Alan Perrott finds the winning formula to a successful 30 years of making music

If anyone was having second thoughts 30 years ago, they're not admitting to them now. They'd have been understandable though - the view from the stage of the Cricketers Arms must have been somewhat daunting.

Paying little or no attention as the band counted in their first number were dancers from the nearby ballet school; wide boy, brick-phone toting admen, a fair contingent from Wellington's nascent film industry, and the same hardened drinkers who lined the bar every night. It was the height of the 80s, when music was all glitz and hair and synthesizers.

Unfortunately, Barry Saunders and co were about to hit the unsuspecting crowd with tracks by the likes of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.

Yeah, fair dinkum country music, and at the time you'd struggle to find anything less cool, no matter if it was being played by past members of bands such as Human Instinct, Rockinghorse, Timberjack and the Fourmyula, not that many would have recognised them anyway.


Then a funny thing happened.

Maybe it was brushed drums or the acoustic guitar or the heart-shredding lyrics, but the people tuned in and before you knew it, there was a dance floor.

They clearly spent up too, because the band had barely finished when the bar owner began hitting them up for another show the following week: "And I want to advertise it in the paper too. What's your name?"

Huh? They were a jamming band, a mate had set up this gig as a one-night-only affair, a chance for his friends to mess around with a live audience.

It wasn't serious enough to need a name. Then bass player John Donaghue remembered an old slang term for the three-sided, black metal posts used for temporary fencing: "How about The Warratahs?"

In hindsight, they might have thought again -- if the term had been used locally for a fair while, it's undeniably an Australian import, has an indeterminate number of Rs, and leads many first-time listeners (especially Australians) to assume they're from across the Tasman with an eccentric penchant for singing about Kiwi locations.

But no-one was bothered, because the band wouldn't last more than a few gigs. Except those first two became four, then a two-year residency, and while we're at it, why not not record some of Barry's new songs and hey, what about a quick tour of the South Island?

Consider the context here, most of the band felt like they'd already had their shot at stardom; the Warratahs, if not a dalliance, was more of a chance to indulge some of the music they loved while they still could.

After all Wayne Mason's 60s hit Nature was now a landmark recording and he'd already played most venues in the country, more than once - he had nothing to prove.

His co-founder, Barry Saunders, had first travelled to Britain where he played with two rowdy Irish bands before joining Mason in The Tigers for a crack at the arduous Australian pub circuit. These were hard yards of constant travel, low pay and fleapit accommodation, and while it honed them into a tight, rock 'n roll unit they struggled to rise above the pack of good-time guitar bands. Saunders ended up jaded, knackered, drinking too much, and while he didn't know it yet, with hepatitis, so come the early 80s they packed it in and returned home.

So yeah, forming a band, and a country band at that, with any chance in hell of celebrating a 30th anniversary was pretty much the last thing on anyone's mind.

And yet - here they still are and while many bands of their vintage would happily kick back and enjoy their legacy act status, The Warratahs continue to pump out new material. Their last effort - in a time when the country's roots music scene is stronger and rootsier than ever - even won New Zealand country album of the year.

Barry Saunders, lead singer of The Warratahs who are this year celebrating 30 years together. Photographed Nov 2016 by Ted Baghurst.
Barry Saunders, lead singer of The Warratahs who are this year celebrating 30 years together. Photographed Nov 2016 by Ted Baghurst.

How did it happen?

Because it comes from the heart - these guys had done their time, played by the rules, and tried to appeal to the market, now they were doing it for themselves. After being worn down by Australia, Saunders had found comfort in the music of his rural youth. It was honest, straightforward and paid little attention to trends, which was exactly what he needed, artifice required far too much energy.

Of course, it didn't hurt that he was accompanied by professional musicians who knew how to work a crowd.

If there was likely to be a problem it was always likely to be between Saunders and Mason, with the latter understandably unwilling to settle for a supporting role in another songwriter's vision.

Then there's Nik Brown, because, says Saunders, if any past or present Warratah can call themselves a great musician, he's it. He first heard the multi-instrumentalist at The Oaks brasserie in Wellington where, as luck would have it, his three-year residency with jazz combo, Hot Cafe, was about to end.

"I saw this couple come in dressed entirely in black and I noticed the guy looking at me. Then I went to the bar during our break and I saw him walking towards me and I thought 'oh shit, what have I done'?" Brown says.

"But then he put out his hand and said: 'Hi, I'm Barry, do you want to join my band'?"

Straight away Brown's musicianship became as vital to the Warratah sound as Saunder's voice - it's no accident that the pair are the only remaining original members - even if he downplays his role to "putting in the hooks, flavour and colour".

That the combination paid off in chart success, album sales (including three 'best of' compilations) and popularity is undeniable there's an industry truism that there isn't a hall anywhere in the country they haven't played.

And why not? says Nik Brown, they get as much of a charge from a great gig as any punter.

"Any concert becomes a highlight when it takes off - the energy, the way you can build it up, ease it off, then push it through the roof - I love playing to the bigger crowds, but sometimes you can't beat those small, intimate gigs where everyone's just jammed in there, doing it together."

Still, if pushed, he has two big memories, both off stage.

While playing three New Zealand concerts with Billy Joel, their willingness to hump their own gear impressed the roadies no end and helped earn them invites to the troupe's massive end-of-tour party.

"Christie Brinkley was there with her friends, they looked like blonde barbie dolls, and they had this thing where they danced to Supremes songs, with all the moves - then one of the bass players sat at a piano in a mask and played Ray Charles hits all night. That was a great night."

But the one that still brings a lump to his throat occurred in their changing room under Athletic Park as they waited to take the stage in support of The Highwaymen, a supergroup featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.

"So we're sitting there when the door opens and in walks Johnny Cash in that long black coat. He just walked up stuck out his hand and said: "Hi, I'm Johnny Cash." I almost wet myself. "Then he stopped to chat with us, just the loveliest, most self-effacing guy."

Still, the story of the Warratahs isn't one long highlight reel. When Mason left the band in 1994, Saunders decided eight straight years on the road was enough, and the group went on ice. If they'd consciously stuck to their guns regardless of what the charts demanded, time now seemed against them. Their mid-period albums hadn't turned out as hoped and they were copping flak for sounding samey.

"We'd been living in a cocoon and I didn't really realise that until I stepped away. I didn't know any other bands or people really, just my family and the guys in the band, and I wasn't listening to much music - 10 years had passed and I had no idea what was going on."

It was another four years before they felt the itch to play again: "It's like living with someone for ages," he says. "It's not going to be great all the time, but I ended up missing our sound and being part of something - that moment when we'd count a song in and bam, that's the Warratahs, that's what I love about the band."

But the band celebrating their 30th anniversary is a different beast again, and maybe it was the now-65-year-old's exposure to the down-and-dirty styles of the Lyttelton country scene, but their sound has been stripped back down to its bones.

Their last award-winning album, Runaway Days, was recorded in just two days in a Devonport art gallery.

"That was a real lesson to me," says Saunders. "I'll never get involved in a big production number again and I should have learned that years ago."

He's back in his happy place with Brown and three former Tigers, the band that coulda shoulda and then damned near broke him.

As for Brown, he's stoked he can still find common ground with the new generation: "I think some kind of critical mass has been reached in country and we aren't a million miles from it. The whole vibe around this music has really picked up, but it's still about being honest, tuneful and having a good feel. There's something in the water and we want to keep being part of it."