15 Jan 2024

Road Trip with Mike Chunn

From Summer Times, 10:10 am on 15 January 2024

Making music has always been "integral, integral, integral" to the life of Mike Chunn – founding member of Split Enz and creator of the youth songwriting charity Play It Strange.

Chunn tells Anna Thomas that he likes to play piano alone, acoustic guitar after drinking (often with his son Barney singing) and bass guitar in front of a large-as-possible crowd.

"The biggest I've played in front of I think was Sweetwaters [with Citizen Band] – 35,000 or something. I remember walking out and taking 'this'll do me'."

Mike Chunn

Mike Chunn Photo: supplied/Josef Scott

Chunn has been a member of three bands: the early '70s cover band Moses – "I've never found anyone who ever saw us but we did exist" – Citizen Band and Split Enz.

He first met Split Enz bandmate Tim Finn at high school, then one day in the fourth form, they jumped on stage and played 'To Love Somebody'.

"This terrified Te Awamutu lad sang like a bird. And I thought I need to hold on to this kid's coat for the rest of my life and I did the best I could at doing that."

Chunn was at engineering school and living with his mum in Parnell when Tim and Phil Judd visited one day and played three "shockingly good" songs they'd written – 'Split Ends', 'Wise Men' and 'For You'.

"I just said, Listen, if you're looking for a bass player…' and Tim said, well, actually, that's why we're here."

About four weeks later, Split Ends (yet to become 'Enz') played those three songs at Auckland venue Levi's Saloon, scoring themselves a manager and a gig at the Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival.

The first Split Enz publicity shot, Dec 1972 (Mike Chunn 2nd from left)

The first Split Enz publicity shot, Dec 1972 (Mike Chunn 2nd from left) Photo: supplied

The band's signature clothing and hairstyles didnt happen till percussionist Noel Crombie entered the fold, Chunn says.

"He joined by just actually at one show walking on stage with a suit on and pulling out some spoons from his coat pockets. And he started playing the spoons with us.

"There was never an official application form to fill out to want to be in that band. He just became a crucial part of the band and the costumes and everything were driven by him. Noel Crombie, he's the man."

As a band, Split Enz loved attention, Chunn says.

"We were kind of sweetly arrogant, really."

He describes being in the band as like "living on a strange, weird planet".

"Everything was kind of just… new. And it was very exciting, I was really excited about the whole thing."

During his time with Split Enz, fuelled by "a cocktail of drugs", Chunn had a traumatic event that left him in absolute terror and which nine years later he realised was agoraphobia related to travelling.

It's a misconception that agoraphobia is the fear of open spaces, he says.

"It's being scared of leaving where you feel safe."

Chunn, who became a board member of the Anxiety NZ Trust in 1999, says he has never had a panic attack on the stage.

"Do I regret the whole Split Enz thing having [agoraphobia] in it? Yes, I do. Do I regret the years of the drugs? Yes, I do. But do I regret the in toto picture that is life as a member of that band? Not at all. It was just a magical experience of life."

Over the years, "in the stress of life, in this strange world of music" Chunn has had a couple of relapses but says he's now so much better.

"A lot of us – because we are a unique raft of society – have an [anti-anxiety] pill in the pocket, where it sits, and you travel and go to where you want to go and the pill is still in the bottom of your pocket.

"It's a bit like a health insurance certificate, you take out health insurance but you don't necessarily claim. That was that is like, that pill on the pocket. It's a safety valve."

Although he's now "stepped down a peg" at Play It Strange, as creative director, Chunn still loves promotes and nurturing up-and-coming musicians.

The charity's songwriting competition – which has an average entry age of 16 – is a "magical world", Chunn says.

"There's a lot of emotion in the songs. One of the saddest was by a 15-year-old girl whose elder brother was going off to university and she couldn't stand the thought of his going. He, of course, didn't realise that she loved him so much.

"The themes are pretty much consistent with quite deep emotions but they're becoming far more enunciated and sophisticated."

The songs which make it into the recording studio are judged half on their lyrics and half on the music, Chunn says.

"There are people who say 'I don't listen to words' but I don't believe them ... the lyrics of the teenagers in the Play It Strange world are increasingly magnificent."

He recommends ‘Rainbow Skies’ by Guntaas Oberoi:

Songs played:

Two of a Kind' ​by Split Enz:

In 1983, after making two albums with Split Enz, Chunn was running Mushroom Records when the track 'Two of a Kind' came out.

"If you peel it back like an onion, it's pretty much the brothers singing about themselves. Two of a kind. Theyre very good at wearing their hearts on the sleeves."


'No Telling When' by The Muttonbirds:

"I first came across Don [McGlashan] when he was in Blam Blam Blam … It wasn't really until he started coming through with Muttonbirds albums and some of the Front Lawn stuff that I realised he is a lyrical genius, and his whole encapsulating what it is to be in New Zealand, to be a New Zealander.

"Plus he also had this wonderful focus on the sea and lakes and rivers … that is a very poignant aspect of his lyric writing. I think he's just such a man of true colour and metaphor and all that kind of stuff that great lyric-writers are.

"This one is about the ocean … opening lines because he can draw you in like in an instant. Are these the hands of a man? I suppose so. I recall them shaking the hands of other men.

"Don was a champion yachtsman when he was a youngun. Water is very much a very important part of the Don McGlashan life … there are a lot of them about water. 'Anchor Me' would probably be the most famous."


'America' by Simon & Garfunkel:

"Mr. Garfunkel, I mean, God bless him but really [Simon & Garfunkel] is all about Paul Simon and his encapsulating American life in two-to-three minutes songs.

"At school, we were very focused on Paul Simon's songs. I also chose the song 'America' because it doesn't have one rhyme.

"That's the sort of craft of someone like Paul Simon. You're listening to the song and it has a really positive effect, the fact that he is essentially just talking and yet it's one of the great musical tracks we ever heard … Tim [Finn] and I used to listen to this 'America' song a lot."


Mike Chunn on RNZ:

Mike Chunn steps away from Play It Strange

The Mixtape: Mike Chunn

Play It Strange: Winners 2020

Play It Strange: Songs from 2019

Play It Strange: Top Songs Of 2016