People of Asuwere - Mike Chunn

People of Asuwere - Mike Chunn

Mike Chunn has lived a life more full than most met with incredible ups and downs. A founding member of one of New Zealand's most iconic bands, Split Enz, he's also a father, an author and founder of the charitable organization, Play it strange. We caught up with Mike and asked him a little about his life, throughout the decades as an integral part in New Zealand music history.

At what point in your life did you know that being in a band and playing music was what you wanted to do? 
It was when I was 12 years old and on a class trip to Wellington from DeLa Salle College.  We did two things.  Firstly we went to Athletic Park and watched the All Blacks (for the first time in my life). They played Australia and it was mesmerising. The colossal sense of occasion, the cheering, the community spirit - I ran on the field and touched them. I wanted to be an All Black. My skinny little frame, and fear of tackling etc etc quickly made me realise it would never happen. The same day -  at night - our class went to see A Hard Day's Night. It was twice as colossal as The All Blacks. It was gigantic. Thrilling. Overwhelming. AND!!! it looked possible.  Grow your hair, wear cool boots, play the guitar, write songs and sing them. Can't be that hard.  And as we drove out of Wellington I set my sights on a pop music life. 

Tell us about your time in Split Enz & Citizen Band, what were some of the highlights?
Split Enz came to be because a bunch of us fell into the cool cool whirl of one Phil Judd who had come to university from Napier. He had a genius musical prowess. He and Tim Finn wrote three songs, played them to me. An epiphany. Again, there I was -  mesmerized. I asked if I could play bass for them and Tim said 'Yes". I was in a band. Eighteen months after that moment as we played to 1100 people at His Majesty's Theatre and played about four encores I thought - 'This is a good band to be in !!!!'.

Citizen band came to be after I left Split Enz. It's a long story but I was afflicted with a phobic disorder, agoraphobia, which eventually drove me to form Split Enz. I retreated to Auckland to find my dear brother Geoffrey was writing cool songs and after a band so I joined him. We kicked up a lot of dust. Songs like Julia, Rust In My car.  The cut through. It was hugely satisfying. But again my phobic disorder defeated me and I fell to the ground. My time being in bands was over. 

How did it feel when you realised you were living your dream and were surrounded by a band that could really make it?
That moment came to me when we recorded in the studio for the first time. And also then to the other tracks that all - some years later - gathered on the album Beginning Of The Enz (1979). It was the inventive, imaginative environment I was in and I was surrounded by young men who had such power over their sense of colour, beauty, invigoration, engagement.... and more.  I was a lucky lucky young lad in a wonderland.  Here's a link to that album if you're in a curious mood.  

Unfortunately, your trajectory was cut short by Agoraphobia, something you were living with long before you even knew it had a name. Did you have any coping mechanisms that helped you through it?  
There were two aspects to being able to last as long as I did. One was my living the dream and knowing that I had set my sights on being in a band like this from the age of twelve. The Beatles dominated my life - well -  still do really.  And I was up there on the same stage as them - the Ak Town Hall - I had to just grapple with the demon and pray. The second side of this phobic coin wrestling match was the drug Serepax.  Google will explain. That tranquiliser which my father, a doctor, gave me led me down the road without the threat of panic attacks jostling me from side to side.  It wasn't fun. But it meant I could at least stay in the band.  Until one day - it just collapsed around me.

You were the director of APRA (Australasian Performing Rights Association)  for some years, how did you find this change in focus? 
I loved APRA.  I loved working FOR songwriters and advocating for them -  standing up for the rights and shouting it from the rooftop -  songwriting; NZ songs are powerful;, kaleidoscopic fragments of what makes NZ such a cool place; such a cool community. And APRA had a mission - it was to seek respect for musicians, songwriters and to say to society - these people are worthy of your respect, they earn their royalties with sheer hard work. I got knocked around. I was dragged onto Fair Go.  Stuff 'em all.  I fought for songwriters because I love them.

Tell us about Play it Strange. Hearing you speak about getting kids on stage with the likes of yourself and Dave Dobbyn among others was pretty cool to hear! What was the inspiration for starting this initiative and how has this evolved since its inception? 
I decided to see the start of Play It Strange (2004) because the subject of songwriting didn't exist in schools. How absurd is that?  Young NZers -  the world's youth - listen to recorded songs all the bloody time. Surely the craft of writing them is appealing?  Yes, indeed. But no. It wasn't a subject to invest your time and imagination in at school.  Mind you- these countries also didn't have songwriting -  UK, USA, Australia, Canada, all of Europe and so on and so on.  So I fought for it and in Nov 2016 it became an achievement standard. I was in a cafe when I got the email about that. I thought back to all the meetings and interviews and shit that had been tossed around... and I cried right then and there. Songwriting was in. And Play It Strange drives songwriting competitions because that is where the momentum is built up.  And we are getting songs sent in that are magnificent.
Here's a bunch of Strange Songs:   

You’ve played to crowds of zero in pubs all the way to stadiums of 45,000. What would be your dream concert to play nowadays? 
Ah what a question for this old pensioner!  I would love to go back to the Auckland Town Hall and play the whole MentalNotes with the original lineup of Split Enz and a full house. The next night, the same thing with my old friends from Citizen Band and play a bunch of our songs from those days. Another full house too, of course!! 

How does Asuwere suit your lifestyle?
Asuwere suits my lifestyle because I take how I feel as a priority. I'm not about the look or the fashion pointers that might flick around at different points in time. I like clothes that wrap me in an aire of good feeling. Asuwere is a very cool array of garments that do just that. I can do anything wearing them.  Play to 45,000 again. Sit on Sunset Point at Bethells beach in the evening.  Read G K Chesterton's Father Brown Mysteries at 2am in the comfort of the big leather chair my dad used to sit in. A thousand places. A thousand ways. All to the end of a comfortable sense.

Thank you Mike, it was truly an honour to spend time in the presence of New Zealand Music royalty.