Élan Vital's debut album Shadow Self is a masterclass in coldwave and post-punk, as reframed through the minds of Renee Barrance, Danny Brady, and Nikolai Sim.

Making use of hardware synthesisers, drum machines, vocoder, voice and traditional instruments, they conjure up darkly-lit dance jams indebted to both stark, brutalist aesthetics and an ongoing investigation of the cyberpunk-style liminal zone where man becomes machine; and machine becomes man.

Based in Dunedin, New Zealand, a South Island city long associated in indie, lo-fi and D.I.Y music circles with Flying Nun Records and "The Dunedin Sound," Élan Vital exist within a longstanding community of likeminded experimental musicians and noise heads, as well as sonic and visual artists.

Following the release of Shadow Self, they embarked on a short national tour. Near the end of this run of shows, I spoke with Renee, Danny and Nikolai via Facebook video chat. In a frank and honest conversation, they gave me some insight into their takes on the challenges and realities associated with creating, releasing and performing underground music across New Zealand right now.

Could you give us a bit of insight into what it's like to be a musician or artist in Dunedin right now, and by the way, where are you?

Renee: We're in a dark warehouse space called None Gallery.

Nikolai: None started as a collective of artists who were primarily working in the fields of sonic arts and noise music, as well as the visual arts. Over the years, the collective has changed. They always hosted shows, but nowadays with the lack of venues in Dunedin, our bandmate Danny has been hosting more live bands here. That's the state of Dunedin.

It's lucky that the sonic arts and noise scene to the steps required to establish a place like that earlier in the piece.

Nikolai: Dunedin musicians and artists are inherently quite resilient. I think somewhere would have stepped up if None wasn't around. Having None locked down for the last fifteen years has obviously helped, but there are still house shows, and other D.I.Y spaces and D.I.Y shows around town. I think these things would happen regardless of whether None was here or not, but it is a pretty good spot for it.

Renee: None is taking on the most shows. A lot of those other spaces only host shows occasionally.

It's kinda bleak if you think about it. Fifteen years ago, you needed to make a D.I.Y space to host noise and experimental acts. Now, you sometimes need a D.I.Y space just to host conventional indie bands.

Renee: I think that is the state of things around New Zealand at this level in a lot of ways. Everyone I've talked to in terms of venue owners are just struggling really.

Nikolai: When we were in Wellington the other weekend, I noticed that lots of places that are venues seem to really depend on having a solid happy hour trade as a bar. They aren't really dedicated music venues.

How would you describe the musical landscape in Dunedin at the moment?

Nikolai: There is always a big scene of rock music and a student scene for live bands. As part of that, there is always a bit of a metal and a hardcore scene in Dunedin. In terms of the scenes we occupy, there is lots of experimental and noise stuff, and good rock and roll. All the old school Dunedin people are still kicking around as well.Danny: Not all of the time, but a lot of the time, the whole thing blends in together. I guess that is because it's such a small town. The different scenes aren't as segregated as you might think they are.

Nikolai: There are a lot of people playing around with hardware synths and drum machines at the moment.

Renee, you host a show called Synthesize Me on local student radio station Radio One 91 FM with a couple of friends. Lately, you've been organising some club nights under the Synthesize Me banner as well right?

Renee: With Synthesize Me, the Dunedin Fringe Festival gave us some funding to put on a few electronic music club nights. That meant we could pay artists, and the venue, sound system, and sound engineer were sorted. We got to curate two nights. We themed them around what we are interested in within the current New Zealand electronic music scene and look at on our radio show. We had some dance musicians around the country play, as well as some DJs. There is a bit of a lack of that in Dunedin.

Nikolai: But there is a real growing popularity of house and techno in Dunedin right now.

Renee: It could be huge. We had over a hundred people through the door each night. The crowd stuck around as well.

What's the culture like at Radio One 91 FM at the moment?

Renee: You've got the Friendly Potential show. They're a collective like us. Simon Wallace from Friendly Potential used to be the Music Director at Radio One. It's a really good show. I think the thing Friendly Potential and Synthesize Me share in common is we often invite guests to the studio to do mixes, or send us in mixes we can play.

Nikolai: Steven Marr is the production manager at Radio One at the moment. He's doing a pretty good job of making a lot of Live-To-Air performances happen on Radio One, which is something the station has been lacking for a while. He's created a decent studio set-up so that bands can play and sound good. That's been a good development.

Do you all feel like you're at the age and experience level where you need to be organizing and running things in Dunedin?

Nikolai: I used to put on heaps more shows when I was younger. I've always been involved in music spaces and that kind of thing. I ran the bar at Chick's Hotel for three years. I booked Thursday nights there for a year and a half. I guess at the moment; I'm quite preoccupied with my own musical ventures. Danny has stepped up massively in that regard. Danny is probably one of the people doing the most for the music scene in Dunedin right now.

Danny, can you talk about your role in the music scene in Dunedin right now?

Danny: I feel like I've started doing more out of necessity. I didn't put my hand up. Out-of-town bands wouldn't have a clue of where to play, and they would ask me questions. I've spent years playing in bands and touring around New Zealand, so I know a lot of the musicians. It turns out it was just easier for me to just help them out than answer their questions, so here I am, helping to organise shows!

I'm an audio engineer, so I end up doing live sound for people at least two or three nights a week these days. I managed to get a little P.A which works for None and The Crown. I also do sound at ReFuel. I guess it's a good skill to have. It's probably fifty percent of it.

You've been playing shows around the country to promote the release of your album. Do you find much of a commonality between the challenges you face in Dunedin and what other musicians around New Zealand are dealing with?

Danny: We were in Christchurch last week. The feeling there was very similar to what we deal with here. Our friend Henry Nicol has been running Log Recording there. It's a studio and performance space which is now defunct due to issues with the local council. He's gone to a huge effort to find a new place for bands to play at called New City Hotel. We played there.

Renee: Henry is developing a rapport with the owner of New City Hotel to make the place viable as a performance space for bands. He's basically doing everything. He brings his P.A in every time he does a show there, sets it up, and does the live sound. This sort of thing doesn't pay very well, so you do it because you completely love the music and want it to continue to happen. Over Easter weekend he put on a festival with thirteen bands from around the country.

Danny: It just takes one person like that to keep a scene together really.

What about elsewhere?

Renee: Rohan from The Wine Cellar in Auckland - who also used to own Whammy Bar - is the same. The Wine Cellar is well established, but the amount of energy and dedication he has to contribute just to do this is huge. He gives a lot.

Nikolai: It seems like live music is existing on the passion of a handful of people in every city. In many ways, especially for bands with lesser followings, or tougher climates to get people to shows, you definitely survive off passion.

Renee: A common thread is these individuals often happen to be sound engineers or musicians themselves.

What do you think are the biggest challenges bands working at your level face?

Nikolai: It just takes heaps of energy. Nothing comes easy. There aren't very many spaces where you can just rock up with your instruments and plug-in. The spaces we play in Dunedin, Danny has to set-up the P.A, play the show with us, and do sound as well. It's just crazy. You've got to build the shows from scratch, and that takes a lot of energy. It's so much more consuming than playing in a proper venue.

What do you think needs to happen to make things easier?

Nikolai: At the moment, I feel like City Councils should make more of an effort to provide spaces: whether it's helping people, who are trying to start up spaces with the bureaucratic process of getting licenses or giving people some leniency on things like noise control issues. I don't think the councils recognise how important art and music cultures are to making their cities desirable to visit or live in.

Wellington was just voted one of the most liveable cities in the world. It's probably in part because of its music and arts cultures, and also the hospitality scene there, which is a counterculture thing, and again led by music and arts. If these are the things that make a city interesting - and the whole gentrification thing is always on the backs of music and artists - why isn't there some recognition that, while it might not have a direct financial impact for the city, these things have a broader impact in terms of making a place better to live?

From what you're saying, it sounds pretty difficult to make money out of music or art in Dunedin. I guess that means you only do these things down there if you need to do them on a deep level?

Nikolai: Down here, you don't do these things for any other reason then doing the work. I think that is how we work as a band. We want to grab any opportunity that will come our way, but ultimately, the most important thing is the work. We care about what we're making, and what we're doing.

Shadow Self is out now through Fishrider Records/Occultation. You can purchase it in vinyl, CD, and digital formats here.