When Popstrangers‘ debut album arrived in 2013, it felt like a miracle.
This trio of New Zealanders (guitarist Joel Flyger, bassist Adam Page, and skin-pounder David Larson) shared a love of ’80s kiwi punk music but also were raised on a diet of ’90s alternative and zeitgeisty 2000s post-rock, and their full-length Antipodes felt like an incredible distillation of their influences. A swirling blend of Radiohead’s musical wit, Manic Street Preacher’s propulsion, and the immediacy of forgotten one-hit-wonders CD-era wonders like Summercamp, their record invoked nostalgia while paving down new musical paths at the same time. Slow-crawl closer “Occasion” clocks in just under seven minutes, and you’ll wish it was still twice as long. It was refreshing.
Yet while critics fawned over the band, the breakthrough never fully materialized. The group earned a devoted legion of followers and managed to play numerous international dates, but it always felt like Popstrangers should’ve been bigger than they were. Their sophomore record, 2014’s Fortuna, quickly became divisive, with some fans rejecting their move into slightly poppier territory while providing them their breakthrough streaming hit with album opener “Sandstorm”. That was followed by a period of inactivity, with their official Twitter account posting nothing for four years before coming back online. Fearing the band was no longer working, some fans were worried that Popstrangers would simply become strangers.
While the trio had spent a lot of time playing in the UK, they decamped to New Zealand around 2018-2019 to work and demo new material, with their slow-burn experimentation leading to their long-awaited third set, In Spirit. Immediately evoking the cathartic and indie-weird vibes of their legendary debut, the new record leans heavily into heavy keyboard sounds and the aggro-cathartic style that endured them to fans in the first place. Songs like “Crack Track” recall late-period (slightly melancholy) Flaming Lips in the best way, but with a flair that’s all their own. It’s strange to hear a band recapture what made them so special in the first place, and In Spirit is a record so striking our only concern is that we hope we don’t have to wait eight more years before we hear this one’s follow-up.
To help mark the occasion, Popstrangers have collaborated to give us their Fave Five on their Favourite Venues They’ve Ever Played. “Figured it’s nice to put our hands up & hope they are all still going after Covid times,” the group said collectively. For those that feel comfortable seeing live acts again, the band encourages you to do so, and frankly, after hearing In Spirit, we can’t wait to hear how these tunes are reworked in front of a living audience ourselves. In addition, the band have shared a clip of them performing the single “Are Pigeons Doves?” exclusively with PopMatters, bringing that live experience directly to you.
Fave Five Favourite Venues Popstrangers Have Played
The Waiting Room (London)
We played a free show here not long after moving to London. A downstairs venue with a small stage. Coming out of the tiny cellar-turned-green room and noticing the venue had filled up after thinking no one would come was special. It’s been a long-standing venue in London formerly known as The Drop.
The Powerstation (Auckland, New Zealand)
The Powerstation in Auckland has been around for as long as I can remember. One night, we paid off the bouncer to sneak us in to watch the Pixies (still with Kim Deal) play Doolittle. It’s the perfect size and the best place to see international bands in Auckland. We supported Dinosaur Jr. here when they came through & have played and seen many other shows at this iconic Auckland venue. It’s been good to see they made it through the Covid lockdowns and are able to start bringing international bands back into Auckland.
Vera (Groningen, Netherlands)
There are a ton of great venues in the Netherlands, but Vera always stood out as a special place to play.
I think bands started playing there in the ’70s, although the Vera story far predates this. Looking at the walls out back, you can get a sense of how much history the venue holds, hosting bands such as Joy Division, Nirvana, the Birthday Party, Sonic Youth; I think even U2 played there.
It has a great setup where bands can stay upstairs, and the room itself sounds great. A lot of the people who work there are volunteers, and I think that’s what makes the vibe. Everyone wants to be there.
Whammy Bar (Auckland, New Zealand)
My favorite bar/venue. It’s a basement bar in St. Kevin’s Arcade on Karangahape Road in Auckland and was run by a great friend of the band Rohan Evans, who still runs the bar/venue next door: The Wine Cellar.
When we started the band, we had these small goals or milestones. Record an EP, get played on bFM, and get a gig at Whammy Bar. This bar, to me, has always been the pulse of the Auckland music scene, and the people that work at, promote, and run the venue really care about the place and helping local musicians.
Whammy is still in good hands and putting on amazing events today.
Lio Bar (Brescia, Italy)
We played a show here on our first ever tour of Europe, and it was a bar that reminded us of home. We pulled in early and ended up hanging out there until hours after the show. We got to spend time with other people coming to the show and ended up keeping in touch with a lot of them still. I hope it’s still there!