Solo Ono. Photo credit: Ben Howe
As Solo Ono, made up of Frank Eggleton on guitar/vocals, Jordan Stewart on drums and Birgit Bachler on bass, are gearing up to play their first set for Flying Nun’s ‘What Was That Thing?’ series, they each down a radioactive-looking pre-packaged shot. It consists of equal parts fluorescent green lime juice and bright yellow tequila. I am offered one, but having forgotten to eat dinner, I decide drinking what looks like alcoholic dish soap is probably against my best interests. I respectfully decline. Later I found out this only became a tradition for Solo Ono after Birgit found a free sample in the public bathrooms on Courtney Place. “And then I was waiting for Frank, and then I say, hey, Jordan, look, there's more alcohol for free. I thought it was funny,” says Birgit. “And then we started talking about it and then I kind of forced Jordan into drinking it. And it’s like, what’s the worst that can happen? But then we felt pretty bad, because we thought, what are we going to tell his wife, you know? We made Jordan drink this shot we found in a toilet?” Jordan not only survived, but liked the drink enough to make it a staple of Solo Ono’s live shows. “It actually wasn't that bad” says Jordan. I assumed alcohol must also be the culprit when I asked the band about their first live show, and they couldn’t recall a single detail. Shockingly, overconsumption of alcohol was not to blame, but the fact that Solo Ono’s first performance took place ten years ago.
Solo Ono started when Jordan was asked if he could fill an empty slot in a gig the following week. Despite not having a band, Jordan said he’d try. He approached Frank, who was a total stranger, and asked if he wanted to form a band. “We didn’t even know each other” said Frank. “It would have been a weird conversation.” Nonetheless, he agreed, so Frank and Jordan set out to write some songs. Given the time restriction, they went for simplicity, modelling their sound off the indie rock of Juliana Hatfield. They combined a pop song structure with a dash of punky, anti-establishment rhetoric, and within a week they had eight songs. “And I don’t even remember the gig” says Frank. “It wasn’t even with, like, cool bands that we wanted to play with or anything.” Nonetheless, Frank and Jordan must have had fun because they continued jamming. They put out their inaugural Space Monster EP three months later and are semi-confident it includes some of the songs performed during that fateful first set.
Roughly a year later, in July of 2012, Solo Ono released their debut album; the self-titled Solo Ono. This album presents a more fully formed musical vision, showcasing the band at their most abrasive and politically potent. They had acquired a bassist, Rohan Hill, but even for a three-piece the album has a remarkably big sound. The opening track, entitled How TV Ruined Your Life, runs with the anti-establishment themes explored in Space Monster EP. In the album, the band also begin to explore some of their more complex political beliefs. The song Milton Friedman criticises an economist of the same name whose widely-accepted economic policies favour corporate giants above all else and are thought to have been forcibly implemented in the aftermath of national crises. Frank aligns himself with author Naomi Klein, who in her 2007 book titled The Shock Doctrine describes the process by which Friedman’s pro-corporate policies came to be accepted as ‘shock therapy.' Friedman's economics are also criticised for contributing to increased inequality, and often left poor, vulnerable minority groups disaffected. Or as put bluntly in Solo Ono’s lyrics: ‘Milton Friedman is fucking up the world’.
While Solo Ono’s music is often inspired by political themes, it is not always so, and political messages are often left deliberately inconspicuous. “I don't wanna be preachy. But I do like that sort of 70s style punk of like y'know, just being straight up” says Frank. “I'm not really into going to gigs and seeing people going: this song is about . . . and then spiel on about it for two minutes. So I kind of take a subject and make a song not too much about it. I don't want it to be like a magnifying glass. I don't think you have to go: this is a political song. It's like, there is a message in there if people wanna listen. Without it having to be like, down your throat [...] I just like, kind of when I'm writing, I like stuff that makes you a bit annoyed. Angry. And that sort of stuff does. But I don’t walk around thinking about it all the time.” That said, many years have passed since the making of their politically-tinged Solo Ono, and perhaps time has softened their anti-establishment bite. Upon being reminded of the track How TV Ruined Your Life, Frank remarked “I actually really like television now.”
It would be six years until Solo Ono would next release music. Looking back, even the band wonder what it was that kept them going. When their bassist quit, Jordan and Frank found it hard to motivate each other to keep practising. Frank explains, “It's so easy to go nah. I’ll say, do you feel like practicing? And Jordan's like; do you feel like practising? [...] So I think we've actually kind of quit Solo Ono a few times” he says. “We're only probably still going cause we got a gig playing with The Chills one time. We hadn’t played for about two years, and then we were gonna get a show with them. And I was like, well, it’s in three days. That turned into two days. Then we had one practice. But that was probably still one of our better sets at that time” he says. While there were long periods during which Solo Ono might only play once a year, each time they were reminded of one thing: playing was fun. The Chills’ gig was a particularly significant reminder of that fact. “We played that gig and it was great. We were like, oh yeah, this is actually quite fun. I think we'd forgotten it was fun” says Frank.
Upon finding out about the concept of rogue planets, which is when a planet gets ejected from its orbit around a star and floats through space alone forever, Frank was finally inspired to write and release new music. “I just get taken away by like random new science ideas, once every few years” Frank explains. “It’s like where did they go? It’s a whole planet! And how do you just get bumped out? How does that happen?” In March of 2018, Solo Ono paid homage to the idea with their first release in six years: Rogue Planet EP. Many of the themes explored in Solo Ono’s earlier work are still present, but the years since their last release entailed growth and change. Their music was still political, but any such message was hidden behind Frank’s increasingly abstract lyricism. The hostility towards powerful people fucking up the world hadn’t subsided, but Solo Ono now discussed it with a sense of humour. While the single I’ll Have a Double still laments about the general misery of existence - politics, war and being hungover - Frank’s lyrics finally provide an answer: ‘have a double’. “It's funny as well, cause it just keeps happening” says Frank. “I guess when you're young you think, I wonder if this is something that's only happening in my time. And then ten years later you’re like, ugh no, it's still happening.”
But how does Birgit fit into the picture? Who is this Germanic woman laying down Solo Ono’s furious basslines? Well, between the release of Rogue Planet and I’ll Have a Double, New Zealand went into lockdown for the first time. Birgit took this as an opportunity to pick up a bass guitar she’d bought but hadn’t played much. “I was also writing a PhD. And I just needed something else to counterbalance my mental health” says Birgit. “And then I started playing bass to songs like Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls [...] And I probably asked Frank, can you teach me some of your songs? Because I was kind of, you know, getting sick of playing the Spice Girls.” Frank, who also plays bass, taught Birgit some of Solo Ono’s old stuff and she picked it up quickly. Frank suggested she practise with him and Jordan and before they knew it, the band were chummy enough that forcing Jordan to drink strange alcohol found in public bathrooms was considered normal. Or at least forgivable.
Despite the fact Solo Ono have been together for ten years, through thick and thin, all good things must come to an end. One might see Frank and Birgit’s imminent move to Austria as a potential end to the story of Solo Ono. The band aren’t so sure. Not breaking up seems to be an art Solo Ono have perfected. “It's just like, why would we do that?” says Brigit. “We might get Jordan to come over next year hopefully. And if not, we'll probably come back for a couple of weeks, play a show or two” says Frank. “I don't think we'll ever break up, cause it seems like that will be a lot of hassle” says Jordan. After our interview, the band again offered me one of their mysterious shots, and I took a moment to reconsider. 'Why not?' I thought. 'What’s the worst that could happen?' Upon finishing the pre-packaged shot, to my surprise, I found myself agreeing with Jordan. Actually, not that bad.
Solomon Powell writes for a new music blog, The Noise Report, which focuses on local Wellington musicians, gigs and other music related subjects. Check out more of his writing at noisereport.co.nz