The Redeemer of Lost Time
Anthonie Tonnon's characters keep going to war with him.
They’re baby-boomers: beleaguered letter to the editor writers, lecherous surgeons, Nick Smith. In Tonnon’s second album Successor, they hector their sons, become creepy mentors and lecture unconscious women. Tonnon wants to tell them they’re all-the-way wrong, that they’re selfish and oblivious, but they won’t let him speak. They tell him he’s no better, with his stuck-up generation; all ugly self-importance and preening entitlement. This host of useless 20-somethings, all expecting to buy a villa while working part-time as an artist: Who are they to make anyone into monsters?
A song discarded while Tonnon was writing Successor pits Prince Charles as a revolutionary, leading a host of disgruntled ‘80s babies into battle against their parents. “Prince Charles is the perfect symbol of our generation because he’s sat around waiting for his mum to die all his life, and she hasn’t, and she may never, and meanwhile he’s become a miserable, unfulfilled, strange man, and all the glory will go to his son when there is a succession,” Tonnon says.
“That’s us. That’s the characters in this album.”
Tonnon lives the inter-generational warfare he writes about.. He’s renting a one-bedroom flat under a Herne Bay mansion on the scraps of change he scrapes together from music and journalism. His first flatting experience after moving to Auckland from his hometown Dunedin in 2010 was also a first-hand lesson in the city’s property power structure. A real-estate agent saw Grey Lynn’s spiking house prices and hiked the rent to unreachable heights.
Tonnon and his flatmates had to move out. He wrote a song about it: “Marion Bates Realty”, from his debut album Up Here For Dancing. “I understand supply and demand but I also know what’s right,” he wrote. “And if you can’t explain it in person, Marion, that’s not a good sign.”
“Marion” won over reviewers and, more importantly, his producer Jonathan Pearce, who recorded Successor, and plays on nearly all its tracks. Pearce hadn’t been sold on Tonnon’s first two EPs: Love and Economics and Fragile Thing. He thought songs like “Barry Smith from Hamilton” or “Tuesday Evening” didn’t quite work. “They were very cool but plagued by a little too much wankery or something like that,” Pearce says. “Then he put out “Marion” and I thought ‘holy shit, this guy’s a genius’.”
Tonnon still sings “Marion” most shows, sweating under stage lights in the designer suits his fashion writer fiance Karlya borrows from stores like Barkers or Vanishing Elephant. He returns them afterward, dry-cleaning bills burning a hole in his pocket. Its lyrics are true: Tonnon really does understand supply and demand. He got 95% in the Economics 101 paper he took as part of his history degree at Otago University. It taught him just enough to know the folly of his artistic dream, but not quite enough to make him abandon it.
Instead he keeps strolling into a bleak vision of his future with bemused resignation, and maybe a hint of ruefulness. “I think we’re looking at a future where we’re all going to be court jesters for the rich,” he says. “Living in Auckland, we’re essentially all parasites on the rich. That’s the way artists pull purse strings.”
“I’ve tried to write about how baby boomers have enjoyed every rung on the welfare state and then chopped it all up and burned it for firewood on the roof.”
Music journalist Martyn Pepperell has been asking Tonnon to get angry about it. He sees him doing well as a torch singer; an indie-rock version of Tourettes or Home Brew that takes pot shots at John Key, inequality, Dirty Politics. Tonnon can’t do it. It’s partly due to the influence of what he calls his aesthetic, self-censoring generation. He’s also seen friends get vilified for releasing overtly political songs. But mainly, it just doesn’t feel right. “I’ve tried to write about how baby boomers have enjoyed every rung on the welfare state and then chopped it all up and burned it for firewood on the roof,” he says. “I’ve tried to write those songs but it didn’t work.”
Instead, he makes his politics uncomfortably personal, staring through the eyes of monsters and trying to see what they see. He embodies them and tells their stories. If those stories are upsetting, they’re at least balanced by the fact that Tonnon doesn’t see himself or his peers as being much better. “One half of the characters are second person: throw the baby boomers into these horrible characters or throw the listeners into these horrible characters and see if they recognise anything,” he says. “The ones that are you or I characters are whingey. Ineffectual. These people who have been robbed of this world they thought they were supposed to get.”
Many of the lyrics have their roots in social theory, economic systems and politics. “A Friend from Argentina” is about a wannabe social climber who deals cocaine in a Ponsonby bar. But it’s also about international trade. “Railway Lines” is about a letter writer who gets hit by a car, but it’s inspired in part by a meditation on transport infrastructure. An artist like Tourettes starts with people and makes them into ideas. Tonnon starts with ideas and makes them into people.
Take “Water Underground”. The five-and-a-half minute epic might be Successor’s most moving song, and it’s technically about irrigation.
The song has its origins in 2009, when Tonnon was writing for the Otago student paper Critic. He was assigned to interview Environment Minister Nick Smith about upcoming climate change talks at Copenhagen. Tonnon claims he saw through Smith, but his producer Pearce sees it differently. “He was probably trampled by Nick Smith. Because of Nick Smith being a bit of a PR genius in his own sick, weirdo way,” he says. “I think Tono learned a hell of a lot from that exchange. I think that’s a story that’s never really left Tono and I think he’s been observing Nick Smith ever since. And by the time it comes time to write this song he’s just got this massive picture of this man.”
The following year, Smith pulled the most dazzling stunt of his long political career, and that’s where the song begins.
I'm still in awe
at how you pulled it all off
and driving through the drylands
seeing irrigators installed
I think about the coup
you turned the rules on themselves
you engineered that miracle
to free the water underground
Smith wanted to triple dairy production in New Zealand, but to do it he needed to get at the water under Canterbury. There was just one road block: the democratically-elected board of Environment Canterbury was reluctant to issue consents for irrigators. Scientists had warned the irrigators could be harmful or even disastrous - putting aquifers at risk.
Frustrated, Smith pulled his coup. He employed Wyatt Creech - a former National Party minister and director of Open Country Cheese, a company which has multiple convictions for dirty dairying - to report on allegations of dysfunction at ECan. Creech came back criticising its slow consent processes, accusing the board of having a science-led, not science-informed approach.
called it a national crisis
you were in bed with the press
you understood from experience how to
make it fast and hard to digest oh you
left them dumbfounded, unemployable
chose their replacements yourself
all their science from the cities couldn't keep you
from the water underground
Smith won. He sacked ECan and replaced its board with hand-picked commissioners. But he ended up losing it all two years later. Bronwyn Pullar, his friend, asked him to help with her ACC case. Despite being ACC minister, he wrote and signed a letter of support for her on his ministerial letterhead.
she was one of those friends
followed the rabbit hole to its end
and you knew what it meant
to get involved
and the industry couldn't help you
no, none of the farmers who owed you
they let you fight in that pit alone
When the media found out, they finally had him. Few went in to bat for him. A video clip shows Smith pleading with reporters at an airport ahead of his resignation in Parliament. “Would it not be proper as a human being. As a human being. To let me make the announcement in my time.”
but with elections still on hold
with the cattle turning up by the truckload
you can hear the drills working now
on that water underground
It’s a stomach-punch of a song, with its simple chugging minor-major chord changes sent out over a wall of guitars and wailing backing vocals. But what’s most notable is the way it packs dense content into a few lines, while still deftly excavating the inner life of its central character. Even at its most literal and openly political, Successor digs away at the personal. Smith emerges from his outrageous long con as a thoroughly human figure, and is all the more wretched for it.
That kind of effortlessness comes at a price. Tonnon is no wunderkind. He has to claw and scratch for every song. “He doesn’t feel like a talented person,” Pearce says. “He just feels like someone who can work a bit harder than most.”
And so a song like “Water Underground” takes Tonnon hours and hours. For every line he keeps, he discards a few dozen. In an attempt to make it easier on himself with Successor, he started waking up and writing a diary, trying to get yesterday's junk out of his brain. He’d follow that with a timed writing exercise in which he’d take 10 minutes to describe stuff in the room. “I was thinking that maybe it would make the songs faster but it didn’t do anything,” he says. “It didn’t really help.”
Why does he put himself through it? The financial rewards are nil. The lifestyle is a romanticised kind of shit at best, and the real kind of shit at worst. It’s because to him songs, or the best journalism, are nothing less than condensed life: a way to transcend time, to press it in and experience more of it than has been allotted to you.
“That’s the thing about a great pop song,” he says. “There’s not just three minutes in that song. There’s a year or maybe even a lifetime. That’s magic because time is what we don’t have. Time is something we can’t escape. But if you can get the experience of six months into three minutes, then you’re beating it. You’re beating the system.
"It's like making diamonds out of coal."“
He just so gives a shit about songwriting. Really cares about great songwriting. And that drew me to him,”
Real life has never delivered for Tonnon like music has, with its senseless and incomplete narrative, its incomprehensible speed. All of his best moments are over before he has time to appreciate them. He lives in a decent flat, frustrated all the time that he doesn’t have space to write. He can’t make Auckland feel magical and nostalgic in a way that Dunedin now feels from a distance. “Life is never as magical or as wondrous as I feel it would be - as it is - if you can look at it with perspective. Songwriting is about creating that perspective,” he says.
Tonnon would steal the guttering from your roof to make another melody; walk over rusty nails for a verse. “Maybe it is escapism. I always thought I wasn’t escapist. I’m trying to redeem the lived experience of time by crushing it together,” he says.
Anthonie Tonnon: the redeemer of lost time. The most talented untalented person in Auckland. Filtering great expanses of the mundane through a computer keyboard to create little miracles. Making sense of things, one song at a time.