Dale’s eyes light up when he’s in the company of another muso — and so it was when, some days ago, he got to hear from Troy Kingi, who’s been a Kerikeri man for a good few years now, and who’s about to launch his third album. They do talk about music. But they have other things on their agenda as well, including living in Te Kaha, boarding at Te Aute, scuba diving, and Troy’s occasional adept ventures into the movie world.
Kia ora, Troy. Meeting a man who’s been making so many musical waves over the years has me assuming that you’ve inherited a good number of musical genes from your parents.
My mum unfortunately doesn’t have a musical bone in her body. It’s my Kingi side that are the musicians — they’re all singers and guitarists. My dad and his brothers used to jam a lot. They had a band called Greenstone in the ’80s. They’re all ex-Hato Petera boys, and they had a band at school as well. Yep, definitely from the Kingi side.
When you were growing up, were there instruments all around the lounge?
Not really. My dad had a good record collection, and we used to listen to a lot of music — Steely Dan, Bread, Chicago, a lot of Led Zep. But there weren’t instruments lying around. It wasn’t until I got older, when we moved up to the Bay of Islands, that I got a thing for music — and writing songs in particular.
I was born in Rotorua, in the ‘80s. My parents divorced when I was real young and Mum married my stepfather. When I was 11, we moved down to Te Kaha, and then I went to boarding school at Te Aute. Eventually we ended up in the north, in Kerikeri, and I’ve kind of been here ever since.
I wonder what sort of influence Te Kaha and Te Aute had on you.
Well, with Te Kaha, I remember worrying that it was so secluded. Nothing but ocean on one side and mountains on the other. And I didn’t wanna move there because of that. But once we did, that was the very reason that made me love it — the seclusion, the peace.
I’m a small town boy at heart. I can’t be in the city for too long. Most of my mahi is in Auckland or a flight away, which I kind of enjoy. But I always look forward to returning home to the north. It’s like a massive exhale.
I’m a relatively private person and Kerikeri is a nice hideaway. What you see of me in the public, in the media, on the internet — I’d definitely say there’s a bit of a façade. Not to say that it isn’t real but I think I save who I truly am for my family. I just like spending time with them.
The city can eat you up. And I don’t think I’d be writing the music I write if I was living in Auckland. Being in a small town, I have no one physically to bounce ideas off, to jam with. I’m left to my own devices. There’s no one saying: “No, that’s a bad idea.” So it’s a lot easier to run with stuff creatively without feeling bad about it. It’s probably the reason the Zygertron record was so left of field. No one was asking for it, no one wanted it, and no one expected it. So it kinda stood out like dog’s balls.
I’m something of a social recluse, too, even though I work in a public way as a broadcaster. So I can understand your need for a quiet time to maintain a balance with the extroverted style that you have to adopt when you’re performing.
Yeah. Soon as I leave town, I put my work hat on, and when I get home, I take it off and put on the daddy trousers. I don’t think I’d have it any other way.
Kerikeri is quite different from Te Kaha and Te Aute. Not anywhere near as strong, for instance, in its taha Māori. Some might say it’s actually quite a redneck town. What have your impressions been?
I moved up here with my mother, my stepfather, my brother and sister, back when I was 15. It’s doubled in population since then. Definitely changed. I remember back then I could walk down the street and know every single person. Now I don’t know anyone.
It was a culture shock coming from a school like Te Aute, which has such a long history. But I don’t think I would have flourished creatively had I not moved to Kerikeri. It opened me up to so much cool shit — bands, music, genres I’d never ever thought twice about.
Te Aute didn’t have that sort of setup. As much as I loved it there, the school didn’t have a music or drama department.
By contrast, Kerikeri has been referred to as the Remuera of the north. I can see why, too. You only have to look at our surrounding towns to know that they aren’t getting any council money. It all seems to get pumped into our small town. Why? I’m not sure, but that wealth and love definitely needs to be spread throughout Te Tai Tokerau — there’s a lot of whānau living under the poverty line.
Let’s follow up a bit on your music now. And perhaps you could tell us something about your very first guitar. How did you come by that?
My first guitar was one of my dad’s old ones. He had three, and when I showed an interest, he was like: “Oh. Have this one.” I don’t know where it is now. I played a little bit of guitar for the kapa haka group at Te Aute, only out of necessity when the seniors were away. But I didn’t really get into it until I moved north.
I was into music, but I never thought I’d make a career out of it. It wasn’t until I got the buzz, sitting in on mates’ band rehearsals, seeing a song they’d created come to life.
That’s still the biggest buzz for me, even now. If I could get paid to just write songs and rehearse them with my band, I’d be a happy man. That’s where the spark is for me — the songwriting, not the gigs. Not the whatever else that comes with it. I suppose it’s like a painter who enjoys the process of painting but not necessarily the exhibition.
I didn’t have any major influences. Once I moved up here I just started listening to anything and everything. Still do. One of my favourite bands is Queens of the Stone Age. You might hear that influence in my first album, Guitar Party At Uncle’s Bach. I really like the way Josh Homme arranges his songs. It’s quirky as shit, not the norm. Just when you think you’re understanding a song, it’ll go off on a tangent.
I’ve tried incorporating that into how I approach songs. If they’re starting to feel too comfortable, I throw a spanner in the works, maybe a clashy chord, then try smooth it over by weaving it to the next section with a sexy melody.
I was pleased to hear that your latest album has a political and reggae edge to it. The political is something that Māori have championed. We use music to make a better society and to challenge the status quo. I guess Herbs is a great example of that.
But before we talk more about your mahi, let’s take a moment to hear about your love of scuba diving.
My most memorable dives are at night. Your senses are heightened. When you’re under the water, all you see is where your torch is pointing. It’s kind of like looking at a movie screen. The shadows stretch across the rippled sand. Everything’s surreal. But also, at night the crayfish come up to feed — which is an awesome bonus.
One of the best dives I had was diving for my wedding at the Black Rocks. Sometimes you go for a dive, and you find nothing. But on this night dive, everywhere you expected to find a cray, there were three or four crays. It was like shopping, picking the heaviest, juiciest pineapple and not having to pay for it.
I’m actually not the biggest crayfish fan, I’m a kina man at heart. If I was to put my favourite seafood in order, it would go: kina, oysters, scallops, paua, maybe crayfish, then mussels and whatever after that. I love hunting crays, though. I get the biggest adrenaline rush seeing feelers under rocks. Your mind automatically starts racing: “Okay. I gotta plan this out. I gotta check around the other side. Are there bigger ones? Is there a clearer entry point? I don’t wanna disturb the silt.” I love it.
No doubt you see yourself more as a musician than an actor these days, even though you’ve had some memorable movie roles. Like TK in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. But there had to be a start. And I’m assuming you left school and, like everyone else, you had to find some sort of mahi.
My first job was at McDonalds in Kerikeri. I worked there for a couple of years while I was at school, before going to MAINZ (Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand). I also did a few years working in orchards. Kerikeri has a lot of orchards. Then I had about six years working as a scuba diver instructor.
In the meantime, I was still writing a lot and playing small gigs. No one knew who I was, though. I was at the bottom of the food chain. When I left school, I wanted a career in music. The following year, after leaving school, Huia — my wife now — fell pregnant. And that kind of changed things.
When you’re starting out in music, you’re not really bringing in the big bills. And, because I had a small family to take care of, I started doing these other jobs. But I always had music on the backburner.
It wasn’t until 2012 that I got a call from Te Arepa Kahi asking if I’d like to audition for this movie Mt Zion. I’d never done any acting. Anyway, out of the blue there came this call. Went and did the audition — and got the job.
I kinda leveraged my music off my newfound acting fame. And that’s where it started. I had hundreds of songs leading up to that. Closet songs — songs you only play in the bedroom.
I still don’t class myself as an actor, but I do get the odd job here and there.
And already you have a pretty solid platform to work off with, nowadays, a confidence that you didn’t have in the early days.
Yeah. Definitely. I think there’s stuff you can only learn through experience. And I’m at a stage in my career where, if there are people I want to work with, I’ll just ask them.
Of the hundreds of songs you’ve written, are there a couple that stand out for you? Or mean something deep to you? Or feel like your most honest words?
That’s a really tricky question. From my first album, there’s a song Can’t Stop Feeling Strange which sounds very different to the rest of the album. The chorus goes: I can’t stop feeling strange in my mind. Why should I have to change when I feel fine in my mind.
Basically, it’s about sticking to your guns. People might try to deter you, but listen to the voice in your head.
I like that you’re touching on some very serious issues with your new album Holy Colony Burning Acres. Even the title is challenging. What’s your whakaaro on the title of the album?
Maybe you know I’m aiming to do 10 albums in 10 years. I skipped a year last year. Not on purpose. It was an accident. So I’m trying to make up for it by bringing out two next year.
Anyway, regarding this one, I’ve got friends that are real deep on reggae. They’re reggae connoisseurs. And they’re like: “If you want to write a legit reggae roots album, it has to be either about love or politics.”
I didn’t want to write about love. So, politics it was. And I started looking at our own backyard — at things facing us as Māori. When I started researching and talking to some of my indigenous friends from all over the place, I thought: “Why don’t I widen my catchment to talk about injustices that have happened, and are happening, all around the world?” So the root of this album is colonisation.
There’s a godly element to it as well, but mainly it’s the question: Who’s to say whose god is the one true God? Is the Christian God better than Allah, Shiva, or Jah? It’s where you’re born or who your parents are that determines what your political view and your religious views are going to be.
I don’t know. I find it crazy how people can say that they’re better than others just because they’re born in a certain country, or born of a certain colour. It’s crazy. So that’s the basis of this album and its name.
I’m pleased that you’re looking at the Papuan situation with Bird of Paradise —and, in Truganini, at the last Aboriginal woman in Tasmania.
I think West Papua is one of the biggest atrocities in the world today. When you look back at the history of the colonisation of Māori and other indigenous people, it’s a story of bad shit that happened — and you read about in the history books. But the same thing is actually happening right now in West Papua.
I don’t know why there’s no media coverage on it. Possibly it’s because the bigger powers have investments there and don’t want to shed light on it because of the risk of losing their money. Another big question through the album is this: “Is money worth more than people?”
Leading up to the writing of this album, I was sent a story from one of the indigenous brothers about their situation in West Papua — and it broke my heart. He watched his family get raped and murdered, escaped into the jungle with his friends where he survived for two years, before finally jumping on a boat and escaping to Australia where he now lives. That’s just one story. There’s bound to be millions of other stories just like that.
So I’m just using my platform to be a voice. I don’t know how big that platform is and I’m definitely not the most politically-minded person, but there are things that need to be said. I also don’t know if I’m the one who should be saying it, but someone’s got to.
I reckon we all should be saying it. I can’t help but look back at the Herbs songs that still resonate. Like Nuclear Waste, French Letter, and Rust In Dust. It was a politicising of reggae and it developed a unique Aotearoa-Pacific style. Do you think that music can change the world, or at least the Māori world?
Definitely. I’m a big Herbs fan. When they were singing about anti-nukes, people were listening. I don’t know if people are going to listen to me. But that’s cool. I’m just putting it out there, trying to tell some truths, planting seeds. If it resonates with one person, that’s enough to start something.
For inspiration, I went back to some of the early reggae pioneers, mainly The Abyssinians. I tried to get away from Bob Marley. It’s hard to get away from Uncle Bob, though. He’s the ultimate. He was a man of the world and a genius when it comes to song hooks.
I remember when filming first started on Mt Zion, Stan was talking about how, when he was growing up, he always thought Bob Marley was Māori. And that was because Bob wasn’t scared to talk about what was happening anywhere or everywhere. He was inclusive of the minorities all around the world — and that’s why the minorities thought of him as their own.
I think you have a fantastic kaupapa in aiming for 10 albums across a decade, and each of them, in a sense, standing alone. So best of luck with this new album. I note that your band is called the Upperclass. How did you arrive at that name?
It’s ironic: “the Upperclass”. I didn’t come up with that name. I asked my drummer, Treye. He pulled it out of the air, and I liked it. That’s basically it. Treye’s been the only constant member through all of my albums. I started working with him when he was 17. He’s six years younger than me.
I’m really pleased with, and impressed by, where your career is at the moment. And I’m interested in what’s going to happen over the next seven years with your next wave of material. You’ve set yourself an ambitious target, though, so I sense that you must get some satisfaction from all this songwriting. What’s the most satisfying aspect of it?
It’s what gets me up at night. It’s a hard thing to pinpoint. It’s the creating. It’s an outlet. It’s an itch I need to scratch. In a way, it’s just like having breakfast — I have to get up and do it. It may sound like a massive amount of work in 10 years. But my life’s pretty simple.
I’ve broken it down into two things that are important to me. My family, number one, and then music. So, if things come into my life that don’t align with those things, then I won’t do them.
Like I said, I want to do two albums next year. And a year is a long time. It’s just how you spend your time. If you break it down into what you want to be doing and the things that are important, you’ll find you’ve got plenty of time.
That’s fair enough. Let’s talk guitars again. Do you now play a Telecaster or a Strata?
I’ve had this Tele since 2011. I bought it in the States. It’s my main weapon. I’m looking to get a couple of other guitars. I really want to get a Gretsch Bigsby, a big guitar for a big guy, a Strat, Rickenbacker, SG. I want to get them all, but when you’ve got five kids, there’s not much money left at the end of the week for guitars.
It’s been great talking with you, Troy. Best of luck with your whānau and your music. And thank you for your kōrero today.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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