From writer to rocker

Last updated 05:00 08/07/2011
INSPIRED: Damien Wilkins returns to music after a quarter of a century.
CRAIG SIMCOX/Dominion Post
INSPIRED: Damien Wilkins returns to music after a quarter of a century.

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 Music, not literature, was Damien Wilkins' first big thing.

It was the start of the 1980s. He was 17 or 18, a Lower Hutt youth swept up in the volume and rawness of punk music.

"It really came out of that whole punk thing of feeling you didn't have to know how to play an instrument to play an instrument and to form a band and make noise."

His parents bought him an amp. He and a friend made loops of discordant sounds in a garage and played along. He went to gigs at the Last Resort and Billy the Club, long- lost Wellington venues.

"That was sort of the period that really energised me about music - going along as a fan, just to see these bands."

He even played in a more conventional pop-rock band, The Jonahs, for a year. Their highlight was opening for the Chills to a crowd of 600 in Wellington.

Now he's an acclaimed author who's won just about every local writing prize you'd care to mention. He's a founding editor of literary magazine Sport. And he teaches at Victoria University's creative writing school, where he's taking a senior role as founder Bill Manhire exits.

It's literature, then, which has dominated his career. And yet, after a 25-year hiatus, Wilkins has returned to music. He's just released Group Hug, a full-length record by The Close Readers, the band he's hauled together for the album.

The whole thing happened almost by stealth, he says. First he started mucking around with a bit of music software. Then he pulled down one of his books and read a story over the sounds he'd created.

"Then I thought, 'Why am I trying to read a story over a piece of music? What would happen if I tried to sing it?"

Surprised that the result wasn't awful, he started furtively hunting out bits and pieces off Trade Me: a guitar, an amplifier, new software, a decent microphone.

"And at every point, I'd have to say to my partner and my family, 'Oh, I just need to get this'. They'd say, 'Why are you doing that?' It was still a bit sort of shameful.

"And then when I ended up with all this gear, I said to Maree, 'Look, it's cheaper than a sports car. If this is my mid-life crisis, it's not red and in the garage'."

Group Hug features tunes about getting babies to sleep, about love in St Louis, about optimism, and, a little surprisingly to Wilkins, a few about mental illness.

Lake Alice, for instance, looks at the infamous psychiatric hospital of the same name, where Wilkins had cousins who were staff members and a patient.

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"It is always something that I find quite haunting. And mental illness seems to be - I don't know if it's the Janet Frame effect - but there's a sense in which our whole cultural life is kind of haunted by going crazy, going mad."

Other songs recall Ian Hancock, a good friend of Wilkins who killed himself in the 1980s. (The album's dedicated to him too.) He was an "energetic, funny, lively" person, Wilkins says, with dyed hair, brothel creeper shoes and the odd pair of tartan trousers.

"He's one of those guys, and I think maybe we've all got someone like that, who you think about most days. Someone who sort of lives in your consciousness."

Writing lyrics felt very different to writing fiction, he says. He never had to dredge up plots and characters - the music brought them on. It was easier to be emotionally direct too. He'd tried writing a short story about Hancock's suicide before, but tossed the result because it was so bad.

"A lot of the things I wanted to say, I'd never been able to work out how to say them in fiction."

The other great perk of creating music was the collaborative side of it. Whenever Wilkins rang someone to ask for help, they said yes. Old bandmates he'd lost touch with showed up at his house to record their parts. After years of solitary slog on books, he'd forgotten the momentum that could come from a group project.

"If you're working on your novel, you're not going to ring Elizabeth Knox and say, 'Look, I've got this real problem with my image - what do you think?' "

So why did Wilkins give up on music the first time? Why did he trade in his precious guitar and amp and go silent for 25 years?

"I thought, really, there was so much great music being played by so many people who were so much better than I was. I had a moment of complete clarity about it. I just thought: 'Yeah, I've got as far as I can, I've seen my limits and that's it'."

Now he's been snagged by music again. He reckons he's spent hundreds of hours mastering his recording software. He hasn't written fiction in more than a year. He's got another album's worth of songs ready to go.

And while he doesn't have aspirations of hitting the big time, he's treating the music "absolutely seriously".

"It's not just a hobby for me. It's the thing which uses up my imaginative life at the moment . . .

"Some of my friends are saying, 'Hey, maybe you should write a novel about being a musician'. But it seems that stuff is lying back there. At the moment, this is what I want to do in the time I have."

The Details: Group Hug by The Close Readers is out now.

- The Dominion Post

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