Road To Nowhere: DIY Festivals in Aotearoa

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Summer means a lot of things in Aotearoa, it means BBQs, it means beaches, it means Christmas and reuniting with family; it means carefully navigating your uncle’s racist/sexist/homophobic comments at a family lunch after he’s had a few too many DBs; it also means summer festivals. Festival season is well and truly upon us, and while a lot of Kiwis will be setting off to Rhythm and Vines and Baydreams, there is a large section of the Aotearoa music community dedicated to putting on festivals where the music and sense of community is central, rather than shitty MDMA, 8am funnels and out-dated dubstep.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Joel, Teesh and Ben from the Wellington-based Eyegum Music Collective, the group behind the Welcome to Nowhere Music Festival (Formerly known as The Gathering in the Forest), a three day music, art and poetry fest set to take place somewhere near Whanganui from 11-14 January 2018. We discussed what it takes to put on a festival in Aotearoa, what makes a good festival and breaking down the barriers between artist and audience.

Thanks for doing this guys, for starters what is Eyegum Music Collective?

Joel: Eyegum is a group of people who have come together and changed organically over the years, we get together and put on events in Wellington that we want to go see.

What kind of events?

Joel: House parties, festivals, one off gigs. Anything that at least a couple of people are passionate about and no one thinks is a horrendously bad idea.

And how did Eyegum start up?

Joel: It started in 2013, a bunch of us got together wanting to figure that there wasn't enough happening in the music scene and that we should do something about it and it’s developed organically over time. So in 2014/15 we put on house parties every weekend for a year because there were no venues in Wellington, then from about 2016 onwards we've been putting on free Wednesday gigs at San Fran Bathhouse.

Then from 2017 we started putting on a small little indie fest (The Gathering in the Forest) because there had been a bunch and they wound down for their own different reasons and we were like, if we don't do it, they won't be a festival for us to go to.

We'll come back to the festival. So you saw a gap sort of, in Wellington for this kind of space for the musicians and gigs and things. Can you talk a bit more about that and how you saw Eyegum fitting into it?

Joel: We had a big long-term plan to make the scene bigger and better. There's never one scene. There's overlapping scenes. And so with the house parties, San Fran had been closed down for earthquake repairs, Mighty Mighty had shut down, Puppies shut down, Sandwiches shut down, so we had no venues. I was in a band at the time and we had nowhere play. So we put on a house party to play at, we didn't lose money so we thought wow, this could work. It just grew from there

How did you see Wellington respond to Eyegum taking up that challenge?

Joel: It’s always about what good you’re doing for the bands. For music, for poetry, any form of art, if it's good then people will just orientate around that. With a house, there's an immediacy that you get from playing in the lounge that you can't replicate in a venue, a venue has its place, but for a small band or set of bands, there’s a particular intimacy, an anarchic intimacy of a house party that just makes it engrossing.

Teesh: It definitely breaks down the pressure for the performers and the audience having a house party. What I always felt going to the house parties anyway. Like, you could be talking to someone and not even know that they're in the band and then half hour later they're playing in the lounge and you're like, I didn't even know that you were in the band! I think it was also a big aspect of why it got so big so quickly because you could go there for the band or you could go there just to be social. There was no pressure really.

When did you get involved with Eyegum Teesh?

Teesh: My friend Fraser moved to Wellington and he just happened to be like, ‘I really like bands and music and this guy called Joel puts on house parties.There's one happening in Kelburn and I happened to live in Kelburn at the time I didn't really know that many people. So I said ‘ok, I'll go to this house party - I like music.’ I ended up spending most of the night just sitting on the door talking to people. And then Joel was like, ‘Oh, you were on the door the whole night, I'll give you back your money.’ Then I ended up being the door person for the future gigs, which I really liked doing because the door is the best way to socialize at gig, you meet everyone. There's no commitment talking to them for more than like two minutes, it’s my favourite thing of the world. And then through that just met Joel more and more and the others and was like, these people are really cool. I want to know them better and it was kind of history from there onwards.

Ben, what about you?

Ben: I missed all of the house parties. I arrived in Wellington early 2016 and I'd heard about it. I think I managed to get to one of the last ones and that was really, really great. And then, I started going to Eyegum Wednesdays and I met Sophie Scott-Maunder (Beatcomber). Because I was sort of thinking about putting on a Gig at our place (Bush Bash) she introduced me to Joel, who helped me run through some ideas and from there we've worked together a lot on Bush Bash. Then I kind of just hung around.

Joel: I’m Ben’s minion for Bush Bash and Ben’s my minion for Eyegum.

Let's talk about the Gathering in the Forest. So Eyegum, just some kids with dreams, running house parties, then all of a sudden you're running a proper festival, what the fuck?

Teesh: We were all at the last Chronophonium (Auckland Festival) And I remember Joel and Fraser yarning to one of the main organizers and you could just tell he was run dry, he was exhausted, and we asked ‘but what about next year?’ And he said ‘I'll volunteer for your festival.’ And we thought, actually that's not a bad idea. Let's do that.

Joel: The first one was really just winging it.

Teesh: It was a very natural progression. I feel like it made sense that Eyegum was going that way. You know, you do house parties and then we kind of got picked up by San Fran for gigs. Then the logical next step, let's try it out at a festival, how hard could it really be?

What did the first festival look like?

Joel: Like, one of the things I'm really glad about is that my parents made a conscious decision to travel around Aotearoa as a kid. So, you know, we'd travel Saturday, dock a campsite and stuff and just travel on the cheap or whatever. And now basically if you want to go overseas you can do that yourself. You probably will. But we're going to show you the country. Our location near Whanganui. It's just like any other part of the country; it’s just a sweet little piece of farmland in the middle of nowhere. There's no cell phone reception. There's no Internet, there's a barely functioning landline and it's just really tranquil. It’s naturally beautiful and perfect for music. You have to consider stuff like sound, how is sound going to travel, how does the site make sense in terms of people's movements and flow and that sort of thing.

The site is 90 percent of the work, like if the site works, that's it. And you just build on top of it, which is what we did. Then the first year was mainly figuring stuff out so it wasn't just me learning how to do stuff, it was all of us having to step up. We lucked out quite a bit in terms of saving money here, skimping there and we saved and scrimped in the right places and luck sort of rolled with us.

Teesh: Yeah, Whanganui has been very good to us. I guess like you said, the site is the really crucial but unbelievable having Monty who was the guy who owns the land that we had the festival on help us. It would've just been so different if he hadn't been there, it would've been so much more work for us. We would have been very lost.

Joel: All of small town NZ is like that though.

Teesh: Yeah. We were really worried when we first started doing it. But the Council was just like ‘this is awesome.’ They wanted to make sure we were doing it right, but other than that they were just happy to have us really.

Joel: There's also a really interesting element, which I've never quite got my head around properly, but the way you build and develop culture. Culture is something that is actively and consciously and unconsciously built. And so the way in which, without laying down the law or rules for behaviour or the vibe, stuff comes across implicitly to people. I've always been kind of amused and bemused by it. A lot is left unspoken, but acknowledged.

Teesh: And it was a lot to be said for festival size in this scenario, if you have over a few hundred people, it just becomes separate camps rather than just one collective vibe. Which can also be really cool. I appreciate that as well. But this is quite a small-scale festival. You get to see the same person multiple times in a day. It creates a communal understanding amongst everyone who's there. I think that's what creates a good small indie festival is that; it's never going to be something where you're going to feel really lost or inconvenient to anybody because everyone's just there relaxing.

So that was two years ago. You're in your third iteration now. Why did you change the name of the festival to Welcome to Nowhere?

Teesh: We all like The Mint Chicks. It’s a Mint Chicks song.

Joel: We’d had some confusion with our previous name but Welcome to Nowhere is just apt. You arrive at the festival and you're like, oh, it's in the middle of nowhere. It’s as close as you get to nowhere. Yeah. There’s no cellphone or Internet reception. It's not like it's some sort of idealized holiday home vacation spot from Upper Class Kiwis. There are 20 houses in the entire area and the people have all lived there their entire lives and they hate people, love to shoot chickens, go walking with the dogs and grow cannabis in corn season, it is nowhere in the best possible way.

What are some of the lessons you guys have learned from the previous couple of festivals that you, that you're taking into this year?

Joel: It’s all the little things you don’t think about when you’re at a festival. Do you want water to be clean? Where do people park? Where are the toilets? These are all good things, you know, having a traffic management plan, having clean drinkable water, having functioning toilets etc.

Teesh: Being intrepid sounds exciting until you've got like four hundred people, then its not exciting, its just inconvenient.

Teesh: Managing traffic is surprisingly difficult when you're in a scenario where you already don't know how the traffic flow is going to be on a road that gets used, like for most of the year maybe by maybe 50 people. Then all of a sudden get 200 cars or 150 cars using this one dirt, gravel road. It creates things you wouldn't have thought about beforehand.

Joel: I think managing volunteers, managing people.

How do you manage people at a festival?

Teesh: We've had enough experience dealing with to know how to deal with bands. But we’ve definitely had issues. One in particular was hilarious. They arrived at the fest, started to set up and said: ‘is this the San Fran drum kit?’ And we were like yeah. The drummer was just like ‘oh, it's a piece of shit, I need all these things…’ We said ‘you know where we are right? You realize that we are good 50-minute drive from anywhere; you're not going to get a new fucking snare right now. He was having a tantrum about the drum kit and someone said ‘oh, you can't play with that drum kit? Clearly you're not a very good drummer.’

Joel: I’ve learnt always get a good PA system.

Teesh: Make sure you have confirmed people to pack down the stage. After the first festival ended everyone had already fucked off, so me, Joel and a few of our friends packed down the entire stage. I was there till like five in the afternoon, the day after, just like single handedly taking down the PA and putting it into this truck. We had a friend Vic who had her dad's car, she's crying because she wanted to go home but had to wait the whole day for two of us to take down the whole thing.

Ben: You gotta have an exit strategy.

Joel: When people volunteer, you can't force them to do shit. They don't want to do. There has to be buy in.

Ben, what have you learnt from Joel and Teesh in terms of putting on a festival?

Ben: Oh God. A lot. Logistically a lot. Similar things ensuring there’s enough lighting, having enough toilets, having people that can look out for stuff like security, being able to delegate, being able to manage and trust volunteers - I'm like a year behind each thing. So this year I got someone to look after the volunteers. I got someone to look after the merch. I've got three security guards. We've got stage managers, so me and Joel don't have to do it. We can focus on other things.

In terms of the philosophy behind running a DIY festival, we just want to be able to put on a good time and something different for people. The thing I really like about having something in my backyard is that I get to choose who plays, that’s my reward. I picked the line-up and you know, the rest is the immaterial. It helps that the music community is super supportive and gracious, that makes it all worthwhile.

What have been some of your highlights from like previous gathering festivals?

Teesh: When A Girl Named Mo played the first festival, that totally blew my mind. They just finished a tour with Fly My Pretties and then played our rag tag, little fucking half put together festival. We'd all kind of managed to pull out of our asses. They were insane; everyone was just like going off to it. Like the crowd was loving it. It was surreal, I thought ‘this is happening, I organised this.’

Ben: So two things: Seeing Earthtongue perform on the first night of the last festival, they're just great. But in that setting. They played the midnight set and everyone was just in really good spirits. Then on the next night everyone was starting to get real frazzled. People were pretty strung out. But it was great because of all these fragile people. I remember WOMB played and it was all like very like beautiful and serene. And then everybody was very vulnerable after that. And then Mothers Dearest played and it was just catharsis, it destroyed everyone’s souls, and it was a beautiful thing.

Joel: Oh, one of the things is that especially when you're running shit, you have to be sober and you have to manage. And so the festival itself is as much about enjoying other people having a good time. As it is me having a good time.

Seeing people having a great time, and bumping into randoms is the thing that comes into me. After the last festival I had a box of beers, I hadn't drunk them and by 4:00am on Monday, no one else had any beers. I was sharing them around and then I bumped into this lady. She said: Oh man, I really enjoyed this. This is a really righteous event. But you've got two paths that you face now, the good righteous path and there’s the path of evil. And I was like, what is this evil path? She said: ‘You've got half naked sluts in the lake.’ She went on a big long yarn and it turned out her children were temple children. And this is 4:00 in the morning, the festival is finished, like the dregs are floating around and I'm still sober, just chilling out. So I was just like, no, actually, you’re wrong. So I'm having this thing about like consent and body positivity at 4am And being like, actually I don’t think people should be made to feel ashamed of their bodies. And I think the sexualisation of the human form is actually a really bad thing and that you were talking about this righteousness and this goodness and yet you're saying this really this really hateful language. And I think that's counter productive so I'm having this weird intense yarn at 4am. It was surreal. I hope she comes back this year.

What are you guys looking forward to at Welcome to Nowhere 2019?

Teesh: It's kind of like the whole holding your breath until it's happening. This is so much to think about, it's not like you don't really look forward to anything as such. You’re kind of just too busy to think about how it's going to go. I guess at the same time you're looking forward to it subconsciously. I’m looking forward to it massively because I want to prove that we’ve learned things and that we've got more to show now. I'm really keen to see some of the bands I haven't seen before, just the standard things you look for to at a festival. But with the added feeling of being somewhat maternal towards it, this is our child, which has to continue to grow in a positive way.

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Ben: I'm really looking forward to the poetry. I think it's gonna be really awesome. Also just the line-up in general. It’s the sort of line-up that you won't get any other summer festival, which I think is a great, um, I guess not necessarily achievement, but a great comment on, on what a festival like this can be.

Joel: I think part of what I like is the constant attempt to like to delegate and be surprised. The poetry for example. I can book bands and I can book music acts and I've got a pretty good nose for that, I know who to talk to about it. I can make pretty good judgments around that. But poetry, I appreciate it and I know it's good but I don't have a finely tuned ear towards it so I don't really know much about it. Art as well. I don't actually know how it's gonna work. It’s one of the things I've really learned is that you get people on board who you trust and respect, you respect their taste and you respect their capacity and their competence, and then you see where they go from there, you defer to them and just let them develop their vision.

And I guess that's, that's something I'm looking forward to this year. There's a lot more going on that I don't know how it's gonna work and I'm really excited about being surprised or intrigued by it.

Teesh: Yeah. Like Joel was just saying, when you go back to the house parties versus the festival just showing up and people will bail out, so you help out and you learn things. I wouldn't have ever known how to set up a drum kit probably if I hadn't just happened to fall in love with house parties. Now I can mike a drum stand. I can do all of that. At other festivals, you're going to be the audience, which is also great. It's fun having no responsibility, just being a part of the crowd, but, it's just nice having the option of being like, oh, I can help people out, setting up the stage right now and that’s’ pretty cool. I feel helpful and it's just a nice experience to be able to do that.

Building on that, why should people go to Welcome to Nowhere 2019?

Ben: What else are you going to do? Got to Nest Fest? Fuck that. There are a lot of festivals on, in New Zealand in the summer and I think if you're gonna pick one, pick something that is totally unique, while also supporting local music, DIY music. You’ll still have as good but probably, definitely, a better time then at those other ones.

Joel: At Welcome to Nowhere there’s real lack of pressure, there’s the ability to sort of slow down. And I think that's something that we don't have as much today.

Teesh: Not being able to have, you know, reception or internet, not taking pictures of everything you're doing. The isolation is part of what makes the community aspect more real. You can't go off and text your friends for an hour or do anything like that. You just have to go for a walk or go swimming, go see the band that's playing.

Joel: I think that there's nowhere else that gives people the ownership and the sort of engagement that you'll get from Welcome to Nowhere, the way that we shape it is really focussed around creating a participatory event. And it all comes back from those early house parties where I really loved the idea that the people on the stage are just like me and you, they just happened to be on stage, and everyone has their skills and their talents and stuff and there's not a whole lot dividing us and them.

And I find that everyone is creative. Everyone has the capacity to do interesting and amazing things and so much of the way in which society works is about limiting and narrowing people's creative viewers. Every kid can be creative and over time creativity is trained out of people. Just seeing people on stage that you've seen wandering around to really break that divide and say everyone has a capacity to be creative. Anyone make something interesting.

You can find out more info about Welcome to Nowhere here:

http://www.eyegum.org/

Or here:

https://www.facebook.com/events/251775285483346/