How a singer’s revelation about their identity gave Openside their purpose – and New Zealand’s most intense pop fans. Images by Ravi Chand.
He looks mid-fifties, skinny jeans, grey hair cropped close. Not exactly out of place but not in his element either. “Have you seen my daughter? She’s about this tall,” he asks no one in particular, gesturing just below his shoulder height. That describes roughly half the crowd at the Hollywood in Avondale, a grand old suburban cinema increasingly popular as a music venue, particularly since Auckland’s venerable King’s Arms shut its doors last year.
She might be lost, but he doesn’t seem stressed. Rightly so – there are surely few better places to have your teen go AWOL than amongst the 350 strong crowd at Openside’s first headlining show of 2019 in early April. Strangers talk to one another without a second thought. Rainbow and pink, white and blue trans flags are draped across backs and around friends. Business trickles at the bar, and the nearly all-female security staff have a long, slow night.
It’s all ages, hence the parental supervision, and the kids are almost militant in their desire to make the space as safe as possible. This is something to which the band is deeply committed, to the point of sounding churchy at times.
“The crowds are more enthusiastic, they come early, they’re there for the music, they’re there for the community,” says Openside singer Possum Plows. “Those are our people. Whereas if you play on a club show, people are there to hang out and get wasted.”
Fans started arriving in the early afternoon, hours before doors, according to venue manager and ex-bFM station head Hugh Sundae. A group of 40 or so met and talked and shared the tension of the band’s biggest headline show to date.
This type of pre-concert behaviour is culturally common amongst bands with teenage fans – at a Panic! At the Disco show at Spark arena for which Openside played support, there were over a thousand sat playing music and chatting excitedly in the late afternoon.
Yet it’s unheard of for local artists playing shows at this scale. Their fans treat the band with reverence usually reserved for far larger international artists, almost as if the act of doing so could will them to that status. Openside responds in kind that evening, doing a kind of DIY arena production: dressing in matching customised boiler suits, shooting a video at the show and playing with a theatricality and slickness learned from their many support slots. They call their music emo pop, and it’s almost incongruent in a small venue, with huge synths, electronic drums and gang-chanted choruses.
The show is relatively brief but ecstatically received. Near the end Plows makes a short, giddy speech from the stage. “We’ve been so dazzled by the community which has grown around us, and inspired by the way you all support and encourage each other.” Shortly after, their partner Rosemary brings a teddy bear named Toast on stage and the pair briefly kiss. At which point the crowd, not exactly restraining themselves at the best of times, loses it entirely.
After a frenzied conclusion, with the last chords still ringing in the air, the band’s drummer takes a mic. “I never talk at shows,” he says, “but I wanted to say this has been the best night of my whole life.”
For generations raised on the predominantly macho archetypes of metal or grunge, with aggressive crowds and a distance between performer and audience, the tweeness of this scene would appear antithetical to the point of inducing nausea. Music that has come from fanbases up – as opposed to radio and promotion down – has often had fans as insiders who put up protective walls around their scene.
Openside are different – an avowedly pop band, operating within the codes and infrastructure of more alternative music. It’s a product of their backgrounds, of where they all came from – and where they’d like to go.
The band essentially has two distinct components, with different ages, experiences of the world and relationships to one another. There’s Plows, the singer, a few years older and the clear focal point. Then there’s the men of Openside – George Powell, Harry Carter and PJ Shepherd – three friends who have played music together forever, despite only being in their early twenties, and have a near-identical cultural background. They live together, work together, finish each others’ sentences.
Plows isn’t part of that clique, and speaks with a distinct hybrid accent, derived from an establishment Auckland upbringing – Mt Eden and Epsom Girls Grammar – mixed with some time living in Florida. Childhood was filled with mass-market ‘00s cults. “My Chemical Romance and feeding my Neopets”. A YouTube channel called The Jones Sisters in tribute to the Jonas Brothers. Drama and dance and music. Already hints of a distance from the rest of the family – Plows’ mother is a lawyer, father an engineer, and sister a scientist.
“I still feel a little bit of that black sheep thing,” says Plows. “Because everyone else in my family is more academic and more conventional in terms of the work that they do.”
A few years ago Plows had finished high school and was working on a music degree, majoring in pop. Despite the punk and emo roots, pop was irresistible. “I love everything about what makes it good. I love mathematics and music and the most simple mathematics in music is the mathematics of a pop song,” says Plows. “It’s so straightforward, you just follow the rules.”
While studying, Plows worked on the side at the Auckland school of rock, a high school music programme, and Openside coalesced. Carter, Shepherd and Powell grew up listening to pop punk and emo bands like All Time Low and Twenty One Pilots. They started playing in bands together at 12, dreaming of one day opening for their heroes.
School of rock was a pivotal experience for both Plows and the rest of the band, allowing them an environment to play without judgement but with support. It was here Plows first encountered the band, then known as Maybe Rave.
“These guys are really impressive,” Plows remembers thinking. “They’re playing the click, they’ve got tracks, they’re really polished, and they’re only like 16.” Not long after, Maybe Rave’s singer left for Wellington.
“They’d already booked these random shows in Australia,” recalls Plows. “They were like, ‘Hey Possum, do you want to come just sing these shows as a trial run?’
“We did that and we were terrible… just nine shows in a row to basically empty rooms.” But they persevered, enjoying the experience and finding that each date bought incremental improvement. Plows was still undecided about whether to commit when Paul McKessar, of CRS, one of New Zealand’s most established music management companies, signed them. It was a signal – enough legitimacy to keep them together.
Things started to move faster from there. CRS got them gigs supporting large numbers of major international artists as they came through Auckland, the likes of Ellie Goulding and – a high school wish, fulfilled – Twenty One Pilots, whose crowd birthed Openside’s first obsessive fans. Management helped get those slots, but they also came because they fit alongside both the surprisingly resurgent emo bands and pop artists. And because, unlike many of their local contemporaries, they were more than comfortable in the live environment.
Openside play synth-heavy music and are happy to cite an ambition to be “one of the biggest bands in the world”, but are building audiences in the time-honoured alt tradition – support slots and small, mostly all ages headline shows. And while they are beloved by their fans, that group remains small enough that they can individually respond to social media messages.
They are part of a wave of New Zealand artists which are creating a true pop scene in New Zealand, perhaps for the first time. Where Lorde, the Naked and Famous and Broods operated as islands, now there is a building swell. Artists like Bene, Chelsea Jade, Robinson and the Drax Project have made this country a safe space for melodic, emotive and heavily produced music which contrasts with our musical self-image.
While New Zealand has embraced pop music as much as the rest of the world, most of our biggest artists of the past 20 years – the likes of Six60, Shihad, Scribe and Bic Runga – haven’t been capital P pop. This is a situation sometimes encouraged by our funding body, NZ on Air, which in the past had an uneasy relationship with avowedly chart aspirant pop, viewing it as something akin to musical reality TV, an opiate of the masses which should rightly be provided by the market.
The coming of Spotify has helped change reality for New Zealand’s pop community, putting all artists on the same global platform, and leading to dozens of New Zealand artists having a song find a big international audience. Our artists are now, more than ever, looking out at the world, trying to figure out how best to navigate its complexities and immense opportunity.
Openside are not yet in that top tier. Their Spotify numbers are solid but not exceptional, with multiple songs north of 100,000 plays, but their only song past that magic million is a cover of Major Lazer’s ‘Lean On’. The band’s best shot at breaking out of this in-between area of almost fame is its singer, Possum Plows, whose identity has become merged with the band’s own, and provided a sense of purpose which radiates out from the band’s every move.
This stems from a personal revelation Plows made in 2017. “I identify as gender-fluid and prefer to be referred to as ‘they’ and ‘them’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’,” they wrote in a piece for The Spinoff at the time. It essentially means Plows doesn’t feel a strong attachment to either male or female genders, and broadly rejects the idea that anyone should have to be permanently assigned one or the other.
“When I started learning about nonbinary genders online, it was such a liberating feeling,” they wrote. “Because I’d spent a lot of my adolescence trying to put myself in a box of what I thought it meant to be female and it left me feeling uncomfortable and, ultimately, unhappy without really knowing why.”
This moment was to galvanise what the band’s function was beyond music.
“There was just instantly this feeling from the community and from the fans that they were really excited about it and going all out for it. It was the moment I started talking to people about how much me being open, and out, and authentic had helped them. I was like, ‘Okay, this is really what we’re doing here. This is something worthwhile’,” says Plows.
It also helped to refine the band’s relationship to emo, the tortured, hooky ‘00s music which soundtracked Plows’ youth, and which is a crucial part of their sound and image. “There’s something about [emo’s] outsider/weirdo narrative that people like me relate to, but it was still mostly cisgender, heterosexual men making the music,” they wrote at the time.
This gave Openside a sense of enabling, of allowing their fans to connect with them with an intimacy and purpose which hadn’t existed prior. In expressing their own identity, Plows had found one for the band too.
The irony is that, Plows aside, the band is made up of straight, white, cisgender men in their early twenties. Shepherd and Carter attended Glendowie College, while Powell went to Kings, neither schools known as hotbeds of progressive social activism. They readily acknowledge having travelled some distance to get here.
“We didn’t just sit down and we’re like, ‘let’s make a band that’s going to be inclusive for the community’,” says Shepherd. “It never started like that. It was an evolution.”
“I’m the youngest, I was 16 when we started Openside,” says Powell. “Which is still when you’re very much figuring yourself out in a lot of ways. We’re the first to say that we were probably quite ignorant back then to what we were… When you’re a teenager you’re only thinking about yourself in a lot of ways. Having Possum in the band, they have had such a positive impact on shaping our mind, first and foremost.”
Carter: “Whereas we started off as quite ignorant, 16-year-old, juvenile, just kids.
Shepherd: “Saying horrible, well not horrible, but saying…”
Carter: “Just like we weren’t really educated.”
Shepherd: “We weren’t informed.”
No longer. I meet the men of Openside at a vegetarian cafe on the city fringe, and over the course of an hour the subject they return to most often, and speak of with clear pleasure, is of Openside’s relationship with its fans, and the way it provides a value beyond music to their work.
“Being straight and white and male for us, that doesn’t give you an excuse to be like, ‘Oh, well, it’s not my problem’,” says Powell. “The LGBTQ community or other ethnic communities that are the minority – if you are in the majority, it is your responsibility to make people feel welcome and look out for other people.”
Openside can feel like a classic example of the filter bubble, a place with its own values, even its own form of online policing: “when our fans see [homophobic or transphobic comments] they fire up at them and shut it down,” says Shepherd. Yet both their fans and the band still live in the real world, which is on its own journey, one conducted at a different pace.
Plows was recently abused in a Countdown carpark for kissing their girlfriend. Similarly when they sent through a video clip to a media outlet, they were startled by the response.
“In the ‘No Going Back’ video we had this scene where Possum kisses this woman at the end of the video,” says Powell. “It’s just a big cushion to the whole storyline and it was throughout the video. They pretty much called us out being like, ‘that’s gratuitous and disingenuine and you pretty much just did it to have a bit of controversy’.”
“Basically called Possum a fake lesbian,” says Shepherd.
The broader social landscape is similarly rocky. There has never been greater prominence for trans stories in the New Zealand media, and yet there is also a rising transphobia which sees regular expression from prominent mainstream commentators.
This is what drives Openside’s position as a kind of cocoon from an unpredictable world. More than the band, it’s their fans which truly create this. Plows is often invited into group chats on social media by fans, something they appreciate and encourage.
“Mostly I just watch,” they say. “I treat it a little bit like research because to me, it’s like, what is youth culture on the internet… There’s no better window than when they add you to their chat.” Plows also experiences depression, and says messages from fans can help them work through that.
The band can function as a social network for people who don’t recognise themselves in their peer groups at school. “You are just randomly assigned your sexuality and gender, and you’re just dispersed around different socio-economic groups and ethnicity, and there’s often no natural community,” says Plows. “You really actually have to seek each other out. Especially if you come from a small town where people may be less open about that. The only way to do this on the internet.”
It’s particularly meaningful for the sub-section of their fans who come from that community. Dakota, 17, asked that I not use their surname as they’re still at high school, shooting me a glance that said volumes about how that goes. They have a trans flag draped across her shoulders at the Hollywood show. “I relate to Possum, being trans. The main reason I come to these shows is the energy around them… Even though they’re a band I’m interested in, it’s the feeling of belonging – of having a place to fit into.”
For all that sense of community, they’re playing the relatively intimate Hollywood theatre for a reason. They have yet to have a song really break out and put them on the map. The closest is ‘I Feel Nothing’, the single which crystalised their sound and which has their most effortless hooks. It sits at 922,000 plays, frustratingly shy of that magic million. A number of other New Zealand artists have cruised past it, some with tens of millions, and there is something of an emerging divide around making it past.
“You get like a million streams under your belt and suddenly you think you’re the fucking hot shit,” says Powell somewhat bitterly. As Gareth Shute’s story on the artists which have broached the barrier makes clear, playlists are more important than they ever were in the radio era in pushing artists to bigger numbers. But as Roy Irwin notes wryly of his own hit in the same story “yeah it’s got 2.2 million plays – but 1.5 million were probably just background noise in some annoying cafe.”
It’s a feature of life as a modern musician that a song being put on a highly subscribed playlist can mean tens of millions of streams and a huge career boost, but that isn’t always the same as having a fanbase. As Powell puts it, a little jealously, “streams don’t sell tickets”.
Still, they mean something. If Openside are to meet their own soaring ambitions, they’re keenly aware it needs to start soon. Latest single ‘Waiting for Love’ has had a slow start, with fewer than 100,000 streams to date. It suffers from something which can plague Openside’s singles – lyrics which veer toward the generic. In an era where the biggest artists have very singular identities communicated through words, it’s potentially serious impediment. All the more puzzling given that Plows’ own life forms a much richer well of source material than most Spark Arena headliners.
Part of the solution might lie in another initiative which could be described as the PhD to the school of rock’s NCEAs. SongHubs is an NZ on Air-funded initiative which aims to link young artists with more established songwriters. In New Zealand’s rock-centric past, writing was something you largely either knew how to do or didn’t. In the headily collaborative world of modern pop – Travis Scott’s ‘Sicko Mode’ has over 30 writers credited – learning how to grow through writing with others is critical to success.
While most of their work to this point has been with New Zealanders like Leisure’s Djeisan Suskov and Josh Fountain, there is a sense that for Openside to reach another level they may need to cross-pollinate with other writers. Plows has completed multiple SongHubs sessions, and the band are firmly of the belief that it has taught them huge amounts.
This is the year they need to take that potential and work and turn it into something tangible. “It’s just about chipping away at it every single day,” says Powell. “The overnight success thing doesn’t really exist in a lot of ways.” The signs remain strongly positive: they have been picked up by Warner Music Australia, and there were a number of key radio people from that territory flown in for the Hollywood show. A tour there, far more serious than their first, will likely happen later this year.
Still, they’re at that queasy point in every ambitious band’s life cycle where the sense of it needing to happen sooner than later is upon them. “It can really bring you down,” says Carter, of the anxieties of life in the data-rich streaming era.
What they desperately need to do is try and create more fans like those which clustered on the Hollywood’s steps, who spilled across St Georges Road and made Avondale on a Saturday night a wash of colour. Super young kids, boys holding hands, no one in any hurry to leave except some weary parents. “There are so many bands that don’t stand for anything at all,” says Powell, and it’s what they stand for which has their fans arriving early and staying late.
All they need now is 10,000 more like them. All they need is one song to do it.
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