As visual metaphors go, it’s hard to think of one more blunt than the last 10 minutes of a flight into Dunedin. Approaching from the north, after countless kilometres of undistinguished and near-uninterrupted coastline, the city appears as a naturally fortified oasis.
Known as Otepoti in Maori, it’s surrounded on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on all others by rolling, well-forested hills. The single-runway of Dunedin International Airport lies still 30 kilometres to the south. By the time you’ve arrived in whichever part of the city happens to be your final destination, the seclusion of the area is so viscerally established that to even mention it would be on-the-nose to the point of absurdity.
This isolation is a condition that colours deeply much of the art produced in the area. In a place so topographically sheltered and so far from the country’s larger centres, it’s relatively easy for artists to just create, unencumbered by the trends and audience expectations they may expect to face elsewhere. While experimentation is by no means a Dunedin-specific phenomenon, it’s certainly noticeably prevalent in Otago’s capital.
When I spoke to Hope Robertson, a lifetime local currently situated in the satellite town of Port Chalmers, she estimated that over the past ten years she’s played in eight bands or projects, often concurrently, and often without much consideration given to genre: “They've all been formed with different purposesâ€¦ wagging religious education class, getting drunk, being loud and annoying, dancing and dealing with feelings through chords.” This approach has seen Robertson front acts as varied as late-2000s indie electro pop band KOTAC; the sporadically active but oft-lauded scuzz of Bad Sav; and her ongoing blown-out pseudo-pop excursions under the Birdation moniker.
Given the aesthetic leaps covered by these and her other contemporary projects, particularly Death and the Maiden, it’s no great surprise when Hope says she doesn’t feel under any obligation to keep to any one style, only half-joking that the only pressure comes from long chats on the phone with her bandmate Lucinda King about Lana Del Rey’s early work and “an eternal yearning to make my cat famous through the form of song.”
Given the local lineage of cross-genre innovators, hers is a typically Otepoti artistic outlook. “The city has a proud weird culture,” agrees Sean Norling, sometime micro-label impresario, fulltime station manager at Radio One and himself a seasoned genre-explorer through his work in projects and bands like Voodoo Gangster and The Futurians. Norling points to the city’s late 20th century innovators as forbears for the cultural-gumbo attitude adopted by many in the community.
“Our modern founding fathers are artists like Gate and Crude,” he continues, citing the solo projects of the Dead C’s Michael Morley and Thee Aesthetics’ Matt Middleton respectively. “The musicians, I think, are slightly more experimental and hence, almost by default, so is the audience.”
It’s a bold statement, but one that holds weight. The market for live music in Dunedin has long been a difficult one for touring bands to negotiate, given the higher transport costs, smaller population base and the very real possibility that the legendarily terrible weather will live up to its reputation. In recent years, bands and promoters have taken more and greater chances with touring south, but, particularly compared to Auckland or Wellington, the local schedule is hardly saturated with big name out-of-town acts.
In the time I spent as an Otago University student, towards the end of the 2000s, this meant that almost anyone touring was worth at least a cursory glance, often regardless of stature or style. I saw Japanese-American hyper-twee combo Lullatone at the acoustically-fantastic Dunedin Public Art Gallery; watched Die! Die! Die! play a crushing homecoming show in an Italian restaurant; witnessed an entirely unlit performance at the Hocken Library by Alistair Galbraith; and had my mind temporarily but genuinely melted by a single-night Dead C, Rise of the City Cat Cult and Golden Axe marathon.
I could’ve seen the bulk of these acts had I been living elsewhere, but it seems unlikely that I would’ve. Shows like those, helped by strong word of mouth in the compact artistic and social circles of a city that didn’t see tours regularly, became broadly appealing events where they’d likely have been niche affairs in a larger centre.
The genre-defying of both artists and audiences aside, both Norling and Robertson agree that Dunedin itself has a particular character, one which often surfaces in music from the area. Norling gives much of the credit to the aforementioned brutal climate: “That picture of the artist with the fingerless gloves and beanie in front of the Conray heater with the guitar is a real thing down here... [in winter] musicians reluctantly go into a physical hibernation â€“ that William Hurt in Altered States type of buzz â€“ often resulting in quite amazing musical creation.”
Robertson’s views are similar, though slightly more specific to her dockside surrounds. “There’s something gross about Port Chalmers; diesel engines and trains, boggy low tide and old fish and chip shop grease being blown around by unpredictable winds, which can make you want to turn up your amps to block out smell, like when you turn your car stereo down to make parking easier. Maybe that’s a source of something.”
Frustratingly for many contemporary local artists, despite stylistic links between the progenitors of the vaguely-termed “Dunedin Sound” and their descendants often being tenuous at best, the city’s isolation means that the touchstones for international critics and chroniclers generally haven’t progressed past Flying Nun or, if you’re lucky, Xpressway.
Norling refers to these comparisons as Dunedin’s “Golden Handcuffs”, placing the blame for this reliance on vague nostalgia down to both branding and simple lack of effort. He acknowledges, though, that especially when dealing with smaller international labels, the generalisation has its upsides.
“A small label-runner overseas is going to get a track from Dunedin and assume that it’s a bit different before even listening to it”
“I think boutique and independent labels ruminate on the halcyon days of Dunedin music, and recognise the new crop of artists demonstrate a continuation of that ‘feel’ – original, daring, unconventional, experimental et cetera – a small label-runner overseas is going to get a track from Dunedin and assume that it’s a bit different before even listening to it.”
That’s not to suggest, though, that ÅŒtepoti musicians are spending their days between a gas heater and a rotary telephone, waiting for the call from America. Labels like the Fishrider Records and theCharisma Collective tirelessly document the entire spectrum of local happenings.
It’s probably worth noting at this point that isolation is basically universal for New Zealand creators. The impact for Dunedin artists is amplified by the fact that they’re in a small city, at the far end of a small country, but there’s a reason why Lorde’s success straight out of Takapuna was such enormous news for all of us. Though they’re not quite at the same brand-recognition level as their North Shore neighbor, Beach Haven natives Golden Axe have seen their music travel considerably over the past few years. Though aware of the contribution their local supporters make, singling out A Low Hum svengali Ian Jorgensen for specific praise, band member Chris Cudby believes that much of this is thanks to the internet.
“We benefited a whole lot in that [internet-tastemakers] Rose Quartz were based in Auckland around 2010-2012 and they were generously supportive – they wrote about us, both on their own site and on [the Pitchfork-affiliated] Altered Zones blog, which helped us reach a much broader audience internationally.”
This exposure led to releasing an album and touring Europe as well as opening up both Golden Axe and Chris’ solo project Power Nap to entirely new performance mediums such as web-streamed international shows.
“I feel like the whole cloud-performance thing has been a really great, interesting development,” says Chris. “I really like the constant audience text chatter going on underneath the video feed – essentially the performer can ‘hear’ every conversation that’s going on in the audience while they’re playing simultaneously ... I do see how it can be viewed as novelty, but I’m not sure if the idea of novelty is that negative in popular music contexts. It’s certainly a tool that’s successfully opened up new performance spaces and established new artistic communities.”
It seems inevitable that, as time passes, stories like Chris’s will only become more prevalent. The internet, as it pertains to music and musicians, seems to veer between Pandora’s Box and Aladdin’s Cave, but it’s hard to argue that its deletion of cultural borders is a bad thing. Artists can disseminate material as far as their bandwidth will take them, whether originating from Otepoti or Onehunga, without ever having to leave their living rooms. It won’t make Port Chalmers any warmer, but that might not be so bad.
Cover image courtesy of The Attic
This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.