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Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Leaders unplugged: Metiria Turei - Punk, funk, ukulele are all part of the mix

With the general election less than two months away, the leaders of all the main political parties will be chasing your vote. But what are they really like once they step outside Parliament? Herald writers have spent the past few weeks catching up with our leading politicians on their own turf to find out what makes them tick. Today Adam Bennett talks to Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, who plays the ukulele bass, and her daughter Piu are avid music fans.
Photo / Mark Mitchell
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, who plays the ukulele bass, and her daughter Piu are avid music fans. Photo / Mark Mitchell

New Plymouth's legendary hardcore rockers Sticky Filth with their affinity for the Magog Motorcycle Club, magic mushrooms and misogyny are not the first band you'd associate with one of our parliamentary leaders.

Nevertheless their performance at a bikie gang house in Levin was one of the first gigs Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei went to as - in her own words - "a baby punk" growing up in nearby Palmerston North in the late 1980s.

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Ms Turei tells the story over cups of hot chocolate - fortified with Bailey's against a chilly evening - in the garden bar at Wellington's Southern Cross pub as she, 21-year-old daughter Piupiu and the Herald wait for reggae band Newtown Rocksteady to begin their show.

Metiria and her friends were "16 and 17 and thought we were super hot and awesome and we turned up and it was really terrifying", she says of the gig in Levin more than 25 years earlier.

"There was nobody else like us in the whole place."

A bit like Parliament then.

"We were petrified."

But then the first gig that Piu - as Metiria calls her - went to would arguably have been just as harrowing for your average bikie or pretty much most of the male population - the manufactured-for-television Kiwi girl-power ensemble True Bliss.

"It was so good," says Piu.

"It was all 7-year-old girls and their mothers," says Metiria.

"So we've been like going out together ever since," says Piu.

We started the evening at the nearby Havana Bar, where Piu helped her mother finish her plate of antipasto and her sentences in rapid fire exchanges that would give fellow diners the impression they were sisters or friends rather than mother and daughter.

They've flatted together for some months now after Piu relocated from Auckland to Wellington to study international relations and Maori at Victoria University.

"I don't go out very much in Wellington," Metiria claims.

"You do," chimes in Piu. "We do lots of things together," she adds.

That includes Clan McGillicuddy, whose political wing Metiria represented in the 1993 elections.

"Piu's been involved with the McGillicuddys since she was a baby," says Metiria.

Even some of her baby clothes were trimmed with the clan's tartan.

"She was a fully patched-up member."

More recently, both took part in the Battle Waitati, the McGillicuddy Highland Army's defence of "Almond Castle", Metiria's home not far from Dunedin.

Footage of the mock battle made it to the television news earlier this year as further evidence of Metiria and the Greens' eccentricities.

"Fair enough because it was really unusual," Metiria says.

Not least because one of the main organisers, Pete Smith, died shortly before the battle took place.

"The battle was designed to be a way to honour his life.

"He came anyway. Not only did we have this huge battle with 60 to 100 people as characters, plus about 200 members of the public watching, we also had Pete Smith in his beautiful coffin with all of his family participating in the battle as well."

She says the event was "completely free participatory community theatre".

"It was absolutely massive and heaps of fun, mad, mad fun. But being, of course, a public figure that sort of stuff is going to draw criticism."

Metiria's other main creative release is her band Kill, Martha!

Originally called Martha Hill and the Mine Shafts, the band was started in the midst of the debate about mining on conservation land.

They began as a traditional ukulele band, "then we did the Bob Dylan thing and went electric".

"It was shocking. People would book us when they heard we were a ukulele band and we would turn up with all this gear, amplifiers, drums, like the whole shebang, and then play really loud and it was often really disturbing."

In a nod to the band's roots, she still plays a ukulele bass - one of "too many" ukuleles she owns.

Also in the group are husband Warwick, sister Tania, and a woman who recorded the band as part of her Otago University music degree and who is also the subject of one of the band's songs.

Solar Sarah is a paean to an environmentally conscious woman who eschews needless consumption of fossil fuels and personal grooming, such that her "map of Tasmania grows woolly and wild".

"She was so pleased that we wrote her a song that she joined the band after that."

"They're really good live, they're awesome," chips in Piu.

"We're funny," says Metiria.

"One thing that bands do in my opinion is take themselves too seriously."

The group plays in pubs "with hard arse punk bands" and as well as writing their own material they cover tunes by the likes of X Ray Specs, New Order and the Pixies.

For inspiration, Metiria listens a lot to Parliament - not our House of Representatives but the 70s funk band of the same name powered in no small part by bass-playing legend Bootsy Collins.

Apart from Bootsy, she tries to emulate Motown bassist James Jamerson and follows the bass players' commandment, "Thou shalt not lose the groove".

"I feel like I want to play now," she says as Newtown Rocksteady begin warming up, "but we've got no gigs booked between now and the election."

She believes there's not such a big difference between her creative performing pursuits and politics.

"There is a lot of performance in politics. When you're doing creative performance, you've got to be convincing, you've got to be ... "

"Honest?" suggests Piu.

"Entertaining," says Metiria.

"You've got to be able to read the audience and understand what's going on with them. You get all that feedback when you're doing political performance as well. The difference is that in politics the stakes are much higher."

However, with the election coming up she has little time to practise.

"I've got my uke bass in our flat. It sits there and looks at me every night when I come home from Parliament and I just don't have the energy to pick it up."

But she does sing the odd duet around the flat with Piu.

"When we're watching Rocky Horror Picture Show and Jesus Christ Superstar," Piu says.

"When Piu was little she was in a couple of musicals," Metiria explains, "Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat and Beauty and the Beast at the Children's Musical Theatre in Auckland. Ever since then she's been listening to musicals."

"Constantly," says Piu.

She counts Starlight Express as one of her favourites.

"I know it's not the best musical ever made but it's just so cool, like everyone's all on rollerblades, it's a spectacle."

"I'm sorry for getting you into musicals," says Metiria with mock regret.

"I'm definitely my mother's daughter that's for sure," says Piu.

Like her mother, Piu plays in a band, but DEputy plays abrasive dance music made to sound like it was composed on a 1980s game console. Kill, Martha's music is easy listening by comparison.

Again, like her mother, she has a passion for performance and studied theatre at Otago University, "but in the end I guess I just wanted to get into politics".

"Oh my God!" says Metiria of her daughter's political aspirations.

Piu explains that she's studying international relations "because I'm getting sick and tired of people starving to death".

"Come on, in the 21st century that's just archaic."

Piu has done some volunteer work for the Greens and plans to do more.

"She doesn't have any obligation to follow along, she can find her own way," Metiria says.

Just before Newtown Rock Steady begins to play, and Metiria and Piupiu Turei make their way to the front of the show where they spend the next 40 minutes dancing, the conversation returns to Metiria's band, which she describes as an outlet for her mid-life crisis.

"What are you going to do for yours?" she asks her daughter.

Piu suggests she might like to buy and restore a derelict house. Metiria shoots back that she could go to India and join an ashram.

"I don't know what an ashram is," Piu says, but when she learns it is a Hindu spiritual retreat, declares she couldn't do it. "I wouldn't have the patience."

"I'd just find it really funny," says Metiria. "I tried yoga once. I just couldn't take it seriously."

"You could become a corporate banker," is her final suggestion.

"And then you could run the country," she says laughing as she and Piu head for the dance floor.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei's top five gigs of all time:

1. PJ Harvey,
Auckland 2008
2. The Residents,
Wellington 1986
3. Pixies, Christchurch 2010
4. Jane's Addiction,
Auckland 1991
5. Who Killed Dr Glam,
Dunedin 2014

- NZ Herald

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