December/January 2024

by Bing Turkby

The Stomach: 35 in 2023

by Bing Turkby

The Stomach: 35 in 2023

The Stomach is 35 years old, and manager Abi Symes says enthusiastically that they’re ready for “whatever!” Local legend musician Bing Turkby kindly handled the forensic investigation of this legendary, socially conscious, low budget and long-lived Palmy North all-ages enterprise.

Palmerston North’s iconic all-ages rehearsal/recording/performance space was instigated in 1988 when Dave White (from the band Lung) was talking to John Barnes from Palmerston North City Council. Barnes knew someone who had a son who played drums, and was tired of the racket at home. Barnes found a building in a semi-industrial part of town that looked like it might do the trick, and White put together a submission. Another group put forward their own submission, and the Council liked both, so The Stomach had to take turns in the building to start with, three days of the week for The Stomach, four for the other group. Eventually the other group found a different venue, and The Stomach ruled the roost, solo.

“Initially there was, like, six of us. We were all just weirdo misfits,” says White, speaking at a recent reunion of Meltdown Records (Palmy label from the 80s). Next thing they were told: ‘Okay, you have to form an incorporated society. You need 15 people, and they have to be stalwart members of the community.” Given this brief, they scoured the shire for people who might support them, and then came up with the name Creative Sounds Society. Since that was deemed “too long to put on posters”, they ran a competition for a name for the venue (as opposed to the society that ran the venue). Local musician Bob Naylor came up with The Stomach, and the rest is history.

“I think every town has people trying to make music,” says White of the Stomach ethos. “We just made it so easy. You could walk in here with nothing… and come out of that with a record. The whole thing was available for you, and it still is, but on a way grander level.”

Analogue fans might be interested to know that The Stomach has held onto much of the gear they’ve had over the years, so if you want to take a trip back in time, you can pop in and see the original Fostex reel-to-reel machine that was used for recording back in the 20th century.

Current staff member Sam Sheppard (admin and video) echoes White when he says you can still walk in with nothing, the gear is provided. All you need to bring is “a passion for original music,” according sound engineer Nigel Mauchline.

The idea that everybody should have access to the opportunity to make musical noise, as an outlet for creativity, and as a balm for mental health, is fundamental to the enterprise, and the Stomach team are staunch advocates.

Back in the old days, the Stomach team would drive a band on a flatbed truck around the schools with a generator, playing to kids in their lunch breaks. This would often result in them getting told to leave by the headmaster, but not before they’d infected at least a few of the kids with the musical bug.

Nowadays, there’s a contract with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to fund youth outreach. No more guerilla-style tactics, there’s an actual holiday programme, where teens learn the gamut of musical performance skills. The Stomach can provide a training ground for people to learn how to do everything themselves, or to discover which part of the industry appeals to them the most. Community outreach coordinator Sarah Sturm says the idea is that “… in 35 years time they will take over from where we are.”

One thing that has changed over the years is that the interior has been remodelled. Gone are the days of bare concrete floors, the dank, draughty rooms, the much-graffitied toilets. Sure, there was a certain charm to that, and many will have fond memories of the bold weirdness of it all, but as Symes says, “When parents drop their kids off and go, ‘It’s so clean!’, it really helps to make it accessible to more people.”

Mauchline asserts that someone who used the facility 20 years ago might say that it looks different, but it still feels like the old Stomach in all the right ways.

There’s been a parade of passionate staff over the years who’ve helped make The Stomach an integral part of the local music community. Many will recall the wonderful Claire Pannell, whose work in Claire’s Un-Natural Twin showed that playing adventurous music wasn’t just for blokes. Rewatching the straight-from-VHS doco Music For Mutants from 1994 on Youtube, it’s endearing to hear Pannell tell the camera that in the Stomach’s (sole) rehearsal room, there’s “… a drumkit, a guitar and a bass guitar.” Nowadays, if you book one of the two rehearsal rooms, you’ll be presented with a choice of instruments which would make a time-travelling post-punk iconoclast from the ’90s agog at the quality on offer. And cheap! For less than the cost of two artisanal coffees, you can make the walls shake for an hour. That’s just good value for the soul.

Verily, the word has spread to bands throughout the land.

“I’m always shocked, because I’m not from Palmy,” Sheppard reflects, “but I knew about The Stomach when I was living in Auckland 20 years ago, and I met people who are from Palmy who hadn’t heard of it, and I thought, ‘How?!’ If you like music at all, surely you should know The Stomach.”

The versatile venue’s current team would like to see more out-of-town bands take advantage, not just of the recording or rehearsal facilities, but also to play a show. “All-age venues are really important in training kids how to be at a gig, and have fun,’ says White.

Symes, who took over the management role from Harry Lilley early in 2023, concurs.”My goal is trying to get young people to realise you don’t actually have to know the music to enjoy the music, and when you listen to it once you’ll know it, and you’ll want to come back and see that band again.”

“You could get up and play one song, and it could be your first time doing it, and you’re going to get the same response from the crowd as the final act,” Mauchline asserts, making the point that Stomach audiences are genuinely supportive of bands.

It’s a beautiful thing, to be supported on a soft fluffy pillow of musical love in this otherwise supposedly bleak and unforgiving swampy corner of the country. In pubs across the land, cover bands will spend the evening fending drinks away from their monitor speakers and sending out a search party for the missing tambourine, but at the Stomach, respect, and enjoyment of each other’s company shall be the whole of the law.

“We’re a for-purpose venue,’ Symes explains, “and that is our purpose, original music. It’s a space where you can thrive and do that. It’s not a pub where people only want to hear Wagon Wheel.”

Rather than any ‘Palmy sound’, there’s a ‘Palmy attitude’, according to Dave White. Famous-in-NZ person Jeremy Corbett played in a band called Dosage B back in his Palmy student days, and he says that even now, Palmerston North “… nurtures people through what I call the ugly duckling phase of your creativity. It doesn’t shoot you down, it doesn’t shut you down, it lets you get through that and grow.”

White’s take on that; “Palmy was never cool. If you came out of here… you had the element of surprise.”

The Stomach works with Radio Control to record live-to-air shows for bands. Mauchline points out that, thanks to some NZ On Air funding which has just been secured, this scheme will be expanding, so we can look forward to seeing even more bands recorded. “The end result is more than most people could afford to do for themselves,” says Mauchline.

In October, The Stomach ran their annual Swampfest, a festival of music made in ‘the swamp’ (ie. Palmy North). Since it was also a celebration of being 35 years old as a venue, there were some special aspects to this year’s outing. Including cake, Symes assures us. The team are quick to praise the Palmerston North City Council for continuing to enable them to make this musical buffet available. For its part, the council has seen the immense benefits of their investment pay off over the years. “We see ourselves as a social service provider,” says Symes, “because of what it can do for mental health, and self-image, and keeping people out of trouble.”

The Stomach is pushing hard to show people that it really is a place for everyone. Recently there was the inaugural Open Decks night, for DJs. On any given day, the adjoining practice rooms might host a metal band in one and a folk group in the other. Regular Stomach users include Creative Journeys (providing activities for youth and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities) and MASH (support services for people with mental health conditions, disabilities, alcohol and addiction struggles and youth respite care). The Stomach also hosts the To The Front programme, for young women, transgender, intersex, takatāpui, and gender diverse people.

In these Covid-y times, changes have been forced upon musicians and venues, but as Sarah Sturm says, using new avenues like TikTok and Instagram helps them promote music by “… working with the bands, to make sure that they have the outreach that we’ve got, so we can share our resources,” multiplying their reach.

As Symes says there were young people who were withdrawn from the world for three years, essentially. That was their years of moulding of what they expected, but they didn’t get to go out, so there’s a new wave of social anxiety about going out. Thanks to social media, people can find out what the space looks like before they arrive.

In the Stomach’s 35th year Sturm says they are honouring the past, but also looking to the future. “We’re just getting started, really,” Mauchline reckons.


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