By Poppy Tohill
Bernie Griffen has got a new band. The Thin Men, a new album,'Salvation,' and a bit of a new sound. Launching the release of the new album at Auckland's Tuning Fork late last month, I caught up with Bernie and one third of the thin men, who is in fact not a man at all, but Griffen's long time musical partner Kirsten Warner, at the bands soundcheck ahead of their show later that night.
With his broad smile & deep laugh, Griffen began, seriously confessing, "I am so bloody nervous for the show tonight, my hands are shaking!"
Trying to rid the nerves, we began to chat about his childhood, long running musical career, and what triggered his passion for music in the beginning.
"I guess music was a big part of my life growing up," Griffen admits. "I played a lot of folk music in my teens and early twenties, in various coffee bars and places like that," he exclaimed. "I actually made a living for a while doing that, when I was young. I was a sick little kid with asthma though," he declared, "just like I'm now a sick older man who smokes," he chuckled. "Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash really triggered me and my love for music though. I was listening to the 1YA which was the National Programme back in those days, and I heard Johnny Cash come on with Folsom Prison Blues, and it sounded so fresh and amazing. It just blew me away and I wanted to be Johnny Cash," he remarked. "My parents thought I should be a professional person like a lawyer or a doctor, because we'd never had one in the family, but ever since I heard Johnny Cash, I've been channeling him my whole life!"
Being known as ‘Bernie & The Grifters' for quite some time now, Griffen filled me in on how the new, ‘Thin Men' band came about and the story behind the name. "Well there's a line in a Bob Dylan song where he talks about the thin men and I just kind of stole it really," he admits. "I had another band called The Flaming Pearls at one point. But as for the Grifters, we broke up in November last year, and it was fairly painful. A few things happened during the break up of the Grifters and Kirsten and I were working on songs that I didn't think any of the members would want to play, so I started to think about what I wanted and it didn't really come about until I went into the studio to actually record ‘Salvation,' (The record, not the song)."
"I went in with a rhythm section I had been working with and it didn't sound too good. So I talked to Ollie about it and we quickly decided we'd getextra people in to play it, which we did. Mike Hall, Jol Mulholland and Chris O' Connor came into the studio to help out and we completed the entire record in 11 and a half hours," Griffen declared. "They'd never heard the songs before, and we had a two hour rehearsal before heading in to record everything, and that was that. They're just extraordinary players," he confessed. "They're very empathic musicians who played beautifully to the motions of the songs and the groove and we recorded each song in one or two takes and that was it! I only re-sung a couple of songs, and that was because we slightly changed the lyrics in them," Griffen admits.
"It was a hell of a funny," he chuckled when asked what it was like having Mulholland not only play on the record but also produce the entire album.
"It was a really magical experience," Kirsten added. "Jol just knows how to play everything and he brings something special every time he picks up the guitar. I think he even picked up the fiddle at one stage too," she continued. "Musically, he is just very talented, plus a great producer of course! He changed the music into more of a rockier sound which we weren't expecting either."
"We honestly couldn't have found a better producer for that time and place," Griffen concluded.
With the mention of their different sound and slightly rockier perspective, Griffen went on to explain what encouraged him to take a different path, sound wise, with ‘Salvation.' "There were a few things that made me think about it," he responded. "The Grifters never played the songs that made people dance. Not intentionally anyway, they always just played the songs to the emotion that was available. I always had it in my mind that I'd just love to have half a dozen songs that you could play at the end of the night for people to enjoy, physically," he explained. "So when I wrote this batch of songs, I set it up so there was a lot of songs that had certain emotions and moods throughout them, but then there were also four or five songs that people could dance to. Because when you're in a venue, it's all about playing for the people. The only reason I play music is to communicate with others," he exclaimed. "Because once it gets to that point, it's not me anymore, the song has gone to the world and I don't want to be playing only to myself," he concluded.
"It's one of the songs," Kirsten responded when asked if there was a story behind the album title. "Bernard's a recovering catholic though, so everything is about heaven and hell," she laughed. "Heaven & Hell, Demons & Angels," Griffen joined in, chuckling away.
When asked what it's been like working together for quite a long time, Griffen chuckled admitting, "It's been 34 years! One day I asked Kirsten if she wanted travel, then telling her that she should learn the guitar, because it doesn't matter where we go, we can always throw the guitars down to earn a bit of coin. So that's how it all started really," Griffen remarked. " We had a band called The Flaming Pearls for a while and then it just evolved from there really."
This then leads on to us talking about the couple's songwriting process. Wondering if they ever wrote collaboratively, Kirsten replied, revealing, "Bernard writes all the songs." As Griffen followed, "Yeah, I write the songs mostly, but there is one song on the album called, ‘The Circus Song,' which is Kirsten's first song, and it's absolutely stunning!" Kirsten then jumped on the bandwagon again, admitting, "I hope we do more songwriting together though. I'm a writer by trade, so that's my other life. I've been a journalist for quite some time now and to be accurate I'm actually the Auckland Branch Chair of the NZ Society of Authors," she exclaimed.
With the earlier mention of travel, I went on to ask if they had any plans to take the album overseas and tour it. "Yep! and that's all I'm saying,"Griffen laughed, before continuing on. "No, we've got a manager now and we're lining up stuff for next year and the year after. But Kirsten and I are going no matter what happens!" he proudly proclaimed.
"We've got good friends in Australia we've played with before, that we can perform with again, as we'd really love to go to Melbourne and do a bit of playing there," Kirsten exclaimed. "We'd like to go to Berlin at some point too," she added.
While on the topic of what's to come, Griffen explained the next project that's in store for the band. "Well I want to do another album early next year," he briskly stated. "We've got quite a few songs already. Then the next thing I really want to do is something theatrical, like a circus show, so that's also on the cards for sure. If we can get some help from Creative NZ, then we'll write it, produce it and play it!" Griffen confidently exclaimed.
Moving on to chat about their show that night and other upcoming gigs to promote the album, the two of them went on to explain what one can expect and look forward to from a live ‘Bernie Griffen & The Thin Men,' performance. "Lots of energy and drama," Griffen declared. We'll rock it out at the end and it'll be a really good show. We're all incredibly wound up about it, so it should go off with a bang," he continued, referring to the show at Auckland's Tuning Fork that was set to happen hours after this interview.
"You've got Marcus Lawson who is an absolute laugh, on bass," Kirsten continued. "He is fabulous and wild. We haven't actually played with him yet so we don't know what he is going to do, but I imagine he'll dance and throw himself about. Chris O' Connor is a theatrical drummer, composer and all round genius!" she continued. "He works in the theatre a lot so he'll bring a great cabaret feel to things, and then Steve Roach is a fantastic
guitar player who is also a great drama queen," she sniggered, laughing, admitting, "He's incredible, then Louise is a great fiddle player too!"
Slowly creeping closer and closer to show time, also nearing the end of the interview, we had a chat about the recent resurgence in folk, country and blues sounds over the last few years, and Griffen and Kirsten went on to tell me why they think this has happened. "I think what's happened recently, in the last 10 years, is that there has been several really good bands rise up in that kind of genre," Griffen exclaimed. "Such as, The Broadsides, The Eastern, Delaney and Marlon, and The Grifters were a real driver of that sound, I think," he continued. "Because we had that Gunslingers Ball thing going for three years and we put close to 60 bands through that in that time and they were mainly based around that sound, so we got to play with people from Wellington, Christchurch and yeah, it was cool!" Griffen exclaimed.
"I think there has loosely been a resurgence," Kirsten agreed. "It's a more acoustic sound. I mean, some of those bands are fully electric of course, but loosely it's all about story, colour and some acoustic elements with that blues base. It's an international movement too really," she continued. "Americana music, has been around for a long time and if you go back, there are lots of foundation bands that really brought this sound into the popular imagination."
Drawing the interview to an end, Griffen told me about his time as a distributor and if he believes the advancement of technology has now made it easier or harder for artists to break into the music industry.
"I had a company called ‘Global Routes' for 10 years," Griffen declared. "I got into distributing New Zealand music because there were no distributors that did a good job for NZ music," he confessed. "But now they're fighting over the bands, so it's all changed," he added, laughing. "I closed it in 2008 because digital had taken 40 percent out of the market and all the shops were closing down. When I started there were 296 shops, and then when I closed and finished there were 40. Now there's about 15 in the whole country, It's just incredible," he concluded.
"For other artists to break into the music scene now though, I think it's actually a bit easier. Personal distribution is easier, it's easier to reach your audience and if you're smart about it, then you don't have to lose all of those percentages out of your product," he proclaimed, finishing the interview in perfect time as the bass player arrived and the band were all called in for their final soundcheck, before the show.