For the record

What’s an international music writer like Fraser Lewry doing in a place like Ōamaru? Writing about music, mostly. 

Peer through the window at the Business Hive coworking space on Ōamaru’s Thames Street on any given day, and you’ll likely see a kind-looking, bespectacled guy in a band tee-shirt (Canadian rock’n’roll revivalists The Sheepdogs, say, or Kiwi chart-topper Kimbra) typing away. You might think, that is a man who loves music, and you would be right.

Fraser Lewry is, among other things, the online editor of Classic Rock Magazine; his work has also appeared in publications from Metal Hammer to The Guardian, Prog Magazine to New Statesman. He’s been backstage at Glastonbury and danced in a video by The Cure. He rode the crest of the Britpop wave with future BAFTA/Golden Globe/Emmy-winner Ricky Gervais at his side. He also devised a hangover cure in the form of Pepto-Bismol ice cream, which is either very rock ’n’ roll, or just gross. You decide. In short, he’s not the first person you’d expect to find filing stories from an office on the main street of a small seaside town in New Zealand. But for Fraser, it makes perfect sense.

PHOTO: Anna Easton

The rock capital of the universe

It’s November 2020. Much of the world is in lockdown, and live shows have morphed from in-person events to buffering-affected affairs on Facebook Live. In Ōamaru, however, Fraser has just been to see 10 bands in a single week.

He wrote an article about this for loudersound.com (‘Why a small New Zealand town is suddenly the new rock music capital of the universe’), which went local-viral thanks to some gleeful sharing by the regional tourism authority. He called the Jordan Luck Band gig at the Oamaru Club “a reminder that there’s not much in music more precious than being able to drunkenly bellow along to the songs you loved at the age when you loved music the most”, while Dick Move at the Settler Theatre was a “vivid, technicolour surge of rage and adrenaline”. It may have been a long way from London, Fraser’s home for 35 years, but with gigs like that, it must not have felt very far at all.

Fraser Lewry was born in Wellington to a pair of “Ten Pound Poms”, a term for primarily-British families who came to Aotearoa in the post-war period as part of a government-assisted migration scheme – the subsidised fare from Southampton to Auckland was 10 pounds sterling. His mother was a trained theatre electrician who worked for various organisations including Television New Zealand and the Ministry of Defence, and his dad was an outdoors-loving carpenter. “His idea of a holiday was to go live in a tin shack with no electricity for a week,” Fraser recalls. Neither had particularly good taste in music; Fraser likens their record collection to what you would find in a bin at an op shop (think Nana Mouskouri and brass band compilations).

His mum never quite settled into the Southern Hemisphere, and the family relocated back to the United Kingdom when Fraser was 12. Not great for his dad, who loved the New Zealand bush, but good for the future of music journalism, because it was back in England that Fraser found his calling. “I remember watching Top of the Pops at about age 15 and something clicking, and thinking I just wanted to hear more music. I’ve never lost that thirst.”

His interest translated at first into going to pub gigs in Northampton – he recalls seeing Steve Marriott, the singer and guitarist from Small Faces, near the end of his career – then into joining organised coach trips to London and Birmingham to see bands. His first proper rock show was AC/DC at Wembley Arena. “It was so exciting – almost to the point you couldn’t believe how exciting it was.” When it came time to apply for college, he headed for London, where the music was, for good.

Fraser’s time working on a BA in History and Religious Studies only lasted a year, but he soon got an education of a different kind, landing a job at the Record & Tape Exchange. (He had to pass a test for the job interview – identifying the album Atom Heart Mother by Pink Floyd from just the cover, which has nothing but a photo of a cow on it.) Working in a record store, he says, “can be challenging. Record buyers are weird people.” But it was a formative experience in terms of widening his horizons. “You’re exposed to people who love music as much as you do, but with different tastes.” To this day, he says there isn’t a type of music he does not like.

Through the record shop, he got to know the lead singer of the indie band The Family Cat, which led to a five-year stint working as a roadie for the group. They made the charts and played the NME Stage at Glastonbury in 1992, but never quite broke. Still, Fraser loved the life – humping gear, setting up equipment, tuning guitars, selling merch, fixing broken strings, packing up the van at the end of the night. “My best friends were in the band, and you have the best seat in the house. There’s nothing like it.” Plus, he notes, unlike the musicians, who put everything they earned back into the band, he was actually on a wage.

What is a Head of Speech?

It was through The Family Cat that Fraser took his next step in the industry, as Head of Music at the nascent radio station XFM, which was started by The Family Cat’s sound guy, Sammy Jacob. Originally a pirate station called Q102 based out of Sammy’s mum’s East London flat, XFM started life in the early nineties operating on a series of Restricted Service Licences, which, under the complex and draconian system of broadcasting rights in the UK, allowed stations to operate for a limited amount of time over a small geographical area. Fraser was appointed Head of Music when the station was finally granted a full broadcasting licence in 1997, and he chose the first song ever played on XFM, MC5’s ‘Kick Out The Jams’.

It was a rocky start, thanks to some bad luck when it came to timing; XFM launched on September 1, 1997, the day after Lady Di was killed in a car crash in Paris. And the long road to getting a full licence meant they were slightly too late to benefit from the Britpop peak of the mid-nineties. Still, XFM was the first radio station to playlist Radiohead and Oasis, and became an important tastemaker on the alternative scene, championing bands like Slowdive, Supergrass and Primal Scream. During his tenure there he compared tattoos with David Bowie and was in the room the first time Noel Gallagher played ‘Wonderwall’ on acoustic guitar in public.

Fraser also had some notable co-workers at XFM. The station’s Head of Speech was Ricky Gervais, and Ricky’s assistant was Stephen Merchant. What is a Head of Speech? No one seems to know. “I worked with him for a year, and I don’t know what he was meant to be doing,” Fraser recalls. “Sammy, who ran the station, was really good at talent spotting and just wanted people involved. He would creatively find them a job description.”

One thing Ricky and Stephen were doing was collecting material, and sketching out early plot points, for The Office, the comedy that launched in 2001 and made them both stars. Some of the characters and events in The Office were based on life at XFM; Fraser witnessed an episode that became the scene in which Ricky’s character, David Brent, reads a wildly inappropriate poem called ‘Excalibur’ to a coworker (“Take this cool dark steeled blade / Steal it, sheath it, in your lake”), then blows a mournful note across a bottle to diffuse the tension.  

As for The Cure video, XFM shared office space with Fiction Records, who released the band’s records. Fraser ended up with a side hustle doing A&R (artists and repertoire) for the label, which in part meant “day to day jobs to make sure the bands were able to do theirs”, such as ordering tape for the studio, sorting out passports, and, in the case of Cure lead singer Robert Smith, organising an NHL home jersey for every city the band played on one North American tour. You can see Fraser in the video for ‘Mint Car’ – he’s the guy with the very very long hair dressed as a cowboy.

PHOTO: Anna Easton

Cats, Cats, Cats. Music, Music, Music. Food, Food, Food.

When it comes to being a writer, Fraser is a bit of a unicorn. He’s a rare example of someone who started writing just as the Internet was about to disrupt publishing forever and who has managed to keep going ever since. This has seen him drift into some strange territory in the name of making a living.

After Capital Radio bought XFM in 1998 (which either saved the station, or was a betrayal of its pirate roots, it depends who you ask), Fraser picked up a paid gig blogging for an Italian MP3 download site. A stint as the digital editor for The Word Magazine website followed, a multimedia platform that was a pioneer in the days when most online magazines were just digital versions of print publications. Fraser also wrote an alternative food blog for The Observer, the Sunday sister paper to The Guardian.

His work included an article called ‘Cooking with testicles, tested’ and a series of ‘animal alphabet’ recipes (‘Z’ is for Zebra Wellington). Then there was the attempt to make a home-made Pepto-Bismol ice cream to treat hangovers, possibly inspired by the fact that along with hockey jerseys, he was sometimes asked to FedEx crates of the pink medicine to The Cure when things got a tad rowdy on tour.

Fraser has dabbled in travel writing – he’s been to North Korea four times, took a train from London to Tehran, tried radon therapy at a Soviet-style health spa in Tajikistan – and had a lot of success with Kittenwar, a “hot or not”-style website for cats where visitors are presented with two kittens and asked to vote for the cutest one. It was at one point getting about six million hits a month and featured on the Stephen Colbert Show more than once. It’s still, addictively, online at kittenwar.com.

But mostly Fraser wrote about, and still writes about, music, which he can do from anywhere, including Ōamaru. He left London to settle there in 2020. He’d been contemplating moving back to Aotearoa ever since visiting for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and after dropping in to see some cousins who lived in Ōamaru, he decided he liked the place. It’s by the sea, it has a sneaky wee music scene, and, as he wrote in the rock-music-capital piece, “it’s the kind of town where the public toilets remain open after dusk without being vandalised”. Also, there are penguins.

And while Fraser may be far from the centre of the international music scene, the time zone has its journalistic advantages. Breaking news, like the death of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins or the discovery of the original of the photo that features on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV, reaches Ōamaru while Europe is still asleep. And he recently Zoomed into Pacific Mountain Time to moderate a conversation between Bryan Adams, in Vancouver, and Rod Stewart, in Beverly Hills. They talked about potholes and model railroads, and at one point Rod called Ed Sheeran “that ginger bollocks”.

The trickiest part about moving to Ōamaru for Fraser? Probably shifting his music collection, which is sizable and sorted alphabetically, of course. Number one on the vinyl shelves is the prog rock band’s Aardvark’s eponymous 1970 release, while ZZ Top’s Goin’ 50 box set rounds out the collection. “I moved about 2500 records over, and (I’m guessing) a similar number of CDs. It’s too many, tbh. If I started playing them today in alphabetical order, I’d probably not live to see ‘Z’.”

LAURA WILLIAMSON