When you find yourself explaining your presents to those assembled to watch you open them, it’s a fairly good indicator that you’re hard to buy for. Either that, or the people who got you the gifts spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what would make you happy and then have gone massively out of their way to go so far above and beyond that you don’t quite know where to put all the emotions.
There’s a fair bit of both at work here. You may know I turned 50 last week.
Big present number 1: You see in the photo above me telling my family and a group of my kiwi friends what a Deluge is and why on earth I might want one so much that I recently decided not to attend a showcase demo, because I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from buying one and I simply couldn’t justify it. The fact that Michela had already sourced one for me as a gift was something that required a little storytelling.
I’ve played with it now for a few hours and you have no idea how much I love this thing. Though, of course, music technology like this is very much down the pricey end of the gift spectrum.
Big present number 2: My family all pitched in and gave me an artwork I’ve wanted for some time by almost certainly my favourite New Zealand artists Otis Frizzell and Mike Weston. I wear a tattoo on my left shoulder designed by Otis and given to me for my 40th birthday. This decade-later kiwi art gift was a sort of package deal: a limited print that came with a vinyl record and tickets to what can really only be described as a ‘happening’. And I think it’s fair to say – the fact that my family could be guided to that gift purchase speaks volumes about their willingness, when it comes to me, to just sort of go with it and not ask too many questions to which the answers might just raise more questions.
Again, this was a gift that warranted some narrative.
And this leads us to Big present number 3 – the one that will probably give me the best gift story of all time, and which caused me a momentary mild panic attack followed by the most overwhelming feeling of gratitude and humility I can recall having experienced.
I’ll explain. Because that’s what all my best gifts require.
So I’ve always maintained that if you’re stuck, the best gift is always a record. And to “yeah, but you have so many. I want to get you something special…” I can only respond that the reason I have a lot of records is because I like records a lot. A LOT. Of course they’re special.
And like, also, the guy with the largest private vinyl collection in the world has a couple of million of the things. I have a couple of thousand. So clearly, by a process of simple statistical probability, the odds are, I’d say, reasonably good that you’re not going to inadvertently get me something that I already have. What’s more, you can be reliably assured that I’ll appreciate it pretty much exactly like one always appreciates receiving one’s favourite thing.
But still… if you were like, really super keen to absolutely guarantee exclusivity and specialness, you could always create an entirely custom and bespoke record of which there are only two copies in the world, and then give them both to me – one to be played and one to be kept in mint condition. That ought do the trick…
Just to wind you back a little – if you happened to catch my last blog post, you’ll recall that I had a band back in the 80s and that we had demo tapes, one or two okay songs, and no audience, ambition or accomplishments to speak of. There were some side projects and solo ventures, but nothing was ever released or even really finished.
For quite good reason, I’ve been reluctant over the years (to say the least) to allow other people to ever listen to those demo tapes. So when I asked my friend Rhodri to remake Shadowlands as a 50th gift to myself, I only sent him that one track.
While I was organising that, I was both flattered and a little mortified when Michela asked if she could have a copy of the demos to listen to. And I was, let’s say ‘troubled’, when she began listening to them on headphones over and over again – for weeks on end… It became clear that there was going to be some deeper thematic link between my birthday and those old demos.
And it made me nervous. Not because I thought she would do anything other than wonderful for me for my birthday, but rather because a) the idea that others would listen to these recordings or (worse) that they might be played in public was already heading well towards the mortifying side of things; and b) I couldn’t, for the life of me, think of a positive use for them in that context.
Not only that, but my involvement in one or two of those songs was peripheral at best – and people other than me had, at some moment in history, made a point of not releasing that stuff. I kind of felt responsibility towards at least one of the other participants, who had subsequently gone off in an entirely different direction: namely, making music that lots of people do actually want to listen to. What’s more, there was a fairly decent chance that he was going to be at that gathering.
And so, inevitably, we’re at Conch for my surprise birthday party (“surprise” in the sense that I didn’t know where, when or what – but I was aware that there would be a party and I had been consulted as to who should be invited) and the first thing I notice, amongst and about the assorted collection of exceptional and wonderful people, is a soundtrack mix of local music compiled specifically for my party by one of my all-time favourite DJ/selectors, the brilliant Peter McLennan, also present for the occasion.
Not only another exceptional and thoughtful gift, but also a musical bar set rather high for the evening.
Okay – and so also, some more explanation: the fact that the party was held at Conch on Ponsonby Road is significant. This was my favourite NZ record shop when I lived there. I would buy whatever Cian told me to buy and he was never wrong. The vibe was down perfect. The selection was exceptional. Odd as this sounds, it was also always my favourite-smelling record store on earth. Dry flax, I think.
Their coffee was also superb, and when they started doing food, it was excellent. Still is. They’ve gone all the way down the café path now, and despite a handful of token records on the wall for sale, it’s fully an eating and drinking joint these days. That said, it still feels like a second kiwi home. Perfect choice.
And so – like, people are there. My family is there. My friends are there. Including the aforementioned former band member who sells records and wins awards and so forth. And this is a group of some heavyweight people from music and radio whose opinions I really respect.
And in a lull, I hear a familiar guitar part. Immediately I taste adrenaline. That’s my old guitar. My old band. A 30+ year-old recording. The demo tape.
And I don’t recall exactly what I say at this point, but I know there’s panic in my voice. Sort of an urgent ‘God – no! Turn it off…’ – but followed immediately by an ‘oh wait… hang on…’
There’s a different beat there. Not ours. A contemporary one. A good one. A really good one. A remix. This is my first clue as to what’s happened.
And then Michela gave me the record. I mean… oh my god. Look at this.
What Michela had done was to send those recordings to some of my favourite people. Several of my closest friends, of whom I also happen to be a genuine music fan. Her instruction to them: to remake, remix, rework, or otherwise respond to that music so that I might have some exclusive recording from them as a birthday gift. Seriously.
She managed the project, chased and collected the recordings, then had the vinyl record mastered and lathe cut as a one-off double LP. She created a gatefold sleeve from a few of my favourite photos that also happened to work well as album art and she arranged an incredibly high quality print.
It’s worth bearing in mind that both the pressing plant and the printing company were overbooked and unable to take the job at all and there was no way that it could possibly be completed in time. They are obviously very generous people and Michela is clearly very persuasive – because as far as she was concerned, there was not going to be an outcome in which this record did not get made.
To say I got it hot off the presses is not an overstatement. It was still warm.
The versions, remixes, exclusive recordings and interpretations on this record are unbelievably great. Every single track fills me with a dozen different emotions all at once.
The fact that it was created specifically for me on the occasion of my 50th birthday – and by a collection of my favourite musicians and people in the world (a significantly overlapping Venn diagram) is something extraordinary and breathtaking. The fact that they did so using recorded pieces of my own personal history as a leaping off point is something I have no words for.
Or a lot of words. It’s a story I’ll be telling a lot.
Thanks so much to everyone even remotely involved in this and to everyone who was there when it was given to me, who meant to be there or who have subsequently paid attention when I’ve shown it to you. You guys are amazing. I love you all.
And Michela – you’re incredible. This is everything. I love every second of this. Just so you know: I will never be able to top this, and I will never stop trying.
Rich Huxley was unable to contribute to the album, despite intending to. When he was asked to get involved, he was on tour in Kazakhstan with the band. Subsequently, his computer broke. But he did manage to get this video, all the way from Leeds to Auckland in the dying moments of the birthday party – and managed to squeeze in every possible reference to books, films and beverages we have shared through the medium of props and quick-change t-shirts. Fine work.
I’ve only scraped the surface here of the people who have met up with me for a coffee, given me bottles of wine and whisky, sent birthday wishes, hung out, shared food and generally made this a spectacular and incredibly humbling 50th birthday experience. Thanks to everyone – family, friends – even strangers and shop owners who have gone out of their way to make this a special experience for me. Mission accomplished.
I am now very happily 50 years old and heading back to Sweden.