Friendly Potential are looking to change the landscape of Auckland's club scene. Photo: Dylan Cook.

Making space on the dancefloor: Friendly Potential want to change club culture

The Auckland-based collective talk origins, ambitions and making the rave accessible to everybody.

Friendly Potential is an outfit that defies easy summary. They’re among the country’s most ambitious and prolific club promoters. In their almost five-years of operation, they’ve been responsible for the local debuts of electronic music icons including Detroit techno godfather Omar-S, Siberian icon Nina Kraviz and this week, genre-defining-and-defying Dutch master Martyn. They’re about to move into the brave new world of non-rave promotion, bringing celebrated German composer Nils Frahm to Auckland’s Town Hall in November. 

They’re festival promoters too. Their debut – a multi-night party called Catacombs held in the Civic’s iconic Wintergarden – sold out in March, and they’re doing it again next month. Just this week they’ve announced Beacon Festival, an outdoor party to be held on Auckland’s Queens Wharf in March 2020. On top of all of that, they also produce a weekly radio show for Auckland’s bFM and Dunedin’s Radio One, showcasing both a wide-ranging precis of their own favourites and guest mixes from a headspinningly great selection of guest DJs and artists.

Given both their intensely busy upcoming schedule and their status as one of the more established outfits in a remarkably healthy local rave and party scene, I wanted to know more about the genesis and evolution of this particular five-headed beast. I caught up with Dunedin resident Simon Wallace, Aucklanders Sam Harman and Scarlett Lauren, Wellingtonian Gus Sharp, and London-based Tom McGuiness to learn why it all started, and how they’re hoping to change the club scene for the better.

Catacombs, the Friendly Potential festival in the Wintergarden. Photo: Dylan Cook.

So how did Friendly Potential start?

Tom McGuinness: Sam, Gus and I were all in Auckland at the time. Gus had moved up to be a lawyer.

Sam Harman: I had just moved back from Seoul, and before I’d moved to Seoul I was doing parties, very unsuccessfully, with Recloose and Frank Booker. But Seoul had just seemed so much easier, I was like, “I cannot live in this city if there’s not somewhere to go out and dance.” So I started booking my own shows, and then I met Gus and Tom. We all had similar taste musically, and at the time, Gus was booking the Matterhorn in Auckland, so we brought [German DJ] Hunee over. It was such a good party, such a good time. I had done some work in hospitality, and I’d worked in clubs – at the time I was working at Golden Dawn – and it made me understand that in nightlife spaces the imbalance of power in society is amplified. The banker at the bar on a Saturday night is more of an asshole than he is in the office, because he’s normally kind of regulated by corporate culture. But when he’s not, that’s really where power dynamics in our society get worked out.

Tom: I guess that’s where the decision to use Whammy Bar came from as well. I’d been involved in a more, I guess, ‘traditional’ house and techno scene in Auckland, and Gus had come from a different scene in Dunedin, and Sam wanted more of a dance space. And I think that decision to use Whammy was because we all wanted to do the dance music thing, away from the norms that’d been associated with it, especially in Auckland. 

Scarlett Lauren: I already knew Gus and Simon from uni, and I just always liked the parties. They played the kind of music that I wanted to hear, and there was nowhere else in Auckland or New Zealand that was really doing that. It was always really bland tech house, run by a bunch of dudes, but at least at Whammy there was gritty, kind of punk rock kind of vibe. The sound was always really good, the artists were always people that I’d seen before or really wanted to see, so it just made sense. I come from an events background anyway and I really love music and dancing.

And Simon, you’ve been in Dunedin the whole time. How did your involvement start?

Simon Wallace: It was like four years ago. I was working at Radio One, and I knew Gus and Tom – mostly through some weird Facebook groups, but also from when Gus was living in Dunedin – and I just wanted to do a radio show that was similar to what the gigs were. Just to program stuff that we were all interested in.

Tom: We had all had radio shows at some time – I was on George FM, Gus had done a show somewhere, Sam had some stuff. And we all really wanted to get back into radio, I missed doing a radio show a lot. I think Simon was like, “Should we call it Friendly Potential Radio?” And it just kind of made sense. That was the genesis.

Sam: Scarlett has really been the powerhouse behind the radio show for the last year.

Tom: Yeah, we do fuck all in that regard.

Catacombs, the Friendly Potential event in the Wintergarden. Photo: Dylan Cook.

You did the first Catacombs in March of this year. What made you decide to throw a festival?

Tom: In 2018 we had a good run of shows – you know, we were doing Galatos shows with 300-350 people – and I guess we were just like, “Do we stay and keep being the cool little party that does the acts you’ve never heard of, or do we try and scale this?” 

Sam: When we do these shows at Whammy and Galatos, we bring in a sound system every time – it’s like building a pop-up nightclub. So it kind of made sense to do it in a space that didn’t have a soundsystem, and to do it somewhere like the Wintergarden – one of the nicest spaces in Auckland – was a fantasy. But it was kind of a mixture of those two things – there are parts of the calendar when lots of international acts come to Australia at once, and we’ve always had the problem that we could only take one, maybe two. And if you take two, then you’re basically losing money because you can’t really afford to pay two artists from one party. So if we built a mini-festival, it was going to be more sustainable anyway.

And on top of Catacombs II, you’re also bringing Nils Frahm in November. His show is quite different to the average Friendly Potential party. Is that terrifying?

Sam: Very terrifying.

Tom: I don’t think I’ve ever refreshed a ticket dashboard as fast as I have with that one.

Gus: Stylistically, it is a bit of a jump – I’ve had a few comments from people being like, “I can’t take eckies to this.” But Nils Frahm is still a part of that wider electronic scene, it’s still very much within the overall palette of what we do. 

Sam: I think for me, Friendly Potential isn’t necessarily just, like, house or techno, but what we’re trying to represent is the best in the underground. It doesn’t have to be electronic, necessarily, but music from that world – that’s where we come from, that’s what we represent. It’s not really a choice, it’s just where our tastes lie.

Tom: I think from the very beginning, we knew that the party would be what we wanted when we could just book whoever we think is sick, and people would just come along because they trust our taste. 

Do you feel like other promoters have adopted a similar approach to things?

Sam: I think that younger people are more into dance music than people my age were. There are almost more dance music parties than rock and roll shows at Whammy. Whether that’s because of us I don’t know, but the scene has changed in that respect. 

Tom: There are some cool crews in Auckland now, like the Night Pottery guys were doing some fucking rad parties for a while there. 

Gus: Shout out Community Garden.

Scarlett: I do think of our safer space policy posters – Friendly Potential was the first party where I’d ever seen them in New Zealand. I remember going to a party and thinking that it was so great that someone had even taken the time to write that, print that, stick it to a wall. I think even that concept of acknowledging that some people don’t experience a dance floor in the same way as everybody else, I think has had a ripple effect throughout. Like obviously there are other people doing similar stuff, there always have been, but that’s had a good, positive effect on other people. Other promoters know that they need to create a space for people to feel comfortable, and if something happens they know that they can approach people and they’ll be looked after. 

Simon: I’ve enjoyed just looking at all the pragmatic things that we can do. Like including accessibility information for people, getting buddies in for people that might have issues with accessing the venue and setting up hotline numbers for that. 

A Friendly Potential event overlooking Albert Park. Photo: Natalie Samy.

Do you feel like you know yet what your next thing will be? 

Tom: We just want it to always feel like it’s stepping up. Like the first Catacombs felt like a really fresh concept, and that was really well received, so we just want to keep doing shows like that. Martyn is another one – he’s an act that I’ve wanted to see play for, like, seven-and-a-half years, and we’ve never been able to do it. Theo Parrish and Omar-S, these are guys who had never been to New Zealand, or hadn’t been since the late ‘90s, early 2000s. 

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Gus: And we’re seeing a bit of a generational change. You know, it used to be this idea that “nothing good happens after midnight,” and I think that that is changing slowly. 

Sam: Make nightlife interesting and you don’t have as many issues from bored people just getting drunk. I have to shout out Auckland Live for getting on board with Catacombs. They bought in because they want all of the city to be able to experience their venues. There’s a little bit of a mood for progressive change, in terms of making spaces more accessible and safer – more available to everybody. I guess that’s a part of the goal. While we can do that, we’ll keep doing it.

Friendly Potential’s Catacombs festival returns in November 2019. For tickets and details visit catacombs.nz

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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