Morton Wilson was relaxing at his family’s Kapiti Coast beach house when he recognised the teenager driving by, a guitar strapped to his motorbike. Wilson waved him down and said “I know you”. Wilson and Andrew Hagen were both students at Wellington Boys College; Wilson remembered an impressive monologue Hagen had given in a public speaking contest, effectively arguing he was from another planet.
So began a friendship and musical partnership that would spawn a duo, a band called Schtung, and a music production company that has been putting music to pictures — and later, CDs — for over three decades.
Realising their music tastes were similar, Wilson and Hagen began playing gigs as Thompson and Thomson. The duo soon expanded to become art-rockers Schtung, the band’s name inspired by lines from a Monty Python sketch. 1977 saw the release of album Schtung, with Wilson composing two tracks and playing guitar. Gary Steel later called it “genuinely off-the-wall brilliant”. They played twice at festival Nambassa, and can be glimpsed singing ‘Tree Song’ in documentary Nambassa Festival.
In 1978 Schtung moved from Wellington to Auckland, seeking fame, fortune and more gigs. But despite critical acclaim and successful concerts Schtung fell apart halfway through their second album, after it became clear not all the members wanted to take the next big step across the Tasman.
It wasn't over for Wilson and Hagen. A chance request from a film editor at one of their final Schtung shows led to their first foray into scoring — Rashomon-style TV drama Against the Lights, directed by Sam Pillsbury.
Further composing gigs followed on TV commercials and a run of nature documentaries (eg Kiribati). After scoring a further doco for Pillsbury, Hagen and Wilson were called on to compose the music for the director’s debut feature The Scarecrow, the first Kiwi film officially invited to Cannes. The pair brought in jazz pianist and arranger Phil Broadhurst. Horns, keyboards and strings aided the film’s mixture of menace, mirth and nostalgia. Hagen and Wilson also made a rare venture into directing, with Crocodiles video Hello Girl.
It felt a good time to explore new pastures: tax breaks for locally shot features were ending, and a steep tax had been applied to imported recording equipment. A filmmaking friend mentioned Hong Kong as a hive of filmmaking activity. With money to last three months, they headed off in late 1982, carrying a show reel containing a few ads and corporate documentaries.
Within a month they’d been asked to compose the soundtrack for action comedy Aces Go Places 2 (aka Mad Mission 2). The year’s biggest local hit, it helped put them on the map.
Though movies were being pumped out in Hong Kong at a bewildering pace, budgets were tight. The pair decided to concentrate on the city's busy commercial industry. Slowly they began winning more work. “It’s all Rolex watches and high fashion,” Wilson told writer Gary Steel in 1996. With many of the commercials aimed at tourists, dialogue was kept to a minimum. “They didn’t want a voice-over, so it was beautiful pictures and beautiful music.”
Wilson and Hagen didn’t completely sever ties with home. That decade they composed the music for two acclaimed Kiwi features: Sam Pillsbury’s depression-era road movie Starlight Hotel and synth-heavy borstal drama Kingpin. There was also an AFI award nomination for Australian-shot odd couple story Daisy and Simon (aka Where the Outback Ends).
By 1986 Wilson and Hagen were busy enough to move into their own studios — Schtung Hong Kong would at its highpoint fill three stories and five recording studios of a heritage building on Kennedy Road.
The early 90s proved a key period of expansion. Hagen relocated to Los Angeles en route to successfully breaking the American market; Morton, now married and with a young son, stayed behind to oversee Asian operations. 1992 saw the opening of Schtung Singapore in a beautiful old four story building. Schtung Shanghai followed in 1999, as ad agencies joined the post handover rush to China.
Schtung was playing a key role in the commercial industry in Asia, picking up awards in Cannes, London and New York, and building a network of composers and artists across the region. Morton described the company as “basically a home for wayward musicians; a kind of family.”
In the 90s Wilson consciously decided to ‘make records again’, partly motivated by his soundtrack experience combining East and West, Traditional and Modern styles. The first album to result — made with in-house composer Peter Millward — was 1996’s Spirit House, which mixed Chinese violins, jazz guitar and contemporary grooves. Later albums showcased Malay and Nepalese sounds.
The arrival of British remix producer Ian Widgery in 2002 led to the realisation of a project Wilson had long been keen to produce — reworking 30s-era Shanghai hits for multi-platinum seller Shanghai Lounge Divas. Follow-up Retrochine remixed and re-imagined classic 50’s songs from the fabled film catalogue of Asian film legends the Shaw Brothers.
Next came remix projects for David Bowie, Gorillaz, Robbie Williams and a number of Mumbai and China-based artists. Wilson also continues to produce albums of original work, many made as tie-ins to fashion lines and hotels.
After 24 years in Kennedy Road, Wilson finally relocated to Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay in 2010 after the original building got redeveloped. Wilson says that though there have been many changes in the music industry in that time, good writing remains key. He remembers when he and Hagen used to “spend a few hours each day kicking round ideas. That approach has served us both well . . . if in doubt just pick up your instrument (unless you’re a pianist, of course) and see what happens!’
‘Producer and Co-founder of Schtung Music – Morton Wilson’ (Video Interview) APV website. Loaded May 3 2009. Accessed 20 April 2015
Chris Caddick ‘Schtung’ AudioCulture website. Loaded 6 April 2014. Accessed 20 April 2015
Hamish McKenzie, ‘Interview: Morton Wilson on Retrochine’ (Broken link), Time Out Hong Kong, 1 December 2008
Gary Steel, ‘Schtung’ The Strip website, October 1996