Published on www.13thfloor.co.nz
Last Call For Wellington’s Bodega
On a quiet Friday afternoon music fanatic and long-time Bodega patron Tim Gruar popped up the road to have a beer with owner Murray (‘Mo’) Hepple (co-owner with Catherine Popert) to talk about his long career in the music industry, buying this magical venue and finally letting it go.
Iconic Wellington venue Bar Bodega is due to close for the final time on 23rd December after nearly 25 years. It was reported earlier in the year that Bodega owners Murray Hepple and co-owner Catherine Popert had tried to buy the building which houses the bar but lost out to a company owned by skincare queen Elizabeth Babalich.
Over its lifetime Bodega has hosted a huge number of Kiwi acts such as Ladyhawke and About The Deadlines Tim Finn, Fur Patrol, Gin Wigmore, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Hollie Smith, Fat Freddy’s Drop, The Chills, Avalanche City, Opshop, and featured many internationals including The White Stripes, Steve Earle, Killing Joke, ASAP Ferg, Midge Ure (Ultravox), Tech N9ne, Bad Manners, The Melvins, Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Lloyd Cole, Roni Size, The Misfits, Ghostface Killah, Lydia Lunch, Nik Kershaw, Ace Frehley, The Fall, The Selecter, Earl Sweatshirt, Everclear, Peter Murphy (Bauhaus), The Beat, The Buzzcocks, to name but a few. Some, including Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, KT Tunstall, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Pokey La Farge, and Wellington fav’s Kitty Daisy and Lewis, have returned repeatedly and list Bodega as one of their all-time top ten gigs. It’s hard to imagine Wellington without such a venue. But there was a time, once.
In the late 80’s/early 90’s Wellington was something of a cultural wasteland for a student DJ like myself. As music fanatics, we hover around record shops like The Soul Mine in Kilbirnie, Colin Morris in Willis Street and sometimes raided the Wellington Public Library’s bizarre and eclectic collection of vinyl records. We spent long hours, late into the night playing our choice cuts on Radio Active’s Death to Dawn all-night radio show, and we ate pizza ordered from the Thorndon Squash Club – the very site that would eventually spawn the first Hell’s Pizza. When Dawn finally broke and the first bleary-eyed Sunday morning DJ finally slumped up the hill to do their show we collected our beer bottles up and responsibly deposited them in the glass recycle bin on campus and headed down the hill to the only café open at that time of the morning. Bodega. Apart from Midnight Espresso, there were no decent café’s in the city – and apart from Geoff Marsland’s products, there was definitely no decent coffee, either.
Bodega, thank the gods, made Havana coffee, and the best eggs Benedict – perfect for soaking up the dregs of too many Waikato droughts from the night before. Bodega, the cafe was located up in Willis St, 2 up from the famous White House Restaurant and 2 down from an infamous protester’s ‘mansion’ that proudly displayed an exotic range of anti-nuclear banners. There was a big bay window, a leftover from its days as a butchery, where we could all sit in the morning sun and feel the rays on our back whilst we watched the faithful scramble to get to service at the Christian Science building, with its intentionally ‘wonky’ Doric pillars, designed by iconic architect Ian Athfield.
Sometime around 1991, although facts differ on this, a bar and live space were opened up in in the original ‘sawdust room’ at the back of the café. This was a small room, barely big enough to fit 50 people. The bar’s snake bites made with beer and cider were legendary. The space was accessed down a tight, dingy alley on the side of the café that also admitted the long-suffering tenants in the flats above. It was like sneaking off to a secret world that only a select few knew about.
At Bodega Bar, bands crammed on to a stage barely big enough to fit a drum kit, let alone a whole crew. Over my time as a punter there, I saw everything from an eight-piece Afro-funk crew to comedy festival gigs and an endless supply of earnest singer songwriters armed with a guitar and foot pedals. It was also the favourite haunt of many of us students, various vagabonds from Aro St and wanna-be musicians. Over its 11 years at the Willis St site – now a six-lane intersection – the bar hosted nearly 1000 bands including Detroit’s White Stripes in 2000 who played to a room of 150 people. I still have the scuffs on my cherry coloured Doc Martins from that night.
At that time Bar Bodega was owned by Fergus McInnes. In 2002, the shadow of the motorway by-pass loomed too large and he relocated to a building in upper Ghuznee Street, just down the road a bit. Settling in under the former location of Brasserie Flipp, a notorious venue for mid 80’s excess, frequented by stockbrokers and financial giants of the moment, it was the perfect alternative. Rock vs. Money!
I can still remember watching the procession as the Bodega’s horseshoe-shaped wooded bar was lovingly carried on foot down the road from its old spot on Willis St to the new Ghuznee St site in September 2002. I can also remember getting one of the last tickets to see Lee Scratch Perry in 2002 and only managing to peep over a huge sea of dreads to get a glimpse at the master in action while the room heaved to the beat of bodies bathed in the aroma of second-hand gunja.
In 2007 Mo took over the bar. But before being a bar owner, he was a tour manager for some of the biggest and well-known bands on the planet. Over the years he’s been on tour with AC/DC, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Leonard Cohen; and KT Tunstall. How a kid from Godzone got to do all that is more fluke than planning, he says. “It’s not what you know but who you know really.”
“I grew up here. I’d originally trained as an engineer at the Lower Hutt Railway yards. I did my time and moved on. In ‘84 I headed for the Northern Hemisphere. A mate of mine had been working with this merchandising company in the UK. He’d come back and said when you get there, look these people up. Then this guy owed me money when I was backpacking. Well, I should write him a letter to say that 50 quid I lent him but never got back was the best money I ever spent because it meant I was broke. So I ended up I looking up that merchandising company and going to this house with these people on a Friday night. And by the Sunday night, I was off to Sweden with the Monsters of Rock Tour with ACDC, Van Halen and Motley Crüe.”
“Then they sent me out with Frank Zappa doing merchandise, again. And then Lou Reed. And it just exploded from there! But then, because I’m an engineer – a fitter and turner by trade – I was keen to get into the technical side of the music trade. So I was doing drums. I was a backline tech with Leonard Cohen. I also did backline for Simply Red when they were in the USA on tour and a few other bands and then about 1990 I started being a tour manager, and the rest is history.”
Mo tells me several stories about touring with bands around the time they broke into the mainstream. He’s worked with KT Tunstall, around the time she appeared on Later with Jools Holland. He’s also worked with the Rollins Band. “Henry is an amazing workaholic. And I think I was my most buff and fit during that tour. He was always in the gym, so I was too. We worked out. He’d write books and his scripts for his spoken word shows and all sorts of other projects all at the same time when he was on the road. Most bands would just drink and goof off after a show but Henry would just go to work. Not him. Amazing energy, that guy.”
He also toured The Butthole Surfers; The Smithereens; Orbital; The Crystal Method; Craig David, the list goes on as he recounts each band with affection and the kind of ownership that only a tour manager could have. He tells me story after story about touring bands. Such as rescuing Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers) from the circling drug dealer vultures who attacked multiple times whilst on tour. He also remembers the night Sonic Youth’s Support band “smashed stuff up for fun” backstage after a gig in Holland. “Two months later that band, Nirvana, broke with that huge hit (Smells Like Teen Spirit). Before the Promoter was raving on about costs and worried about what the venue owner might think. Two months on they were begging to get them back, no matter what.”
“I was freelance, really, going from tour to tour. But then I met my wife in the UK, my children, Connor and Emily, were born over there (in the UK) and I hunkered to come back to New Zealand. It just got to the point – it was nearly 20 years touring – and touring is not conducive to family life, you know?”
Ok, fair enough. But I’m a dad, too, I say. I understand what you’re saying. Yet when you come back, you choose to buy a bar. Well, if that was me I’d never see my children, I suggest. Mo, just laughs. “I know. What was I thinking? Talk about jumping out of the pan into the fire. I always said I wanted to come back here. Taking this place on was more of a shock.”
“I met a friend of mine, Ray, whose since past away. He introduced me to Bodega. I actually came into this place (Bodega) looking for some production work. He told me that this is where the production-type people hang out,” he says waving his hand around the room. “And looking for that work I met Fraser McInnes (the previous owner), who was selling the place. I thought: “That’d be a good idea – I’ll buy a bar!” That was a brilliant idea!” He hesitates and continues. “It’s been hard graft. But you know, Tim, it’s been a journey and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved here.”
“At the time of the sale, Fraser was looking to the development of the Tuatara Brewery, which was taking off, the live gig scene had worn him down.” Mo has a great admiration for Bodega’s former owner. “I think Fraser was a maverick. He was doing live music at a time no one else was interested. The guy needs to be commended for that. He did a great job of giving bands the opportunity to stand up in front of an audience. Wellington was a wasteland (live scene) when I returned.”
“I can remember Wellington had a vibrant scene when I left: The Terminus in Newtown (home of the infamous Terminals and Whazo Ghoti and The Spines), The 1860 (which had Hogsnort Rupert and Blerta); The Clyde Quay; and Quinn’s Post out in Trentham. Heaps more, too. There was quite a big live scene in the late 70’s and early 80’s.”
Mo is quick to point out that the live venue is almost essential to the development of a band. As a former tour manager, he should know. “People always talk about great bands, great gigs but the truth is the venues are as important as the bands. And Fraser provided that outlet when bands came through Wellington and local bands, too.”
Mo well remembers the first night after he’d bought Bodega. “I went to dinner with my wife and a friend at Scopa (a local Italian Restaurant, ironically owned by the Bresolin Brothers of Il Casino fame and later owners of the original Bodega location up Willis St). I think it was November 2007. And Wellington was packed, town was ‘pumping’. And we walked in and there was some gawd-awful heavy metal band playing to a handful of people and Fraser was at the bar drunk and I’ll never forget the look on my wife and friend’s faces – their expression was “What the f***k have you done? I thought the very same thing.”
Mo managed to rally support from his connections and slowly built up the business growing the international line-ups in particular. One of the first was KT Tunstall, who was out here on her honeymoon – she found time to pop in and play. That followed a string of bigger acts, mixed with Kiwi icons like the Chills, Gin Wigmore and The Verlaines.
Reflecting back, Mo notes that it is harder these days to run a live venue in part because of choice. “Looking back, that’s what we did. We didn’t have all the distractions you have now. TV, Netflix, games, etc. We went to see live bands. And people grow up. I know many people who were massive live music fans but as they grow older, they can’t commit as much time – with kids and houses, etc.” “The first period was a bit of a struggle, to get that confidence and support. It took time to pick up. Wellington acts were initially luke-warm. My international contacts finally came through – and we got a lot of big acts like Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), Jaz Coleman (Killing Joke), Pete Murphy (Bauhaus), The Selector, The Beat.”
He also says that today we have much more choice when it comes to seeing both international acts and locals. But he’s also wary that the appetite to discover new talent isn’t as strong as previously. This is a problem the music industry has been grappling with for some time, with live venues simply being at the tail end of it, he reckons.
The very first international act Mo booked came via local promoter Brent Eccles. Aussie rockers Airbourne weren’t quite right for his Winery Tours, which featured acts like Bic Runga. “I must say Brent was really helpful. He put a lot of shows my way. Helped me get on my feet.”
“I can remember that night when Airbourne played. Full on rock! On the bar, we just got slammed! We had so many people. We weren’t used to it. It was a real learning curve on how to deal with bigger groups. And I’d never run a venue before. I’d been on the other side, as the promoter and tour manager. I was used to getting my way with the venues, not providing what they needed”
Mo puts the success of Bodega down to the audio, the acoustics – which he credits Fraser with installing – and the lighting. He also notes that the relationship between the stage and the audience is vital. “The stage could be a little higher at Bodega”, he reckons, “but when you are putting on a show you gotta have some clearance between the roof and the stage, for the lighting to be effective, so I think it still works well. You need a bit of distance, which is why, when done well it really looks good. We’ve had many international acts comment on the quality of the sound and the lighting.”
“I have some great moments here. KT Tunstall was a seminal show – such a great performer. Because I managed her she’s known my kids since they were two. Even had them up on the stage. Killing Joke was a spiritual moment, such a wall of sound. Totally blew me away! Because there’s been so many acts, operating a bar that has live music most nights, it’s hard to pick the really great moments. Peter Hook, the Buzzcocks were great. I’ve been fortunate to have great people working with me, who love music. The people I have now are fucking fantastic. The bands are appreciative of all they do. My staff genuinely love being here. I’ve enjoyed working with them, too.”
Mo says moving out will be hard. Last Sunday was an auction of many of the bar’s chattels and rock memorabilia. But it’s the memories that can’t be erased or sold on. “My kids have grown up here, so it will be hard for them. My son has even worked on the hat check a few times. They’ve always been part of this place. Actually, there’s a lot of people who are gonna be lost. This place has been such a hub for them.”
Mo is keen to do something with music post-retirement from Bodega. He’ll be looking at some opportunities to promote some new acts. “Watch this space,” he says.
“I think, overall, what we’ve done here is important. You know people won’t necessarily remember some bar down Courtney Place that’s there for 2 years but I think 25 years they’ll remember coming to a gig here, at Bodega. They’ll remember seeing that band, being with those friends, being here!”
To send Bodega out in style Mo has invited his staff to choose the bands for the final gig on 23rd December. So far the line-up will involve ‘real’ locals, capturing the essence of the bar’s early roots. Ash Broke of the band Oneroof is a favourite around town and a Bodega regular. Sea Mouse is fronted by Seamus Johnson, formerly part of Elston Gun and Papersicissors. Another Bodega regular, he’ll bring his filthy grunge blues rock to the party. The Spines go way back to the earliest days of Bodega and possibly before, having hovered around the Wellington scene for over 35 years. It seems only fitting to see them back for one last time in the big black room. The line-up is changing and morphing every day. Check Bodega’s facebook page for the latest.
I started this article by mentioning my own personal connection with Bodega and the Wellington music scene it’s been part of. There will be many, many more stories that aren’t included here. But no matter what there’s no doubt there will be a huge hole to fill now. That can’t be denied. So long Bodega, may you Rock in Peace!
Many thanks to the following for helping me with this article: Murray Hepple, Steve Cochrane and Michel Rowland (for the posters), Wendy Collings (for the photos), stuff.co.nz, NZ Archives & www.te ara.govt.nz.