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NZMM: Writers on Wellington Music – Damien Wilkins

We’ve been checking in with some local artists, writers & critics to get their thoughts on what makes the Wellington Music scene unique, and to get their take on some of their favourite Wellington sounds. You can check out some older posts from critics Nick Bollinger, & Grant Smithies, Blue Smoke writer Chris Bourke, and musicians Samuel Flynn Scott & Alistair Fraser, but since it is New Zealand Music Month we thought we would check in with some more people over the course of May.

Whether offering an opinion on the uniqueness or elusive qualities that make up Wellington music, or just some of their favourite albums, the most important thing is the music itself, and we hope these posts lead you back to some favourite albums, or help you to discover something new.

Up today is award-winning novelist & short story writer Damien Wilkins, who is currently Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. Wilkins had been involved in music long before his career as a writer bloomed, becoming a fan of the early 80s Wellington punk scene he played in a group called ‘The Jonahs’ whose claim to fame was a well received EP and an opening gig for The Chills. Twenty plus years later he again began to feel the pull of music, which led to the forming of musical collective The Close Readers

I find the category ‘Wellington music’ hard to grasp. Unlike Dunedin or New Orleans or even Manchester, the city name doesn’t seem to describe anything much. There’s always been too much variety for a scene to be galvanising in any singular way. Was there a moment when things seemed definitive or central here? Not sure. The key musical moment in my Wellington life was 1979-82. Excuse me while I go nostalgic. As a sixth former from the Hutt I saw Talking Heads play in the Wellington Town Hall: life changed. Then came that astonishing period of scuzzy venues (the Rock Theatre, the Last Resort) and intense punky bands. Shoes This High and Christchurch refugees The Gordons were my favourites. I also remember The Clean coming through on their first national tour. A friend and I immediately commandeered his aunt’s Morris 1000 and drove up to Auckland to see them play again and again. Later, ‘The Go-Betweens’ at the Cricketer’s Arms, a venue where my old 80s band The Jonahs would play.

One of the stupidest things about this early 80s period was the hostility, drawn up more or less on racial lines, between punks and disco fans. There was some nasty aggro. Happily and sensibly, the listening habits of my friends and I always meant that Michael Jackson could easily follow Pere Ubu on the turntable. Somehow this took longer than it should have to make sense in the clubs and on the streets. A later Wellington seems noteworthy for its tolerance and diversity. Anyone can hang out with anyone.

Skipping forward, I lived overseas in the early 90s and then didn’t really go out to see bands during the early years of bringing up children. I missed the early and fertile Bodega period. My more recent re-entry into music as a songwriter introduced me to a generation of amazingly skilled local musicians, now in their 30s, whose youths were very different from mine. Their talent and openness (and keenness to be paid for what they do!) are a terrific resource. Above all, I think Wellington is a working town of collaborations and mixed projects rather than stars and one-shot pretenders. I won’t deny I miss the fierceness of the early 80s scene—narrow commitment can have results too—but today’s collegiality feels more grown-up, friendlier, funnier.
3 top albums:

Shoes this HighStraight to Hell
The Phoenix Foundation – Buffalo
Cassette – Emo EP

Shoes This High ‘Mental Whiff’

We did a post on the latest album from Damien’s group ‘The Close Readers’ here. You can buy their stuff on Bandcamp here.

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