Jordan Luck is one of Aotearoa’s most beloved musicians. He broke into the music scene in the early 80’s with the then Dance Exponents and a debut single, ‘Victoria’, which would go on to be one of our most beloved songs. This year Victoria turns 40 years old.
Zara Potts sat down with Jordan luck at his home on Banks Peninsula to talk about band life, Ōtautahi and how he comes up with those remarkable tunes.
How do you look back on your career?
I don’t. It’s always looking forward that I ponder – like what’s coming up next; where are we going? Whereas the past? Not so much at all.
When you first came to Christchurch – did you start playing the pub circuit?
Yeah. The three of us basically got together – looking for a drummer – and we were living on Woodham Road and then Harry turned up and we thought he was great and he was sixteen, so he seemed a wee bit young, but he had a car! As he left, he was packing his drums away and said something like ‘would you mind if I bring along my bass player next time?’ and we all kind of looked at each other, and Steve Cowan – who played bass – said “I’ve always wanted to play keyboards and guitar, let’s try this guy out’ – so long story short they swapped and all of a sudden we had a rhythm section.
The weird thing was that Dave Gent (the bass player) said about three months later ‘Did you know I played at Geraldine High for our school social’ – and that was weird because not many bands played Geraldine. And I said ‘Are you that Oamaru band?’ and they were good, all those guys.
So did you grow up playing music? Did you come from a musical family?
Well, I loved records. I enjoyed early progressive prog rock, I love Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake and Palmer. It wasn’t really inspiring at school – guys and girls would bring acoustics to school – but I never really got the bug until I went to Timaru one night at Scottish Hall and this punky kind of band were playing there – Brian Jones brother was in it and Paul Scott.
So how did you get to Christchurch?
Steve Cowan said ‘I think we should go to Christchurch’ at that point Pop Mechanix were playing and there were all sorts of bands doing great stuff.
So Christchurch was the big smoke?
Flip yeah. We came up to Christchurch and we’d go to the Aranui and watch ‘The News’ or Bon Marche’ I think they were. I might have been 17 at the time. There were some great pubs at the time, The Star and Garter, The Hillsborough, The Gladstone, The Aranui and a lot of university gigs were going on too.
It was quite a big circuit?
Yeah. And Jim Wilson was the booker/manager and he would book the various bands into the pubs. He saw us – or his offside did – and they spotted us. He was probably only 21 at the time, and he came up to me and said ‘if you’re interested, would you like to open for the Zero Bars at the Hillsborough?’ and we’d only been rehearsing for maybe 8 days with this new line up – we didn’t really have a name.
How did you get your name?
A couple of days before the gig they said ‘What are you going to be called?’ and I had been thinking about calling us The Squirming Antipodeans but there was already The screaming MeeMees and so then I thought about calling us the something scientists, but then there was already Pop Mechanics – you know we needed something with an adjective in front of the name. So I thought about The Exponents and then though Dance. Dance was a 50’s euphemism for sex basically, F-wording, so that’s how we became the Dance Exponents.
And then of course you reverted back to The Exponents later…
In London yeah. All these A&R people were coming up to us and at that time acts like Yazz were really big, and they were like, ‘Well, you’re not really dance – like River Dance, or House or anything..’ and so we dropped Dance. And actually we did call ourselves Amplifier after the third album and we did a wee tour where no one came.
What was it like that pub scene in Christchurch back then?
It hasn’t really changed. When you think about what the difference it’s that there’s no smoking. I can see the audience now.
Do you think audiences are more fragmented now?
The whole last year was all sold out shows, and I don’t see a flyer, I don’t see a poster, it’s all under the radar and online now. As an actual environment for creation and communication – live shows are still tops. You can do theatres, but whereas with pubs and clubs – those sorts of venues – smaller places, there are towns that you blink at and they have great audiences.
How did you know you could sing?
I’m not sure. I would sing along with mum in the car.
Did anyone tell you you had a good voice?
I was in the choir at school! This is at Duntroon primary. I’m singing away one time, and the choir teacher goes, ‘Who’s the Bumble Bee down the back?’ I think my anatomy was changing.
So back to Christchurch, was there a lot going on for you in those early days?
We were just so lucky that Jim Wilson started booking us gigs because we started opening for all the Auckland bands and befriended people like The Screaming Meemees who later on invited us on a national tour. All the Hello Sailor guys, The Swingers. Anyone coming through.
And where were you living?
We had a band house! The Aranui gave us a band house. We had a Hillsborough residency. We really lived on the road. At the Aranui, we were able to go in at 10 o’clock and rehearse until 12. Pretty much every day and you’d do shows every day, 8-10pm.
That’s quite a schedule.
Well, it was great, because there were after hours too. They’d close the doors but often there’d still be people there. The Pubs were good because there’d be a smorgasbord and we were often starving!
Do you remember the big concert at Jellie Park?
With The Mockers? Yeah.
That was quite a moment for people. You talk to people my age and the first question is, ‘Were you there?’ and the second question is ‘Who did you support – Mockers or Exponents?
I think The Narcs were on the bill too. It’s funny actually the perception of Christchurch, that yes there was a hive going on here, but outside of Christchurch, the perception was that Christchurch bands were likely to be a covers group.
What was it about it that you enjoyed about Christchurch? You must have liked it – you wrote a song called ‘Christchurch.’
I loved the Square and the venues. United services – third floor up that was great. The Oxford by the river. The Star and Garter had a good beer garden. But the bands were really good. The Wastrels, but because everything was happening so quickly for us we became good friends with any band we toured with. As for the audiences, I didn’t really notice too much difference between the centres. Although it was a lot more violent back then.
No, across the board. You might get a stabbing every third night. There was a lot of biffo. People would be bleeding and there’d be fights. It wasn’t just guys, there’d be girls sometimes too.
Why the shift to the UK?
About 1987, we found our audiences were getting smaller and our records weren’t selling as well, but that was, as you learn, just part of a cycle. For a while there, it was pretty bleak across the board.
How much did radio play a part in that bleakness? Back then you would have been probably one of the only New Zealand bands that commercial played then?
No! Victoria got played once by Foveaux Radio in Invercargill. Radio U played us.
So commercial radio wasn’t playing even the big hits?
Even Dragon or DD Smash. Everyone had to bash on the doors of radio and you’d just get ‘Aw it’s too long, it’s too this, it’s too that…’ But by the time we got back from the UK in 1990, the quota had slowly been introduced and radio was starting to play local music.
So given that your songs weren’t on high rotate, is it quite amazing that your music had such a big audience?
A good example is Th’Dudes. Zip airplay and the band was only together for about eight months and they could tour nationally and pack out the house. Audiences had to find the music, and when they did they bought the records and went to the shows.
Was it Victoria that really exploded things for you?
Yeah. And we just thought, ‘this is obviously what happens’ – all of a sudden within a year, we were opening for David Bowie and we kind of just thought that this what happens if you’re in a band.
How long did it take you to write Victoria?
Most songs are really quick. I’ve either got poems or lyrics down and they’ll fit into a piece of music I’ve got. I’m good with melodies, but lyrics are harder. Victoria is the one exception. That started in Timaru, and I loved the guitar riff, and I was thinking about a cello, and Mike Chunn heard the song and it was just so different to our other songs. It was slow. People would go to the bar. It was a break song in the middle of a set. But Chunny just loved it and said ‘Have you guys thought about a string section?’ and I said that I’d been hearing cello – I didn’t know anything about violas – and so he put together the string quartet. This is a good example of how blasé we were about this whole process. So we hopped in the studio, did the B side in about an hour. Victoria, same again, maybe three takes. So it was finished by about 1 o’clock – except for the string section – and we were all really excited about that, and they were all about the same age as us. And I remember one of them saying ‘it sounds like a Leonard Bernstein thing’. So that was finished about 5pm. And off we went to Rotorua to see The Screaming MeeMees. The producer and engineer were like ‘don’t you want to stay around for your mix?’ and we were like ‘No, no, we trust you.” So we didn’t hear it until I got given the plastic.
So you didn’t hear it until the mix had already been done? What did you think?
The Screaming MeeMees were great! That’s what we thought!
So Victoria took longer for you to write than other songs?
Yeah, if you write from the truth or things that happen, gosh, some songs just stay relevant and the lyric can have an ambiguity to it. So with Victoria, Brian and I were living with our girlfriends at the time, in their flat and we weren’t paying rent, the ladies put us up, and they were both working at Cobb and Co and we’d live on those $3.50 vegetable meals. So to help out, to pay my way, I’d take bookings for an escort service – so that every line in it is true. One morning I’d come in and this girl was in her nightdress, and the wind gusted her nightdress away from her knee, and she was bruised all over her legs.
And that was the spark?
I had the riff, it’s quite peculiar, but I didn’t have the lyrics and this sparked it.
So she was reading Alvin Toffler then?
Futureshock on the coffee table. Cosmopolitan.
So you pick stuff up from what you’re seeing?
Yeah. I was at a bar, The Hillsborough, I think. And there was a guy at the bar who said to this girl, ‘You dropped me, but I got what I wanted.” And I thought, ‘Oh that’s a good line’ so I write it down.
What about the video for Victoria – 40 years old now – it’s got some great Christchurch faces and places in it…
Oh yeah. Al Park is the pimp in it and he was brilliant. It was directed by Simon Morris who was a director at that time for TVNZ. We did the video hoping it would get played on Radio with pictures, or Ready to Roll or Shazam. I thought he was old at the time! He was playing in a band called Tamberlain at the time.
And it was shot at the Dux de Lux?
They did a lot of shots without me. I’m only in The Hillsborough and the Dux and in the Car. High Street is where Al Park turns up.
Do you enjoy making videos?
It kind of ruined watching television for me, because I’d go ‘Where’s the camera for that shot?’ I do recall a funny thing about Victoria because I was doing it on my own, they might have been a bit miffed, they were only in the live band shots… and they’d say ‘So what are you doing? What’s in it?’ and I’d say, ‘Flip, I’m out there in a tutu in Latimer Square with sparklers and I’m spinning singing Victoria,’ and they’re all going ‘Oh, we don’t like the sound of that..” and then I said ‘There’s another scene where I chop off the top off a boiled egg and I see Michelle/Victoria’s face in it..’ they’re going, ‘Oh No!!’ although they kind of thought that might work in an abstract way.
It’s quite a classic now. It has a real old Christchurch feel. The buildings, just the feel of it…
Oh definitely. It’s a very Christchurch song. A lot of a second album is very heavily influenced by Christchurch.
Do you get influenced by landscape?
Yeah. The birds. A piwakawaka will sing and I can hear it’s in the chord of A.
You can hear the note – but you didn’t learn to read music?
Yeah. We had a wonderful music teacher in Geraldine High School. I went in the 4th form and I wanted to learn the cello and I asked if she could put me down for lessons and she said ‘Oh Jordan, Annabelle Harrow has beaten you by 15 minutes.’ And of course, this is because there was only one cello in the whole school.
So you picked up the guitar instead?
Yeah, and people would show me things or I’d have a guitar book and work out G and D. I basically learned through covering other songs from The Buzzcocks or the Boomtown Rats. I started writing these other songs and they actually went down very well. But I’m so lazy, I stopped learning, and just played what I knew. Airway Spies, Your Best Friends Loves Me Too, All I Can Do…
So the songs just come to you? What is the process?
Yeah. Sometimes just from writing lyrics they’ll fit in. The recent stuff has been much harder. A lot of it is about collaboration. One of the guys will have a riff or a hook and put it down on tape and I’ll listen to it. I don’t actually learn how to play the song, I just sing over the top of the playback. But then sometimes the lyrics will come in fifteen minutes.
Do you consider yourself a writer or a musician primarily?
I think I’m lucky getting away with it. I just see the great thing about music, is that it’s inspiring. I loved listening to other peoples lyrics. Even back at school, Sam Hunt, to read his words and then hear it, and you go ‘Wow’ – and how does he do it?
But that’s what people say about you, ‘How does he do it?’
Some people say you tap into something in the ether. But actually I think it’s all just classical chords sped up or slowed down. ‘Who Loves Who the Most’ is a good example – in the sense that I’ve heard it reggae style, I’ve heard it flipping Death Metalled, I’ve heard it in a jazz bar. When I wrote it, I wrote it kind of croony. And Harry – it was a really hot day – and we were rehearsing with no air conditioning, and I think he was about to walk out and he just picked up the whole beat in frustration I think and the song just quadrupled in tempo and it really worked.
When that happens, you recognise it’s working?
I’ll go with it. I’ll go with the band.
Have you got a favourite song you’ve written? Or is it too hard to choose between them?
I think Victoria is pretty strong.
Do you do other writing – poetry?
I find poetry is a lot more intense because I’m writing without melody. I did that at high school. Things like couplets still pop up. Funnily enough, I’m terrible at maths, but I won a Cantamath prize once…
That’s pretty impressive!
I wrote 15 stanzas in verse about a Jacobite rebel in Scotland. It was maths but it had a poetry section and I won two record vouchers and a book of encyclopaedia of countries.
Do you still enjoy performing?
The whole live thing has just got better. The more we work – work is a funny word because it sounds like it could be a drudge – but it’s not. I love the travelling.
Was there ever a time when it was a drudge?
Not in the live sense, no. There was one time I didn’t go on stage after an argument with a pub manager who was pulling the band on before us – The Pterodactyls – they were a great band. The bar manager wanted to put us up early and he pulled them and so I just walked out.
Is the music industry quite difficult to navigate given there are so many moving parts? Obviously you guys are the ones writing and creating the music, but there are so many other people around the periphery…
Absolutely. Your band may be good, but the best thing about a band is how well you get on. For me, the number one thing is always your crew. Some nights you may not always have the best voice but they can make it sound great. Broken strings, setting up PA’s…
And they don’t really get a lot of recognition do they?
No. The road crew are the flipping people who do everything, who tour with everyone.
Who were you inspired by when you first started out?
Well, pop Mechanix, Bon Marche or The News. The Bats. And The Wastrels. The Wastrels (Peter Cook and Anton Jenner) they were great. You’d think ‘If I don’t steal that song, I wish I’d written it.”
What served you well as a creative? What is essential for you to be able to create?
It’s essentially about me being able to look into the future and think about what I want to do.
I’m a bit lazy and sometimes I only have half a song. For example ‘Why Does Love Do This To Me’ – I only had two verses, but the guys picked up on it really quite quickly and I was just letting it go thinking ‘I’m not going to sing the same verse over the front’ and Brian Jones just started playing the solo where a second verse would have been. People often say ‘Now Jordan, why does the guitar solo come in so early?’ and I go ‘Because I didn’t have another verse.”
It’s an unusual arrangement.
That arrangement really works. It’s verse, chorus, guitar solo.
Sometimes it’s good to not stick to the formula.
Yeah. In that case it worked. but you know creatively, in – New Zealand its tough to make this wholesale judgement – but coming out of the punk era, new wave, I think because there was no radio airplay, bands and artists thought ‘we’re not going to get played’ so we’ll just do what we like, the way we like it.’
It gave you freedom.
I think it did.
Sometimes there’s a pressure..
Which can be a good thing but it doesn’t necessarily give you total freedom.
Which is why “who Loves Who’ – is a good example. All of a sudden New Zealand music was getting airplay – and a DJ might say ‘Oh the front is too long, the intro is too long..’ so when we did ‘Who Loves Who’ I consciously went ‘It’s been bugging me…’ and no one could say the intro was too long because it was right up front. No mucking around. No seven seconds.
Is it irritating having that unsolicited feedback from programmers?
I think on Victoria the reps said ‘why do the drums come in at 2 minutes?’ Well, that’s another song we didn’t really know what to do with it, but again, we’d played it over eight times and there were a lot more verses at that time, and I think out of frustration Harry just came in heavy with the drums. And it worked really well. We had to cut the lyrics down because it was getting a bit Dylanesque.
Sometimes those great moments can come out of frustration
Or a pop aesthetic. Some sort of nous.
Was there any particular performance that blew you away in the early days?
There was a lot of emphasis in the early days on being stage wise. Not just performance, but fashion – it was really part and parcel of the whole thing. We would have sets built – people came to see a bit more of an event to a degree. I remember one time I was meant to be dressed up as a jester and be carried on in this cardboard box and the idea was that I would jump out like a jack in the box. This was pretty spectacular because I had flour that would also come out and under the lights in rehearsal it looked pretty good. On the night, the crew carried me out but they put the box the wrong way so when I jumped up I didn’t see the crowd, I saw harry.
What about as a punter? Who was the best band you saw?
So many New Zealand ones. I never got to Mollet Street which was Al Park’s club. The Hip Singles used to play there I think and they were really influential to me.
Venues are pretty important for bands to grow – how is Christchurch placed now post-earthquake do you think?
There’s a few now – It’s a shame that Al’s Bar doesn’t exist – but there are a few; Blue Smoke, The Ferry mead, the Foundry. It was looking pretty bleak for a while, but it’s better now. Christchurch is so unrecognisable now, it’s a new city.
What do you get inspired by now?
I’d have to say, love. We were thinking about returning to London, but ‘Why does Love’ just went mental and we stayed to do an album. If Victoria started the 80s for us, then Why Does Love did the same through the 90s.
But I love being in Christchurch. I love touring too. But I love being here.
What’s on your radar for what you want to do next?
Last lockdown we didn’t do a show for three months. Touring again will be great. I get so excited about it, there were so many cancellations from last year. All the summer concert series just got rolled over, but we just want to get out and play. When it does kick back in, it’ll be great. Dance Exponents will be doing a 40 year old tour next year. Victoria came out June 1982 – so yeah, it’s 40 years old.