Herbs: Cultivating fame

By Alan Perrott

Alan Perrott talks to homegrown band Herbs about their roots, growing up, being inducted into music’s Hall of Fame and missing out on worldwide success.

Dilworth Karaka (left), the only original member of Herbs left, and newcomer Leyton Greening at Whare Taphere, Herbs' home base. Photo / Natalie Slade
Dilworth Karaka (left), the only original member of Herbs left, and newcomer Leyton Greening at Whare Taphere, Herbs' home base. Photo / Natalie Slade

Whare Tapere, the base of operations for Herbs in Auckland's Kingsland since 1980, is a building in serious decay. Certainly, with the old banners, gold discs and skins that haven't been touched since their late, founding drummer Fred "the Rock" Faleauto hung them on the wall, history is everywhere.

"There's mana there, you feel it when you walk into the room. It's something ... something good," says the band's newest member, Leyton Greening.

Since their beginning in the late 70s, dodging flying bottles in Onehunga's notorious Trident Hotel, Herbs is the Kiwi band that keeps on keeping on.

Some call them our Rolling Stones - others, our Rolling Stoned - and if there is any downside to such a comparison, it's that, like those English pensioners, people forget what they once were.

Herbs, once, were warriors.

They emerged from the Muldoon years as a multi-ethnic group united by righteous anger and reggae, before gradually evolving into a chart-friendly outfit with a reputation for amazing live performances.

Theirs hasn't always been a happy, lucrative or even particularly pleasant story, but it's one that cries out for their upcoming mass induction into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame on September 13.

Dilworth Karaka, a wharfie who'd loved performing ever since learning how to play You Are My Sunshine, is Herbs' sole surviving founder. As a star of Auckland Watersiders Rugby League Club, he'd been considered a potential Kiwi until, on getting up from a heavy tackle on muddy Carlaw Park, he saw the back of his leg where his kneecap should have been.

The injury later got infected and he lost his leg to gangrene.

"My whole life changed," says the now-62-year-old. "I was an outgoing sportsman with a baby on the way, so I had to rethink everything."

Deciding to take music more seriously, he accepted an invitation in the mid-70s to join a line-up including three Pacific Islanders - Toni Fonoti, Spencer Fusimalohi and Fred Faleauto - called Backyard. They had secured a residency at the Trident Hotel in Onehunga.

Band manager Will 'Ilolahia soon joined the team. "Have you seen the Blues Brothers?" he says. "The Trident was like that, it was rough, but at least they weren't throwing bottles at the band."

As co-founder of the Polynesian Panthers political lobby group, 'Ilolahia brought staunch politics, a willingness to do what was necessary, and fire in his belly.

A hui was called to thrash out a manifesto. First, they would play their own music. Second, they would tour the Pacific. And third, they made a commitment to tour at least once internationally with their wives, a prophetic concern, given the band eventually cost 'Ilolahia his first marriage.

Then there was their name.

Fonoti, who was deeply into his Rastafarianism, wanted an "irie" flavour (powerful and pleasing). They toyed with Pacific Herbs before settling on Herbs, an acknowledgement of their "cloud of influence" rather than any enthusiasm for cooking.

Next came the songs. They'd gather in Karaka's backyard with neighbours and friends joining in and jamming, singing and imbibing their way to a new repertoire.

Lyrically, things were much darker. As 'Ilolahia says, they didn't need to shop overseas for issues, they had their own lives to draw on - whether it be dawn raids, police harassment or racism. They knew they were on the right track when people began asking which Marley album their song Dragons and Demons came from.

After finding a ready audience within activist circles - they became involved in the Bastion Point occupation and anti-Springbok tour protests - and with support from the Auckland punk scene they trotted off to Mascot Studios to record.

"I didn't really understand what they were singing about," says studio owner, promoter and former ballroom dancing champion, Hugh Lynn, "but I could see they were different and they wanted to do things their way. Back then you needed a lot of confidence to make that jump [to recording] and I could see it was bubbling up from them.

"But it wasn't going to be easy, they were a New Zealand band and Maori and Pacific Islanders at that - some people thought they looked like a gang - so they had a whole lot going against them really."

An early sign of their potential came at the 1981 Sweetwaters festival in Ngaruawahia, an appearance that could have turned nasty given the heavy gang presence lurking in front of the stage. 'Ilolahia had a solution.

The band was preceded by a team of Cook Island dancers and when they finished he had each girl leave the stage and hang a lei around the neck of a patched member.

It worked to perfection and gave the manager new insight into the power of music.

Afterwards, the group spent a long night convincing reggae legend Toots Hibbert of the validity of Pacific reggae. He eventually grudgingly accepted their version of the Jamaican form as authentic.

Herbs' debut EP, Whats' Be Happen, came out in July 1981 - just in time for the Springbok tour - and while the band was disappointed it didn't match their live power, it made a clear statement. Aside from tracks like the anti-apartheid Azania (Soon Come), the cover featured an aerial shot of the Bastion Point eviction.

Their next album featured their classic single French Letter, which was somehow witty, aggressive and infectious, even if the title was too suggestive for the radio stations who instead called it "Letter to France".

"I think the whole country went through a mind-change around then," says Karaka, "but that title was still too sensitive for some people."

Again, 'Ilolahia's willingness for direct action proved useful. Knowing which music stores were used to compile the record charts, he sent out batches of singles to each, followed by a posse of friends and relatives to buy them all up. As a result, French Letter sat in the charts for 11 weeks despite insignificant airplay.

Obviously, it was great for their profile but the band had already developed their own measure of success.

Lynn calls it "social profit", a concept that gave the band licence to make decisions that made no business sense as long as they delivered positive outcomes in other areas. As a businessman, Lynn admits it took him a while to come round to the idea.

Then, just as the band's prospects rose they rapidly fell apart.

"We were on the verge of breaking and everything turning to shit," says Karaka. Mostly the trouble was down to egos, money and Fonoti's increasing desire for Herbs to throw their lot in with the Auckland's Rastafarian 12 Tribes of Israel community.

Others, such as Karaka, were doubtful and wanted to focus on the music while Lynn - who was now employing 'Ilolahia and had taken hold of the management reins - wanted no part of it.

"To be honest, I don't think I'm a reggae person," says Lynn. "When Bob Marley came out, I didn't even know who he was."

So Fonoti left. "And that's basically when I left as well," says 'Ilolahia.

Fonoti wasn't the first to "jump the waka" and with each defection, 'Ilolahai renamed the band Herbs Mk2, Herbs Mk3 and so on.

"By the time I finished," he says, "it was something like Herbs Mk 14 or 15."

While most left because their families needed more income, each departure sparked a lot of soul-searching for 'Ilolahia. Still, the band had fulfilled their original ambitions, with the last two ticked off by an invitation to a play at a festival in Hong Kong. It was also an opportunity to tour a few Pacific islands, where they finally saw first-hand the impact their music was having overseas.

Playing Tahiti was a highlight - if only to see British French Foreign legionnaires, on leave from their post at the Mururoa nuclear testing facility, singing along to French Letter.

New Caledonia was more sobering when they heard that several youths manning a roadblock had been shot dead by French troops as Herbs played on their boom box. "That made everything very real," says Karaka.

At the same time, the band was shifting from its original pan-Pacific line-up to one that was predominantly Maori.

"From my point of view, I was happy about that," says Lynn. "I'd become strongly connected to my Maori background, I'd come out and I felt I could start something good in that area. And I did."

New frontman and former cabaret performer Willie Hona immediately proved himself, contributing Long Ago and Nuclear Waste to Herbs' self-titled 1984 album.

What was to become their most successful line-up was completed with the return to New Zealand of prodigal bassist, Charlie Tumahai.

As a member of an early incarnation of Little River Band and glam progsters Bebop Delux, he took the band's professionalism to a new level.

"I remember watching him prepare for his first gig," says Lynn. "It was like watching a theatre veteran: his clothes, his attitude, his discipline. He took himself to another place. Then, when he got on stage, you knew straight away he'd played with the big boys. "Some of the guys said, 'what are you doing? Trying to show us up?' But he pulled them up with him, no doubt about it."

Tumahai also brought a new pop sensibility that was showcased by the songs that made up their next album, Sensitive to a Smile. But before that could be released the band had been asked to help with a new track by Dave Dobbyn for the upcoming Footrot Flats movie.

It wasn't a big deal and Lynn only asked for a basic studio fee of about $15,000. Then, when they landed in Wellington at 10pm they found out Dobbyn had been charged with inciting the riot that followed his gig in Aotea Square in 1984.

There was no time to worry about any implications, they were in the studio at midnight, had the vocals wrapped up by 5am, started shooting the video at 9am, and returned home.

Upon release, Slice of Heaven went straight to number one, stayed there for eight weeks - going gold in five - and it was named Song of the Year.

"We had no idea how big it was going to get," says Lynn, "otherwise I'd have done a different deal. I can't be more honest than that."

On the bright side, the song earned industry respect for Herbs and helped create a whole new audience for their Sensitive to a Smile album.

But the band still insisted on releasing it in their own, more socially-profitable way. Gang violence and arsons had put Ruatoria in the news for much of the year and the band hoped their presence could at least lead to a temporary truce.

The album made the top 10 and the title track won Karaka and Tumahai the Songwriter of the Year Award.

Herbs were finally riding a wave. The years of constant touring and empty wallets had paid off.

Then - again - everything began to falter. Aside from new divisions within the band, they had been unable to take up UB40's offer of a European tour. It had required $80,000 they couldn't find, so the chance to crack a new market passed.

Then their next album, Homegrown, copped a hammering. Former Eagle Joe Walsh had been brought in and, well, it didn't work.

Unless you factor in social profit again. Walsh had a spiritual awakening at Otatara Pa in the Hawkes Bay that led him to drop the booze and drugs and become an anti-drugs crusader.

"Regardless of the album - and musically it probably wasn't the right decision - it benefited him," says Lynn. "And from a Maori point of view it benefited us, because he is still pushing his message here."

Then Lynn went bankrupt and left the group. His determination to get the band on to the world stage had left him in a $1 million hole.

"We'd been struggling and a lot of things were going wrong, but I still say it was a good thing that happened in my life. We opened doors, no doubt about it. So when I heard about the Hall of Fame, it felt good, just to know that we did get some things right. I gave up having regrets a long time ago."

If Lynn's departure was a shock, the heart attack that killed Tumahai in 1995 was a tragedy.

Herbs tried to go on in his honour, but after eight months Karaka pulled the plug: "I told the guys we're taking a sabbatical. I need to walk with him for a while, do my grieving, and then send him on his way."

Then, after having dropped out of the group because of illness, original drummer Fred Faleauto died in 2001.

Again, the band took time to grieve before returning to work. Then came another blow.

Two former bandmates (Carl Perkins and Spencer Fusimalohi) formed a band, Pacific Herbs, to play Herbs music at Rotorua's Raggamuffin festival on the same weekend the real deal were playing the Parihaki Festival in Taranaki.

"It was disrespectful, totally," says Karaka. The band then spent $30,000 - money set aside for their next album - taking their old friends to court. Lynn describes the whole, bitter episode as "dumb".

Still, it didn't stop Karaka ringing both to offer his congratulations and invite them to the upcoming Hall of Fame induction.

"That's how we've always dealt with problems, we roll them into a ball and kick them to the moon. So we'll go into that hall, have a great time and leave all that other shit outside."

For their part, Lynn and 'Ilolahia are positive that the spirit that got the band started will reignite, at least for one night.

And so, after 30 years of playing with the likes of the Pointer Sisters, Kiri Te Kanawa and even Young Sid, Herbs will receive one of New Zealand music's biggest accolades. And the newest band member, Leyton Greening, finds himself getting nervous.

"It's knowing all those people who have been before me, so many good musicians, and I know you get measured against them. It's a hard thing, because there's that pressure all the time.

"But it's worth it. I'll always remember one night sitting in the back of the van at 3am after a great gig and listening to the guys singing along to the Beatles songs on my iPod. It's those voices, Herbs really is an awesome thing to be part of."

*Herbs will be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall Of Fame at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards on September 13. nzherald.co.nz will live-stream the ceremony from the Auckland Town Hall in its entirety here.

- NZ Herald

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