Sam Thurston is a member of Wellington’s hardcore punks Rogernomix and heaps of other bands. Here’s an interview with him about history and present of New Zealand’s punk scene I originally did with him about an year ago for the Czech hardcore punk zine Cerelitida.
It seems there aren’t many bands from New Zealand to tour outside the country. The distance, money, or is there something else to it? I know just about Mr. Sterile Assembly, Ditzy Squall, a couple of folk acts, and I saw that you did Southeast Asian / Australian tour with Rogernomix. Do NZ bands often play in Aussie?
Yeah man! It is usually totally the distance/money. Also a bit of a mental thing.
Real good bands here sometimes don’t realize how many shitty bands tour and that it’s so easy. It just requires prioritizing the money for it rather than getting wasted all the time and just getting in contact with people to help you out! Having said that it is bloody expensive.
New Zealand bands play Aussie more than anywhere else due to it’s proximity, the relatively cheap flights and a shit tonne of kiwis there.
Mr. Sterile Assembly might be one of the oldest still functioning punk bands in New Zealand. They are also running the Skirted Records, am I right? I remember them playing peace-punk in the vein of old Chumbawamba in the past but now moving into a more noise-rock, experimental direction. Are they still active in the hardcore punk scene? Do they have their own universe?
Haha, Mr Sterile has been in their own universe! They play all sorts of shows, definitely sometimes punks shows! They aren’t the oldest by a long stretch though. In Wellington alone, there are bands like Flesh D-Vice and Vas Deferens who play sporadically and have been going since the 80s on and off again.
I want to talk a bit about Rogernomix. At least, in my eyes, you are the most active and most well-known current NZ band, can you tell me something about it? How did it start, what about your plans, what other projects are you involved in?
Rogernomix started in 2009, I think. I’d been playing in a thrashcore band called Shortlived with Sarsha-Leigh Douglas (bass) and I knew Ben from his d-beat band in Auckland.
He had the best d-beat in the country and I always said I’m gonna start a band with him if he ever moved to Wellington. And lo and behold he did so then we just got my friend Tanya on vocals and the rest is history.
We wanna tour more after having such a good time in Aussie / Southeast Asia. So maybe South America? Canada? I’d love to tour India and Sri Lanka too!
I’m also in a gypsy swing band called Black Spider Stomp, a grindy thrash band that plays very sporadically, High Risk Maneuver. Despite breaking up a while ago, my sludge band Meth Drinker is still releasing stuff too.
I also run Always Never Fun records and do a zine with my friend Big Bird by the same name. I have a couple of other bands on the go that haven’t played shows yet as well.
Always Never Fun is your own label and distro. How it is like to run a vinyl label in New Zealand?
Man, doing vinyl in New Zealand is very difficult. It all comes down to money basically. We don’t have any pressing plants in NZ and shipping vinyl from overseas is brutal.
Is there any vinyl pressing factory in NZ, or you must do it overseas? In Czechia it is, along with tapes, the most common medium for DIY hardcore punk music. There aren’t a lot of bands still releasing CDs right now, how it is in NZ? What other labels and distros are active down there?
The scene is pretty small so you usually don’t sell more than 200 records of any one thing so the runs have to be small and that raises the unit cost too.
There aren’t that many bands that end up doing vinyl because it costs so much. We’re talking like anywhere from NZ$18 to NZ$38 per unit all things considered. So add shipping to that and you don’t get many people overseas buying NZ vinyl either. Pretty isolating really.
Most people just release tapes or the odd 7″ these days. Or just streaming it online. Not really CDs that often. There really isn’t that much distroing of overseas stuff because it is expensive to bring stuff in. Labels are Limbless Music and Zero Style Tapes in Wellington. And other odd ones around the major cities that I’m not that familiar with really.
Auckland is the biggest city in New Zealand and the gateway to the country, but it seems that there’s a much bigger scene Wellington. Why do you think it is like that?
I will ask you about Wellington scene later, so can you introduce me to some Auckland bands? Cyprian from Sick Old Man told me that there used to be an infoshop there, but it’s being closed down now. Are there any other places where you can find DIY hardcore punk and anarchist activities in Auckland now?
Hmm, I used to live in Auckland and it is a fragmented, not very well laid out city. Expensive to get around. So getting practices going is pretty annoying and the people tend to be a little more cliquey there. But some bands that I know of are Master Blaster, Sick Old Man, Trepanation, Markdown.
Shit, there really isn’t that many that are coming to mind! Considering that over a third of the country lives there you’d expect more. When I lived there, there were the venues Necropolis and Misfit Theatre. Good DIY places. A bit more going on. I dunno why there isn’t more really.
I want to dig into the past a bit before we come back into the present. Can you tell me something about NZ punk history, some pioneer bands, zines etc.? Are there some formative and important events that shaped the NZ punk community?
Damn, New Zealand punk history is a pretty massive subject. I was asked a while ago to do a New Zealand punk history thing for Maximum Rock ‘n Roll and I had a similar reaction!
Basically, it would take a book’s worth of material to cover everything without leaving vital parts/players out. So needless to say, I’m going to be super broad and also having not been around in the formative years, I’m going off just what others have said.
Basically, back in the late 70s and early 80s punk here was massively influenced by the UK scene much more than the American (and elsewhere) scenes. Also, it was primarily based in Auckland.
Bands like The Suburban Reptiles, The Scavengers, The Masochists and Junk. But it slowly seeped around the country. New Zealand was very isolated back then and even though, like everywhere, NZ bands were influenced by those early UK bands they ended up with unique sounds that reflected this isolation.
This happened in a bunch of different genres in NZ with bands like The Clean, Split Enz etc. Bands like Proud Scum, First Fifteen and, my personal favourite, Dunedin’s The Enemy (fronted by future Toy Love lead singer, Chris Knox).
It wasn’t till the mid to late 80s that NZ caught up with American Hardcore with Armatrak trying a more Minor Threat approach to punk. Zines, I’m less knowledgeable about. There were a tonne of them though.
Definitely Anti-System and A.N.I. (Accept No Imitators or Imitations), these I can remember. I have a bunch of Anti-Systems that are all about the distros, interviews and definitely strong focus on activism, especially animal rights.
Can you tell something about the Springbok rugby tour of the 1981, the protests and how it all affected the punk movement? Also, what about Riot 111 and their protest in front of TV in 1982?
The Springbok tour was obviously a huge event in NZ that affected the psyche of the entire country. Basically, it split the country down the middle with those who loved rugby and wanted it to be non-political and those that wanted to protest the segregation and discrimination that was going on in South Africa.
In 1960 the All Blacks toured South Africa and didn’t select any Māori players, essentially to comply with those racist laws. It caused huge outrage at home. Then, in 1970, they toured again and the selected Māori players were made ‘Honorary Whites’! New Zealand was one of the few countries in the world, by 1981, that actually competed against South Africa in sports with most other countries boycotting them. So there were huge protests when they toured here. Not just at the games but outside the hotels and in the streets.
On my first birthday, protesters actually shut down a friendly match in Hamilton and apparently Nelson Mandela heard about it from his jail cell and said something like “It felt like the sun had come out!” Also, a mother of a friend of mine—who was pregnant with him at the time—was kicked in the stomach while protesting by none other than future Auckland mayor and politician, John Banks (who also called Nelson Mandela a terrorist). In terms of punk, it was one of a few things that actively united and politicized the punk scene and activist scene.
Riot 111 was less of a band than an activist group that played some songs. I love the song ‘Subversive Element’, one of the quintessential NZ protest punk songs in my opinion. They were also censored from television which they ended up protesting by playing outside the then TV station.
Their network was just like ‘We didn’t play it cause it sounds like shit’. Haha. It did but I still love it. And they basically called themselves terrorists and sung about direct action and police violence so wasn’t ever going to get on the telly even if it was recorded well!
It seems that NZ punk scene in the eighties was mainly influenced by UK anarchist punk scene of those days, is that right? Is the punk movement connected tightly to the anarchist movement, or it’s two different worlds meeting just on some occasions?
The early bands weren’t that political as in they didn’t really sing about politics. They were more along the lines of the Sex Pistols faux politics. But after Crass and similar bands and things like the Springbok tour, there was an emerging scene of bands that affiliated along anarchist lines and sung about activism and politics.
Bands like Riot 111 and Compos Mentis sung about politics. These days it’s actually embarrassingly few and far between.
The activist scene was pretty battered after the terror raids in 2007 where police arrested a bunch of people all over the country under terrorism laws. It turned out to be a load of shit, as in pretty much all of the charges were dropped and under review it was found that the police were unreasonable, unjustified and unlawful in the searches and arrests.
But despite this, it sent a pretty strong message to the activist community that they are watching and can pretty much destroy you life and get away with it. So these days it is a little like two worlds meeting occasionally but there is a tiny bit of overlap.
Here’s one anarchist down. Hopefully there’s a lot more waking up. One day we’ll win—one day.
These are the last words of anarchist punk Neil Roberts, scribbled on a piece of cardboard found on the public toilet after he blew up himself in attempt to destroy Wanganui computer centre on November 18th, 1982.
What do you think about his action? It must affected deeply not only the punk scene but society as a whole. Can you also tell something about the annual Neil Roberts’ Day?
There are a lot of opinions to do with this to be honest. I think it is what it is. Paraphrasing Rogernomix lyrics, I think, it wasn’t an act of violence but a statement for freedom. ‘We have maintained a silence resembling stupidity’.
Basically, what he was worried about is totally happening right now. Neil would be horrified with the current state of privacy and the monitored society. The mass surveillance as the norm is pretty fucked in my opinion. Not only do we willingly give our every thought over to companies like Facebook and Google, and then we find out they have been lying to everyone and sharing this information with government agencies. Then we still use them. Mental. I don’t know what is worse; their data collection, sharing and lying, or our complicit indifference.
So there was a Neil Roberts’ Day of remembrance thing every year starting a couple years after he died. Usually, just a punx picnic in Moutua Gardens in Whanganui and sometimes a punk show. There hadn’t been one for a number of years and John Lake (from Up The Punks—great resource site if you are interested in NZ punk etc.) fired it up again in 2015. We missed it last year but hopefully there will be something doing this year for sure! (note: it has already happened in 2018!)
New Zealand has huge dairy industry and it seems it will rise after China has ended the one-child policy and New Zealand aims to be one of the main importer of milk there. So how’s the vegan / animal rights movement in general here? Is veganism a usual thing in the punk scene?
New Zealand has this undercurrent racist idea that stuff (food) that comes from China must be dodgy but it was actually the milk formula that Fonterra was sending to China that was dodgy!
That was quite a scandal. Resulted in thousands of tonnes of milk powder being recalled because it wasn’t up to Chinese food standards and caused an outbreak of botulism or something!
Fonterra, NZ’s dairy producing conglomerate is ubiquitous here. There is bloody milk powder in everything. The main cause of environmental degradation and climate change in this country is definitely the Dairy and Meat industry! It boggles my mind that not more punks are vegan or at least vege!
I live in a small bubble where all my flatmates and a few of my friends are vegan/vege. But, anecdotally, it does seem like punk is nowhere as aligned as it used to be with the animal rights movement.
I read zines from the 80s and heaps of the punk ones have articles about animal rights or anti-vivisection, info on groups and planned actions. The animal rights scene here now is still a thing for sure, but maybe with less presence in the punk scene.
From my point of view, New Zealand tries to maintain this green eco-paradise image, but then I see nearly zero support from government during the whale stranding in Farewell Spit. You can see glaciers rapidly melting while there are three or more helicopters above your head with tourists who want to walk on the glacier. Are there some radical environmental groups active in NZ
There is no doubt NZ is hypocritical and totally fake when it comes to the NZ brand put forth for tourist purposes. 100% pure!!? What the fuck ever.
We’ve been chopping down trees, overfishing, sickening the land and waterways with poisons and farm run-off for decades and decades. It will be a serious brand/PR disaster when the Hector’s and Maui Dolphins go extinct.
Another racist idea: people lament the Yangtze river Dolphin going extinct in 2006 but that is in China where it’s polluted, overpopulated and overfished but that could never happen here where it’s clean and green and not many people.
Well, New Zealand’s two native dolphin species are currently at unsustainable population levels primarily because of net overfishing and an unwillingness of the government to enact proper protection measures. If animal and environmental protection conflict with industry and capital growth there seems to be a lopsided outcome.
Unfortunately, because of the 2007 NZ terror raids the climate for activists of all types became rather toxic. Even though the state failed to find a terrorist conspiracy and were ruled unjustified and unlawful a strong message was sent to the activist communities—We are watching and we can still ruin your lives even if we don’t send you to jail.
Having said that, there will always be groups that seek to further the cause of peace and environmental justice and indigenous rights.
How’s the Māori situation? It seems much better then with indigenous people in Australia, with the bilingual signs everywhere etc. Is the Māori movement connected to the anarchist scene? How’s the situation with racism and far-right in New Zealand?
Firstly, the main reason there seems to be better relations with the Crown and the indigenous people of Aotearoa, than say Australia, is purely geography. Because Aotearoa was the last place colonized in the whole world, Māori were not as decimated by disease strains that they had already been exposed to via trading.
Because of this trading, they were also able to procure arms so the fighting wasn’t a lopsided technologically. And most importantly, because of the size of NZ and the relative youth of the Māori language (evolved from roughly thousands of years compared to tens of thousands of years for the aboriginal Australians), there was only minor dialectic differences and not entirely different languages.
The Māori could provide a far more unified resistance against the British and that is reflected today in all manner of things, from presence of Māori in Parliament to road signs. But with that said, there is still the same thing you see everywhere with colonization—widespread historical injustice resulting in disparate health, wealth and social dysfunction.
Racism is here for sure even though it is far more latent than Australia where it is more manifested and more acceptable to be outwardly racist.
The far-right is viewed as somewhat a joke in NZ, though which is slightly reassuring.
Neo-Nazis are seen as the boneheads they are which is good. Racism manifests itself in the usual channels in this country within the state institutions like the police force and with policies like our woeful refugee quota, which hasn’t changed in like 29 years. And there is an underlying racism present towards Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants.
Are there any Māori punk bands in NZ now or in history? Or some band with lyrics in Māori language (te reo Māori)?
There have been bands with Māori in them for sure but to my knowledge never a punk band that was solely made up of Māori. But I’m not sure of that. My flatmate Sarsha—who is Māori—played in a band called Fantails and some of their songs were in Te Reo but apart from them I can’t think of others that sing in Te Reo Māori. Actually for more info (and put better than I ever could) of Māori in punk in NZ check out Sarsha’s thesis here.
Okay, let’s talk about Wellington. Why did you move there?
I moved to Wellington primarily because the punk scene and activist scene was way more active, inclusive and fun than Auckland where I lived before. In the 14 years I’ve lived here that is pretty much still the same in punk, but the activist scene—especially animal rights—seem to be more active in Auckland now.
Bands in Wellington at the moment, Unsanitary Napkin (anarcho-fem punkrock), Hair Brains (punkrock), Total Ruin (noise punk), Rogernomix (d-beat punk), Ritual Abuse (sludge), Stress Ghetto (thrash grind), Downer Buzz (noise punk), TVX (stoner punk), Poverty and Spit (noise punk), Ayn Randy (punk-rock), Starving Millions (punk-rock).
There are others but that’s just a quick list of the top of my head. Valhalla bar is a huge supporter of underground music in Wellington. Other bars suck and apart from the odd house party and bunker show there are no DIY venues that punk bands can be themselves at unfortunately.
It’s a huge lack in this city. I do a zine called Always Never Fun and it’s usually the only regular punk zine at zinefest every year. Bloody sad. Another intermittent but good zine is Daily Secretion done by Hannah and Ben from Unsanitary Napkin.
In Dunedin, I felt the strong feminist accent in the scene and you described Unsanitary Napkin as anarchist feminist punk rock, so what can you say about feminist issues and girl involvement in punk scene?
I’ve been living in Wellington and involved in the scene for over a decade now, and since I moved from Auckland I noticed that there were far more (almost equal amount) of women in bands and active in the Wellington scene.
To me it also has no air of tokenism about it either. From bands like the Carnies and Fantails to bands now like Unsanitary Napkin and Poverty and Spit. Representation has been good in bands as well as people up front at the shows having fun to the bands they like.
But it can always be better and of course at certain shows the familiar machismo rears it’s head from time to time. This is all coming from the perspective of a privileged white male talking about issues relating to women in the scene like I know what they experience!
So I asked Sarsha from Rogernomix / TVX / a million other Wellington bands to answer the question as well for a more rounded reply…..
Sarsha: I think feminism has been present through the Wellington punk scene particularly, in Aotearoa for the past 15 years or so, just going by experience.
These scenes have consistently had a strong female presence (bands like The Carnys, Mr. Sterile Assembly, If I Had a Fun, Poodles, Cult of the Cobra, Punchbowl, Fantails, Dilfs, Ayn Randy, just to name a few) and while that doesn’t necessarily equate to feminist issues or lyrics spouting feminist views, the active participation of women in these scenes means punks are more aware of feminist issues, because they directly affect a large population of the punk scene.
As we mentioned Dunedin, what can you say about South Island? There was Punkfest in Christchurch, is it still going on? In Dunedin, there’s a nice infoshop and few bands too.
There hasn’t been a Punkfest in the South for a while since the main party starter, Lance, moved away. They had the best venue for hosting such an event and previously it was in Wellington at a similarly great venue that got shut down. But hopefully there will be another this year back in Wellington. Just have to sort this venue situation.
October is always a good month to come to NZ for punk shows FYI. I haven’t actually been down South for a while and am a bit clueless on the scenes currently to be honest. Dunedin always has bands on the go and good people and Christchurch goes through waves and apart from Nelson and Invercargill there is basically not many people in the rest of the island haha. There is but not many punks.
Okay, seems that’s all bro, if you want to mention something you can do it here. Thanks for the answers!
For more information about punk in New Zealand, check Symphonies of Slackness blog.