Twelve Questions: Karl Steven

Karl Steven fronted 90s teenage pop chart-toppers Supergroove before he left it all for an academic career. He's now one of New Zealand's most acclaimed composers for TV and this week completed the score for TV3's new crime show, Harry.

Karl Steven thinks his 16-year-old self would like the life he's leading now, making his own music. Photo /  Brett Phibbs
Karl Steven thinks his 16-year-old self would like the life he's leading now, making his own music. Photo / Brett Phibbs

1. Dr Karl Steven! In philosophy no less - what happened to that geeky white boy from the front of Supergroove?

I guess I'm more of a geek than even I anticipated.

2. It seems like everyone has always known your tunes - from Can't Get Enough to that jangly stuff on hit TV show The Politically Incorrect Guide: is catchy your middle name?

My middle name is actually Solve - my mother's Swedish and that's my grandfather's name. He was a Lutheran vicar. Nothing wrong with catchy though - something to hang on to in music is always good.

3. Can you recall a moment, in those Supergroove days, when it felt like you were becoming the Rolling Stones?

I think we probably thought that the whole time, from our first band practice when we sounded like dying animals. We were very, very young and keen to take everything as far as it would go. We had all the pyrotechnics planned before we'd learned the instruments.

It's like that for a lot of young bands, but then later you realise it doesn't just keep getting bigger and bigger until you're U2. You can be huge in New Zealand for six months, then go on to have a normal life and you're not living off all the royalties.

4. You quit the band at 21, and went on to do your PhD at Cambridge University. What was life like there?

I had six years at university in Auckland first, then Cambridge, which was everything you imagine it to be, but also this grim reality that was very banal. But when times are depressing it puts into focus the things that help you get through - when we were touring small town Australia, it was thinking about my girlfriend and books and writing which began that part of my life. In Cambridge it was music again. I started buying CDs and writing music to get through it all.

5. What's the best jingle or theme tune you've ever heard?

I love TV show themes like Bewitched, Knight Rider, Miami Vice, Hill St Blues, Coronation Street. My favourite though is Dragnet, a 50s cop show. Those four notes at the beginning, "Dum - - de - DUM DUM" and you know the time and the place and the faces of the cops.

6. You've written pop hits, jingles, and scores for film and TV. What piece of music are you most proud of?

I try to improve all the time so I feel like there's some good moments in The Blue Rose and Harry. It's an Auckland crime story and [Harry's] going through a pretty dark time so a lot of the music is inside his brain. There's methamphetamine involved so I wanted to give it a chemically sound too - things that accrue in the dark when no one's watching. There's electric pianos but also rubbish bin lids and smashed up glass hanging off a dish rack. Acoustic guitars played with mallets. That sort of thing.

7. What would your 16-year-old self have made of your current life?

He'd be chuffed as, actually. I'm together with his girlfriend and this is the kind of work I really wanted to do when I was that age. You make quite a lot of the music on your own, which is what he liked doing then.

8. What's the TV show you never miss?

Project Runway. Tim Gunn is amazing and I love seeing creative people with those levels of skill, performing with those time pressures. Creating under the pressure of time is a lot of what I do.

9. What's with all the suits these days - do you ever wear anything else?

The life of a musician can be chaotic so I like to get some order where I can. I wear them every day, though I occasionally wear a Hawaiian shirt in summer, or a vest instead of a jacket. I wore a uniform on the first day of primary school too, at my non-uniform school. It was too big for me and the shorts came down on the jungle gym but I was a bit socially slow and couldn't work out why everyone was laughing.

10. Your daughter Maja is home-schooled?

Yes, in Thames, where I spend half my week. She's autistic and a very wonderful, capable, incredibly brainy little thing.

11. Is there a high preponderance of autistic children of creative people?

The highest numbers, apparently, are in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, so academics and creatives, yes. The evidence suggests it's genetic and it seems people vaguely heading toward the autistic spectrum are often attracted to others who are too. There's a whole bunch of autistic traits that I have and the ones I don't, Maja's mum does.

12. Were you really working on an album with John Rowles?

About three years ago I approached him about it and we did some demos. And it went quite far down the road but never quite got off the ground. He's a great singer - I just thought he had such an amazing voice. It was going to be covers of really classic New Zealand songs, but with a slightly loungey feel. I still think it's a great idea.

- NZ Herald

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