If you’re looking for a gig this weekend, queer band CODES are playing a unique gig at Auckland’s Wine Cellar, exploring queer songs from the last century that slipped under the radar of mainstream culture. YOUR Ex Caught up with singer-songwriter Tim Stewart to discuss!
Where did you grow up and what was growing up there like for you?
I grew up in Herne Bay in Auckland in the 70’s and 80’s as a little kid then moved to Sydney in ’83. Back to Auckland again as a teenager in Grey Lynn. Auckland was very boring as a kid in the 80’s you had to make all your own fun. Nothing was ever open and you couldn’t get anywhere very easily with our awful transport system. So my friends and I fanatasised about being blues musicians and hung out by railway tracks and down in the viaduct which was then very grimy and industrial. Formed a band (Supergroove). Worked really hard and got the hell out of there.
Tell us what your coming out experience looked like.
I was two people in my teenage years. My outward persona was straight my inner one a deviant leather boy. I didn’t let it worry me too much but fed the beast inside with surreptitiously acquired pornography I would sneak off on my bike to Krd and buy. It’s amazing how long I maintained this self-deception. I toured the world in a rock band and got laid once. What a waste. When I was 22 or thereabouts I moved into a flat next door to a gay sauna. I wouldn’t even put on shoes. I was in and out of there all through the night hours. I just let all the self-deception go. I was lucky with my family and friends. When it was done I wondered why I had worried so much. All these years later I often reflect on the fact that you don’t just come out the one time. Maybe your tastes are not mainstream? Or they have changed. It almost happens on a daily basis when you look in the mirror.
When did you form CODES and what inspired the band’s creation?
I realised that I had never knowingly been in a band with any other queer folks. It was not a criteria that was ever discussed. It was just music. In some quarters it was even perceived to be in poor taste to even mention it. Like the world is so enlightened now no one cares and it doesn’t matter anymore. It turns out that it matters enormously to me. I see the world through the lens of a gay man so as an artist of course it matters. I also realised I had spent way too many hours in vans with boys talking about their straight sexual escapades and I had just had to sit there quietly and endure it. I was pretty sure they didn’t want to hear about what I’d done in New Action in Berlin. So I reached out to Sean Martin-Bus and had to ask him if he was queer. He enjoyed making me squirm. Luckily my hunch was correct. Then he suggested we reach out to Loxmynn McDonald Ness and Karen Hu. They all surprised the hell out of me by being so into the idea of being in a band with a very queer-forward identity. It was a relief to find I wasn’t the only one who felt so strongly about these things.
Tell us a bit about your musical background before you created CODES.
I’ve been a professional musician since I was 14 when we formed Supergroove. I am still the trumpet player and backing vocalist. We were pretty big in the early nineties and toured all over the world. I had always helped with the writing in that band and eventually started writing my own songs in my my early twenties. I formed a three piece rock band called Svelte with Ben Sciascia the guitarist from Supergroove in the early noughties. We released a single called Grind ya bones that did Ok. More recently I was the lead vocalist and song writer for my band Hopetoun Brown. A duo of Vocals, brass, bass clarinet and body percussion. We released three albums and toured New Zealand extensively. Along the way I’ve been a session musician and played trumpet with lots of folks. Six60, Marlon Williams, Tami Nielsen and Dave Dobbyn amongst others.
Your first live performance as a band took place in a men’s toilet – I believe in Ponsonby’s Three Lamps – in what was essentially a tribute to cottaging. Tell us about that performance and what inspired it. Please include any funny stories about completing and filming that performance!
I wanted to make a clear statement of intent and straight from the get-go. Make it clear we were celebrating our sexuality in a completely unashamed fashion. Codes is about exploring the gay undercurrents and methods of communication that are knitted into everyday life without most people noticing. Cottaging is something with a long history in New Zealand and a lot of people are aware that it happens but perhaps pretend that it isn’t going on, or that it has been made redundant in the modern world’s loving embrace and acceptance of queerness. I can assure you this is not the case. I was cruised twice in 10 minutes whilst scouting the location where we filmed it! I was also fascinated by the idea that this space can be at once repugnant and utilitarian to one person and at the same time a place full of powerful sexual resonance and fond recollection for another. Whilst filming it a poor gent was politely holding on outside trying not to interrupt a take and then rushed in after we finished to relieve himself whilst apologising profusely. I thought that was very sweet and polite. It was alo fun that this was the men’s toilets in Three Lamps in Ponsonby where I had grown up. I had used it in complete innocence as a kid whilst out shopping with my mum.
Your next gig will be a full concert at K Road’s Wine Cellar, In Plain Sight, in which you will be performing a collection of queer songs that still enjoyed mainstream success despite being released as early as the 1920s. Tell us about what inspired this and what songs our readers can expect to hear at your gig.
I suppose it was really just a continuation of the thought process that inspired the naming and forming of the band. The exploration of all this queer messaging going on around us in plain sight, hence the name. I was delighted when I began researching the tunes that there were all these great blues from the 20s sung by queer women because blues was one of the first sounds that really connected with me as a kid. Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters blew my mind when I was about 9. When I was older and hanging out in rough and ready leather bars full of big hairy blokes looking like bikers and peanut shells all over the floor I was always so disappointed with the accompanying soundtrack of Savage Garden or J-Lo. I wanted to hear ZZ Top or Howling Wolf something really butch. So I’m finally getting to play some proper blues with that mean 50’s Chicago sound but with awesome queer lyrics from this distant freewheeling era. We’ll be doing “My Daddy Rocks Me” by Frankie ‘Half Pint’ Jaxon. He has an orgasm for the whole first verse. Another song we’re exploring is “Worried about him blues”. It was written by a gay man and sung by a gay woman originally. An interesting combination that yields a seemingly straight song. There are plenty of other numbers we’ll be messing around with too. We’re all multi-instrumentalists so we’re doing all sorts of things.
What’s next for CODES after your In Plain Sight gig?
We have a single called “Shiny Outfit” recorded and ready to roll with later in the year. We’ll get a video sorted out for that and then we’ll play as many shows as we can! We’d also like to keep expanding and reworking “In Plain Sight” and perform it as part of Auckland Pride. Lots more songs out there to have fun with. It’d also be fun to get some guest performers to join us.