed me from a really young age because of the lack of control you have over the sound after you push things to a certain point. Playing with stupid amounts of feedback and gain is my thing, much to the dismay of people that I've played with in the past! I had an itinerant guitar teacher in high-school, Cameron Olsen, who was a crazy talented jazz player, and he had a much bigger impact on me than any of the classical stuff (sorry to my composer friends, but what did you expect?). He was the first person that got me thinking about developing a unique playing style that caters to my own sensibilities, rather than labouring over technique or how much I don't sound like other players. A lot of my technical knowledge comes from listening to or watching other people play and then obsessively researching how the hell they did whatever the thing is that I liked most. Ending up in academia was inevitable, I guess