David Thorpe – a.k.a. Li’l Chuck, The One Man Skiffle Machine – is a true believer in the power of music and the way it can connect communities. For a Mancunian who moved to Christchurch in 2003, David’s love for the region, and the resilience of its people, is why he’s made it home. ‘I’m Canterbury-based and have lots of different music projects I can do within the region, rather than do one thing and have to go outside the region,’ he says. ‘I like being within this one area. I don’t like going away, which is ridiculous for a bloke who’s moved from the other side of the world. That’s the strange irony. I’ve found my place.’
With more than 25 years’ experience specialising in Roots, Blues, Early Jazz, Western Swing, Ragtime and Americana, he has now developed a sound that is uniquely his own. He was first introduced to the one-man band craft at 18, watching iconic busker Rob Gray of The Little Big Band perform on the UK streets in the late 1980s. From that moment, he says, everything fell into place and the experience has influenced everything he’s done musically since.
Arriving in Christchurch seeking ‘travel and adventure’, he answered an advert in a local music shop for a band needing a guitarist/singer. His involvement in The Black Velvet Band, a legendary Irish group that’s ‘synonymous’ with Christchurch, went on to last for the next 11 years. He also managed ‘The Vanguard’, the official house band of the Crusaders rugby team.
‘I really enjoyed the lifestyle in Christchurch,’ he says. ‘It was laid-back, cruisy, everything was right there; from the Port Hills, to Mt Hutt, and further up the North Canterbury beaches. I lived within the city and all my gigs were in the city, so everything was on my doorstep.’
But by 2011, having just turned 40 and welcomed his first child into the world, the Christchurch earthquakes struck, demolishing his home. Thankfully everyone was okay, but like thousands of others, there were tough times.
‘You had to be very adaptable and resilient,’ he recalls. ‘There was no choice. We actually moved to Rangiora for a while to take stock with young children. In the months following the quake, the shows carried on, often in the form of house parties. Everything was a bit upside down; we had bookings we needed to maintain, so you muddle through.’ By 2013, David started exploring more solo work.
‘That’s when I did the first Li’l Chuck album. It was one of those life-changing moments; turning 40, having children and earthquakes…it was time to do some of the things I needed to do. That was where that really kicked off.’
He set about writing, and the resulting album was Blues in Full Swing (2015), followed by 2017’s Utility Blues, which hit Number 6 on the official New Zealand albums chart. ‘After the quakes, we had to adapt and find a new way of working, but that’s also quite cool to be forced to rejig the way you operate. It can be a positive thing.
‘Soon, more initiatives started to happen. There were council events, lots of pop-up things, openings…People like to be taken away to another little world, that’s where entertainment comes into it. Good vibes and having a bit of a knees-up is always good. It was also good for songwriting. There’s a song on my first album called ‘My House is Falling Down’, which was pretty straight-down-the-line documentation. Canterbury musicians were doing a lot of stuff at that time, so there’s quite an archive out there actually of quake-related material.’
In the lead-up to David’s latest 2019 release, he supported American legend Jimmy Buffett, Bluesman Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton, The Topp Twins, and has played at events such as the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, New Zealand Cup and Show Week, and The New Zealand World Buskers Festival.
Storytelling is at the very core of his latest album, MONO, but it’s also about music being pulled back to its bare essentials. After stumbling on a video about Sugar Ray’s Vintage Recording Studio in Essex, UK, David knew their unique recording techniques matched the tone he was after. He booked a session, and travelled nearly 12,000 miles to record with engineer Dean Amos. ‘Working at Sugar Ray’s was a meeting of minds, and, being a nostalgic fella, recording through their vintage gear was a buzz. I was working with the gear my idols would have used. I like the raw, simplistic, organic, honest, uncomplicated, naked approach. I like warts ’n’ all, bumps and scrapes. Capturing the energy of a performance, not overthinking it.’
Released on 29 March of last year (2019) via his own label, Backyard Music, the album is a nostalgic melting pot of influences – driven by harmonica, resonator guitar, vocals, kick drum and hi-hat, all played simultaneously, and has drawn attention from home and abroad. ‘There’s this movement of people who like raw and natural, and people are realising my thing is about as raw and natural as you can do,’ he says. ‘It is what it is. It’s not sugar-coated and polished like a lot of what we’re hearing nowadays.’
Over the past eight years, David has witnessed first-hand how music can bring people together. It was a notion that launched his most recent passion project, a regular Christchurch pub sing-along to create community spirit. On the last Thursday of every month, people from all walks of life pack into the Pegasus Arms for a jolly good sing-song. ‘I wanted to get the community together again, to get people to sing in a nostalgic way. Like getting together guests around the piano, or someone having a guitar at a party. There’s no cellphones, it’s not advertised on Facebook, everybody just lives in the moment. It’s about being part of it.
‘It was important to get people together connecting in the offline world. It’s what we’ve always done. Connecting is important, that’s human nature. The sing-alongs have really hit a chord.’
One thing he would like to make sure is included in Christchurch’s rebuild plans, is smaller spaces and venues to grow a local roots scene.
‘It’s good having the big venues so the big international acts can come through, but it’s also fundamentally important to have an organic, evolving local scene. That’s how every scene around the world has been created. That’s a really important thing in a town. There’s pockets of it for sure, but I’d like to think there’ll always be a situation where kids get together, play music and creativity bubbles up out of it.’
Creating new places to foster community spirit and keep music alive in the city is something David’s passionate about, and he’s loving watching the rebuild take shape. ‘The rebuild is exciting. I’m seeing this now as not my city per se, but my children’s city. They’re the ones who are going to have the memories of the city growing up; they’re growing up side by side. There’s so much happening in this city. I’m really proud to be part of it.’
Words Megan Gnad