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‘Some people treat you like toilet water’ – What it’s like to be a K’ Rd bartender

As part of Equalise My Vocals, a new Spinoff project focusing on equality in the music community, Coco Solid speaks with Auckland musician and bar-keep Dorian Noval. 

Raised in the Philippines as a child, Dorian Noval’s family moved from the city of Cebu to New Zealand when she was ten. Coming of age in Wellington punk bands (Natural Glow, Cult of the Cobra) Noval found her way by working in venues. After a move to Auckland eight years ago, she’s drummed for local artist Emily Edrosa as well as her own band Axes To Grind and collaborates with other musicians regularly.

Inner-city Aucklanders, however, might know Noval from the Wine Cellar and Whammy Bar. Most nights of the week you can find her serving drinks at the conjoined music venue and bar off Karangahape Rd. Having been in both music and bar work for a large part of her life and somewhat of a relaxed fixture in the Auckland CBD, I interviewed Dorian about the hospitality aspects and realities of local music.

Coco Solid: What do you like about this kind of work? What is it that keeps you working here, in the bar/hospitality side of live music?

Dorian Noval: For me, it’s like a family environment. And this place … it’s central to everything I guess, in terms of Auckland. I feel it’s really rare to have a workplace like this. To have a respectful employer with kind and fun workmates. People who are also all musicians, who understand what this work is actually like. I like how supportive and caring we all are of each other. They are my family.

How do you find working right in town, on Karangahape Road? That must be pretty intense.

It doesn’t feel that way anymore. It feels like my living room these days!

So what are some of the harder aspects of doing this kind of work?

The usual. A lot of scary men. The drunk entitlement and how they behave. Having to tell off drunk people for doing dumb shit, then them getting annoyed at you and making you feel like a loser mum. A lot of people, the way they talk and treat you when you’re serving them… it’s like I’m a non-human sometimes. It’s hard when I’m in a bad mood – which is all of the time. People expect you to engage in a conversation with them, like you owe them something. And when I don’t wanna talk I’m ‘mean’. They tell me to cheer up or smile.

How do you handle that?

I go behind the beer fridge and cry!

(Both crack up with dark undertones)

So this still comes up for you as an issue? It never goes away with this job I guess.

Yeah, it really gets to me actually. This stuff probably comes up every single shift.

Do you think being in bands makes your understanding about live venues more complex?

I don’t think so. If I go elsewhere to play, I’m not sure how that venue works so I can’t really say. I only know what it’s like at Wine Cellar.

Even if they’re in the same venue you’re switching mindsets I guess. You must have experiences when you go to other bars though, outside of this safety zone? As a patron… a musician…

Yeah. Some sound dudes, oh my god. One time I was literally holding my gear, my instruments were in my hands! And the sound guy says to me “oh we’re actually closed”. He then starts talking to my boyfriend at the time, who was standing beside me about the gear I needed. Him, not me, the person playing. Getting groped at the clubs and not having the control of the situation that I would have if I was at work messes me up too. But then I don’t really go anywhere else other than Wine Cellar and Whammy.

Working behind the bar here must make you even more angry to that kind of assumption

Hardout.

So as well as making music, this is part of your adult identity now too?

Yeah it’s weird, but I guess so. I did my WSET’s a couple of years ago (The Wine and Spirit Education Trust exams). I’ve got a sommelier licence, I’ve learnt a lot about wine. I even made a batch of wine last year.

And coming from a punk background, music will always be in the picture too?

Yes. We have a rehearsal space available here so it’s easy for me if ever I wanna practice or have a jam with my workmates. When I moved to Auckland I played more experimental music, but then I stopped for ages. Then Emily got me to play drums for Emily Edrosa and it felt really good. I was so happy to play pop music for someone I love and respect. I’m happy she reminded me that playing music is cool, it lifted a weight off my shoulders that I didn’t even know was there. It’s like it’s my emotional punching bag.

I think people only think of musicians or industry types when they talk about a safer music community, but you’re literally the middle-point between musicians and audiences on the night. Both sides want a drink… everyone expects different things from you… and you know both roles. What’s that like?

Some musicians don’t know what it’s like to work in a bar or to work in hospitality. And a lot of audiences don’t know what it’s like to be a musician. Many people have a worrying amount of entitlement. I’ve had a venue owner and his friends crowd over me because they dropped their drink and they expected me to replace it. I didn’t know who they were either and to be honest I don’t really have to. They got angry about it – I’m not gonna buy you a new drink bro.

You’re just a robot programmed to quench them, right?

I’m not joking, sometimes people talk to you like you are a robot.

Do you think it’s a different experience for women working behind a bar, compared to your male workmates?

I try not to think about it too much cos then I’ll just get jealous.

(Both crack up)

Girl, same.

I will keep an eye on girls if there are people being gross towards them especially if they’re really drunk. I will just ask them if they’re okay a lot. This environment is different though, it’s pretty safe compared to others. I go out and I realise how lucky I am to have that.

What are the people like who come here? Apart from all the artists and musicians coming through, what are the other patrons like?

Rich old white people. Nerds. Randoms. I hear ‘it’s so quirky’ or ‘boho’ or ‘grunge’ a lot when people come into the bar. And we get a lot of backpackers because we’re in the Lonely Planet LOL

Yo! I guess you’ve become a connoisseur of sorts.

Yeah but… I also hate all that snobby shit. Someone comes into the bar and I tell them what I think, if they ask. People forget drinking alcohol is a luxury. I just think we shouldn’t be jerks about it.

Why do you work in this industry?

This is what I know. These people are my family.

What are some of things you wanna see locally change in terms of the culture of bars and venues, some of the things you witness that you think ‘damn, we’ve really gotta change that’.

We have pretty good discourse here. Things like ‘that person is an abusive partner and we’re not comfortable with them being in here’. They can’t come in. We talk about those issues as a staff openly, we make sure everyone feels safe.

That’s cool. And rare.

It is.

Who are the kinds of patrons you connect with? Who do you feel most comfortable with?

It might sound ‘bad’, but I do look out for women of colour a lot, because I guess we connect just by existing. Like our person is already a political statement or a form of resistance. Some of the men who come in here, they stand over you, they don’t know personal space. After they’ve had a few they get really loud and it can get scary, so I feel the need to protect these women. Also the homeless people on K’Rd who sometimes come in, I like to give them a bit of time sometimes. I try and put myself in their shoes and be a little generous with them, cos they get treated pretty unfairly. I also have to remember sometimes when you give people an inch, they will take a mile.

Do you feel when you’re here you have more power to control someone’s experience? The way they feel?

Not control, but yeah maybe just try and improve and simplify things for other people – I can’t improve much elsewhere. Just gotta keep people safe and happy when they’re here.

If someone was dreaming of starting up a venue or licenced establishment, what is some of your first-hand advice you’d give them? Things you’d tell them as a wahine who works behind the bar?

I don’t really know what it’s like to run an entire venue, but just by seeing how Rohan operates, and Lu and Tom from Whammy… my advice is people should talk more. Talk about the issues and listen and think about how everyone actually feels. That’s what it’s like here. That’s what makes it work. Just look after the people around you, cos it’s hard and it can get scary.

How are you navigating those scary scenarios in bar work? Have you had to toughen up over the years do you think?

Na I think it’s softened me! But I at least know how to try how to handle problems better, I try to understand where people are coming from. Like asking someone to leave, or people not listening to you – you have to learn not to lose your cool… which I’m not very good at… but I’m trying!

Has it opened you up to the art of chit chat and communication?

Nope. No chit-chat, I don’t wanna do that.

So when people confide in you, it’s strictly real talk?

Yeah. But people hardly ever confide in me! I think it’s my face, maybe I’m too evil-looking.

I find that hard to believe, you’re pretty iconic.

No randos are ever deep with me!

It’s like my fav Vietnamese restaurant. If the service is aloof the food will always be incredible… maybe you’re like that.

What are those other places trying to hide!

(Both crack up)

But some view what you do as sacred work… isn’t the ‘barkeep’ considered up there with being a sage or a priest?  

It is? Because some people treat you like toilet water! I just try to do my job. I keep it simple. And salty.

Equalise My Vocals is a panel event and music showcase on gender equality in music happening in May 2017. As part of the project, Coco Solid will be conducting a series of interviews for The Spinoff, talking to a wide range of women, transgender and non-binary people, within all sectors of New Zealand music. Overall this project is about sharing stories and pooling knowledge and experience, while building a rolodex of resources for music-lovers (of all genders) who might need them in the future.

Read more here:

Announcing Equalise My Vocals: A conversation about gender inequality in NZ music

An update on Coco Solid’s campaign to fix NZ music’s gender problem

‘People want a reward for ticking the boxes … That’s not going to cut it. That’s not equality’: A conversation with Jessie Moss

‘In all honesty it’s a hostile environment’: A music promoter on kicking down the boys’ club doors

‘Everyone wants to shake they ass’: Fully Explicit, a club night for the queer community, people of colour and all genders


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