Reflections on the end of gigs at Chick's Hotel and what it means for the Dunedin music scene.
As you drive along Port Chalmers’ main street, two cranes rise up from the dock, towering over the old, wooden buildings and wide roads. At night, these cranes resonate with a stoic presence, almost as if overseeing this tiny, seaside town.
No matter how many times I caught the bus out there to see a band play, I always found a quiet moment to take in this view. When Chick’s Hotel closes its doors as a music venue at the end of this week, I can’t imagine I’ll catch a bus out there again.
Built across from the dock and down the road from the 133-year-old Iona Church, the hotel was constructed from bluestone and brick in 1876 for Henry Dench, a former Port mayor. Three years later, local carrier George and his wife Ellen Chick purchased the building and renamed it. The name stuck.
Port Chalmers’s diverse community is made up of port workers, artists, and old families who have lived there for several generations. Although the community continued on in its humble ways, the hotel gradually deteriorated into an almost unsalvageable and empty pub. In 2006 it closed its doors permanently. Or so it seemed.
In 2008, Chick’s was revived by Hector Hazard, an ex-bicycle courier from England, along with the help of supportive locals. From then on, Chick’s became less of a pub where drunkards used their fists to solve personal problems, and more of a music venue for shaggy-haired, tight-jean-wearing gig-goers.
Mike McLeod, Tom Bell, Morgan Oliver, and Jake Langley (who later pulled out), took over Chick’s from Hazard three years ago, and set out to run a venue that prioritised musicians.
They financed it all themselves and even took on other jobs so they could keep the place running. They hired a bus, then successfully crowd funded to buy this desperately needed addition, which led to more consistent and younger Dunedin crowds packing out the venue on good nights.
Often dressed in woollen jumpers, dark coats and sturdy shoes, these town crowds lined up for the bus at 8.30pm either outside the University of Otago’s Central Library or the Countdown near the Octagon. If it was a busy (or cold) night, they would scramble to get on first so they didn’t have to wait until the bus returned from Chick’s a second or even a third time. They showed their Radio 1 card to the driver (an arrangement made with the local student radio), or paid $5 and were on their way along the winding, coastal road for the twenty minutes it takes to get to Port.
Chick’s is the only place in Dunedin that has regularly hosted local and international bands in recent years. There are other venues in town - Taste Merchants (also closing this month), Mou Very, Sammy’s, the Crown, Re:Fuel, and the Robbie - but they aren’t Goldilocks’ porridge. They’re either too small, too big, only intermittently host shows, or are lost in a confusing, adolescent stage between pub and venue.
“Sold Out”, in faded white letters, marks one of the wooden doors at the entrance to Chick’s. The venue beyond is old-fashioned, with an overflowing pot plant hanging in its only window, two wooden booths, a small bar with several fridges. Above rows of spirits is a sign reading “Chicks”.
Through a door behind the bar is a pool room where bands store their gear and hang out before shows. Out the back is a compact kitchen for the very occasional order for hot food.
Bands play in the large space to the right of the bar, which has a small, low stage pushed up against a wall that is decorated with diagonal, sparkling stripes. The only way to access the stage is from its front, which means the set up became a bit awkward and often very intimate on a busy night. An upright piano on the ground to the left of the stage and a fireplace make the venue somewhat homely when it isn’t packed.
Although the general crowd doesn’t have access, several musicians and Chick’s staff live on the second floor. The top floor, however, was condemned, and recently was completely sealed off because of its dangerously dilapidated state. This, as well as a history of deaths in the building, including a double murder in the ‘70s in one of the rooms upstairs, apparently gives the venue an eeriness on empty nights.
As well as being a part-owner, Tom Bell is also the venue’s in-house sound and light technician. When I talked to Bell he sat on the stage overlooking the empty room. On his head was a cap that I always saw him wear at gigs. He said it shades his eyes under the bright glare of stage lights and makes him feel less confronted by the audience when he is working or performing.
Going between the sound desk and stage for most shows, Bell saw it all but, maybe because he was so discreet, no one had interviewed him about Chick’s before.
As well as being fun, it was also enriching. “I was probably in the least social phase of my life when we took Chick’s over … it’s been really good to have enforced socialising every weekend of my life."
When Bell and the others took over, Chick’s reputation suddenly turned heads overseas and throughout New Zealand. International and national acts like Sharon van Etten, Parquet Courts, Kurt Vile, Lou Barlow, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Steve Albini all extended their tours to include Port Chalmers.
Some were tempted to visit Dunedin because bands that started there in the ‘80s had made albums they loved. Others were excited to do a smaller show for a respectful, adoring crowd. They learned that the venue had a surprisingly good PA system, and that their Port Chalmers’ experience would be a novelty.
While doing sound for the venue, Bell also had the opportunity to work with some of his heroes. When J Mascis started to play some older songs by his band Dinosaur Jr during a performance at Chick’s, Bell stood at the mixing desk in awe. “It was fucking awesome.”
One of the last international acts at Chick’s, Kurt Vile, played in January. Bell described it as one of the most intimate shows he had experienced. The crowd started singing along and Bell could hear them perfectly because the venue was so quiet. Talking afterwards, Vile, like many of the musicians who toured there, said he’d noticed something special about the venue too.
For local acts, especially younger bands who were part of the Amped Music Project before it relocated to Dunedin, the venue has seen them through some of their first ever live performances, through band break-ups and reformations, to new levels of confidence and success.
Millie Lovelock, a writer and graduate student who is also in the band Astro Children, was already playing at Chick’s when she was 16 years old because of the Amped Project. The shows were all ages, on Sunday afternoons, and (at the time) there wasn’t any Chick’s bus, only other bands and parents watched her play. It was a vital part of her earlier experiences as a musician.
Despite these community projects and hosting numerous sold out gigs, after several years the owners of Chick’s felt like their motivation had peaked and they were ready to move on, especially because at best running the venue meant paying themselves on minimum wage.
“I felt like I was missing out on doing too many other things in my life,” said Bell.
Running a bar and venue also occasionally resulted in disheartening encounters with people who were rude, or who didn’t appreciate what the venue was providing for them, he said. “That can be really hard. That can break your heart, you know?”
Long nights working in the weekend when everyone else was partying also meant that Bell spent a few hours unwinding at the bar afterwards, which he felt had become an unhealthy lifestyle.
But Chick’s seemed like the only venue doing what it did – so what does it mean for it to close? Where will the bands play? Where will the crowds congregate on a Friday or Saturday night, brought together by the shared experience of live music, alcohol, and committing to staying out for the night because the bus home only left again 20 minutes after the final band played?
Lucinda McConnon has been a Radio 1 DJ, designed countless posters for gigs, and attended many more. Although she needed some time to come around to travelling the distance to Chick’s from town, she grew to love the idea of making a night of it.
McConnon is sad that Chick’s is closing but she doesn’t think that this means the end for the Dunedin music scene. She has noticed that Dunedin has a history of venues, like The Backstage and Queens, starting up and closing.
And sometimes venues that have disappeared reemerge with new life, like the Empire Hotel, which is currently undergoing an approximately $1 million restoration job. Like others I talked to, McConnon predicts that it will be a quiet time for Dunedin musicians but they will still be able to find places to play.
Lovelock feels that losing Chick’s could be really positive as somewhere new now could “construct something that is safer and more accessible for more people.” If a venue in Dunedin made this kind of safety one of its priorities and proved to the community that it was doing so, it would be setting an example for the rest of New Zealand.
The lease for Chick’s Hotel continues for two more years, but the owners plan to only use the space for recording and other art projects. Bell is also open to putting on the odd show for “a really special act”.
“There will be places to fill the gaps in the meantime and in some ways I think some things need to end for new things to start,” said Bell.
Once again, for Dunedin it’s just a matter of time.
This content is brought to you with funding assistance from NZ On Air.
Story produced by Loulou Callister-Baker.
Video filmed and edited by John Bollen.