From The Chills to the classroom

DR OLI WILSON - Senior Lecturer, School of Music and Creative Media Production

The worlds of pop music and academia combine harmoniously in the work of Dr Oli Wilson.

The Chills have been one of New Zealand’s iconic pop bands for more than three decades. What may not be so well known is that one of its members, keyboard player Dr Oli Wilson, is also a successful academic. The interplay of Dr Wilson’s performance and research interests means his creativity as a musician and academic inform each other in unique and interesting ways.

Dr Wilson is a senior lecturer in Massey’s new School of Music and Creative Media Production. He undertakes research in a range of fields, including recording and production, ethnomusicology and popular music studies. Dr Wilson joined Massey in 2015 as the Programme Leader of the College of Creative Arts’ new Wellington-based commercial music degree, which took its first intake of students in 2016.

“It is a really exciting, innovative degree,” Dr Wilson says. “It’s like nothing else anywhere in New Zealand.”

Remote musicians who would never have had the opportunity to record are now becoming able to, and this has significantly increased the number of participants in popular-music production.


Impact of cheaper technology

One of Dr Wilson’s research streams involves studying popular music and technology. For the past decade, he has been working on a case study in Papua New Guinea that explores the way technology is changing music and music-making culture there.

“The whole industry has transformed in 10 years,” Dr Wilson says. “Papua New Guinea is a pertinent case study, because it is generally considered peripheral to the global music industry. I work in remote areas, where technology becoming cheaper has significantly increased access to digital pop-music-making technology. Remote musicians who would never have had the opportunity to record are now becoming able to, and this has significantly increased the number of participants in popular-music production.”

Papua New Guinea is also particularly interesting as a case study because the spread of technology is happening at a different rate than in the West, producing different creative outcomes.

“It’s really the cutting edge of what is going on in the world with digital technology and the impact it is having on the planet’s cultures. We are not just seeing a globalisation of technology, but also a globalisation of practices around that technology; even the way technology is used is centred around local belief systems. And they are really distinctive and different.”

Music in Papua New Guinea is based on hip hop and R&B styles, but the meanings of these styles in their local cultural context are very different than in Western contexts. A music style takes on new signification when it moves from one culture to another, even though it may sound similar.

Dr Wilson’s research in the Pacific is underpinned by his work as a keyboard player in The Chills. The band has an established history, but is still very much an active player in the global music scene, with its particular, nostalgic Dunedin sound. The band’s current line-up has recently returned from a major tour around the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom, and regularly plays around New Zealand and Australia.

“I use music practice as a research methodology,” Dr Wilson says. “I take an academic approach to my performance, but I also critique and analyse those experiences and develop them into scholarly publications to explore the ways the music industry operates, and the way music technologies are impacting music culture, both in New Zealand and overseas.”

His philosophy is thus based on the fundamental impossibility of separating research from performance. This, he says, comes from his academic training in ethnography and the fieldwork that is so critical to this method.

Doing is making music

“Doing is an important part of learning. I apply that literally through the use of embedded participatory ethnography, where doing is not just watching and listening, but making music. My subject position as a practitioner is really important.”

This philosophy also produces returns in the other direction, with Dr Wilson’s research informing creative decisions around his music writing and performance. “Understanding the deeper socio-cultural context of the music, and the place that the music has in society, informs creative decisions. This is especially true for The Chills, where the music carries heritage. Also, being highly critical and reflective of the context in which I’m producing music absolutely dictates what I play, how I play and how I frame it. On stage it informs it, and off stage I develop those ideas in a more intellectual framework which I can then publish.”

Project details

Funders Creative outputs funded by NZ On Air
Dates Ongoing