by W.S. McCallum
A Slow Decline: The Space Monster Saga
It has been just over a year since Space Monster officially closed, leaving indie music in Wanganui without a regular venue for visiting acts. Now that the dust has settled, it is worthwhile having a look back and seeing just what went wrong and what lessons might be drawn from it.
Space Monster opened on the premises of Stink Magnetic Recording Company after Dylan Herkes left for Wellington in 2011. For a while, indie music fans in Wanganui found themselves with a surfeit of choice, with Jack Mitchell-Anyon offering music at Space Monster, right next door to often competing shows put on by Brandon Sayring at the ARC Theatre in the old Chinese laundry. It was an unheralded luxury for local music fans: having two good music venues, side by side, and even being able to hop from one to the other on the same night and take in several acts over several hours on a Friday and/or Saturday night or even week nights on occasion. During that period, Wanganui sometimes had more to offer punters than Wellington could on a given night in terms of indie music. The days when The Eye of Night offered indie music shows every few weeks or even months and fans nonetheless felt themselves lucky had definitely became a thing of the past and it seemed that things were going upwards and onwards.
The first change came when Brandon Sayring closed the ARC Theatre and moved to Wellington in 2013, bringing this golden period for indie music in Wanganui to an end, but there was still Space Monster, which continued offering shows on a very regular semi-regular basis.
However, from 2013 to 2015, Space Monster experienced a slow and steady decline owing to a number of factors.
The old attendees who used to turn up at The Eye of Night and the ARC Theatre tailed off for one reason or another. There was some natural attrition involved: various people left town, or “grew up” and stopped attending because they were now in nesting couples mode or whatever, but there were other factors involved too.
Space Monster seemed to have a rougher edge than its predecessors: it was more open to all-comers than previous venues had been. Unlike ARC, for instance, usually there were no locals on duty at the entrance; the owner, Jack Mitchell-Anyon, tended to be busy handling the desk and the sound side of things, while one or more of the members of visiting bands or their followers tended to be left with the job of sizing up punters and gathering the door charge off them. It was impossible for visiting musos to know which punters were trouble and who they should turn away, so they seldom (if ever) did. And some locals learned to sneak in later in the evening, when they knew there would either be no one manning the front desk or they would be able to bluff their way in by saying they had paid earlier on.
This open-entry policy had negative impacts on various levels, mainly to the detriment of those who came to Space Monster just wanting to enjoy the music and have a good time.
The first impact was in terms of the variety of music that could be offered there; the audiences, being more boisterous and larger in numbers than at the venues that had preceded it, turned out to be more receptive to group acts with a conventional amplified format. It was noticeable that various “quiet” acts like Tiny Ruins did not return to Space Monster after their first gig there, and even solo acts with an established track record of playing there on occasion preferred to play elsewhere, resulting in Delaney Davidson playing at the Whanganui Musicians’ Club, for instance. One of my salient memories of Space Monster will forever be Tiny Ruins’ bass player giving various local late-adolescent males in the audience the stink eye because they simply did not know how to shut up and appreciate the music they were being offered. Those acts that could hold their own in the volume department, like The All-Seeing Hand, tended to fare better at Space Monster.
The second adverse impact of uncontrolled entry was that thefts were more likely at Space Monster. People learned to keep a close eye on their belongings there, and notable heists included the takings box on at least one night (left unwatched by members of a visiting band assigned door duty), and Jack Mitchell-Anyon’s girlfriend’s purse on another occasion. Unfortunately, Space Monster was not the sort of place where you could necessarily leave things lying around and assume they would be there when you returned.
The third negative impact of Space Monster’s open-entry policy, was that Space Monster’s attendees had to put up with the anti-social effects of drunkenness and drug-taking to a far greater extent than they had at ARC, Stink Magnetic or The Eye of Night. For example, in late 2013, I was physically assaulted by a local junkie who was off his head, and was left to face him down while a sheepish crowd looked on, with the venue’s owner nowhere in sight. Nor did any support come when said junkie subsequently decided to pursue a campaign of harrassment against me, resulting in me filing a trespass notice against him after he decided to turn up at my house. I was surprised when the individual in question was not banned from Space Monster, but then Jack Mitchell-Anyon did have a very hands-off approach to security, his position being that there was no need for door bouncers as Space Monster was not that sort of venue, and that if anyone had a problem with it, they would just have to toughen up to life’s vicissitudes.
Unfortunately, this and other incidents inside and outside his doors that I experienced, witnessed, and was told about, were sufficient to lend these words a hollow air. From time to time, local yokels wanting to stir things up would either come in and cause trouble, or they would lie in wait outside in order to pick fights with Space Monster attendees. In spite of Jack Mitchell-Anyon’s claims to the media that there were never any “fisticuffs” in his venue, there certainly were confrontations and violent incidents there, although he may have been unaware of this, because they tended to occur at times when he was not around.
I was told by various people who stopped going there that they did not feel safe at Space Monster, and there were reasonable grounds for feeling that way. With its long, dark corridors and non-existent security, combined with the anti-social behaviour of certain people fuelled by over-indulgence in booze and/or drugs, and a nonchalant managerial policy, it could be an unpleasant place to be in at times.
So it was not too surprising that, the last time I was at Space Monster (Saturday 30 October 2015), things degenerated badly. Various people who were not regulars turned up that evening and were getting belligerent even during the show. At one point, one of this bunch kicked a cardboard beer carton at me with a “whatcha gonna do about it?” look. I left shortly after the show ended and subsequently heard that, after my departure, the evening had turned into a brawl and that the Council had decided to shut the place down.
The violence was just one factor in Space Monster’s closure. The Wanganui District Council had had Space Monster in its sights for other reasons for some time. Space Monster did not have a liquor licence and its attendees’ habit of drinking outside in the streets in violation of the downtown liquor-free zone was monitored closely by a Council-owned and police-operated surveillance camera that had been installed across the street from the front entrance, with numerous police drive-bys and the occasional drop-in ensuing in the hope of nabbing boozers. Noise control was also a persistent issue, aggravated by Jack Mitchell-Anyon’s habit of opening all the windows while bands were playing and even putting a PA speaker at the front entrance for a while, with a cat-and-mouse game ensuing between him and Council noise control officers.
Beyond noise and alcohol issues, the WDC also, more legimitately, took issue over various safety problems posed by Space Monster’s location; the old Wanganui Chronicle building. It is a dilapidated building with a rickety interior that is long overdue for renovation. The gigs were being held in a first-floor room with only one wooden staircase as an exit. Quite regularly, there were over 100 people crammed into that room, which is well beyond the numbers allowed by fire and earthquake safety regulations. Law (and common sense) dictates the need for two exits under such circumstances. There was a second exit way down the other end of the building, down the back stairs, but it is safe to say very few people knew about it and it was kept permanently locked, so it was not a viable escape option in the event of a fire or earthquake. While Wanganui does not have much of a history of earthquakes, Space Monster definitely was a fire risk. The building’s old electrical fittings were a hazard to the extent that I saw wiring in the walls spontaneously combust on two occasions during gigs and I remember at least one fire brigade call-out.
So these are the various factors that brought about Space Monster’s “closure” in late 2015 as a regular venue. If there are lessons to be drawn for anyone hoping to run a similar venture in Wanganui or in another of New Zealand’s provincial towns, it would be (a) keep a watch on who you let in, (b) choose premises that are not a fire hazard or an earthquake risk, and (c) maintain a low profile to keep the Council and the police off your back.
© W.S. McCallum 17 November 2016
Bill Direen & The Builders
The Pyramid Club, Wellington
15 October 2016
The prevailing theory regarding indie music in New Zealand, as espoused by National Radio’s indie kids in their Saturday afternoon shows, is that it was invented around the time Flying Nun released the double Dunedin EP in 1982, upon which, practically overnight, Dunedin bands redefined the sound of Kiwi music and the rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, history is only that uncomplicated when seen through the simplifying prism of the present-day, and the 1980s indie scene was rather more complex than can be characterised by adopting a Music 101 approach. Setting aside the in-roads made in Auckland (for example Propeller Records from 1980 onwards), it is often forgotten that the pivotal city in terms of indie music in New Zealand at that time was in fact Christchurch, not Dunedin. There is now a whole younger generation of indie music fans who have been raised on the “Dunedin Sound” archetype to the extent that it is news to many of them that Flying Nun was actually a Christchurch record label, and that the Flying Nun roster in the early 1980s featured just as many groups from Christchurch as from Dunedin, in addition to which, to some of them, it is surprising to the point of sacrilege to have it pointed out that various of the leading lights of the so-called “Dunedin Sound”, were not even from Dunedin: the Kilgour Brothers (The Clean, The Great Unwashed) were from North Canterbury. Chris Knox was from Invercargill, and so on and so forth...
While Chris Knox (from Invercargill), was getting started musically and reshaping the music scene in Dunedin in the mid-to-late seventies, there was another leading light doing the same thing in Christchurch who would also end up on Flying Nun in the early 1980s: Bill Direen (born in Palmerston North). For those who were not around at the time, it can’t be over-emphasised just what a musical wasteland Christchurch was in the late 1970s. No Internet with things like Spotify or SoundCloud kids; there were three radio stations that played music that wasn’t for wrinklies: 3ZB (music for housewives with huge numbers of ads), Radio Avon (high-rotate 70s AOR), and 3ZM (much of a muchness, with slightly more variety in the evenings). Student radio in the form of Radio U was just getting started at that time, with very limited airtime, under restricted broadcasting licenses issued on a monthly basis. And the live music fare on offer in Christchurch consisted of covers bands playing in beer barns. This is the scene into which Bill Direen stepped into the late 70s, beginning the slow, difficult process of filling a creative and cultural void with a series of different bands, the best-known of which is the Builders.
Whenever I hear them, the songs Bill Direen wrote in Christchurch in the late 1970s and early 1980s have the ability to transport me back to the strange world of that city in those days: the monolithic, condescending establishment; the cold, run-down flats; the boozy, racist, hostile streets; and the nascent hopes and dreams of a generation wanting something better, against the odds. With the 60s boom years already firmly in the past, having been replaced with economic depression, the vibrant counter-culture of that decade had been sapped dry by co-opting commercialisation and mainstreaming, leaving us to bear the brunt of the reactionary wave that passed through New Zealand society whilst Muldoon was Prime Minister. Yet in spite of that sense of place that they evoke in me, Bill Direen’s lyrics and music also transcend that milieu: he was a keen student of the New Zealand literary tradition and soaked up influences from classical and avant-garde composers, as well as the likes of Boris Vian and the Velvet Underground. His music was not defined by Christchurch; it is tangibly part of something bigger and broader.
This broader dimension was most tellingly pointed to on the third stop on his 2016 New Zealand tour, at The Pyramid Club in Wellington. At the start of his performance, which lasted over two hours, he made a point of showcasing various songs he wrote whilst living in Wellington during the late 1980s, referencing life in a flat in Newtown and giving just as much of a tangible sense of that time and place as his earlier Christchurch songs had given me when I heard them on Radio U in the early 1980s. But the broader dimension was present in his set too, which included experimental soundscapes and poetry from Medieval times through to R.A.K. Mason, and songs Bill Direen wrote in far-off places like Paris.
Bill Direen played a combination of instruments that evening, starting off on acoustic guitar, switching to keyboards, and then to electric guitar, and even using a cell phone for accompaniment at one point. He was backed by two pairs of musicians who alternated performing with him, enabling shifts in sounds that worked very well and kept the performance quite varied. Nonetheless, there was still some restlessness from the audience in the face of the more experimental pieces during the earlier part of the show, with one old fellow whispering to his wife not to worry because he would be playing normal songs later on....
They weren’t disappointed. Overall, Bill Direen managed to nicely balance the avant-garde material with hook-driven indie guitar stuff, providing a fine showcasing of his very large repertoire, built up over the last 40-or-so years. It was a show that held my attention throughout, and one that I had eagerly anticipated, as the last time I had seen him perform live was in Christchurch in 1991. As well as reminding the initially sceptical audience members that he could sling an electric guitar with the best of them, his command of the spoken word hit home again and again, in songs covering the range from confinement in prison walls to confinement in relations and in big cities, through to observations on street life, the crazy money-driven society we live in and many, many other topics. It was a verbal tour de force. It says a lot about how culturally backward New Zealand society is even today, that in the conventional national pantheon of heroes and icons, Bill Direen does not hold a bigger place. He himself pointed out this at his show by thanking the owners of The Pyramid Club, adding that “there are not that many venues that would have us”. However, the impact, the quality, the length and the breadth of Bill Direen’s songwriting is such that, while he may be overlooked by the cultural mainstream in New Zealand, he cannot plausibly be ignored.
© W.S. McCallum 16 October 2016
Tape Wolves, Tigers of the Sea, Guantanamo Baywatch
Wellington 8 October 2016
Valhalla, which is a hole-in-the wall place on Vivian Street that is usually more of a hard rock/heavy metal venue, was hosting a slightly different crowd that Saturday evening (me included). The place filled up fairly quickly, with the audience having to step back somewhat as the opening act was playing in front of the stage. The locale had a good atmosphere, and the drinks were moderately priced compared to some of Wellington’s licensed premises...
The Tape Wolves, the latest variant/chapter of the Mysterious Tape Man saga, set the bar high with a raucous, crazy set of surf rock instrumentals accompanied by flying drumsticks, the occasional animal noise, and much rock’n’roll machismo, all delivered by three masked hairy men in tights and capes. For those in the audience who had not seen the band or a previous incarnation of it before, it was an in-your-frace experience both visually and musically, with the songs flying out and bouncing off the walls with merry abandon. They were flying by the seat of their tights in places, but had sufficient swagger to pull through with great aplomb.
Tigers of the Sea, from the Hutt Valley, had a difficult act to follow but managed to move proceedings on to the next level. Whilst not as sartorially memorable as the masked, costumed mystery men who preceded them, from the stage they delivered a well-honed set of songs that nicely set the scene for the headlining act.
Guantanamo Baywatch were formed in Portland in 2008 and are part of the ongoing revival in late 50s/early 60s style surf and instrumental rock that has been happening on the West Coast of the US since the mid-1990s. Their sound was a fascinating blend of old and new, mixing up their own material with the occasional cover. Back in the days of grunge in the early 1990s, bands from the North-West tended to avoid this sort of music, probably for fear of being a stereotyped as an “oldies” band, but Guantanamo Baywatch transcend such pigeon-holing, having a hybrid sound that looks back to the past whilst at the same time being of these times. In spite of one of their guitarists breaking two strings in rapid succession and having to replace them on-stage whilst being good-naturedly heckled by his bandmates, they held it all together and delivered a very lively performance that had the audience jumping.
© W.S. McCallum 16 October 2016
The Others Way Festival,
2 September 2016
The Others Way 2016 was the second event of its kind in Auckland, involving ten rooms in several venues on and near Karangahape Road in Auckland, with over 40 acts performing from 8 pm on a Friday night through until about 2 am on Saturday morning.
Saying it was full-on is an act of understatement. With such a large number of acts, the event could easily have been spread over two or even three nights, and it was clear from the outset that there was no way anyone except the most attention-deficit afflicted Millennials hopped up on party pills were going to be able to catch much more than half of the acts on the festival programme.
Hoping for the best, camera in hand, I set off to see just how much I could take in before sensory overload forced me to crash.
The good thing about how The Others Way was set up is that all of the venues were within easy walking distance of each other, and various of them were literally just across the road, which made venue-hopping quite easy, unless you were faced with a full house due to a particular act being popular with the punters.
The down side was the fleeting sensations involved in trying to catch so many acts, but it was certainly a tonic after suffering so long in drab and boring W(h)anganui, where alternative music has died a slow miserable death in recent years (but more about that another time).
Nadia Reid (W.S. McCallum)
The first act I saw was Nadia Reid who is a singer-songwriter, and who was performing to a full house at the Galatos. Her songs were about relationships and life and its woes, and it was a good performance, although it felt like the house was too big for her and a more intimate setting would have served her better.
Voom (W.S. McCallum)
Across the road at The Studio, Voom cranked up shortly thereafter and offered an uplifting performance. Watching them, I came to the realisation that they must have been playing for two decades now, and the length of time they had been together showed in the extent to which the songs gelled and everything effortlessly fell into place. They apologised at one point for being crap at social media and not keeping their Facebook page up to date, but it hardly seemed to matter really given how good their playing was.
Emily Edrosa (W.S. McCallum)
I ducked out of Voom’s show before they finished to pop down the road to the Wine Cellar to see Emily Edrosa perform. Now that Street Chant are winding up after releasing their second album, she has decided to go solo and plough on regardless of the whims and vicissitudes of a fickle NZ music industry. She started off solo to perform the first few songs and then invited her drummer and bass player on to perform the rest of the set, and it was a spirited performance, with a bit of “screw you” attitude in evidence in response to the Auckland music scene’s gatekeepers and naysayers who would probably much prefer that she went away. She has commented on-line about how the fact that she is not only a woman who knows how to play electric guitar but also a lesbian has managed to raise a few hackles with insecure males on the NZ music scene, and I personally hope she continues to get right up their noses. It amazes me that here we are in the 21st century, and the same old hermetically-sealed mentalities continue to persist on the rock scene in this country. You have to be this and that and if you don’t fit this or that box or demographic then you get consigned to a musical scrapheap of also-rans. I have run into a fair bit of this attitude myself and sincerely hope this does not happen to Emily as she is one of the most talented performers on the New Zealand music scene and she deserves a lot better than being sidelined by a bunch of second-raters. She certainly won over the audience that night, but Auckland does have its limitations, and there will probably come a time when she needs to move on from the small artificial musical bubble of the Auckland scene in order to find her place in the wider world.
i.e. crazy (W.S. McCallum)
After Emily Edrosa finished her stonking show, just down the corridor in the Whammy Bar’s Back Room I discovered i.e. crazy. I know nothing about this woman, but she stopped me in my tracks. Her act was challenging and captivating, and not for the musically or emotionally faint-hearted. I could detect a bit of a 4AD influence in her sound, but what she was doing was definitely her own thing and made quite an impression.
Anthonie Tonnon (W.S. McCallum)
Watching the clock, I had to cut short my attendance at i.e. crazy’s performance because Anthonie Tonnon was scheduled to start in a few minutes in the Wine Cellar, just next door. Upon arrival, he was just finishing setting up his keyboard and launched into his show first on guitar, then on keyboard, then on both, performing a mix of old and new songs (at least some of them were new to me). His was the most captivating performance of the Others Way Festival for me. Unlike most Kiwi performers, he knows how to interact with the audience, and he did so effortlessly, in stark contrast to all of the other solo performers I saw that evening, abandoning the safety of the stage to walk out among the audience while his keyboard kept playing unaccompanied, and revelling in exotic hand gestures as accompaniment to his keyboard. There was also some impressive showmanship of an understated kind, such as his careful application of black tape to hold down two keys on his keyboard before picking up his guitar and launching into an instrumental break. Those that managed to get into the Wine Cellar to see Anthonie Tonnon were very fortunate indeed, as I was told there was quite a queue at the entrance in the arcade outside, right up until the end of his set.
David Kilgour & The Heavy Eights (W.S. McCallum)
After that there was a brisk walk along crowded K Road to get back to The Studio, with a few minutes still to spare before David Kilgour & The Heavy Eights began their set. David Kilgour is of course best known for being one of The Clean, but it should not be forgotten that he has also been a solo performer for around 25 years now, and I had never actually seen him perform by himself, so I was curious to see what the show would be like. Strangely, he sounded like he was channelling Neil Young & Crazy Horse that night. It was a great show, but was not at all what I was expecting (some tinkling of the ivories perhaps?). The fact that his guitarist was absent that evening may have had something to do with the different sound, although perhaps not, as David Kilgour was geared up for action, having brought along four or five electric guitars.
King Loser (W.S. McCallum)
Leaving early was unfortunately a necessity, as King Loser were playing at Neck Of The Woods, back up the road. There was no queue, but the basement venue was packed and sweaty, which is pretty much how the band sounded too. I had been told via the rock grapevine that Celia Mancini had been heard publicly sounding off about the other band members that very day, and there was supposedly even a punch-up between them just prior to the gig. I’m not David Hartnell and cannot confirm the veracity of any of this, but there was certainly a pronounced air of tension on stage and it was fuelling the music with a frenetic, splenetic energy that was really quite something to behold. If you wanted dirty old rock & roll, King Loser were undoubtedly the band that really delivered at The Others Way. Celia was pissed off - she was really angry, and so were the other guys in the band, with the whole “screw you too” vibe pushing the music higher and higher. There was also a chilling realisation that the whole thing could collapse right in front of us, and if it did, it could turn really ugly. What a show!!!
It was at the King Loser gig that I had my final run-in with the “professional” photographers at The Others Way. They are an odd bunch, the photographers at Auckland rock events. They are big bulky guys who look more like sports photographers than anything else and they are fish out of water at the best of times. At Street Chant’s LP release gig at The King’s Arms in April, I actually stopped to ask one of them why he had an enormous telephoto lens on his camera when he was standing all of three metres away from the band on the stage. He offered some unconvincing explanation about the light, to which I nodded, but all I could think was “isn’t that what the flash function on your camera is for?” I was happily snapping away with a camera that had 5x magnification and, outside of a stadium setting, that’s all you need; after all, it ain’t Lancaster Park....
Paparazzi (W.S. McCallum)
I bumped into the same guy just before the festival and he helped me put on my wristband, which was nice of him. Shortly afterwards, I took the time out to point out a couple of his colleagues in action, right up front with their pointless, enormous telephoto lenses and said “sports photographers!” He smiled. I then moved to the side of the stage and happily snapped away at a better angle that enabled me to capture all of the members of the band, as opposed to standing front-on with a telephoto lens and only being able to photograph the blackheads on the lead singer’s nose. He also smiled and nodded at this.
Various of his colleagues were annoying and irksome to the punters at various gigs throughout that evening. Their favourite habit is to stand directly in front of someone or even to edge them out of the way while they studiously ignore them and snap away. One of them tried this on me as Anthonie Tonnon was starting up; kneeling directly in front of me with his bloody great camera and blocking the view with his head just as I was about to take a photo: I tapped him on the sole of his shoe which threw his concentration and then pointedly sidled up to him and took photos within his field of vision: tit for tat.
So imagine my dismay when, after I had carefully and politely negotiated my way through the jostling crowd to a vantage point at the side of the stage to get a few furtive snaps of King Loser, one of these burly photographers pushes his way through the crowd like a hippo trying to reach a brackish creek for a muddy wallow in the mid-day sun. He then stands right in front of me, blocking the view, and starts pointing his big-kahuna camera like he is out shooting wildlife on the bloody Serengeti Plain. I have a pocket-sized point-and-shoot Panasonic camera: the sort of thing these so-called “professionals” would laugh at, but I decided it was time to give him a lesson in its versatility. Wrapping the strap around my wrist to prevent it from being knocked out of my hand, I extended my arm over his shoulder, and then lowered it so that my hand holding my little pipsqueak digital camera was directly in front of his monstrous black telephoto lens, blocking his view. Then I very carefully adjusted the frame with my index finger at arm’s length, using the little digital screen on the back of the camera to see that the shot was framed correctly, and then “snap!”, I had my photo.
I took just the one photo but I think he got the point.
Should any of you paparazzi happen to be reading this; shooting rock gigs is different from sports arena events: a small, lightweight camera is far more useful for crowded, close-quarter work than those big black monstrosities you guys tote around like photographic codpieces. And show some manners! Here endeth the lesson.
Salad Boys (W.S. McCallum)
Then it was back to the Whammy Bar to see the Salad Boys jumping around, quickly followed by the Surf Fiends in the Whammy Back Room. It was strange transitioning from one room to the next, as they were coincidentally both playing exactly the same beat and rhythm as I shifted from one to the other: it was almost like seeing the flipside of a musical coin, with a common strand of high energy guitar music running through both.
Surf Fiends (W.S. McCallum)
By now it was past midnight and having seen nine acts perform, my senses felt like they were on overload. Back in the days of student Orientation events in the 1980s at the University of Canterbury, this is how I felt after a solid week’s worth of entertainment except that, hang on, in this particular case, at The Others Way, only just over four hours had passed. There was no way I was going to last until 2 am, so I caught one last act at The Thirsty Dog called Echo Ohs, an Auckland band who were completely new to me but who provided a refreshing close to a hectic evening’s proceedings.
Echo Ohs (W.S. McCallum)
© W.S. McCallum 6 September 2016
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