‘In any town there’s a kid with a guitar.’ we both say, gulping down coffee in the early morning sun. As well as both being convinced of this fact, Mark Rogers and I both believe that this, and a bit of ‘get up and go’, is all that is needed to start gigs in any area – no matter how unlikely a hotbed of live music it may seem. Take the Wairarapa, the region in which Masterton, the sleepy town in which we meet, sits. A population of just over 36,000, made up of four main towns, it’s a small spot around an hour or so from New Zealand’s actual and cultural capital of Wellington – but where lots is happening.
When I was invited to meet the manager of a gig promotions company around here, I was a little unsure. What could possibly be happening in these here parts? Three men in a barn, one with a handmade guitar? Or at the very best a substandard covers band playing the church hall. Oh Francesca, stand corrected. The Wairarapa is a creative hot bed of arts and culture across all forms, and music is no different. But it did need someone to give it a push, to take the ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ laments and make something happen. Enter Mark Rogers, his sidekick Katie Grantham, and their outfit Up With People.
Mark had been in the game a while before starting Up With People. Throughout our chat he mentions, not drops, names such as Alan McGee, Goldrush, Lewis Durham (of Kitty, Davis and), former editors of Mojo, labels like Poptones – and The Clash. It was this band that signified Mark’s entry into the music scene, when he arrived in London in 1981, 16 years old ‘bright eyed and clueless’ and ‘had a fucking ball,’ hanging around with Strummer in squats. He moved to Brixton and had his eyes opened by the multicultural society, riotous punk scene, newfound freedom – and obviously pretty soon dropped out of college and entered the music world. Like most music fans he would do whatever he could; a bit of flyering, roadieing, PR, you name it, just to be submerged in the thrilling scene.
‘I didn’t have a bloody clue, but I just got on with it.’ he says. Even getting on with it to the point of calling up mid 90s Mojo editor Matt Snow asking ‘So how do I get a review then?’ Something which sounds like ridiculous, and ridiculously sensible, thing to do. This was at the time that Mark successfully coined the phrase ‘country music for the Nirvana generation’ when speaking with The Independent about his new signing The Handsome Family for his Loose Music Label. ‘It was sort of about rootsy music without the big hats.’ he explains.
A vibrant and vital time indeed, and one that taught him not only the necessary skills for success in the music business, but tenacity and perserverance, as well as the importance of taking responsibility. ‘Everyone complains that nothing is happening, but that’s it. You just have to get on with it. It’s like Sniffin’ Glue, that zine from Danny Baker. On the cover there were those three chords and then scrawled ‘this is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.’ Apparently this is an oft incorrectly quoted anecdote, with the original drawing being in punk zine ‘ Sideburns, but you get the point.
But everyone had a great time in music in the 80s and 90s in London. What about now, here, in the Wairarapa. A host of links and pals in the business means that Mark has managed to bring both big international names and local legends to the area, in an eclectic mix of both artists and locations. The first night that he and Katie organised was called Night At The Museum, in the local Aratoi Museum, and by all accounts the evening in the church setting was magical. Later, The Datsuns played the Masterton venue King Street Live (‘It went OFF.’) and recently a Pink Floyd covers band named Eclipse performed a sell out show, with an ‘awesome light show’ at Stonehenge Aotearoa, a ‘weird and awesome bunch of rocks out on a hill near here. It’s crazy.’ The last tour was from blues roots performer Pokey La Farge, who by simple reasoning (i.e ‘New Zealand’s a long way so you might as well make the most of it’) Mark brought to Masterton on the condition that if he was to organise and promote the rest of Pokey’s tour in Auckland, Wellington and at Womad this small gig had to be played.
The more I learn about the Wairarapa the less surprised I am that success is being seen. Over at Hedley’s book store manager David has just been ‘out talking photos with Ringo.’ James Cameron lives down the road, and Peter Jackson calls it home. Pip’s mum makes amazing cakes in the local bakery – ‘Pip’ being more commonly known as Ladyhawke. Jermaine Clement, from Flight of the Conchords, went to Masterton’s Makoura College, and a 2009 fundraiser from the duo raised $70,000 for the school. To say it’s a hotbed of activity would be an understatement – but the activity is understated, genuine, and creative.
The most inspiring out take from chatting with Mark, despite his evident success in the music business and what he and Katie have achieved with Up With People is that he genuinely believes that anyone in Masterton could have started something. ‘People overemphasise things. Find a band. Find a venue. Put it on.’
All it takes is a kid with a guitar, and a little passion.