Today is Love Your Local Venue Day, part of NZ Music Month, and it marks the 15th anniversary of beloved Auckland venue The Wine Cellar. Gareth Shute pays tribute to the best dive bar in town.
This piece is republished with permission from Audioculture..
The Wine Cellar has become a well-loved landmark within the live music scene in Auckland over the past 15 years, especially when it comes to indie, folk, or experimental music. The venue picks up on the indie cool that K’Rd has always had and the owner is a lovely chap called Rohan Evans.
Rohan grew up in the Coromandel on his family’s winery, Purangi Estate, and only took a serious interest in the local music scene when he began studying at Waikato University (where he also DJ’d at Contact FM). He was enraptured by Flying Nun acts that came through town, but also Hamilton locals like The Watershed, Book of Martyrs and later The Hollow Grinders, Pumice, and GROK.
Rohan spent time overseas after university before ending up back at the family winery, and that’s when he came up with the idea to start the Wine Cellar. “I was looking in the Skyway building on Karangahape Road. There was a cute little space in there so we phoned the number in the window. That was how I first met Murray Rose, who owns lots of properties on K’ Rd. When I explained what we want to do, he marched me and my dad across the road and down the stairs of St Kevin’s Arcade and said ‘what about in here?’. It was just this big empty room filled with building materials. They’d been renovating the storefronts upstairs, so the joiners were keeping all their stuff inside.”
He modelled his new bar on the neighbourhood Izakaya bars he’d visited during trips to Japan, combined with the DIY feel of the East German bars he saw in the 90s. Progress was delayed for six months by council red tape – the space had been listed as residential and he had to apply for it to be reassigned as commercial and get the owner to install fire protection. He spent this time creating items for the bar fitout using the workshop at the family winery.
“The isolation of living in the Coromandel meant I put my hand to a few things, including the bar-top made out of giant rimu barrels and the engraved signs with somewhat regrettable Tolkienian fonts. My father thought we should have really big signs, but I wanted it to look like the bar might’ve always been there.
“There wasn’t any intention for it to be a music venue. It was just a dive bar, where it’s the people and the things that you’re drinking that are important, so it’s always been dark and dingy and recycled.”
Rohan first hosted a band when he let a band of jazz school students play a private function. Soon he was approached by blues player Tom Rodwell who wanted his two-piece, Rent Party, to play in the corner just inside the bar’s front door. The bass player in Rent Party was sound engineer Paul Winstanley who taught Rohan the basics of doing live sound. Soon the Wine Cellar was putting on regular gigs.
“From there, we started getting more of the art-noise acts like Dean Roberts. Then I had the terrifying experience of having a gig by Fats White (aka Brent Hayward, formerly of Shoes This High). They were a five-piece and that was our first noise complaint. The Broken Heartbreakers were the first band to play with a full drum kit, though their drummer, Rick McShane, played very quietly. The first big shows were probably Chris Knox and Bill Direen.”
The small bar room even hosted a couple of international acts brought over by local promoter Matthew Crawley: Crooked Fingers (the singer from Archers of Loaf) and Micah P Hinson. Just as exciting for Rohan was the chance to host local indie legends such as Graeme Jefferies. “He did a show at the Kings Arms and not a lot of people came to it. So one of his friends organised a last minute show with me for all the people who had missed it. We packed out the Wine Cellar for a very special show with Pumice in support. It ended up being one of the last ones we did in the bar room.”
With the interior of the Wine Cellar beginning to feel cramped, Rohan allowed larger groups to play in the open alcove at the rear of the bar which backed onto the adjoining dance club, Calibre. He recalls great shows there like “The Crabbs versus Teenwolf”; US noise rockers Yellow Swans (who had four bass amps and a Roland JC-120 on full); and the equally noisy Rock and Roll Machine (with two Fender Twins “cranked all the way up”).
Noise problems were a constant issue due to the fact that sound echoed off the buildings out into Myer’s Park. In search of a solution, Rohan asked the owner of Calibre if he could sublet their back room which had a door connecting it to the alleyway behind the Wine Cellar. This allowed the Wine Cellar to have a performance space separate from the main bar area. Rohan gradually began accumulating gear for the space, building up backline that musicians could use free of charge.
After the Odeon Lounge venue closed, Wine Cellar took over Vitamin S, a weekly musical improvisation night that mixed free jazz, noise, and experimental music. It’s a regular Wine Cellar event that continues to this day.
Rohan’s access to the back room was disrupted when Calibre was abruptly sold. “It was bought by one of the customers, a young electrical engineer who was really into the gym and house music. The new owner thought he owned the property itself, so stopped paying rent. The first sign of trouble was when the landlord asked me to pay him directly any money for subletting the backroom. Then the landlord locked Calibre out, but they broke in and opened anyway.
“Then they got locked out with bailiffs who sold all their possessions. I rescued some sub [woofers] owned by the Oceania hire company that were about to be sold off. I hoped that I’d just be able to split the lease up so I could keep using the backroom, but the landlord didn’t want to do that. Instead I ended up working with a neighbour from upstairs, Mike Taliaferro, and the two of us took over the whole of Calibre and relaunched it as Whammy Bar.”
Earlier this year, in response to the Christchurch earthquake, Rohan organised a charity gig which ran over both venues. It was among a number of shows he’s put on for a good cause, whether that was raising money for a regular customer’s cat who needed an operation, encouraging people to vote, or helping promoter Matthew Crawley put on a fundraising show when he fell into debt.
At one point, Rohan even jokingly put on a show to raise money to repair the toilets in Whammy Bar. “In the Wine Cellar we only ever broke one toilet in 11 years, whereas in eight years of running Whammy Bar, I replaced nine of them.”
A regular event held for many years across the Wine Cellar and Whammy Bar was the Borderline Festival, which sought to gain an audience for new and interesting bands, including ones outside of Auckland, like Wellington art-punk outfit Mister Sterile Assembly or local act God Bows To Math, who’d only done a few small shows when they played Borderline in 2012.
Rohan ran both bars in tandem for eight years before finally selling Whammy to its current owners, Lucy Macrae and Tom Anderson. Over his time running both venues, Rohan has supported the creative scene by employing a number of musicians and artists as staff. Musicians who have worked at one of the two venues include Dorian Noval (Exit Fear, Tooms), Harriet Ellis (Bozo, Vincent HL), Yolanda Fagan (Echo Ohs, Bozo, Vincent HL), Perry Mahoney (Civil Union), Joe Silva (PCP Eagles), Oscar Dowling (New Gum Sarn), Durham Fenwick (New Gum Sarn), and Stan Woodhouse (Skyscraper Stan).
A huge number of music acts came through the Wine Cellar and Whammy Bar while Rohan was running both venues. He says he’s enjoyed watching many of them grow.
“It was nice seeing Steve Abel going from being this hesitant solo artist through to confidently running this amazing band that had Geoff Maddock [Goldenhorse] playing guitar, Milan Borich [Pluto] on drums and Gareth Thomas [Goodshirt] on accordion.
“Hollie’s trajectory with Tiny Ruins was also great to watch. I can’t claim any ownership of that, but it did make me happy to watch. She played some early shows while she was still living in Wellington. … Her first album release was a few back-to-back nights in the Wine Cellar. Then the second album release involved me going to Crystal Palace to do sound for a packed house of 600 people. Watching musicians develop like that is really special, though I end up getting a wrench now when some of them are too big to really play shows at the Wine Cellar because there’d be too many people.”
A number of the bands that came through the Wine Cellar and Whammy Bar almost seemed to create scenes unto themselves. One example is Lucy Stewart who played in many bands and ran the regular Country Club events. Similarly, Andrew Tolley has played dozens of times in a variety of guises: playing solo as Mr Slackjaw or in the bands Smokin Daggers, Blood Bags, and The Bloody Souls.
In September 2015, Wine Cellar took over a new space for its musical performances, with Whammy Backroom taking its old location. It continues to be a place that fosters new talent, playing host to early-career shows by acts including Nadia Reid, Wax Chattels and The Beths, who first found an audience in Auckland at the Wine Cellar and Whammy before setting off to take on the world.
Despite stepping away from Whammy, Rohan has remained busy. He has started his own record label, Arcade Recordings, and is increasingly being called on to record acts (sometimes in Wine Cellar itself on nights when it’s closed). The album that he recorded and mixed for Reb Fountain, Hopeful & Hopeless, won album of the year at the 2018 New Zealand Country Music Awards. He’s also trying his hand at mastering albums, including for breakthrough groups like Green Grove and Polyester, and has contributed a number of live recordings for bFM’s About Town segment on Tuesday’s Morning Glory show.
Even with all this going on, if you head down to St Kevin’s Arcade at 10pm on a weekend night you’re still likely to find Rohan behind the sound desk at Wine Cellar. The venues that he started may have become institutions in the local scene, but so has the man himself. Long may his good work continue.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.