This week's RNZ Music mixtape selector is The Eastern's Adam McGrath. He shares tales of his rugged Southern upbringing with Kirsten Johnstone.
Adam McGrath and his faithful bandmate in The Eastern Jess Shanks traveled and played nearly non-stop for about ten years, collecting and interpreting stories of salt-of-the-earth folk, being champions for the downtrodden and under-valued.
On the verge of another extensive tour, Adam tells some tales of his own upbringing, and how music helped him through some of the rough patches.
Elvis Presley – G.I. Blues
My Dad worked on fishing boats but he also would sort of hustle things. Things that maybe were found, not strictly legally, would arrive in our house as a kind of a way station and then find their way to another place, if you know what I mean.
You mean they fell off the back of a truck?
Fell off back of trucks, fell out of houses and things like that. All kinds of things were always ending up at our house.
Where was he a fisherman?
In Christchurch, on the West Coast, all over New Zealand. He's a kind of interesting cat, like if you talk to old seamen... I'll be up at the working men's club in Lyttelton and talk to old dudes there and they're like, ‘You're bloody Dickie Lobb’s boy’. He was quite old when he had me. If you were at sea in the 50s, 60s, 70s my Dad was probably someone who you might have known or were scared of or liked drinking with or something like that.
So things were always showing up at my house and one day I was maybe four or five and a big old radiogram, a turntable stereo the ones that are all wood, heavy, with the nice material over the speakers, it just showed up at my house. They put it in my room because there was nowhere else to put it. I was obsessed with it. I didn't even know how to use it but I would sit in front of it all the time.
My mum would show me how to turn the radio on. Then they just saw that I loved it so they gave me some records and I got Johnny Cash, Song of the Soil, Rolf Harris but we don't really want to talk about that.
Then two Elvis records because my mum loved Elvis. My mum was like of a generation when she should have been listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and things but she hated that. She only listened to old rock and roll music and country music. Elvis was her favourite. She brought me two Elvis records. One was the soundtrack to Girl Happy which isn't that great and one was the soundtrack to GI Blues. I was sort of into toy soldiers and things I was like, "This is it. He's in a uniform. He's a soldier. This is the coolest music ever. I just would play that album over and over and over again.
Run DMC - Run's House
Back to your Dad. He was a fisherman and a hustler. Was he one of those Dads who made up for his absence in gifts?
No. Not at all. The gift of the gab maybe is the only thing he left me. I don't even know if I got that. He wasn't around that much. When he was with my mum he actually had another family at the same time. So he would say I'm going to sea but he was just going across town to hang out with them and vice versa. He had three daughters. Now we know each other and we're friends and close.
I'm pretty bad at having a family because I'm not really used to it. I'm really bad at keeping in touch with them but they're amazing and beautiful and really kind to me even though my dad was useless they are certainly not. They're great.
How did you find out about them? How old were you when you found out?
This was maybe five or six years ago. The [NZ] Herald did an article for Father’s day on New Zealand song writers and their fathers. All the people were, ‘Oh my Dad, what an inspiration. What a guy. He's just really helped me on my journey and with my craft.’ My particular story was ‘my Dad used to make play one video game at the Daytona Racing Carts and would get me good at it and then would bet on me with other people to make money off of me.’
He split pretty young so he wasn't really there or present but there was a photo of him and me in there. His sister or his niece saw it and was like, ‘That's Richard.’ Then they were like, ‘That must be Adam, the lost son.’
Suddenly I got a phone call from my auntie, his sister and I didn't know any of his side of the family. They were like, "We would love to talk to you. I know it sounds weird but we'd love to meet you. Suddenly I had a whole family just like that. Just popped up. It was really great because my mum was abandoned as a baby and she grew up in orphanages. When she was a teenager she was raised by this amazing incredible lady who became ostensibly her mum and then my grandma. But no real blood relatives.
And then suddenly I have this. I have all these sisters. I have this huge family. They made me feel so welcome and so loved. It made me feel like I was connected to something. Like I was part of something. I didn't just show up. That's a really good feeling. I'm really grateful for that.
Tell me about the next track on your mixtape.
Run DMC, ‘Run's House’. From those first records, I was obsessed with music, any record I could get my hands on. It was generally coming from my mum so Bill Haley and The Comets, Kris Kristofferson. My dad sort of looks a little bit like Kris Kristofferson. When he was away I'd imagine that Kris Kristofferson was my dad. I'd play Kris Kristofferson records all the time. They all came from my mum.
Then I heard, like a lot of other kids probably, ‘Walk This Way’ by Run DMC and Aerosmith. Immediately I was just hooked. I hadn't seen my dad for maybe a year or two years. Hadn't heard from him. I was nine. I come home and there's this jar of money that he'd sent me. He sent me a computer. This old ZX Spectrum computer.
We took that money and went and bought some stuff but I was able to buy a tape. I bought Run DMC's Raising Hell and then suddenly it felt like it was mine. I went nuts for ... We didn't call it Hip Hop then, maybe I was too young. We just called it rap music. I just became obsessed. I had a little paper run and any money I got was spent on Run DMC, The Beastie boys, Houdini, Eric B and Rakim, LL Cool J, all of those guys. That was all I cared about. I used to have this order at Whitcoulls for this magazine called Rap Masters. Then whoever was in that magazine is what I would try and find.
I didn't have much money but I'd just get whatever I could. Tougher than Leather by Run DMC came out, the Run DMC movie came out. I was just crazy for it. They were like my guys. Daryl McDaniels, I was just crazy for it. They were like my guys. Daryl McDaniels is DMC in Run DMC, he had glasses and I've had glasses since I was a little kid. I thought well he has glasses and he's cool as hell then maybe there's hope for me. ‘Run's House’ it's just, it's so strong and you can't not hear it and feel the earth shaking. That's why I chose that because that was representative of where I was at just then.
One of my greatest friendships ever was my friend Brendan Thompson. We met each other in form one. Initially we didn't like each other. Then he had Run DMC written on one of his books and we were in the same cooking class or something. I said, ‘You like Run DMC?’ He just started doing the lyrics to ‘You Be Ill'n’ and I did them too. We both knew them by heart. We just had it together. That was one of our greatest friendships. I saw the power of words then. I guess.
The Rollins Band - Do It
What kind of a kid were you?
I was horrible. I was a little shit. Loud and violent and aggressive and mean and always doing all the bad things. The weird thing is I always liked to read. I was terrible at school. No good at all whatsoever but give me books I was ready to go. That was always my saving grace I guess. I wouldn't say I was a nice kid. I feel bad now I'm out in the world and doing stuff and I meet people that I went to school with and stuff like that. It's this thing that always happens to me where everyone goes, ‘I was really scared of you but you're actually quite nice.’
Little Alex Behan, the host of Music 101 he was quite terrified of you.
Yeah I remember Alex from school. The thing is I'm pretty big. I'm 6'4" and I've been 6'4" since I was 12. I played rugby league growing up. That wasn't good even though you think that would be a good thing for rugby league but when you're a giant 13 year old 6'4" white kid with a flaming red mullet you might as well just draw a target on your back. It's just like, ‘Get that guy.’ Aside from that it kept me safe at least I guess. I apologize to anyone that I imposed upon when I was younger. There it is.
Speaking of things that are pretty aggressive, the next thing on your mixtape is The Rollin’s band.
I became a huge metal fan and someone gave me a copy of the first Danzig Album on tape. On the other side there was the Repo Man soundtrack. On that was a Black Flag song. I just was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ Then suddenly that was it for me. That's all I cared about was punk rock.
I read an interview, an article in this Metal Hammer magazine on Henry Rollins. He was just unlike anybody else that I had ever experienced. He didn't drink he didn't do drugs. He did a lot of sit ups, that kind of thing. There was just this intensity.
He was just this force. A force that was completely contrary to anything else at that point. He didn't have a mohawk, he had a crew cut. He wasn't drinking Jack Daniels he was just drinking ice water or whatever it is. Then I found the Rollins Band. Like all teenagers I was completely lost, totally confused. My problem was I was totally lost and totally confused but I wasn't going inward I was going outward. I was all 'let's break things'. 'Let's hurt things' and that kind of deal.
Suddenly I found a kind of music that helped me channel that. Almost like a philosophy, not that it's written down or anything like that but this sort of idea of handling yourself and taking care of yourself and being focused and about work and not about chaos. For some reason, I guess it was some military part of my brain, I just connected in such a deep way.
I was into all of Henry Rollins' books. He's not the greatest writer but when you're a teenager and you're the kind of teenager that I was, it just was so powerful to me. He was like my dad. He totally raised me. If it wasn't for that I'd be a total mess. A total F-up. I'm really grateful to him.
The song that I chose is a cover of a band called The Pink Fairies who are an English band from the early 70s I think. The song, ‘Do It’, it was like, ‘Yeah, just do it. Just get it done.’
Woody Guthrie - Hard Travelin’
Like many others before me and many others after me, what I do is not a particularly special thing. I'm not pushing any kind of boundaries. I'm just taking my place in a long line of people who do a similar thing that I do. Woody Guthrie's the boss. He just really spoke to me and gave me a blueprint of how to do things.
The reason why I chose [‘Hard Travelin’] is that I spent some time rambling around the United States playing music wherever I could.
This was in your mid 20s?
Yeah sort of around there. Playing on the street and that's where I learned how to do stuff. It's really good for you to go somewhere and be ignored where you have to fight for it a little bit. Playing on the street will do that for you. I always had this sort of idea that I was going to make my way into it. Into the Crucible and get to Mississippi and get to Memphis and go to Nashville and see all of these things.
I go there and I'm there and I'm in Nashville and I thought it would be all like Waylon and Willie and the boys and everyone sitting around singing songs. It was literally two kinds of things. There was real commercial country music and then there's this other sort of faux country music which is sort of this hipster kind of country music. Both of these factions, all they cared about was making it. The desperation is gross. You walk around and you're just peeling it off your face.
You weren't in Nashville to make it?
I wanted to go where songs were from. I can't make it. I don't have it in me to make it. I'm not good looking enough. I'm not young enough. I'm not quick enough. I can't make it. I'm never going to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone. There is no making it to happen. I just want to stay alive and see shit.
Anyway so I'm in Nashville and it was depressing and I didn't like it and I couldn't really make a living on the street because everyone in Nashville sings. I'd be busking 7, 6 hours a day. I was staying in a really crappy dodgy place and nothing was good about it. I was walking around and I was like, ‘What am I doing? I'm just going to go back to New Zealand. I'm going to get a job. This is dumb.’ I'm walking because I just walk everywhere. I'm way out of downtown Nashville. Way out into it in the middle of nowhere in some sort of industrial kind of area.
I'm crossing the road and it's raining and it's miserable and I'm listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor which will make you feel depressed and grim. I'm feeling it and I cross the road and there's a telephone pole on the other side of the street and spray painted on it is a stencil of a famous photograph from the Depression. The photograph is of these two guys walking away from the camera in the dust with their suitcases and on this sort of dusty road and next to them is a billboard that says with these smiling blue eyed people it says, ‘Next time take the train.’
Anyway the stencil's of these two guys and underneath it says ‘Hard Travelin’.’ I was obsessed with Woody Guthrie and suddenly all made sense. Everything made sense. It was like, ‘Oh, it's not going to be easy. That's the point. This is good. This is good that you're depressed. This is good that you have no money. This is good you're going nowhere. This is exactly what it should be.’
Literally from that point I was like, ‘Okay, can't stop, won't stop, don't stop. Whatever it is is exactly what it's meant to be.’ Yeah it's going to be hard, Woody told me that. I don't know why I didn't listen. I don't know why it took me seeing that stencil for it to make sense. Now it makes sense. That was a long time ago and here we are.
Public Enemy, ‘Everything'
When I came back to New Zealand I only meant to stay for a little bit of time. I was with my partner at the time and she was American. We were trying to get a Visa and came back here. Then I suddenly came back here and I was like, ‘Ah, this is the point. This is the point. Why would I want to be in America? Why there? There's nothing there that's any different than here. The only difference is me and I'm from here.’ I stayed and then I met Jess from The Eastern and we decided to go out into it. She'd been living in the United States too.
So she had the same attitude towards touring and making music that you did?
Well I think she just wanted an adventure. I think she just wanted to ... we had sort of crested our 20s and sort of found ourselves right back where we started and kind of were like, ‘Let's just keep running as far as we can before we have to get into the real stuff that everyone else does with honor. We'll just keep avoiding it.’ I guess that was the whole point of The Eastern was to just keep running.
Thinking oh maybe if we can make it a year and have some adventures it'll be cool, but yeah it changed our whole lives.
I remember you would tour absolutely non-stop.
We just made this decision. It was literally a decision like, "Let's not do anything else, nothing else and just see what happens." That's it. It's just that kind of thing if you just untether yourself from everything ... For Jess it was her plans and her family or whatever. For me it was my relationship and my home and all of these things. Just go. The comfort level drops significantly but the excitement level is ramped up to 100. I don't want to say that and I don't want anyone to go, "Oh yeah I'm going to do that too." I've been there. Just stay away. Go back. It's not worth it.
It always seemed to me that you had each other though. You and Jess you had each other. You had your songs. You had your audiences. You had your van. What else?
My achievement level is not high but my greatest achievement is maintaining a friendship with Jess. She's my sister. She's always there. She's always got my back. I doubt myself whether I'm deserving of that or not but I'm so grateful.
Next on your mixtape is Public Enemy, ‘Everything’.
Everything, yeah. This to me, this song, kind of informed our last record with The Eastern, The Territory.
This song to me was the biggest influence on that because the song is real every day. Whatever experience it is being a musician, especially one who is able to live off music, is a bubble. You're not getting up at 7 o’clock to go and clean floors all day. You're off on tour. You're not at home dealing with your kids or whatever it is. It's this weird thing. But people are out there and people are working and people are doing it hard. Within that they're still finding grace and love and majesty every day. This song to me speaks to that.
Joe Strummer - Yalla Yalla
You mentioned you've been living overseas for the last couple of years. I didn't realize that. Where have you been living and why?
I've been in Europe. I've been in Switzerland actually.
Did you fall in love?
Yeah. But with all of it, up, down, bad, in, out, just everything. Basically everyone in The Eastern decided let's just catch our breath a little bit. We put out the record, The Territory. We were just about to begin a vast year long tour that and was just going to go and go and go and then my mum passed away.
I sort of got messed up because of that and just burned out, just didn't know if I was coming or going and I think that was true for everyone else. We just all needed to kind of find out what life was outside of the band.
Grow some roots.
Yeah, just see if we could be real humans again. You start this thing and you don't know what it's going to be like and then you wake up 10 years later and you're like, ‘Whoa, that was amazing but I'm not a whole person.’ I'm not much of a sort of a wellness-quinoa-farmers-market kind of dude. It's all good for you, but it's not something that I apply in my life very much. I like the fact that my knees hardly work or I have to lift my belly over my belt. I'm cool with that. It's okay.
It was really like, "Let's just remember that we are people and we maybe have people that we want to be connected to.
I met someone and went over there to be with them. I can't say that it worked out in the end but I'm glad of it. I was glad of the risk and I was glad of catching my breath a little bit.
Last stop on your mixtape is Joe Strummer. I believe you met Joe Strummer from The Clash at some point?
Yeah. He played at the Big Day Out here in New Zealand a long time ago. He'd been virtually retired for a long time. He wasn't making records, wasn't doing anything. Then suddenly puts out a record and he's just touring and he's in it again. There's this really great documentary of that tour you can find and it's him out there with his CD going to radio stations trying to talk to people and knocking on doors going, ‘No, I'm Joe Strummer, I was in The Clash. You know the Clash? Rock the Casbah?’
So yeah he played at The Big Day Out. He was on one of the side stages. Whoever was there for that show was there because it was Joe. I was right up the front. The show was great. I jumped over the barricade and I swapped T shirts with him.
He just took off his ... He just?
That was the coolest thing because I was like, ‘We're going to trade T shirts.’ I took off my shirt and he didn't even pause he immediately was just like, ‘This is what we're doing.’
Well you're 6'4".
That's the thing. His T shirt looked like a crop top on me and mine on him looked like a night dress. I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing.’ Then the next morning I was at the airport at seven in the morning at Auckland Airport and my girlfriend at the time said, ‘You should go outside and see who's out there.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I went outside and literally sitting around the side of the airport was this guy wearing a cowboy hat, smoking a spliff with a ghetto blaster playing like cumbia music or something and it was seven in the morning. I was like, ‘Of course.’
I didn't want to bother him and then when he went back in I just went up and started talking to him. He was so cool. He was half cut but it was great. He was interested in me. He didn't want to talk about him. He didn't care that I found him inspiring and all this stuff he wanted to talk about me. That was really special.
You kept that T shirt didn't you?
I keep that T shirt and every now and again I'll cut a little bit off of it and I'll give it to people that I believe in and say, ‘Hey, have a little bit of this.’
You keep it inside your guitar right?
I do. I keep pieces of it inside my guitar.
Yalla Yalla was off this sort of comeback record. The lyrics to the song [include], "so long liberty, let's forget you didn't show. Not in our time but maybe in our sons' and daughters' time". How good is that line?
The song, it goes everywhere. It goes from townships in South Africa but then he's talking about Kool Moe Dee and the treacherous three. Then he's having a kebab. It's such a loving song. It's full of hope.
I'm real cynical and I'm real dark in my brain. But I've got to hang on to the hope because otherwise I've got nothing else. This song expresses that. It's saying live. We have to live because if we don't live then they win. The bad stuff wins. Whatever the opposite of liberty is, then that wins.
All the best things that we can do as humans are carried in the smallest parts of ourselves and often in the people who have the smallest voice. The song sort of speaks to that. It also says it's okay if we're going to get drunk and hang out all night and sing so I'm all about that too.
I'm really looking forward to hanging out and singing and getting drunk with you on this extensive tour that you're about to embark on.
We're going all the way and I'm really bad. I'm not on Instagram, I'm not on Twitter. I update the Facebook once every hundred years. I'm bad at that stuff. Show up and if you show up I want to hang out. It's not about me showing up and offering my art to anything even though it's Arts On Tour. We're trying to have a communion. I'll probably talk more though because I tend to do that and I apologise if I rambled on in this thing.