This time last week I spent about 100 minutes on the phone with Phil Judd. The longest interview I have ever done. And it was probably the longest time coming, in the sense that I first thought I would like to interview Judd in the early 1990s. I loved (and still love) the two albums by Schnell-Fenster – and of course I loved music he had made as a solo act, was aware of his film-score work and his early Split Enz material before forming The Swingers. I was a fan. That’s what I am trying to say.
And then, after what seemed like a long silence and seemingly out of the blue, Judd released the album Mr Phudd & His Novelty Act (2006) – it arrived nearly 25 years after his last solo album. You could hear traces of the Enz’s Mental Notes; of the Fenster albums, of his earlier solo album, Private Lives – and the film scores he had created for movies like Amy and Death in Brunswick. So it was, in many ways, a continuation. I got the idea, far more seriously, that I would again like to interview Judd. I made some inquiries, but no.
He has followed up Mr Phudd far more swiftly with two albums, the new solo record, Love Is a Moron and a project by The Unth!nkables (the album is Untitled and it’s a collaboration with Roger Grierson of The Thought Criminals).
And then Phil Judd agreed to talk to me.
We start with him telling me immediately that “it’s funny hearing your accent, it reminds me of seeing Rhys Darby in that film The Boat That Rocked – have you seen it?”. No, I tell him. I have not seen it. “Well, I think that guy Rhys Darby is very talented and it’s an enjoyable film, lots of good music and I just liked hearing your very-Kiwi accent.” I don’t tell Judd that despite him living in Australia since he moved over there to tour with The Swingers in 1980, he still has a Kiwi accent too. I’m just pleased that he is happy to chat and actually sounds happy while chatting.
I ask about what now seems like a rush of activity with three albums in as many years.
“Well I’ve got a lot of time on my hands, really, that’s the main thing,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve got a studio I’ve built at home now and I can head out there and work whenever I feel like it. Mornings are usually best. I bring up my nine-year-old, so I’m doing that and I’ve been lucky to survive, mostly, from royalties over the last few years. They still trickle in. And I receive a small disability pension now, because I have a slight heart problem – which is fine – but, ah, yeah, that helps. But the royalties still trickle, though it’s slowing up. I had a good run, the last seven or eight years or so…”
Royalties from Counting the Beat I take it?
“No. No, not at all. You couldn’t be more wrong. That and the early Enz songs do not pay me anything. I get my royalties, the majority of them, from the film and television work that I’ve done, but that’s really started to dry up. Which is a shame, really. But, there’s not a lot I can do about that. I tell you it’s the crap TV work that pays the best – some Australian cop shows and stupid stuff that has sold well in Europe so it continues to play and be screened over there. Like I say, it’s been a good run, for seven or eight years, but it’s sorta coming to an end now.”
He tells me he’ll have other options, hopefully, down the track. Judd is of course a gifted artist. The cover to Mental Notes hangs in the gallery at Te Papa Museum (“I’m really chuffed with that work and it’s great knowing that people like it and that it’s recognised; I remember when I did it and I thought it was something special at the time”). Judd says “I’m 56 now and in many ways I haven’t given art enough of my time but it’s something I intend to focus on as I move into my sixties. That and drinking red wine,” and he adds another chuckle.
Back to Counting the Beat now:
“I got a lot of s**t basically, when I sold that song to K-Mart and it became an ad. But what people don’t realise is that when The Swingers broke up, the band was $50,000 in debt and from selling that song to ad-play I have recovered that money, or most of it, but I have never really made any money off it. It was never a hit. It did okay in New Zealand and Australia, it was a popular song but it never made it overseas.”
Judd is matter of fact about the necessity of earning money, of recouping the debt that was mounting. But he has no resentment about the song; he uses a favourite word of his again when we look at some career highlights: “well I was really chuffed when I wrote Counting the Beat. It’s a great riff and really simple and I think it’s a song that stands up.”
But let’s go further back. Before The Swingers there was a band called Split Enz (I wrote about them here the other week). Judd was a founding member.
“I really had no huge interest in music as a kid and a teenager. My dad would play the ukulele and I liked the theatrical aspect of that and I liked the humour that could be involved. I saw it as a form of art. But my interests were in painting and drawing. I met Tim [Finn] and had the audacity to just go out and buy a guitar and straight away start writing songs. I had no training. And the idea of learning covers and playing cover songs did not interest me at all. I wrote songs straight away.”
Judd says “I respect the hell out of Tim and Neil [Finn] – and good on them for the way they have kept things going. I mean, let’s be totally honest here, Split Enz had all of its success after I left. And they are happy touring the world still, playing those songs. That is something I could not do – and have no interest in doing. But that really takes something. And I really think they do it well.”
It’s been well documented that Phil Judd and Tim Finn have had their issues. When I bring this up Judd laughs; he speaks fondly of Neil; they only worked in the band together very briefly, one tour. But Judd speaks highly of Neil whenever he’s mentioned.
“We knew that Neil was going to be a star and that he was going to be in the band. Well I knew that part, anyway. It just seemed logical to me. We did some shows where Neil opened for us when he was just a kid, 15 years old. And he had an energy that I thought would suit the band and would work. I knew then that Neil was going to be amazing.”
When we discuss Tim it’s very clear there is baggage:
“Things with Tim and I haven’t worked out,” Judd hoots at what I assume he feels is an understatement, before continuing, “for a while we were locked into it like a couple of mechanics working on a car, getting under the hood of the songs as we wrote them, constructed them. But strip it away, take all of that away and we’re not great mates.”
He recalls an attempted reunion in 1985 – to work with Tim on what became his solo album, Big Canoe. Judd had left Split Enz in the late 1970s and he and Tim had not spoken in a while. “And then he called and the suggestion was that we get together to write songs again, but I spent three days with him and we just got drunk and smoked pot and caught up on old times. I sung on a couple of the songs on the record in the end, but we didn’t write together.”
There have been other aborted attempts – including very recently. Tim Finn’s most recent album, The Conversation, features the playing of a very early Enz member (from when the band was still called Split Ends),Miles Golding. I ask Judd if he’s heard the album. It was clear to me, when reviewing the record last year, that it sounded as if Tim wanted to move back to the quirky folk of the early Enz/Ends sound. “Well that was originally going to be a project with the three of us, 3 Of a Kind, or something like that…but no, it didn’t work out.”
Would he work with Tim Finn if the call came tomorrow? “No. I don’t think so. I don’t think I’d see the point anymore. I don’t have the level of interest.” And then he tells me, “everything they’re doing is fine and in many ways I can’t avoid it, people always ask me what I think of what Tim has done or what Neil’s done and I really can’t avoid it, but to be perfectly frank if I had never met the Finns, well… it’s not the sort of music I would listen to”.
I move the conversation to Schnell-Fenster. The Sound of Trees is still one of my all-time favourite albums and I like the follow up, Ok Alright Uh-Huh Oh Yeah very much too. I tell Judd that I always considered those albums one version of the Split Enz sound, while the early Crowded House albums presented another side of what the Enz was doing, particularly the final two Split Enz albums. It’s a little bit like Paul McCartney’s first Wings work andJohn Lennon’s first solo album. Two sides of The Beatles (in terms of some of the songwriting style). Add the fact that Crowded House featured not only Neil, but also the final Enz drummer, Paul Hester. And Fenster featured Judd with erstwhile Enzers Noel Crombie and Nigel Griggs.
“Well it’s not a period I’m very happy with at all, really,” Judd tells me, aware he’s crushing my teen thoughts that I still hold on to, from first hearing the music at a time when I felt like I was discovering something very different, new and fresh. “I was just really disappointed with that band, it was not something I liked and it didn’t work out for me how it was intended. The idea was to form the songs from a lot of jamming and then it just didn’t work out how I wanted. And it was treated as a four-way thing, a split, when actually I contributed the majority of the lyrics, and the cover to the first album, and a lot of the music. I didn’t think it was a fair way to do it – to see it as a four-way split. There were some okay shows, and touring with Crowded House was good – I liked that, Neil’s always been so supportive – but no, it’s not something I feel particularly nostalgic for or inspired about.”
So we can cross off any reunions there, right? Judd laughs, “Yeah, that won’t be happening. I haven’t even really seen Noel since that band split [early 1990s], which is maybe a bit bizarre, but people grow up. They get married. Have children. I mean, maybe it’s strange, we live in the same city…but…” he trails off, happy to leave that where it is.
So we have a look at Private Lives; the first solo album.
“That’s another album I am not happy with at all,” and again there’s laughter from Judd’s end of the line. I’d told him that I had been listening to the album recently, and while it’s in no way a classic, I thought it stood up. “No, it was a case of being almost forced to make a record. I was given 30 days. I was told to break up the band [The Swingers]and told that they were losing money so the label would give me money to make a solo album. It was not the conditions I liked; I basically was forced to write songs in the studio while we were recording. I have no fondness for that album at all.”
But there is, if not fondness, than at least some awareness of the music he has made and what it means to other people. And there’s a sense of achievement. “I can bring myself to listen to Mental Notes still, about once a decade, I have to work myself up but I still keep in touch with that one. There are some songs on that album I still really like”.
To unpack that further, the idea of “I can bring myself to listen to Mental Notes,” there is the mental illness that has affected Judd’s life. “I was undiagnosed for a long time, until the mid-1990s, and so now I am diagnosed as bipolar, and all of that stuff that’s been written about me struggling on stage with Split Enz, about not wanting to play live, a lot of that was triggers and signals that went unspotted.”
How does he deal with the mental illness these days? “Well, it’s cost me friendships. And especially in working with music; I know I can be difficult and moody. I have my good days and bad days. And that’s why I’ve always hated things like interviews. They’re no fun. I mean especially when you’re having a bad day, it’s the most terrifying thing in the world: to sit and talk to someone about what you do. It’s mortifying. I just can’t do it. And it has never interested me that much.”
So I ask Phil Judd why he agreed to talk to me. He has to laugh and says that I seemed interested and aware and he knows that, when he can, he has to try to sell the new albums where possible. I tell him that he seems like an engaged and engaging interviewee. “Yeah, but there’s the fact that you’re there and I’m here – you’re hundreds of miles away – I would hate this if you were sitting across from me and we wouldn’t be doing it. No way.”
Judd says he has no regrets, “apart from, musically, I would say the biggest regret is just that Counting the Beat wasn’t released internationally as a single. I think it could have done something.”
He appears to be trying to reconcile his past – struggling, sometimes. But as accepting as he can be. “I have no real interest in reunions, or in playing live. With my heart now I get tired. I couldn’t play more than three songs. I used to think that it would be an idea to get the Mental Notes-era band together and play that – but that’s assuming there’d actually be an audience for it. And I don’t know if there would be. But I have never really wanted to get back together with The Swingers or Schnell-Fenster.”
He was a bit hurt at the first Split Enz reunions, specifically at not being invited (“the 1993 one, the 21stanniversary, I thought that was rats**t that I wasn’t invited to do that. But, that’s done now. Whatever.”)
Judd says, “basically I’m a quiet guy and I’m having a normal life – well, doing my best to have a normal life”. And he reckons he has been lucky to get through life as a creative person. “It’s difficult. But now I have the studio. I work when I want. And I play all the sounds on my albums. Do what I want, when I want.”
There’ll be one more album, Phil says, and then he’ll focus on painting. He is looking at running a series of doctored images and photo-shopped cartoons called Juddville; it will tell his story, sometimes fictionalised, as a musician and artist. (You will see a copy of one that Phil was kind enough to allow me to publish here as an exclusive).
I tell Phil Judd that I wonder if he is the great underrated New Zealand songwriter; an under-sung hero of our culture, of our way with a word in a song. “No. That’s stupid. I am happy to be called a New Zealand musician, or songwriter, because I was born there, made music there and I only live here in Australia now because things change, I have a son to raise, I have three failed marriages, my life has taken me where it’s taken me. I can be difficult. I can be moody. If I have been frank, I want you to print the things I’ve said. But I am definitely a New Zealand musician; I can handle that. But I am not underrated, or under-appreciated, or anything. I’ve had a good time.”
He laughs off the statement as he says it that “all of the bands I have been in, I have left with less money than when I started. I have left in debt.” Again, there’s an awareness, he’s not saying it directly, but he’s said it elsewhere and before, he knows he can be difficult. He reiterates that he’s found enough happiness in his life.
I chose to run this interview as a blog-post today because it is May 1. That is the start of New Zealand Music Month – and this is my tribute to one of my favourite NZ musicians/writers/artists. But also there’s another reason. When Phil told me he was about to start work on what might be his final album I asked when that would be. “Next Friday, mate, May the first, that’s Mayday for Mr Judd!” I told him I’d post the blog of our conversation to hold him to that. He had another chuckle and told me he hated reading press relating to him but if I sent him the link he “just might have a peek”.
And then 100 minutes, or 90 minutes, or however long, was over. And the conversation ended with me thanking Phil Judd for his music. And for his time. And him saying, “onya Simon”.
Between late 2007 and early 2016 I wrote a daily music blog at Stuff.co.nz called Blog On The Tracks. I’m reposting some of the entries here because the discussion is still valid or entertaining or because you might have missed them the first time.
Click here to see the original post from 2009.