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Cloud Calling at the Loveditch Halloween gig.
Cloud Calling at the Loveditch Halloween gig.

WellingtonDecember 24, 2023

Inside the underground world of Wellington’s flat gigs

Cloud Calling at the Loveditch Halloween gig.
Cloud Calling at the Loveditch Halloween gig.

In the capital, the coolest performance venue for up-and-coming musicians is someone else’s home.

At rush hour, Walmer Street in Haitaitai is swarmed with traffic, but on this particular Saturday night, it’s filled with something different: the echoes of a festival. 

Inside a rickety flat, a metal band is headbanging with a diabolical ferocity. The crammed-in crowd scream like backup singers. Submerged in a sea of deep red lights, this is a rock conquest and their souls are on the line. “Don’t worry, it’s getting knocked down,” someone shouts. We’ve entered a world of reckless abandon.

Hidden among Pōneke’s valleys and side-streets is a vast world of underground concerts. Flat gigs have exploded in popularity in recent years, opening up a new realm of possibility for musicians and breathing new life into the capital’s music scene.

Loveditch is one of several Victorian villas in the Devon Street valley, colloquially known as “the ditch”. It’s home to all kinds of students and creative types, and the epicentre of the unofficial gig scene.

Entering the ditch feels like being transported to an underground pixie hollow. In its trenches the magic of live music fills the thick air; even in the daytime you can often catch the sound of an enthusiastic drum solo. 

At Loveditch’s Halloween gig, the path to the flat is lit by fairy lights, guiding each guest inside. Instead of a stoic bouncer, two smiling hosts are waiting in the front garden to check tickets. 

The gig is an array of colour: immaculate makeup, camp costumes, homemade tapestries on the walls. The house was built as lodgings for prison guards at The Terrace Gaol in the 1880s. That’s hard to imagine now. Loveditch has been reborn as a space of free creative expression.  

Maiden Name, who describe themselves as a post-gender ethereal rock band, take centre stage. The house gig environment suits them, their performance elevated by the intimate space. There’s no stage and no distinction between the band and the crowd.

Maiden Name performing at Loveditch. (Source: Vivvy Tong)

“Having people right up close jamming was honestly a real ego boost, I felt like hot shit,” says guitarist Lily Hodgson afterwards.

“It was chaotic in a good and energetic way,” says synth player Fox Woolin. “The crowd had a good vibe and some of us were a bit tipsy which made it even more fun.”

For Maiden Name, flat gigs are a natural response to the high fees and scarcity of slots that make city venues inaccessible to new musicians. “If [the venue] says yes, which most of them won’t, they’ll say ‘we’ve got availability in eight months…” guitarist Hodgson says. 

The key to a great flat gig venue is one in an isolated spot that is less likely to attract noise complaints. CBD fringe locations tend to work; student areas are also ideal.

Haylee Hailwood is the vocalist and rhythm guitarist of ‘90s grunge-inspired band Cruelly. Her favourite flat gig venue was a secluded apartment on Constable Street in Newtown. 

“For a very tight space, the energy was massive. Everyone was jumping around, and at the end of the set, I jumped in the mosh with my guitar. In an unmonitored space, people can just go as crazy as they want to,” she says. 

Cloud Calling at the Loveditch Halloween gig. (Source: Vivvy Tong)

Tom, who hosted the Constable Street gig, proudly claims credit. “I love living in a house-gig flat, being able to provide our space that has so many good attributes for it for acts and audiences to experience a different flavour of seeing live music. People tend to be respectful of the space, and we’ve never had any crazy damage or issues you’d expect. We’ve never had noise control called.”

Gigs in flats are typically free. If there is a door charge, it’ll be koha or a fundraiser. The Loveditch gig supported Women’s Refuge. It’s easier to draw a crowd to a cheap or free gig – especially when attendees can bring their own drinks.  “Being able to go to a gig with people you love and not have to pay the price of bar drinks removes a huge barrier,” says Hedley Dew, front man and keyboardist of post-punk-inspired The Pink Frosts.

As well as being financially more accessible, house gigs often cater to a more alternative audience demographic than those in town. On Courtenay Place, I sometimes feel too aware of my bleached eyebrows. At Loveditch’s Halloween gig, I fear my Daisy Jones costume, featuring my flatmate’s Glassons shorts, creates a false sense of cis-straightness. 

“Pōneke doesn’t have enough queer nightlife spaces, other than Ivy. I feel like house gigs are for the people that don’t belong in Ivy,” says Maiden Name’s bassist Milicent Ghosh.

“I would never go to a club in Wellington dressed up in a cool costume, I’d feel too judged,” says Loveditch tenant Tamara. “Queer and alternative culture thrives more at house gigs than in town.”

Day Moon performing at Loveditch. (Source: Vivvy Tong).

 

Joel Manu Cosgrove is the founder of Eyegum, an alternative live music collective that hosted 53 house gigs across Wellington between 2014 and 2015. The collective has since become one of the most influential players in Wellington’s alternative music scene, running the Welcome to Nowhere festival and Eyegum Free Wednesdays at San Fran.

Cosgrove tells me how Eyegum began. “In 2014, a bunch of venues closed down at the same time, which made a dire situation even worse, so we started putting on house parties, and it worked.”

Eyegum’s biggest house gig was hosted across two flats in the Devon Street ditch, with a crowd of 350 people. Suren Unka, Career Girls, Mongo Skato and ENT performed. “The lineup was so good. Once the second band had finished, everyone moved over to the next house to see the last acts. That was an epic night. We turned away so many people because we were at capacity.”

After being shut down early by noise control, the night ended with Chelsea Jade playing in Cosgrove’s lounge to 13 other people at 1am. “That was magic.”

If there’s one flat that is the spiritual home of Wellington’s house gig scene, it’s the former Morrisons Building on Garrett Street. The three-storey industrial building is shared by 16 tenants who have made the space extra cosy with carpets, fridge magnets and lots of paper lantern light shades. 

The walls are scattered with protest signs, posters and paintings directly on the wall. There’s a picture of David Seymour as Ken (of Barbie fame) saying “My job… it’s just racism”.  

“Our landlord doesn’t care very much, because this building is due for a complete and utter refit in 2027. We have a certain degree of free rein over the aesthetics and construction” says Perry, one of the tenants. 

The sheer amount of space and event equipment makes Garrett Street an ideal venue. It’s been an active host flat for decades – since the 90s at least, tenants Tom and Ollie say. They reminisce about a couple of notable Wellington gig flats that have since disappeared. “House gigs exist because there’s a lack of venues, like shit keeps closing down, [but the gig flats] keep getting ripped down,” Ollie says.

The Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer, who performed here in 2013, described the Garrett Street flat as “a political and bad-ass art space”. It has been the birthplace and nesting base of several Pōneke community groups and activist movements, including Mouthful Radio and the local wing of the Occupy Movement. 

Many of their gigs have a “kaupapa core” to engage audiences and harbour the urgency of social change, for example their recent gig for PAPAs: People Against Prisons in Aotearoa. “[These events aren’t] just escapism, we’re actually attempting to build community and awareness for important causes to our generation,” Perry says.

 

One of the biggest differences between hosting gigs in a flat and in a bar or other venue is that a flat is an unregulated space – which can be risky if anything goes wrong.  

Tom, the host of the apartment party at Constable Street, believes the no-rule environment is exactly what makes flat gigs so good. “I think it’s the lack of regulations that enable house shows to provide [the unique experience] they do. We hire bouncers at the shows that we think are necessary but not every show requires that. If hosts don’t have things in place to ensure safety, then they shouldn’t be hosting a public event.”

Tharushi Bowatte, who performs under the name Museum Stork, recently hosted her first house gig, in a long-running party flat. She’s less sanguine about the risks involved.

“I think sometimes house gigs can be very dangerous, especially for young women. It’s very obvious as a musician when people view you as the background music-of-choice for their raucous drunk night,” she says. 

She picked up an injury that night, but otherwise, things went pretty well. “I split my lip in the mosh. Before I even had time to fall someone was pulling me up with the strength of the emo gods. Safer spaces don’t have to be sterile and quiet. You can split your lip in the mosh of a safe space.”

Vivvy and Tamara, the hosts from Loveditch, believe their house gigs are safer than any official concert. “We have a kitchen right there with medicine and water,” Vivvy says. Tamara adds: “We’re really anxiety and neurodivergent-friendly. If people are feeling anxious or overstimulated, we can give them a quieter low stimulation zone with fairy lights to hang out in.”

Garrett Street sometimes hires security for larger gigs, but most of the responsibility falls on the hosts. We have a kaitiaki structure in this flat, where we take on the role of making sure everyone’s having a good time and it’s safe,” tenant Tom says.

Silva Spiral perform at Garrett Street. (Source: Francesca Pietkiewicz)

The gig that night at Garrett Street was dubbed “a night of femme electro magic”, featuring Silva Spiral and Lorazepam Milktooth’s Estelle Sierra, and Babetech. The music was niche and experimental, but nothing is too weird for Garrett Street, which once hosted a gig which used power tools as instruments. It’s a space for diverse artists to express and experiment with truly authentic freedom.

As Sierra plays, one attendee tells me the music makes her feel like “a little piece of coral floating through space”. The room is full, but the crowd is gentle and thoughtful, all brought together by the music. It’s a house party done perfectly.

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