What's Happening with the Dunedin Sound? Understanding Regional Music Scenes of Aotearoa
WORDS Liam Hansen (he/they)
Whenever I hyperfixate on a new town or city that I’m desperate to move to in a bid to leave Auckland, the first step on my agenda is to chuck on a curated playlist that throws me neck deep into that area's local musical scene. Playing musical cartography is a fascinating and invaluable way to understand an area’s culture and the development of its inhabitants. And it’s no different when it comes to looking at different New Zealand cities. Think about the way you can take a city like Ōtepoti Dunedin and listen through its archives. I reckon you’ll find an ability to pinpoint the cultural turning points and changes of a particular city solely through the mood, textures, and lyrics of the area’s musical community... right? Can you really hear where a band is from through their music in Aotearoa New Zealand, or is the Dunedin Sound stuck to the southern studentville only by namesake? Trying to understand and succinctly explain the musical history of Aotearoa is borderline impossible. An attempt to do so would be akin to me trying to explain the impact of Radiohead but only having the space to discuss Creep. There is A LOT to cover (if you’re really curious, most of it is available to learn about on audioculture.co.nz), and that's mostly because New Zealand music punches greatly above its weight. We produce a lot of music, and most of it is pretty dang good. But we’re also a small country, meaning our musical community is forced to stick together and support each other.
We produce a lot of music, and most of it is pretty dang good. But we’re also a small country, meaning our musical community is forced to stick together and support each other.
It’s all just one big weird fused monster, consisting of artists and cities that make up the general image of “New Zealand Music”. Our “national sound” is so broad and eclectic that, at the end of the day, it only really shares the core uniting features of a shared location, ethos and vibe.
To really understand whether or not regional scenes differ from each other, you need to have an open mind, a little historical knowledge, and a fuck tonne of time to spend listening to and combing through the musical library of Aotearoa. Thankfully, 95bFM Breakfast host, Rachel Ashby, has done all that and more since it’s, ya know, her job. So I went ahead and asked her: Do New Zealand's various regional music scenes really even exist?
“Yeah, sort of.”
She reckons they do, but with a lot of overlap between each other. Not to mention strange, surprising historical factors that have formed scenes into what they are now. Waves of subgenres have hit certain areas in New Zealand at random and unexpected times throughout history, including ones I had no idea about. Turns out there’s a burgeoning doom scene in Thames and the Coromandel! Kirikiriroa Hamilton has a long standing straight-edge hardcore scene! And did you know that, over the past decade, Palmerston North has been incredibly important for the emo scene? Not to mention reggae in Northland, Tāmaki Makaurau’s experimental hip hop, and the impact of the Pātea Māori Club. “There’s all these pockets of sound that are all kind of linked together in one big, massive web.” These scenes often pop up naturally - for instance, a lot of music from Pōneke Wellington is jazz-infused, largely because the nation's biggest jazz school is based in the capital.
What’s more, historical events can easily change the tide of a city’s sounds. Having grown up in the midst of an earthquake-hit Ōtautahi Christchurch, Rachel saw first-hand the way the city and parts of Canterbury as a whole changed as a result of the disaster. “Back in the ’90s Liquid DnB was Christchurch’s real DNA”. However, “post- earthquake Christchurch saw people come together in a way they never had before. And I think music was a big part of helping the morale of that situation - it was a very shitty, scary, weird time.” With all that being said, one of the areas most affected by the earthquakes was Lyttelton, which happens to be an area where some of the most prolific folk-adjacent artists from Aotearoa came from. The likes of Marlon Williams, Reb Fountain, Aldous Harding etc “It was literally cut off from the rest of Christchurch because the tunnel was closed, and you couldn't go over the hill.
There were two weeks where there was no easy access between town and Lyttelton, and from what I've heard, it was one enormous piss- up.” Basically, that time spent together and the major community unity positively impacted the city and its music scene, catapulting both Lyttelton and Christchurch into the musical powerhouses they are today.
There were two weeks where there was no easy access between town and Lyttelton, and from what I've heard, it was one enormous piss- up.” Basically, that time spent together and the major community unity positively impacted the city and its music scene, catapulting both Lyttelton and Christchurch into the musical powerhouses they are today. However, segmenting groups and genres into specific areas runs a real risk of losing important nuance. When taking a look at regional scenes in New Zealand, there’s really no bigger shining example than the aforementioned “Dunedin Sound”. The jangly, reverb-heavy, psychedelic noise coming out of Flying Nun in the 1980s. Bands like The Chills, Straitjacket Fits, Chris Knox, and The Clean have influenced artists overseas like Pavement and R.E.M, becoming a cultural imprint on our nation’s musical history. However, this genre's ties to the student city have become progressively questioned over the past forty years - many bands that would fit incredibly well into the genre are based in other areas, and Flying Nun itself formed in Christchurch. These days, bands like Soaked Oats and Marlin's Dreaming have been at the forefront of a newer, surf rock style stemming from the student pub culture down south, and groups like Night Lunch are gravitating towards heavier sonic landscapes of borderline insanity. However, the grandeur of the 1980s era of Dunedin music has made the topic somewhat touchy - the ability to separate yourself from it becomes harder and harder. In Rachel's opinion, from an outside point of view, “there are definitely still people making jangle music in Dunedin, but there are just as many people making that sound here in Auckland and Wellington. People just aren't looking at it with the same lens - cause when you incorporate jangle guitar whilst being from Dunedin, people immediately go 'Aha! You’re doing the Dunedin Sound!'”
“There are definitely still people making jangle music in Dunedin, but there are just as many people making that sound here in Auckland and Wellington. People just aren't looking at it with the same lens - cause when you incorporate jangle guitar whilst being from Dunedin, people immediately go 'Aha! You’re doing the Dunedin Sound!'”
One of the issues with excessive focus on the past rather than the present is that it takes the spotlight away from the fact that underground music communities are currently struggling. Just last month, protests took place in Ōtepoti over the development of a new apartment complex next to The Crown Hotel, which is one of the very few gig venues still standing in the city. The development would force noise complaints onto the concert house and would see its ability to remain a safe haven for loud music killed off. “It's no secret that venues are having a hard time at the moment across the country, even in big cities like Auckland. It's not an easy time for the music scene.”
With all that being said, Aotearoa's regional and wider music communities will always continue chugging along. Underground music spaces are built around strong, tightly knit communities, and institutions like 95bFM are a fantastic example of how volunteer- based group work and support can help artists and creatives grow and thrive. The station, in of itself, is a part of the wider Student Radio Network which combines independent student radio from around the motū to create new events that help small New Zealand artists grow. This is just a tiny example of the wide world that New Zealand music has to offer, whilst simultaneously showcasing how easy it is to get involved with the scene! Simply by volunteering, attending local gigs and supporting venues. I mean, shit, in the end the power of the protests against the development near The Crown Hotel in Dunedin saw the city council agree to review local planning rules around inner-city noise.
So to answer my first question: towns in Aotearoa do have their own little niches. But more importantly, they all still come together to form an absolute juggernaut in the international music industry. As Rachel says, “yes, cities matter, but people matter more.”