Posts tagged Wellington Music
The band that has captured Wellington's funky, beautiful soul: Orchestra of Spheres

One of the attributes of the Wellington music scene I find so refreshing is the emphasis on experimentation and improvisation. There isn’t a long-held, traditional “Wellington Sound”, or particular genre that artists need to confirm to in order to be popular.

If there is any tradition, it is that of creative people in Wellington getting together to collaborate and encourage each other to try something out of the ordinary. Perhaps it’s being set away from major commercial music hubs, combined with a laid-back, inclusive culture that gives artists a blank canvas to make strange, funky, unique, and danceable tunes.

One band came up in almost every conversation we had with Wellington music lovers. This band embodies the relentless work ethic and experimental spirit we found characteristic of music artists in the city. That band is Orchestra of Spheres. In a town where people often come and go, Orchestra of Spheres have remained a staple of the DIY music scene in Wellington over the past decade. With a new album coming out in the next year, they have no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

We sat down with three of the band members (Dan, Nell, Erika) at the Pyramid Club, an artist-run space where they practice, to ask questions about the band’s origins, the DIY scene in the city, and what makes Wellington such a unique culture.

How did Orchestra of Spheres begin?

Dan: We’ve had a great creative music community here in Wellington for a long time. Musicians have had studio space in Wellington since the late 70s.

For us it started a long time before this particular band came together. We were all involved in different projects together over the years, and Orchestra of Spheres came out of the people we were playing with. Originally, it was a drummer, Isaac, bass player Jeremy, me, and Nell, who happened to be around at the time.

We had a different space called Fred’s. It’s an old church about 500 meters down the road. It was a little venue for practice and recording. Heaps of musicians were always down there playing. It’s where we started playing, and it just happened to be the place where the music developed.

Today, Wellington is a city where lots people come to study music. It’s a good place to find a community of generative musicians, but people also leave. Isaac and Jeremy left quite a long time ago. Erika took over Isaac’s bass part 7 years ago and various drummers have played with us.

When you all first started playing together, was there something specific you wanted to get across in your music? Or a particular sound you wanted to bring to the forefront?

Dan: I come from an improvised music and experimental background. Wellington is such a small music scene—it’s not like London or New York where you can specialize in a particular type of music. Here you tend to find the musicians that do lots of different things and play in lots of bands and styles rather than focusing on one thing.

When we started I was thinking about doing something psychedelic and sonic, but also based around grooves and rhythms. And that’s essentially what it still is…a core drum and bass part that’s the rhythmic engine.

We’re blessed by having had extraordinarily awesome drummers in very different ways. Jeremy had never played drums before and used to play with his arms held out like this (gesturing); his drum concept was a very physically demanding style and he didn’t alter it that much, especially at the beginning.

Nell:  He got really amazing though. When we’d tour around, people would be captivated watching him thinking, “is he going to pull this off with that technique”?

Dan: He’d also do things like have a banana in his mouth for the whole gig, or plastic flowers.

Nell: Things to make it even more difficult for himself. Actually, our drummer now does that too—like wearing things that make it impossible for him to see.

Erika: Quite often that’s what people would say after a show. He kept that banana in his mouth the whole time!

Why do you guys think Wellington’s creative scene has been strong since the 1970s? What’s drawn people here?  

Nell: I think it waxes and wanes. It’s not like there was a less interesting community of music 5 years ago versus 15 years ago. I think people are always falling in and out of the place. Part of the benefit of living here is that it’s really tiny. It’s easy to get together with people to rehearse and jam. In the past there have been some really good music venues in Wellington, but right now it’s pretty slim on the venues.

Erika: I guess it’s also the most liberal city in New Zealand. It’s the political center and has good universities so I there’s a lot of open mindedness. There are always a lot of young, creative, hungry, awesome people wanting to do stuff. 

The album, Brothers and Sisters of the Black Lagoon, came out in 2016. Tell us a little bit about the making of that album and how it came together.  

Erika: We recorded it here [at the Pyramid Club].

Nell: Often times it’s Dan who writes the material we get started with. He’ll often get started with a drumbeat and a base line and we’ll jam off that. Other times we’ll just jam and see what comes out of it. We might record part of the jam and develop that into something.

Dan: The best stuff is when we just play and listen back to hear what parts are cool. The best stuff usually comes the first time you try it and don’t overthink it. The trick is to keep it fresh and spontaneous.

In my own writing process, the instrument I write off is the drum. So I just sit at the kit and think up lines, melodies, and riffs and record it on my phone.

I love that you create some of your own instruments. Can you tell us about that process?

Dan: Yea, I guess it’s something I’ve been interested in for ages. I just make shit from bits and pieces. They’re not particularly well crafted. I’ve made one proper acoustic guitar, which takes ages of work. Usually the process is just “what is this and what does it sound like?”

Do you have a favorite homemade instrument?

Dan: Not really. I’m not super patient with making things perfect. We’ve been playing an instrument I made called the Ektar. It’s made from the slat of a futon bed with a string on it. With Orchestra of Spheres, the homemade instruments come and go. There is one main homemade instrument I play: the biscuit tin guitar. It’s literally just made from a futon bed, a biscuit tin and drum sticks whittled down. It’s cheap and cheerful.

The sound of the band essentially came from the limitations of these homemade instruments and the tuning at the time. We have this sort of “Orchestra of Spheres” tuning.

We don’t really measure the tuning. Some bands or composers who do microtonal stuff are systematic, but ours is more random out-of-tune-ness. It’s part of the charm. Although sometimes you listen to the recording and it’s less charming…when you listen back to a melody you’re looking forward to hearing and then think, “oh god.”

Nell: Sometimes, when you sing with homemade instruments it can be tricky. It’s hard to find the pitch between the different tunings, but it’s nice having a bit of chaos in there.

Dan: In fact, having constraints helps with making creative choices. I love working with tape machines because you’ve got four buttons: ‘on’ ‘off’ ‘fast’ ‘slow.’ There are only a few choices, versus a digital equivalent. When you narrow it down to work within confines, it actually frees you up.

What are some of your favorite moments as part of the band?

Dan: There was a nice point on our first trip overseas, in 2011, when we played a gig at a festival called, All Tomorrow’s Parties. We were playing between Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra Arkestra. To me that was a super awesome gig because I’ve been listening to those artists for so long. To be sandwiched between those two was a pretty nice moment.

Erika: On our second tour we were playing off an island near Marseille. It was in the ruins of this old quarantine hospital and we were playing just as the sun was setting. We played a really great show and got called back for three encores or something … everything about that evening was kind of magical. It felt really special.

Nell: I always remember the last gig we played on our first big tour. The first tour was quite a full one. We just weren’t used to it. It was intense and exhausting and by the time we got to the last gig, we were all exhausted. But we played this amazing gig and it was the first time I felt like we were anticipating what each other was doing and working like one weird, morphing creature. It felt really amazing musically.

We were so tired. But it was like your critical mind goes to sleep and you access different parts of your creativity. It was cool because musically we just got better and better. It was a special family moment.

What’s next for Orchestra of Spheres?

Erika: We’re about to do a new album, in 2-3 weeks time.

Dan: We’re recording with an old friend who has a studio in Newtown. It’s an awesome place.

Erika: It’s another one of those amazing places that are hard to find, but when you find them it’s amazing. It’s a big old shed. He lives in it and he collects junk that he turns into instruments. He’s incredible. He’s made a little studio there with a vocal booth.

Dan: Earlier this year we did a gig with a whole bunch of musicians, 12 people maybe. The idea for this album is to get a few of those people in for different tunes and broaden the sound palate from what we’ve done in the past. Nell has been playing the harp lately, and maybe we’ll get in a few other instruments as well.

If eccentric costumes, infectious rhythms, and homemade instruments peak your interest, definitely check out Orchestra of Spheres. Their music is available here on Spotify, and be sure to take a look at some of their amazing music videos!




"All Bodies Welcome"

An introduction to Malia Johnson, of Movement of the Human, the choreographer defining the dance and choreography landscape across New Zealand. 

Malia Johnson

Malia Johnson

Despite clouds threatening rain, we sat outside at the waterfront cafe, Seashore Cabaret in Lower Hutt, a suburb 20-minutes outside of Wellington. We were here to meet Malia Johnson, a New Zealand native with an impressive repertoire over the past 20 years. She’s danced, choreographed, directed, and collaborated across sectors and disciplines in New Zealand and across the globe. (Seriously, read her bio).

Some people seek creative community, others create one. Malia is one of those who creates. When she first finished her training, there wasn't work—so she made opportunities for herself. In the past two decades the dance scene has grown significantly in New Zealand. Even so, when young dancers come to Malia for advice she tells them, “there isn’t a blueprint," encouraging them to push boundaries and find their own way.

After just a few minutes of conversation, it became apparent why Malia is so talented at bringing people of diverse creative backgrounds together. She possesses a strong vision with an open-minded spirit that looks for new, and even unusual creative combinations.

Challenging the stereotyped image of dancers in a theatre counting 1-2-3-4 and moving their bodies with ease, her pieces are rooted in deep and personal collaboration. Imagine unique bodies, cathartic storytelling, fashion, and the interplay of space, lighting, music, and bodies. Orchestrating these elements is at the crux of her work.

Malia finds she is most attracted to projects that are "more than just dance pieces, but a way to collaborate with multiple practices." While collaboration is a theme of her work, “it's tricky to collaborate well, but it creates the best outcome...when you have a trusting collaborative environment people are free to do their best work." To achieve this, "it's about understanding individually, how people function, and moving and shaping the work in response to their personal skills.”

Her years working with the World of Wearable Art (WOW) represent some of the most successful collaboration she has experienced. “WOW was an example of 200 people collaborating together really well, focusing on their individual crafts and really serving the overall experience."

It was her position at WOW that brought her back to New Zealand after a brief period abroad in Australia. The work was really inspiring and from the start, WOW was a “choreographic environment that didn't know it was. It was always about movement. It's the body and art colliding. The designers make garments for the body to move around as pieces of art. It's about movement architecture and I just loved that."

Today, she lives just outside the city center in Lower Hutt, a place she never thought she’d live. "There’s something good for creativity about living in unexpected places.” Wellington is such a small city, you can hardly walk down the street without stopping to say hi to four or five people, so she cherishes the chance to go for a quiet walk with her dog - often where she finds her inspiration. 

As with many creatives in this country, she’s lived in multiple places across New Zealand. As policy, prices and opportunities in Wellington, Auckland, and Christchurch have shifted, the arts has moved as well. “Artists move quickly” and follow opportunity. “They go where they can be free.”

But Wellington is “really special. Business, arts, and the government are so close together. It's a unique city” because these sectors bump into each other creating different opportunities. “Wellington was the place where the arts were in New Zealand, until the last 10 years. New health and safety regulations came down hard on a lot of artistic, urban spaces, but there is also new city funding to help.”

If you’re lucky enough to be close by, make it a point to see her work. Malia's studio, Movement of the Human (MOTH), has a number of things in the works right now. A few upcoming opportunities to experience her magic:

*All photos courtesy of Malia Johnson

*All photos courtesy of Malia Johnson

Old Halls and New Sounds

Wellington, New Zealand

During our conversations in Wellington, we've quickly learned how supportive and collaborative the creative community is in this windy city. We’ve consistently heard of people bringing different mediums of art and expression together in unique spaces. A rotating event series that features local music, visual art, dance, and readings, Old Hall Gigs is a prime example of Wellington’s creative spirit.

Sarah Smythe, co-founder and producer of Old Hall Gigs

Sarah Smythe, co-founder and producer of Old Hall Gigs

We’ve all been there. You’re excited to go to a gig at your local music venue to hear, well, music. Instead you wind up being annoyed at the three way too drunk people that keep bumping into you and shouting over the performance you came and paid money to see.

Wellington local Sarah Smythe shares this common frustration, saying, “I love going to gigs, but often no one is listening and it’s less about the actual music.” Rather than just complain like most people, she did something about it and co-founded the DIY event series Old Hall Gigs.

It all started when Sarah and her all-girl, eight-piece band, St Rupertsburg, decided to put on their own show—in a community hall space.  “We served everyone dinner and sat them at a long table. It was heaps of fun, a really special community, and a nice place to have a gig. At the time I didn't think anything of it. But then later, I thought, maybe I want to make more stuff like that happen. That was the seed of Old Hall Gigs.”

Officially founded in 2013 by Sarah and her friend, Thomasin Sleigh, these underutilized old hall spaces (think Irish Cultural Center, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club type places) throughout Wellington were the perfect venues to provide artistic experiences for friends and fans. These halls are more than simply affordable and available. The spaces act as a the inspiration for each new gig. As Sarah describes, “we book the hall, and then we book the things to fill out the night based on the character of the space.”

A typical Old Hall Gig provides an intimate "community feel" with audience members ranging from young children to their grandparents (the mayor even attended the 16th Gig!). The events offer a “tasting” of different creative performances for the audience in bite sized portions. “Say you've never experienced a poetry reading before and it's not something you'd typically choose to go to. The performances at Old Hall Gigs are  short enough to try out.” Sarah is passionate about getting people “into new things” outside of their routine, and to challenge their preconceived notions of what type of art they like.

The changing venues speak to that mission as well. “There’s something quite awesome as an audience member of going to new places you haven't been before. Maybe it’s a place you've noticed driving around, but it's a chance to go inside and have an experience in there.”

Don’t miss out on the next Old Hall Gig! (email sign up here). You'll be sure to fall in love with the work of a new local band, artist, or writer you haven’t heard of before. As Sarah says, “It’s easy fall into a little bubble of people you surround yourself with…Old Hall Gigs provides a nice, new cross-section of the Wellington community.”

Old Hall Gigs.jpg

“There’s something quite awesome as an audience member of going to new places you haven't been before. Maybe it’s a place you've noticed driving around, but it's a chance to go inside and have an experience in there.”

Meet Gussie of Mermaidens, the band taking Wellington by storm.

Wellington, New Zeland

The alt-rocker discusses the band’s upcoming album, the Wellington music scene, and why you should never tell a band to smile on-stage.

It was easy to spot Gussie as she hopped off her bicycle in a brightly striped shirt, blonde pigtails, and a big smile. Straight off a rejuvenating holiday in the far north, this Wellington native welcomed us to her windy city over a flat white in a local café.

Gussie: Mermaidens Guitar/Vocals

Gussie: Mermaidens Guitar/Vocals

Mermaidens includes Gussie (Guitar/Vocals), Lily (Bass/Vocals) and Abe (Drums). They’ve been hard at work since their days jamming as high school friends. They released their sophomore full-length album, Perfect Body, in 2017 and are already in the process of recording their third full-length effort.

Their intricate tunes weave complex swirling guitar soundscapes, pulsing bass lines, and haunting vocals reminiscent of their art rock heroes, Warpaint. Gussie has a warm and welcoming presence, but behind the chipper exterior is a relentless drive and work ethic to make her mark both on the Wellington and global music scene. With sold out shows in her hometown, a unique sound, and dedicated fan-base, we’d say Mermaidens are well on their way. 

Be on the look out for their third full-length album coming out later this year!

The sound of Wellington

 [Wellington] is so small we don’t have the room to follow bands or trends. The result is all these really unique bands like The All Seeing Hand and Orchestra of Spheres.

The music scene in Wellington

Everyone is really friendly, and really supportive! People in Wellington, at least in my little bubble, want to support their local bands and buy their merch and go to their gigs. It would be good if even more people did that and understood that if you go to a gig, and pay $10 - $20 that it’s going to the band. I overheard these girls in the bathroom at a gig once who were bragging about sneaking in, and I couldn’t help but tell them off. They just clearly didn’t get that.

The origin story

We’re all friends from high school. Lily and I went to an all girls school together and became friends when we were 16 and I’ve been friends with Abe probably since I was 14. In high school Lily and I started nervously showing each other our songs and lyrics and just kind of growing up together.

A (really) special moment

Camp a Low Hum used to be this really legendary DIY music festival ... we were there one year and were really inspired by the bands. That year we decided that our goal was to play here the following year. And we did! We thought we’d made it—we played at this awesome festival.

The live performance

It’s definitely energetic. I probably turn up the distortion a bit more. There's just a little less care than recording. Not in a bad way, just freedom. But I also find playing live intensely stressful (laughing) because all my guitar parts are very complicated and we play lots of unusual time signatures. 

Once or twice I’ve overheard that we should smile more on stage. I’m like, “what do you mean, I’m fucking concentrating!” It’s a rock band. You don’t have to smile.

Song writing process

In terms of constructing songs, either Lily or myself will have maybe half a song. We might have vocals, might not. We bring that to the space and it pretty much comes out of the jam. Lately we’ve also been jamming and recording it so that later we can listen back and decide what we're going to play.

Favorite venue to play

San Fran. The sound is really awesome and Ziggy, the guy who owns it is just the best person. Bernie, the house sound engineer is great too.

Musical influences

Warpaint, St Vincent, Wand, Fuzz, Ty Segall

Other influences

Nature. Living in such a beautiful place has a big influence on my creative process.

What’s next for Mermaidens?

We’re working on our next album right now, so it’s writing time. We have studio time booked in February and April and it’s nice to have it all mapped out. During Easter break, we’re recording with James Goldsmith, who we recorded with for the other albums. We really want to go to Europe—we're thinking European Summer 2019!

A perfect day in Wellington

It starts with a big breakfast and coffee at home on my deck, looking out at Berhampore. Then maybe we ride our bikes to Princess Bay for a picnic, beers, and swimming with friends. Later on, we'd head back Newtown for a jam session in our space just five minutes from home, have dinner and finish up the day watching a gig at The San Fran.