On stage he cuts a diffident, diminutive figure. You'll see him in wine-bars and smoky dives, having ventured forth from his space-age bachelor pad in deepest Grafton, his trusty Telecaster strapped on, wing-dinging his way through one of his minimalist tear-jerker ballads, flirting with self-parody in his persona as the little guy left raw and bleeding in the aftermath of relationships gone sour.
What distinguishes his songs about love and loss, presented with such whole-hearted lamenting, is their underlying tone of self-deprecation ('Tracy': 'just send me a cake with a file in it') and their astringent wit ('I Fell : 'I fell right into those lovely hazel eyes'). They are neither sloppily self-indulgent ('She Makes Me Feel Better Than Townes Van Zandt'), nor excessively self-mocking ('Don't Shoot Down The Only One to Ever Love You'). Never soft-centred, though sometimes poignant, his love songs show us a gentle side. Yet, of course, he is always capable of making an ecstatic din, able to spin those glittering, gritty webs of guitar-fuzz as well as any self-styled curator of white noise you care to name.
A child of the cusp of the '60s, when lyrical poetry turned into kitsch and tackiness as a style option became entrenched in our way of life, he has ever been an avid fan of the cheesier kind of TV programme - the Clutch Cargo kid's cartoon, Joe 90, the pungent '70s soap opera, the '50s UFO movie. He has an acute ear for the way North American culture-specifically that of Middle America and the mid - West - has infiltrated New Zealand's inner-most self-portrait. His version of The Brady Bunch TV show theme - song speaks volumes about the New Zealand nuclear family.
His deadpan comic delivery, too, counterpoints his stripped-bare guitar playing. But what distinguishes him most from his contemporaries, Chris Knox, Bill Direen, Ross Mullins, Luke Hurley, fellow singer-songwriters with particular vision - is the way he tackles the 'Man Alone' theme (that traditional, monochrome, mono-dimensional, monotone summed up in the national colour - black - that continuum, pre-emptive qualifier of all things New Zealandish) and subjects it to his own interpretation. He has found something unique in the New Zealand vernacular. He can intuitively remake and re-tell local urban legends as song-cartoons. In 'Reid Flemming' he gives us a portrait of 'the world's toughest milkman'. In the rollicking ditty 'Ten-Four' he sketches a truckie who built a scale-model of a Kenworth rig out of matchsticks.
Then there's 'Julie' , the accident-prone taxi-driver. And the encapsulation of perceived American imperialist ambitions in 'Kill Them All'. 'Kinder Surprise' is a naggingly hummable tale about the novelty confectionery craze.
Sometimes a bray, sometimes a whine, sometimes a singular blend of vinegar and golden syrup tones, his voice can deliver a Leonard Cohen-style dirge ('The Only One', 'Ice Age', 'Death, Doom and Destruction') along with the best of them. The droll 'Telephone Sex' ("The things I heard her say nearly made me drop the receiver') tells a complete short story in a handful of verses ('She lost her job to cable video").
In his three-minute songs we get the cut-down extravaganza, the miniature costume drama. The marinaded corpse of Marilyn Monroe can suck out the heart from the President's breast and be barbecued black in The Temple of Doom. ("Hollywood Bloodbath") We hear Otis Mace, the nimble-fingered twangmeister, vamping it up with a flamboyant twirl or two. But the harmonic swirls and splatters are always carefully rationed out. He takes a leaf here and there from the songbooks of such '60s axemen as Dick Dale-surf music pioneer-and Duane Eddy-progenitor of those spacey, galvanised-wire pluckings we see in the TV advert for farm fencing wire-and conjures what he needs from that
'A kiss is just a kiss', but in Otis Mace's song, 'A Kiss On the Back of My Neck', it becomes a metonym-an icon-of betrayal. In the ultra-short, anti-political tirade 'Your Ideas Are Bad', his throat-spraining vocal acrobatics create a kazoo-like timbre: a raspberry blown in the general direction of hypocritical, power-mongering pollies everywhere.
Anxiety, dread (he's a fan of J.G. Ballard (Crash) who isn't?-and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow - inspiration for the doomy Screaming represent another leitmotif running through a sackful of songs. From nihilism ('Yeah Yeah, Yeah Yeah, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Yeah') to vampirism ('Land of the Living Liver') to grotesquerie found in a news item ('Monkeys': 'we put on a show, jabber and hoot') and beyond (sudden excursions into grunge-lite-on-a-stick and airport departure-lounge-muzak pop up unexpectedly), Otis Mace is the sawn-off spoof-merchant romping through his embellishments.
As Californian avant-garde composer Dean Santomieri points out in Incredibly Strange Music Volume II (Re/Search Publications, 1994): 'All the different musical styles that have ever existed are being recycled-nothing ever goes out of fashion'.
'Otis Mace' is the creation of Richard Lello, who was born in Toronto, Canada and who arrived in New Zealand in the mid-60s aged eight. His family settled in suburban Auckland in one of its stuffily respectable suburbs, similar to that described by Mike Chunn when he talks about his formative years in his Split Enz history, Stranger Than Fiction. These middle-class suburbs of the '60s were the breeding ground for a whole pantheon of Kiwi rock idols, from Hello Sailor to the Dudes
Richard took classical and folk guitar lessons at Intermediate school and college, and as a teenager began performing from the traditional repertoire in folk music clubs around Auckland, throwing in the occasional Neil Young cover. From high school he moved ineluctably to enroling to do an Arts degree at Auckland University. Here, he became involved in the late '70s creative musical ferment, signalled in the United Kingdom by the Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex and The Clash, and in New Zealand first taken up by The Suburban Reptiles and The Enemy. Soon, there was a host of other local bands forged in the crucible of punk rock. Like a molten lava flow, an outpouring of rebellious adolescent angst in the form of short, fast three-chord songs transformed Auckland's (and New Zealand's) popular music landscape.
By 1979, firmly ensconced in the punk rock matrix, Richard Lello had re-invented himself as Otis Mace, Guitar Ace. Leaving university, he had returned briefly to Canada to tour and perform on the student rock music circuit, and while there he had joined a children's theatre group, Tinker Theatre, where the Otis Mace stage persona was conceived.
Back in Auckland, he re-formed his group Rex Reason and The Rationalists which, with constantly changing personnel, began playing the large number of venues-some temporary, others more permanent (the Reverb Room, the Rumba Bar, the Liberty Stage)-which had sprung up in inner-city Auckland. He was also writing music for small ad-hoc radical theatre groups, including Richard Von Sturmer's Inside Information. Richard Von Sturmer, a key member of the band, The Plague, in turn supplied Otis with inspirational lyrics for such songs as the whiz-bang advertising send-up, 'Effort, Money and Time' and 'Twizel', an eerie guitar-twangle about the South Island ghost township.
In the early '80s, different combinations and permutations of musicians were constantly forming and reforming: Don McGlashan's Blam Blam Blam, and fellow North Shore New Wavers The Screaming Mee-Mees; The Newmatics, The Ainsworths, The Miltown Stowaways, The Tearaways, The Spelling Mistakes, Debbie and the Dum-Dums. Otis Mace began touring as a support act for many of these protean assemblies. In 1980 he burst into prominence on the national stage with a hyperbolic reading of Gene Pitney's smash hit, 'Mecca'.'His lurid West Side Story-style performance was one of the year's local musical highs. Arranged and produced by Don McGlashan and funded by Bryan Staff of Ripper Records, this song was released on vinyl as a chart-climbing single. It was followed by a cassette-only release, the resonantly commercially unsuccessful 'Wipe Your Bum With A Kitten', an anti-TV commercial jape that firmly relegated Otis Mace to cult status.
In 1982, at Harlequin Studios, he recorded an unreleased single, 'Thunderbirds Are Go'-Otis's ode to the TV puppet series about the international rescue service-with a B-movie theme song effort -Zombies of the Stratosphere - on the flipside. He and his backing musicians, Phil Lambert (drums) and John Schmidt (bass guitar) did some gigs 'round town as the Zombies of the Stratosphere. Meanwhile Otis continued to tour solo, supporting The Neighbours and The Swingers amongst others at venues such as the notorious Mainstreet in Auckland, the equally notorious Rock Theatre in Wellington the not-quite-as-notorious Gladstone Hotel in Christchurch and the not-very-notorious-at-all Captain Cook Hotel in Dunedin. He also dabbled in fringe theatre productions, contributing musical ideas.
At the end of 1983 he linked up with Gavin Buxton (formerly of The Neighbours) and David Eggleton to form The Membranes-a cabaret group which performed on the coffee bar circuit-but after a few months left for Melbourne to further his career. By the end of 1984 he was back in Auckland, intent on finding a musical line-up which could reproduce the big band rock sound he was seeking.
Otis Mace and The New Society Band, which performed sporadically in 1985 became, after a line-up change, Otis Mace and The Psychic Pet Healers ('We can use our ESP/ If your cat gets leprosy/ We are psychic pet healers'-from their theme song). Incorporating backing singers Fern Winslow and Sarah Franks, with an occasional brass section, this ambitious project, with its inherently high overheads, was unstable from the beginning. The old punk ethos of all for one and one for all, come hell or high water, was being replaced by more reflective considerations-financial solvency was always a problem (the big band balladeer on a shoestring budget). But also, because Otis Mace was the dominant songwriter/central figure, a revolving carousel of musicians continued to arrive and depart, citing musical differences: opportunities to improvise with what had become a traditional rock format were strictly limited. Bevan Sweeney, Yoh and Richard Foulkes, one after the other, occupied the drummer's stool, while bass player Dave Major left to be replaced by Peter Henneveld. The female vocalists also left to pursue other projects.
Nevertheless in 1985 Otis Mace and The Psychic Pet Healers released a four-track EP, Heavy Petting on Terence O'Neill-Joyce's Ode label, following this up with a 6-song EP release, Little Critters in 1986. The group kept their profile high with support slots for The Violent Femmes and The Screaming Blue Messiahs and two national tours.
While working for TVNZ as a gopher in order to pay the rent, Otis Mace continued as well his parallel career as a theatre composer, providing the music for Barbara Doherty's 1986 dance piece Rythmnopolis and contributing to the Auckland City Council 1987 multi-media spectacular, Down the Really Road, directed by Nansi Thompson. More recently he has composed the musical score for Vampire Tales, by Cornelius Stone (1992) and accompanied Fatal Jelly Space chanteuse Jacinda Clowens on her solo musical outings (1990-1993).
After the demise of The Psychic Pet Healers set-up at the end of the long and winding tour of 1987, Otis Mace, in his own words 'became a Westie', moving to Auckland's Western Suburbs to get a full-time job and consider his future. After a couple of years out West, he shifted to inner-city Auckland, where he remains based, touring as a solo performer ('have guitar, will travel') and occasionally playing in an Irish music covers band, Blarney Rubble, or as a Celtic music duo with violinist Helen Adams. A new development is improvisation - the audience suggests an idea for a song and Otis makes one up on the spot.
In 1992 he toured a series of songwriting workshops with Arthur Baysting, where the audience co-opted into producing songs using cut-up magazine headlines (e.g 'Meryl Streep Stole My Brain'). Performers of rock music come and go, but Otis plays on, a peripheral fringe figure-though he no longer inhabits the punk ghetto-a hardy perennial on the touring circuit, his trademark, edgy, semi-syncopated strum underlining his impassioned, slightly nasal, still-Canadian-accented delivery, his foot steadily tapping out a rhythmic accompaniment.
"Music in New Zealand Magazine" - Article by David Eggleton.