Music Bugle Exclusive – Q & A – Anthonie Tonnon

Artwork for ‘Leave Love Out Of This.’ Courtesy of Terrorbird Media.

By Nicholas Jason Lopez

Live from the planetarium, it’s Anthonie Tonnon.

Recorded between 2017 and 2020 with help from Jonathan Pearce (The Beths) as a primary collaborator and bandmate, Tonnon’s latest album ‘Leave Love Out Of This’ incorporates dance, new technologies and spoken-word narrative from his immersive live performances, which have been known to literally take audiences to distant venues on unloved public railways.

Celebrated as a union of music, art and advocacy that goes beyond the beat, ‘Leave Love Out Of This’ was put out this past July via Nadia Reid’s Slow Time Records & Misra Records.

The Music Bugle had the chance to talk with Tonnon about ‘Leave Love Out Of This’ and more.

Music Bugle – What was your overall goal with your album ‘Leave Love Out Of This’? 

Anthonie Tonnon – The album developed slowly around the goals I had for my live show at the time. For practical reasons, I needed to tour solo when I was overseas, so I was experimenting a lot with new technology and using things like drum machines, samples and synths, as a way to create a more impactful one-person show, but still tangibly be performing everything on stage. I’d return from tour and say to Jonathan, “Oh I can do this better now – can we add this new synth part?” However, the medium also started to change the songwriting. Working with an 808-style interface, you layer things on top of each other and it can lead you so far beyond where you started. There are some long extended codas on this album – especially on “Leave Love Out Of This” and “Peacetime Orders” – where I realized I could do something really dramatic and theatrical with the technology. I stayed with a musician in Brisbane who played me an Arthur Russell on vinyl for the first time and I loved the way Russell turns folk songs into extended house songs. That inspired me not to hold back on those departures at the ends of songs, even when the songs were translated into recordings on the album.

Music Bugle – How would you describe New Zealand to someone who has never been there before?

Anthonie Tonnon – It’s a beautiful, but precarious place. We have glorious open spaces and primeval forests, but we also have dense cities and neglected, post industrial rust-belt towns. In the way we structure our society and live with our environment, we have high ideals and we’re good improvisers – but we often settle for quick and cheap fixes and allow problems to get really bad before we devote real time and resources to them. We have beautiful national parks, but we’re pretty terrible at using productive land sustainably. We love the outdoors, but we’re dependent on cars to enjoy them. We have an egalitarian ethos, but we pay low wages and our obsession with property investment means we’ve been growing a whole new class system. We have a treaty between Māori and the Crown, which is a basis for non-Māori like myself to be here. It’s our founding document. That feels special and important, but we have a poor history of living up to it. 

Music Bugle – What was the moment that made you want to be a musician?

Anthonie Tonnon – I took piano lessons through high school. Each year would start with good intentions, the teacher giving me different pieces, to see if something caught my enthusiasm, but then, piano exams would come around and I’d have to learn three quite complicated classical pieces. I’d spend months learning these difficult pieces, without any understanding of what I was playing, so at 16, I gave up. My sister had an acoustic guitar she’d abandoned, so when my friends got guitars and started playing Nirvana songs, I picked it up. Then, a significant thing happened. I found a book of guitar chords from the public library. Unlike most guitar books, the chords were organized into keys. I used it to learn some David Bowie, mostly Ziggy Stardust-era songs. Through this, I realized you could pick a key, choose chords from that key, throw them together, sing some words and you’d written a song. From then on, all I wanted to be was a songwriter – it was this all-encompassing drive.

Music Bugle – What is your favorite aspect of live performances that you find hard to replicate in the studio?

Anthonie Tonnon – There’s a complicated mix of ingredients in a room for live performance, isn’t there? Some mix of tension, air pressure, adrenaline and communication between performer and audience. Something that sounds pitchy or thin on a recording might have been transcendent live. You can tap into a sense of flow with an audience that is almost impossible to translate live. Working with drum machines, I’m often at a consistent tempo, but it amazes me how time seems to warp or slow down based on the room – 119 can sound like 110 or 130 to me on stage.

Music Bugle – Who are you listening to right now, music-wise?

Anthonie Tonnon – I’m listening to the album ‘Spoiled Love’ by Buzzy Lee more and more. It’s the darker songwriting that gets me. I’m also listening to ‘Selected Works, 1983-1986’ by Australian electronic pioneer, Scribble. I’d never heard of Scribble, but my friend Martyn Pepperell wrote about her and I’ve been really entranced since.

Music Bugle – How have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Anthonie Tonnon – We’ve been fortunate here. The New Zealand elimination strategy has meant that we locked down early to get to a point where there was no Covid in the community at all and then opened back up completely – with the borders closed. This has meant that we have had shows and people have felt confident turning up. Though, of course, there have been level changes and restrictions added the few times that a small amount of Covid has gotten in. It’s interesting. Whenever a lockdown ends, it seems easier to sell tickets because people want to go out again, but as soon as there is the threat of a partial lockdown, all ticket sales stop. Over last summer, I had a lot of touring booked in NZ and there was a lot more anxiety about which shows would actually happen. In the end, a few shows were moved, but mostly, I’ve been able to tour as normal within Aotearoa.

Music Bugle – Where do you go when you need a break?

Anthonie Tonnon – I used to work part-time jobs so that I could spend all my time off writing songs and performing. In the last few years, music has been my full-time job and I found that I needed a hobby that wasn’t music. A little bafflingly to me – and my wife and friends, I became obsessed with public transport. It’s led me to take on a part-time role as a public transport advocate in my city of Whanganui. There’s something relaxing about the change of focus, though it’s of course becoming its own source of work. Whenever I can, I try to take trains or buses somewhere I haven’t been in one of our cities that has good public transport and this is pretty much a holiday to me – I even wrote a travel article about public transport holidays.

Music Bugle – What’s a quote that motivates you to keep doing what you do?

Anthonie Tonnon – My only interaction with quotes comes from the News Feed Eradicator for Facebook – which I love and depend on. I think my favorite one is, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree,” from Martin Luther.

Music Bugle – Does social media help or hurt musicians? 

Anthonie Tonnon – In the last few years, I’ve re-focused on my website and my mailing list. I try to value people’s time as if it was my own and I’m conscious of how long it takes me to write a social media post – even just to repost something with a positive comment, so on my website, I have no like or share buttons. I want people to feel that I’m not trying to game their endorphin system, or keep them on my website or Facebook page any longer than they need to be. I send a maximum of four emails a year. My promise is to contact people only when I think I have something worthy of them. Social media has its place, but the amount of time a musician can spend on it is endless and there are just so many more fulfilling things we could be doing  – creating music, most of all.

Music Bugle – What has been your biggest challenge lately? 

Anthonie Tonnon – I run a show called “Rail Land” here in New Zealand. In it, I try to charter trains or other forms of public transport and take my audience to a beautiful old hall – where I then perform. New Zealand’s rail system has been underinvested in and undermined for decades and the cost of chartering trains is getting worse. The train company I was working with in my home city, Dunedin, was nearly shut down because of Covid. The idea of “Rail Land” is to show that using just the power of gig attendance, we can bring back things that we are told aren’t we can’t have, even if just for one night, but doing this in the context of our crumbling infrastructure is a huge challenge I’m still grappling with. I may fail, but It’s worth it. It’s the most extraordinary night when it works. 

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