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Two decades in, & The Wine Cellar still seems like a good idea

FEATURE | INTERVIEW

Written by Liam Hansen (they/them) | @liamhanse.n | Editor-in-Chief



It’s difficult to consider any particular bar, venue, or place in general the hub of the Tāmaki Makaurau music/creative scene. Te Papaioea/Palmerston North has all ages  venue/recording space The Stomach, Ōtepoti/Dunedin’s Woof! takes the cake for combining gigs and drinks with activism, and  Smash Palace in Ōtautahi hosts an outdoor bar, occasional gigs, and record/zine store Ride On Super Sound towering over it all.

While Auckland City has wonderful spaces like Whammy Bar, Neck Of The Woods, and Ding Dong Lounge to venture into, you can’t really pop into any of these places unless you’re going to a gig. A city's creative hub should be a place you can drop in on almost any given night or day - not just to experience live music, but to connect with other weird people across our community. It should be accessible to as many folks as possible, and serve as a hub for those new to the scene to find themselves a home. The Wine Cellar, located underneath St. Kevins Arcade is not just Auckland's creative hub - it’s a force of growth and inspiration in of itself, blasting experimental and innovative sounds from its small but mighty space to the rest of the city, country, and world as a whole. 


True to its name, The Wine Cellar had its origins away from Tāmaki Makaurau in the Pūrangi Estate Winery of Te Tara-o-te-Ika-a-Māui/The Coromandel Peninsula. Rohan Evans, currently the founder and owner of Cellar and the son of Pūrangi founder Robert Evans, nearly embodied the classic tale of ‘rebellious kid leaves their family business for a new life of rock’n roll in the big city’. “I didn’t feel my place back in my hometown particularly strongly,” he tells me at Bestie Cafe - situated right above the venue he’s called home for twenty years. “I had this idea of opening a little bar in Auckland, initially to showcase some Pūrangi products while following some weird aesthetic choices I had observed and absorbed in my time overseas.” 


Having been a longtime gig-goer and fan of weird local music, Rohan slowly started to bring bands and live music into the den, having them play in the crowded bar without much of an idea of how to actually facilitate a performance space. “I’ve just spent the last twenty years learning what I didn’t already know about gear, sound mixing, and generally realising the space.” Now in 2024, Cellar has gained the reputation of being the place for up-and-coming musicians to begin their journeys into the scene. Zoë Larsen-Cumming, who performs as Babe Martin, manages Big Pop Records, and previously produced 95bFM Breakfast, considers it a second home of sorts; “I think because of the calibre of musicians that play there and have played there, I almost feel challenged by the space. It makes me want to do my best.” 


She’s not wrong about the quality of Wine Cellar alumni -  Every major name to come out of Aotearoa independent music in the last decade, from The Beths to Princess Chelsea to Marlon Williams, played some of their earliest gigs at The Wine Cellar. The reputation that motivates Zoë to do her best at the venue seems to be encouraging everyone who passes through the doors to do their best - she reckons she hasn’t played or attended a Cellar gig that she hasn’t loved. 


This energy partially comes from the way that Rohan and co have run the venue throughout the past twenty years. He says that “We try to make it easy to put on a show, where you don’t have to do everything yourself and you’re taken seriously.” It gives artists and bands an idea of what it’s like to play shows more regularly and allows them to avoid stressing about wrangling an engineer, gear, or lighting equipment and fully focus on honing their set. 


This approach has created a community in and of itself, the culmination of which will be on display in their upcoming 20th anniversary mini festival taking place across the last week of May. This is essentially a miniature history of The Wine Cellar, taking you through the stalwarts of their time on Karangahape Road - this includes their weekly musical improv collective Vitamin S on the Monday, a return to their rent party origins with a blues night in the bar on Tuesday, and insane free jazz group Trioglodyte playing with guests on Thursday. 


Zoë will debut her first curated lineup on the Wednesday songwriters special (affectionately titled ‘Into The Grotto’), playing as Babe Martin alongside Louisa Nicklin, Kraus, Motte, and Samara Alofa. These artists highlight the intimate nature of The Wine Cellar and heavily reflect the venue's tendency to host acts that can make a room go silent with awe. That being said, it’s common for artists from all genres and styles to make themselves a home in the space - Zoë jokes that it’s almost like black box theatre, with the variety of ways the venue can be moulded to fit a particular artist's needs.


I’ve seen this first-hand, seeing two wildly different solo artists Zoë manages at Big Pop and its imprint Particle Recordings. Indie folk singer-songwriter Beth Torrance has slotted perfectly into the intimate end of Cellar artists - I booked her for a gig I put on earlier this year, and when I poked my head around the corner from managing ticket sales I saw the audience sitting cross-legged together on a concrete floor, entirely enamoured by Beth's songwriting. On the opposite end, pop artist Jason Parker has equally treated the space like a stadium, singing to a backing track with a stage presence that radiates pure energy and joy. These artists fit right in alongside the variety of jazz, hip-hop, dance, and punk gigs that take place at Cellar on a weekly basis. 


To close out the Wine Cellar anniversary week, Rohan has curated a variety of classic bands and artists to play across the current venue space and Whammy Backroom (the bar's former venue space). Tāmaki Makaurau classics and beyond will be playing, including Hans Pucket, Dick Move, DC Maxwell, Pony Baby, Mokotron, Guardian Singles, Ammamelia, and many more. These are all particularly modern bands, who have been active for 5-10 years or so - meaning they’ve been playing at Wine Cellar through its ups and downs. 


Back at the start of 2023, a proposed rent increase saw threats of the venue being forced to close its doors for good, after an already difficult period of trying to get audiences back in the space post-Covid. This period of turmoil saw much of Auckland’s music community come together to support the venue, with Princess Chelsea and Don McGlashan both hosting fundraising gigs there to help support the venue that has supported the scene for so long. While this was immensely difficult for Rohan to get through, he doesn't think this means the Auckland gig scene is doomed forever. “I think we run the risk of creating a golden age that was never there. Things weren’t perfect before the pandemic, they aren’t perfect now, and that makes the collective psyche hesitant to embrace change. People need time to process what has happened, but we can’t hold on to the past. Change must come.”


Despite the challenges, The Wine Cellar isn’t going anywhere soon and new people are walking through its doors every day. I often see bands who have come from the most recent all ages scene become absolutely psyched when they become old enough to play there - like it’s something they’ve been working towards, and preparing for their entire time in the community. It’s impossible to quantify the impact the venue has had on the Tāmaki Makaurau music scene - when I asked Zoë about it, she was at a loss for words in fear of underselling how much it meant to her and the community as a whole. To me, it’s just utterly cool - walking through the dive bar lit dimly red, chilling in the wide hallway between the bar and the venue where I’ve had some of the most interesting (and drunk) conversations of my life, and making my way up to the venue itself where there’s always, without fail, something interesting going on. The DIY spirit of The Wine Cellar has never been lost on any of its staff, musicians, or audiences, and as more people come through the doors, the reputation of such a small space can only get bigger. 

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