Apparently, Nadia Reid doesn’t like the milk in Australia. “It tastes pretty rank to me,” she says from the front passenger seat.
I’ve been in this car for a few weeks now, playing shows across New Zealand with Nadia and Anthonie Tonnon, and all pleasantries have fallen away. What’s left is a constant barrage of cultural gibing.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“You’ve got rank milk.”
“What the hell?” I say, the son of a Queensland dairy farmer. “No we don’t.”
“It just doesn’t taste fresh. New Zealand does good milk. Fresh. Creamy.”
“Explain. Is ours watery? Or it’s the flavour?”
“Horrible flavour,” she says.
“We milk cows just like you do. Does the rankness come from the cows themselves or the grass, you think?”
“Could be the grass. Or maybe there’s too much time before bottling. I like minimum time between teat and tummy.”
Much of this past week has seen us cling to the western edge of the South Island, against a coastline of grey, enraged, sea-churning drama. We’ve just driven from the village of Okarito, where last night we played unplugged to a sellout crowd of 40. This was a good result, considering the town’s population is 43.
Tonight’s show is less promising. We’re playing at the Barrytown hall and have sold only one ticket. The order was to a person called “Tree”.
“Maybe we should cancel?” Nadia says. Anthonie assures her it’ll be fine.
He’s orchestrated this trip and is full of optimistic patriotism for his country. He’s also driven us the whole way and is in a constant state of immaculate presentation.
“Trust me, they’ll come out,” he says as he slicks back an errant hair. “That’s just the way it works around here. It’s very different from everywhere else in the country. It’s still populated by the same people who came out here in the early ’70s seeking an alternative lifestyle. They’ve held on. The ’60s Summer of Love thing hit NZ five years late.”
In front of us, Jurassic mountains slope down to meet the sea. It’s hard to believe there’s any road ahead. I wonder why I’ve never seen this in a brochure. Are they keeping it secret?
In Barrytown, the scenery is astonishing. Hardly a town; the old wooden hall has a sweeping view down across dairy farms to the ever-raging Tasman. I’m told the venue is hallowed ground for musicians. You can trace its history by reading the band posters that paper the wooden shutters: Bad Manners, Shellac, UK Subs, Fugazi, even cult Portland punk band Dead Moon. When The Bats played here in 1988, I’m told, a motorcycle gang rode in to execute a few burnouts, staining the wooden floorboards before tearing out again.
We set up and Anthonie claps and says, “Hear that? It sounds like ’80s gated reverb.”
I go for a walk, a couple of miles down the road, to dip my toe in the sea. I pass green-carpeted pastures occupied by curious well-fed cows. Every now and then, I stop to look back at the mountains. It’s an irresistible panorama from all directions. Nadia eventually drives down looking for me and we head up the road to the touristy Pancake Rocks, named after the thinly layered limestone formations carved by the tides and blowholes that shoot up intermittently.
It’s on the drive back that we make an executive decision to cancel the accommodation we’ve booked up the road and try our luck with the locals tonight. We don’t want to lose any of this scenery to the nighttime.
Back in Barrytown, cars are parked everywhere, a snaking line out of the hall, and Anthonie is panicking at the door, fumbling change and stamping wrists. Locals are spread out on couches, kids up on the stage miming songs and playing air-guitar to the house music. A pop-up taco stall and bar is in full operation.
I can tell by the reaction to the first song that it’s going to be a good night. We’ve been paper/rock/scissoring to decide who performs their solo set first, and explain the process to the audience.
“How many shakes again?” I ask, to make sure.
“Three shakes and then reveal,” Anthonie says.
“In Australia we do 15. It’s ’cause we’re all dairy farmers, too,” I joke, and mime the closed-fist shake as if milking a cow.
“That’s one way of saying it,” heckles a local up the back.
A very big laugh. The crowd is rambunctious, attentive, and continues heckling throughout our set.
In the break I stand in the kitchen with the organisers. I chat with Roger, the rakish chairman of the hall who’s been running the place since the ’60s. He has long, wavy grey hair, a chambray work shirt open at the neck to reveal a silver abalone amulet on a leather lace, purple suede slacks and bare feet. I ask him about the rumour that Townes Van Zandt played here.
“Oh, yes,” he tells me in a baritone drawl. “But it was in the dead of winter and Townes thought this hall too cold for him. We didn’t have heaters back then. So we said we’ll just go and light the fire up in the pub and do it there. He said, ‘Yeah, that’d be better.’ We had a huge crowd turn up and he ended up staying around for a few days.”
After we’re done a drunk man approaches me at the merch desk and offers us a room to sleep in at the disused pub where Townes played. He’s turning it into a backpackers’. Nadia gratefully accepts but Anthonie and I decide to set up camp here in the hall. We each choose a couch and fashion nests from our provisions. I walk around on the creaky boards and turn all the lights off and wrestle my body into a position of comfort. This feels like a great thing, sleeping here in this big old room full of the histories of nights spent dancing, singing and carousing. Anthonie and I chat back and forth for a while like we’re at a school slumber party. I can hear the pounding sea too. I drift off to sleep with a feeling of general wellbeing.
In some parts out here, the road is almost touching the shoreline. Every now and then we spot a holiday cabin – or, as New Zealanders call them, “batches” – built right on the sand. Any more beachfront and you’d be in the water. We’re heading north and all craving coffee.
It comes up that Anthonie knows the guy who invented the flat white. Or claims to.
“He said he was working in Cafe Bodega in the early ’80s,” Anthonie says. “Only two cafes in Wellington had these brand new Italian espresso machines. People were fizzing about them; they were becoming quite popular. But at that time you could only get two kinds of coffee, an espresso or a cappuccino.
“Those days were before they knew how to store the milk and fiddle with the cows to make sure there was fat in the milk year round. In autumn when the calves were off the teat, there was no fat in the milk. So he was at this cafe making coffee and everyone’s ordering cappuccinos, but he couldn’t get any foam out of the milk when there’s no fat. This one lady was getting upset so he just heated up the milk, put it in the coffee and said, ‘There you go. That’s a flat white.’ ”
Anthonie is like an entertaining Google, full of historical and cultural facts and monologues. “Really?” I ask. “He just made it up on the spot?”
“That’s what he said,” Anthonie replies.
“But now what about this debate that Australia reckons we invented it?” I ask.
“Rank milk,” Nadia says, and I go quiet.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2017 as "Barry glib".
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