Welcome to weekly series The Singles Life, where known experts Katie Parker and Hussein Moses peruse, ponder and pontificate on the latest and (maybe) greatest in New Zealand music.
To be a creative in a country as small as New Zealand it helps to have a few strings to one’s bow - something fictional serial killer, Jono and Ben director, and longtime music man Johnny Barker clearly knows. Lovingly remembered across the country for his star turn as Joey the Ferndale Strangler on Shortland Street, you may be surprised to learn that there is far more to Johnny than just a one-time stint as a soap opera serial killer. With salt and pepper hair, new moniker BARKER (all caps) and a just released album, Johnny seems set to leave his throttling days behind him. Or is he...
Katie: I loved Joey on Shortland Street. He was such a sweetheart. I know he turned out to be a super-murderer but for a long time before that became apparent he was just a darling. He had those lovely thick eyebrows and kind of a Jake Gyllenhaal vibe that I remember very warmly.
I also remember when he was on Shortland Street years earlier as just some singer dude who took Waverly on a picnic and then got a bee sting and had to go to hospital. Something along those lines? Good times.
Anyway, as well as playing a crucial role in my formative memories, Johnny Barker is a musician with a new album and video out.
Hussein: This isn't some actor turned musician thing, thankfully. (Sorry Guy Pearce, et al.) Barker's been around for awhile with his early-2000s band Jester, a sentimental solo album under the name Sleepy Kid that he’d rather forget (“I was listening to too much Jeff Buckley,” he told RNZ), and more recently another grungier project called The Aristocrats.
Sleepwalking is said to be a sci-fi record (SIGH-fi?), which draws on his experience as an actor and director. For him, the process is like writing short film scripts. “I've chosen characters and genres and obstacles and then written short film scripts that are like films I'd like to make but instead just craft them into images and melody and make them into songs.”
Something else he said: “If red wine had a sound, this is what it'd sound like, because I drank a lot of red wine while making it.”
Katie: Just thinking of all those chewy tannins makes my mouth go dry. Whatever floats your boat, Johnny!
It’s interesting that he was a musician first, actor second, because there’s quite a heavy cinema influence going on based on what he’s saying. I’m not sure if I’d necessarily get that from the songs themselves on first listen but I think it's nice he’s so hardout about his creative process.
Hussein: It's felt like somewhat of a stunted rollout, though. Haunted House, the superior of the singles he's released so far, came out back in 2015 when he first announced the album. That's a long wait, but maybe not necessarily a bad one. The whole thing clocks in at under half an hour, which tells us that maybe he's spent that time finessing the record rather than neglecting it.
Katie: They’re both good songs, but they take a few listens to get familiar with. I feel like you have to really listen carefully to let them catch your attention. In a way, I just want them to be more aggressive, and for him to sound angrier. Lines like “I wouldn't say it if it wasn’t true, I don't like it and I don’t like you” could be really cutting and scathing, but I feel like they get buried by the music. When Justin Bieber says his Mama don’t like you, you really hear it you know?
Hussein: There's a decent song hidden in there somewhere, I reckon. You could slot something like this right alongside the likes of Streets of Laredo (Dave Gibson's post-Elemeno P project), Rodney Fisher (ex-Goodshirt), or perhaps something from the Parachute Music roster. It's in line with a lot of indie stuff that seems to have come and gone from the New Zealand music scene over the years. Maybe this is reaching, but the thing this song reminds me of most is The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. There’s a gloominess to BARKER’s music, which makes it tick, but it doesn’t really elevate in quite the same way.
Katie: I’ve been trying to figure out what it reminds me of - maybe that’s it? I’d like to hear both songs really paired back with something really cool added in: a xylophone; a triangle; a drum solo? OK, I don’t know but I think that with the sci-fi theme this could all stand to be a little bit more eerie. Maybe he should watch some Twin Peaks?
Hussein: None of those things you listed are cool.
It’s great that he’s still embracing the Ferndale Strangler label, though. He’ll probably be foremost remembered as that guy anyway. There’s definitely a few artists out there that would refuse to talk about that stuff anymore, but it works in his favour not to do that.
Plus, I’d rather watch Shortland St than Twin Peaks.