It’s one of the most tight-knit, well-established and supportive music environments in New Zealand. Ben Lynch pays tribute to the capital’s hard rock and metal scene.
When discussing or researching heavy music in New Zealand, one thing quickly becomes apparent: it’s a fairly fruitless task to try and compare scenes from city to city. While Christchurch may often be credited as leading the way for extreme metal in the late ‘80s, at the same time there were numerous other acts cropping up in cities such as Hamilton and Auckland. But when it comes to consistency and calibre of heavy music – by which I mean hard rock and metal – it’s hard to go past the scene in Wellington.
Part of this energy is down to a live music culture that allows local heavy music to thrive. Ben Mulchin, owner of the infamous and essential Valhalla Tavern, as well as the promotion company Valhalla Touring, says that growing up in the area, “the live music scene was just natural”. Bands back then would play every three or four weeks – sadly no longer the case, Ben says – and there was a real appetite for heavy music among the locals.
Since Ben took over Valhalla in 2013, then known as the Medusa, the number of new acts and initiatives has continued to grow. Metal heroes Beastwars rose to the fore in Wellington in the early years of this decade, and Valhalla’s own Symbiotic Festival is now one of the country’s best showcases of Kiwi and international filth.
Donnie Cuzens, guitarist for the atmospheric post-hardcore band Spook the Horses, thinks the Wellington scene is in the best health it’s been in for decades.
“There is a lot of internal support networks between bands and musicians, those that are getting wider national recognition tend to go out of their way to help lift up others and provide them the same opportunities.
“The efforts of hard-working and honest promoters bringing international acts over and offering support to local acts can’t be overstated, either.”
Still, Donnie is says that more needs to be done to make the scene more inclusive, in particular for women and non-binary people. While “great strides” are being made, “there is still a lot of innate, garden-variety, good-ol-Kiwi bigotry to work through in a lot of music scenes. There’s good work being done, for sure, but in terms of the general public and gig-goers’ attitudes, there’s a lot more to be done.”
While work to reach that goal continues, it’s already notable how varied heavy music audiences already are – a first-time heavy gig goer might be surprised at the diversity of the crowd.
“People are often like ‘it’s bogan, it’s bogan!’, but the regulars here are like IT workers, lovely human beings, well-rounded and very liberal, not your stereotypical westie-type bogan,” Ben says. “They don’t listen to Slipknot, they listen to some obscure German band with amazing musicianship.”
This broad spectrum of styles doesn’t indicate an audience that is fragmented, but rather widely varied in its make up, with stark differences between the likes of the metal and punk scenes. But Wellington is too small for fans of any particular subculture to not at least recognise one another at shows, a phenomenon that creates a high standard of behaviour, Ben says. “In Wellington, if a band is full of good guys, then people will go and support them. You might have a band full of pricks, and it just doesn’t work.”
The other key factor is the number of audience members who play in bands themselves. “In Wellington, everybody’s in a band,” Ben says. “There aren’t many people that are just fans. They all play. They might not all be in an active band, but they all have musicianship and have played on stage. They’re down for life.”
Underpinning and driving the whole scene is a distinct DIY ethos. House shows are common, with bands such as ELK organising gigs at their own makeshift venue. Offering a stage, audio equipment and soundproofing, ELK has hosted a range of acts from punk to grunge, recently giving artists like Krash The World their first audience exposure.
Even for a venue owner such as Ben Mulchin, the vibrancy of Wellington’s DIY scene is obvious. “Certainly I think that whole DIY approach creates some cool things and develops a community, more so than at a music venue where it is strangers.
“If you’re at a house and you’re drinking your own piss it’s a lot of fun.”
This DIY mentality also extends to local heavy acts often booking their own tours and transport, not just around New Zealand but overseas as well. Case in point: Tuscoma, who have built an impressive reputation, supporting Grammy-nominated act Deafheaven on their recent visit. They organise their overseas tours independently, booking their own gigs and driving themselves without any help from a manager. According to vocalist and guitarist Kurt Williams, this isn’t necessarily a negative – and it’s often the only option.
“Tuscoma has pretty much based its ethics around the DIY culture. We book shows and manage ourselves. It’s very important for growing bands to adopt this culture, as we tour extensively globally and rely on Tuscoma to do the job.”
While adopting a DIY ethos certainly reaps numerous benefits for bands, it’s also necessary to ensure the scene continues to thrive. Despite the presence of places like Valhalla where heavier acts can play shows and meet like-minded people, the absence of a label willing to take a punt on local heavy artists means that bands often have no option but to go it alone. Along with Valhalla Touring, Headless Horseman is a Wellington-based promotions company, run by Ross Mallon, which also operates as a distributor. But the lack of a local label catering for metal music in particular is stark.
“There’s no guy finding local bands saying, ‘you know what, we should release you guys on vinyl,’ or whatever,” says Ben.
“Those labels are overseas. Most of it [here] is self-driven by the band.”
A local record label is not the only missing piece in the Wellington heavy scene – Ben also mentions the need for an all-ages venue to help generate interest among fans who are too young to drink. Still it’s the self-driven attitude and independent spirit of the people who make up the scene that best define it as a whole. It’s a community that is not only tight-knit and engaged, but has continued to churn out musicians and bands of the highest calibre. Something that, based on Wellington’s current output, isn’t likely to change any time soon.