Auckland bar/venue/restaurant The Golden Dawn is closing for good on Saturday. Four days before its final party, Henry Oliver talked to entertainment manager Matthew Crawley and general manager Nick Harrison about the birth, death and music of the weirdest bar on Ponsonby Road.
For the last seven and a half years, The Golden Dawn has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It’s been a place to share a plate of cheese and pickles around a picnic table and a place to catch up with an old friend over a glass of orange wine on a Sunday afternoon. But for many, The Golden Dawn has been the best place in Auckland this decade to go and consistently hear music, either from a diverse pool of DJs or an ever-surprising array of musicians: people playing their first shows, international touring acts that you’d never heard of, or secret shows from this country’s music icons that you’d only hear about on Instagram the next morning.
Nearly all of which is due to Matthew Crawley, the bar’s entertainment manager since the beginning, and Nick Harrison (not that Nick Harrison), who’s been general manager for the last five or so years. Having worked together since its inception (with owners Stephen Marr and Sam Chapman, and founding general manager Kelly Gibney), Crawley and Harrison began the end of the bar when they simultaneously resigned about six months ago. So, for the last three months they’ve put on a show every night (Lawrence Arabia, Tiny Ruins, Dave Dobbyn, Nadia Reid and on and on), which will culminate on the final night on Saturday, ‘Dance Till The Break of Dawn’. It’s $10 on the door and capacity is limited so get there early (open from midday) or expect a queue at best or disappointment at worst.
The Spinoff: So are you excited? Is it a happy time? A sad time?
Nick Harrison: It’s everything.
Matthew Crawley: People ask me on a fairly regular basis, how do you feel about it? And the only honest answer I can give is that I feel everything, like every possible feeling that there is. You know, do I feel excited? Yes. Terrified? Yes. Sad? Of course. Happy? Yeah! Yeah. Regretful? Probably. Certain that I’ve done the right thing? Ahhhhh, close. It’s a total roller coaster and because the reason that we are closing is not based on popular logic is hard to explain to people.
NH: I feel like for us it’s just very selfish. But we also have committed a serious amount of our life to this place. I was saying to Matthew the other day – it’s been seven years or seven and a half years, but I’m sure I’ve done about 20 years.
So how do you explain it to people?
MC: It’s different every time. It depends on how we’re feeling at the time, but it also depends on how sympathetic you can tell the person is. You know, if it’s a total stranger who seems angry that we are closing, we tell them the reality, which is that we signed on for two years as a pop-up and it’s been an extra five years on top of that. That’s actually the basic explanation, but you know, the inevitable response is, ‘but it’s so successful!’ and I’ll say yes, I’m grateful for that, and then… ‘why don’t you sell it?’ and then I say, well, I would view it a little bit like selling a child. Your own creation.
And then what do you tell a sympathetic person?
NH: That we’re sorry.
MC: That it’s time. We’re really sorry. We’re tired.
NH: We also want to look after ourselves as well. I don’t think hospitality leads to the most healthy lifestyle. Matthew and I have become very good friends. I do think that we see each other more than we see our partners. But also it does consume a lot of your time. Because we’re operational during the day and we also operate through the night, which is our trading time, there are very few hours that we’re not thinking about the bar. And that’s been the case for about seven and a half years.
MC: Someone asked me the other day, what days do you get off? And I thought about it and I was like, I’m not trying to be a martyr, and it’s just the way that I’ve arranged my time, pretty foolishly probably, but I don’t really take days off. I don’t ever have days when I’m not thinking about the bar or beholden to a phone call or an email or a text or a problem that needs solving. Monday’s become office day because no one’s around, and then Tuesday to Sunday we’re open.
NH: And I feel like we’ve done as much as we can in this area. We do challenge ourselves here, we do change, and we always try to be as challenging to ourselves as to our customers with our product and entertainment. But you also do the same thing day in, day out. So it’s nice to think that there’s other opportunities and other ventures out there. And I like the fact that we’ve just stuck with this place. There are a lot of operators who become quite successful and open multiple venues. And I’ve realised that I don’t want to do that, that one bar takes one soul, or two souls. And that’s part of why the Dawn is the Dawn.
MC: The one part of the conversation [about closing] that always pops up is that you give your answer and people give you this very specific look. And they say, ‘OK, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. What’s it really? Is it money? Are you guys making apartments?’ And I like to mess with people a little bit, but at the same time… it’s amazing, some of the rumours I’ve heard about what’s happening or why we’re closing.
NH: The staff has started making up rumours too, that the bar is turning into a Finnish day spa.
MC: But there’s no kind of sinister backstory, which is almost too boring for people to believe. It’s also worth mentioning that the structure of this place – not the physical structure but the human structure – is slightly unusual in that Nick and I don’t own this bar. The bar is owned by two very creative talented people who are also very busy people – [hairdresser and property developer] Stephen Marr and Sam Chapman, who had Mighty Mighty and the Matterhorn [in Wellington] but now runs the Sherwood in Queenstown. That was probably one of the hardest conversations to have, when Nick and I told them that we were ready to move on.
NH: That’s quite an odd conversation as well because it’s not often that two people go to their business partners or directors, and say ‘We’re leaving’…
MC: … together. And not in a malicious way. We gave them six months’ notice and said, ‘Look, we don’t know what you want to do about this, but we feel that our energy is spent.’
How did you realise that the other wanted to leave?
MC: I guess it starts with hints of dissatisfaction amongst the roses… Or not dissatisfaction, but admissions of fatigue between people who talk about everything all the time.
NH: And change as well. We’d talk about changes or doing something different…
MC: People say, ‘you’ve become an institution’ and that’s so far from what this place began as. It was meant to be like a quick punch.
So how did each of you become involved in this place?
MC: Nick is the general manager. I’m the entertainment manager. Stephen had the building. He had other plans for this place and had this idea to put a little bar in to fill the gap. He brought in Sam, who’s a hospitality lege, and they asked me because of my history with venues and running shows to talk about the music side of things. And I was glad to finish my last job and it appealed to me as well because it was short term. I was moving to Berlin to write poetry and play the ukulele.
NH: I can remember it so vividly, we were in the front bar, which was then Dead Modern, a clothes shop, and we were talking about the bar set up and what it would look like. And Matthew was running late but he came riding in on a little bike and he was wearing tails and I think he looked at me like, ‘Who is that guy?’ And I looked at him like, ‘Who is this guy?’
MC: The original general manager who was brought in was Kelly Gibney, who had just got back from New York running sweet bars over there.
NH: I used to work with her, and Sam and Steve talked to her about running the space. They were looking for someone to run the bar, the day to day management. And she asked me if I’d like to do it. And then she had a baby about a year and a half in and asked me to be the general manager.
What was the pitch to you guys? What was the initial idea? What was ‘The Golden Dawn’?
MC: The original pitch was basically to create magic. Like, create something Auckland hasn’t seen: fun, free, wild, amazing.
NH: Refined but amazing at the same time. Wild and refined.
MC: A place for people to have a lot of fun but sheltered from the rest of the world.
And what did that mean to you musically?
MC: Very liberating. I forget now that we’ve become known for – amongst lots of other things – like, amazing natural wine and food and blah, blah, blah, but it’s undeniable that the venue component is a big part of it.
And more than a part of it, right?
MC: Arguably. I guess exemplified by the fact we have a gig every night for three months before we close. But it was a slow build. Initially, the idea was to surprise people at every turn, so we’d have Doug Jerebine playing the sitar on the ground out in the courtyard, and Tina Turntables DJing on a Friday night, and a little bit of string quartet at lunch, you know. Certainly, the idea was not to be wacky, but to just be surprising and inspiring.
One of the things about becoming more of a venue is it becomes harder to surprise, because you’ve got a schedule and you’ve got posters with DJ names and band names on them.
MC: Yeah. The challenge is that if there’s not a perfect band for the night, we don’t have a band that night. Unless it’s just right, unless it’s interesting. That’s the idea. Eight times, nine times out of ten, we get there. I still love the idea of it being a heaving Friday night in Ponsonby and people walking in and hearing Hex or Centre Negative or, like, beautiful violin layers or an African band playing traditional music or non-traditional music.
NH: As a venue, we really tried harder to challenge people and to surprise people because our surroundings have developed and evolved so much. I felt like we pushed even harder.
MC: I don’t think that ‘evolved’ is the word for what’s happened to Ponsonby. ‘Devolved’ maybe?
NH: But yeah, what happens on this road later in the night has changed definitely. I think that is probably a big factor.
There’s a certain sort of amount of business that you get from being in Ponsonby, from people who are out in Ponsonby and who can maybe, to an extent, subsidise the weird stuff…
MC: Absolutely. The Robin Hood model is alive and well here at Golden Dawn, which is why I would never deign to carelessly suggest that other venues or bars just, you know, copy our model. We’re insanely lucky to be on the street corner of this busy, busy area and be able to, um, tax the rich to support the poor.
So it’s funny when the ‘right’ crowd of people get annoyed at the existence of the ‘wrong’ kind of people and you’re like, ‘Don’t you realise that they’re the ones helping pay for all the stuff you like about this place?’
MC: That was absolutely a thing.
Yeah, while you’re sitting on one beer for the night.
MC: A year in, that might have started. You’d get disgruntled people going, ‘Shortland Street bar’ or ‘advertising assholes bar’, various finger pointings at our failure to deflect the right or wrong kind of people. But I think if you can outlive that period, people sort of end up appreciating the fact that you’re still around, and once the hype dies down on either side, you can just be a nice place for most people. It’s come around to people really liking the fact that there can be any kind of person here and there’s not one right person.
When that article about my Facebook status came out a few years ago, the major disappointment for me was that my question was a genuine one to people: ‘How can we be fair and how can we have a beautiful crowd at all times without judging people before we know them?’ But it seemed like I was judging people hard out, when in fact, the whole Facebook status was saying, well, we could have people outside choosing who’s ‘cool’ enough to come in, but that’s the lamest thing you could possibly do. Anyone can be an asshole. Anyone can be a highly appreciative sweetheart.
People who want to go out and drink can always do that, right? When one place closes, there’s always somewhere for them to go, even though it’s not the same. But, in terms of music, there’s not necessarily a place for certain people to play. There’s always a place for Lawrence Arabia to play or Nadia Reid to play – The Golden Dawn closing is a bummer for them and their fans who liked seeing them play in this environment, but it doesn’t mean that you can no longer see that kind of music. But there are other things that go on here that don’t necessarily have a home elsewhere.
MC: I’d say there’d be somewhere for everyone, but are those places with doors open on main roads for the opportunity of new discoveries? My chief motivation in the city has always been make it more fun, and to let people who wouldn’t normally have a go, have a go. Give bands that wouldn’t normally have a place to be, a place to be. A hideout from the weight of the world. So I am acutely aware of taking away that place that’s easy to be in. It’s a horrible feeling actually.
But I was 23 years old and putting shows on at a karaoke bar, putting club nights on, without any idea what I was doing. And it ended up being some of the most fun times of my life. And this is what I maintain and one of the things I’d like to start pushing when I finish here. This month I’ll have been running venues for 15 years. And this is my sixth venue, this is the sixth time I’ve done this. Which is why I tell people there will always be something coming, there’ll always be something happening where there’s necessity. It might take a while to regrow. Someone’s going to find a room with 500 people in it to replace the Kings Arms. It will happen if it needs to.
If I was doing that when I was 23, and I’m 37 now, I hope that other people who are 23 or 37 will have a little audacity and just walk into a place that might seem like it needs some loving and go, ‘We could do a party here or put a night on.’ I have people saying to me, ‘Where are we going to dance?’ It’s like, put a party on somewhere! Have a go!
Can I ask you a question?
MC: So, readers out there who don’t know, Henry was one half of the ownership of D.O.C bar (on K’ Road). It was a nice place with nice people to come and listen to records and have a drink. A little haven. Somehow it morphed into a place where every single Friday and Saturday night, if not more, it was a place to have an incredible dance and see all the people you know, just have the most fun you could possibly have. Obviously, a little wearing for you after a while, and you were ready for a change. You’re probably familiar with some of the things we’ve been saying about closing. So how do you feel in the years since? Do you feel like Auckland has bounced back or do you think there’s still a hole in the reckless dancing market?
Yeah, I think there’s a hole…
MC: Do you ever want to get back down from the temple like Rambo and come and fix it?
Every once in a while I think that it’d be cool to put on a party once a year. The thing with those Friday and Saturday nights that was that around the time that we opened, there was a real cultural shift in the way that people we knew thought about and related to pop music. It wasn’t exclusively that, but a large part of those nights were pop-inclusive. People would play pop music mixed with more obscure electronic music or mixed with rock music or indie music. People would happily dance to Rihanna and Lady Gaga and then ‘The Passenger’. That worked for people. That’s all great music to dance to. And there are lots of times since then that I’ve thought ‘I love this song. I would love to dance to this song,’ but I have no idea where to do that.
MC: I totally understand that and I think there would have been the opportunity to carry on that legacy here, but in all honesty, I think that once you pop, you can’t stop. If you go down that road of playing pop music on the regular, that’s all anyone ever wants. It’s addictive.
It is addictive. Especially when I hear new music from artists like Carly Rae Jepsen or Robyn, who are pop music but aren’t actually that popular – they’re not really on the radio and they’re not getting played down at the Viaduct or wherever – I wonder whether there’s somewhere to go and dance to that music in the way that I felt free and comfortable to dance at our bar. There might be somewhere like that now for people like the people we were, or I was, but I don’t know about it.
MC: Well, I think that the real answer is probably you don’t know about it because it isn’t there yet. But I feel there’s no reason to tear out our hair and bash the ground and say it’s all over. Because it’s never all over.
Maybe that’s the thing – you can just do it.
MC: I guess that’s what I’m saying. I don’t have a problem with leaving space for other things to happen because that’s how things happen. People swoop in eventually. It’s encouraging to me to hear about spaces like the Grow Room.
Who got kicked out…
MC: Sure, you get kicked out. We got kicked out of Paradise Bar so we went down to Eden’s Bar. There’s always an empty office, there’s always somewhere you can go.
Any last words from the bar’s deathbed?
MC: Well it’s not over yet. That’s the thing. People keep asking me, ‘Are you winding down?’ And honestly, it couldn’t be less winding down. It’s winding up. It’s cranking right up. It will be more like a balloon that bursts. But everyone’s been so nice and the atmosphere so joyful that it’s actually really difficult to keep our sights on why we’re even closing it in the first place.
NH: I felt like this moment was going to happen. This isn’t normal trading, this crazy trading. People don’t normally walk up to you and say ‘thank you’ so much or bring you a present.
But the big thing actually is ‘thank you’. Thank you to all the people that have just made this place awesome. Our customers and our staff. With our staff, we have created a community, it’s not just Matthew and me. When I talk about this, it’s the only time where I feel like… watery eyes. Because there’s a lot of people who support this place, from glassies to barbacks to our managers and our chefs … there’s just so many elements of the business – all the bands as well, and the actual customers that come in…
MC: It’s a beautiful storm that everyone has gotten on board with and I’m so grateful. I think I’m definitely going to remember the good times. I really couldn’t be more grateful to people.
NH: We’re sorry and we’re thankful.
MC: Please let them know we’re very sorry.
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