An Emerald City – End of the Road?

Published in April 2012  – Groove Guide

Yes, the rumours are true. New Zealand’s most un-classifiable, most experimental and beloved orchestra of vivacious creativity An Emerald City are calling it a day – at least for now.  Tim Gruar talked to multi-instrumentalist and founding member Sam Handley about the amazing journey.  He disputes that the band will actually shut down at the end of this summer’s gigs.   “The band is splitting for now.  With members spread all across the world it’s just too logistically difficult to operate at the moment…(and) you’re right it’s a bit like a theatrical production – we all come together to put on a show or to make and album.”  Handley himself, is planning to head back to Berlin, where the band’s latest album The Fourth, was recorded.  He describes the city as “really magical, an inspiring place full of musicians, artists and a great underground scene – and pretty cheap, too”.  Handley suggests that recording there is more than just tapping into the cold war darkness and austerity present on 70’s albums by Bowie, Iggy Pop, U2 and Lou Reed.  He plans to work on a variety of projects including some “ambient inspired” synth music”, videos for friends, a short film script and in collaboration with band member Rueben Bonner, a children’s fantasy story. 


‘Being there’, for An Emerald City is an essential component of this band.  The first album was recorded in the great cave of Whatipu amongst the black sand of Auckland’s isolated west coast, an idea Handley got whilst exploring the rocks out near Whakatipu.  With much lugging of equipment, generators and instruments, the band set up camp to record from Go! to whoa!  “Our live shows were always about enjoying our selves and doing what we wanted so they were experimental, we didn’t want to follow any formulas.  Recording in the cave was the same – doing it for fun!” 


The band had been playing as a 6 piece since 2005 combining Eastern traditional instruments and psychedelic leanings. Songs were created a menagerie of instruments including a Persian long necked lute, daabuka, and percussion “found from various reaches of the universe”.   Early support from student radio, especially Mikey Havoc (bfm) got them well earned attention and eventuated in a big year in 2009 with stand out performances at Auckland’s Big Day Out, sold out shows, top 40 Chart placements and critical acclaim for Circa Scaria


Constant psychedelic influences and the relocation to one of the world’s most beautifully bizarre cities, Berlin, further fuelled the creativity and lead to the acid, eastern, experimental psychedelic post rock of The Fourth.  It was recorded in a former communist radio station, on the East Berlin’s river Spree), a location rumoured to a Stasi secret polices headquarters.  Handley remembers the huge, well appointed space and exploring the dark corridors after hours “in the darkness, there was a kind of strange energy.  I couldn’t describe it, but it certainly influenced us. Also, the snow surrounding Studio East while we drove in to record every day was eerie, thrilling, like a foreign film set.”

By late 2010 it was getting harder to keep together, with commitments pulling members in various directions.  Recruitments filled in temporarily, and a move back home allowed time to pull together for one last spurt of activity, including a “stunning show” in Dunedin and satisfying family affair in Paekakariki.  These may be the last shows, but don’t rule out a return at a future date – maybe!

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