We’re heading to the other side of the globe (well, depending where you start from I suppose) on our latest adventure exploring local scenes around the world. New Zealand’s Jake Harding introduces us to the vibrant and varied kiwi scene.
New Zealand music is, as you would expect, as diverse as the flora or fauna of this beautiful country but there is also something distinctive and unifying, an underlying identity that makes the music clearly and identifiably from New Zealand. You can hear it in all forms of music. Whether it’s the experimental art electronica of Christoph El Truente, the offbeat ’60’s surf pop of the Drab Doo Riffs or the South Auckland styles of Tiki Taane or Scribe, there is a sense of a clear identity, a sense of something different. But what is it?
What we know about New Zealand is this: it’s a long way from anywhere else. A seriously long way. This distance creates an identity and beauty all its own. Distance and the size of the communities involved in making music means that you get music that by necessity transcends the boundaries and offhand need to put bands in a style box or ‘genre-lisation’(I think I just invented a word!) that you get in bigger countries. A DIY spirit driven by the lack of access to venues, recording opportunities and other things that might be taken for granted elsewhere leads to a self-sufficiency, aligned to an environment where people are more able to happily absorb a wide variety of influences and wear them more proudly, and you have the makings of something special.
Making music here is different to making music in London, where I plied my trade previously, or a large European or American city. The reality is that the number of shows going on at any time in Auckland is equivalent to the number of shows going on in North London at a similar time, or maybe even just Camden. So what does that mean? Well, it means that people know each other and are very often in each other’s bands, sharing the load and making a scene that works. And you get eclectic bills where evil punk kids and electronic weirdoes share bills with floppy fringed indie kids and industrial noiseniks.
In London you can quite easily only ever play to your own tribe in a music career. In NZ you don’t get that luxury, if that’s what it is. When people know each other and the scene is small, things tend to be less competitive and more supportive. People are always pretty happy to help and something of that warmness that you encounter in people here, plus the down to earth ‘she’ll be right’ attitude pervades the music. You really don’t get too many snobs down this way.
It also means that if you are really good, then you can stand out. I vividly remember when I first moved here thinking, shit, you can rise to the top here pretty quick. It’s just that ‘the top’ is a very relative thing! But let me be really clear on something. Don’t ever expect to make any money here. If you want to do that, then you need to move to Australia at least but more likely to Europe or the States.
You’ll know a few bands that have chosen to do that. The Veils, The Datsuns, The D4, The Naked and Famous, Die! Die! Die!, and many other musicians have chosen to take their music to the wider world. However, there are some great bands here too, some of which may never leave these shores.
Of course, the best known Kiwi at the moment is a young lady from the North Shore of Auckland doing rather well and that’s Lorde but as Karl Stevens of the Drab Doo Riffs said when we were discussing the perils of trying to make a career out of music from New Zealand: “You’re Lorde or you’re everyone else.”
So, let me tell you about a few of the bands doing their thing over here. I’m just going to look at the alternative, indie and rock n roll scenes and most of what I’ll talk about is Auckland based. There’s a whole lot more going on than that but it’ll give you an idea.
Back to the evil punk kids as I mentioned earlier, two great bands ripping up the Auckland scene at the moment are The Cavemen and X-Ray Fiends.
The Cavemen when I saw them at their first show were missing their bass player and yet I still thought they were the best young band I’d seen in 20 years. Wild, abandoned and both well versed in historical reference and beautifully naïve at the same time. Their take on The Cramps, the Gun Club and a host of trash bands, plus the quality of their singles like Gas Huffing Girl, gives rich promise for the future.
X-Ray Fiends are a trio of stoned surf punk acolytes lazily blasting the crap out of Auckland and other places they can be bothered to travel to. Like The Cavemen, you’ll be able to name most of their influences but they transcend them easily to create a signature sound heavy on the fuzz, a swaggering twangy guitar and evil space keyboards. What’s not to like?
You’ve also got the (slightly) older generation represented by Drab Doo Riffs, led by Doctor of music Karl Stevens, whose sci-fi surf punk is a great example of how NZ music can be so related and yet so different to what you would find elsewhere.
The Doo Riffs lead a procession of DIY rock n roll bands including the excellent Raw Nerves with their Bo-Diddley-meets-Black-Lips snotty punk, and Las Tetas, an all-girl three piece who manage to somehow combine the attitude of The Slits with the moodiness of early Joy Division and Grrlfriendz; three teenage girls who deliver a punch well in excess of their experience and raise the much-missed Riot Grrrl aesthetic with ease. An offshoot band by the guitar player Annabel, called Miss June, show more of a Throwing Muses feel on their debut single ‘Clyde the Turtle’.
Although most aren’t on the iconic label there is a group of bands that seem the natural genetic line to the Flying Nun bands of the ’80s. They own the darker, quirky, off-beat and sometime disturbing pop space and include bands like Street Chant, Pop Strangers and Ghost Wave.
Another band in this space is the gloriously named Girls Pissing on Girls Pissing, who have historically taken the art pop formula to the most extreme of the current crop although their new single, A Fraud Abroad, sees them move into a more accessible space.
For such a sunny place, New Zealand has always produced some excellent dark Avant-pop and continues to mine a deep vein of this style. Another band that works on the edge of this group is the neo-gothic pop funk of Yolanda. Their latest single, Bats, shows a developing songwriting maturity and the hint of greater things to come.
Another bunch of urchins, who are amongst my favourites, are Rackets. They have no respect for themselves or anyone else, they are the most punk band that look nothing like punks and you can never, ever be sure what you’re going to get at their shows. Well, actually there might be a couple of things. You’re likely to get some degree of nudity and you will definitely get songs that are deeply embedded in a true but quirky pop sensibility. And their credentials are topped off by being endorsed by Chris Knox, god-like genius of New Zealand literary punks Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs. Check out their video together
It’s worth name checking a couple of bands from around the country in this. For those of more metallic sludgefest leaning you have the awesomely bearded Beastwars from Wellington, complete with Call of Cthulhu artwork and riffs heavier than the All Blacks front row. Beastwars continue to dominate the metal scene without the need for all that unnecessary long hair.
And from Christchurch The Transistors, a punky 3-piece equipped with four chords, energy to burn and the desire to play as many small sweaty venues as possible. The cover for their new album, Is This Anything, is a great example of the NZ lack of pretention. Three blokes stand in front of a shed in a forest with one wearing a bad jumper. Class.
And a final mention goes to two bands, born from one, both of whom have already moved beyond these shores but whose sound remains resolutely rooted in New Zealand. Opposum and Unknown Mortal Orchestra are the brain children of Kody Neilson and Ruban Nielson respectively. Brothers and former band mates in The Mint Chicks, one of the most inventive and interesting bands to come from these shores. Both men have fashioned beautifully psychedelic albums with their new bands and remain ones to watch.
This is a just a small taste of what New Zealand has to offer and there is so much more, I’ve really just scratched the surface. In a country of such outstanding beauty with great weather and so many beaches you might expect a few more Jack Johnsons. Thankfully, there are very, very few. Instead you have musicians with open minds and a clear sense of identity. I hope you take the time to dig a bit deeper.
All words by our man in Auckland, Jake Harding. Check out his band Thee Rum Coves here.
Images by Amanda Ratcliffe at Amanda Shoots Bands.