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Rockwiz Q&A

With Brian Nankervis.

How did you get your start in the music industry?

I’ve been performing full time since 1985. I taught for six years in primary schools … excellent training for the rigours of show business. So while I mostly did stand-up and theatre, then fell into television via ‘Hey Hey It’s Saturday’ (performing poetry as the beret wearing, extremely intense Raymond J Bartholomeuz) and the hospital soap opera ‘Let the Blood Run Free’ … there was always music around and the two industries often overlapped. Often there was comedy and music on the same bill. Right from the very start I’d MC shows with bands, do opening spots for bands, or work with house bands for more ambitious theatre shows. In Sydney I remember opening for Harem Scarem and TISM at the Paddington Leagues club in about 1991. Getting heckled by rabid TISM fans, then later walking for hours along Oxford Street, watching the sun rise from the rocks near Bondi. I was Paul Hester’s warm up guy/second banana on the Hessie’s Shed shows on the ABC. I hosted shows on public radio station Triple R from the late 70s and we were always ringing up bands and singers and them managers and record companies, so I suppose I was part of that industry via the radio as well.

Best part of what you do?

I love collaborating with a creative, passionate and fully committed group of like-minded friends. I love the excitement of a stage show, working with an audience. I’m so lucky to be a music fan, perhaps a music tragic, who gets to invite artists on to the show, suggest songs for them to sing and then watch these artists (sometimes meeting for the first time) walk onto the stage in the empty Esplanade Hotel and slowly rehearse their songs. Over and over, trying new ideas, swapping lyrics, working out beginnings and endings. The next night the songs are sung for the packed audience … often with more intensity or confidence or finesse … but there’s always something special about observing the early versions.

Any interesting experiences from the recent series of RocKwiz that you can share?

1. Leaving the back bar at Ciccolina after a taping, farewelling Sarah Lee Guthrie (Woody Guthrie’s grand daughter) and her partner Johnny Irion (John Steinbeck’s great nephew) deep in discussion with Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis. Turns out that not only do they all go to the same farmer’s market somewhere near Amherst, Massachusetts, but they also follow the same Guru! We later heard that they went from Ciccolina’s to Luna Park and finally they watched the sun rise from the rocks at the end of St Kilda pier. Earlier in the evening, J and Adalita had closed the show with a rocking version of ‘Stop Dragging My Heart Around’ and J entertained the audience with his deadpan delivery, sharp buzzer work, amazing rock knowledge and the news that he was keen to write a travel guide based on restaurants in Sweden!

2. Watching Tex, Don and Charlie perform my favourite Tex, Don and Charlie song, ‘Paycheques’ on the final episode of Series Eleven. We had Tex and Mia Dyson performing together and had asked Don Walker to perform a song in the middle of the show. We’d been trying to persuade Don to come on the show for a few years. “I’m not really a buzzer kind of guy Brian”, Don had told me. But for the last series, we always had a song in the middle of the show, performed by an artist who would come out and just sing. Don brought Charlie Owen along to accompany him on ‘Young Girls’, a song from his latest album. As Julia said after the break when the camera revealed an empty chair where Tex should have been … “If you’ve got Tex and Don and Charlie all in the same room, it would be silly not to invite them to sing”. She did, they sang and grown producers wept.

3. Working with my 18 year old daughter Claudia on this last series. She joined the RocKwiz team as runner, coffee maker, prop buyer, sandwich maker, researcher, artist comforter and general assistant to whoever needed assistance. I think officially she was an intern and I just loved working with her in an environment vastly removed from our home and family life. It meant we related in new and challenging ways and it was very special for me … and I hope for Claudia too! We’d come home from script readings or rehearsals or a filming night and have great post-mortems. We’d analyse the day, laugh about the mistakes or the triumphs or the tray of sandwiches she’d dropped in the street or the night that the star’s ex girlfriend arrived and … (Rockwiz lawyers have suggested I don’t finish this sentence!)

Some experiences that occurred backstage/onstage on RocKwiz and how you kept calm?

There was panic in the house when Bonnie Tyler’s management rang hours before the show to say that Bonnie had completely lost her voice and there was no way she could sing. She could sit at the desk behind the buzzers but as her doctor had forbidden her to speak, perhaps it would be a good idea to find someone else. Aaargh! We’d been very excited. Bonnie had agreed to sing her big hit ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ and her would-be duet partner, Jed Kurzel from the Mess Hall was disappointed. He’d just got his head around the idea of singing a duet with Bonnie and now it wasn’t going to happen. But we needed to find a replacement … and quick! At that moment there was the sound of laughter from the back of the room … it was our wonderful ‘Rock Star Wrangler’ … Eve Von Bibra. Evie looks after the artists’ every need and is an integral part of our team. She’s also a member of 80s pop darlings The Chantoozies. Perfect! Evie jumped on stage, rehearsed ‘Love The One You’re With’ for her solo spot, worked out a great arrangement of ‘To Love Somebody’ with Jed and the band and we were off and running. Very handy to have a Chantoozie on the team! Tony Hadley from Spandeau Ballet thought it was an interview show and he was to be quizzed on his love of Russian history. One stifling night in The Gershwin Room it was so hot that the electrics melted down, there was a fire at the top of a power pole on the street outside, three people fainted, the lights went out and Martha Wainwright led me to a quiet corner of the dressing room and shared stories about her family and their trials and tribulations. Her duet with Dan Kelly on Brian Ferry’s ‘Slave to Love’ from Season one remains one of my favourite performances from the show.

Favourite album of all time and why?

If you’re sure I can only pick one, I’m choosing ‘Blonde On Blonde’ by Bob Dylan. A double album released in 1966, it has an incredible selection of songs. Classics (‘Just Like A Woman’, ‘I Want You’) rockers (‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’, ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’) the amazing ‘Sad Eyed lady Of the Lowlands’, some of his best singing, amazing playing by a group of older Nashville musicians who waited for hours and hours while Dylan finished writing and then recorded first take versions of songs they’d never heard before. It’s got a great cover, mysterious photos on the inside cover and one of my favourite Dylan songs ‘Visions Of Joanna’ with great lines like …

“Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial

Voices echo, ‘This is what salvation must be like after a while’
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles

See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say
“Jeeze, I can’t find my knees”

Best live performance that you’ve ever seen?

Just one? Surely not. How about a top six? Bruce Springsteen at the Melbourne Showgrounds, 1985. Leonard Cohen at Rod Laver Park, 2010. Neil Young, 2012. Bob Dylan in 1978. The Rolling Stones in 1973. Paul Kelly in a variety of venues, but i did see him play a great gig at The Manzil Room in 1985.

Take us through a typical day in the life of Brian Nankervis.

I’m not sure if there’s ever a typical day, though they all start with a snooze button, a freshly squeezed lemon, two cups of Madura leaf tea and ideally some fresh pineapple … and mostly they end with a few pages of the latest book. But in between it varies. I will say that the older I get, the more precious each day is. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The days come and go but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away” and he obviously knew about making the most of each day, though he put it with a little more eloquence!

Today, after the snooze button and before three pages of my book, I made a school lunch for Lola, drove Henry Joe to basketball training, ate my muesli and blueberries, skyped Claudia Rose at her hostel in Ecuador, swam a few laps then floated in the giant hot bath at the St Kilda Sea Baths, spent a few hours answering emails at Rockwiz HQ, did my weekly Album Of the Week segment for ABC radio in Perth on the mobile on the footpath outside a South Melbourne cafe, did a warm up for a new Working Dog television show, came home to reheated spaghetti and a wrap up of everyone else’s day. Now I’m writing to you and it’s nearly midnight. Book time.

Any news or final comments?

Here is the news! RocKwiz hits the road for three special live shows … RocKwiz Salutes Vanda and Young. Featuring an eclectic mix of Australian heritage artists alongside contemporary stars, household names and young up and comers, performing songs written, played or produced by Vanda and Young. ROCKWIZ SALUTES VANDA AND YOUNG will of course be hosted by the wonderful Julia Zemiro. I’ll be judging, scoring and putting on the kettle. The legendary RocKwiz Orkestra … James Black, Peter Luscombe and Mark Ferrie … will back the artists and play those Million Dollar Riffs and Australia’s favourite roadie, Dugald, will hold up the scores and tune the guitars. And of course … it wouldn’t be a RocKwiz show without contestants being drawn from the audience to hit those buzzers and answer curly questions.

We’re rocking the fabulous Enmore Theatre on December 6. We love coming to Sydney for live shows! Over the last few years we’ve performed a Christmas show at the beautiful State Theatre, a big show at the Hordern Pavilion last year, a chaotic and exciting corporate show at the Metro with Michael Gudinski and Michael Chugg as team captains and Tex Perkins singing a killer version of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’ and three shows at The Enmore, featuring, amongst others, Dave Faulkner, Marcia Hines, Don Walker, Murray the Red Wiggle and one of our all time favourite contestant Kareoke moments featuring a man in a suit getting a standing ovation for his dynamic rendition of Khe Sanh. Happy times in Sydney.

We begin recording a new series of RocKwiz for SBS (Series Twelve) in mid December. Our latest collection of Rockwiz duets is available on CD and DVD.

© Danny Canak

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