Mike Chunn, Play It Strange CEO and co-founder and former bass player for Split Enz, recently released his memoir, A Sharp Left Turn. The book looks back on Mike’s career in the music industry, which he spent performing with one of the country’s most iconic bands, running record labels and working with teenage songwriters. But A Sharp Left Turn also documents Mike’s struggle with agoraphobia, a disorder that ultimately cut short his time as a professional musician.
Peaks and troughs
For Chunn, reliving the peaks and troughs of a career that's spanned several decades was an emotional exercise. The peaks include his time in Split Enz, which he co-founded in 1972 along with Tim Finn and Phil Judd. Their 1977 show in San Francisco in particular stands out (“We got this standing ovation halfway through the set. Glorious.”) and playing in Citizen Band with his brother Geoffrey.
But the troughs were more difficult to revisit. They included the onset of anxiety and panic attacks which would eventually force him out of both bands.
The panic attacks started when he was on tour with Split Enz. At first he had no idea what caused them and pushed on, medicating with tranquilizers. It wasn’t until 1981 that he finally received a diagnosis of phobic disorder agoraphobia. Chunn explains agoraphobia as an extreme fear of not being able to return to where you feel safe, hence the instability of touring being a trigger.
“That ‘safe haven’ varies from person to person. For some people it’s their bedroom. They can’t bring themselves to leave it. Or their home. Or their street.” He believes the disorder is genetic, having three relatives with similar conditions.
A Sharp Left Turn.
Notes on a life in music
After Mike stepped away from performing in bands, he turned his hand to management and eventually working for record labels. He became the General Manager of Mushroom Records NZ, and signed up DD Smash and Dance Exponents. He then moved onto the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), where he was Director of NZ Operations and is credited for setting up New Zealand Music Month. In 2003 he left to found Play it Strange, a charitable trust, supporting young New Zealanders in their songwriting ambitions.
“To witness a child conquering their adversities through the craft of songwriting is a celebration.”
“To witness a child conquering their adversities through the craft of songwriting is a celebration,” Mike says of the program. “To hear a class of disadvantaged children playing in a ukulele orchestra is no less so. There is empowerment.”
The trust regularly holds concerts, workshops and competitions for aspiring songwriters, which Mike says “brings into our world some amazing songs.”
While the trust has been Mike’s focus for the last 15 years, he still finds time to play music every so often — whether that means playing at his son’s wedding (“it was a gas”), or jumping on the bass at Play It Strange concerts. “I need to play bass on a stage around two or three times a year,” he says. Mike will also be stepping on stage to discuss his memoir at this year's Womad festival.
“I need to play bass on a stage around two or three times a year.”
With all he’s been through and the success he’s had, I ask Mike what advice he’d give to young artists struggling with their mental health.
“Reach out and talk about what’s happening in detail. Don’t hide it and spend your life acting out a role of normalcy. These days, a young creative will be listened to and help is available. Talk about it. It’s an imperative.”