Fiction blurs with reality in a new web series starring Owen Black as Pariah, a North Canterbury farmer turned heavy metal musician grappling with depression.
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Emboldened by his new moustache, North Canterbury farmer, Pariah, starts his journey to become a musician and make a music video. Despite being unable to sing. Or make music.
Pariah takes the first steps toward making his musical dreams come true when he shares his lyrics with Cameron, a cruise ship covers musician looking for a new opportunity.
Pariah goes to see his mischievous, cream-loving “Uncle Mick”, who agrees to help him find his voice and learn to sing.
Impatient to get some feedback, Pariah gets a lead from Cameron about an opportunity with a “player” on the music scene in Christchurch. Could this be the break he’s been searching for…?
Determined to do whatever it takes, Pariah accepts Mick’s help to start training his mind, body and voice on the farm.
Mick and Pariah hit the road for their first recording session with Cameron and producer, Hamish (Mick’s nephew). Can he sing? How’s his pitch? Is there a future? Or does the dream stop here?
With Cameron missing in action, Pariah turns his focus to his lyrics and reveals his ultimate goal keeps writing lyrics and reveals his ultimate goal to Hamish, his new friend, at the Hanmer Springs Hot Pool
Undeterred, Pariah heads to now ground – Otahuhu, Auckland - to meet with Troy, a real musician who doesn’t suffer fools. Will he find the inspiration he needs or be handed a sobering dose of reality?
He made the song. He made the video. But what’s the verdict? To find out if it’s a future worth pursuing, Pariah visits an ailing Mick and shows him the finished product. Will it be thumbs up, or thumbs down, for his big dreams…?
“Waahaarrrrgggh!” Again. “Whaaaaaarrrrggggh!” OK, once more. “Waahaaahhaarggghh!”
Take a breath. And again.
“Fight back! Fight baaaaack!”
A man with long, dark hair and a moustache, shirtless but wearing a black leather jacket, has jumped on to the bonnet of an old, stranded Bedford truck on a farm in north Canterbury. He squats on it, then stands up and hollers. He screams into the void. The noise bounces and echoes around the valley and no-one is listening but us and 1000 puzzled sheep.
The man on the truck calls himself Pariah. We’re photographing him, someone else is filming us photographing him, and a third person is taking photos of all of us. Everyone is pointing cameras at someone; it’s like a Mexican standoff in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
We met Pariah and his creator an hour or two earlier. We had driven north from Christchurch, got lost in Kaiapoi, but found ourselves where we should be, in a small library in the pleasant north Canterbury town of Amberley. Until now, its most famous son had been war hero Charles Upham . There is a statue of him on the main drag.
Tom Scott’s biography of Upham speculates that he suffered from depression and stress after the war, but New Zealand men, in those days, didn’t talk about it much. If they did, it was with a handful of other men who shared the same experiences, not wives, children, neighbours, acquaintances and the wider public.
But things have changed, or so we like to tell ourselves. And Pariah is one of the results.
In the exaggerated quiet of the library, local seniors are engaged in a group discussion and a handful of people are on computers. Pariah comes over to talk as his collaborator Pablo Araus swings around and starts filming him.
Suddenly on camera, I ask: Who or what is Pariah?
“I’m a musician now,” he mumbles. “A local fella. I’ve never done music before. Gotta get into the vibe of calling myself a musician.”
He apologises for sounding nervous. This might be his first interview, at least as Pariah.
So, who or what is he, really? Pariah is a creation of actor Owen Black , who some will remember as the the villain Ethan Pierce on Shortland Street. Black grew up in the South Island, did a long stint in Auckland, and came back south again to make a western called Netherwood. That’s where he met his wife, Aleisha, and they now live on her parents’ farm, with a couple of young kids.
Black and film-maker Araus have known each other since both were students in Auckland more than 20 years ago. In this business, you sometimes have to make your own work. Pariah emerged from improvisation sessions and brainstorming; Araus mentions earlier rural characters, Rootman and Pigman.
Pariah is not just a character, though. There’s more going on. He’s an alter ego, a physical embodiment of struggles with mental illness, that rural inarticulacy, that dark male silence.
As Pariah, Black walks differently and talks differently. He slouches, he stomps. He grimaces; he has an angry resting face. He makes less eye contact. Pariah is an outlet for depression, but sometimes it can be hard to know who is speaking and when Araus trails him, he needs to be alert as Black might switch mid-sentence into this other thing, the feral Pariah.
Araus and Black can get a five-minute episode of their web series, also called Pariah, from a couple of days of filming. There was one in which Pariah dragged rocks from the bottom of the valley up to the house, as a kind of Sisyphus metaphor.
There is only one serious philosophical question, and that is suicide, Albert Camus famously wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus. He asked how we can live with the absurdity of existence.
“I’ve been hiding away, I guess, somewhat,” Pariah says. “I felt like I had got to this point in my life where I hadn’t offered anything to the world.”
Pariah is confronted in middle age with the fear that he has never done anything of value. So if he learns to write songs, and releases those songs to the world, and follows that with live shows and a tour, then perhaps he has offered something to people. It’s that simple. The first series of Pariah culminates in the making of a music video. The song, Here Comes the Pain, is powered by a mighty, cathartic riff.
Call it heavy metal healing. The pummelling guitars, the great sense of release.
“It’s very heavy. I’m a real metal fan. I love a lot of music but the lyrics that come out are very personal. Those lyrics came from a place of darkness. I have a lot of angst. There’s nothing like heavy rock music to express that.”
And it’s his pain? “It’s my pain. It was a time when I was going through a particularly dark moment that I was really struggling with, and I knew there was more coming, and that phrase came to me. Here comes the pain. You’re going to have to deal with it, like preparing myself mentally. It’s not going to get any better. It was like a meditation to prepare myself for something I was going to have to go through.”
Could the song even become an anthem for depressed men, as though Pariah is hard rock’s answer to Kiwi mental health spokesmen John Kirwan and Mike King?
“I think it’s catchy enough to be an anthem and it’s coming from a real place. It’s anger but it’s about love. It’s coming from a place of empowering. My experience shouldn’t be wasted. I’ve gone through this thing and it’s hard and life is really, really hard and it’s not something we talk about a lot. You see things in the paper, but they’re always someone else’s problems. On social media, everyone’s living a good life, but it’s really hard and I think everyone knows that, but it’s not something we go around saying. ‘Life’s frickin’ hard, guys!’ The more we can stick together, we can help each other. I think that’s what I found in the music. It’s a positive energy, it’s a powerful energy, to be able to change your life and change what you’re doing.
We leave Amberley and head west, towards the hills, and we reach the farm. The Pariah office is a sleepout with walls painted black, a computer with several screens and posters for Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart and Nick Nolte in Extreme Prejudice. Two variations on wounded masculinity.
Pariah has a Zoom meeting with Robert Dunne, the country director for the Movember campaign. It’s only September but Dunne is moustached all year round.
We hear about men struggling in rural areas. It’s easy to be isolated on farms. Men used to meet at rugby clubs and pubs, but that happens less, thanks to drink-driving laws.
“The moustache is a great conversation starter,” Dunne says.
In return, Pariah pitches a Movember song, with musical collaborator Cameron Douglas on acoustic guitar.
“It’s a song called Keep Moving. Or it could be Keep Mo-ving,” Pariah quips.
However you say it, it’s about how physical activity can lift you out of a slump. “Time don’t go to any systematic tempo / Life passes fast when you’re always stuck in slo-mo,” Pariah chants as Douglas strums. Two lambs outside bleat in time.
“Pariah has great lyrics that speak to you pretty quickly,” Douglas says.
Another figure lurks around the edges of today’s filming. Christchurch-based director and producer Slavko Martinov is here, with an amused, alert look on his face. How does he fit in? After Araus and Black had filmed for a while, they took what they had to Martinov, who made Pecking Orders, a popular documentary about poultry clubs, and Propaganda, which has been called a fake North Korean propaganda film. The pitch meeting went badly until Martinov saw the footage.
Their sell to the wider public is that Pariah is “Spinal Tap meets Country Calendar by way of Flight of the Conchords , if it was directed by the ghost of John Clarke”.
Martinov brought in another producer, Alex Reed, who specialises in documentary. She comments, in the Pariah production guide, that “the mockumentary style perfectly skewers how we’re living our lives individually, and collectively, through a documentary lens. Pariah has put a twist on what appears to be mockumentary by also being documentary: the story is actually true.”
All this is probably confusing until we get to see it. It might even be confusing for some of those involved.
As Pariah talks about moustaches with Dunne, an image of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust flashes up on a computer screen. It’s a reminder that rock music has always depended on alter egos, the invention of new selves to go out and do the hard work of shocking the public. Black was stirred up by seeing Marilyn Manson do his Antichrist Superstar act in Auckland in 1997. There was someone fully, deeply in character.
But it becomes dangerous, that kind of game-playing. “I really did have doubts about my sanity,” Bowie said four years after he had killed off Ziggy for good.
Pariah has a journey to go on before Black can do that. The first nine-part web series, which culminated in the Here Comes the Pain music video, is being followed by another. The dream is to play live in Japan, as a tribute to Black’s Japanese stepmother. Or maybe that was Pariah’s Japanese stepmother. Or both.
Black has built a studio and a gym above a barn packed with farm equipment. Maybe we can read too much into poster choices, but here is one for the reality-blurring Inception, and he just got one of the inspirational Marilyn Manson. There is a box of hard rock CDs and his dad’s vintage stereo, the 70s type with monolithic speakers. A big chunk of macrocarpa makes a mic stand.
He has written lyrics for about 40 songs, and music has been added to about half a dozen. When I ask about songwriting, he replies in the Pariah voice.
“I’m not a musician, so I don’t have those talents of melody and chord structure and all that. I’ll get a rhythm in my mind and get a flow on that. I’ve always done wordplay in my mind. Switching words in a sentence like it’s some OCD kind of thing. I love words. Always been a good speller and stuff. Always had a fascination with words.”
Did he write poetry as a kid?
“I tried a couple of times but it seemed so stupid. Everyone writes poetry, but how do you know if it’s good? It’s probably not. Better not show anybody.”
Low self-esteem is a recurring theme.
“Oh yeah. That’s definitely been an issue for me, in my character and my environment growing up. I never realised how badly I thought of myself, how many issues in my life came out of that, until a friend of mine showed me a book on cognitive behavioural therapy. I read that and things just started resonating. Man, that’s me, I’m doing all these things. Someone will say something and your first thought is a really negative association with yourself in connection with it.
“You do come through the other side but you’ve got to keep on top of it. I’m in a much better place now than I was before, and music’s been a huge part of that. Just writing these lyrics and getting this stuff out. That actually means something. As Pariah, I could do it, I could access it. Before the mo, before this whole character stuff…”
There is before the mo and after the mo. We need to go back to the moustache. He grew it a couple of years ago.
“My dad died not long before that. He was a really powerful influence on my life. I would never have grown a mo because Dad would have thought it was stupid or maybe not, but I was always judging myself through Dad’s eyes. It’s funny saying all this came out of a mo because it’s much deeper than that. Once he died, and we were very close, I loved him dearly, he wasn’t this domineering, bullying character, but he was a strong character with strong opinions.
“But once he died, I tried the mo and it was a cool look. It became part of my character, part of this new me that emerged. It was actually me. I’d never known me when Dad was alive. Suddenly I was writing music and stuff. It was this whole turnaround from what I was doing before. It’s taken me by surprise, the way it’s gone. I’ve just got into it.”
Fight back. Fight back!
Now, do you want to see how loud this big stereo goes?
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