One of the most important shows in the country is also its worst. Spinoff staff writer and occasional musician in a band called Great North, Hayden Donnell writes about playing onboard the Interislander.
Despite often being dumped in the same category at record stores, there’s not a huge amount that unifies New Zealand musicians. Our styles are often wildly divergent. For every Dave Dobbyn, there’s a Darcy Clay. But if there’s one thing that links every musician in this country – one indelible tattoo on our collective psyche – it’s the self-abasement that comes from standing in front of a smattered crowd of bleary-eyed Interislander passengers at 8.40am and launching into a 90-minute set.
Many people would have never heard of it, but the Interislander gig has been running for decades and is arguably the most economically vital show in the country for touring musicians. You may dream of making it to the Town Hall or the Powerstation, but the road there runs through the Interislander. The fee for the show is a free Cook Strait crossing for your band and tour van. It can save you hundreds of dollars – the difference between profit and debt for many tours. A Low Hum founder Ian Jorgensen, aka Blink, told Audioculture the show was a “lifesaver” for him when he started organising tours.“It saved me six hundred dollars every month since I had twelve people, a van, and a trailer,” he said. “The band would have to play both ways and a lot of times that was kinda insane.” Folk musician Lydia Cole said she couldn’t tour the South Island without the show. “It’s essential. The free ferry trip takes a little financial burden off touring.” The only downside is the Interislander show is the worst gig in New Zealand.
The experience begins in the pre-dawn, just after you’ve been guided onto the ferry by fluro-vested workers. The ship doors seal behind you like a tomb, and you carry your gear up the lifts to the 8th-floor lounge. The stage is an undersized diagonal platform set behind brass railings about 10 metres away from where the ferry workers are serving bagels and coffee.
Travellers sit bleary-eyed in puffer jackets on the tables dotted around the stage, enjoying the solitude of an early morning scone and coffee, or on an afternoon crossing, a lunchtime beer. Many of them look up with confusion in their eyes when they see musicians walking past with amps and guitars. You can see them cycling through the stages of grief: Denial. Anger. Bargaining. The ones who make it to the final stage – acceptance – will be your audience.
Many people will walk away when the show is announced over the loudspeaker. Punk/folk singer Will Wood remembers a dissatisfied customer. “On the return leg of my first proper national tour, Sam Prebble and I decided to do an acoustic covers set on the trip from Picton back to Wellington, and in the first phrase of our first song some bloke came straight up to us cursing ‘I had just bloody fallen asleep’ before storming out,” he said.
There are other challenges. The sets are played in bright light. Musicians and audience members can see each other in exacting detail, meaning there are few places to hide physically and emotionally. They go ahead even in rough seas. Songwriter Mel Parsons remembers standing with her legs wide apart and bracing herself against the wall during her set on one particularly difficult crossing. They also go ahead in openly hostile conditions. Parsons was once told to play in front of a TV that had previously been showing a Black Caps game. “The woman flicked off the TV and announced I would be playing a show, in front of the now dead screen. People were openly horrified. It’s one of my enduring worst memories of performing, and I think my only experience of everyone in the crowd just hating me.”
Musicians often resort to desperate measures to fill out the 90-minute set time. Phoenix Foundation’s Samuel Flynn Scott remembers Voom frontman Buzz Moller playing a solo acoustic set. “It was like performance art. He played ‘Stairway To Heaven’. We got in trouble with the ferry people for that.” Parsons once played an improvised 20-minute song about the bad art on the ferry walls.
But occasionally the Interislander show’s alchemy of weirdness and meaninglessness collide to create something great, like when a prospector finds a few flecks of gold amidst the tonnes of black, muddy sludge. Phoenix Foundation frontman Samuel Flynn Scott remembers one crossing where he played the ‘Cruisin’ on the Interislander’ song with its composer, Barry Saunders of The Warratahs.
“I think we ended up playing ‘Cruisin’‘ twice. It felt like one of those uniquely New Zealand experiences where you are doing this slightly awkward show to save a few hundred bucks but also performing beloved classics and putting on a subversively great gig.” Wood once played to a crowd of schoolchildren who joined their meagre funds together to create a tithe for him at the end of his set. “Hours later in Wellington I exchanged their pocket money for beer and enjoyed a couple of months of feeling I could handle one more back-and-forth of Interislander sets, which of course disappeared as soon as the next tour started and it was back to getting the stinkeye from all and sundry.”
Mainly though the show is a visceral lesson in humility. On my band’s most recent crossing, we played a set to one older woman who smiled appreciatively, and a few teens clad in sports gear, who did not. But there’s another kind of joy that comes from performing there, at the end of all your rockstar dreams, without any of the luxuries that help buttress a bar performance: alcohol, a sound system, fans. Playing on the Interislander is like weeping in a crowded movie theatre, or finally admitting to yourself and everyone else that you’ve really fucked up. It’s the feeling of all the strands that you’ve been desperately holding tight – playing well, looking good, becoming successful – suddenly going slack. There on that turquoise carpet stage, you’re finally free.
At its best, the gig is a taste of a kind of nirvana. Nothing matters. Everything is slipping away. One day, the universe will slip into the void. And when it does, maybe it’ll sound a lot like a band kicking off a 90-minute set at 8.40am on the Interislander.
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