Words and music

Heavy 8s band-mates (from left) Tony de Raad  (guitar), David Kilgour (vocals, guitar), Taane...
Heavy 8s band-mates (from left) Tony de Raad (guitar), David Kilgour (vocals, guitar), Taane Tokona (drums) and Thomas Bell (bass, keyboards) take a break outside Chick's Hotel, Port Chalmers, during recording sessions for their collaborative album...
Sam Hunt: ''It was wonderful working with people who were so conscious of telling the story, of...
Sam Hunt: ''It was wonderful working with people who were so conscious of telling the story, of the rhythms and silences that make up speech''. Photo by NZ Herlad.

Poet Sam Hunt's collaboration with Dunedin group David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s has resulted in an album born of instinct and intuition, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Respected, applauded for his poetry and, in particular, the wild energy he imparts in the delivery of his verse, Sam Hunt has just come up with a combination of words that (and correct me if I'm wrong), I've previously not stumbled upon:''I've been around the cabbage tree a while.''

Hunt is, of course, referring to his age (he turns 69 soon).

In the context of his recording sessions with Dunedin group David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s, the result of which is the album The 9th, it's not intended as any smug reflection of artistic miles under the belt.

Actually, it's a candid admission by Hunt that he enjoyed being looked after by the younger musicians, albeit while getting down to the serious-but-fun business of twisting and reconfiguring his words (and those of others) as Kilgour and company surrounded him with sounds ranging from a warm cloak of guitar, bass and drums to more esoteric, atmospheric vibrations.

''It was wonderful working with people who were so conscious of telling the story, of the rhythms and silences that make up speech.

''I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't like their music. And they are like my younger brothers; they look after the old boy. For a change I had company, which was nice. I've been a solo act for so long.''

It's not the first time Hunt has collaborated with Kilgour and the Heavy 8s.

In 2009, they released Falling Debris, an album of songs based on Hunt's poetry, but sung by Kilgour.

This time around, however, it's a more direct collaboration between poet and musicians.

Hunt arrived in Dunedin in March last year with no notes, no real idea where most of the poems might go, although versions of James K. Baxter's Gunner's Lament and Jerusalem Blues and The Seventh, by Attila Jozsef (translated by John Batki) had been performed live, when Hunt joined Kilgour and the Heavy 8s on tour in New Zealand following the release of Falling Debris.

Aside from those pieces, the remainder were the result of an on-the-spot, instinctive approach (supplemented by overdubbing) by the collective, who took over the main room of Chick's Hotel, Port Chalmers, for four days.

''I just went for poems I felt were right,'' Hunt explains.

''It was organic. It was instinctive and intuitive. The takes we used were almost exclusively the first one. We'd go on and do more takes just to cover ourselves, but we often went for the first one.

''Each day was quite unique to itself. We were all blown away by how easily it happened. I wouldn't say we shared a smile, but there were a few twitches.''

Well, what's a twitch among friends? Hunt laughs in agreement: ''I often ask that.

''I would go a bit further and say it was quite a spiritual experience. People will probably say, what a wanker, but it was. Nothing seemed to go wrong, but I'm sure there are gaps.

''It was a lovely time at, as they say, Port,'' Hunts says, reflecting on his week stay in a room above Cafe Royale.

''It was great. The locals were so lovely. Some official-looking person came up to me and asked me how the recording was going. I said it was going great; he said he thought it was sounding great.

''I was tempted to call the album At Port - I love the phrase - but it's so Dunedin and I didn't want to be too exclusive. Of course, no-one knows what The 9th means.

''A lot of people have been scared of the number nine. Mahler died doing his 9th symphony. If you like, I'm tempting fate. I'm still here but only just.''

Having published more than 15 collections, performed in Australia and the United States and, all the while, travelled up and down New Zealand telling stories and finding them, Hunt heads south next week for two shows with Kilgour and the Heavy 8s.

He will be leaving son Alf, who is in his last year of high school, at home with friends in Kaipara.

What could possibly go wrong?

Hunt cringes.

''I think I've got a bit of a party-boy on my hands. Don't mention a party while I'm away ...''

And this from a man who had a reputation as a hard-partying troubadour (in a 2011 interview I did with Hunt, he talked of living 40 years ''on a narrow ledge'', of periods of being sober and ''being pissed'').

Yet Hunt doesn't go off on long tours anymore.

Performing a few shows every few weeks, he prefers Alf's company to that of strangers.

''Actually, Alf is planning to go to university in Dunedin, though I don't know how much study will be involved.

''Warn the good Dunedin folk.''

Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 1975, awarded a QSM in 1986 for his contribution to New Zealand poetry and made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2010, Hunt nonetheless likes to feature the works of others in his recitals.

Hence the inclusion of Baxter's Gunner's Lament and Jerusalem Blues on The 9th.

''Gunner's Lament is one of the great poems of all time, in my mind,'' he says.

''It's one of Jim's miracles. I've known it since I was 16. I had a show in Auckland last Sunday and did Gunner's Lament as a request. It still gives me a chill. It keeps getting better.

''The Seventh is by Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef. I'd heard it in Hungarian as a child, but I finally found a translation that I thought was right.''

Hunt describes Jozsef's poem as his ''road code''.

He even read it out to a policeman one time after he'd been pulled over.

''A cop asked me if I'd read the road code. I told him I hadn't but I did have my own version. To cut a long story short, the cop and his wife had twin girls some months later and I was the godfather. He liked my road code so much.''

• David Kilgour had almost given up on the idea of getting Sam Hunt to step up to the microphone and be part of a live recording approach.

''A year or two before it did happen, I just thought I'd leave it to the gods. Then Sam rang up and said, 'Let's do it'.

''It took us so long to make this LP because we were determined to record Sam live with the musicians,'' Kilgour explains, adding he and his Heavy 8s band-mates, Tony de Raad (guitar), Taane Tokona (drums) and Thomas Bell (bass, keyboards), didn't want the album be a ''pasted-together, long-distance'' affair involving Hunt overdubbing poems to pre-recorded tracks etc.

Nor did they want Hunt to send them recordings of poems that could then be set to music.

In short, they needed to be in the same room.

''We didn't want to force it, though, so we were of the mindset that if it didn't work out we didn't have to release anything; that took the pressure off,'' Kilgour says.

''So in March 2014, Sam came to Dunedin where we wrote and recorded for about four days at Chick's Hotel, Port Chalmers.

''Taane set up on the stage and the rest of us were in a circle around Sam in the middle of the room. It was quite cosy and it felt quite natural.''

Sometimes Hunt would suggest a mood for a poem; sometimes Kilgour would strum a few chords before Hunt found the words to fit; sometimes, the band members would improvise in pursuit of a suggestion from Hunt.

''We were definitely playing off Sam without even expressing it. It was all very 'in the moment'. Normally, he wouldn't put gaps between lines or verses but he did with us,'' Kilgour says.

''One of the great things about working with Sam is you are constantly reminded that he is a performer. He is a poet first, of course, but he is also a great, pure performer.

''I think we were surprised by the album as much as anyone, really. We had no plan at all. I had no notes and Sam didn't bring any notes at all. I think, if anything, it reminds you of the importance of words but also the alchemy that occurs when the right words go with the right music.

''After a few takes, we looked at one another and said, 'Is this good? I think it's good'. We weren't overconfident but we did surprise ourselves as we went along. We generally knew by the end of the day if we had a take or not.

''We have a nice understanding amongst the four of us in the band. I think you hear us bouncing off one another, as well as off Sam.''

Footnote: David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s' 2011 album, Left By Soft, also has a Sam Hunt connection, featuring tracks that were included in the 2011 feature documentary Sam Hunt: Purple Balloon and Other Stories.



Sam Hunt, David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s will perform the following dates:

• Chick's Hotel, Port Chalmers, Friday, June 5.

• The Sherwood Hotel, Queenstown, Saturday, June 6.

• The night will feature performances from Sam Hunt with and without David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s, who will also play an additional set featuring material from recent album End Times Undone, which was released on US label Merge Records last year. Although the Heavy 8s have toured the album in the US, this will be their first New Zealand tour since its release.


Let's rewind a little ...

... to October 2007 ... David Kilgour, flying from Dunedin to Los Angeles via Auckland to meet the Heavy 8s and begin a tour of the United States promoting album The Far Now, finds himself seated (eventually, after a series of mix-ups) next to Sam Hunt.

As they prepare to depart the plane in Auckland, Kilgour discloses to Hunt that back in the late '80s, while making solo album Here Come The Cars, he and engineer Nick Roughan had discussed the idea of making a record with the poet.

The result? Kilgour and the Heavy 8s' 2009 project, Falling Debris, on which the Dunedin musicians put music to Hunt's words (though he didn't sing; Kilgour did).

Most of that album was recorded at Kilgour's villa in North East Valley, Dunedin, over three days in September 2008, as he and his band-mates set up in various rooms in the house.

Still, Kilgour's connection to Hunt goes back even further ...

... to 1972 ... a 10-year-old Kilgour is living upstairs at the Captain Cook Hotel, managed by his father.

By chance, he meets Hunt while the poet is visiting the hotel. Hunt is dressed, ''head to foot'', in white denim.

It's a lasting impression ...


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