FOUR FOUR CITY
Christchurch city is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. In the space of a few short years a city previously dominated by drum & bass has become a hotbed of house & techno parties, promoters and producers.
This past summer into winter of 2017 has seen the outbreak of a house or techno party almost every weekend. Positively the scene is being pushed forward by a strong local dj/producer ethic and is not heavily relying on international djs for identification and audience creation.
The histories of dance music in NZ are rarely told. The scenes exist in these amorphous spaces of ever shifting brands/labels and pseudonyms. Populated by compact, overlapping youth driven social scenes located in sporadic, underground and chaotic late night environments.
Even in the age of the internet NZ dance music as a whole has no distinct magazine coverage, popular websites (sans Obscure.co.nz), few dedicated photographers or any form of consistent coverage.
Outside of its own tight circles the scene is rarely recorded or exported. The most lasting collateral is often a poster or sticker, which in a digital age is even rarer than before. The evidence of the scene today mostly exist in ephemeral places like facebook. Encouragingly though the music released from the emerging local producer scene is creating a more of an imprint.
Given the nature of the scene, a small caveat, this story is not complete, probably not wholly accurate and will be missing vast amounts of relevant detail. If you think the story needs correction, talk to me.
As I have told these stories in the past I know that the stories are literally the only stories that end up existing about dance scenes or moments in time, like that one time in a chinese restaurant on High St.
The big picture however is about seeing a moment of change in the fundamental vibe of the Christchurch dance scene.
I wanted to write this story because I think it’s important to identify and recognise many of the individuals building the scene right now, plus as a house & techno dj this story is important to me personally.
Ultimately this story is about the re-emerging social and cultural identity of the city. A city that, known or unknown, is still putting itself back togeather after a major earthquake in 2011.
In the six years post quake the majority of the CBD has been destroyed and/or removed and then rebuilt or adapted making Christchurch an evolving and convoluted space with a rapidly shifting landscape of venues, bars, warehouses, pop ups and endless ‘new’ spaces.
It’s salient to think there is now an entire generation of young people who have absolutely no way of knowing physically or historically what the nightlife of the city used to be. An 18 year old going out in 2017 was 12 when the quakes destroyed the city.
All the city’s traditional nightspots were either destroyed in the quake or demolished later. The urban center of the city was inaccessible for almost 3yrs and even today it’s a disorienting disorganization of building sites, roading works and ongoing major change.
As a result the city has also been in an constant adaptive state, with a multitude of temporary spaces, multi-use spaces, emerging spaces, spaces trying to define themselves but mostly a lack of space in an abundance of space. All of which has forced improvisation, innovation, a lot of imagination and a fair amount of consternation.
Everywhere from home lounges, restaurants, pizza joints, warehouses, pubs, tapas bars, marquees on empty lots and student association common areas have been modulating from their standard modes into public venues and gig spaces. While conventional events struggled in these environments the underground music scene, which has always been adaptive and instinctively resilient, has thrived.
Immediately post quake crews like ChCh House Collective and City Nights established themselves. Pooling together local house djs and personal sound systems to host nights in various small bars or warehouses. With the brands now running into their 5th & 6th years of hosting parties these crews set up a trajectory for much of what has developed.
Operating out of post quake bars like Dux Live, Revival and Monday Room. Venues which were established as a response to the quakes and which have since disappeared, again partially because of the quake environment.
ChCh House Collective has consistently maintained the party vibe with all local lineups bringing togeather club/bar djs and underground djs. Drawing out a mixture of old school (pre-quake) and new school audiences.
City Nights kicked off at the Dux Live and soon became part of Kidnap Inc ‘agency’ alongside sister brand C/U aka City Underground. City Night focused primarily on house music and from 2012 to 2014 did a stint of seminal internationals shows including acts like Rondenion, Max Graef, Chaos in the CBD, Recloose and Frank Booker.
Across the same period C/U presented a series of seminal UK bass music shows featuring artists like T-Williams, Wookie, DJQ and NYTA. A sound that helped to bridge a d&b and trap focused audience towards a house & techno sound.
C/U also ran locals nights pulling togeather many of the new dj’s, some who are now headlining the current scene, including hosting the very young GASP who later signed to prime label Feel My Bicep under the new pseudonym Sandboards and has since gone on to become an internationally regarded producer.
Equally importantly C/U was the first to host NZ Techno artists Keepsakes at a warehouse show at the Third Door Down in 2013. A show which arguably helped to pivot some dj’s and soon to be promoters towards techno.
In parallel Hustle Hi Fi lead by dj Martin Jay one of Christchurch’s original 90’s house djs kicked off a decent string of club parties with friends and associates built around his depth and knowledge as a dj/promoter.
Off the radar and on the edges of dubstep and drum & bass label/promotion crew Averted Vision established around a warehouse space called Unit 9. Presenting local, national and international dj/producers in a heady cross-over genre space of dubstep, bass & techno.
The benefit of a relatively stable warehouse venue space, plus a strong contingent of local producers presenting their own music, allowed the parties to grow from smaller numbers to over 300+ before the venue was dissolved.
The fabled Unit 9 warehouse was run by Log Recording, a project lead by Henri Nichol. A musical catalyst in his own right, Nichol started as a d&b dj in his teens and has pursued sonic interests in several diverse directions including promoting events, recording, producing shows and playing in his band Log Horn Breed.
Following in the practice of the well established Christchurch sound system culture, Nichol also purchased and built his own PA for events, promoting cross genre, mixing indie bands & dj’s, creating sonics spaces spanning punk rock, avant garde noise, techno and bass music.
In my experience the vibe of ‘proper’ techno has mostly, and only historically, existed in Wellington in the 90’s and come from direct pedigrees of detroit or european techno. Even the outdoor scenes I was involved with played progressive, trance, house, psychedelic but rarely ever pure techno.
Now all of sudden ‘proper’ techno was becoming increasingly relevant in my city at an alternative warehouse space built on a punk ethic in a post d&b and dubstep environment.
After a impressive string of warehouse events at Unit9, most recently Averted Vision with the assistance of Log Recording were responsible for hosting international techno artists Ansome (Live) for the Christchurch leg of the NZ tour at the Dark Room a post-quake indie band venue that has been partially co-opted by the dj scene.
Projects like Log Recording, who have recently re-established themselves in the city’s only remaining dive bar, aptly called New City Hotel, are perhaps unknowingly set up to solidify both the band and dj scene over the next few years. With their eyes, ears and hearts in all right place the focus is consistently on the music and experiences over the egos and the hype.
In late 2015, scene stalwart and dj, Willy Styles teamed up with good friends to form Like Minds and start hosting a series of exceptional parties called Carpe Diem at inner city bar/venue Smash Palace.
Coming more from an outdoor rave ethic of MASSIVE parties, a scene that has always harboured a house sound amongst a kaleidoscope of other dance genres, Willy brought a more versed approach to mixing and promoting.
Although in his 30’s few people know that Willy started djing during the 90’s at the age of twelve at ground-breaking outdoor parties like Destinations, so his time in the scene is equal to someone like myself (in his 40’s) who started mixing at the same parties.
Willy’s dj partner in Like Minds, Jake AF aka Bomb Dylan, also has hidden local pedigree in techno. During the mid 2000’s he sonically distinguished himself from his peers by being one of the key djs for blacklist promoters KILL CLUB, the only pre-quake party ‘brand’ trying to establish minimal techno in Christchurch clubs .
Like Minds have quickly established Carpe Diem as the pace setting party for the city. Somewhere they crossed an invisible tipping point, while a couple of years ago pure house or techno parties were pushing hard to get audiences of 50 to 100 and happening infrequently, attendance for the Like Minds parties are now regularly heading towards the 300’s, with parties on a monthly rotation.
More importantly the audience is being drawn from completely new social circles, pulling in young people who are mostly unrelated to any of the prior existing dance scenes.
The energy at the parties is packed, heady, sweaty, dance focused, music driven and completely absorbed into the experience. The dancefloor has a proper club feeling that for me is reminiscent of the best house & techno club experiences I was having in the mid 90’s in Wellington.
The party’s vibe, which is noteworthy for Christchurch, is a distinctly different feeling to being in a d&b audience or even an old school rave crowd, a vibe that is atypical for the city. The sense of excitement for new music and new audiences feels completely fresh and totally organic.
Smash Palace (created by the former owners of famed Goodbye Blue Monday bar) is a key venue space that has helped to foster the scene into its current position. With several areas, the bar has hosted multiple dance events in various configurations.
Prior to Carpe Diem a couple of past parties have occurred in their loft space. Musicology with a focus on disco, soul & house was one of the first dj events. Also in the loft bar was a duo of parties called Berlin which focused on ‘berlin’ techno and drew the first inklings of younger crowd. City Nights has also hosted mid-summer day parties in the main courtyard, creating a yard party vibe with a quad sound system and house music.
All these events laid the patchwork for what was to come, helping to identify Smash Palace as a welcoming destination for dance music. Ironically also coercing what is in essence an ‘indie’ beers & bikers bar into a contemporary electronic dance venue.
Again coming almost out of left field this hip hop come house crew have turbo boosted the scene by doing everything at once! Similar to many of the emerging crews, they are running a label, releasing music, hosting their own parties and performing live four piece house music to packed rooms utilizing the classic Lyttelton venue space The Wunderbar, one of the few old music venues to surprisingly survive the quake, given its perch on the hill overlooking the port.
Azure, who only debuted at a Like Minds party in early 2016, has quickly moved to feature as a regular bill at many of the house parties in the city.
This sudden burst of energetic activity has been critical in forming the new audience for house music. Amplifying the excitement level for moody deep house to a level that I haven’t seen since the mids 90’s. Merging this with the existing more senior scene and the parallel developing scenes Christchurch is seeing a social fusion that has the potential to permanently setup the house & techno scene in the city in a way that has never existed.
Part of my own immediate connection to Azure and the work of Crooked Lidz has been the genuine emotional content of the music they write and release. Even mixed with youthful hype and yolo party antics, it reflects an honest and real connection to what actually makes house music house. When you say “house is a feeling” this is the feeling that I get from Crooked Lidz. More meaningful to me is that this is house with a very local feeling.
A proficient and established dj in his own right, of the ‘new vinyl’ generation, Williams has been quietly working on collaborations and releases with a number of local producers. Also acting as a playlist selector for alt radio station RDU98.5 he is responsible for much of the house & techno music populating the rotate playlist, a playlist that has largely been dominated by indie bands, dub and d&b.
Emerging out of houseparty happenings when there was a complete lack of venues immediately post quake, as dj’s they were influential around much of the current party sound simply by being the most prolific and eager dj’s for any party. Playing cross genre from bass to techno their sound has developed into a sophisticated deep techno style equal to the best modes deepest europe currently offers.
Its a bitter sweet outcome that the quakes which literally evicted people from the city clubs and bars are also responsible for opening up space for new djs and new genres. With people desperate to party to get the anxiety out of their systems, limited to the confines of lounges and home stereos, underground house & techno was able to get a toehold with its warm energy and uplifting drive.
A factor not often discussed is that many young people left the city post quake. I knew of a group of 30+ individuals who moved to Melbourne six months after the 2011 quakes, and haven’t returned. Pre-quake this tight social group which featured a bunch of dj’s, represented the core of the underground dance music scene at the time. Another example of how the quakes physical and social cleared the decks so to speak.
One of the other musical agents in this story, equally caught up in the turmoil was the local alt radio station RDU98.5. Pre-quake the radio station was housed in its birthplace at the University of Canterbury Students Association. In the pre-quake decade general student culture had been trending toward the mainstream, so the previously natural fit of a rebellious alternative radio station as part of the student association was becoming more of a juxtaposition.
With the UCSA building closed off, the radio station was forced to hit road, and spent several years continuing to broadcast from a horse float in someones back yard. The extraction from the university was both an extreme challenge for the station but equally a sort of a blessing in disguise.
What the student body perhaps took for granted the alternative culture of the city embraced and thus the station survived through the determination of station owners, legendary d&b dj Pylonz & partner Karen, plus the energy of many many supporters, including the city’s underground dance dj’s.
As the station pulled itself back togeather it doubled down to celebrate a 40year history with an amazing exhibition at the Canterbury Museum.
While many possibly identified the history of the station with rock & roll or band culture, one of the interesting reveals when all the memories were laid out was to see how strong the influence of electronic dance culture and djs had been on the station since the mid 90’s. With all the artwork, performances and many memories of rave on rare display, the exhibition was one of the threads to re-awaken a dance driven aesthetic in the city.
RDU has now re-established in the heart of the city in a highly dynamic new studio space as part of the Box Quarter, another uniquely post-quake response to the a lack of space in the City.
Its hard to understate the influence that this new physical platform for music and culture will have on the city. There is something dramatic and tangible when the station that broadcast multiple dance music shows is now tightly embedded into the developing CBD of a reforming city.
Nothing happens in isolation however, so much of what has come before, noticed or unnoticed, provides the foundation of the scene that is occurring today.
Evolution is a constant and change is inevitable. Christchurch was always destined to evolve, the quakes just tipped the table on the status quo and viciously forced us all into wild and unknown trajectories. Perhaps scrambling and resetting to factory the usual cultural forces that run through a city.
Growing up in Christchurch in the 90’s I was part of a small group of friends who produced the first all jungle/drum&bass party in 1996 called Darkside. At that time we were mavericks, breaking away from the happy hardcore and gabba scene that dominated the underground. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the city was to rapidly forget its hardcore roots and embrace d&b like no other city in the globe.
For a period from the late 90’s Christchurch was known as the Drum & Bass capital of the world. The now mythical Ministry nightclub on Lichfield St was one of the only places outside of East London and Brixton that front line d&b artists were being booked.
While d&b was still a fringe sub-culture even on the British scene, we were cramming the club and championing the sound like no others, providing visiting dj’s with some of the most phenomenal sets of their careers.
This reputation lead to a back to back influx of influential dj’s that provided a heavy education in bass culture that to this days informs Christchurch dj’s and producers, many who have now gone back out to influence the scene internationally.
Today while the city still hosts a vibrant bass music scene spanning from dub reggae, to 140 dubstep, to pop d&b, to the harder darker or electro versions of d&b, plus everything in between. The diversifications of the scene has widely distributed & dissipated the original source energy that put it at the centre of the world during the late 90’s.
Drum & Bass has not been ‘new’ in Christchurch for well over a decade, it is establishment sound, it hard for it to represent a fringe or emerging culture that attracts fresh energy and provides awakening experiences. Case in point there are touring artists who played some of their first international shows in Christchurch who are now returning as ‘legacy’ artists.
This is not to diminish the relevance or innovation still in d&b music, or the significance of d&b music for Christchurch. The sound is such an embedded and deeply schooled part of the city’s culture that any average teenager worth their salt will still be faster than shazzam at naming a d&b bassline.
While the sound will forever be a signature of the city’s underground the fact remains that for a scene originating at forefront of bass music over two decades ago, the currency and energy in the scene today is a very different thing from those early heady days.
For me one of the indications that the city’s stanch dedication for bass music is finally shifting tact comes from a couple of recent incidents within in the d&b scene itself.
Recently renowned producer Marcus Intalex (rip) did a local side show under his techno guise Trevino. While his show as Marcus Intalex drew much larger crowds the side show represented a sort of unnoticed yet strangely symbolic handover as the d&b promoter reached out to local house & techno djs to play at and promote the event.
On another tangent a d&b dj/promoter recently started up a monthly night called (non ironically) 4Four. The event like Carpe Diem has been a rolling success, albeit with a slightly different crowd again.
Initially within the established house & techno scene it caused some confusion and claims of bandwagoning. Mostly it's been a bit of a surprise and perhaps a wake up call for existing house & techno dj’s that there actually exists enough interest in the genre for a d&b dj/promoter to be inspired to switch their whole musical focus.
As I mentioned at the start. This story is not complete, there are layers on layers and threads on threads. There are important details I've missed and key connections that I haven’t made, events I don’t know about, names I haven’t mentioned, dj’s on the scene that I still don’t know.
There are histories that are too long to fit into this telling and relationships more fascinating and relevant than I have time to weave into this context.
Of course there is also the global influences in the genre, the rebirth of vinyl, the internet, Boiler Room & youtube. Nothing exists in a complete vacuum.
There are also many national parallels to what is happening in Christchurch with promoters and producers up and down the county, old and new, putting a renewed focus on house & techno.
The emergence of NZ house & techno producers from the margins has been more prolific in the last five years than any period before. Of relevance is that multiple NZ producers in the genre are achieving wide scene breaking international acclaim for their production, labels & dj’ing.
Regardless I would argue, that as it was with d&b, Christchurch is the most unlikely city on the map to be rapidly developing one of the strongest scenes for house & techno in the country.
And this is my fascination and excitement for telling this story.
Christchurch is my home, I grew up here, burning away the cold grim nights stalking the streets, haunting the clubs and ghosting the parties.
I love my city, I love its grimy dark energy, its gothic, gridded, conservative frameworks of establishment, feigned egalitarianism and hopes for high art.
At the age of 16 when I first discovered hardcore, gabba, jungle and d&b in the warehouse raves and clubs of Christchurch there was so much energy and potential on the streets. At that time I felt like I had discovered the true and hidden nature of the city.
It wasn’t just a rural supply town at the edge of an empire, it was the pioneering frontier, a deep incubator of the most avant garde and dynamic energies the world had to offer. This to me was why we were able to embrace and revel in the abrasive complex sounds of d&b and make it our own in a city so far and so foreign from the birthplace of the genre.
This brimming energy is what I feel in the city once again. The pulsing discovery and revelry in a fascinating new sound and emotion in music.
It’s a true underground experience. The process of turning away from the status quo, buckling the establishment and carving a new space out of the blackness. A feeling of making something of your own, building something from scratch, creating a new vibe in the city.
A new rhythm, a new sound a four four city.
With love and respect to all the people on the floor.