12 Aug 2023

The Sampler: Knucklebones by Strawpeople

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 12 August 2023

Photo: Supplied

I always thought Strawpeople got their name from the term ‘straw man argument’, maybe because I knew Paul Casserly as a politically-minded man. He was one of the creators of Eating Media Lunch, and over his long career in media - as programme director, writer, director and an intimidating number of other credits - there’s always been a satirical edge to his cultural criticism. 

For most people that would be plenty, but Casserly was also a musician, and Strawpeople - who got acclaim, chart placement, and Album of the Year at the 1997 NZ Music Awards - often included politics too, via samples of world leaders. The name actually came from the movie The Wicker Man, itself a reasonably political film.

They’ve just released a new record, and, despite it coming around nineteen years after their last, it feels like the work of musicians picking up where they left off.

Up until 1996, Strawpeople was a partnership between Casserly and Mark Tierny. They began collaborating at 95bFM in the late eighties, piecing together compositions and working with a rotation of vocalists. After Tierny left, the band released Vicarious, written by Casserly and Fiona McDonald, who sang on every track. 

It’s that duo that’s back on Knucklebones, an album which crackles with the energy of a rekindled creative partnership. McDonald possesses one of this country’s most distinctive voices, soaring in harmony on that track ‘Second Heart’ as she sings “Funny how our past beats inside me like another heart”.

I’m not sure if she or Casserly wrote that lyric, but it’s slightly off-kilter in the same way her work with Headless Chickens was. There’s always a sinister edge to McDonald’s melodies: listen to the way she sings “I want to be the rain that falls on your cheek” in the song 'Watch You Sleep', specifically the little semitone waver she puts on that last word, which makes it suddenly feel slightly threatening.   

That track is adorned with live instruments - guitar, bass, even some brushed drums at its start - notable as Strawpeople always foregrounded electronic elements. As Simon Grigg says in his Audioculture profile of the group, they were "one of the first local artists for whom the studio became an instrument". 

In that same piece, Casserly is quoted saying he never thought of himself as a songwriter, “more a collaborator and a cobbler”. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from similar electronic artists over the years, but there’s no doubting that Strawpeople do write great songs, whatever the method.

They also excel at making other people’s songs feel like theirs.

‘Baby It’s You’, a cover of the Promises’ song from 1978, luxuriates in McDonald’s mournful vocal tone, slowing the tempo to a crawl and cushioning her with fluffy synthesiser drones.

Elsewhere, guests on the album include Joost Langeveld on bass and Chris van de Geer, (who run the label BigPop and have many musical milestones in their back catalogue), and the equally accomplished Chris O’Connor on drums, Matthias Jordan on keyes, and Nick Atkinson playing sax. 

The most intriguing feature though is guitarist Luke Hurley, who’s been releasing self-recorded albums since the '80s, and these days can often be found busking in downtown Auckland. Casserly invited him into the studio for a jam, and the result is the instrumental cut ‘Busker’.

McDonald and Casserly have been mutually adoring in the press surrounding Knucklebones, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a clear musical alchemy here.

Vocal samples make an appearance - notably Ugandan dictator Idi Amin duetting with Pope John Paul II on the track ‘Diktat’, a pairing I can imagine Casserly chuckling at - and it wouldn’t be a Strawpeople album without them. 

But my main takeaway is how murky and dark these tracks often are, while remaining resolutely pop songs.