Vinyl Destination: Interview with Cian O’Donnell from Conch Records

In this content-saturated Internet age of free digital downloads and infinite streaming, Cian O’Donnell is among those still repping the power of wax over at his well-loved shop Conch Records, which has been spinning records in the City of Sails for the best part of two decades. Kiwese caught up with the voice so familiar to George FM listeners ahead of his upcoming vinyl DJ sets at JUE | Music + Art Festival in Beijing and Shanghai next week.

KIWESE: Hey Cian! You are coming over to China next week, how did the connection with Lost Cargo and JUE Festival come about? CIAN: I met a lass called Olivia at Conch in Auckland last year. She never really told me what she did back home, but she’d come in, buy records and listen to a whole bunch of stuff in store, then came to one of the monthlies we organise called The Turnaround. Before she left, I invited her up onto my radio show [Earshot on George FM] to play a selection of young, fresh, Chinese beat makers. The stuff she brought up was so good! We got really good response on the text lines, so talked about doing some kind of collaborative promotion of artists in China and over here. Awesome! Who is she? Shanghai local? She is a promoter for The Shelter in Shanghai – which I’d heard about through people I know that have played there. It’s an old underground bomb shelter, definitely Shanghai’s underground (for use of a better word) alternative club, where different promoters come on and do different evenings, from hip hop to electronica to trap, footwork and whatever, with artists from James Pants to Kode9 and so on.

Listen up Beijing & Shanghai! Poster image from Wooozy.cn.
Listen up Beijing & Shanghai! Poster image from Wooozy.cn.

With JUE I’m gonna be speaking on a panel of four people, including Awesome Tapes from Africa, discussing the importance of communities that grow around important around music-related blogs, venues or events.

“A record shop is more than just a standard retail space – it ends up being a hangout, a communal meeting spot. Bands are formed, friends are made, gigs are staged.”

Can you tell us about the early beginnings of Conch Records? Living in Auckland in the mid ’90s, I was getting tired with finding the same records in every shop. So I started doing small orders with some of the distributors I used to work with overseas, mostly from Europe, then a friend who started the Aotea Square Markets approached me about doing a stall. I used to take down my turntables, two or three crates of records and a suitcase of CDs. It was a real success. After that, my now partner in Conch, Brent Holland, took a space in an old arcade on High Street, fitted it out with everything handmade timber and made it look amazing – it looked like a big packing crate. We stocked a really good alternative selection of Jamaican 7″s, independent hip-hop, quirky house, reggae, Brazilian, Latin… But although it was really loved and respected, it never really made any money. So we started looking for a bigger premises with more foot traffic. At our current premises on Ponsonby Road, it started with a small coffee shop and a few seats out front. Now we’ve managed to expand with a courtyard out back, its licensed and the whole bar and restaurant aspect has kind of overtaken the record store. This year the plan is to get back on track with the retail side. I’ve had the pleasure of going to Conch and thought the food and service was great. Do you think the gentrification of Ponsonby has resulted in a shift in focus from selling records to providing a dining experience? In some respects if we had opened up Conch right from the start eight years ago as a café/restaurant/bar, we would’ve smashed it. Because now, as you say, the whole area has been gentrified and there are just so many restaurants, cafes and bars competing along that whole area. The only reason we have recently changed focus is because we weren’t able to survive solely selling coffee and records.

“You hear all these stories about the resurgence of vinyl and the rest. Yes, maybe in a city of 20 million people where there is a history of vinyl; London, Tokyo, New York

But in little, old Auckland, where Serato was invented and where people like supporting homegrown products, more and more vinyl buyers are going digital.”

In saying that, all of Conch’s biggest sellers have been local releases. Our biggest selling 12” was Manuel Bundy’s Solephonic EP, we must’ve sold about 150 copies. We’ve also sold a lot of local 7”s. There is a label in Japan called Wonderful Noise which have signed up the crème de la crème of New Zealand beat makers. kitchen-slider-slide-3

Drool worthy meals from the Conch menu. Image from Conch.co.nz.
Drool worthy meals from the Conch menu. Image from Conch.co.nz.

You are originally from Hereford, England, how did you end up in New Zealand? I ended up here by mistake actually [laughs]. I was backpacking and travelling around when my visa in Australia was set to run out. That was 1988. I only had enough cash left to get to New Zealand and I had a contact in Wainuiomata. It was raining the whole time and I thought “what the hell am I doing here!” I managed to get a full time job at the old EMI store, where Rex Royale is now on Cuba Street, and got to meet Matt Poppelwell, one of the main DJs around town, who introduced me to what seemed like a third of the population of Wellington [laughs]. A lot of DJs will say they ‘play everything’ and that they are really eclectic, but this guy Matt really was. What were your initial impressions of the Wellington club scene in 1988? It was a bit scary [laughs]. If you went to a standard club, people were still listening to white boy electronic music like Depeche Mode, New Order and Fine Young Cannibals. I left just when the whole Acid House era kicked off in the UK. When I got over here, it still hadn’t really hit. So I would go with my Polynesian mates to some of the Poly clubs – they were playing modern RnB, Brit soul, American street soul… I loved those clubs. Much more black orientated than my white honky roots [laughs]. I grew up listening to Tamla Motown and that. What made you want to move to Auckland? The first time I came to Auckland I met a bunch of people who ran Planet Magazine and they really became my family over here. When I was over in London in the mid ’90s, they called me up and asked me to be the resident DJ in the space we used to live in for a new venue they were starting – the Khuja Lounge. This is back when Auckland was a much more interesting city and people used to live really interesting inner city spaces.

“We had the whole third floor on the corner of Queen Street and K Road for $50 a week.

There was nothing like it. We had old Indonesian furniture, a massive communal weaving table with scattered cushions around it. I’d start at 8pm and play till about 4am, Wednesday to Saturday. For any real DJ, that’s your dream gig, man. On the same floor, we’d opened up a talent agency called Saama Productions, which specialised in signing people from indigenous backgrounds. As a result, the Khuja was a real melting pot of all different styles and characters – everybody from models, actors, comedians and dancers were there. For about three or four years, we smashed it. It was the most enjoyable place I’ve ever played.

Image from George FM.
Selector and collector. Image from George FM.

Right now, Auckland could do with more…? Hmm… People that go on out and play more of a variety of music and take more risks. Venues that actually take time money and effort to put in proper sound systems and maintain them. Less of these kind of Pack Group bars and Mac Brewery Bars, with the same kind of soundtrack, the same kind of crowd. I don’t know if it’s the same in Wellington, but Auckland just feels like it’s been totally whitewashed. It feels like it’s the North Shore and Hamilton transplanted into the city on the weekend… Nowadays people become DJs overnight when their mate gives them a USB stick with 5000 records on it, with no experience or knowledge of any of the music… No time into digging, or money. Everyone’s a bloody DJ nowadays. What are you expecting from your time here in China? Never been to China before, I’ve always wanted to go. I fly out Tuesday night. I really hope this is the start of me being able to come out more regularly. I’m looking forward to everything! Shanghai sounds like such a crazy mix of the modern and old. I love big cities and what they have to offer and the whole energy. Any favourite Chinese beats at the moment? Favourite vocalist out of China is a lass called ChaCha. I’m not sure who is making her beats, but she rules! Favourite locals? Local stuff, whew! Coco Solid, Lord Echo, Julien Dyne, Electric Wire Hustle, Christoph El Truento, my mate Submariner, Stinky Jim (who doesn’t release stuff), Lawrence Arabia… so many, theres a lot of good music coming out of New Zealand! Chur Cian, hope you enjoy Shanghai and Beijing!

logo Read more about Conch Records, Cafe, Bar and Restaurant www.conch.co.nz Check out Cian’s weekly show Earshot Radio on George FM www.georgefm.co.nz | Every Sunday 10am – 12noon (NZ Time) The JUE Music + Art Festival program is here Next week Cian will play at DADA Beijing on Friday 13th March, followed by the Shelter in Shanghai on Saturday 14th!

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