It’s been one of Palmerston North’s best kept secrets for 25 years, but thanks to TV3’s X-Factor at least 400,000 people have now heard of The Stomach. Third-placing finalist Benny Tipene is a regular Palmy muso and when the show formula required the three last contestants to return to their home towns and perform a concert, his was rightly staged at (outside of) The Stomach. Cue a big crowd and some long overdue national publicity.
The council-funded band rehearsal space, venue and recording studio is an oddity, and an icon of Swampton, itself the home of numerous Kiwi musical legends including Billy TK, Alan Gregg, Grayson Gilmour and Bing Turkby. From its opening in 1988 it’s been a long running fight for survival, but a second generation of young musicians and real music fans are now frequenting The Stomach. Managed first by Dave White, it is today run by Craig Black, who generously hepled NZM compile this insightful history.
The Eighties were a time of struggle for many in NZ, not least its suffering music industry. Despite big shoulder pads, skinny ties, unbridled greed and financial gain for the few, even the most pop and rock friendly bands couldn’t gain and maintain a crucial foothold on commercial radio. The air was awash with weak ‘same same’ international acts.
Like a divine cleansing blade, the 1987 financial crisis cleared the way. 1988 was a year of new beginnings. NZ Musician magazine, Rockquest and Shihad. In Palmerston North, known predominantly for its cow college and marsh land, provincial despair drove creation, and brought about an enduring below-the-radar legend, The Stomach.
‘Community development’, in theory and practice, was the answer to the problem. The problem was Palmerston North musicians and their desire to play original music, where noise control and neighbours might only tolerate Def Leppard. Local original musicians, represented by Dave White (The Clear/Lung, C.U.N.T) and Palmerston North City Council officer John Barnes were at the nucleus of a team that followed through with a very real solution. The PNCC-owned Workers’ Unemployed Rights Centre was vacant and available for use – with no residential neighbours. Sure it was a leaky, slightly decrepit ex-engineers workshop, but that was its charm.
I can remember my first visit to The Stomach, in 1990. I’d arrived in Palmy and pretended to go to university. I’d heard rumours of this place you could see bands, local bands, doing their own thing. I saw a gig advertised, five bands for five bucks. I’d have to go by myself; no-one I knew was keen for this experience.
Arriving you had to cross a giant car park to get the door and hanging out of the entrance was a large punk. To be honest I was petrified, I didn’t know anybody, and these were serious freaks. I’d never encountered the type before. The large punk turned out to be Boris, from the Ethiopian Lard Farmers. (His later band the Flaming Werepigs would destroy dirty blues rock before The Datsuns could tie their shoelaces.) I have no idea who was playing that night.
Later, on more than one occasion I’d revel in the performance-don’t-give-a-fuck-punk-art of the E.L.F., as Boris smeared a pound of actual lard on his chest on stage. A couple of months later I was hitch hiking into town from Massey and two guys dressed in black picked me up.
After two minutes of conversation I was in my first ever band practice at The Stomach that week, $2 for three hours…
In the beginning, the building at 76 Lombard Street, was a shared space, between Creative Sounds Society Inc (the trust set up to administer this new music facility) and Nga Rongonui, a group supporting the families of prisoners. It was never going to last, as both organisations grew and required their own dedicated spaces. At some stage a competition was held to name the space, it became The Stomach.
Dave White was the first manager of The Stomach, and was an employee of the PNCC. It quickly developed from just a rehearsal space to an all ages gig venue and recording studio (8-track, ¼ reel-to-reel, $15 per hour). In the early ’90s it was a bold move to make an actual CD, and Dave’s Yellow Bike Records became another arm of The Stomach, releasing compilations and local music. Claire Pannell (FroitHead, C.U.N.T) joined as sound engineer.
As grunge broke worldwide, Palmerston North already had the most strident, intelligent, melodic delivery system anywhere. They were called The Ashvins. While anyone could rehearse and record at The Stomach, gigs were exclusively for original acts. Covers bands had pubs, real bands had The Stomach.
Amongst the noise, there had always been pop. Early on it was the Feast of Stevens and Noddy on the Cross (Fuck Off Rugby Heads became the most requested song ever on Radio Control), later it was The Livids who stood out. Check out Joe Blossom and The Black Manaloushe for where they are at now.
By the mid ’90s, with its broken furniture, poster covered walls and ‘noisy’ music, The Stomach wasn’t as all-encompassing as it could be and things had to change. Dave moved to Nelson and Rob Williams (The Flickering, FroitHead) became the new sound engineer with Claire the new manager. Meanwhile a punk/metal/prog scene had established itself and were destroying it at house parties around town.
Jarrod Love from Motorsheep and Dave ‘Drainage’ Bloxham created an all-ages scene of their own and released CDs. It quickly became apparent that these two sides of the local scene could easily collaborate, soon Wholesale Drainage were packing The Stomach beyond capacity with a new, younger crowd. The original freaks had grown up and were doing new things. The artificial divide didn’t completely disappear, but a kind of truce unified the scene in the mid and late ’90s.
Technology was starting to change the studio industry. A $40 reel of tape, good for 15 minutes, was replaced by a $40 ADAT tape, good for 45 minutes. A new Mackie desk was purchased with a funding grant, but in many ways the Stomach studio was still hobbled by lack of equipment. This would stay true until the studio was able to move to a Pro Tools HD set up in 2004.
As an imagined millennium tension rose, change again came to The Stomach. James Lisette (then manager of Radio Massey) became manager and Jarrod Love was employed under a job creation scheme as the engineer and event co-ordinator.
The local music community fragmented and the Creative Sounds Society Inc. Management Committee, a group of volunteers who were designated to oversee the constitution and vision of The Stomach, sought to have their views more firmly represented. The PNCC (still the employers of Stomach staff) put a temporary halt to gigs and for a while it seemed a very real and frightening end may come about. The employed positions were dis-established.
For the last six months of 1999, the place was operated entirely by volunteers, seven days a week, 10am till 10pm. For not the first and certainly not the last occasion, local people who believed in the concept of The Stomach made themselves heard.
Cliche as it is, January 2000 was a new dawn for The Stomach. A new contract was arranged between the PNCC and the CSSI Management Committee. The PNCC would fund it annually, but the committee was responsible for all day to day operations. Becoming employers of two staff, sound engineer Craig Black (The Flickering, Fader, HUFF) and manager Cale Hetariki (GMC, also one of the first ever Stomach rehearsal clients back in 1988), there was a great deal to learn. Typical teething troubles, like late gst returns, didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the committee, the new staff and the many dedicated volunteers.
James Bicknell (aka Jimmy Snuff) was volunteer event co-ordinator. Early shows were plagued with small turnouts and teens arriving already drunk. Committee members acted as low key security, and the staff put their foot down in relation to the alcohol issue. Drunk teens had their parents phoned, to come pick them up.
The problem went away. High school bands were welcomed. Young women owned the scene, Riot Girl brought the pop and Five Dollar Fee the punk. The focus of The Stomach broadened, working with more community groups, recording a CD with kids from the Lower North Youth Justice Residence.
Flux was not only a magazine produced by The Stomach but also a state of being for a while. Mid-2001 Craig Black left, to be replaced by Hayden Sinclair (Release, _Sense, HUFF). In April of 2002 Cale Hetariki departed and Graeme Slimmin (GMC, Black Chrome) was temporary manager. Time for another crisis. At this stage The Stomach was technically insolvent and thousands were owed by recording clients. If the City Arts Co-ordinator, (Meredith MacKenzie, a PNCC employee) hadn’t made a strongly argued case for its continuation the PNCC would have ceased their funding.
Craig Black returned in October of 2002, this time as manager. The rehearsal space/studio/venue had a serious perception hangover. The wider community considered it a notorious hangout for dodgy musicians making odd music, and a place for drunk teens to congregate.
Despite continuing good work with musicians and community groups, the negative stereotype was so strong there was a suggestion of a name change to escape the boom and bust associated with The Stomach.
The recording studio was out of date and in constant need of repair. Rehearsal equipment was basic, basically awful. When it rained, water cascaded down the inside rear wall of the studio. The building was barely fit for use. The music community did what it had unfailingly done before, they supported The Stomach.
Mayor Mark Bell-Booth climbed on the roof in his suit and tie. The building got a new roof. Hypertension (Ollie Wilson, Knives at Noon) were the high school band to see and they packed the place. Grayson Gilmour (Twink, So So Modern) recorded his first albums and became the cleaner so he could have a key and practice after hours. Thomas Lambert (I.RYOKO) then of rock metal-ers Antaeus was one of the first to use the new guitar rigs in the practice space. The entire band’s faces lit up like fireworks when the new amps were rolled in, they couldn’t believe they could use ‘real’ gear for $3 an hour.
Through frugality and funding grants the aging Mackie desk and ADAT machines were replaced with a Yamaha 02R96, a Mac Pro Tower and Pro Tools HD. Slowly the perception changed. Shows were over by 11pm, your kid was safe there.
Hayden Sinclair left and Matt Tucker pursued his high school interest in audio into a job in the studio. Demand was well beyond the ability of the single-roomed space to supply. From 2004 onward, the CSSI management committee and the staff had pursued a plan to re-imagine The Stomach. To transform one run down room, into a multi-use facility with separate recording, rehearsal and live spaces.
From 2004 to 2007, with a solid base grant from the PNCC of $250,000, the committee typed their fingers to the bone and gathered letters of support from everyone with a respectable job title. Another $400,000 was required. Eastern and Central Trust, Central Energy Trust and the Lion Foundation all made substantial grants. Time however was running out; if CSSI couldn’t secure the full amount the whole deal would soon be off.
Everything changed when the letter from the Department of Internal Affairs arrived – the grant application was successful, CSSI had managed to raise all the required funds. There was stability in the organisation and this Stomach wasn’t getting a nip/tuck – it was a full tear down, rebuild, fit-out, rejuvenation.
May 2009 was perhaps one The Stomach’s finest moments. Mayor Jono Naylor and MP for Palmerston North, Iain Lees-Galloway, pulled the big red ribbon to officially open the refurbished building, an open day was held and the street closed for a free show. (During the renovation Malcolm McKinnon of Audio Progress stored the many crates of equipment, he never sent an invoice for that…)
The building now had two separate rehearsal rooms, a large central live space and a separate control room and studio. Gone were the rotting broken couches, ripped posters and typically squalid toilets. Would the regulars and past clients feel at home?
At the first show, a Stomach user from its early years, now the mother of a drummer playing that show, said, “Yeah, yeah, this still feels like The Stomach. That deep-seated feeling, the vibe or soul of the building hadn’t disappeared – in reality it was being shown the respect it deserved with a fit-for-purpose home.
The refurbished building meant that possible clients who considered the previous space far too ‘teenage bedroom’ could feel like they also had a space available to them. This ‘open to everyone interested in music’ philosophy was the driving force behind the original creation of The Stomach and had been a core ideal in working towards this new version.
Ripping it up in the new live space at this time were the rock-tastic Ruski, the super powerful post-Shihad-styled The Kleptics and The Nerines, a latter day answer to The Livids (you might have heard of their lead guitarist, Benny Tipene). All ups are followed by…
A funding cut made a major dent in operations from 2010, necessitating staff cuts, a cut back of opening hours and shows curtailed. When staff and committee members spoke to their submission, seeking a return to previous funding levels, a large crowd filled the PNCC council chambers. Parents, punks, norms, freaks. When it was time for the next submission, the room emptied. Councillors noticed and noted it; they couldn’t miss it. There was no win that day, but the mayor went on record, the funding arrangement that was affecting many committee organisations wasn’t working how they expected; it had to change.
David Stevens (Us As Robots, Losses, Crimes) had been hired under an agreement with UCOL’s new music course and now manages the Student Radio station at Massey University, Radio Control. Us As Robots practically grew up at The Stomach, developing from a naive post-Radiohead stance to become the most sublimely intelligent driving rock band Palmy had heard in years. Their final show holds the record for attendance, beating out The Mint Chicks at their blistering peak.
Cameron Wilkes, (Joe Hill, Losses, Given Names) was employed on a one year contract during the reduced funding. From July 2013 he became a full time employee and for the next three years CSSI will receive an increase in funding from the PNCC. Thanks to another grant from the Department of Internal Affairs, CSSI will also create a new part-time position specifically for outreach programmes and to work more directly with young musicians.
You have never seen a love truer, or as deeply felt, as that shown by the many people of Palmerston North who kept The Stomach operating in its numerous times of need. Some simply knew musicians, or were parents, or just believed that the need to create is essential and should be held high.
25 years is a long time for a community organisation to keep going; there would be no Stomach without the PNCC and other funders, the dedicated staff, the unfailing management committee, and the supporters, volunteers, and musicians, of the wider Palmerston North community.