By Jake Ebdale
Split Enz have arguably carved their path as New Zealand's seminal act, a statement that is hardly stranger than fiction. In a grey Kiwi music scene, they were an unabashed dash of colourful punk-rock and new wave pop, wrapped up in a theatrical spectacle both weird and wonderful. This other worldly aesthetic would span across the Tasman, eventually stamping Split Enz on the world stage.
If you think back to that unique sound, their wriggliest of ear-worms were created not only through brotherly Finn harmonies, Judd confessionals or Crombie spoon solos, but courtesy of Eddie Rayner and his magnificent keyboard arrangements.
You would've heard these brilliant, lush sound-scapes on instrumentals like 'Albert of India' and 'Wail', or the classicist runs in 'I Got You' and 'I Hope I Never'. Importantly, first album 'Mental Notes' is a small rock orchestra in itself, bursting with left of center passages about paranoia, love and death. A mini movie score squeezed into 3 or 4 parcels.
Now in 2013, this initial burst of Mental Notes creativity is brought to the fore in a 15 piece production, complete with rhythm section, for the third incarnation of the Split Enz Symphony Orchestra.
He has clearly had an affinity for musical arrangement, leading onto the first bunch of orchestral Enz chanteys for 1996's initial EnzSO project, with another run following in 2000, both challenging yet rewarding mountains to conquer.
Rayner is full of elegant and articulate abandon, as you will read below. He's something of a subliminal childhood idol, as I grew up with dad blasting the Enz constantly, the combination of ‘Pioneer' and ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat' becoming a frequent magical journey in which I would rendezvous. I talk to him via e-mail ahead of the three ENZO: Stranger than Fiction shows running from the 2nd - 4th of November.
There's been two EnzSo releases so far. To me, including a rhythm section will teeter close to a full on Split Enz show, which is exciting. Did you go for round three with a specific goal in mind?
The original EnzSo albums were recorded without a rhythm section, quite deliberately, as I wanted to retain the integrity of the orchestral form... but in hindsight it's the one aspect I would change, as the 'feel' of the those recordings isn't quite as I anticipated-they're kind of wonky feel-wise, and I think ultimately these songs are served best with drums and bass. So yes, one of my goals with this latest ENZO incarnation is to rectify that issue.
This time around, it's a mixture of older and newer talent. Was it you personally who chose the vocalists for these shows? And were there any particular reasons for choosing them?
Brent Eccles and I had locked horns for months over the featured singers for this show. I had already earmarked Tom Batchelor and Jackie Thomas as potential ENZO artists early on in the X-Factor series, and Brent eventually agreed. I had been following the progress of Jesse Sheehan for a couple of years... Jesse is really impressive and in many ways reminds me of a young Tim Finn, so he seemed a natural frontman for the 'Mental Notes' songs. Rikki Morris, Annie Crummer and Rima Te Wiata and I go way back, we share a common musical aesthetic and are very comfortable with each other... and of course Annie has been there from day one with her classic interpretation of 'I Hope I Never'.
Is there a moment of this show that has surprised you or taken you aback?
There's been a few taking-aback moments-how huge a 15-piece band can sound, how much goodwill has been shown to me by the singers and musicians, how much the original Enz guys haven't changed, how quickly the first show sold out.
What I loved about the previous EnzSo shows is that the old Split Enz songs took on completely different shapes. Now, there's a whole new generation of fans that will be exposed to the magic of you and the band's work at these shows. What do you feel emotionally when hearing these arrangements?
Well we have only just done our first 'whole shebang' rehearsal, and it was pretty overwhelming for me-so much to take in and process - hearing new arrangements for the first time, evaluating new string and brass parts and trying to discern whether everything was working while worrying whether the trumpet player's car was going to be towed! There was a certain welling-up and shivers down my spine when Chunn, Chunn, Wilkinson, Rayner and Crowther played 'Time for a Change' with Jesse Sheehan singing, and Rima bellowing a totally-new version of Shark Attack...so right now I'm still in overload..
What can we expect in terms of set list? A mix of Judd and Finn era Split Enz? (I'd personally love to see 'Hard Act to Follow' or ‘Wail' in there somewhere)
Yeah there's very much a mix. Quite a few songs from Mental Notes (our first album from 1975), heaps of hits, of which some of them quite similar the original version, and others you may well not recognise til you're talking about it on the way home. Sorry about 'Wail' and 'Hard Act To Follow'..maybe next time.
The first run of shows in 1996 included the Finns. Was it difficult to get them to agree for the original show?
Not at all. I had been recording good-quality synthesised versions of my arrangements and playing them to the Finns and they were both enthusiastic and encouraging of the project, so their involvement was just a progression and manifestation of that support.
I heard that you scared the living bejesus out of your old producer David Tickle whilst recording the Waiata album. What was life like recording those seminal Enz albums across the late 70s and 80s? And what is it like being in the same room with the majority of the band these days?
Ahh, David Tickle... a dim and distant memory, really just a resonance.... and he did fall victim to the odd hoax! But really those days were all about total immersion in the Enz. We rehearsed, recorded, did film clips and interviews, and played incessantly across the world. The albums were focused on Finn songs, although I always had a few instrumentals on offer and Nigel Griggs put song ideas forward as well. We placed a lot of faith in the record producer, often unwisely.
Today, being in the same room with the old Mental Notes band feels pretty much exactly the same-Mike Chunn is still phlegmatic and wry, his bro Geoff is studious and more musical than he knows, Croth (Paul Crowther) wonders if the PA is in phase while laying down a groove and Wally Wilkinson's guitar magically sprouts elegant riffs and solos..
It was interesting on the 2006-2008 Enz reunion tours of NZ and Australia-Tim reassumed the role of bandleader, Neil stood quietly and waited, I twiddled knobs incessantly and Noel Crombie said nothing and remained an elegant bodgie. Nothing changes.
How do you view New Zealand's young musical talent? Do you think it's harder for musicians to make it than it was when you started in Space Waltz/Enz?
It would seem there's so much, and such young and creative talent out there... but I doubt whether there's more than when we were younger. It's just more acceptable, in fact encouraged, to pursue a career in music now..there are so many music courses available to kids-performance, songwriting, engineering, production, event management-all aspects of the music industry are being taught in tertiary institutions. And because there are so many more kids pursuing a music career these days, it may well be harder to break through..but when we were younger, it was equally difficult because there was simply no precedent for international 'break-throughs'. Music was thought of as something you did as a hobby, after work or on the weekends- and certainly not a good way of supporting a family.
What is your favourite self penned Enz composition?
Probably 'Albert Of India', but it's a toss-up with 'Wail'.
Finally, what is your proudest achievement concerning the EnzSo shows?
I'm not sure I feel pride..but I'm certainly pleased I decided to embark on the two EnzSo albums, and that they and the live shows were so well-received. After having worked on these new 15-piece arrangements for so long, it's a blast to hear them come to life with real musicians and singers, and a privilege to get the opportunity to play them with these people and for an audience
Tickets are still available for the final two ENZO performances this week at St Mary's in Holy Trinity Parnell Auckland.
NOVEMBER 2 8.00pm show SOLD OUT
NOVEMBER 3 2.30pm matinee - SPECIAL PRICE
NOVEMBER 4 8.00pm show
Tickets via Ticketmaster