Interview: Kenny Sterling // Seismic Commotion

Auckland artist Kenny Sterling has just released the visual accompaniment to his debut single, ‘Seismic Commotion’. On the run in an environmentally ravaged land, we sat down with him before the authorities catch up.

Keegan: I seen you in K Road maybe a month or so ago and you were excited about a new vid you’d shot, was this it?

Matt: Yeah! Had shot it a few days earlier out in Titirangi, the week following the Azymuth gig out those same ways.

That was a wild night. Did you shoot it at the Titirangi Beach Hall?

Up the road from the Beach Hall, at the War Memorial Hall. Seeing the Beach Hall at that gig definitely helped me formulate a plan for the location, and the avenue to book it through the council.

I guess working in film may have helped slightly. Has that helped in forming the ideas around the video?

It helped in terms of realising the ideas that Director Tak and I had been bouncing off each other. But I am very privileged to have had access to all the film equipment through work to see the vision of the video through. In terms of the concept, we just came up with an idea and then formulated the plan of how to achieve it after with what means we could.

I was very lucky to have had an incredibly collaborative and supportive crew for the video shoot. Was stoked to get my good friend Aidan Rogers to shoot it. Coco Jouavel took care of the costume, (we spent half a day at First Scene going through every imaginable suit combination!!). Adi Harris (who works in the same department as me on film sets) saved the day last minute to help with the camera / grip gear. Noah Timpson-Neill, who I’ve known since high school, pushed the dolly & looked after the lighting, and photography maestro Dylan Cook shot the photos for it. Once it was shot Tak did most of the edit and I made a few last minute tweaks.

Kenny Sterling with film crew setting up behind the scenes.
Credit: Dylan Cook

And what was the core idea behind the video?

The core idea follows the premise of the song being about the effects of climate change, and how we absorb the doomsday news headlines, all along the lines of “We’ve got 12 years before we pass the point of no return’ and so on. The video frames me, post environmental demise, scrambling from an authoritarian officer who is pursuing me for coming from one of the last remaining places on earth with a means to produce their own oxygen, outside of the state approved supply.

Do you find yourself drawn to dystopian ideas?

Not as a main theme, it’s more of a reflection of the world we live in. I mean the world feels dystopian overall currently, and this depicts just one aspect of corruption and destruction that unravels in slow motion, almost invisible to us. If anything I was trying to match the dystopic feeling reading those one liner news headlines gave me.

It does feel like some days you wake up and after reading the news headlines ya think, “we’re fucked”

Initially it’s the feeling of “we’re fucked”, but it’s also good to channel that feeling of time running out, into a motivational force to try make a change. I’m by no means a perfect environmentally conscious human, but I think sparking the conversation through art / activism is the most effective way to get people to begin engaging with the reality of it. In my eyes, that change needs to be made societally from the top down. Initiatives that allow for everyone to live pragmatically sustainable lives, through subsidies which promote the greener alternatives to our everyday commodities and transport etc. (We don’t need more lanes on congested roads, we need affordable and reliable public transport!)

Credit: Dylan Cook

Activism is more consumable and relatable through art and music. It’s honest and doesn’t have a PR department

Are you trying to discuss serious topics with this new Kenny Sterling project?

Not as a main theme for everything. To each their own in terms of their art, but for me it’s important to try use any voice I have that is in the public realm to have either a sense of relatability, or a sense of purpose in promoting awareness for a more equitable world, while also keeping an acknowledgement of my position of privilege in terms of speaking on the shortfalls of the world as a Pākehā with a job & roof over my head. That said, it’s definitely still a journey I’m on of understanding things I won’t inherently understand being Pākehā, and learning how best to use whatever platform my creative output gives me to support and be an ally for those that are facing the downfalls of the current society we live in, head on.

Ka pai tō mahi e hoa

Seeing the diverse range of musical and artistic talent that is still in some sense ‘underground’ in Aotearoa, and coming together and sharing perspectives through music as a mutual meeting point helps shape my perspective. I have to give a huge shout out to Larsen, Dave & Nava From Noa Records, being around and hearing their sonic creations, and seeing how strong the kaupapa of what they have done was a big motivational factor. But they’re just one example of many people / groups which Auckland is lucky to have working on their craft still in the shadow of ‘commercially’ successful music.

I watch you navigate this weekly on Kroad and on dance floor’s throughout the city and it’s beautiful to see.

Thank you e hoa! It’s crackup to have heaps of people who knew me through Heat Rockers & my dance music releases, to hear my voice singing and be like “what the fuck, is that you!?” Even at first my mum thought I’d pitched my voice down haha! But thank you, appreciate your support especially with this project, being basically a year long labour of love, getting it right and doing it as close to my own regard of perfect as possible, it’s nerve racking to have people hear it and interpret it how they will themselves.

Their kaupapa is something to be admired and replicated. They’re rewriting the narrative around Polynesian music.

Ha! Were you nervous to step out from the DJ booth into a vocal booth?

Not really, I think taking my time over the years and recording demos and random projects that will never see the light of day with me singing helped break the ice. It’s having my voice out there publicly and thinking about how what I say lyrically will be interpreted in the public sphere. But also I’ve come to the point now where I feel I’ve got some confidence and back myself creatively, and ultimately I’m trying to be my own biggest fan, so if I am happy with it that’s all that matters. That said, the bar is set high just from the music I love – everyone who’s voices melt my heart, from the un-replicatable voices of black soul singers in the 60’s and 70’s through to Aotearoa’s Marlon Williams and all the incredible talent inbetween, makes me feel like an imposter singing! But I’ve come to terms with knowing what I can currently do with my voice and working with that.

Ohhhh the tear jerkers… mans just had his heart shattered vocalists…

The best music is music with tears in it…

For real!

Credit: Dylan Cook

Now are we going to see this all live at some stage? Were there other musicians who played on the single?

I hope so! I’m working full time on film sets till Christmas I think, so any of my own personal projects have to be crammed in whenever I get a chance off work or the weekends. But it’s definitely on the cards. It will be an interesting thing to pull together though, having recorded it mostly in parts on the session file & layering heaps of different sounds I’ve got to work out how to incorporate the elements and if I’m going to do a show, figure out how to do the album justice! The real thing I have to figure out is the last track off the album which has a group of roughly 25 people singing with me, and finding a venue that I can hopefully make that happen! On this track I took care of the guitar and vocals, my good friend Jack Hurst was on the drums. Morgan Allen, who mixed and mastered the album, played Bass on it. Wellington’s Benny Lindsay-Williams played Synthesiser. Carla Camilleri completely outshone me with her beautiful BV’s at the end of the track and George Maclaurin from Wellington band H4LF CĀST contributed the gorgeous keys. Getting George’s piano section was a lucky unravelling from plan to fruition – I was down in Wellington staying with some friends in Aro Valley and mentioned I was looking for someone to play keys and do a solo on this track and they said, “Our next door neighbour is a jazz pianist!” So we went and knocked on the door to their flat, sussed it out and tracked it in half an hour in his lounge the following morning.

Go to Kenny Sterling’s Bandcamp to buy his latest single, and check out an exclusive playlist he put together for your listening pleasure.