Sense of Place: Dunedin to Mauao

Last Friday evening I was walking in Dunedin. I strolled, casually following George Street from the Botanical Gardens to the centre of town as the sun set. Eventually I found my way, under the watchful eyes of the Octagon’s gargoyles, to a club called Twelve Below on Moray Place.

The club has a Liverpool Cavern feel about it: through a back alley; a short walk between beer barrels and into a small, dark, underground bar where an attentive audience was listening to music.

This special night was a tribute to 1980s Dunedin Music – the famous Dunedin Sound. Among the line-up were members of the Chills and Sneaky Feelings.

I spent a lot of time slagging off the Dunedin Sound when I was touring with The Narcs in the 1980s. We were pretty smug I guess – mainstream, signed to a major record label that spent thousands of dollars on record production and touring; records in the charts and drawing big crowds across the country.

The more we were successful the more the Dunedin bands returned our scorn and gave us a hard time. While we wore track suits onstage and had sponsorships from ski companies they were op shop, independent, raucous and lo-fi. For them big audiences seemed the kiss of death – credibility to an emerging Dunedin band was synonymous with having a small audience – often just the other band on the bill. They played with a an informed punk Naivety which we mistook for bad musicianship. Musicians in the mainstream missed the salient truth that the jangly sounds that came out of the Dunedin bands disguised a high intellect and integrity which flowered in this southern university town.

These days some of the 80s Dunedin musicians are academics – The Verlaines’ guitarist and songwriter Dr Graeme Downes studied Mahler for his doctorate and teaches a music degree programme at Otago University. Dr Matthew Bannister formerly the guitarist from the legendary Sneaky Feelings is now a respected researcher in the field of gender in contemporary music and sub cultural theory.

As the evening at Twelve Below evolved it seemed like time had stood still; a time warp plugged me right into the mid 1980s. Propped up against the old wooden bar with a Speights, I watched a parade of duffle coated musicians and their girlfriends wander in.

What really surprised me though was that these kids had not come to worship at the altar of Pink Frost but were there to participate. The young men and women in the audience looked to me like greenhorn hippies form the 1970s – fresh faced, nerdy with neck-chiefs, paisley shirts and bell bottoms carrying guitar cases – earnest, sunglasses or bespectacled. In Lennon rounds. Several young singer songwriters took the stage singing moody, personal songs. The audience was silent and locked in..

The trump card was the mid evening appearance on stage of Dunedin’s bright new hope – The Tweeks. This four piece band was stunning. Honours graduates of Downes’ degree course, their four part harmonies and instrumental arrangements were outstanding: great dynamics, tempos shifting, quirky melodies; time signatures changing on a dime.

But the most mesmerising thing was that The Tweeks had “that sound”. Close your eyes…listen…you’re in Dunedin.

There has been much talk in the New Zealand music industry about a “New Zealand sound”. It seems old hat now as we head into the era of post-roots glocalisation. But locality still remains high on the agenda when people discuss families of musicians within Aotearoa: South Auckland hip hop; the Wellington roots scene, the Dunedin Sound and of course Christchurch’s Flying Nun.

A year ago I wrote about an emerging Bay Of Plenty sound. However I have to say it has not come to much. Maybe, as Dylan said in the No Direction Home doco we are all in a process of “becoming”. Not there yet. Maybe we are never “there”. Music after all is a journey, not a destination.

When commentators try to define local character in music scenes they often draw links between the landscape and the music. The Dunedin sound traces the Otago landscape – bleak, distant, grey, looming, full of Anglo thespian character. Historic angular stone buildings, the holy water of The Leith flowing silver through the city.

I keep hoping that one day I will wake up and really hear the sound of the Bay Of Plenty – ocean, horizon, Mauao, big skies, the lone kayak, the flying kingfish in the harbour sanctuary. The stories in the Papamoa hills being traced in the song lines.

However the more I hear local bands of late the more I think they are at war with the land. (Maybe their imitative metallic chaos mirrors the rape of our landscape by bulldozer-developers?). Not listening to the land and the sea.

Man, take your band and climb to the top of Mauao and stand in silence for five minutes. Look at the land, sea and sky. When you step up to play demonstrate to us that you have a sense of place. Show us you are becoming; that we have our own sonic topography.

Written by Liam Ryan Tuesday, 11 December 2007

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