Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Jonahs part 1

There's been a lot of research/archival probing into the various scenes that constitute NZ rock music, and a lot of this stuff is now online. I'm not very trainspotty about this sort of thing. However, I have enjoyed a few of the resuscitated tales about the moment in Wellington - roughly 1980-83 - when music was everything for me and my friends. The mysterex blog is the one to seek out. There's a particularly good story about Kevin Hawkins (Shoes This High guitarist) fucking in the Victoria University graveyard.

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Reading the material, I realise what a partial grasp I had on what was going on - and not just the fucking and the drugs. As fans we were a few years younger than most of the people in the bands, and at that age (16-19) a few years is more or less a generation gap. We were also from Lower Hutt. We went as often as we could to the Last Resort and Billy the Club to see The Gordons, Naked Spots Dance, the Wallsockets, Life in the Fridge Exists et al. It was over very quickly.

The pic below is taken at a Gordons' Wellington gig. I recognise some of those faces. It's a great photo.
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Fast forward a few years . . . The only 'proper' band I've been in was The Jonahs. Now if you google us, I don't think you get anything, which is remarkable. (We're not in any of the music books either.) It's also completely right that we've disappeared. We didn't make an impact, we didn't get signed, we didn't change lives, except maybe our own. We gigged around Wellington for about a year, and then I left for London, and the band carried on for another year and then broke up. Our story was and is the story of any number of bands. Part-timers, fans.

We did, however, have a manager. And we did make a record. The EP 'Bills of Happiness' came out in 1987. It was engineered by Nick Roughan, who has gone on to a full career, producing for David Kilgour, Dimmer, Die Die Die etc. (We played gigs with Nick's band The Skeptics.) And the EP was mixed by Brent McLaughlin, drummer for the Gordons, Bailter Space etc. We got a small recording grant ($500, I think) from the QEII Arts Council. So we did actually have, I don't know, credentials. And Colin Hogg gave the record 4-stars in the Herald and said we had a promising career ahead of us.

Now while I'm rather attached to our anonymity, I also feel strangely pulled towards the light, and the presence on 'Group Hug' of Laurence and Grant seems to make these connections more relevant now. So suffer this mini-history lesson.

I think we formed in 1986, though we were mucking around in a garage in Wainuiomata in 85 or earlier. Our bassist Grant Guillosson lived in Wainui where his dad was a milkman. Our drummer Victor Foon worked on the milk-truck. (There was one live review in a local paper that called Victor 'the best drummer in the world', and for sure he was pretty damn good.) Laurence Tyler was the guitarist and the musician. He was a classically-trained cellist. He came to rock'n'roll not through any punk channels but via a few key albums. 'Exile on Main Street' was one, mainly because of Mick Taylor.

In terms of songwriting, it worked like this. More often than not I'd come to band practice with a riff, and Laurence would convert it into a chord sequence with names and everything, tell Grant what notes to play, and then we'd jam. Later I'd make up the words. I don't think they were very good lyrics. They were extremely literary. 'Short Letter Long Farewell', which is the first song on the EP, is named for the Peter Handke novel. No one knew what the hell I was going on about and no one asked or ventured an opinion. After I left the band, there was an interview in a local paper in which Laurence said he thought my lyrics weren't very direct. I totally agreed with him - indeed it was one of the best things anyone has ever said to me about my work (well, said to me sort of behind my back, in the fucking press). Anyway, there's a breakthrough song on the EP—for me at least—called 'Doctoring' which I still don't mind. It has my best vocal performance, some of the band's loveliest playing, and an urgency of feeling which took us by surprise, I think. We played it live once only, as I remember, and that was at the biggest gig of our careers. In January 87 we supported the Chills at Victoria University. 600 people. And here I must confess I told a small lie earlier.

Googling us won't give you anything but add The Chills and the venue and you'll find us! It's on the softbomb website. Some trainspotter has listed EVERY gig the Chills played—and so the Jonahs are alive as a tiny footnote in the career of another band. Go there to read my comment on our big moment. (By the way, I've decided I won't put in links—they only tempt the reader away from the text and why would any writer want that?)

I'll try to put up an mp3 of The Jonahs once I get the EP digitised. To be honest, the material the band wrote after I left struck me as better than anything they did when I was there, and that went quite some way to convincing me to stop playing music. No crisis, just a solid feeling that I had better things to do and that music wouldn't miss me. I did and it didn't. The new Jonahs recorded an LP's worth called 'Thrash It, It's a Rental', though for some reason it was never released.


  1. If you want to get in touch with victor, this is his email

    I am his daughter :)

    1. Thank you so much Shania! I'll do that.