2 Oct 2016

Murray Burns: keyboardist from Mi-Sex

From Sunday Morning, 10:06 am on 2 October 2016

Back in the late '70s Mi-Sex were top of the charts, with their groundbreaking first album Graffiti Crimes spawning the massive hit 'Computer Games'.

Now they're back on the road, with singer Steve Balbi replacing original frontman Steve Gilpin, who died in a car accident in 1992.

Keyboardist and founding member Murray Burns joins Wallace Chapman to talk about the good old days and what the band is doing now.

Mi Sex

Mi-Sex (2016 line-up) Photo: supplied

On the band name:

The very early Ultravox had a singer called John Foxx. And he wrote… I’d call it more a poem than a song called 'My Sex'. We performed that when we were basically a cover band, it was one of the songs we did. And Steve Gilpin suggested it would be a great name for our band.

I remember saying to Mum and Dad ‘We’re going to Australia. The band’s called Mi-Sex’. I was almost embarrassed to say it then. But I had no reason to be. My parents thought it was a great name.

On how the band came about:

Kevin Stanton and Steve Gilpin (who’s sadly no longer with us) and Don [Martin], they had a band called Fragments of Time, which was the leftovers of a band of Don’s called Father Time.

They came to Wellington and saw me playing in a club and said ‘We’re going to go to Australia. I was playing in a disco band – it was a great band, actually – called Red Rose. And I said I’ve got a great drummer in the South Island we used to play with. We spent a month playing in Christchurch, and that’s when we decided to call the band Mi-Sex. We kind of dropped the flares. It was sort of a transitional time. We admit, we kind of took on image to go to Australia because nobody knew us.

We came in undercover at night and went out and saw what was happening in Sydney. We thought about it and worked on a bit of an image. It was calculated.

We were a good live band and we definitely took a bit from Midnight Oil and The Angels, who were just starting to get their thing happening.

We were quite amazed at the energy of the Australian bands. Kiwi bands at that time didn’t have that really hard edge that the Australian rock bands had. So we combined that with our Kiwi flavour.

I think exactly the same time that Gary Numan came out with ‘Cars’ in England we came out with ‘Computer Games’ in Australia. Contrary to what people think, we were recording ‘Computer Games’ way before Gary Numan had entered the studio.

When we’re playing in Sydney he invited us to come down and meet him. He was a very shy guy and we were pretty shy, as well, so we sat in a room waiting for someone to make conversation.

On the new wave scene:

I had a feeling when it was happening that it was going to be a flash in the pan, and it actually was… It was all over in three or four years.

Really, it was a bit of a take-off of what was happening ten years earlier with bands like the Kinks and The Who, you know? They were punky and psychedelic, with the Small Faces. It hasn’t come back again, though. It’s probably due about next year.

On the band’s aesthetic:

Kevin Stanton, who wrote most of the lyrics at the time, had that theatrical side in him. To put a bit of make-up on was completely natural for Kevin, anyway. Steve and Don, our bass player, the three of them were well suited to where everything was going… Whether it had been labelled ‘new wave’ or whatever at the time, those three guys definitely had the theatrical thing happening anyway. I felt like I was on the side of the stage sometimes watching a show I wasn’t part of, although I was a big part of the sound.

On their rise to fame in Australia:

It was all very quick. We’d been there for six months and we were getting huge crowds. We’d signed a deal with CBS Records. It was so quick that we couldn’t really believe it. It felt to me at the time that it wasn’t supposed to happen like that.

On ‘Computer Games’:

The whole band, fortunately, lived in a fantastic big house in the eastern suburbs in Sydney. There was enough room for us all to hide, but it was also great for us as a young band writing songs together.

Kevin and I wrote that one rainy Sunday morning. I had the keyboard hook in my head and Kevin had this concept about writing a song about where he envisaged computers were going to take the world, because at the time they were only owned by basically the Australian government, in Australia. There were no laptops, there were no home computers, there was nothing. It was a pretty good view of where the world was heading.

Kevin and I basically thew the music together. I remember Steve walked into the room and went ‘Hey, that’s a pretty good song. I'd better throw a verse in, as well.’

It all came together in a couple of hours and we recorded it about a month later. It actually only took about two hours to record, as well.

On the band’s encounter with Sir Robert Muldoon:

The New Zealand government had tried to introduce a tax on all records sold in New Zealand, and cassettes. And the powers that be insisted that the tax was on all music, including NZ music. The opposition to it said New Zealand music is cultural.

Rob Muldoon came down to see a Mi-Sex show that happened to be in the Wellington Town Hall, to see this “cultural” show. His comment in the papers the next day was ‘Yes, Mi-Sex, great band. About as cultural as On The Mat', which was the wrestling show that used to be on Sunday afternoons in New Zealand. He was a clever manipulator and he shot down the tax resolution very quickly.

It was classic because the audience were all dressed in black leather. He was in the middle seat in the gods upstairs and the whole crowd turned round and paid homage to him being there. He was quite a revered character in New Zealand, you know? He had us “on the mat”, totally.

Robert Muldoon talking with Mi-Sex

Robert Muldoon talking with Mi-Sex Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

On reforming with a new singer after the death of Steve Gilpin:

We never had any intention of playing at all again until Steve Balbi entered the scene. He was an old friend and fan of the band. Steve said “Look, if you guys want to play I’d love to come and sing for you.”

On the return of Mi-Sex:

It’s kind of weird, but it’s fun. We’re having a great time with Steve Balbi. He’s become a very dear friend of ours. We’ve enjoyed the process of writing songs with Steve. Steve Gilpin was a fantastic singer and he sang mostly the lyrics Kevin Stanton wrote. Whereas in this situation a lot or most of the lyrics are Steve’s lyrics. We’re only doing three or four of the new songs in our set.

Steve Gilpin in 1974

Steve Gilpin in 1974 Photo: Robert Joiner, NZBC TV archives

It’s a different thing for us to be writing songs 30 years later. We’re not trying to replicate what we did. There’s aspects of the Mi-Sex sound. I suppose the keyboards that I have still have that thing. I don’t think I’ve changed much from then.

It’s a different band now. In saying that, Steve Balbi really pays homage to Steve Gilpin. In some ways, particularly on Kevin’s lyrics, I feel Steve Balbi was meant to sing some of those words. [He] is a very theatrical person. He’s well suited to be singing the songs today.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

Mi-Sex will play the Clash of the Titans tour in March 2017.