Paul Kean is one of Christchurch’s most recognisable faces. Guitarist for The Bats, Events Producer for the City Council and Organiser of the University of Canterbury’s Orientation Festivals – he’s been there and done it all.
He speaks to Zara Potts about those early days of organising the Orientation gigs and some of the best acts he found.
“I think we were lucky with Canterbury because we had a good fine arts department and those students were supportive. But even amongst the Engineering students – there was a wild bunch in there – and you’d think ‘oh they just want to get pissed’ but they were actually pretty creative those people. They often had mates that played in bands and so there were quite a lot of student bands about.”
How did you get the gig of managing the legendary Orientations?
I was a self-employed muso/sound engineer/potter and we had our first child and I thought ‘oh well, guess I better get a full time job.”
In 1989, The University had an AV person role and I applied for that and then Student Activities Coordinator role came up and so I applied for both of them and got both and I took the Student Activities Coordinator role.
You’d obviously played Orientations with The Bats – but what was it like for you being on the other side of the stage?
I wasn’t really sure how much freedom I’d have but the role was actually a part of the Students Association and I was employed by the Student Executive so I had quite a bit of freedom. There were requirements of course, but I had a lot of freedom to arrange programmes. But of course we had to break even.
What was Ōtautahi like in comparison to other campuses? Were there differences?
I was aware of other orientations but hadn’t really gauged one against the other. As a band, we knew that Hamilton would be a bit scaled down, and you’d think that Palmerston North would be full of farmers, but it wasn’t. They all had student radio stations that we engaged with, so it kind of felt familiar to me.
When it came to doing the job, I was just focusing on maintaining Orientation success, and we worked closely with the Students Arts’ Council who helped do national tours, they were based in Wellington. That disbanded after I’d been in the job for about two years and I thought, God, we’ve got to do something to keep our network going and we started up an informal New Zealand Campus Arts Network, between us we shared the responsibility of holding a booking conference – I’d have a turn one year and then Otago, and we’d work together. We’d put out a call that we were accepting submissions from artists, or bands –anything really – dance, comedy or hypnotists.
It was a pretty broad church in terms of acts wasn’t it? Were you open to anything, even hypnotists?
Pretty much. Hypnotists – they were pretty popular then. The UCSA had good venues. One building had a theatre, there was a big ballroom, and a lower common room and an upper common room and ancillary spaces as well as an amphitheatre outside so it was great to be able to have different acts for different sized audiences.
Did audience tastes change over the time you were there?
Towards the end of my tenure there were changes in what people were seeking for entertainment – obviously computers had started rising in popularity and social media and gaming were popular and getting more prevalent and it was splitting peoples interests more. It used to be more ‘Oh such and such a band’s playing’ and they’d all go off to see a band for the experience as well as the music, but that started to change with the rave culture that came in. We tried to adapt to that but it wasn’t seen as cool to have a rave in the ballroom, they wanted to have it in a warehouse or a field or something like that.
Orientation was a great way of introducing New Zealand music to young people who perhaps had been raised on a diet of Top 40 and orientation was a great introduction to local bands..
That was the beauty of it. There was a bit of a renaissance with the indie labels starting up in New Zealand in the early 80s, it wasn’t just Flying Nun, there were others. People saw the opportunity and realised they could write their own songs and record them and sell the music and try and make a living from it. That was really embraced by the Students Associations and the Student Radio stations so it all worked really well together.
How important was student radio to helping introduce new bands?
Student radio was much more crucial back then because student radio had a wider. Broader audience than it does now I think and of course, the commercial networks were playing virtually no New Zealand music back then. It interesting where it sits now because people don’t source their music through radio these days – Spotify is big. When people would hear music on the radio, you’d get a collective audience to some extent and when you get that group thing going on, you get a groundswell which lifts you into a higher profile to a lot more people whereas with Spotify or YouTube you’ve got a little niche group who like you but then how do you get beyond that. It’s more an individual experience now rather than a collective feeling.
RDU – which was UFM back then – actually started as the orientation radio station, and it really helped bring audiences in and it all really blossomed from there.
So Orientation and student radio were highly connected?
Yeah, but there was always the other side to it: we were the only place you could go if you were 18 or 19 and wanted to have a drink. That was a big part of it – get an Orientation season pass and you can get pissed all week.
An orientation ticket in the 80’s was a pretty hot tickets – there was a black market for tickets for non-students.
Originally Orientation was for students only and when I started I thought, ‘Well, a lot of students have mates or partners who are not students, so why don’t we open it up and have a non-student pass as well.
How did that go?
It wasn’t as popular as I had been expecting it to be to be fair
How much did the Orientation circuit back then have an effect on local music?
I think Orientation festivals and student radio stations really helped get a big following for local music. It was their platform. Student radio wasn’t just about music, there was some good journalism going on there too.
Was it popular with all students?
I think we were lucky with Canterbury because we had a good fine arts department and those students were supportive. But even amongst the Engineering students – there was a wild bunch in there – and you’d think ‘oh they just want to get pissed’ but they were actually pretty creative those people. They often had mates that played in bands and so there were quite a lot of student bands about.
Did they also play gigs at Orientation?
Student bands would always apply to get onto the orientation schedule and you’d think ‘what kind of music is this going to be..’ but actually there were a lot of good student bands. The first years would come along and they were already playing music in a band with a sparkle in their eye and they’d always volunteer to help out and then there was the other scene with more arty, dark music going on. The engineering students were always pretty wacky. They did the Undie 500 and it was amazing the detail they put into their vehicles, those guys. They were like art cars, it was great, I loved it.
What was the best orientation gig you were part of?
Believe it or not one of the standout gigs was when we had an ABBA covers band from Australia, it was so bizarre. That was one of those things that everybody loved, from all quarters, your grunge people, your straight students. It was the great unifier.
Another memorable performance was Hunters and Collectors, they bought their own sound system with them, they didn’t want to use ours, but they really set it up well and made the ballroom sound brilliant. It was loud but it didn’t hurt your ears and I think seeing them do that we thought we could make it better, so we made sure then we had good quality PA’s.
And the loudest?
I was going to say Bailter Space, but Salmonella Dub when Tiki was mixing them was pretty loud, it was pretty bloody impressive. That style of music is interesting because the audience gets really excited by it and I realised that part of it is the subs making you feel the music in your body, when you can feel it in your chest, and it almost gives you an adrenaline rush which gives you a kind of high.
I wanted to have good variety, I wanted to cater to as wide a cross section of the campus as possible. We had Mexican nights, with Pacha Mama playing and I’d put sets together with desert scenes and papier Mache Cacti and that was good fun.
We used to have authors come along and speak – we had Adrian Edmondson and other authors come and read. Poets and comedians. Good stand up. We had all sorts of things. Dance, stilt theatre, weird percussive things. Some interesting classical weird shit.
With Orientations festivals, they would always be featuring ‘the acts’ and a whole section of new Zealand was witness to that whereas now, you still do tours, and student radio still does support, but you don’t feel like you’re really getting to quite so big an audience as you used to.
We had a lot of people offering themselves and we would give them a go – lets throw something else into the mix here. It worked out generally pretty well.