Karl Steven can't get enough

Karl Steven once swore he'd never perform live again, but a few years down the track, he's one of our most prolific musicians, writes Scott Kara

Supergroove frontman Karl Steven is just as at home making music in lounges and kitchens as in a professional recording studio. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Supergroove frontman Karl Steven is just as at home making music in lounges and kitchens as in a professional recording studio. Photo / Brett Phibbs

A while back Karl Steven vowed never to get up on stage again and gave music away - but now, many years on, the Supergroove frontman is playing more gigs than ever and is one of New Zealand's most prolific music-makers.

He's a jack-of-all-trades in the music business.

For starters his old band, who split in 1996, reunited in 2007 and is still going ("Now it feels better than it ever really did."); he's also in the Drab Doo Riffs doing "punky surf-rock 'n' rolly stuff"; and then there's Heart Attack Alley, with fellow Doo Riffer and sister-in-law Caoimhe Macfehin and guitarist Chrystal Gallagher, which is "a blues three-piece in which I just play harmonica and I stomp on this thing that I made called a porch board".

He also earns a good crust doing ad jingles, music for TV shows and soundtracks, like the theme music for Nigel Latta's Politically Incorrect Guide to Teenagers.

"It's certainly a very precarious way to earn a living but it's also very enjoyable. You know, being able to compose music in exchange for buying groceries and stuff is amazing. I love it."

And this week he curated the gala concert for the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre with a line-up including Tim Finn, Anika Moa, Don McGlashan, members of Nesian Mystik and other guests.

But these days he's also making a name for himself with his recording and production work, with a style that takes a no-frills, keep it cheap and raw approach.

"Making records in living rooms and kitchens is a pretty normal way for me to work. I think you can get some great results in that way, and it ensures that each project has a unique flavour.

"So that's the other thing I do to make a living," he says flippantly.

Yet you get the feeling recording and producing is almost as important to him as performing. He's particularly excited about two of his upcoming projects: the self-titled debut from the Vietnam War, the brainchild of songwriter Lubin Rains which is out on July 4, and rapper-poet Tourettes' follow up to his excellent 2009 album Who Said You Can't Dance to Misery?, which is out in September.

But more on those projects soon, because it's hard to believe that with all this on the go, Steven packed music in after Supergroove.

"I did," he says, peering up out of his piercing, almost beady, eyes over a cup of tea at a K Rd cafe. In fact, he told TimeOut in 2003 that, "I stick by my decision not to get up on stage again."

The success and hard-gigging work ethic of Supergroove - a Kiwi funk, rock, hip-hop institution throughout the 90s - took its toll on Steven and his band mates and they split up in 1996.

He was still young, in his early 20s, and had devoted his entire life to music. He admits he hadn't really experienced life outside the band.

"I thought I wasn't going to get back into music because all of us had been so rattled by the Supergroove experience, we'd burnt ourselves out in terms of our energy and also our relationships with one another, which was quite a painful thing to happen. That made me think, 'This music thing is no good for me'."

So he went off and did a degree in philosophy, spent a few years at Cambridge University in the mid-2000s doing his PhD, which is where he started getting the music bug again, and eventually his relationships with his old band mates started to "heal up".

Living in Britain was tough. It was bleak, his wife became ill, his daughter was diagnosed with autism ("But as soon as we got that diagnosed things started really improving and she began to flourish," he smiles.), and he wasn't enjoying writing his PhD.

So he bought a sampler and an electric guitar and found solace in locking himself away in his room making music - and he also started listening to music more again.

"Music was what I needed to get me through," he says simply. "And with Supergroove I just realised that if I keep going the way I'm going, and not really seeing a few of them that I never really saw at all, like Che [Fu], I'll just do my academic career and then next time I see them might be when we start having funerals or something. When I realised that, it was horrifying." And in 2007 Supergroove reunited and they have been a going concern ever since.

It was also at Cambridge where he started writing what would be the first Drab Doo Riffs' songs. At first he thought about doing "instrumental post hip-hop" music ("The sort of thing you'd expect someone from Supergroove might come up with in their 30s," he laughs), but opted for something bluesy and wild.

"Which was the music that got me excited about music in the first place, which was blues, punk, rock 'n' roll, and lots of 40s, 50s, and early 60s stuff."

When he got back to New Zealand he formed a band that is now made up of singer Macfehin, bass player M.F. Joyce, drummer Mikey Sperring and guitarist Lucy Stewart.

"I like bands when everyone's got a bit of freedom, and I find it boring when people are just being musical. And we like playing live, and to me [playing live] is like oxygen for bands and that's how you get good, playing shows and responding to a crowd. The crowd are like the other member of the band and they kind of form how the songs are written too. It's not just an insular thing."

He has a similarly unique people-focused approach to producing music - and he sees himself as an "audio professional" who is happy working outside the traditional recording realms.

"In general I like quite a simple, raw sound that doesn't rely on computers to do the work. The two tricks, in my view, to this type of recording are going for an honest, not overly processed sound, and then secondly, the more makeshift the set up, the better the people working in it need to be.

"These days I think that, if you really take your time and get the right people involved there's no reason you can't make an outstanding album without ever setting foot inside a studio."

Take the Vietnam War album for example: "We recorded it on the super-cheap so most of it was done in Lubin's lounge."

And, by the sounds of it, he can be quite a hard task-master when he needs to be.

"My philosophy is, if a player does something that isn't worth keeping, get them to keep doing it until you get something that is worth keeping. Don't use a robot to assist them unless you want a robotic sound. Don't get me wrong, I love robots, but they don't sound like people ... records that lean too heavily on computer enhancement wind up like the bad CGI in some movies."


Who: Karl Steven, musical jack-of-all-trades

Bands: Supergroove, The Drab Doo-Riffs, Heart Attack Alley

Recording/producer: The Vietnam War - The Vietnam War, out July 4; New album by Tourettes, out September. Plus the Drab Doo Riffs' third EP out soon, and Heart Attack Alley recording a vinyl-only album.

Listen to: Supergroove - Traction (1994); The Drab Doo-Riffs - Postcards From Uranus (2010)

Playing: The Drab Doo-Riffs, Whammy Bar, tonight, 11pm; Sugarloaf Shakedown, with The Bats, Street Chant, Lawrence Arabia, Drab Doo-Riffs and more, Kings Arms, May 22

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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