When Fane Flaws fills out an airport arrivals card, it must be difficult to pick a profession. Artist probably summarises it best. Adept in many mediums, the musician and filmmaker has 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 school, 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 explains in this extended Funny As interview, Flaws and a mate were waiting in Roseneath when the multicoloured Blerta bus stopped, and asked if they wanted a ride. Someone handed them a joint, and invited them to that night's Blerta show. Afterwards he 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 the next tour. Like Flaws, 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 to have 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. A lasting regret is that the cover of Blerta album This is the Life features someone else's "really bad copy" of his original artwork. Flaws also hung out with Blerta's budding filmmakers Geoff Murphy and Alun Bollinger. Although his involvement in their screen projects was minimal, their enthusiasm for film rubbed off on his own. Flaws was “fascinated" by film too.
After three years of trans-Tasman touring, Flaws formed Spats. The line-up included Bruno and Flaws' 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, pretending to be three different bands on the same bill, or doing gigs that mixed the Limbs Dance Company dancing to their music, with comedy satirising Robert Muldoon.
Enthusiastic about their sound, legendary American music producer Kim Fowley dropped by, and advised a name change and new members. Spats became The Crocodiles. Song ‘Tears’ (1980), written by Flaws and Arthur Baysting, reached number 17, and later became a Kiwi classic. The band won a trio of NZ Recording Industry Awards.
It was with Spats/The Crocodiles that 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 Australia. Joining fellow Spats escapee Peter Dasent, he set about creating some music that didn't pander to any genre. Flaws has often taken pride in claiming that resulting album I Am Joe’s Music (1982) is the lowest-selling in the history of Mushroom Records. Originally his plan was to call the project I Am Joe's Bladder.
Creative renewal — and even cash — can emerge from commercial failure. Flaws' video for I Am Joe’s Music's 'The Way You Get Your Way' was better received than the album. Deciding it might be a good time to take a break from music, he 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 as an added bonus, 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 Kiwi band 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 New Zealand, there were also videos for Dave Dobbyn (Naked Flame), the colourful clip for Sweet Lovers, Tim Finn hit Parihaka, and six videos for The Mutton Birds (including Max TV audience fave The Heater and Flaws’ psychedelic take on Nature).
In 1985 Flaws started over in the Wairarapa. The previous year he'd had a solo exhibition in Sydney which included installations that made sounds when you got close to them. Flaws argued that “it’s all connected in a way — music, painting, film.” Elsewhere, he pointed out 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 for 1976 poetry film Like You I’m Trapped. In 1987, feeling his way into the new medium, he won three awards for his distinctive title animation for cult music show Radio With Pictures.
Fuelled by his RWP success, 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 more than 40 directing awards for his ads and music videos, before merging Black Stump with Jam and No Straight Lines in 1998, to form FAT Ltd.
Flaws says that he saw many of the best ideas for commercials get rejected. A number of his favourite commercials featured actor Peter Rowley — Flaws is especially fond of a Schweppes ad in which Rowley unexpectedly improvised a strange cough in front of worried ad executives, almost causing his co-star Hugh Laurie to drop his drink.
Flaws often roped in film crews from his adverts to work on music videos for little or no payment — continuing a long tradition of the film industry "helping out bands". Many of the videos were funded by a $5,000 contribution from NZ On Air. Flaws can only recall 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 managed is 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 never followed where it might lead.
And then there was The Underwater Melon Man and Other Unreasonable Rhymes. Born partly from a belief that children deserve something more sophisticated than The Wiggles, the book and album featured ridiculous lyrics and imagery, and a dream cast of Kiwi singers. Flaws tells the whole story in this interview. Flaws sold thousands of copies, but lost his house in the process. A live version was performed for Wellington's 2002 NZ Festival. Half-hour film The Underwater Melon Man "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. Since then he has done 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. He continues to create art in many guises.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 15 October 2019
Fane Flaws website. Accessed 15 October 2019
'Fane Flaws - Funny As interview' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 13 September 2019. Accessed 15 October 2019
Roger Booth, Bruno - The Bruno Lawrence Story (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1999)
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), Date unknown (2002), page 18
Trevor Reekie, 'Moments Like These: Fane Flaws' (Interview) - NZ Musician, October 2015
Gary Steel, 'Fane Flaws Profile' AudioCulture website. Loaded 21 September 2013. Accessed 15 October 2019 Unknown writer, 'Essentially flawed' (Interview) - Capital Times, 3 November 1999 (volume 25, no 16)