Fred Renata has distinguished himself as a performer of country music and as an award-winning cinematographer – working on everything from acclaimed Maori films such as Poi E to TV shows such as Street Legal, 800 Words and Being Eve. He lives in an old railway shed in Maungaturoto, the town where he grew up. James Addis found him there in a self-built recording studio, making more music.
I’ve been writing songs about local people and telling their stories. You suddenly realise that here is somebody everybody knew and shortly they are going to be gone, and then there will be no reference to someone who might have built an airfield or come back from the war. If nobody writes a song or tells these stories, then they never existed. I’ve a song about a local guy called Max Wallace, who died a few years ago. He had whiled away his time as a prisoner of war building model airplanes, and when he came home he continued to churn them out and they were all over town. You would drive through town and see one, perhaps on a letterbox, like a Cessna with a spinning propeller. Before he passed away, I got to speak to him at a Christmas parade. We talked about the number of smashed railway cups there were near the tracks in town. It seems that way back it was the culture to throw your cup out of carriage window – a cup that was worth 10 times the value of the tea you had just paid for – and deliberately smash it. I asked Max, “Did you ever throw a railway cup out of the window?” He said: “No, I never threw a single cup out of the window.” I thought this was amazing, I finally found someone who did not throw their cup out of the window. But then he said: “I picked up my cup and saucer, I walked down the aisle, I opened the carriage door and I dropped them straight on the tracks.”
My early interest in music came mostly from my father playing ukulele late at night, and I would be awake, listening in bed. Then he bought a guitar from the local music shop and my brother and I ended up learning to play. I think the first song we learned was Mr Bojangles by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. We were kind of raised on country music. Most of our music came from the American south, and I mean the white south. We took it in like baby’s milk. I found it difficult to identify as being a New Zealander or being Maori. I remember the day John F. Kennedy died and somebody announcing on the radio that the President of the United States had been shot dead. And for some reason that felt really sad for us. Even though we were not in America, we were emotionally connected to America. Later, in the early 80s I really struggled with music. I thought is this music worthy to do it if is so American? I had a hang-up with the USA. I told myself, “I am never going to the USA.”
As a kid, I was writing poems all the time, which is surprising because I failed at English. My poems were about life in general, about loss, about contemplation. One day my English teacher saw one of my poems and said, “I would just like to point out this is one of the best poems I have ever read.” He read it out in class and I just wanted to run for cover. I got 10 out of 10 for that poem but I still scratched through UE English with only 51 per cent. I did better in chemistry and physics and maths and went to ATI for a year and studied electrical engineering. I really like electronics. You may have noticed the Fender amplifier in pieces in the foyer. I love amplifiers, I love early valve amps. It’s a sort of an addiction.
By 1979, I had a job at the Kinleith pulp and paper mill and I joined a local country music club and began writing songs – I think that must have been a continuation of writing poetry at school. In 1981, I was named country music songwriter of the year for a song called Jackson, which was about a guy I knew killed on the Brynderwyn Hills while returning from a party in Kaiwaka. At Kinleith, I played with a Christian band on Sundays at Waikeria Prison, which was led by Duke Tamaki. I was the guitarist and Duke’s son, Brian Tamaki – now Bishop Brian Tamaki – played bass, and his brother Mike played drums. I used to really enjoy it, but the prisoners were just a sea of Maori and Polynesian faces. It’s very sad when you think about it. It was amazing how many of the prisoners I knew from school in Maungaturoto. They would be saying “What are you doing here?” And I would say, “Well, what are you doing here?” I think many of them had got involved with drugs and mixed up with the Mr Asia thing. I’ve never got involved with any of that. I was kind of moving too fast to sit around and stare at the sky and smoke pot. But everyone at school was. I remember sitting with a group and marijuana had arrived big time. Everyone was passing around a joint. My brother said, “Whatever you do, don’t smoke this sh*t,” even as he was smoking it himself. Strangely, I think for the first time in my life I took my brother seriously.
Getting into film was a complete coincidence. I had formed a duet with another musician, Jeff Simmonds, who came up from Otaki. Jeff said he wanted to be a filmmaker and forget about being a musician. I, too, was getting disillusioned with songs, which seemed at the time to aspire to be fresh out of America. By some strange happening I met Geoff Murphy. He told me to put down my soldering iron and start making films. He was looking for a generator operator to power the lights on a film set, and I was a qualified engineer who knew a lot about generators. So that’s how I got into the film industry. I worked on Merata Mita’s first film, Mauri, and got involved in the Maori film making scene. We were trying to get more Maori technicians in the film industry to have control of our own voice – the ability to tell our own stories.
But to survive in the film industry you have to be able to do other things as well. I spent a month in Zimbabwe with Merata doing a documentary for the Catholic Church about the overthrow of the Smith regime, and I met Robert Mugabe and Sir Garfield Todd. I moved into operating cameras and became a director of photography. I did music videos and television commercials and documentaries such as Poi E, Herbs – Songs of Freedom and Hotere. Late last year I was asked to help make a documentary about a south Auckland record label. Some of the record producers had gone on to be successful in America and it was necessary to go and film them there, even though I’d vowed never to go to the US.
And you know what? It was like going back to an old, failed relationship and realising that it was not so bad after all. I flew over LA and I thought this is where the Beach Boys come from. I go to Hollywood and I imagine the Beverly Hillbillies racing down Rodeo Drive and in New York I thought this is where Ginsberg and Dylan hung out. We always knew each other, and it was my fault to have been estranged, really. Going there made me realise that it did not matter how my music sounds. Music is a universal language. I came home and played at my son’s graduation. One of the tutors said, “Wow, it’s interesting to hear a Maori folk song done like an American folk song”, and I said, “Yes, but it does not matter really. The song has got a story to tell and you just play it.”