Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, but thanks to the scene at one community hotel, it’s turning into a live music capital too.
PERCHED HALFWAY ALONG FRANKTON ROAD, HIGH ENOUGH ABOVE LAKE WAKATIPU TO SEE THE RIDGELINES OF THE REMARKABLES, SHERWOOD HOTEL IS A SPACE WITH SPUNK. THERE ARE RED VELVET CURTAINS, BARMEN WHO KNOW THEIR WAY AROUND A BOTTLE OF BEARD OIL, COLOURED LIGHTS THAT DANCE OVER AN OUTDOOR OPEN FIRE, AND POSTERS PLASTERED ALONG BARN-STYLE WALLS ANNOUNCING SHOWS LIKE BALD MAN SINGS RIHANNA AND BLIND BOY PAXTON. IT’S A GREAT PLACE TO STAY, BUT MORE AND MORE THE SHERWOOD IS BECOMING THE PLACE TO GO IN QUEENSTOWN FOR A GIG. AND FOR THE CULTURE-STARVED CLOSET HIPSTERS LIVING IN THIS ADVENTURE-CRAZED REGION, IT’S A GULP OF FRESH AIR.
When you look into who’s running the show(s), you can see why. Sherwood’s gigs are curated by Anthonie Tonnon, a musician born in Dunedin and bred in the city’s underground scene. For Anthonie, the immersive power of a venue is everything. To understand just how dedicated he is to this philosophy, take Rail Land, his own guerrilla public transport show. It involves riding forgotten trains with his audiences to his shows in historic civic venues around the country. He describes his music as “art pop”, and says the idea is to use the humble power of gig attendance to make trains exist again, even if just for one night.
The same idea applies for shows of the more stationary variety. “That power you have when you can convince a group of people to get in the same room together is immense, you can do anything with that,” says Anthonie. “The whole time, they’re just going to watch you, not ads, not Netflix. I think we should be amazed all the time that we are doing that, and really value it and see the incredible potential in it.”
This is something Sherwood regularly taps into. Any Welly vibes you pick up are no coincidence — it all began with a group of hospitality people doing cool things in the windy city. “A guy called Sam Chapman, along with a group of three others, started a legendary music venue in Wellington called the Matterhorn, home to the underground Fat Freddy’s album ‘Live at the Matterhorn’,” Anthonie says. When the Matterhorn eventually turned into a fine-dining restaurant, the same crowd birthed an equally legendary bar upstairs called Mighty Mighty.
“It was an incredible place at an incredible time,” Anthonie, who would come up to Wellington from Dunedin with his band to play, explains. “It was a late-night place, and the door price was always $5. It got a diverse audience of Welly people and it was a real anchor on Cuba Street.” Not long after, Sam Chapman opened the Golden Dawn in Auckland. An old space in Ponsonby, the Golden Dawn had a charming army surplus look and felt like it had lived several unruly lives. According to Anthonie, it never had great sound systems or technology, but it always had people and there was always a great gig.
“expect beat-boxing, punk, multilingual folk, lyrics dissecting South American politics, love songs, and improvised blues howls about blown ACLs”
It was here that Anthonie would play and occasionally pull pints while he was living in Auckland, making him top of the list for Sam to call in 2014 for help with a new project in Queenstown. Here in the mountains, far from the ready crowds of Ponsonby Road and Cuba Street, they faced a fresh set of challenges. Sherwood is a hotel, which meant no late-night parties. And then there was Queenstown’s indeterminate music scene.
“What we found was that there are some incredible people who are working in creative fields in Queenstown, but it’s definitely less of an underground space,” says Anthonie, who runs the music line-up from his base in Whanganui. “When we came, it felt like the town’s soul was expanding and stretching and wanted more, but we have definitely struggled to get people to come along to bands they haven’t heard of.”
They’ve veered towards more folk with a bit of pop, though Anthonie will look at everything that comes through. For him, it’s been a journey of discovering what will bring the people out. “We’ve been surprised at the amazing calibre of acts coming through, and it’s a place where you might get people like Dave Dobbyn, who are well ingrained into the psyche of New Zealanders.” He says they’ve been incredibly lucky to get the mixture they have, and have worked hard with Kiwi artists like APRA Silver Scroll finalist Nadia Reid who, at the beginning, would have been playing to a dozen people.
“play smaller venues — it’s always a full house and a great feeling to sell out shows”
Not that that’s an issue; in fact, Anthonie is an advocate for small shows. “With the current model for musicians, there’s this idea that you can only be successful if a million people like you, and those people each pay you 20 cents per listen. That’s so divorced from reality. I say play smaller venues — it’s always a full house and a great feeling to sell out shows.” While Sherwood’s lounge bar, which can fit 180, has intimate feels, Anthonie says he’d love to see the rustic upstairs space, The Workshop, with room for 70 people, filling that smaller venue role.
It’s hard to sustain the smaller things, though, and Sherwood isn’t immune to the cultural challenge that Queenstown continues to face. “How do you maintain a community when it changes over? When the people come and go?” Anthonie muses. “It’s been a really interesting exercise building the community that does want to exist here.”
One of the best things about Sherwood, he says, is that they offer somewhere to perform, learn or gather in a town that lacks such facilities. The Workshop is busy with community events, hosting everything from yoga and astrology, to pottery and breadmaking. “That’s what we’re most proud of, and the gigs sit alongside that,” he says. And when it comes to the gigs, which have included a bunch of interesting internationals, it’s the grassroots stuff that really interests Anthonie.
“It’s the locals, like Holly Arrowsmith and the Killergrams, or, most recently, Miki Brown — they’re of the place. I’d love to see more bands sprout up that have those connections, those for whom Queenstown doesn’t feel like its own island. Once you have somebody like that who lives here and can walk down the street and tell people that the gig’s on, that can be really powerful.”
For Anthonie, there’s been joy in finding the things that have taken on a life of their own, like the monthly Sherwood Songwriter Society night. Held on the last Thursday of every month in The Workshop, it’s a cosy, magical setting for solo musicians, poets, bands and everything in between, who gather to perform original work. The evenings are hosted by Claire Forrester and Paul Marcham of the local folktronica duo Choice, who set the evening’s tone by kicking things off by wrapping the group in their hypnotic electro-dub-folk (watch for their next album, out later this year).
The Songwriter Society started up about four years ago, and Claire and Paul have been running it since 2017. Claire says it took a while to take off, but it’s been really busy for at least 18 months, and for good reason. “We’ve never been to an open mic with so much talent,” Paul says. He puts the high level down to the fact that it’s not a covers’ night, but a showcase of the performers’ own work. “You can go out seven nights a week and see someone play Wonderwall or Wagon Wheel. It’s the fact that the music is original that makes it special.” The resort-town vibe helps too. There’s a mix not only of styles, but of languages and of topics: expect beat- boxing, punk, multilingual folk, lyrics dissecting South American politics, love songs, and improvised blues howls about blown ACLs.
It’s a wonderful welcoming space to be brave and bare your soul, bathed in soft light and surrounded by bean bags – bands and relationships have formed, and ended, at the Songwriter Society.
It’s also a monthly reminder that, though the arts may not be front and centre in a place like Queenstown, there’s an extraordinary undercurrent of creativity. This was never more obvious than at the first post-lockdown open mic. As people emerged from their bubbles to tentatively share space again, every song or poem was introduced as “something that came through in quarantine”. Equal parts familiar and electrifying, it hit home that this was the art that is documenting the crazy times we live in, and that sharing it is crucial.
While the small but spirited local scene builds heat, Sherwood still battles what is known locally as the ‘Fortress Queenstown’ syndrome. “It’s so hard to reach anyone. The town exists in its own media environment, and the buzz from the other cities doesn’t reach here whatsoever,” Anthonie says. He says this is also likely down to a lack of cultural conversation between Queenstown and Aotearoa’s bigger cities, and he’s excited by anything that’s bridging those gaps and growing those networks.
For now, Anthonie’s keeping a keen ear out for the next big sound to emerge from Queenstown or Wānaka, whatever shape it may take. In the meantime, Sherwood will go on cultivating the humble power of the gig.
Georgia Merton has succumbed to the allure of the mountains and now lives in Wānaka. Happiest writing about eccentric folk, interesting food and our environment. Currently attempting to master the art of compost.