“I’m right here,” announces head SBS RocKwiz-zer Brian Nankervis as he answers the phone, to which I reply with Keith Richards’ oft-quoted line: “It’s great to be here, it’s great to be anywhere”. (It’s incorrectly attributed though – it is actually a line from 50’s British Music Hall performer Max Miller.) “It’s great to be anywhere,” Nankervis concurs.
Although when we speak it’s several months until the RocKwiz Some Kind Of Genius national live tour, Nankervis is already very busy at RocKwiz HQ. “We are getting fired up for the big touring show. We are also in the process of making series ten of RocKwiz. We’re halfway through – we’ve made six and we have another six to go. It’s wonderful; we were just watching a couple this morning, having the final frosting put on them, there’s some really great shows. It’s like a dream come true sometimes, particularly for me as a music fan. Or you could even call me a music tragic.”
To be able to reach the magical double digits for a TV series (the RocKwiz team has remained together since 2004, and according to Andrew Denton makes Australia’s most beloved music show) is indeed a milestone. “I know, it’s incredible,” says Nankervis. “It’s been a really wonderful ride. SBS have always been very encouraging and very supportive, and also very happy to let us make the shows that we want to make. I’ve never ever experienced such freedom in a TV show… If we were making the show at one of the commercials, there’d be a lot more blokes in suits telling you what to do. But right from the start SBS have trusted us and given us a lot of freedom, which is wonderful.”
I previously spoke with Nankervis ahead of the Rockwiz Christmas Tour last year; it was September, and he’d just come from a meeting on Philip Island, where a controversial plan for re-zoning farmland had been successfully overturned thanks, in part, to his actions. I wanted to know the latest on his ‘civil unrest’. “It was a win for people power if you like – a bit of a cliché, but I think it actually worked. We were rather lucky; one of the families down there has a connection with Miley Cyrus and she got on the Tweet and suddenly people all around the world were up in arms about this planning decision. Yeah – it was incredible, and it worked.” So a future RocKwiz guest could well be one of the Cyruses? “Miley,” he answers quickly. “I gotta say, she did a version of a Dylan song [You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go] on that Dylan album that came out for Amnesty International [Chimes Of Freedom], and it’s really good,” he enthused. “It’s incredible.”
The Some Kind Of Genius tour is playing selected regional cities and state capitals across Australia, including sacred musical sites like Melbourne’s Festival Hall and Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion. Julia Zemiro, Brian Nankervis, RocKwiz Orkestra and the human scoreboard, the housewife’s choice, Dugald will all be there, with high profile stars and up and coming artists rubbing shoulders with contestants (or should that be music trivia tragics?) selected from the audience. It follows on from the huge 35 date tour in 2010 and the six date Christmas tour last year – and the whole team is pumped. “We are pretty excited about Festival Hall, it’s such an iconic venue,” says Nankervis. “The very first international act I ever saw was at Festival Hall… I saw The Kinks in about ‘71/’72 [June 3 1971 to be precise, with Chain and Ted Mulry Gang as supports]; Lola had just come out and it had been banned. And now all these years later I have a daughter called ‘Lola’… I’ve never seen a show at the Hordern, that’s the other iconic venue so I’m looking forward to playing there in Sydney.”
The name of the tour had me intrigued, mind. “We realise that a big part of the RocKwiz experience are the contestants, and every now and again Julia [Zemiro the host from coast to coast] will delight the crowd by telling someone that he or she is some kind of genius,” Nankervis explains. “We are taking the Bull Sisters on the road this year, and there will be the usual multiple guests… The shows, they’re bigger, they’re louder and they’re looser, because there are no TV cameras. Essentially they follow the structure of the TV show, but with Contestant Karaoke which we don’t do in the Gershwin Room.”
I’ve managed to appear on two touring shows, the 2011 Clipsal V8 Supercar Thursday night concert in Adelaide, and the 2011 Christmas Tour. If you are lucky enough to score a ticket to the regular tapings at the Espy in Melbourne, though, you’re surrounded by about 400 people, potentially all intent on making it to the stage. Still, your chances are good – two episodes are filmed per night. “There are 12 tables and every table has to elect one rock brain, and then I get 12 from the standing room,” Nankervis paints the picture. “I sort of move around and we run a little quiz out the back to get the 24.”
The chosen few are again whittled down in rounds of six to the final four – and let no RocKwiz-zer be under the delusion that this is your typical local pub trivia night, as the wildcards make clear: ‘The wildcard should be used by an audience member with excellent music trivia knowledge, the willingness to participate in the contestant selection process and, if successful, the desire and confidence to be part of the show. If you don’t think you’ve got what it takes, please pass this card to somebody around you who does’. Thus you have been warned: be nice to the people around you!
The elimination rounds take place on stage, in front of what is, perhaps, a jealous audience, under the substantial lighting rig and the gaze of the RocKwiz Orkestra. And then there is you surrounded by the heat, the nerves, the intensity and the perspiration! To come out on top as a contestant (in a process taking close to an hour without a drink, mind) is a win in itself – but we do receive a bit of a pep talk from Brian first: we (the contestants), Brian, Julia, The Orkestra and, of course, Dugald are all in the cast, and we need to work together. One must also be entertaining, so if the answer disappears the moment you have buzzed and Julia focuses on you with those piercing hostess eyes, make your answer something funny or be prepared to incur a cutting remark. (And for the cynics who think that the contestants know who the guests are, well guess what, we don’t – such is the secrecy.) Finally don’t be too much of a know-all, as the crowd doesn’t like smart arses and can turn quickly. Talk about a red rag to a bull for those of us competitively minded!
So when the curtain goes up, the Orkestra plays the RocKwiz theme, and you walk on stage, you all of a sudden go ‘Shit!’. This is as real as the enormity of the room, the nerves, adrenaline, humour, pathos, sitting with performers of the calibre of Vika Bull, Dave Gleeson, Josh Pyke and Rebecca Barnard, who all kick in as it’s game on. And then in what seems a blink of an eye it’s over – and you wish that you could do it all over again.
BY MARK LIEBELT
The ROCKWIZ Some Kind Of Genius tour reaches Festival Hall on Friday October 12 and Saturday October 13.