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Bernie Griffen

Bernie Griffen

Interviewed by
Danielle Street
Tuesday 22nd May, 2012 10:46AM

Over the last few years The Gunslinger's Ball has grown from a night of country mayhem to a staggering sold-out country punk blues monstrosity. This Saturday, ball veterans Bernie Griffen and the Grifters and The Broadsides will be joined by a gaggle of groups including Unfaithful Ways, D Burmester and The Blind and Gina's Revenge for another massive shindig.

Griffen, who has hosted Americana show Border Radio on bFM for the last 12 years, has his roots buried deep in the NZ music industry. His is a long and colourful history and he is an obliging story-teller, he recently spoke to us about his never-ending musical obsession.

You've had such a long career in the New Zealand music industry, what triggered that passion for you?

Well, folk music really... Bob Dylan and The Band back in the 60s. I was a kid, only 14 or something playing in little cafes, just like I'm doing now really. I mean if the Grifters don't play I'm off playing somewhere. It's like a disease, I have to write songs and sing them. For a long time I dropped out of it because... I spent a long time as a drug addict, which kind of shut down all my creative, but I won't talk about that... fucking old news now. It was 25, 30 years ago. The main thing is the Gunslinger's Ball, that's what we're gonna talk about!

What I've always wanted is a musical community, and I've always... looked at Wellington you know how they have developed around Fat Freddys Drop and they became a community and shared each other players and recording facilities. It's a very powerful thing. And it's happening in Christchurch too with The Eastern and Unfaithful Ways, Delaney Davidson, those kind of people.

So you think Auckland's lacking that?

Well, yeah when we started the Gunslinger's Ball I thought it was really missing in this town. It didn't matter what kind of music it was around. There was always kind of a strong punk scene in Auckland, you know, especially straight edge punk rockers... there always seemed to be something happening around there. And I know that because I was in the distribution business, so I distributed a lot of their music for them back in the late 90s, up until 2008.

With Global Routes?

Yeah with Global Routes, which was a distribution company mainly designed around getting New Zealand music out into the shops, because there was no one who would do that when I turned up... so I joined Global Routes in 1997 with the guys from Real Groovy. And then in 2000 I took it over, because they decided they didn't want to be in distribution.

So what happened to Global Routes?

Global Routes went into voluntary liquidation in 2008 because, in 2004 there were 195 record stores, in 2008 there were 40. So digital had a massive effect on distribution. We just weren't making any money. In fact I'd pumped all my own personal money in to the company and it was just losing money. So I shut it down.

So with your inside knowledge as both a musician and a distributor, what is the best advice you can give to Kiwi musicians who want to get their music heard?

They have got to build a fan base. You never could play music and sell music without working hard. There is nobody in this world that succeeds because they are good looking, or they are really talented or whatever. It's just the same as anything else 90% hard work and 10% glamour. So the only thing I can tell them is to go and work.

What I've done with the Grifters, and why The Gunslinger's Ball came to be, is because we did all those free shows down at The Thirsty Dog. We did a Friday night every month for two years. And we built a fan base around that, and the Border Radio show. People are attracted to that.

Slowly, Dave Khan who's the Grifter's fiddle player as well as the fiddler player for the Broadsides, one day he said, "c'mon let's put a show on". he said, "we need a name for it", and I said, "let's call it the Gunslinger's Ball". And that's how it happened. So we put our first show on, which was Heart Attack Alley, The Broadsides, us and three or four other bands.

Heart Attack Alley are obviously doing really well, they are over recording in Berlin at the moment...

Right, and Karl's taken our record with him. We are recording a record with Karl at the moment, he's just taken it with him to mix while he is away. He's a freak, he's an amazing producer and musician.

He's very prolific...

Yeah, and he is just a good guy! He's not involved with The Gun Slingers Ball for any other reason other than he loves doing it. And Kristal, his guitar player if there's a show on she's says to him, "why aren't we on the bill", because she loves doing them.

So that's what happened. it all just grew up around the Border Radio Show, which is an Americana show strictly speaking. But I play a lot of New Zealand music.

But the best thing I've ever done was shut down that fucking distribution company, because I had to think, "what am I going to do?", you know? And really the fundamental of my personality is I'm a songwriter. And I have been since I was a teenager. But I never really trusted myself, always too shy, too self effacing, whatever it is. But I had to tell myself: don't listen to what I think, listen to what people tell you. So if people say, "fuck it was good", you've gotta believe them.

So what was the defining moment when you eased up on yourself?

I cleaned up. I stopped using dope. And I had a family. Different stages of life require different things from a man, and a woman. And I started to write songs and sing them to my family. We used to have this tiny house, and I used to sit on the stool between the childrens' rooms at night and sing them to sleep. And so I came back into myself as a song writer.

All the songs Grifters' songs are mine, as we go on there is much more input from the other guys, but all the old material is stuff I've had for years. But suddenly this sound starts to happen, it's like a gift from the gods, these people. They just understand what I'm thinking and feeling. It's very simple, our music, it's more about feel and dynamics, beauty and harmony than any music I've played in my life. So despite that fact is a five-piece and its got its problems it's the most extraordinary thing I've ever done.

I get into a fugue sometimes, we will play a good show and I won't sleep for three days. I'll just wander around the fucking house writing songs.

Why do you think there has been a real resurgence in the folk, country and blues sounds over the last few years?

It kind of makes sense in a way. We have been talking about New Zealand music for a long time, trying to define it, you know. The Grifters are a string band that you put microphones in front of, and 100 years ago we would have been the same formula playing in a small venue without a PA.

The wave of immigrants who have hit these shores aren't a hell of a lot different to the waves that hit America. The only thing that is different is that we don't have a foundation in the blues. We have a foundation in celtic music, european music....we have all these same things that have influenced the American sound, but we don't have the blues. I've only once ever heard somebody in this country sound like they had the blues.

Who was that?

Warren Maxwell... at the APRA awards, he did a cover with an acoustic guitar and waa waa pedal, he did this song like a blues song and it really hurt me.

Your second EP is coming out next month, can you tell me a bit about that?

Well, it is a complete change of direction... the first EP we did down at MAINZ and it sounds kinda like the Velvet Underground, this one sounds much more like us but still retaining those kind of influence.

The first record sold out, without us telling anyone about it. We just had it at our shows for sale, and that was an experiment on my part. When most people think about the commercial side of music they think to get a record out, you get it made, you do the artwork, you have a party and then you give it to a distributor. I have a different attitude to that it has been important for us not to try and attract attention, its been important for us to try and attract people. So that's what we have done.

So it will come out on your own label?

It will come out on Flaming Pearl, and we will get distribution this time, we will distribute both EPs. But this little EP its got five songs on it, and its about the current things that have happening in New Zealand, Pike River, the banking crisis, people camping down in Aotea Square, that kind of stuff. And its got a couple of almost gospel songs on it, there is one really strong blues, and there is a little story about murder. Well, murder and robbery.

How do you keep going Bernie, you seem to have limitless energy?

It’s obsession. I have to have obsession in my life, otherwise I get really restless. I mean Dave’s been overseas, and we haven’t had a rehearsal in three weeks and I’m really nervous about it, I get really restless. So I’ve started this other little band, and I’ve played a couple of shows on my own. I have to be doing something. This time now is like a renaissance for me.


The Gunslinger's Ball - Saturday 25th May, Kings Arms Tavern - click HERE for tickets.


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