It’s been 25 years since our very own OMC released their first and last album How Bizarre, and while the record produced a string of singles, most notable is the eponymous smash hit. A nonsensical musical mixed bag, ‘How Bizarre’ took the world by storm. Its fusion of Polynesian pop, dance and hip hop, mixed with the eccentric cool of Pauly Fuemana, instantly became a hit and helped break NZ into a bustling international music market.
But no one, not even NZ music impresario Simon Grigg who helped bring the track to life, could have guessed it would still be just as monumental today. Finding new meaning in an entirely new generation, ‘How Bizarre’ has since become a TikTok trend and upped its streams hugely on all platforms, proving that a good pop song will always stay as just that.
In celebration of the album’s 25th anniversary, we sit down with Grigg who started the label Huh! that would debut OMC’s iconic hit. From his current residence over in Bangkok, Grigg tells us what the process of making ‘How Bizarre’ was really like, what it took to try and chart internationally back in 1995, and why he thinks the track will always hold a special place in Kiwis’ hearts.
25 years. Congratulations. Did you ever think the track would make such a resurgence all these years later?
It’s funny, when you sell a record around the world you kind of think well, that’s done. And because I had other labels, you sort of move onto the next record eventually. But ‘How Bizarre’ never went away. It kind of died off in the early 2000s for a little bit, but in the last decade it’s just gotten bigger and bigger and the airplay has gotten bigger around the world. The publishing royalties have gone up and up and all of a sudden gold radio stations are playing it as one of the big hits from the 90s. And of course, once it went up on Spotify and things it just went ballistic as well. I think we’ve had like 98 million plays (as of date) or something like that. It’s crazy.
How has it been watching a whole new generation devour the track and draw their own meanings from it?
You mean the TikTok thing? It’s kind of weird because I know a lot of people from my time with ‘How Bizarre’, back when I released the record, and they’ve known me a long time. And now they’re sending me messages and going “my son was just singing ‘How Bizarre’ and he goes ‘it’s a TikTok thing.’” TikTok isn’t my generation, I mean I never look at TikTok. I’m Facebook and that sort of stuff. But all of a sudden, it’s just started going ballistic. I suppose, as much as anything, it means that the song holds some kind of substance to it. We got tagged as a one-hit wonder in the US, although we weren’t in NZ, but this one-hit wonder has just become a hit again.
Nowadays, tracks reaching international success is nothing new thanks to the internet, but how exactly does reaching those global achievements work back in 1995?
It was almost impossible. But one of the things I’m really proud of is we were the first New Zealanders to have a hit in the US on a NZ record label, and the first to do it NZ based. I think Crowded House were the only other NZ band to have a top 10 US hit before ‘How Bizarre’, and they had to go to America because they were based in Australia. But we did it from Auckland. We did it in my office in Auckland and we took the record all around the world. The internet was very, very young in those days, so you couldn’t rely on such a thing. And to date, I think we’re still the only number 1 record in the US to be released on a NZ record label.
Was that your biggest obstacle to navigate? Being stuck in Auckland?
Yeah, it was, but I think Alan Jansson (producer, songwriter) and I had an international perspective. Alan always wanted to have a number 1 record and we realised if we went to number 1 in NZ, that’d be the end of it. So, we got on a plane and flew to Sydney and went to the label managers over there, and they said the track was gonna be a hit in Australia. And as soon as we had Australia, we knew we were in for a chance. NZ didn’t matter, NZ was nowhere in the world back in those days, but Australia was the land of the Bee Gees and Olivia Newton John and AC/DC. All of these artists that had been huge around the world. So, we were in a position then that if it could be a hit in Australia, it could go all around the world. And that’s what happened.
Tell me a little about the track’s origins. What was the process like working with OMC so early on?
Well, originally OMC was just Pauly and some of his friends, and they were working with Pauly’s brother Phil. Then they all kind of fell apart because Pauly didn’t want to make pure hip hop records but the others all did. So, Phil said Pauly could take the name the Otara Millionaires Club – there’s irony in that as New Zealanders know – and then he shortened it down to OMC. Alan Jansson had worked with OMC on his own album prior, so Pauly went and knocked on his door and said “I wanna make a record with you, bro.” Alan and I had been working together for years, so he rang me up and said, “I’ve got this guy, I think he’s got some potential.” And I kind of knew Pauly, because I owned a couple of clubs in Auckland and Pauly used to hang out there. He was always the best-looking guy in the club. He was always so sharply dressed and he was such a cool guy, so I thought that’s a pretty good package. So, I threw money at these guys to go make a record … and they made ‘How Bizarre’.
How much of the actual creation of the song did you have a hand in, or were you strictly behind-the-scenes?
I was, for want of a better phrase, the executive producer. [Pauly and Alan] went and wrote and recorded the track together, and it was very much the two of them just working together and doing the whole thing. Technically, Alan was part of OMC as well but he never wanted to be the public face so he pulled back. But Alan would ring me up and ask for approval on something, or my opinion. So, I’d go into the studio and listen in and go yes, no, yes, no and give my opinion. We also had a little routine where they’d go into the recording studio and I’d go in late at night and we’d just go for these big drives looking at car yards. Pauly would then look at all the cars he wanted to buy once he became rich, pointing out brands like Mercedes and saying, “I want that car, bro.” And that was a pattern we had for about a year, we did that all the time.
You have an incredible background in the NZ punk scene. What compelled you to take a chance on a funky Polynesian pop hit?
In the mid-80s I went to the UK for a couple of years and got involved with the whole dance scene over there, so I had sort of evolved out of the punk scene and into the more underground dance scene. I came back to NZ around mid-90s and opened up a couple of clubs. I was still making records but at the clubs we played dance music, and I got really enthused by soul and hip hop and funk. Also, what was coming out of South Auckland was really exciting in terms of the whole Polynesian sound. So, it wasn’t really a big jump for me when ‘How Bizarre’ turned up.
Do you think that dance shift has had a big influence on NZ music?
Yeah, I think so. You know how Pauly sings ‘How Bizarre’, that nasally talking rap he does? You can kind of hear some of that in older NZ music as well. It’s almost a kind of semi psychedelic sound. But then if you listen to stuff after Pauly … I mean, in ‘Royals’ I can hear ‘How Bizarre’. It’s the way [Lorde] delivers it, it’s a real New Zealander kind of thing. I think it’s this sort of urban pacific sound, and a mixture of all the different races and cultures we have in NZ. I do think the track has been fairly influential, even though you can’t necessarily say it started here, went there, there and there. I heard ‘Royals’ on the radio in Bangkok and it just sounded like a NZ record. And that’s such a great thing. Once upon a time our records didn’t sound like NZ, they sounded like us trying to sound international. But you hear these records now and they sound like us. And I think Pauly played a big part in that; he made it acceptable to make NZ records and sing them with a NZ accent.
Do you think that’s why the track is so internationally loved, because it has such a NZ sound?
Yeah, because it sounds so completely different, you know? You put on commercial radio now and every song sounds like a version of the same sort of song. Sure, they’re catchy but they have the same structures and things. But you take a song like ‘How Bizarre’ and you throw it in the middle of all that, and all of a sudden people’s ears perk up. It was the same reason why ‘Royals’ worked, because it was just so different. ‘How Bizarre’ went around the world like that. Everywhere else you had that pop and hip hop stuff that was happening, and then right in the middle of it was this nasally guy doing this song that breaks all the rules. And it’s really catchy, by the second or third time you’ve heard it you absolutely love it. That’s how it stood out. Radio shows would play it and it wouldn’t work for the first couple of times, but by the third play the phones would start ringing, which is what happened in America. And then it just takes off.
Do you have a favourite memory from when ‘How Bizarre’ was in its prime?
I don’t know, there’s lots and lots of memories. Going to number 1 in the US was great, Top of the Pops in the UK was phenomenal, but the thing that thrilled me the most was going to number 1 in NZ. The day it did, the heads at the label took us all out to a restaurant and went to Pauly “you can have whatever you like, order it up.” So, he ordered a bottle of Merlot and a lobster, because he had never had either before. It was important, you know? Our own country was the most important place to go number 1. Everywhere else was great, but it was just another country.
Was there a sense of pressure in case NZ didn’t like it but the rest of the world did?
We kind of already knew [it would be a hit here], because Australia had promised us a top 5, but NZ weren’t really sure if they were going to release it at first. Then the head of Australia’s label rang up our head back here and went “what are you doing?! I’ve just heard this record and it’s a f**king number one!” And all of a sudden NZ was completely behind the song. So, we kind of knew it’d be a hit in Australia before NZ, but it still mattered more being a hit in NZ.
I think a lot of Kiwis can associate ‘How Bizarre’ with a childhood memory. It’s a really important piece of our culture and pop history.
I think New Zealanders have a sense of ownership of the song. I can remember someone telling me they were in a gas station in Texas and they heard that song come through, and they just felt really good because that was their song. And I think that was the first NZ song to really do that. No matter where they are in the world, New Zealanders are able to hear it and go that’s our song! That’s a really important thing and it’s something I’m really proud of.
Do you think there’ll ever be something like ‘How Bizarre’ again?
Well, a lot of NZ records have done quite well internationally in the last decade or so, obviously Lorde. A lot of New Zealanders are selling records internationally, that’s a thing now. They all tour and that sort of stuff. And there is a chance that a record will break out and be massive, but we were the first! *Laughs*
You’ll always have that!
Yeah, we’ll always be the first. And I’ll always be so proud of that.