Strawpeople - Knucklebones

Publish Date
Thursday, 31 August 2023, 11:32AM

In many ways Knucklebones is a follow-up to Vicarious, the Strawpeople award winner from 1996 (Album of the Year) with Paul Casserly and Fiona McDonald back together as the core of the project.

Knucklebones is a collection of all new material. It was recorded at Bigpop Studios in Auckland and features some stellar guests and contributors.

The most recent Strawpeople album, Count Backwards from Ten, came out in 2004. That’s 19 years, or, “the thick end of two decades,” as Casserly puts it.

In the meantime, McDonald has raised a family, been involved in various TV shows, including a stint as a judge on NZ Idol. Casserly has worked in radio and as a TV director and writer.

So why now? “It was always on the list of things I wanted to do again, I was always about to start but time really does fly doesn’t it” explains Casserly, “I’d been collecting ideas, making notes and then one day, I actually sat down and started the thing.”

Puerto Rico, or more specifically Vieques is also to blame.

“It was at a joint 50th birthday celebration,” explains Fiona, “A whole group of our mutual friends had gathered to gasp in horror at the passing of half a century. At dinner one night Paul came over and suggested we make some more music together. I told him I was thinking just that. It took us a few years to get our shit together and start writing.”

For both, writing music again was an interesting process, for Fiona “it wasn’t quite like riding a bike, we fell off heaps of times before we could take in the scenery.”

While the guts of the thing is the work of McDonald and Casserly, there’s a cast of heavy hitters behind this production as well.

People like Matthias Jordan from Pluto, Nick Atkinson of Supergroove fame (saxophone), and drumming legend Chris O’Connor, along with the always in-demand bassist Mark Hughes, who just happens to be Fiona’s brother in law. There’s even a cameo appearance from Luke Hurley (guitar), a legendary Auckland busker. Casserly recruited him one Sunday morning at a market.

“I heard someone playing one day at the Takapuna market, it was in the distance and it sounded amazing, spooky, so different to the usual buskers you hear. When I got closer I saw it was Luke Hurley and I remembered him from 95bFM days, so I waited till he’d finished and asked if he would come in and do a session. He’s an amazing musician and a lovely man.”

Partners in previous crimes; Chris van de Geer (guitar) and bassist Joost Langeveld are also back, both playing and acting as producers and label owners at Bigpop.

Chris and Joost have long been part of the Strawpeople story. Going all the way back to a high school band that included Greg Johnson, with Paul on drums and Joost on bass.

“It’s so cool to have these guys not only as label owners but as players and producers” says Casserly,  “these guys live and breathe music. They’re kinda the godfathers.”

Fiona and Joost were also in Auckland band N.R.A (Not Really Anything), which led to her being poached by Headless Chickens. Another connection; Angus McNaughton was the engineer when McDonald recorded her first song with the Chickens, the smash hit Cruise Control. Not only did Angus master Knucklebones, he provided the photograph of the dahlia on the album cover.

The addition of keyboardist Matthias Jordan as a co-writer proved crucial, says Casserly, “when he started working with us, it all came together. He’s ridiculously talented.” And then there’s Luke Berryman aka DJ Orphan and engineer Jacob Rush, both part of the Bigpop production family and both making a huge impact in the studio. The song Paper Cuts was seriously re-worked by Berryman, “almost a remix, I would say. He really pulled it apart and made something epic,” recalls McDonald.

Remarkably, Pope John Paul II and Idi Amin also feature. The track Love Diktat brings the Polish Pontiff and infamous dictator together in an unlikely duet with ‘Love’ as a theme.

“One of my first experiments in sound involved a cassette tape my parents had of John Paul’s tour of Ireland. I had that in one channel while Public Image Limited raged in the other. This is a more whimsical affair, just a riff on love really and whatever you think about them, I reckon their voices have a strange lyrical magic.”

Found sounds also feature, a gas heater can be heard along with Nic Atkinson’s moody sax-scape on the track Forgot to Forget. Sampled beats make way for the majesty of real drums on Second Heart thanks to drum master Chris O’Connor. But the heart of the album is that familiar combo of sampled beats, bass, guitar, keys and more than anything, the voice of Fiona McDonald.

“Those vocal cords are incredible” says Casserly,”I mean I’m really proud of the music we’ve made but that voice and what she does with it never fails to amaze me.”

McDonald says she’s proud of the album. “I called Paul when we got the master back, and said, good job us.” For her, working with Casserly again was “a rare treat. Paul has always been my favourite writing partner.  We usually agree on things and for some reason our outsized egos don’t seem to overlap.”

It was her idea to cover Baby It’s You, continuing a Strawpeople tradition of covers which began when Trevor Reekie (Pagan records legend) suggested the Swingers’ One Good Reason (sung by one of his other artists, Merenia) back in 1990. The covers continued with Stephanie Tauevihi’s versions of songs by John Hiatt (Faith) and The Church (Under The Milky Way) and in 2000, Bic Runga with The Cars’ “Drive”.

Baby It’s You has always been a favourite of Fiona’s, “I’d always thought it’d make a great cover, slowed down and moody as fuck.”

Take your Radio, Podcasts and Music with you