The winter of our disco tent
Music Notes is a new, occasional series profiling Nelson and Tasman's entertainment venues and the people who run them. This week, we're talking to Mic Dover and Eelco Boswijk, the faces behind the giant yurt at Collingwood St's The Free House.
Where did you get the idea for the yurt?
When we bought the car yard next to the church we tried a few outdoor beer garden gigs but the noise police were all over us like a rash. We couldn't afford to build a venue but we could borrow just enough money to order a Mongolian Ger (or yurt) and ship it here and erect it ourselves. They're amazing structures, not a straight line in the house - like an architect's worst nightmare.
What are the bonuses and drawbacks of the yurt as a venue?
The biggest bonus is that pubgoers can drink a pint in peace and quiet without being forced to listen to live music or a quiz or a slam poet or whatever if they just want to chat with friends - but people who do want those things now have somewhere to do it without annoying anyone! The only real drawback I can think of is that a few people won't go in it because of the woollen felt smell [no yaks are involved despite what everyone thinks!] But you really don't notice the smell after a couple of minutes. We actually like the smell, anyway!
What sort of regulations did you have to meet to erect it?
The hardest thing was the council's insistence on a complex wooden floor construction with deep piles to anchor it into the ground - it cost over $10,000 to construct and probably makes it the most earthquake-proof building in the city.
What do musicians and punters say when they see if for the first time?
Musicians are blown away by its acoustic properties - it's so dead it gives them studio-like conditions. For the punters it means music can be played really quietly yet be heard all over the space - and the quality of the aural experience is that much higher.
How have the neighbours reacted?
We're surrounded by cuboid, two or three-story concrete and glass buildings. We think people like our little oasis of curves, canvas and edible garden greenness in the middle of the CBD. Ideal for a post-working day drink after a day in a sterile office environment
To your knowledge, is there anything else like it in New Zealand/the world?
As an event venue in a pub garden, it's definitely unique in Australasia, and probably the world as far as we know.
What sort of shows do you like to hold?
It's very varied. For example, we had a touring play last Saturday, the next three events are a talent show to raise money for Nelson Post-Natal Depression, a movie night and a vinyl record fair. We also have community talks, book launches, quiz nights, private functions like birthdays and wedding receptions, singing circles and just recently a dreads-cutting ceremony for Nelson Hospice!
We try to have gigs most weeks of the year - we're keen to get touring shows here, simply because Nelson so often gets missed out by bigger bands who don't have a big Nelson performance venue to attract them here. But we're looking at increasing local acts, too, we had Tillerman last week, and are booking The Joriah Cotton Band. We get The Immigrants as often as possible because their gigs are always a great night out.
What's your average ticket price?
A lot of our gigs are now advertised as "FREE with drink purchase" because it's often hard to get Nelsonians out from their homes in the winter to see live music. We've introduced a voucher system at the bar that gets you into the yurt - even if you only buy a half of ginger beer!
We tend to have a cover charge of about $10 or $15 in the summer when the tourists hit town.
What has been your most enjoyable show ever? Most popular? Most unexpected hit?
Three "listen-type" gigs that stand out were Hollie Smith, Mel Parsons and Julia Deans. To see great artists like that in such an intimate setting is a real privilege.
And with our wooden floor that's easy on the feet, the yurt is also a great dance venue - acts like The Eastern, Newtown Rocksteady and BattleSka Galactica have really got the joint jumpin'.
More recently the Irish music sessions held as part of Ceol Aneas festival were amazing, two great jazz gigs were Jake Baxendale's trio and The Troubles from Wellington, and Sam Hunt a few years back was a totally cool poetry gig.
What has been the biggest flop?
No flops, but we've had some great indie acts that are on the way up but still fairly unknown - and the audience for original music can be hard to attract on a freezing night in August when there are so many other house-based leisure choices these days.
What is your ideology behind what you like to host?
I guess we just book acts that we would go and see if we weren't busy running a pub! I'm an ex-musician so I want to support live and original music.
Eelco and I are not so keen on some genres (e.g. death metal, covers bands) and we're pretty sure the Free House demographic has similar tastes. We like any music that has a good-time groove to it including folk, blues, rockabilly, soul, jazz (not trad jazz), Latin, pop, roots, classical, Celtic, ska, rocksteady, R&B, World to name but a few.
Reggae bands tend to be too loud for the noise police, which is a shame, because we'd like to book more reggae acts if we could.
What does Nelson's music scene desperately need?
A mid-range and a large-scale performance venue and the city needs to sort out its ridiculous noise by-laws.
The current maximum decibel levels are broken by someone talking loudly in the street outside - and that is not an exaggeration.
What are the fees/conditions in hiring the yurt to the public?
Pretty much free or nearly free for most events, but we may have to start charging soon just to cover cleaning, heating and maintenance and repairs.
What is your performer package?
Anyone who wants to play in the yurt can send audio/video links to firstname.lastname@example.org and we send them a PDF, which tells them everything they need to know about playing here, including marketing, fees and so on. Fees depend on bar takings or door takings, depending on what entry arrangements the act chooses.
The Nelson Mail