An interview with Electric Wire Hustle’s Mara TK.
“CMJ is like meeting a thousand people all at once and to break the ice you shout at everyone; spaz-out, say something too intimate, weird people out. Some folks like that kind of shit though and you win them over,” Mara TK told me on September 11, 2013. The witty frontman’s Electric Wire Hustle is one of five New Zealand bands going to New York City’s biggest music festival. (The other four are David Lynch faves Tiny Ruins, Black City Lights, Streets Of Laredo, and Ghost Wave.) Earlier in the year I met the affable Mara on a sunny afternoon out back at Newtown’s Cafe Baobab. The fretful guitarist/father with the manuka-honey falsetto talked about his Dad Billy TK and Kanye West, Parihaka and NYC, and Austin’s SXSW. “Quite simply this is the best, most exciting R&B, soul, electronica, whatever you want to call it, record I’ve heard this year,” hip Okayplayer wrote about Electric Wire Hustle.
The moon moves high into the sky
I watch it like a dream
Your love falls down like firefall
But, I ain’t got time to see
When you call my name out loud
You know that I can hear
Long distance is my enemy
Until I have you near
—‘Moon Song’, Billy TK.
ALEXANDER BISLEY: Billy TK’s ‘Moon Song’ is ataahua (beautiful) and moving, Tuwharian.
MARA TK: It’s my favourite song of his. It’s a heirloom, so I’ve been freaking out about actually letting it go and putting it out [on Data Hui’s first album]. “Long distance is my enemy until I have you near” is so great. He wrote wonderfully poetic lines like “The moon moves high in to the sky/ I watch it like a dream/ Your love falls down like firefall.” So what I’m doing now is trying to preserve his legacy and get it out for people to see before he’s gone.
AB: Data Hui at the Botanic Gardens was cool, particularly seeing Billy, he’s still got presence. They call him the Maori Jimi Hendrix.
MTK: You’ll probably find there are about three or four or five Maori Jimi Hendrixs in the country. So which one is he? He’s still playing really well for a 65 year old guy, got a new lease on life, got the pension, went to Europe for the first time in 2011, and I think that changed his life a bit. He’s been going to these peace festivals in Europe and sort of preaching the gospel of peace; spirituality delivered through a blistering guitar.
AB: Talk to me more about Billy TK’s legacy?
MTK: He’s done a lot for Maori musicians, he’s been hugely influential to guitarists. He’s been an educator, he formed a group called Wharemana, or Powerhouse, and that became a massive community project where he was bringing young Maori kids in to learn their craft and how to play instruments. He brought in people from the theatre and dancers and elements of kapa haka, that production was 30-strong and they took that in to prisons and marae, he was one of the pioneers of Maori modern fusion. Songs like ‘Poi E’, half kapa haka, came out of the same circle of friends. And he copped a bit of flack for that at the time.
AB: Going into prisons, is the tradition that Jim Moriarty continues?
MTK: Exactly, what Jim Moriarty does is take kids while they are young and tries to get them interested in theatre, impart skills to people and I think that was part of Dad’s thing. I don’t think he directly saw himself as a social service [laughs], but he was in a lot of ways, taking young kids on the road. I don’t know how well they were fed or put up, but they certainly came out of it with a whole new set of survival skills, and skills on their instruments as well.
Over at least 45 years, he’s been a working musician. He’s covered a lot of ground geographically and bumped in to everyone and so many people have seen him one place or another so yeah he’s lived it, he’s a proper blues man.
AB: Where’s he based these days?
MTK: He’s based in the West Coast of the South Island. Just south of Karamea, little Wanganui down on the West Coast, the biggest dead end, the biggest cul-de-sac in New Zealand.
AB: He’s happy down there?
MTK: Oh yeah, he’s good. He pays $25 a week rent.
AB: So he’s been quite a musical influence for you?
MTK: I didn’t grow up with him 100% of the time, but certainly the time we did spend together was intensely musical and I believe that he spent enough time with me to impart his philosophies as a musician and a band leader and a producer. How to work hard and run a band, and try and get the best out of people. He’s been a huge influence. There’s a reason I can’t stop playing A minor and D minor.
I think Data Hui will be an interesting record for those reasons, and also you’ve got amazing players who come out of traditions of funk music. Crete Haami started out as a metal player, and he’s got the baddest chops because of it.
AB: Probably my favourite Electric Wire Hustle, ‘Burn’ (featuring Billy TK), is a powerful political statement, in New Zealand’s tradition of protest music like Herbs’ ‘French Letter’. It begins with this clip from David Lange’s mighty korero on the evils of nuclear weapons: “Rejecting nuclear weapons is to assert what is human over the evil nature of the weapon; it is to restore to humanity the power of the decision; it is to allow a moral force to reign supreme. It stops the macho lurch into mutual madness. And for me, the position of my country is a genuine long-term affirmation of this proposition: that nuclear weapons are morally indefensible. And I support that proposition.” Tell me a bit about the genesis of ‘Burn’?
MTK: We had been buzzing out on this debate between Lange and a foreign delegate of the States [Jerry Falwell] on nuclear weapons and how well he represents his own views, and the views of his country at large, it turned out. I don’t think any political issue has rallied so much of the country since?
AB: What do you want people to take away from ‘Burn’?
MTK: It might be the guitar that gets people, might be the harmonies. But if it made you look up David Lange and check him out and what a great politician he was then that would be cool. Compare him to the ones we’ve got in at the moment.
MTK: One of the guys that gets us, Maceo Wyro, who’s based in Warsaw, maybe he had an inside man? But we’re lucky we created a sort of cult classic. I guess we’re lucky hipsters like to fucking talk.
AB: Have you got more protest songs on Electric Wire Hustle’s second album?
MTK: There’s a couple on the second album, which is completed, one in particular is pretty overtly anti-government. We’re still looking for a record label to put it out through. It’s kinda a guitary album. You know my contemporaries are Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Opossum. The Mint Chicks, I really liked that band, and I think they came from the same place as me with psychedelic rock. You could say our first album was a take on soul music; this is our take on psychedelic rock, guitar albums. [Drummer] Myele’s a musician’s musician. I would call Taay Ninh [keys] the vision. He’s a designer, so we were able to do our website ourselves. There’s some protest songs on the Data Hui album also.
AB: Data Hui’s drummer Ricky Gooch, most well-known for Trinity Roots, has done a variety of very interesting projects since.
MTK: Oh man that guy is just great, he’s the best drummer that New Zealand’s ever produced. Him and Myele, but there’s nobody better in the studio.
AB: Why is that?
MTK: Well firstly as a musician, as a drummer he just knows how to hit his drums in the right way. Some drummers, when they get in the studio they don’t realise that if they smash their symbols like it’s the last song on a live show, then you’re probably going to wreck the whole drum take in mixing. As a producer he thinks outside the square. He has that sort of vitality that I think people need when they’re working in the studio to say ‘I’m going to climb the fucking rafters and hang this type of mic off the banisters, I’m going to risk my fucking life climbing this rickety fucking ladder, but I’m going to get up there and I’m going to hang this microphone in a particular way, and I’m going to drag the piano over and take the back off it and get the natural reverb from the piano strings vibrating,’ and then they go and they fucking pull the piano down and they scale the roof, and they do all those extra things that get you the type of sound that makes you go ‘wow that’s really something’ or ‘I haven’t heard that before.’ He’s got that. Other people who have that include Mike Fab.
AB: So in terms of your current musical inspirations, you get a lot from these local guys?
MTK: Yeah man, shit these are the guys I spend most of my life with. As much as I love Coltrane, the dude’s been dead how many decades now? Every time I see Aaron Tokona I’m thinking about our conversations for a week, just digesting all the crazy shit he was talking about. And the same with Ricky Gooch, and Crete Haami. I ask Crete about his Maori studies degree he did, and he always has some interesting proverb that he talks about. These Wellington musos are intriguing personalities. People like Ricky and Aaron and Crete are the best Maori musicians alive to me, the best musicians in the country.
AB: Wu Tang’s RZA is someone you rate?
MTK: Oh man, look at what the guy’s achieved. You couldn’t say they aren’t the biggest hip-hop group in the world. On top of that he’s one of the savviest businessmen in the game. He’s just put out a movie, The Man With the Iron Fists, and he spent around $50,000 of his own money to go and hang out with Tarantino on the set of Kill Bill in Shanghai. And hung out for weeks, and learned how to direct and somehow gets the money together to make a kung-fu film. What a crazy and interesting dude, chess master.
AB: He was ahead of the game, with Ghost Dog, getting in to film composing as a way of making a living. For people like you as a musician and me as a writer everyone expects to get our shit off the internet without paying for it. It’s hard making a living as a musician these days?
MTK: It can be, yeah man if you’re gonna be a musician you should be a singer. It’ll probably get you more money in the long run, think Jamaicans had the right idea, only singers and producers. It’s a double-edged sword. I’m pretty thankful for my life on days like today and I can’t complain too much, it’s up to me to make it work and that’s what I intend on doing. I’ve got a couple of exciting production jobs in the pipeline, producing Ria Hall for example.
AB: Did you meet any New York rappers while you were in New York?
MTK: Haha no, but we did meet Gandalf, Sir Ian McKellan, and had a great dinner with him, if you want me to name drop.
AB: He is impressive.
MTK: I don’t know about his skills on the mic.
AB: He’s got some gravitas.
MTK: He cooks a pretty fucking good pasta. I met the guy who represents Wu Tang the brand and he was interesting. He said he went to law school to figure out how to break the law. I didn’t realise a lot of them are deeply religious.
AB: Your flattie Mike Fab enthuses about your fried chicken (and your dancing). What was your favourite rap album of last year?
MTK: I want to produce a rap album for Shabazz Palaces. The Black Up, lyrically that’s amazing. People are saying the Kendrick Lamar album. I think he’s quite a strange rapper, but there’s definitely some stuff on that album that I love. Watch the Throne had some great joints on it.
AB: I have to confess I’m a Kanye West fan.
MTK: Hell yeah man, there aren’t many more compelling rappers than him out and he happens to be the baddest producer as well.
AB: Have you seen him live?
MTK: Yeah the dude travels with like 30 ballet dancers, it’s crazy. I think he’s probably a pretty deep cat. As much as people say he’s annoying, you can’t put on a Kanye West track without being enthralled by it, for better or for worse. You can’t ignore the dude when he comes on the radio.
AB: He’s been putting out terrific, varied albums for a while. 808s & Heartbreak was resonating a lot for me after a winter travel romance ended.
MTK: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an incredible body of work. It’s hard to separate [single out] tracks on that record. Fuck he’s great.
AB: It was exciting being in New York?
MTK: Yeah man, it was at the end of our SXSW experience, and that was hectic, crazy; five days of traversing the town multiple times to get from this venue to that showcase to that showcase, 20 minutes of material, set up and go.
AB: I’d be interested to hear more about SXSW and Austin?
MTK: It’s a cool festival. We saw Erykah Badu and after the MC finished, the presenter said “look the next act is a surprise and you want to stick around for them,” we didn’t and it turned out it was Nas. There’s incredible stuff happening everywhere, and Austin, you keep being surprised you are in Texas, it’s quite liberal. There’s some good food around. We had an amazing time. I’ve had a few tour experiences when they’re better in retrospect. You sort of distil them, over the course of time, so they all end up being quite good memories.
AB: Distil down the best bits and forget the rest?
MTK: Women forget all about childbirth and want to have another one. That’s topical. My partner Jessie [Elsie Locke’s granddaughter] wants to have a second baby.
AB: How’s it being back from your big European tour, and living in Berlin? I saw you performed at a Hungarian festival the electrifying The Roots also played.
MTK: I kiss the ground because my family got back safe and I didn’t end up homeless in Lithuania or something. I love our country. I drove back past the state-house I grew up in Christchurch, and it was pretty poor when I was there and now it’s like driving into South Auckland. It was crazy, this is Christchurch. So I think people are poorer than they ever have been in this country, the disparity. Have you ever seen so many Countdowns before? Doing some travel abroad, I think you always come home with a lot of perspective, and I’m always shocked by our own country, shocked by its beauty and potential, and some huge problems.
AB: What’s your favourite local music festival?
MTK: Parihaka is probably my favourite New Zealand festival of all time. I performed there twice.
AB: There’s magic in those hills, a really special feeling.
MTK: There is. It was a tragedy that Te Miranga Hohaia passed away.
AB: It’s so sad. He was a lovely and inspirational man.
MTK: That’s right. I hope someone has the drive to pick up that mantle again and I’ll be the first one to put my hand up to go and perform.
AB: What’s a film you found stimulating recently?
MTK: Life of Pi covers a lot of ground. It talks about a lot of things like nature and while he’s out there on the ocean he has to smash up this fish, and he’s this vegetarian Indian kid and he’s forced to kill in the movie. The carnivorous island blows my mind, what does it mean? Is it a metaphor for cities? Life of Pi sorta deals with fatherhood also. I remember him talking about his dad at the end.
© David St George 2013. All Rights Reserved.
This article was updated on September 30, 2013.
Data Hui play at the Wellington Jazz Festival opening party on June 7. Thanks to Kimaya McIntosh for some transcription assistance on this article.
Recent highlights from Alexander’s New Zealand music series include the Phoenix Foundation and Fat Freddy’s Drop. He interviewed Ian McKellen about King Lear in 2007, and is currently finishing a significant article on Savage to be published at the end of May. A key angle on South Auckland’s finest is his father.
 This is the first time ‘Moon Song’ has been published. Published with permission, copying prohibited.
 Pages such as 17, 21, 22 at link.