Anthony Metcalf and Tomas Nelson of Glass Owls. Photo: Si Moore
Searching for Glass Owls
It maybe an ordinary week-night in Kingsland, but bizarre and unusual rituals are taking place at two distinct venues on Central Ave, a steep and narrow street in the heart of this tightly packed suburb. On the corner of Central and the main New North Road strip is The Portland Public House, a small joint that can legally hold around 80 people, but sometimes packs in many more when a hot band are steaming up the windows. Goodshirt lead-singer Rodney Fisher books the live music, which you can find at The Portland most nights of the week. On a Sunday the Kingsland Folk Club is in residence. Over two hours five or six acts vie for the crowd’s attention with brief sets that come quick with only short breaks between performers. Famous faces like Anika Moa and Francis Kora get wedged between up-and-coming singer-songwriters like Scott J Mason or Sam Prebble. There are often spontaneous collaborations and Rodney sometimes gets inspired to join in with a hit from his chart-topping back catalogue.
It’s not the weekend yet though. On this particular night The Gramophone Band are playing. They evoke the 1920s while playing Bowie and Beyoncé tunes as well as original numbers. There’s still a little room left in the venue tonight, but you’ll have to shimmy past a bunch of merry women dancing in the doorway. Once you find a spot you’ll be struck by the pitch-perfect lead vocals of Katie Scott, a glamorous young singer who performs in this quintet as a side project that complements her own pop-propelled solo material. Another Goodshirt player Gareth Thomas is on the keys, but he’ll take time out to sing a number or play guitar. The place is jumping as the band tuck into a generous second set, but it’s down the hill that more mysterious things are happening.
A block below the Kate Sylvester head-quarters there’s a car-park that leads to the bottom story of a shabby concrete building. There’s no signage to speak of, yet the car-park is full to bursting and musicians are coming and going constantly. When I arrive a nameless blues-rock band are loading gear into their station-waggons. Just inside the reinforced door members of The Rum Coves are waiting their turn to play British tinged rock’n’roll. Jimmy Christmas of Luger Boa fame keeps this band humming along, but I’m looking for Glass Owls who’ve just released their debut album. It’s not that easy to find them amongst seven different bands fighting for space in the large bunker-like rooms, each furnished with a basic vocal PA. While peering behind various doors I run into The Giddies who’s front man happens to be the father of Doprah lead singer Indira Force.
I still can’t find Glass Owls! It’s time to talk to the boss of this haunt. At least he’s easy to find, always attired in tight black jeans and stylish, sharp-toed ankle boots, proprietor George Glover wears his studio tan with pride. A fanatic for Texas hold’em, George doesn’t have a hand in the current game going on in his office. He’s on the computer taking bookings. He tells me it's an ordinary night, not particularly busy, yet I’m astounded at the band-member traffic.
Glass Owls are three minutes late, but there room is already completely cleared out as booking times are respected. George has been running studios for over a decade and he’s been at this address for about six years. It’s one of the few affordable central Auckland practice spaces and everybody from Bloodnut to Boh Runga spank their planks here.
It's not long before before Glass Owls turn up. Lead singer Tomas Nelson opens his case to reveal a red and chrome 1967 silvertone guitar and after swapping leads he’s got his machine ringing and shimmering through a heavy tube amp. Fellow Glass Owls song-writer Anthony Metcalf tells me the group have been through five drummers in their short history, growing up in the same East Auckland scene as Artisan Guns and Watercolours. Before long the band are chugging through their melodic and thoughtful set, polishing their harmonies and teaching yet another drummer the album tracks. Check out the first tune on the record Best of Us. No wonder Dave Dobbyn’s manager Lorraine Barry is working with these guys.
I pack up my portable recorder and carefully nose my motor out of a car-park still rammed with waggons, bell-like guitar notes still ringing in my ears.