Posts in Wellington
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.

NellHe 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!

 

 

 

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.”

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“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.

Arobake, the shop fueling Wellington's carb cravings.

Wellington, New Zealand

If you live in Wellington, we can almost guarantee that you have eaten bread from Arobake. Max, founder and master baker, discusses the creativity that exists in the balance of exactness and freedom in baking. 

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Arobake has been a staple of the community since 1989. During our time in New Zealand, people we met told us a few consistent things about this spot. People around Wellington drive across town to the shop and get their bread directly from the source. And, when a cafe has Arobake pastries, you know its high quality. Treats from this spot set the bar high in a city where cafes and coffee rule.

We were excited to learn about the story behind the iconic bakery from Master-baker and founder, Max Fuhrer. Early on a Tuesday morning, we walked down to Aro Valley, not far from the famous Holloway Road and into the unassuming bakery. Sitting on the patio with a cappuccino and pastry in front of each of us, we spent the morning chatting casually about Max's interest in baking, his training, and the inspiration he finds from the constraints of a recipe.

When Arobake got started in 1989, just across the street from where the bakery is today, there "was no branding ... we had these self serve cabinets that we taped closed because we didn't want people to self serve." He seemed almost shocked by the success but despite what may it looked like from the outside, word got out, and the product sold itself.

Max - Arobake

Max, born and raised in New Zealand, grew up enjoying the traditional cooking of his German mother and Swiss father. Family continues to be is very important to Max. A father to six, he lives right behind the bakery so that he can scoot back for lunch to visit with his younger kids. The older kids have all spend time working at the bakery and one of his sons now looks after the day bakery.

As a kid himself, at 13, Max and his family travelled to Europe. He remembers that it was there that he first got the idea to be a baker. Yes, at just 13 years old, he knew his calling. After high school, he started an apprenticeship with a baker in Johnsonville, further igniting his passion. After completing his hours, he studied at a trade school in Zurich and credits the time he spend there for his work ethic and attention to detail.

Max’s relaxed New Zealand training, mixed with the discipline he acquired in Switzerland seem to be a powerful combination. The delicate balance of exactness and constraints fuels the creativity in his baking.

"One leads to another. If you're in a regimented thing and everything is organized, it frees you up to be creative … it's like scales musicians do. I know the basic formula for a loaf of break: X amount of water and X amount of flour, but then you can add different things to it or you can change the fermentation process to enhance the flavor. You have those basics and you can quite easily write a bread recipe. I just made a bread with chocolate and brandy fig. It's quite crazy, when you toast it, the smell! We’re always trying to do different things."

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While experimentation is important, he also made sure to clarify the importance of consistency, particularly in bread-making. “For the bakers, we expect it to be done one way. So we sell to cafes and bakeries around the city, so consistency is key."  One of the challenges came as the bakery grew and he had to hire more staff. "Letting things go was hard at the beginning, but you're better off investing in people." Today, Max feels more "like a businessman now," and spend much of his time mentoring his team.

Now, if you haven’t already, go grab a cup of coffee and a pastry from this divine mecca of carbs.

The Dream of Roots: a Conversation with Kelly Spencer

On a sunny day in Lyttleton we met Kelly Spencer (making art using the name Kell Sunshine) in an empty lot next to where the historic Harbourlight Theatre stood before the 2010/2011 Earthquakes. Lyttleton, a town of under 3,000, is just a twenty-minute drive from Christschurch. Despite its small size, it packs in more local coffee spots and artistic spirit than cities far more populated.

We came to see the mural Kelly just finished the night before as part of the 2017 Street Prints festival. Across the street in the Lyttleton Coffee Company, we sat outside along the port to hear more about her piece, sense of place and roots, and the joy and vulnerability of painting walls.

Kelly

I had to paint on walls.

It's social. It's outdoors. It's moving—moving my body. It's talking to people and meeting new people. It's listening to music, loudly.


On Painting on Walls

I dabbled at first, but then I got the bug and I had to paint on walls. It's social. It's outdoors. It's moving—moving my body. It's talking to people and meeting new people. It's listening to music, loudly. To do a wall, I feel more involved in everything that's going on around me, in the space and in the community.

People say the weirdest things when I’m up on a wall painting….so often positive, but a lot of people just don't know what to say. You're exposed and vulnerable so people are really ready to talk to you which is good, but then they don't know what to say. They’ll say things like, “did you paint that? Are you being paid to paint it?” But it's also really beautiful—people share little bits of their life with you because it's there in the public realm.

About the Piece

Choosing a mural with the word Place was fitting for so many reasons. I wanted create a piece that holds place—people stuck it out here to rebuild [after the earthquakes] and everything that goes into having something like this happen to your home.

Place seemed like a bold, solid word to hold the main composition. I was actually going to write the full quote [from Salman Rushdie], but I didn't want it to sound cheesy—which is a concern doing type. If they don't know the idea behind it they might not think about it in the same way. The [word] journey is the idea of the seeds traveling across the area from the flower to the bird, since birds are one of the few ways that seeds can travel. The bird is there to symbolize travel and freedom and transience and the poppy is there, rooted in the ground. And [I chose] a poppy—because around the corner I saw a little patch of poppies when I arrived in Lyttleton.

On place.

When people talk about looking after your mental health, they often talk about putting roots down. When I try to visualize that place of “roots” I get caught up in this whirlpool...even though I love my homes—of Gisborne and Wellington. It wasn't until reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet and saw characters who are most themselves when they are moving that I realized I'm just carrying these roots with me and that's fine.

"The dream of Roots. The mirage of the Journey" - Salman Rushdie

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follow Kelly: @kell.sunshine