I used to perform at some of the same venues as Otis – one being (I think) the Performance Café in Symonds Street, where you could see terrible poets but also Lindsay Marks and Don McGlashan in the wonderful Eric Glandy Memorial Big Band. Otis was a revelation – the shy guy I’d met as Richard Lello a few times at a mutual friend’s was transformed once on-stage. I say stage, it was just a small area clear of drunks and stoners. But he was electric. Still is. And I still love his song “Pumpkins Are Actually Rocks”.
The intro read:
That’s not the strangest song you’ll hear from Otis Mace, Guitar Ace. Some of them are much weirder. Mark Amery talks to a man who writes about vampires, a job he had burning books for a library, and building a Kenworth truck out of matches.PUMPKINS ARE ACTUALLY ROCKS
New Zealand has its own troubadours, singer-songwriters who seem to have been around forever and turn up out of the blue almost anywhere. They are cult heroes, never chart-toppers, just honest storytellers with their own skewball take on life, who have gathered friends in every pocket of the country.
Otis Mace is one such small-time hero. His seriously warped view of the ordinary things in life has been on offer in any number of bars, cafes, pubs and clubs since punk rock gave him a guitar in the late 70s. A cultural fringe dweller, Mace has collaborated with the likes of poets David Eggleton and Richard Von Sturmer, combining music with storytelling, theatre and art.
A chap with a touch of Elvis Costello to his features (“I’ve had to learn some Costello covers,” he says, “because in pubs people see short guy, glasses, and go, yes”) he totes a guitar and songbook with titles like “Telephone Sex” and “Pumpkins Are Actually Rocks”. This year sees the release of Mace’s first full-length album, a compilation of new material and old favourites titled, with a heavy dose of irony, Quick (Jayrem JAY 344).
Otis Mace the Guitar Ace is above all things a writer, able to hang a few chords onto a story about any conceivable subject. .”It’s good to get away from love songs,” he says. “It’s good to pick some really abstract quality and then include some of that in a song. I really like the idea of having meaningful words in songs, that’s where the attraction lies.
“As well as a songwriter I’m a bit of a poet in that I try and make the lyrics stand up on their own. In some recent shows I’ve been setting a little cheesy keyboard going in the background and just reading through some of my songs. It’s just a different approach to delivery.”
Mace has more recently been enjoying incorporating improvisation into his writing. In 1992 he joined Arthur Baysting. for a songwriting tour of universities, demonstrating a “do-it-yourself” technique where, over an hour, the audience helped write a song. ..
“It’s good to take a break from playing things you know to playing things you don’t. It gets the audience involved. You ask them for an idea for a song, a title. It’s a good improvisational technique. You spit out the first thing that comes into your head and use the title in the chorus and make a few improvised chords on the guitar.”
He has kept one improvised song in his songbook — about sheep necrophilia. “It just turned out so funny, so bizarre and bad taste that I had to keep it in my repertoire. Musically it’s not up to much, but it always gets a good response.
“Well, when I say always, not with too straight a crowd, it being a delicate New Zealand topic.”
Mace gives us short stories in cartoon form — a date in Auckland involving a concert by Townes Van Zandt and an unmarked policecar (“She Makes Me Feel Better Than Townes Van Zandt”), a man who builds a Kenworth rig out of matchsticks (“Ten-Four”) or his response to Pynchon’ s Gravity’s Rainbow (“Screaming”).
One of the weirdest things he has written about is a library. “One time, years ago, I had a job in the School Services Library that was mindnumbingly boring, Part of my job was destroying books that were deemed un-PC. It just seemed so weird, destroying class sets of books to be mulched up and then the money given to charities, rather than maintaining the books so anyone could use them. So I wrote a song about that called ‘Bibliotech’. That’s a punk jazz type of thing with a biting surrealist protest lyric to it.”
Mace has a story behind every story, the sources as weird as the finished product. His subjects are often culled from the kitsch cultural junk left over from the first TV generation. Gothic horror is one of his more unusual themes. “That was an avenue of songwriting I followed for a while, really enjoying some of the aspects of Z-grade horror movies which I guess are the popularised versions of scary legends from our past histories. The Night Of The Living Liver’, for example, is a gothic semi-comical semi-horrific romp through a very dark sinister area.”
One of the most distinctive things about his writing is the dark kooky sense of humour which is performed with an odd deadpan delivery. “I think the possibilities in song are so under-utilised in mass entertainment that I like to think of myself as a humorist writer, or at least that m bringing a different angle to the idea of the popular song. The public appreciates it — they are fond of the tongue-in-cheek, the offbeat, the skew-whiff, the strange and peculiar.
“These days music is being intensely categorised, divided up into rigidly divided categories for the purposes of marketing. So I like to cross boundaries and get away from that. To produce something that may on first listen sound like a perfectly normal country and western track but, when you listen to it more carefully, there’s a lot of irony. It’s not satirising or taking the piss out of it, it’s just adding a new dimension.”
If Otis Mace is ever to score on the hit parade it will probably be with Quick’s anthem, “Effort, Money And Time”. Written in collaboration at the beginning of his musical career with Richard Von Sturmer, it’s a catchy, infectious, repetitive pop song (“It saves you effort, money and time/effort, money and time/ It’s so easy/makes you happy...”).
“There’s the whole tradition of songwriting that goes right back. Writing a catchy melody, having a good chord structure, simple ideas in the verses, a chorus and a melodic difference as a bridge. That’s the tradition and there are rules there which can be deliberately flaunted.”
Like any good writer, Otis Mace knows the rules and then breaks them. And like many good writers he doesn’t necessarily make a lot of money out of doing it.
As he says hesitantly, not normally one given to making grand statements, “I think you have to follow your path and remain loyal to your own muse. Something like that. I guess.”