When Fane Flaws filled out an airport arrivals card, it must have been hard to pick a profession. Artist probably summarises it best. Adept in many mediums, the musician and filmmaker turned his lyrics into paintings, his paintings into music videos, and old pieces of timber into artworks.
Growing up in Wellington, Mike Flaws drew inspiration from comics and British radio show The Goons. At that point his own drawings were "very straight and very realistic", compared to his classmates.
Flaws graduated from Wellington Polytechnic in 1971, with a Diploma in Graphic Design. A few years later he was trying to write music in Wellington, when his life changed direction at a bus stop. As he explained in this extended Funny As interview, Flaws and a mate were waiting in Roseneath when the multicoloured Blerta bus came to a stop, and they were invited on board. Someone handed them a joint, and invited them to that night's Blerta show. Afterwards Flaws found himself at "the best party I'd ever been to".
Musician Bruno Lawrence was the linchpin of the sprawling Blerta ensemble. Although Flaws' musical talents weren't yet good enough to be invited to the party, he managed to talk his way onto Blerta's next tour. Blerta were difficult to pigeonhole. Anchored by Bruno's drumming, structure met spontaneity, and encompassed music, comedy, light shows, and performers interacting with projected films.
Using an old dressing gown covered in lightening bolts, the bearded, long-haired Flaws claimed he had a wizard's act. It became part of Blerta's kids show, which was used to help "calm down" the locals, each time the Blerta bus hit town. Reclaiming his abandoned birth name of Fane Flaws, he wrote songs, played guitar and designed posters. One lasting regret was that the cover of Blerta album This is the Life ended up featuring someone else's "really bad copy" of his artwork. Flaws also hung out with the ensemble's budding filmmakers Geoff Murphy and Alun Bollinger. Although he had minimal involvement with their screen projects, their enthusiasm for film added to his own. Flaws was “fascinated" by film too.
After three years of Trans-Tasman touring, Flaws formed Spats. The line-up included longtime accomplices Peter Dasent and Tony Backhouse. According to Dasent, Flaws' songs "covered the range from swing to pop to funk". Spats were soon touring in the Blerta bus; they pretended to be three different bands on the same bill, invited Limbs Dance Company to join in, and sent up then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.
Enthused by their sound, legendary American music producer Kim Fowley dropped by. He advised a name change and new members. Spats became The Crocodiles. Song ‘Tears’ (1980), written by Flaws and Arthur Baysting, reached number 17, and ultimately became a Kiwi classic. The band won a trio of NZ Recording Industry Awards.
While with Spats/The Crocodiles, Flaws began to expand into music video. After helping out on the video for 1978's 'New Wave Goodbye', directed by Geoff Murphy, Flaws made his directing debut with this 1979 Crocodiles clip.
Feeling exhausted, Flaws soon left the band and relocated to Sydney. He and fellow Spats escapee Peter Dasent set about creating an album that didn't pander to any genre. Flaws often took pride in claiming that the result, I Am Joe’s Music (1982) was the lowest-selling album in the history of Mushroom Records. Originally he hoped to call the project I Am Joe's Bladder.
Sometimes creative renewal — and even cash — can emerge from commercial failure. Three videos made for I Am Joe’s Music got a better reception than the album. Deciding to take a break from music, Flaws formed I Am Joe's Films, and began making videos. Thanks to his design skills and enthusiasm for film, he discovered that "putting images to music was instinctive and something I loved". And just as exciting, he was "being paid by record companies for the very first time — something that never happened to me as a musician".
The first clip Flaws made for others was Proud, for expat Kiwis The Dropbears. He followed it with videos on both sides of the Tasman, including 'Get Some Humour' for ex-Crocodile Jenny Morris, and Kiwi award-winner Diamonds on China (which features Flaws' artwork), for The Narcs. Back in NZ, he helmed videos for Dave Dobbyn (Naked Flame), the colourful clip for hit Sweet Lovers, Tim Finn's Parihaka, and six videos for The Mutton Birds (including Max TV audience favourite The Heater, and Flaws’ psychedelic take on Nature).
In 1985 Flaws started over in the Wairarapa. The previous year, his solo exhibition in Sydney had featured installations that made a noise when people approached. Said Flaws: “It’s all connected in a way — music, painting, film.” Elsewhere, he made the point that graphic art, music and filmmaking "all involve arranging elements to create an emotional response". And animation connected all three. Flaws had dabbled in animation with the crying parking meters of 1976 poetry film Like You I’m Trapped. In 1987, feeling his way into the new medium, he won three awards for this distinctive animation for the opening of cult music show Radio With Pictures. It featured an exploding head cameo by his character, Joe.
Flaws' RWP success, plus an award-winning advert for computers, began to win him advertising work — which he'd formerly avoided "like the plague". Flaws set up design and animation company No Straight Lines. The company would win awards for everything from concert posters to animated anti-smoking campaigns. Later came Black Stump Film Company, with Jeff Williams, which concentrated on commercials. During 12 years "working for the dark side", Flaws collected over 40 awards for his ads and music videos, before merging Black Stump with Jam and No Straight Lines in 1998, to form FAT Ltd.
Flaws made this iconic Kiwiburger ad in 1995. He said many of the best ideas for commercials got rejected. A number of his favourites featured actor Peter Rowley. Flaws was especially fond of a Schweppes ad in which Rowley unexpectedly improvised a strange cough in front of worried executives, almost causing his co-star Hugh Laurie to drop his drink. Cliff Curtis and Rachel House also made early appearances in his adverts.
Flaws often roped in film crews from advertising gigs to work on music videos, for little to no pay — part of a long tradition of the screen industry helping bands. Many of the videos were funded by a $5,000 contribution from NZ On Air. Flaws could recall only two times that the record company matched NZ On Air's contribution, as they were meant to.
Flaws was keen to direct a feature film that was heavy on live music, and his quirky brand of humour. The closest he got was 1990 short film Rodney and Juliet, one of the only films in Kiwi history to feature musicians in all the main roles (though 1985 thriller Should I Be Good? comes close). Rodney's madcap tale of obsession and threatened suicide won the award for Best First Film at the highly regarded Clermont-Ferrand short film festival in France, and screened at Sundance. An American movie executive made encouraging noises, but Flaws failed to check where they might lead.
And then there was The Underwatermelon Man and Other Unreasonable Rhymes. Born from a belief that children deserved something more sophisticated than The Wiggles, the book and accompanying album featured ridiculous lyrics and imagery, and a dream cast of Kiwi singers. Flaws tells the whole, extraordinary story in this interview (starting 65 minutes in). Although the project was a bestseller, he lost his house in the process. A live version was performed at Wellington's 2002 NZ arts festival; later a half-hour animated version "nearly killed" Flaws and animator Dylan Coburn.
In 2002 Flaws relocated to Hawke's Bay to concentrate on his artwork. In 2004 he had his first major exhibition in 12 years. He went on to do screen prints, paintings inspired by songs, and portraits using the ruins of an old shed. The Press named Flaws’ solo show Where’s the Big Idea? one of their top two exhibitions of 2004: "provocative, in your face, sharp contemporary painting that stapled assorted cultural sacred cows firmly to the canvas". In 2009 Flaws co-designed bestselling book Dick Frizzell — The Painter with Frizzell. The following year Flaws was inducted into The Massey University Design Hall Of Fame.
Fane Flaws continued to create art in many guises for many years. He died of cancer on 17 June 2021. Flaws had recently turned 70.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 18 June 2021
Fane Flaws website. Accessed 29 January 2021
'Fane Flaws - Funny As interview' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 13 September 2019. Accessed 29 November 2019
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John Dix, Stranded in Paradise (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2005)
Louis Edwards, ‘Paid to Play’ (Interview) - Onfilm, April 1986 (Volume 3 No 3) page 50
Bess Manson, 'Twisted melons' (Interview) - The Dominion (NZ Festival pullout), 2002, unknown date, page 17
Trevor Reekie, 'Moments Like These: Fane Flaws' (Interview) - NZ Musician, October 2015
Gary Steel, 'Fane Flaws Profile' AudioCulture website. Loaded 21 September 2013. Accessed 29 November 2019
Matthew Zwartz, 'A varied career with Flaws' - The Evening Post, 19 October 1989
Unknown writer, 'Essentially flawed' (Interview) - Capital Times, 3 November 1999 (volume 25, no 16)