THE VIEW FROM MY WINDOW
Paul Casserly has been there in the background of some of our most intriguing media of the past three decades – from Dad’s Tips on 95bFM to the TV adventures of Anika Moa and, more recently, the quirky, arty bits of Seven Sharp. But for the past five years, he and Fiona McDonald have been quietly working on a return of their collaboration as Strawpeople. With the new Strawpeople album, Knucklebones, out this week, he talks media, music and mortality.
The view from my window looks out on to some beautiful old totaras that have to be hundreds of years old and a tūī feeder that sometimes gets blown down in the inclement weather. We’re in Northcote and we used to be able to see all the way to North Head, but the trees have come on. Down at the bottom of our road is Kauri Glen, which was bequeathed as a reserve back in the day. There used to be a lot of mature trees on the North Shore.
The garden is really my partner Alice’s domain, but we live around trees, so I’m cleaning the gutters a lot and it’s a kind of precarious operation. So I deal with the gutters, I deal with the bins. I love a bit of water blasting, given the chance – it’s quite a nice meditative activity. Everyone loves water blasting, right?
I have a lovely studio downstairs where I can spend a bit of time for making music and editing videos and so forth. It was a bar back in the day when they built bars in old 70s houses. That kind of vibe. A big rumpus room.
That’s where Fiona McDonald and I have got together over the past five or six years to write the Strawpeople album. Some of the songs on the album are quite definite in their direction – and some of them, I’ll have a line or Fiona will have a line and then we build a song around it. The vibe overall is kind of nostalgic, I guess. But actually, when I think about it, that’s always been the case with Strawpeople songs. They’re kind of a mournful celebration – that’s pretty much the vibe. We’re not Don McGlashan writing about events.
Fiona would come over for a couple of hours a week, that was pretty much it initially. And then we realised, in our dotage, that we can only do about two and a half hours of focused work and that’s enough. And so, we just kept chipping away at it over a five-year period. It took a long time, because I was kind of distracted doing things, working in TV and radio and other stuff.
I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to do stuff that I enjoy doing. I’ve worked with Anika Moa on her various TV projects and I’m currently working with her on a new series. For the last four years, I’ve been at TVNZ as a producer on Seven Sharp. We’ll have the morning meeting, which everyone’s involved in, and talk about what’s on the show and get input about how to deal with everything – who we should talk to, whether we have a camera available, whatever. There’s also the longer, pre-recorded items, which is what I mostly work on. I quite enjoy shooting as well, so I often do the second camera for interviews. My favourite day is when I get to go out and shoot in the field.
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I know my way in the front door of the TVNZ Archives. There are some dedicated archivists there and they speak the language and they know where everything is. There’s a lot of stuff there, it’s deep. One of my favourite finds was this great footage of chopper bicycles. At one stage back in the day, there was a moral panic about chopper bikes, which were considered to be dangerous because some kids would fall and hurt themselves on the crossbar. So I found this archive of that short in the 70s, and ran a little story about it. And then immediately the woman who was the child in the in the film calls up and we were able to do a catch-up story. That’s why I enjoy working there so much – that and being in that newsroom and seeing the likes of Barbara Dreaver plying their trade.
I’m a news fan from way back, but I never got into journalism school. Thank God for 95bFM. That was my out. Back to the early days with Mark [Tierney] and the bFM eight-track and Rick Huntington – without bFM, Strawpeople wouldn’t exist. I guess we’ve just been fortunate enough to grow up with it. We actually have the Chris Knox 91.8 poster framed in our living room. That probably says it all.
I still listen to bFM all the time. I’m a big fan of Rachel Ashby – what a great broadcaster she is – and Jonny on Drive. I love Sundays, especially if it’s if it’s Miss Dom or Frances Chan on the Jazz Show. Slave [aka Mark Williams] does such a great show. I even love the theatre of Border Radio, especially with Bernie Griffin. I started a routine of spending Tuesday nights with my mum, who has dementia – and on the way back from that it’s always Stinky Jim on bFM on the car radio.
Strawpeople only played live a couple of times – neither Mark or I were really musicians and also, we were bit lazy. But we have been working on something. Along with Joost Langeveld and Chris van der Geer at Big Pop – the Dutchies, we call them – one of the things that made this album come alive was Matthias Jordan, who was the keyboard player in Pluto. He’s an incredible collaborator and he’s co-written a few of the songs. I was kind of stuck in the doldrums and got him in to come and help out and it really gave a kickstart to the whole thing.
So yeah, the first step is we’re doing RNZ Live and from there, we’re going to build up a live set. We’re looking at next year. Another thing was seeing Fiona at that final Headless Chickens show at The Others Way – it made me think, “S***, she needs to do some performing.” That show was part of us getting back together – and also Grant [Fell] dying. He was a force for good, wasn’t he? We actually tried to write a song about him after he died. Fiona had this line and we tried to write a song about Grant around it. It didn’t work out, but was a nice way to think about him.
As told to Russell Brown
Knucklebones releases today, August 4, with a limited vinyl run available from all good record stores.