The national final of the Smokefreerockquest is on in Hamilton tonight and St Peter's band Sunday Best are flying the flag for the region. Tracey Cooper caught up with them at rehearsal before their big gig.
When Jesse Austin, Charlie Verberne and Chris Milson walk on stage at the Founders Theatre tonight, they'll be hoping for one thing.
"I hope we don't embarrass ourselves," bass player Austin says.
Really, there's little chance of that.
They had hoped for the same thing when they performed at the Bay of Plenty regional competition of the Smokefreerockquest earlier this year.
"It was the first time we'd played in front of people who actually knew about music," Austin says.
"We were really nervous. At the end, they read out the second and third placegetters and we thought that was it, it was a lot of fun, maybe next year."
When their band, Sunday Best, was announced as the winner, "We didn't even cheer, we were too stunned."
The three friends are all Year 11 students at St Peter's School in Cambridge and they only entered the Bay of Plenty competition because they couldn't make it to the Waikato one.
Now they've made it to the national finals, which are being held in Hamilton for the third and final time tonight.
Smokefreerockquest co-founder Pete Rainey says Hamilton's been a good host city for the competition final, but from next year it will move back to Auckland, "the centre of the music industry".
While the city had been supportive of the competition, "it's hard to get a crowd through the door".
"But that's the same for everyone. There's a lot of entertainment on offer these days," he says.
The final was first held in Hamilton at the Founders Theatre in 2010 and last year moved to the Claudelands Events Centre. This year it's back to the Founders and Rainey says that's simply because it's easier to fill.
While family and friends turn up at the schools' music competition, it's the quality of the guest artists that draws other fans.
The move to the smaller venue, he says, is "more to do with the fact there wasn't a New Zealand act we could put in there to fill 5000 seats [at Claudelands]. Founders, with 1200, is more achievable."
The guest artists at the competition this year are Zowie and The Jury & The Saints - along with Auckland blues rock duo Heroes for Sale, who won the people's choice award to perform - and none of those acts would realistically go close to drawing a full house at Claudelands.
While he understands people's reluctance to pay to see a bunch of high school bands they've never heard of, Rainey says that's a shame, as the quality of the bands taking part in the rockquest, now in its 24th year, just keeps improving.
Bands, Rainey says, "are getting better and better at younger ages".
"The sophistication of bands has increased over the years. The growing confidence with which they write songs, what they want to sing about, the way the play their instruments, their interaction with adults. When you look at the hundreds of bands that have been through the competition, really only the top ones get to the national finals."
A list of musicians who have gone through the rockquest over the years, not all of them winners, reads like a who's who of Kiwi music.
Jason Kerrison and other members of Opshop were winners in the first two years of the competition, the Kora brothers took it out - in a band named Auntie Beatrice - in 1991. Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, members of Fat Freddys Drop, Bic Runga, Elemeno P, Autozamm, Brooke Fraser, Nesian Mystik, Anika Moa, Conan and the Moccasins, Zed, Evermore, The Datsuns and, of course, Kimbra all made their mark in the competition.
Hamilton's last winners were The Good Fun - now playing as Banglade$h - in 2010.
The city's first winners were Hamilton Girls' High School band Handsome Geoffrey, which took out the top prize in 1998. The band, a three-piece like Sunday Best, was made up of Janna Hawkins, Aidee Walker and Anna Coddington.
Now a successful singer-songwriter, Coddington says while she always thought she would make a career out of music, winning the competition "definitely made it feel like maybe I could".
"I still went to university and stuff, but it was a time when I went, Actually, I'm going to play music forever, whether or not it's my income."
Handsome Geoffrey played - and won - the national final at the Bruce Mason Centre in Auckland.
She says they hoped for the same thing as Sunday Best - simply not to embarrass themselves.
"We were really nervous.
"We'd played in Hamilton quite a lot and Raglan and at parties and stuff, and we'd played with loads of Hamilton bands like The Datsuns - who were Trinket back then, Trucker, Inchworm; there was a really strong scene in Hamilton then.
"As a kid, it gave us heaps of confidence. It was different because there are lots of high school students who are a lot more accomplished than we were. We were self-taught and just learning, so for us it was a really big deal."
Sunday Best have been together just six months, but they could hardly be described as self-taught and just learning.
The trio formed the band with the express intention of entering the competition and, while they haven't played many gigs, they've spent plenty of hours rehearsing both at school and at home.
Verberne, the band's guitarist and lead singer, says they've worked hard to get a tight sound.
"We've only played six or so gigs - if anyone would like us to play a gig, they can contact us through Facebook. A lot of the gigs were fundraisers for the local church and stuff like that and we played with lots of old people and things."
That doesn't mean they're not talented musicians.
Milson, 15, started playing drums when he lived in Sydney and got lessons from noted Sydney percussionist Josh Hill. He was good enough to make his school concert band and perform in the Sydney Opera House.
Austin started playing guitar when he was nine and also plays trumpet and trombone.
Verberne says he's been in "choirs and stuff since I was seven".
"Dad's a muso as well and I took up guitar in year 7 at St Peter's. I've been taking lessons for six years."
Turns out dad is more than just a muso. Gary Verberne is the former guitarist with DD Smash, When the Cat's Away and a host of other bands.
That explains how the younger Verberne can nonchalantly pull an original Fender Telecaster in mint condition out of his bag and sling it over his shoulder.
"It's my dad's," he says.
So they have the pedigree to succeed and they already perform together in the school jazz band.
"After one performance, we decided to stick around," Austin, 16, says.
"Everyone was gone and we had a jam and it sounded pretty good," Milson says. "We decided then to go for the rockquest."
That was only six months ago and a few days out from the big final, they gather at Milson's home and start tuning up for one of several rehearsals they hope to get through before tonight's big show.
Milson, the biggest of the group - "I used to be a rower, but I had better things to do." - flops down behind the Pearl drum set and begins tap, tap, tapping on the rim.
Austin plugs his Ibanez bass into the bright orange Orange amp while Verberne begins picking the strings on the Fender.
After a bit of a warm-up, they run through their set list.
At tonight's final, they'll only get to play two songs in the eight minutes they're allocated on stage to impress the judges.
"I wonder what they'll judge us on?" Austin says.
Well, according to the competition's judging criteria, that'd be uniqueness, presentation, energy, communication, tightness, musicianship, vocals, creativity, melody/lyrics and instrumental parts.
On most of those counts, Sunday Best are in with a good shot.
Their main song, Beverley, is all jangly pop and they give a collective assurance it's not named for anyone in particular.
The other track they'll perform is Running in Circles. The songwriting duties are shared around the group, although Austin admits to writing deeper lyrics and using metaphors in his music.
"I hate people asking me what a song's about because it always changes."
What hasn't changed is the band's name and in the age of social media, it's no surprise it can be traced back to Facebook.
"We had to make a name," Milson says.
So they put it on Facebook and, Verberne says, "it was the one we didn't not like".
As of Monday afternoon, their Facebook page had received 412 likes and, as Austin points out,"they're not all just our schoolmates, either".
A good performance tonight should see that number rocket.
As long as they don't embarrass themselves.
The final of the Smokefreerockquest is on at the Founders Theatre from 7pm tonight. Tickets are $10.
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