The first words I said to him were "f*** off".
I was coming off-stage at an all-ages venue, all juiced on what my 14-year-old self thought was a groundbreaking rock performance. So when an older kid gave me a congratulatory, "Nice set," I replied it with a misguided attempt at playing it cool. "F*** off," I said, with woeful false bashfulness.
The older kid walked away. He was slightly elfish and wore a Disneyland cardigan that set him apart from the crowd of wannabe punks in their mum's borrowed denim. As I put my guitar away, a friend grabbed my shoulder, "Dude, that was Reuben Winter."
The colour dropped from my flushed cheeks. "Oh crap."
If you were playing music in the mid-2010s, Reuben Winter was the gold standard. He was in the best punk bands, made the best electronic music, turned the dancefloor loose with his wild DJ sets. He was the real deal.
They say never meet your heroes but I ended up becoming good mates with mine. After forgiving me for the initial idiocy, we made music, went on tour and shared experiences that altered the core of who I am. I loved him.
And then he died.
When an artist dies, their life is in danger of becoming a series of legendary moments that fans covet and pass around like trading cards. I find myself trying hard to keep the memory of my friend from slipping back into the idol that I only knew from afar.
On April 20, the album Reuben recorded the year before he passed, Milk III, was released by Flying Nun. As his art makes its way into the world it is important to recognise the man whose aroha brought a creative community together.
Reuben Samuel Winter (Waitaha/Kāi Tahu/Te Aupōuri/Te Rarawa/Ngāti Kuri) was always born to rock. Baby Reuben could sleep only to the sounds of guitar solos and, as he got older, he quickly learned to play them himself.
Things got serious when at age 15, Reuben's band, Bandicoot, opened the 2010 Big Day Out.
His mum, Iona Winter, remembers the moment well. "They just ripped into it, it was incredible. I just remember him being really pissed off that he couldn't jump into the audience with his guitar."
Reuben's nan, Kaye, says: "Big Day Out was a watershed moment. Everyone that observed him could see the raw talent that was pouring out of this kid."
But, she notes, "At the back of all of this was his chronic pain situation."
The same moment this teenager was diving into a career making wild music, he was also realising that his body was not an ally to this cause.
Reuben suffered from an illness called fibromyalgia, whereby painful sensations are created and amplified due to disruption in the way the nervous system processes signals.
Iona described the illness as invisible and it is true that many people who knew Reuben had no idea how often he was in pain. Of all his performances, this was the one that took the biggest toll.
Iona said she would often see Reuben "in the fetal position on the floor. Unable to breathe, unable to move, in tears. It was just too big for a young person to deal with. Way too big."
But during this time of growing suffering, Reuben was becoming a bastion of the underground music scene.
A long-time champion of New Zealand music, Ian "Blink" Jorgenson, says it is impossible to quantify Reuben's influence.
"There was a thing about Reuben that I hadn't seen previously and I haven't seen since. He was not afraid to tackle any genre. He just wanted to absorb music and to be involved in everything."
Blink says Reuben was an anomaly in a scene divided between punk rockers, electronic producers and weirdos less easily defined. Reuben did all of it and did it extremely well.
By the mid 2010s, his most popular project was as electronic producer Totems.
Blink describes "a period when Totems was getting offered contracts left right and centre. High profile managers, publishing companies, record labels were all reaching out to him."
Around this time Reuben was asked to make remixes for an up and coming Takapuna high schooler called Lorde. He checked out the SoundCloud and didn't think it was his style. Weeks later Royals was released.
But Blink makes it clear that Reuben wasn't seeking fame, "He just wanted to work on tons of other projects. He wanted to work with different people, he wanted to go on tour. I think that just being Totems would not have made him happy."
But it is hard enough to get a record label to spend money on one weird project, let alone an artist with a dozen of them. Especially in New Zealand.
"He was too weird," says Blink. "But that's the reason he was so good."
An artist who thinks New Zealand's reluctance to engage with "weird" artists is a problem, is Eden Jouavel, of the hip-hop duo Eden x Dirty.
"People like Reuben need to be given a chance. There are so many amazing musicians that just don't get opportunities.
"Look at who gets [NZ On Air] funding. It is the same people, over and over. Why are artists who are well established getting funding when people on their own are missing out?"
The New Zealand music scene's issue of engagement is a difficult one, according to Emma Hall-Phillips, who DJs as Aw B.
"Because our country is so small there is only room for a small pool of artists that can actually make any money. When you have a non-commercial sound like Reuben, there is only so far you can go."
But Emma says that commercialism didn't stop Reuben being true to his craft. "So many people wanted to steer his vision, but he chose his own way. He was a pure creative force unto himself."
I witnessed that force first hand when we toured the US in 2017. Reuben would scream across the stage, his instruments a barely controllable beast wailing and pounding with precision. Every movement struck with the passion of the musical abandon wailing inside of him.
As Iona says, "When Reuben performed something much bigger came through him. He said it gave him an outlet for what he was feeling."
On that tour I think what Reuben was feeling was pain. The tour was the first time I had come face-to-face with the reality that my friend lived with day-to-day, and how intertwined it was with the thing he loved most in the world.
Reuben's partner and creative collaborator, Grace Verweij, saw the aftermath of his performances close up.
"It was getting increasingly difficult for him to perform. Because he was an incredibly passionate performer, there would be a physical impact for weeks following.
"It was heartbreaking, but he was always willing to do it. Sometimes there would be anxious anticipation of the pain, but he would put that aside and do it anyway because music was his way of communicating with the world."
As the pain grew, so did its impact on Reuben's mental health.
"His physical and his mental health were a feedback loop," says Grace. "Negative mental experience contributed to tension in the body, which would create muscle spasms, pain and fatigue, which would then go on to influence his mental state."
What do you do when the thing that you love more than anything is hurting you beyond belief?
Reuben was not complacent with his lot. He tried relentlessly to improve upon his situation. He made countless attempts to break the feedback loop he was in. He would wake in pain both mental and physical, day after day and face it with courage. But ultimately it proved too much.
In September, 2020, Reuben Samuel Winter took his own life.
When Reuben passed, he left a hole in the New Zealand music community that will never be filled. But he also left behind a glorious taonga in the album he completed in the final year of his life.
Milk III is a culmination of a life immersed in music. A life spent leading the vanguard of the New Zealand underground.
By the time he came to record, the album was fully formed in his mind.
"He was meticulous," says Lachie Smith, who played bass on the record. "He knew exactly what he wanted, right down to the little details."
The end result was an album that Reuben was extremely proud of, says Lachie, "I think this album is the accumulation of everything he has done. He has made some incredibly amazing work in his time, but this is something special."
But like a lot of work that Reuben put his heart into, it was difficult to find support for the album. Sadly an outlet was only found after he had died.
Grace says that for loved ones left behind, the mahi behind releasing the album has been an extremely potent experience.
"Iona and I couldn't listen to the album for months after Reuben died. The day we did, the experience reinforced why it is important to release it. It will be a tool for people to understand Reuben's lived experience, to process and heal."
Iona agrees that this album needs to be heard, "This is the stuff he was trying to let us know."
Milk III is Reuben Winter's first release on a major New Zealand label. The record is not a hastily cobbled-together posthumous release. Every second of sound, every distinctly layered crunching guitar, every moment of complex orchestration was lovingly crafted by its maker.
When an artist dies their art takes on a new meaning but so do the actions of their life. I spoke to many people in writing this story and, while it is impossible to share all of the aroha that Reuben imparted, all the voices talked of his power to connect.
He brought people outside of their inner worlds and encouraged them to create something more together than they could have ever imagined on their own.
If Reuben has taught me anything in his life, it is the courage required for artists in New Zealand to create.
Courage is not a strong enough word. What do you call it when you wake up every morning wracked with pain and you roll out of bed and attempt to create something that makes a stranger feel less alone in the world?
I think you have to call that heroism. The hard-working heroism of creating something people may not be ready to hear. The fearless heroism of working your ass off for something many may not appreciate. The quiet heroism of choosing to be weird in New Zealand.
Where to get help ?
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
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