The roots of the band lay in mid-to-late-80s Christchurch, where drummer Andrew Maclaren was introduced to Boh Runga as a potential vocalist for his band Amez Amez. Maclaren was initially reticent to include her in the band because, he says, “she was too good!” However, the pair hit it off and subsequently started writing music together. By 1992 Runga and Maclaren, stymied by the lack of opportunities in their home city, decided to head to the epicentre of the music industry in Auckland.
This pre-Stellar line-up of Maclaren, Runga and Shanks composed the song ‘Ride’ for the short film Headlong (Simon Raby’s directorial debut: he has since featured as a 2nd unit director and/ or cinematographer on such films as Lord Of The Rings, District 9 and Elysium). Headlong’s score was written by Joel Haines, who contributed guitar to the ‘Ride’ single as the three-piece had yet to enlist a permanent lead guitarist. This would come (briefly) in the shape of Simon McCormack. McCormack had previously been in Coelacanth, Justin Maclaren (the eldest of the three Maclaren brothers, the other being Simon Maclaren of Love’s Ugly Children)'s band. McCormack would later design the Magic Line album cover and attendant singles.
North Shore boy Kurt Shanks was next to join the line-up. Newly formed rock three-piece Splitter, with Shanks on bass, performed their first gig at Mikey Havoc’s rock bar du jour, Squid in O’Connell St, on April 21, 1995. “The show is gonna start at a decent hour. First band plays at 10.30 sharp,” proclaims the poster. The main act for the night was Boh’s little sister, the relatively unknown Bic Runga whose band included Maclaren on drums. The hook-up was likely to have come from Wayne Bell, who was flatting with Maclaren and Boh Runga at the time, as well being a friend of Splitter singer/ guitarist Andrew Thorne. Both Bell and Thorne would play on Bic’s solo album Drive, and be part of her touring band after its release. Having watched Splitter perform, Maclaren approached Shanks to jam with him and Boh.
Towards the end of 1995 the three-piece line-up finally christened themselves Stellar after the word was plucked out of a dictionary. “It sounded bigger than ourselves and otherworldly so it was perfect,” says Runga, although in the early days it would often be mistaken for being the name of the lead singer.
Stellar performed frequently throughout 1996 and 1997, with a quick succession of guitarists passing through the band.
There is some debate over where and when the first Stellar gig took place, although The Club (Queen St) around October 1995 with all-female group Mary and Chris van de Geer’s band Second Child also on the bill is the most likely contender.
Stellar performed frequently throughout 1996 and 1997, with a quick succession of guitarists passing through the band Riqi Harawira (Dead Flowers) followed McCormack and he contributed lead guitar to a new recording, ‘Happy Gun’, recorded at The Lab with the studio’s house engineer Chris van de Geer. Harawira also features in the video for the song. He was followed by Derek Solomon from art/ rock/ noise band Canis (who released two albums, the first, A Good Solid Flesh Crime, engineered by van de Geer).
In December 1996 the band released the ‘Happy Gun’ single via the Papa Pacific label, run by Mark Tierney (Strawpeople) and Manu Taylor. The single also featured two other songs – ‘Ride’ and ‘Reprise’, both produced by Wayne Bell and Simon Raby for the Headlong film.
Further solidifying the connections, Second Child’s frontman, Damien Binder, was flatting at the time with Greg Johnson at Johnson’s house in Vine Street, St Mary’s Bay. Runga was a regular in the Greg Johnson Set and recorded on Johnson’s highly successful album Vine Street Stories, notably the standout vocal on ‘Don't Wait Another Day’. Both Runga and Maclaren toured with Johnson for this album, whereas on Johnson’s following album, Chinese Whispers, both recorded on the album but did not have the time for live performances or touring. With the pressure of dividing time between Stellar and Johnson, something had to give and the pair committed to their own material.
By 1997 Second Child had dissolved – a result of the familiar tale of critical acclaim not translating into a living – and van de Geer joined Stellar fulltime. Shanks saw through his recording commitments with Splitter (for the album Stereo Happiness which would go on to be nominated for Breakthrough Artist in the 1998 Music Awards), and by the end of 1997 the Stellar line-up was finally settled and complete.
Over the summer of 1997-1998 the newly minted four-piece Stellar knuckled down to writing and demoing new material at Jim Hall’s Soundtrax studio in Eden Terrace. Sound engineer Luke Tomes, whom they had known since 1993, was behind the mixing desk on these sessions. Only two songs from these sessions (‘Breather’ and 'You') subsequently ended up being used on the debut album Mix.
Around this time, Pagan Records boss and long-time Greg Johnson guitarist/collaborator Trevor Reekie offered Stellar an opportunity to release their recordings through Pagan. Meanwhile, Runga completed an Australian promotional tour (guitar and vocals) with Strawpeople (whose 1996 album Vicarious was engineered by the ubiquitous van de Geer). On the journey back to Auckland, Runga ended up chatting with Sony's Managing Director Michael Glading, who enquired about Stellar’s progress and suggested that they send him a demo.
Things began to gather steam after this. A&R Manager Paul Ellis left Sony and was replaced by entertainment lawyer and ex-Netherworld Dancing Toys singer/songwriter Malcolm Black, who listened to the demos the band had left with Ellis. “I lived in Titirangi at the time,” says Black, “and distinctly remember driving up Titirangi Road on the way home from work and thinking that the [songs on the demo] were really great. Meeting them made the decision easy – great musicians, great songs and work ethic, a clear idea of who they were, [and] x-factor.”
Early in 1998, Runga and Maclaren were called to a meeting with Black and his assistant Cameron Young and talked around in circles for some time. As Maclaren remembers it, he eventually asked the obvious. “What are we talking about here? Are you offering us a deal? Do we need to get a lawyer?” To which Black said, “Yes, you probably do.”
Barry Blackler, long-time manager of The Exponents and a Dunedin school friend of Black’s, was brought in as manager and entertainment lawyer Campbell Smith (who was already representing and managing Bic) was retained as their legal representative. Blackler then re-organised the administration so that he and Smith were co-managers, playing to Blacker’s strengths in touring and management and Smith’s strengths in legal and international networks.
With the Sony deal signed and a $60,000 recording budget approved, Black introduced Stellar to friend Tom Bailey as a potential producer.
With the Sony deal signed and a $60,000 recording budget approved, Black introduced Stellar to friend Tom Bailey as a potential producer. Having built a solid portfolio of diverse “non-pop” music projects post-Thompson Twins, Bailey was reticent to put himself back into the high-end commercial music world. (“I pitched him but didn’t really think he would do it,” says Black.) Nonetheless, a dinner was arranged by Black, ironically at a restaurant called Stella on Ponsonby Road. During the course of the dinner, the background music being played was from artists such as Grace Jones and Sly & Robbie, with whom Bailey had worked with, and he suspected the music was being played deliberately to coerce him into action. It was purely coincidental, but it did initiate a talking point and all attendant realised they shared similar tastes. The mutual music connection was made, and what would become a fruitful partnership was formed.
Stellar’s sound was noted for its electronic touches, although for the band the use of technology was nothing new. Maclaren had been using sequencers and synthesisers since the late 80s, and engineer Luke Tomes had been using Pro Tools for some time. “We didn't purposely [develop that sound] to differentiate ourselves from the multitude of Auckland guitar bands - it's just that we had all been involved with bands in this more traditional format for so long and we all personally wanted to experiment musically/production wise for our own creative diversification” explains van de Geer.
In August 1998 the band spent 16 days tracking at Revolver Studios in the salubrious environs of semi-industrial Greenlane including the future singles ‘Bastard’ and ‘Part Of Me’. Further tracking was then completed at Luke Tomes’ studio in Shortland Street, and at Runga and Maclaren’s house in Warnock Street, Westmere.
Not wasting any time, Sony released ‘Bastard (What You Do)’ which debuted on the charts at No.32 on December 6, 1998, peaking six weeks later at No.17 on January 24, 1999, eventually hanging around for 17 weeks (until May 16, overlapping the release of next single, ‘Part of Me’). Helping promotion, the band also supported Dave Dobbyn on a four-date tour commencing on December 4. The 1998 release date allowed the band to be nominated in the 1999 Music Awards where they won Most Promising Group and Runga won Most Promising Female vocalist. Second single – and in fact, the only other recording completed at the time – ‘Part of Me’ debuted on May 2, 1999 at No.11, peaking at No.4 on June 27 after nine weeks on the charts.
Fresh off a national tour with The Feelers, the band started mixing Mix in July 1999 at Airforce Studios in Eden Terrace and, with a release date set for August, things started coming down to the wire. At the eleventh hour, the proposed cover design using holographic foil was scrapped over cost concerns. A new photocentric cover was arranged in haste but a suitable photo of the band was lacking. The solution was to extricate Boh from the mixing sessions for a separate shoot and her picture was then added to the cover (hence the resulting Hockney-esque “cut-up” arrangement). The band’s logo, ‘Bastard’ and ‘Part Of Me’ single covers were designed by Wayne Conway but the Mix album, ‘Violent’, ‘Undone’ and ‘Every Girl’ single covers are designed by myself (I had been freelancing as Conway’s assistant). It was Conway’s idea to include the asterisk on the end of the name; the addition purely for aesthetics.
Speaking of aesthetics, the band, who were previously known for their long hair and general grunge look (see the back cover of 'Happy Gun'), reappeared for Mix with stylish clothes and sharp haircuts – in particular, Runga’s blindingly bright red mop. “We didn't have a clue about styling or fashion,” says Boh, “but I definitely wanted something to stand out. I went into Stephen Marr in Ponsonby and asked Lucy Vincent if she could match the colour from a red ‘fragile’ label. She was, "Sure thing, fun! " And hours later I had a red do that truck drivers always tooted at.”
The album was given an official, industry-only launch at private Auckland venue Hopetoun Alpha on July 26, 1999 with support from Tom Bailey’s International Observer. A public launch at Auckland’s Town Hall was staged later on Friday September 17, which also kicked off a six-date national tour supported by label mates Breathe as well as DJ Slave. In synch with the album release, new single ‘Violent’ charted on August 1 at No.14, spending 13 weeks in the charts and peaking at No.11. Mix was released on CD and cassette a week later on August 8, 1999 (8/8/99) – eight being a lucky numeral in Chinese.
NZ Herald critic Russell Baillie awarded the album five stars.
NZ Herald critic Russell Baillie awarded the album five stars and proclaimed it to be, “not only a startling debut but also a great pop record.” The public agreed, Mix shipping 19,000 units in the first week, and was certified platinum on debut, helped in no small part by the band playing over 200 shows between the recording and releasing process. It entered the charts the following week (August 15 1999) in the No.2 position (held off by Shania Twain) but eventually hit the top spot seven weeks later on September 26 1999.
Following the release, the band supported Alanis Morrisette and Garbage in Auckland and Wellington, before heading over to Australia to fill the same role for seven shows there.
November 21 saw the fourth single from Mix, ‘Undone’ debut on the charts at No.47 (the official charts were Top 50 at the time). It climbed to a high of 13 eventually spending three months in the charts (to 20 Feb 2000). Four weeks elapsde before the fifth and final single, ‘Every Girl’, debuted at No.44 on March 19, 2000. The single became the band’s most successful, peaking at No.3 (held off the top spot by, ahem, The Vengaboys and N’Sync) and spent 18 weeks on the charts (to July 16, 2000).
At the start of 2000, and still riding a wave of popularity, a photoshoot was organised for a special edition version of Mix which featured an extra disc of the music videos to date (the new package design and special content was produced by myself). Pre-DVD technology, the extra disc was in the form of a CD-ROM that could only be watched on a desktop computer. This special edition version was released in February 2000 and the combined editions of the album spent a total of 42 weeks in the charts, eventually going on to sell over 75,000 units (five-times platinum) making it one of the most successful albums in NZ music history.
The ensuing NZ Music Awards at the Civic Theatre & Sheraton Hotel (Saturday March 4, 2000) saw the band cleaning up, winning every category they were nominated in bar one (Jonathan King’s video for ‘Violent’ lost to Reuben Sutherland’s video for ‘My Mind’s Sedate’ by Shihad). The next day, CEO of Sony Australia and NZ, Denis Handlin couriered each band member a magnum of champagne with handwritten notes professing his enthusiasm for the band. The total tally was seven Tuis – Album of the Year, Best Engineer, Best Producer, Best Songwriter, Single of the Year (‘Violent’), Top Group and Top Female Vocalist. Just for a bit of extra Runga domination, little sister Bic won International Achievement as well. In a feast-to-famine scenario, the band would only garner one further Tui in their career – 2002’s Best Producer gong for Stellar and Bailey jointly.
After this success, Stellar returned to the Lucky Country for a three-month campaign (June to August 2000) playing two shows a week in Sydney and Melbourne, driving the 800km Hume Highway between the cities twice a week. Flying people between the cities is relatively cheap but not so the band’s gear, which had to be transported on the ground. The band took turns flying but cabin fever set in nonetheless and band tensions escalated. Maclaren had a friend at an energy drinks company so the band were up to 4 or 5am most mornings hopped up on Red Bull, which did nothing to alleviate the cabin fever.
Adding to the tension, Stellar were successfully building an audience through live shows and TV appearances but were left in limbo when the band’s champions inside the Australian record company were made redundant. This resulted in plenty of touring, plenty of spending Sony’s money but no one in the record company actively working them or even aware of what the band were up to day-to-day. To cap things off, on departing back to New Zealand a Sony rep admitted that they were working the wrong single at radio (‘Every Girl’ instead of ‘Violent’).
Barry Blackler, who had been instrumental in the band’s touring management, departed in the wake of the Australian tour and fallouts with Campbell Smith and Maclaren, and Smith took over as full time manager from this point.
Despite the grind, residual animosity and disappointments of the Australian period, the band headed back into the studio in 2001 to begin work on their next album, Magic Line. For this album the band had purchased their own ProTools rig and installed it into the apartment above Smith’s management offices in Grey Lynn. Subsequent mixing took place in Los Angeles at Ocean Way Studios with renowned American producer Joseph Jack Puig. This also began a joint Sony/ Smith quest to break the band in America, which Maclaren says he felt was the wrong direction, but went with it at the time. In hindsight, he suggests Europe would have been a better idea as the music tastes and audiences were better suited to Stellar. There was a cursory attempt at Europe with a sold out show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, in June 2002 and an appearance at one of the industry’s biggest trade markets, the Popkomm Festival in Cologne, Germany in August 2002. Maclaren’s suspicions were borne out and the American sojourn resulted in very little interest, although it was not entirely dissimilar to Shihad’s experience, Stellar was been hawked in the US only a month after 9/11: the sound of chequebooks slamming shut could be heard all the way back to New Zealand.
Magic Line repeated the feat of its predecessor by going to No.1, and it also sold platinum. The first two singles – the up-tempo rocker ‘All It Takes’ (2001) and the slow-burner ‘Taken’ (2002) achieved Top 10 placings, but the steam eventually ran out. The third single, the punchy ‘Star’ managed to scrape in at No.40, whilst the similarly hook-laden ‘One More Day’ (2003) curiously failed to chart at all. However, during this period, radio play counted for anything between 25-50% of chart positions and, combined with a reformatting of commercial radio playlists, Stellar bore the brunt of the vagueries of programmers’ tastes. As many a band around the globe has experienced – the wind changed and the band’s sound was no longer flavour of the month. Perhaps signalling a metaphorical white towel, the combination of various tensions, diminishing returns and fatigue resulted in an overdue band hiatus.
Despite all this, Runga and Maclaren continued to work on material and started writing in a non-Stellar capacity. This eventually transpired into a regrouping instigated by Maclaren to put a full stop on the band properly. The resulting album, Something Like Strangers, appeared in 2006. Whilst it couldn’t replicate the success of its predecessors, it still charted in the Top 10. However, as Shanks and van de Geer posit, it has some satisfying artistic moments, which, as a band, they can be proud of and came as direct result of being made – perhaps for the first time – unencumbered by expectation.
“I think that we wrote some of our most interesting songs on that album,” says Boh. “It's unfortunate that Mix is the one people remember, and of course that is the case because we were new and very much in the public eye then. We had these anthemic hits but there are songs that, as a songwriter, I think are special on Something Like Strangers and that could have only been created from our lives at that point. We are proud of that album.”
The band completed a victory lap in 2010, releasing an 18-track Best Of compilation and playing a handful of shows in celebration of both the collection, and – yes – their stellar career.
Prior to the release of the band’s Best Of compilation, Runga released a solo album, Right Here in 2009, and then 2013 collaborated with Anika Moa and Hollie Smith resulting in the album Peace Of Mind. Shanks delivered a solo album, Blood Line Heart, and continues to work musically with van de Geer in their band Delete Delete (which also features ex-Elemeno P bassist Lani Purkis) with a debut album due out in 2015. Shanks also tours indie artists via his promotion company Plus1.
Van de Geer and Maclaren’s production work includes the gold-selling Carly Binding album Passenger (2003), which received substantial radio play in Australia and charted Top 10 in NZ. Shanks was living in Sydney at this time and played guitar for Binding for her Australian promotional tour and support slots for American singer Josh Kelley. Shanks also became guitarist-for-hire for Hayley Westenra’s Pure promotional tour in Australia and Asia.
Van de Geer also continues engineering/producing work at Bigpop Studios, a music and audio production company he runs with Joost Langeveld.
Boh Runga - vocals, guitar
Andrew Maclaren - drums
Kurt Shanks - bass, vocals
Chris van de Geer - guitar, vocals
Riqi Harawira - guitar
Derek Solomon - guitar
Simon McCormack - guitar
The band secretly reformed to play at Andrew Maclaren's birthday in 2012
Boh’s younger sister Pearl is married to Andrew’s older brother Justin. All four used to play in corporate covers band Automatic 80s.
The front cover of the ‘Part Of Me’ single features a drill bit as the song’s original title was ‘Trepanning’ – the process of drilling into the skull to relieve pressure.
First manager Barry Blackler is also an accomplished drummer, once filling the drum stool for The Jesus & Mary Chain during the Automatic-era.