Shore Core: A Recent History of North Shore Rock & Roll

Words by Jack Smylie

The explosion of Rock & Roll in the quiet suburb of Devonport around the mid-2000s took Auckland by storm and created a legacy that has reconfigured its music scene. To document the entire ins-and-outs of the few formative years of this scene would be an absurd task to undertake – one that would require a few hundred pages of paperback goodness to indulge in over a few pots of tea – and one that has already been seen to, in part, by the 2008 documentary, Guitars from the Leafy Suburbs.

It makes more sense to discuss a few key players in this local movement – the original innovators that got the kids jumping to retro riffs in skin-tight jeans and winkle-pickers. So instead of a comprehensive history, this here is a brief observation of what was going on at that time – within a small group of friends, in a small group of bands, at a small group of venues – which made a big dent in the scene. While a couple of bands have been skipped over (who others might say were important) this is a personal guide from me to you, on some of the coolest cats to wield Strat’s in the last few years. And it kind-of all starts up the road in Devo.

In many ways it all started with The Veils. Finn Andrews had been gigging around the local Auckland folk scene for a while when he sent a bunch of demos to record labels in London. He was quickly scooped up by Rough Trade imprint Blanco y Negro, and him and the band relocated to the UK. They then released a few singles in 2002-03. The relationship with the label turned sour and the band then signed to Rough Trade, with whom they released their incredible debut album, The Runaway Found. The first time I heard this album I couldn’t quite believe The Veils were a band from Auckland, such was the power and beauty of the songs, and the intense emotion of Finn’s voice. The Veils’ sound completely transcended anything else that was happening locally at that time. Their live shows, too, were (and still are) incredible. If you need proof, watch this.

After The Runaway Found, the band changed its line-up, with Finn unhappy about the direction they were taking. That turned out to be a good thing, because the new band – re-formed with a couple of high school mates as a well as new assets from the Northern Hemisphere – took the sound to new heights on their second full-length album, Nux Vomica. More powerful, more beautiful, more intense, more emotional, and heavier, I still think this is The Veils at their finest. ‘Jesus for the Jugular’ is just fucking nuts (again, watch the clip above). With global touring and international acclaim following on the back of this record, it was another two years before the band dropped Sun Gangs, a further exploration of their sound – which on this record is both bright and melancholic. A couple of years back they released a 7-track EP, Troubles of the Brain, which again blew minds with Finn’s nostalgic crooning. Geoff Travis, head of Rough Trade Records, has compared Finn to the likes of Nick Cave and David Bowie in terms of pure artistry, and I really have to agree. It may sound a wee bit superlative to say, but I seriously believe these guys to be one of the best bands this country has ever produced. The raw, evocative songwriting and spellbinding performances have influenced a new generation of musicians in NZ (and probably around the world), myself included. The Veils were the first to put Devonport on the map, and in my opinion, they’re still number one.

Of all the bands from the Shore, The Checks have probably had the biggest impact on NZ’s musical landscape. Their unabashed appropriation of Stones-swagger and Zepplin-grunt took on a life of its own to the point where it became something completely original – a sound which has been honed over the course of a near 10 year career. Their third studio album Alice By The Moon won Best Rock Album at the 2012 Vodafone Music Awards – a testament to how acclaimed the band had become on a mainstream level, let alone how important they’d been to the entire Shore Core. You could say they WERE the scene. I first saw the band perform at the Big Day Out one year when I was fifteen, excited because I’d heard their ‘Mercedes Children’ demo on a Remix Maganews compilation, totally awestruck as they slammed it in front of a packed crowd at about midday – no mean feat for a local band to pull such an audience at that time in the morning. Shortly after that they took off to the UK on the NME tour alongside the likes of the Rakes and Maximo Park, came back to these shores, took off again to record an album, and then returned once more. This is when I met the cats. It’s fair to say they had a pretty big impact on me and why I chose to start making the kind of music I did at that time. In fact, I think it’s pretty fair to say why the rest of us started bands. From their beginnings jamming in the music rooms at Takapuna Grammar and entering the Rockquest, they literally rocked it from school hall to squalid bar to grungey stage, and it wasn’t long before people started to take notice, because they could PLAY.

You can hear the progression of the band and their playing style in their consecutive albums. Hunting whales came first, and included new renditions of a lot of their early demos. It’s raw and bluesy and wears its influences on its sleeve. Next came Alice By The Moon, which kind of took NZ by storm. Highly acclaimed and well-received by critics, the boys produced this one themselves. It’s got elements of psychedelia in it, but these streaks are held down by more swaggering Rhythm and Blues, and the odd bit of hip hop inspiration thanks to chief songwriters Ed and Sven being fans of the genre. My favorite Checks album is their last: Deadly Summer Sway. Released last year you can hear all of the sounds listed above, but with a cleaner, poppier, more developed edge. It’s also the most experimental in terms of production, thanks to producer Bassy Bob Brockman, who has previously worked with the likes of Notorious B.I.G. and The Fugees. First single ‘Candyman Shimmer’ is a slinky piece of master craft. My favorite Checks tracks however are those that rarely see the light of day – the unpolished early demos that capture a youthful but serious and dedicated band in their element. You can check out one of these demos, ‘Weather Rooster’, on the band’s Facebook page now.

There was so much hype surrounding The Checks when they were just starting to blow up. The whole of Auckland followed them, even if they claimed to dislike them. They were so energetic. They were different and everyone knew it. I had the pleasure of touring with them in November / December last year on the Deadly Summer Sway Tour, and watching them fang-out every night was, in a word, awesome. There are literally diehard fans in small towns up and down the country, with not much more than a bad haircut and a radio that picks up The Rock’s FM frequency, who come out dancing and hollering for this band. They’ve transcended the ‘indie scene’ to become a heavy, heavy part of New Zealand’s musical history, and it’s beyond me why they’re not on a worldwide tour right now.

A few weeks ago the band announced they have split up, which is a real shame, although I know for a fact we’ll be seeing the individual band members on some next level shit in the near future.

The Electric Confectionaires
were another important shore band born out of the Takapuna Grammar music school. Led by a reclusive Jaisi Sheehan, the EC’s pulled their work from Jaisi’s prolific back catalogue (and I mean prolific when I say it; the guy has literally hundreds of demos recorded) and injected them full of big, bright, retro fun, fusing garage, rock, blues, surf and jazz. They formed in 2005 (the year they won the Rockquest) and proceeded to sing beautiful four part harmonies for four or five years before petering out. You’ve probably heard their song ‘Piece of My Heart’ on Go Girls. I first heard it zooming down the motorway with a head full of… life… digging the way it progressed from torn-out-heart organ-riffing to full blown pop masterpiece. Like The Checks, the EC’s were heavy on the retro influences but in a different way. I often think that with some of the best musicians out there, you feel like you’ve heard their songs before, when you haven’t – they just connect with you deep down in a way that makes you think you have. If you listen to the Electric Confectionaires’ back catalogue you might get the same feeling. Jaisi is a phenomenal song writer, and a crazily intelligent and inventive guitar player. After the EC’s gradual demise, Jaisi formed The Pychs – a kind of punk Beach Boys – while Haddon (the guy on keys with the afro), you’ve probably seen playing in bands with Dave Dobbyn, Gin Wigmore and the like.

Around the same time the Electric Confectionaires were playing bubblegum guitar pop, White Birds and Lemons were slamming down gravelly blues and psych just up the road. Scott Franz had just left a band we now know as the Midnight Youth, to focus on a more authentic, underground sound, which he quickly found as the singer for White Birds. Joined by Matt, Dom and Rob on guitar, bass and drums, these guys very rapidly made a name for themselves on the giggling circuit as an exciting band to watch out for. Cue howling guitar solos and tuneful, poetic vocals. One of my fondest memories of the band is sitting in on a recording session at Roundhead Studios while they jammed out beautiful, soulful takes to close friends and accomplices. Another is walking barefoot from Takapuna to Devonport on a sweltering summer’s day, with the worst hangover I have ever had to watch them play a show in the park, and finding it worthwhile. As is inevitably the case with NZ’s best young artists, the band decided to chase further exposure in Australia and moved to Melbourne just over three years ago. And as is also inevitably the case, things didn’t go so smoothly. I won’t go into details, but basically bad luck came along and picked them up, chewed them up, spat them out, stole their gear and destroyed their van. Twice. The band called it quits shortly afterwards, but the guys are still making music. Scott’s band Lourde’s and Rob’s solo act Pan are both still active in Melbourne – hopefully they’ll tour over these ways soon.

The Coshercot Honeys
were and probably always will be the best young band you never heard of. Clear retro influences learned from late night listening sessions with the Checks quickly took on a completely unique identity of their own, in part because the band was torn between creating star-crossed lover-pop hits and ten minute psychedelic freak-outs. The latter usually only ended because the stage was being rushed by sweaty crowds of kids, or singer, Sasha, had thrown himself to the ground where he proceeded to lie still, a la His Holiness, Jim Morrison, before girls would start to take pity on him. At that point he’d get up and stagger back into the band, crashing through the drum kit and getting tangled up in leads. The Coshercot’s single ‘We’re All Lions’ sat at Number 1on the bNet charts for a few weeks while the band released a video and E.P. (also titled We’re All Lions), and a few months later the group changed name, to Brainslaves. Everyone got tattoos of the new name to make it official. The crowds still jumped to it, and jump they did, until Brainslaves up and left Auckland for Australia. Bad move. The Sydney music scene sucks in comparison to Auckland’s, (yep, take note, would-be musical migrants) and the band struggled to find focus. Eight months later, Brainslaves called it quits. Out of the darkness comes light, however. From the Brainslaves legacy came two new entities; Two members formed Space Creeps in Auckland, and one formed Splashh, who are ripping it in London. Space Creeps toured with the Checks last Summer, and Jake from the Checks plays drums in Splashh. The cycle continues…

So that’s a very (very) brief rundown of five important North Shore bands, who I guess you could say are the Shore Core. There are a whole lot more, (special mention needs to go to The Early Birds who were coming up as a young band directly influenced by the older musicans above) and there are more bands emerging all the time, but chances are that they too owe something to one or two of the bands listed above. I guess a couple of venues need a shout out too. The Masonic tavern on the waterfront bore the brunt of countless gigs from all these bands, often playing on the same bill. In the afternoon, the upstairs would open up and kids would pack out the bar for all-age shows. Downstairs, debauchery unfolded at many unforgettable local gigs. Maybe this still goes on – the scene seems to have dissipated a bit. Mt. Victoria played its part too – the Devonstock festival held at its summit brings a bunch of Shore bands together for an annual day of musical mind bending. It’s a community thing too, though. Devonport and the wider Shore area as locations and communities are just as important as contributing factors to the music, as the musicians themselves.

Bear in mind pretty much everything above has taken place over the last ten years – most of it in the last five – and the scene continues to develop. These five bands existed as individual entities – highly original ones at that – but also vibed off each other to the point where I think you can clearly identify a ‘Shore’ sound. It’ll be exciting to see the next crop of young bands coming up, and where the next Kiwi musical revolution takes place.

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