The Aerial Railway studio
Finding themselves at something of a loose end (read part one here) , Aerial Railway decided to manifest a dream they all shared and build a recording studio on the hill overlooking Sandy Bay. They pooled money saved from the festival and other jobs.
“There was a lot of individual generosity,” says Terry. “Everyone connected either put money in or equipment, goods, time ... some put more in than others, whatever was needed. It was a movement.”
David Calder and Terry St George went halves on a state-of-the-art tape machine. “David was a major part of the community, the Aerial Railway band, and the studio,” says Moby. “He and Fran Campbell brought the recording hardware back from California, a Tascam 80 8-track, not realising it wouldn’t work here because it was 117 volts and 60hz. I converted it over to 230 volts which involved a bit of electronic trickery and a certain amount of machine work. There was an awful lot of DIY involved in Aerial Railway.”
Fran and David both tell different versions of how they smuggled the Tascam into the country, and we’ll leave it at that. A half-round barn structure was erected at Moehau and an extension added to house the control room. David Calder bought the barn, Terry St George drove the design, and construction continued through 1981. Moby designed and built the replacement mixing desk and amps, and before long they were ready to go.
Seeing an opportunity during the Nambassa festival’s hiatus, Daniel Keighley, Paul McLuckie, and Helen McConnachie put together the first Sweetwaters festival at Ngāruawāhia in January 1980 and booked the Aerial Railway crew to do site management and work their Aerial Railway Stage magic. The three-day event was attended by 40,000 people, and similar numbers showed up in 1981 at the second Sweetwaters festival, despite it going head-to head with the returning Nambassa.
Sweetwaters 1982, in a new site at Pukekawa, kept up the pace and style, harnessing the booming local pop industry and presenting local acts on an even playing field with their overseas counterparts. There was a strong counter-culture presence with political and spiritually oriented stalls and tents on show, and the Aerial Railway Stage straddled these worlds with ease, presenting the usual folk, arts and theatrical performers alongside more cutting edge fare such as No Tag and Danse Macabre.
Although usually pretty accepting, the audience witnessing a 1981 Sweetwaters set from a woman demonstrating Tai-Chi Disco (pre-Jazzercise) showed their appreciation with a spontaneous bout of yoghurt-hurling … so added to the stage design in 1982 and 83 were large splash-screens to protect Moby’s hand-built speaker stacks. For the later Sweetwaters festivals, these were painted with colourful train murals by graphic designer Kate Lang.
John Ringer, who ran movie nights at his local hall in Northland’s Matapouri, was on hand to project all-night films on the Aerial Railway Stage for people not quite ready to hit their sleeping bags. Things didn’t always go to plan. “I needed a special Cinemascope lens for our headline movie, Alien, but it wasn’t delivered to the site on time so I showed the movie with a normal lens, which meant the picture was compressed so all the actors looked like tall thin aliens. Very embarrassing for me, but the late night audience was so sozzled and tired no one noticed.”
UK folk artist John Martyn returned to Sweetwaters for a main stage appearance in 1983 (he had played a popular solo set at the 1981 event). “We talked Daniel into booking him for an early evening appearance on the Aerial Railway Stage. He wandered over to AR late in the day, and found that we had a beer fridge!” says Johnny. “At that point he sort of moved into backstage. The wind came up the next day and a light fell out of the roof on to main stage, so they closed down. At Pukekawa we were tucked into the side of a hill and missed the worst of it, so the whole festival moved over to AR.”
1983 would be the final year for the Aerial Railway Stage, though the team were hired back in 1984 for site management duties.
Audio engineering courses and mobile tours
By 1982 Aerial Railway had started recording in their hilltop studio, with a run of sessions for Legs For Fish, Gi-Bu, Laurel House Yoga, and Otatara Waiata, and were juggling other live production gigs at the Tangowahine and Aotea Square New Year Festivals. They were also running event stages for Manukau and Auckland Councils. Moby had put together a small mobile recording unit and Aerial Railway had recorded Matthew Brown in concert at the Maidment Theatre (released as the album At Play With The Spaces on Ode Records in 1983) and Top Scientists at the Windsor Castle in Auckland.
After 1983’s Sweetwaters success, faithful crew heads had been rewarded with overseas flights. Johnny Irons and Moby mixed travel and work for a while, then went home to Moehau where they found Terry St George and his mate engineer/musician Djim Worth (a member of the band Chappaqua, who had played at the Moehau Celebration) getting set to embark on a new mission: taking the recording experience to schools and small communities throughout the Coromandel, Waikato, Auckland and beyond.
Packing the 8-track, mixing desk, microphones, monitors and cables into a bus kindly loaned by Jan Autumn (the second mobile tour would tow a CRC-branded race car trailer) they set off to run and record 14 sessions in two weeks. “Being on the road with the CRC trailer was funny because people thought you were part of a racing team. If they had known we were a couple of hippies they might have responded differently.”
They secured some Arts Council funding and travelled through Thames, Parawai, Kopu and more, setting up in school halls and gymnasiums, churches and country music clubs, even a wheel alignment workshop. But it’s the sessions in schools that really impress.
“We didn’t have much time” says Terry. “School started at nine. We’d be shown what room to use and plugged in at about 8.30, and we would work with 15 kids. We’d do a creative writing session, and then recording and mixing all done by 3pm, including taking their hour off for lunch. And all the kids got a cassette to take home.”
Djim was the acting engineer, Terry the creative director and people wrangler, the two of them were also the drivers and road crew. They’d park the bus next to the gymnasium or hall and feed the cables through a window, using a mic and monitor system to communicate. Djim had been working for Roland, who had kindly loaned a synth and drum machine to the mobile programme which excited the kids no end: here was tech they knew about and had heard on the radio and they were encouraged to use it. All the creative impulses came from the students and some of the recordings are quite surprising, with concepts ranging from radio plays to modernist arrangements for vocal groups and tape recorder.
The enthusiasm and level of engagement captured on the recordings speaks volumes about Terry and Djim’s teaching chops. In 1984 they did a 23 session/two week tour through the Waikato/King Country, and in 1986 a Hauraki/Auckland tour doing 19 sessions in six weeks. Once the constant vehicle breakdowns and other costs were factored in, these tours would barely break even, though their benefits to the students are likely beyond measure.
In 1987 and 88 the road trips were replaced with a Schools In Residence programme, with Moehau hosting music students from Selwyn College under the guidance of their teacher Trevor Thwaites. Selwyn students experiencing the Aerial Railway life/workstyle included Otis Frizzell and Mark Williams (MC OJ and Rhythm Slave/Joint Force), and singer/composers Gabriel White (Floral Clocks) and Caitlin Smith.
“Aerial Railway existed in this other world, you have to be very dedicated to get through to Colville and beyond,” says Caitlin. “We all slept in the geodesic dome, such an adventure! Their self-sufficiency seemed to be very much what they were about. What I took away from it was a cultural, permission thing. It was legitimising to see these people holding it down and making music in a collective way that was entirely theirs.”
1985 also saw sessions for Mamata, a band made up of members of the Mamata Bakery Collective in Auckland’s Grey Lynn, and the Vibraslaps, the latter recordings making up the band’s eponymous EP release on Flying Nun later that year.
A critical success but a commercial failure, 1984’s Sweetwaters would be the last of this outstanding series of festivals. Luckily, the Aerial Railway collective had other plates spinning. The Narcs block-booked the studio for a week to write and demo an album.
“The highlight of my recording time was doing the Narcs demo,” says Terry. “We did a song a day at the studio on the farm with them. They gave me a credit on the album, which is nice – lots don’t.”
The band made the most of the great outdoors during the daylight hours. “When they got round to getting in the studio,” says Johnny, “this thing kind of fell out of the sky ... ”
“This thing” was the single ‘Heart And Soul’, which would chart throughout Australasia and Europe in 1984. “Terry had done a great mix on the demo, but the drums were in mono on the eight track so the record company re-recorded the whole thing a couple of times. The best song we never did ... ”
One day Johnny looked around the studio and thought, “People might like to come here and learn how to do this ... ” so he and Moby went to Auckland and attended an engineering course at Doug Rogers’ Harlequin Studios. “We spent a week catching up on the theory side. Both of us came to the sound industry via skills in electronics and had learnt recording and mixing on the job.”
The course filled in a lot of the gaps and while they both enjoyed it, they also found there had been limited “hands on” mixing time. So they made it a priority that students on their course would get the maximum possible time on the desk and feel comfortable in the studio environment. Johnny wrote a 70-page course textbook titled Notes for Sound Engineers and by the end of the year Johnny, Moby, Terry, Ezy, Djim and Fran had run four week-long courses at Aerial Railway Moehau, fully catered and with tidy live-in quarters provided.
Typically, a course started at 2pm on Saturday and ran for six days. The first couple of days were spent doing theory, learning the basics of microphones and electronics. “On Tuesdays the electricity would go off in the afternoon for four hours,” says Johnny, “so I would take the students for a five km bush walk around the hills at the back of the Farm and bring them down the river valley in time for tea.”
Usually some of the students had musical experience and would form an impromptu band, helped out by the Aerial Railway musicians, or the Colville Music Club would come up for a recording session. “On Wednesday we would take down the big door in the studio and use it as an outdoor stage. Moby would fire up the PA and those that wanted to could get experience with front-of-house and foldback mixing.”
By Thursday afternoon, the recording finished and the mixdown sessions started. “Each student got to compile his or her own mixtape, which I regarded as far more useful and indicative of ability than a certificate,” says Johnny.
By 1989 around 300 people had been through 27 courses, and their methods were in demand elsewhere in the country. In 1986 they ran a Radio Active student radio training course in Wellington, and in 1988 and 89 ran a series of training courses at the newly refurbished and upgraded Ōtara Music Arts Centre (OMAC). “At one point we got invaded by Ngāpuhi when Tautoko FM came down and did a course. After my involvement in the Springbok wars I was basically seen as a politically correct technician, so I got invited up there to help build their station.” (Johnny had been apprehended after cutting the transmitter cables at the moment re-broadcasting to South Africa by satellite of the final test was about to commence.)
“So what they had up there was Radio i’s old suite, which had been Radio Hauraki’s. And to get it out of the studio at Radio i, they’d hacksawed through the cables and dragged it out. There it was, sitting up at Mangamuka Bridge ... we got it going. One of those crazy, unpredictable happenings.”
There was new talent coming through the studio. Claire Davies had been working at Mascot Studios, and they sent her down to Aerial Railway for further training. “She took to the work and loved the environment, in short order she was running classes herself,” says Johnny. “She was very good technically, and could run the same kind of lectures as me and answer the same questions.” Claire eventually moved to London and continued her sound mixing career.
Another welcome discovery was Hamilton’s Dennis Marsh. “He was a natural. Every so often when you are teaching, you come across someone who is actually better at it than you are! So we just sort of let him get on with it. He was an absolute wonder on mixing, getting things together. He brought in lots of bands and was working all around the country, bouncing between Moehau and the Tandys studio in Hamilton.” Dennis’s tragic death in a road accident in the early 90s is still felt keenly by the Aerial family. His ashes are buried at Moehau next to the site of the studio he loved so much.
The summer of 1987-1988 saw the Neon Picnic, the next-gen Sweetwaters, collapse before it had begun. Terry St George’s concept designs for the Aerial Railway Stage and kiosks were brilliant, but Aerial Railway was deemed too “old-hat” by the organisers so they weren’t booked (saving Aerial Railway a lot of lost time and money). Behind the scenes, though, the respect for the depth of the Aerial Railway crew’s experience was undiminished and they were engaged to do site management and crew catering. There were a number of interesting possibilities on the horizon, but a combination of factors conspired against them: Johnny had moved to Auckland, Australia’s School Of Audio Engineering (SAE) and OMAC were running competitive courses in central and South Auckland, and though Patrick Stevens had stepped in to run courses at Aerial Railway, Dennis’s death had robbed the studio of momentum. Together with the impact of the stock market crash of October 1987, these events saw the remaining crew go their separate ways. The Moehau collective still exists and owns both properties.
Aerial Railway occupies a unique place in Aotearoa’s musical and cultural history. They were event managers, teachers, musicians and performers who created a continually evolving practice off to one side of the mainstream. Their workplace culture and adaptability derived directly from the principles behind the Moehau Community they were part of, where responsibilities and decisions were shared equally. “Our strength as a group was that we worked in a collegial atmosphere” says Johnny. “We knew each other’s skills and limitations, and there wasn’t any sense of rank. If someone found a project that needed extra hands, the Aerial Railway crew were there.”
Johnny Irons has tutored at Elam School Of Fine Arts, and at Massey and Auckland universities. He was co-founder of Binary Brothers, one of New Zealand’s first internet service providers, in 1995. In 2011 he received the Hornibrook Award from the Geoscience Society of New Zealand. He is retired and lives at the Moehau Community.
Terry continues to work as a commercial architect for Moller Architects (he was project architect on the ASB Waterfront Theatre and the award-winning Auckland Viaduct Events Centre) while mixing a rural/urban lifestyle, predominantly based in the northern Coromandel village of Colville. As a member of the Colville Music Club, he plays bass and enjoys taking part in Colville community musical events.
David Calder has composed music for film and TV, and has played and taught music in Europe and the US. He is a reading therapist. His weekly radio show/podcast The Folk Music Hour is nearing its 450th episode on Access Radio Taranaki, the station founded by Daniel Keighley.
Michael “Moby” Diack continues to apply his creative electronics and engineering talents to art and commercial installations, and is on call to fix and/or modify high-end audio gear for some of Aotearoa’s top studios and audio providers.
Elisabeth Vaneveld MNZM has worked continuously in the arts sector since the mid-70s. Her more recent projects include The Big Idea | Te Aria Nui, Art Venture and FutureMakers, which have all had a strong focus on creative entrepreneurship and arts innovation.
Daniel Keighley was part of the crew on the Moehau Celebration. While ferrying guests up to the site (the road in was a bit sketchy) he lost control of The Pig, a 13-ton Bedford flat-deck truck, and went over the edge into the gully, luckily on the outward journey with no passengers on board. The Pig lodged in a tree part-way down, and Daniel escaped with only a cut forehead and bruising. After his successes with the first four Sweetwaters festivals, reviving the event in 1999 proved to be one Sweetwaters too many. He passed away after a lingering illness in 2015.