Not until well into the 20th Century did Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) begin to refer to New Zealand as ‘home’. Even then, the very notion remained radically unstable, plagued (or perhaps enhanced) by the feeling that this ‘home’ was in some way foreign to them and they to it, by the feeling that they did not belong to the land in quite the same way as Māori. In The Settler’s Plot (2011), Professor Alex Calder of Auckland University finally gave those feelings a name – the paradoxical ‘Pakeha Turangawaewae’. Crucial about this phrase is that it, as Calder explained, ‘is an oxymoron’:
Turangawaewae, understood in the Maori sense of belonging, of having a place to stand, is not the same as the affectation for place felt by Pakeha. In addition, Pakeha are not only relative newcomers and strangers but also beneficiaries of the historical marginalisation of Maori. But, just as one can use an oxymoron like ‘deafening silence’ to describe a particular atmosphere, so too with Pakeha turangawaewae: it is the sort of belonging you don’t have when you don’t have turangawaewae. We Pakeha are at home here, we identify as New Zealanders, this is our place, we belong – and yet, without denying any of those things, there is anther degree of belonging that we do not have that is available to Maori (or perhaps to the Maori side of you).
For The Settler’s Plot, this un/belonging constitutes a significant – perhaps the defining – strain in Pākehā-written New Zealand literature. What I would add is that it is most obviously manifest in the institution which we call ‘The Overseas Experience’ – the Pākehā rite-of-passage, the Kiwi Rumspringa on which you earn the right to call New Zealand ‘home’ by spending time away from it, the journey there on which you prove that you belong here.
How on earth does that work? In her 2011 track ‘Overseas’, Princess Chelsea provided what remains our most eloquent explanation of the paradox:
Life in New Zealand is pleasant enough
When we turn twenty two it’s not violent enough
When we go overseas to a much bigger place
We’re still doing the same things, but not with much space
Though much of ‘Overseas’ is laugh-out-loud funny (even its title is hilarious, a mocking nod to the fact that, within our national psyche, New Zealand and not-New-Zealand are equal territories), it’s diagnosis is acute: when we exchange our lives in New Zealand for those on foreign shores, we invariably discover that the two are largely identical. The two-fold goal of the Overseas Experience, then, is to discover: on the one hand, the familiarity, the homeliness, of not-New-Zealand; on the other, the strangeness, the foreignness, of our own homeland. ‘Life in New Zealand’, in other words, is not just ‘pleasant enough’ but textbook unheimlich. And while Pākehā New Zealand routinely depicts itself as a pastoral paradise, it is closer, in this respect, to a gothic ruin: a site haunted by (among other things) the spectre of elsewhere. Pākehā invariably manage to fit in here (New Zealand is founded, as Calder stresses, on ‘the historical marginalisation of Maori’ – that is, on the centralising and privileging of Pākehā), but they are, by definition, out of place. It is for this reason that a trip to foreign parts can bring us closer to home: for Pākehā ‘home’ and ‘away’ are mutually constitutive categories.
Earth Tongue are a two-piece heavy psych outfit from Wellington, comprised of Gussie Larkin on guitar, Ezra Simons on drums, and both on vocals. For the past year or so, they’ve been based in Berlin, and they’ve just signed up with German touring agents Sound of Liberation – which is to say, after the present tour of their home country, they are likely to be based in Berlin for a while longer.
New Zealand has a well-documented tendency to treat its international exports according to the paradoxical logic of the O.E.: success ‘overseas’ is taken as proof that you properly belong to New Zealand; and (in some more sinister iterations of the equation) you can’t be claimed as national treasures here until they’ve found success there. It’s tempting to suggest that Earth Tongue are about to experience this treatment first-hand – for right now it feels like they are on the brink of massive international success. And yet, for Earth Tongue, this process is likely to be complicated (or perhaps facilitated) by the fact that their own treatment of these categories – there and here, New Zealand and not-New-Zealand – is bizarrely fluid.
In attempting to describe Earth Tongue’s weirdo brand of sci-fi-inflected psychedelia, the word to which critics seem to resort most often is ‘disorienting’. In this, they are usually referring to the fact that a typical Earth Tongue track will adhere to some dizzyingly complex combination of time signatures. ‘Microscopic God’, for example, moves seamlessly through 7/4 and 5/4 rhythms, often within the duration of a single riff; at any given moment, it’s extremely difficult to tell where in the bar the beat is falling. But there is also a sense in which Earth Tongue are chronologically disorienting: the fuzzed-up guitar makes its hard to tell where in history you are listening from – whether its 2019, 1969, or 2069. And there’s something inherently Kiwi about this disturbance. Go into any small-town hot-pools, pub, or bakery and you’ll experience the same sense of temporal displacement: it looks today as it did fifty years ago, and as it almost certainly will in fifty years’ time.
But that displacement is also being sensed the world over. In 2006, the late critic, academic, and blogger Mark Fisher (aka K-Punk) coined the phrase ‘nostalgia for lost futures’ in order to describe ‘the closest thing we have to a movement, a zeitgeist’. And, indeed, Earth Tongue would have been fertile ground for Fisher were he alive to hear them. Much of their output seems to embody that paradoxical yearning for what never arrived. When asked about the inspiration behind their lyrics, for example, Ezra told Te Arohi:
There’s one book called “The Biological Power of UFOs” that I just found in an op shop, and it’s got so many really far out ideas. It’s from the early ‘70s; some trippo was just writing down all these crazy ideas about biological UFOs that can only be seen through infrared cameras and stuff like that, so yeah, we got a song from that book.
“The Biological Power of UFOs” depicts a future which now feels quaintly passé. Its mood is echoed in the video for ‘Probing the New Reality’. Gussie and Ezra play a pair of humanoid aliens – the kind you might find in an ultra-low budget sci-fi cliffhanger on some daytime TV channel in the late ’60s – who attempt ‘to blend in’ with an eccentric selection of Berlin landmarks: the Templehof, the Mouse Bunker, the abandoned Ferris wheel in Spreepark, the TV tower, the Hochbunker, the Unité d’Habitation, and the Klinkum am Urban – to name a few. What do these structures have in common? Each embodies a version of Modernity which failed to materialise, looking forward into a future which – for better or worse – has expired. Each is a violation of the distinctions between what was, is, and will be; and each, therefore has a distant cousin in the never-changing hot-pools, pubs, and bakeries of small-town New Zealand.
But what’s truly brilliant about Earth Tongue is that their work is not just chronologically but spatially disorienting. It articulates a paradoxical relationship not just with time but with place as well. The video for ‘Microscopic God’ is filmed in a typical New Zealand forest (not native bush per se, but a combination of ferns and pines, beside a rocky shore which in turn is bordered with toitoi grass) and much of the video documents the natural phenomenon that you might expect to see there – the motions of the sun, the breaking of waves, the formation of cirrocumulus stratiformis clouds. But the overexposed (and, moreover, brutally grainy) film, the sudden zoom-ins, and the severe camera angles, lend the clip the feeling of a scientific instructional video, the kind once shown in schools for the dual purpose of explaining and inspiring. The nature documented here is certainly not that of the famous Fourmyula song [one of New Zealand’s unofficial nation anthems], not the nature which might simply ‘enter me’ and with which Pākehā might hope to achieve some mythic oneness; it is a nature which, on the one hand: invites us to know and study it; on the other, fills us with awe and foreboding. The same nature has been perfectly captured in Callum Rooney’s illustrations for the Floating Being album. The sleeve depicts what looks like a naturalist’s sketch, rendered in gorgeous stippling (orange on a yellow background) of a landscape which is: on the one hand, luscious and fertile; on the other, totally alien and most likely poisonous. It is a nature which violates the distinction between welcoming and hostile, homely and foreign: Earth Tongue’s ‘Earth’, in other words, like Pākehā New Zealand, is a distinctly unheimlich place.
This, I maintain, is the true genius of Probing the New Reality. For the aliens’ Berlin is also, in its own way, a version of that same unheimlich place. The aliens clearly don’t belong there: they struggle to ride bicycles, take childish pastimes too seriously, and generally look like idiots. And yet, they emphatically fit in among the old Modernisms – for they too are the leftovers of an expired future, the time-travellers who were expected in the late 60s but who failed to materialise. And for this reason, the video (inadvertently) yields an allegory of the weirdness of Pākehā experience, an image of a people simultaneously at home and out of place, aliens in their own country and locals of terra incognita. Earth Tongue have not merely issued another expression of Fisher’s ‘nostalgia for lost futures’, they have articulated the fact that the sensation which Calder dubbed ‘Pakeha Turangawaewae’ is that nostalgia’s geographical equivalent – a home sickness for foreign parts.
Oscar Mardell works as a schoolteacher in New Zealand, where Herman Melville might have ended up had he, like his friend and fellow deserter Richard Tobias Greene, boarded the Nimrod out of Nuku Heva in 1842. A plaque (in truth, a sheet of xerox paper pinned to a corkboard) in the Butler Point Whaling Museum, Mangonui, commemorates this alternative history. Image: From cover of Floating Being, Earth Tongue, 2019.
Medha Singh is music editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @medhawrites from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.