Over the past two years a movement of Dunedin bands have played sold out gigs in all the major centres, riding a wave of hype unseen since the glory days of Flying Nun. Don Rowe kicks off his shoes and gets into the thick of it.
On a peerless afternoon in late January, 250 people danced in the backyard of an opulent manor in Auckland’s Freeman’s Bay. A four-piece band played from the deck – synths, keys, bass, drums – with a horn section on the balcony above. Apples hung on wire from the trees and in the pool a whirlpool was forming. Framed by a hedgerow the Sky Tower almost winked at the city. Coined the second annual Winn Road Festival, the scene dripped joy. Change was in the air. Or was it weed?
Like a bucket of spilled tie-dye, a musical movement has been seeping north, covering the country in a funky, surf-rock, grom-pop, psychedelic groove. Gromz, The Shamblés, the Soaked Oats, Marlin’s Dreaming, the Jack Berry Band – over the past two years a travelling circus of former scarfies have sold out shows from Queenstown to Queen Street, filling out venues in Auckland and Wellington in a way not seen since the era of the Dunedin Sound. And this time it’s coming straight from the source.
“My early experience in Dunedin was in dark, grungy, strobe-lit flats listening to drum’n’bass where everyone was hugely uncomfortable, probably trying drugs for their first time, just intensely freaked out – as any animal would be in that situation,” says Max Gunn, lead singer and keyboardist for The Shamblés. “I mean, chuck a cat on a huge quantity of MDMA into a strobed room with dubstep, they’d get fucked up too. That was my introduction to the music scene in Dunedin.”
Gunn, a talented multi instrumentalist from a family of musicians, moved into the Curry Hut, a hilltop student flat overlooking North Dunedin. They began hosting parties, changing the script with funk and house music, groovy tunes and live performances. On the tail end of the boozy metamorphosis that is university life in Dunedin, a certain energy pervaded the air.
“There was a vibe that this was a chance to be ridiculous, to be outrageous,” says Gunn. “It was such a fun, free, loving kind of environment that you could get away with basically anything without getting looked at too weird.”
Like sand in a drunken oyster, projects like Gromz emerged; psychedelic indie rock with surfy sensibilities. In late 2016, the last year of university, they released their album Two and a Half Days, recorded quite literally in two-and-a-half days at the iconic Chicks Hotel in Port Chalmers. With partially improvised lyrics and grooves, the album, self-categorised as ‘romantic surf rock’, was massive overnight, racking up more than two million streams as it hit 8th on the Spotify global viral chart, 5th on the New Zealand viral chart and 10th in the US viral chart within a week.
“It helps with the vibrant student population in Dunedin,” Gunn told a Stuff journalist at the time, unaware of how true that would prove to be.
Following exams Gromz set off on a nationwide summer tour, managed by former New Zealand ski representative Harry Pettit, who had met the band through a friend at the Curry Hut.
“Skivvy Jon from Shakti Mats had hit me up with an idea for a comedy project they wanted to do in Dunedin, a bunch of flat gigs,” he says. “Then Max Gunn approached me. He knew I had a little bit of experience in management and dealing with sponsors and so on and he wanted some help. He basically just asked ‘where do we start?’”
The tour saw Gromz and The Shamblés riding a wave of positivity and possibility, crowding venues like Neck of the Woods with a potpourri of groovy, albeit decidedly middle class, kids.
“I think there was such a high energy at the end of university, everyone felt like they could do anything and get away with anything,” says Gunn. “Everyone was like ‘fuck it, we can do whatever we want, and put that into a sound, and people will get behind it’, and that’s what’s happened.”
The scene was supported by people who were on the same wavelength, people who had been waiting on a new wave of music and culture and creativity.
“It’s a weird thing to say but that’s what it feels like is happening. People are all for it. The amount of people that come up to me and say ‘Oh fuck I feel what you guys are doing, it’s epic. We haven’t had this happen since the Dunedin Sound era.’”
There’s a massive move in terms of what people value in their job and in their lifestyle and as their way of being. They see people doing this creative work and infecting the area with good times and good energy and they’re just like ‘fuck yes. This is something I can support.’”
Loosely grouped, the bands of the new Dunedin sound are a sort of psychedelic surf rock infused with a general frothiness; their music is not ludicrously technical but all of it is listenable. They navigate post-adolescent clumsiness, more brutal than puberty, with songs that acknowledge the intensity of the last days of real abandon, yet retain a certain fuck-it mentality, bathing in the ludicrousness of it all.
The Soaked Oats, a four-piece, started almost as a joke. Their EP, Stone Fruit Melodies, is filled with tracks like ‘I’m a Peach’ (“I was born with the recessive genome/of a nectarine”), ‘Avocado Aficionado’ and rockabilly number ‘Cherry Brother’.
“Their first show was at the end of the Gramblez tour we did last year, Gromz and The Shambles, and they’d been mixing their Stone Fruit EP,” says Pettit. “There were a couple songs on there we were listening to on the road and thinking ‘Fuck this is loose, we need the boys to perform.’”
“We had a flat in Clarence Street in Ponsonby and so we set up all the sound gear in our little courtyard. They were just practising and jamming throughout the day and ended up getting us kicked out because there was too much noise for the rich old neighbours, so we effectively ended up going on this sold out tour while all being homeless at the same time.”
The Soaked Oats went up that weekend at a sold-out show at Neck of the Woods, then played a pre-Laneway gig at the inaugural Winn Road festival. Over the next 12 months they played in excess of 60 paid shows, culminating in a sunset session on the Rhythm and Vines Garden Stage.
“It totally freaked them out,” says Pettit. “They were like ‘Shit, we did this as a pisstake, look at what’s happened’. Since then they’ve had to just run with it. They’re not planning on slowing down.”
Rebekah Brixtow, artist liaison at Auckland music venue Neck of the Woods, says it’s the positivity of the scene that is driving such enthusiasm and devotion.
“People are sick of cynicism, and that’s partly why these bands are able to draw such big crowds to somewhere like Neck of the Woods which is normally associated with DnB, hiphop and big soundsystem sort of events. They have an edge of course but they’re so talented and hard working and approachable that they’re able to make it feel like home, even if they’re playing to an away crowd. Even our security have commented on the lack of trouble at these gigs.”
The tour took its toll on them all however. Such an explosion of cultural energy meant people were rabid for merch, for tickets, for a taste of the action. Money poured in. The good times rolled.
“We didn’t know what to do with all this cash,” says Pettit. “We just thought ‘Buy some beers, buy this, buy that, let’s go hard’, and at the end of it everyone was just broken.
“Some people started out thinking ‘Fuck this is the best shit ever’, and then when it simmers down and you have to go back to work, some people have been able to hack it and some have hit the wall and gone ‘Fuck, this is too brutal.’”
There was a seasonal atrophy of a sort, with bands reshuffling and integral members like Gunn reevaluating their commitment to a scene and movement that could yet prove a mirage. Because this is a movement birthed in university culture, the fans that packed shows across the country with such apparent apathy for the consequences inevitably settled back into their white collar routine come the winter – these are lawyers, architects, surveyors; in short, New Zealand’s most educated.
Gromz disbanded as priorities shifted and people came to terms with what they were potentially giving up and the demands of life on the road made themselves known.
“When we’re on tour we’re literally just pulling out the friend card and sleeping on couches and floors and so on. It can get really tiring. It’s not that sustainable,” says Pettit.
But the movement was far from done.
Positioned almost exactly between north and south Dunedin, Hope Street is a depressingly industrial stretch of halfway homes, garages and and a grim Anglican church. But despite it’s exterior it’s home to one of the more promising indie bands in the country, a project born in the aftermath of the Gromz tour, and a burgeoning groove factory.
“Our band house is on No Hope street,” says Marlin’s Dreaming guitarist Tim McNaughton. “It’s called that because of all the dero houses and super cooked people. But it’s actually pretty sick. I don’t even know if people live in the places next door.”
McNaughton, a former arts student, met Gromz frontman Semisi Maiai working in St Clair’s Hydro Surf shop just outside central Dunedin.
“He was just a grommet when we met, but he was always into music, and once I’d been living back in Auckland for six months I just wanted to do something loose,” McNaughton says. “So when Semisi hit me up to get involved with a project he was starting I just moved straight back to Dunnaz.”
After the band recorded a number of songs Maiai had demoed on his laptop, the pair flew to Los Angeles to master the album with Grammy winning producer Jeff Ellis. “He’s super professional, he worked a lot with Frank Ocean, and it came out really sick.”
Released in September, 2017, Lizard Tears quickly racked up north of 1.1 million Spotify streams. That summer, the band hit the road on the Not That Bad tour, driving a trailer from Dunedin to Auckland and back, dragging along friends to man the doors and maintain the vibes.
“It was a real mean buzz, we were frothing the whole time. I think a lot of bands in Auckland struggle to get some of the crowds, because they don’t always have such a tight knit community.”
Now they’re living a flat on No Hope, with eyes on the past and future. For his part, McNaughton doesn’t care much for categorising the experience, or committing to a sound or look.
“That whole Dunedin Sound thing, that was just a marketing tool I guess,” says. “At the end of the day it’s just people making tunes. I don’t even want to say what genre we are. I don’t really know, and I don’t want us to be boxed in. People can decide for themselves when they listen.”
“This is a different era, we’ve got different social anxieties. The Dunedin Sound was a lot more angry, more punk influenced, well post-punk anyway, but who knows? Maybe we’ll put out some gnarly albums after we go through a winter on No Hope street. That might do it.”
“I don’t even have any ski equipment, might have to just get out there in some speed dealers, a trenchy and a surfboard. Take the fins off and just slide around. That’d make a good little music video eh?”
Gunn, who endured a physical and spiritual winter of his own as chronicled in the Shamblés single ‘Living Today’, is ambivalent, saying that irrespective of Flying Nun and the Dunedin Sound, there was a niche waiting to be filled.
“People were waiting, holding their breath for something to kick off. There was a vacuum. I’ve been amazed over both summer tours over the enthusiasm of so many people. It’s so rare to be able to sell out 500 person shows all over the country with original music and no record backing and barely any money to speak of.”
“The reason it’s worked is because the people who are into this feel like they’re not only supporting a band like a fan, but they’re actually part of the extended family.
“We’ve got this entourage of barefooted frothers in vans following us around now and it’s fucken nuts. It’s nuts. There’s such a range of people entering this mixing pot where everyone is figuring out who they are and they’re finally through their awkward teens and now they’re expressing themselves, but still in a vulnerable way. These bands are just representatives for everyone on that buzz.
“The most epic and moving comments we get after shows or after people listen to our music is when they say it showed them that it’s an OK thing to actually just be yourself and get weird. That’s why there’s this scene. And it’s just starting out – it wasn’t called the 1961 and 62s, was it?”
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.