I first met Karl Steven in early 1994 while working with a close friend of his on the New Zealand music programme Frenzy. We would regularly find ourselves in the same places, and inevitably and quite happily we would end up talking music. He had an obvious passion for it and was well-listened, and while he had the confidence and commitment of a musician in the early stages of rock stardom, he seemed reasonably humble about it all, and was always easy and interesting to talk to. I enjoyed his company.
About a year later, just after Supergroove released their debut album, I interviewed Karl for the first time. He was articulate and funny and clearly dedicated to making the band the very best it could be. There was no hint of the turmoil that would develop over the next few years, or of the painful (for the band) interpersonal tensions that would lead to members of the group being fired and ultimately to Karl leaving the band.
Post Supergroove Karl enrolled to study philosophy at Auckland University, then went on to successfully complete his PhD at Cambridge University in the UK – as most of us with an interest in Karl and his work are probably aware. But what we may not be aware of is that during that period he not only stopped making music, he stopped even listening to music. It was only in the later days of his time in Cambridge that music started to become what he referred to as “a lifeline” for him.
That lifeline led to a second wave of noise, one that was as driven and interesting as his first musical explorations, but one that this time around was essentially DIY in its approach. Who would have expected ex-Supergroover Dr Karl Steven to start making the surf/punk/pop that characterised the wonderful Drab Doo-Riffs? Or the blues/trash of Heart Attack Alley? Or the throbbing melodic synthpop of Queen Neptune? Or – for that matter – the subtle empathetic and engaging unpop of his soundtrack compositions?
It was this almost three-decade journey as a musician, thinker and creative collaborator that I was keen to get the backstory on when I sat down with Karl in his studio in Thames to interview him once more at the start of this year. One of the differences this time around was that I was producing the interview for AudioCulture, so wasn’t constrained by having to create a soundbite-based short video story. Instead I was able to conduct the interview more like an oral history that was being filmed. I could include whole stories rather than bits of stories, and this resulted in a far more in-depth finished interview than the one I produced some 22 years ago. In this one you get hear Karl talk in full sentences, complete with ummms and ahhhs and asides and changes of topic – all of those things that give you a sense of what it is like to hang out with him for a afternoon. And thanks to AudioCulture, this interview is now available for you to watch.
It was filmed on an iPhone (with a decent mic!), and edited very simply and minimally, with the intent of preserving a sense of that afternoon spent in Karl’s studio. So if you’re keen on hanging out with Karl in his studio for an hour and 20 minutes, and hearing him talk about the last three-ish decades of his life, then I reckon that watching the full version of this is going to give you a good sense of what that would be like. For those of us who are a bit more pressed for time, we have included a handful of excerpts from the full interview, so you can check out some the individual stories he shared. Hopefully they may tease you back to the full version.
Full interview with Karl Steven
Part 1 - Supergroove, the early days
Part 2 - Supergroove, touring
Part 3 - post Supergroove
Part 4 - The Drab Doo Riffs
Part 5 - Heart Attack Alley
Part 6 - harmonica
Part 7 - Queen Neptune