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Image: Gabi Lardies
Image: Gabi Lardies

Pop CultureMarch 2, 2024

Ouch, my back and heart: A review of Camp A Low Hum 2024

Image: Gabi Lardies
Image: Gabi Lardies

From 2007 to 2014, Camp A Low Hum was the highlight of the New Zealand indie music calendar. This summer, after a 10 year break, campers returned to do it all again.

The baby, with downy golden hair crowned by a pair of fluoro earmuffs, looked like she suddenly understood the meaning of life. Perched on her mum’s hip, her eyes were trained on the lead singer of Splinter, an experimental metal band from Ōtepoti, who was crouching on the ground screaming. The bassist and guitarist stood in wide stances, headbanging, and the drummer’s long hair was getting tangled in her own earmuffs. 

It was just after lunch last Friday, but not much daylight made it into the room, which was about the size of a classroom and had a chipboard floor. Until midnight it was named The Noisy Room, and then turned into The Club. I was jumping on a couch behind the guitar amp.

Usually the camp site, set in a sheltered valley and surrounded by native bush, is used by schools, sports clubs and church groups. But for the last two weekends, it hosted Camp A Low Hum, a music festival infamous to a niche group of music lovers, for whom it is simply Camp. As has always been the case with this festival, the line-up was not announced ahead of time, and tickets sold out.

Camp ran every summer between 2007 to 2014, roving around venues not far from Wellington. For the indie music community of Aotearoa, it was quite simply the most important few days of the year. The six months leading up to it were spent asking who was going and trying to find out who would be performing. The following six months (and then years) were spent reliving the memories. For a decade, with brief relief in the form of an A Low Hum New Years in 2016, us camp fanatics have gone without. 

Much has changed – and by that I mean all the original Camp fanatics are kinda old now. I imagine that most of us aren’t often found far from a duvet after 10pm, and it may have been a while since we last headbanged or knew who the hot new bands are. Though I feared being at a festival full of walking frames, a sense of responsibility to my teenage self compelled me to buy a ticket, and I was instead met by party babies, strapped to bellies and backs, waving their little arms. 

HŌHĀ from Ōtepoti in the Noisy Room.

The Noisy Room was one of seven stages constructed around Camp Wainui. On the other side of the small gravel parking lot was the lagoon, with the aptly named Lagoon stage on its northern bank. At night time, the lagoon was perfectly duplicated in the still water. Nearby, the Renegade Room was housed in a white tent next to the pop-up shop selling merch.

The Forest stage was at the edge of a clearing which also contained the Square stage. After a 10-minute bush walk which involved crossing a stream about three times, attendees were led to the Journey stage. There, gentler acts, like the wonderfully emo and sensual Soft Approach, played amongst native trees. The music mixed with the sound of cicadas, and kererū sat in the canopy above. Despite all the high-tech equipment and hundreds of humans coming in and out, it had that good bush smell. 

To the west, past the party camping and some bush, is a hut on the bushline of a clearing. Along one side are built-in sleeping bunks, with vinyl covered squabs. But on the floor in the middle was a drum kit, PA system and amps. This was the Winter stage. 

Amanda Cheng performing in Wax Chattels on the Square stage.

Four hours, 40 minutes and 13 acts after the raging of Splinter, Marlon Williams stepped onto the Square stage with his guitar. He’d always wanted to play at Camp, he said, but unfortunately was in an unfashionable honky-tonk band back in the day. Though he was alone on stage, three microphones pointed in various directions. Here’s the thing about stages at camp: they’re designed to be viewed from any angle, especially the Square stage, which was in the middle of a clearing; a ring of sculptural LED lights surrounding the crowd. Throughout his set of waiata, Williams switched between microphones and faced different sections of the crowd, who cheered as their turn came. 

The multi-direction stage set-ups and refusal to announce the artists are two of many things which make Camp singular. The festival is the brainchild of mega music nerd Ian Jorgensen, known as Blink. Camp aims to address things at other festivals and in the music industry at large that bum Blink out. He hates when people arrive late or leave early because they only want to see a famous band. He hates gross Portaloos. He hates when people behave like dickheads. He hates having to check the time, and timetable clashes. That’s why at Camp, there’s usually only one act on at any one time, and if they run late, the next act will start late too. “It is in this way that Camp moves as one gigantic communal tide,” reads the guidebook. The Portaloos are the flushable kind, and almost always clean.

‘Should I shower, or just jump in the lagoon?’ – a common camp quandary.

There’s something extremely wholesome about that gigantic communal tide. Sure, it’s a festival and people certainly indulge in substances to enhance their mood and perception and to soften their frontal lobes, but that’s not the entire cause of all the dumbstruck smiles. Attendees are have been posting love notes on the Facebook group. One begins by saying, “That may have just ruined every other festival I ever go to.” Others are calling it “life changing”, “life affirming” and “good for mental health”. At Camp, it would be difficult to find predatory behaviour or aggressive vibes. Lost wallets (with cash), AirPods and jewellery were handed into the lost property. The dancing was playful and silly. 

“Much has been found,” said Vanessa Worm, an artist from Murihiku performing discordant electronic music on Sunday night in the Noisy Room. She spends much of her live performances giving the audience iconic death stares, a strange contrast to that night’s heartwarming statement. “There is hope.” Marlon Williams was intently watching, huffing on a dart in the crowd. At Camp, if you look around the watching crowd, half of them will be on the line-up, and they will be fanning. This lack of hierarchy extends to performers: apart from the official line up, there is the Renegade room where anyone can book a 20 minute slot at the beginning of the festival if they’d like to perform. Would-be performers then make posters in the arts and crafts room and post them around the festival. They might be for bands you’ve never heard of before, reunions, experiments, or as was the case this year, Best Alternative Artist at the 2022 Aotearoa Music Awards, Vera Ellen.

When Marlon finished serenading everyone, the sun was shining and it was barely halfway through the first day of three. More than 80 official acts played at each weekend of Camp. It was a lot. The electronic doof and EDM popular at most other festivals was largely pushed aside for guitars, drum kits and even brass instruments. There was almost nothing of the DJ centred electronic nightlife movement, club nights or dance parties – Friendly Potential, Filth, Catacombs et al – which have sprung up in the years since the last Camp. But at least at this iteration of Camp there weren’t nearly as many twee folk-pop bands performing at the Forest stage as there were in 2009. 

So So Modern sans matching jumpsuits.

That’s not to say it wasn’t without nostalgic throwbacks. On Saturday, So So Modern, a classic Camp band, took to the Square stage, harnessing the frenetic energy they’ve not used for at least seven years. Their matching costumes had been set aside for jeans and T-shirts, but otherwise the set was a near perfect recreation of 2009. Blink squeezed his way to the front of the crowd, hoisting his big camera (like he always did), and couldn’t help abandoning the project after snapping a few shots se he could dance (like he always did). Banter was sparse, but halfway through Grayson Gilmour, on synth and vocals, said, “We used to finish that song with ‘Fuck John Key’ – now we can say ‘Fuck Christopher Luxon’”. The crowd cheered, though I think if they had they thought a little harder they’d have realised how depressing that statement was. 

Earlier that night, it was jumping at the Lagoon Stage, with Tāmaki Makaurau rapper Dbldbl remixing Tokyo Drift when I decided to forego the pain in my lower back and deep in my hip sockets. Such is life: painful, I thought when they jumped into the crowd, so obviously I had to dance harder. “That was great evening yoga,” said a guy in a pink silk shirt with a mullet afterwards. “I feel so energised now.” There have been reports that some attendees could not walk on Monday, and my hip-socket pain was still going strong on Thursday morning.

And there was, amongst all the fun, another pain. If you don’t read the guide in great detail, and don’t type into a browser the URL mentioned in it, you might think the Winter state is named after the cold season. You would be wrong. It is named after Reuben Samuel Winter, a prolific and talented musician who performed at events organised by Blink more than any other performer over the years. The first time was at Camp in 2010, when Winter was 15 and his band Bandicoot gave a blistering performance in a barn in Bulls.

Winter died by suicide in September 2020. For Blink and many others, Winter was an important figure in local music, both as a talent and as a catalyst and support for other musicians and projects. He was also deeply loved for his kindness and playful personality, and many hearts around Camp would have been irreparably punctured by his death. “My initial reaction was that his passing permanently signalled the end of events for me,” wrote Blink deep on the A Low Hum website. “There was a part of me that didn’t want to do anything more, but a larger part that got fired up. The passion I had two decades ago when I first started a zine, that frustration of seeing people with all the talent in the world not be comfortable and recognised for their work.” And so Blink began to focus his energies on this Camp and The Winter Fund, “a pool of knowledge distribution” for musicians, which is still being formed.

Camp is professional where it’s needed, and DIY when it’s cute.

During the first weekend, Winter’s mum, the poet Iona Winter, performed a tribute to her son with Skymning, a Wellington-based musician who once collaborated with him. On the second weekend, a couple of performers mentioned “all the campers who can’t be with us today,” and I thought of him, and other members of the community who have been lost too.

The very last performance of Camp started at 1.55am on Monday morning on the Winter stage. Winter’s longtime friend and collaborator Lawrence Goodwin had returned from Berlin to perform as Black Snake Whip. The plan was to keep going until the generator ran out. The second song he chose to perform was originally written by Winter as part of his Totems project. As the song was finishing, everything suddenly cut into silence. The PA system had blown. 

There is another memory, from the night before, which I try to plaster over that silence. After my pants were thoroughly vibrated by Boggle on the Forest stage, a light rain began to fall. I left my friends to get my raincoat from the car. Water began to fall in heavy sheets as I made my way back up the gravel drive. Through the dark, I could hear people laughing and chatting. When I rounded the corner I saw my friends, illuminated by torches, gathered under our communal gazebo. I slipped in, safe from the storm.

Keep going!