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Blink on Square Wave Festival, Puppies  + More

Blink on Square Wave Festival, Puppies + More

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Tuesday 1st October, 2013 1:37PM

Blink has just announced the details of an electronic music festival, Square Wave, that will take place this November across eight venues in five cities and include 63 musicians, which is quite the logistical feat. UnderTheRadar caught up with Blink to discuss everything, from the experiences from which Square Wave was borne, to his current projects - Puppies and Camp a Low Hum in particular - to the state of the local scene: all contextualized by the dissolution of the music industry as we know it. And guess what? Games of Thrones is kinda to blame.

Why an electronic music festival? Where did the initial concept come from and how did it develop into a thing?

In 2011 when Flying Nun asked me if I wanted to help them with their 30th anniversary celebrations, being a braggart and wanting to look tuff in-front of (my idol) Roger Shepherd, well, I pitched this ridiculous concept of 30+ shows in the month of November, all over the country. What ended up happening was me, solely booking and managing tours from HDU, The Clean & The Subliminals, The Bats, The Verlaines, Shayne Carter, F in Math & Alphabethead, a whole bunch of one-off shows, tribute shows, small tours of their up & coming acts, showcases - all in one month. It was potentially the most ridiculous logistical challenge any promoter has tried in NZ. There was one night near the end of the month where I was running 5 shows in 5 different cities in two countries. (I had a breakdown at some point in the greenroom at SFBH on that night, but that’s a story for another time.)

Being a martyr I chose to not associate A Low Hum with the aforementioned events as I felt it was more important that they were a vehicle for Flying Nun and that there was no confusion. Also, it was an immense honour to work so closely with many of my heroes. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked on any project and crazy difficult but it energized me and gave me so much confidence in pulling off something so insane. I was so proud of pulling this stupid feat together (though a little bummed that nobody knew it was me behind it), but it was nice to finally do something “for me”. I mean, The Clean and The Subliminals together - just seeing that show at Sammys in Dunedin put everything in perspective. Fuck egos.

After I slept for around a month I started to think about how I could do this again, but not kill myself in the process and instead of having it be a one-off event, set up something which could be grown over time. Probably the biggest logistical headache for me on all those tours was organising backline (drums, guitar amps etc..). Backline hire in NZ can be stupidly expensive and paying full rental can kill any national tour so I was busting my ass pulling in favour after favour, tracking down gear for shows, rehearsals, getting it picked up/dropped off for multiple shows. I realised if I was going to do this sort of event again, backline had to be much easier to deal with.

After touring with Disasteradio around Europe for several years I also started to notice how different audiences responded/understood electronic music where there has been a long history of it and how they understand musical structure and don’t just need to hear something they already know to have a good time. Coming back to NZ was always disappointing in that regard: we all know we have some of the finest guitar pop in the world and with a history that people can identify, so when they hear a guitar band they understand how to listen to it.

NZer’s generally have no idea the wealth of talented electronic producers here and there is still much stigma over what constitutes a “live performance” and still much confusion over how to embrace this kind of performance. There are still people who see someone with a laptop on stage and immediately write off the performer as a non-musician, scoffing to themselves and feeling self-important. There is still mystery surrounding what “electronic music” is, and I have to admit, I am trolling hard-out by intentionally tagging the festival that, as I know it will get many peoples noses bent out of shape.

I’m looking forward to seeing idiots proclaiming which acts aren’t “electronic” to their definition. “Electronic music” is as redundant a term as “indie”. I’m thinking of doing a “Fuck Electronic Music” festival as a sister event in the future (if Tauranga Music Sux don’t beat me to it).

Though it took a while for me to click that an “Electronic Music Festival” was the way to go, once I had the idea, everything seemed to slot into place. I was initially trying to put together a one day electronic music outdoor festival and a separate city showcase festival, combining them into one concept just made so much sense. It allowed me to build my national touring circuit/multiple show concept without so many backline headaches, and also try to introduce an audience to something they might be a little weary of.

Why did you choose these artists?

It was very organic really. This is the first year of the event and like the first Camp A Low Hum, to get something started I needed to call on my friends. I anticipate future Square Wave’s to be much more diverse and embrace a much wider spectrum of electronic-based music, but for now, just to be able to pull this ridiculous feat together in a short space of time, I just bought my buddies together: people whose music I’ve discovered on the internet and made something happen. There are quite a number of acts playing shows during this festival whom I have never seen live – which is quite exciting to me, but easily 2/3rds of the acts are one’s I’ve worked with before or have existing relationships with.

Unlike Camp (A Low Hum) which has a very considered limitation put on its growth - as I don’t want it to ever be bigger than something I wouldn’t want to be at myself - SWF really has no such limitation on what it could mutate into.

Why run a festival across multiple cities and weeks?

As above, principally to put in place a festival model that has no limitations, to develop a model where I can start making more shows happen all around the country in any town where people have an interest in seeing live music. I’ve greatly missed touring shows through small towns since stopping the A Low Hum tours, and am hoping through this new festival I can start getting involved in scenes in smaller cities again. I am excited about where this event can go.

In 2013 I’ve started very small, though some would think that 34 shows in 5 cities is pretty big - for me it’s just dipping my toe in. Whenever I look back on the various projects I’ve worked on, I’ve taken most pleasure in laughing at how idiotic I was to take on such hopeless logistical nightmares.

I still can’t for the life of me work out how in 2006 I toured 3-4 bands around NZ while editing/designing/writing a 64 page magazine, curating and releasing two CDs and doing all this month after month, not to mention whilst putting together my first three day music festival whilst maintaining a day job to fund it all. Everything I’ve attempted since seems a walk in the park.

The great thing about working with friends is that they’ll put up with your shit. People know I take on way more than I can handle and often lose control, and that’s when working with the right people who will save your ass comes in handy. People who believe in what you’re trying to do and even if it means a shitty night for them, they’ll get your back. I’ve found who these people are over the years and keep them close.

If Dec 2 comes around and I don’t regret ever coming up with this idea, well, I’ll be back in 2014 with something ridiculous, count on that.

Obviously you're running Square Wave at Puppies in Wellington, but that venue is coming to an end sometime relatively soon right? How come?

I’ve always hated the alcohol industry’s total dominance over the live music scene, but it was important for me to understand the devil and how he works ya know? I also pride myself on being someone who walks the walk and isn’t full of hot air, so when I told people I could run a bar successfully where it hadn’t been before and do so while presenting bands in the best possible way and with respect to the audience, well, I had to do it.

Though I have not written off doing something else with the space, or perhaps opening another short-term bar in the future, I have a ton of other projects I need to cross off my list first. I am not exactly sure when I’m winding up the bar yet, but prob mid next year, depending on if I get the energy to do another massive project I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of years. There is a slim chance I could keep it going, but I would much rather get back out on the road and sleep on some floors again.

Reflecting on how Puppies has gone over the last year or so, what would you say? Was it successful for you? Do you have your favourite nights?

Really stoked with how it’s gone, obviously I’ve had my fails like anyone else doing something they know nothing about. I don’t drink, and I mean, I have never drunk! I’d probably consumed a total of half a dozen beers in my entire life before opening the bar. I don’t give a fuck about booze, at all. I spent three months before we opened designing/building the stage, shaping the venue, installing the PA and working to make sure the room sounded amazing. I didn’t know what I was even going to sell on the bar until the morning we opened when I just went to the supermarket and bought whatever was cheapest. Twelve months ago I couldn’t have even told you what hops were. (Still couldn’t to be perfectly honest – don’t care).

I think to run a really successful bar you need to care about your “product”. I always looked at my “product” as the presentation of live music, however, it’s not, booze is the product and you have to be pragmatic and being that you need to make money to survive, you have to know that side of the business, and I don’t, and I don’t care about it, or want to know.

Me running a bar was always a ridiculous idea, but that’s why I did it, to show that somebody who just loves music and doesn’t give a crap about booze can take a struggling bar and, by putting the emphasis on music and respecting bands and the public make it work. I have no doubt that If I actually gave two shits about being a “bar guy” and wanted to do this for the rest of my life, I could get passionate about it, but I just like throwing parties and providing a great space for bands to sound mean - I’m not passionate enough about this to be in it long term.

It wasn’t as idiotic as when I opened a three month temporary café/music shop with a friend, called “Temporary”. I was running it sole charge day after day, playing a barista, but one who doesn’t like or drink coffee at all. Every time anybody ordered a coffee with milk in it regardless of what they ordered I’d just make the same thing and then laugh when they didn’t complain. The whole time I did that job, I didn’t have one single coffee myself - I had no idea if I was poisoning everybody. Suffice to say, we didn’t become a popular café, but again, I didn’t care about the café…it was entirely an experiment to see if there was any interest left in CDs and local labels.

My favourite nights at Puppies are when nobody is there and nobody knows we are open. Usually once a week I’ll set-up and DJ after 12am on a weekday when the bar is normally closed. I’ll send the staff home and just DJ for a few hours, sometimes to nobody, but often a few people will wander in hearing the music from outside – I’ll then proceed to have these ridiculous intimate parties with small groups of people where we’ll party hard out for 2-3 hours. I never tell people when these are going to happen and love the organic nature of it. People know they’ve walked in on something strange and sometimes there is just an awkward look around and a hasty retreat (often my favourite response). Maybe they’ll walk in on me rapping, drumming along to R'n'B tracks or bouncing off the walls to my own solo techno party with lasers and smoke filling the room. I’m just having a good time, making use of having a bar with a kick ass PA, while loving the awkward nature of it all.

We’ve had countless killer bands play here and some amazing shows, but I’ve always been a fan of the ridiculous and the unpredictable and it reminds me of stumbling upon random parties in the forest during Camp and to me that is what makes Puppies different.

Puppies did things in a unique way compared to lot of venues. What were these things and how do you think Puppies benefitted from these?

There have been numerous things I’ve done that from a public perspective nobody will have noticed, but have been revolutionary, from very small things to massive philosophical changes. I intend to write about what worked and what didn’t after closing. However, one of the things we have become most known for and was something of paramount importance to me was our advertised and rigid playing times. I have a firm belief that one of the reasons that the music scene has been so dire recently (the main reason I will discuss soon) is that people have no more faith in going to shows anymore. It sucks going out to a show at 9pm and having no idea what time bands will start, and in Wellington it used to be not all that uncommon for a show to be advertised as doors opening at 9pm and bands would not start till super late - after going to three shows in a row at a Wellington bar that didn’t start till after 12, I swore to open a bar and fix that shit.

Bars don’t care because they like having people in the bar forced to drink, however, they are clueless to realise that it’s a short term gain only as people will stop coming out once burnt enough times. I tried to reverse the trend.

I was hoping more venues might start following suit, but it seems most are too weak to tell bands what to do, when funnily enough, I’ve found the bands to be nothing but supportive and they will, nine times out of ten, get on stage without me saying anything. Venues just need more balls really. It’s simply a matter of respecting your audience - how little do you respect your patrons if you won’t even inform them as to when things are happening? I’ve noticed more shows are publishing playing times, but they are still usually a “guide” and not run as tight as Puppies endeavour to.

How do you think Puppies and the closure of it will affect the live music landscape in Wellington?

It’s that same feeling everyone has at their day jobs “This place couldn’t survive without me! When I leave, this place is gonna be fucked!”, except you do leave and nobody bats an eyelid. In fact, the business probably becomes more efficient because there is one less self-important motherfucker working there.

We all like to feel special, but venues open and close all the time. People always shed a tear but shit carries on and you get forgotten. I’m under no delusions of grandeur here. I think people will miss being treated with respect and being informed about what was happening, but something choice will fill the gap I’m sure. House parties have always been the best anyway and I’ve tried to make Puppies feel like you’re at a party at somebody's house. Hopefully more DIY shows spring up in my place.

You've had an enormous amount of local acts come through Puppies in the last year. What are your thoughts on the state of local music? Any sounds or scenes that you can pick out as particularly exciting, in your opinion anyway?

The live music scene is the most dead it’s been in the 13 years I’ve been putting on shows in Wellington. Downloading is killing the music industry, though ironically it’s got nothing to do with the downloading of music, it’s that TV is now stupidly good. In the early 00’s nobody used to sit at home watching TV on a Friday night - what was there, Friends re-runs? Now my competition isn’t other venues or other live shows, its Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.

People only go out now when they KNOW they are going to enjoy the show, rather than to “see live music”. Shit's fucked. Worst thing is, I’m one of these idiots too. I’m a sucker for HBO, I love watching TV shows with stupid levels of production. If it wasn’t my job to put on these shows, I’d be among the zombies at home watching TV too.

There are many great bands out there as always, but hardly anybody can really get the momentum required to “take dat shit next level” on the live scene anymore. When I was promoting back in 04-06, I’d feel bummed if I couldn’t get 300+ out to a show with 3-4 good local bands. I’d be packing out venues with over 400 all the time. Shit, I’m just hoping for 80 these days, 150 if I’ve got a killer bill. If you've got an album release show and you sink as much money as you’re gonna bring in on an over the top poster campaign, maybe you’ll look at reaching 2006 levels, but yeah, you bust a gut on every show these days.

Some people are pretty bummed about it. I find it funny. I’ve always tried to refrain from being an “oh, the good ol’ days”. I like that we’re at this massive cultural precipice and everyone's so concerned about recorded music being devalued and the loss of CD sales, where to me that is not even an issue. People staying at home and not engaging in life is much more of a dangerous trend. Fuck Game of Thrones - yeah, I said it.

The bars that make it through this period will be the ones that realise they need to treat bands with respect and correctly, so they continue to come back. Thankfully, there are a few of these around, everyone else will die off and it will be fair enough too. Bands don’t need bars, they can play anywhere…houses, forests, warehouses, factories, tunnels (trademark Tauranga Music Sux) or wherever they want. When they realise this and bars realise they actually have to work “for bands”, then shit's gonna get really interesting.

You mention that you "have lots of ideas for events which the format of Camp doesn't allow me to experiment with?" Could you please elaborate on this?

Though the whole intention with Camp was to not do ANY marketing, promotion or any of that crap – I’ve actually grown to miss doing that. I just wanted to do something a little more conventional to exercise those demons, but not have to short-change Camp. I also wanted to have a project where I worked with other companies, sponsors, built a team. I like the idea of working with sponsors and various companies in the future with Square Wave, but doing it in the right way. I don’t like the idea of not trying something because I’m scared of it. I am sure sponsors can be utilised in a smart and considerate way without annoying/patronising your audience.

I really want to make city events more like Camp. I have notebooks full of ideas of how to make city festivals better.

“Showcase music festivals” really are terrible, though, working out why they are terrible and taking the elements of the format that aren’t and making it work is a big challenge to me and something I’m fascinated by.

Camp unbeknownst to me became the most vital “showcase” format event in NZ, I mean, as I type this, The All Seeing Hand are getting ready to head to Australia, on a tour booked by a crew who loved their performance at Camp earlier in the year, and one of the shows on that tour is in Hobart with a venue owner who was also at Camp and went home raving about it. Orchestra of Spheres are about to head off to Europe again in a month, trips kicked off by their invitation to ATP in 2011 by Caribou after seeing them at Camp. There are many more stories like this of relationships formed through Camp and without me ever creating a hideous industry back-slapping environment.

One small thing from Camp I’m introducing into Square Wave this year is an extension of the “renegade room” concept from Camp. I am having two “Open DI” nights, like “Open Mic” nights, but for electronic artists, where anybody can have a go and hear their work nice and loud.

Speaking of Camp, how are things progressing for the 2014 event? Is the line-up sorted? Any hints you care to give? Have you changed the Camp format at all for 2014?

I’m pretty damn excited about Camp this year. It’s the first time ever I’ve done one three times in a row at the same location. Whenever I’ve done it twice in a row, the second year has always been about fixing the mistakes from the first one and making things right. Last year was nailed. Everything ran well and went to plan and I was basically just making the vision I had in 2012 actually come to fruition. For the next event because of how well 2013 went, I’ve got the confidence to try out some ridiculous stuff.

I think the most important thing about Camp is that it needs to be a new experience for people every year. There are many people who have been to half or more of the Camps now - to honour their respect of the work I put in, I work my ass off to provide a new experience every time for them. 2014’s event to me is almost as big a change as from Camp to Campus. The ideas behind stage placement and the new areas I’m working on are crazy exciting and I think pretty revolutionary. One idea I’m working with I’m fairly confident may have never been attempted by an event before.

I want people to engage more with the site and each other and for there to be a bit more sensory overload, so have spent much time re-thinking the event from the ground-up. However, this is not to say the event will not be recognisable, that’s really just a bunch of rhetoric convincing myself of my continued need to be anal about everything, at the end of the day it’s a bunch of bands playing outside under the stars in the middle of nowhere to a bunch of people stoked to be part of something like nothing else in the world.

Is there anything new we can expect from this year's event, or more reason for people to get out there and buy tickets?

I stopped trying to hard-sell Camp to people years ago. I believe the only way to work out if you want to go or not is to talk to people who have been before, watch the videos, read about people's experiences. On a personal note, I’m excited because I probably have the most diverse and biggest international bill scheduled that I’ve ever had, including an Australasian exclusive show by the US band responsible for the best live show I’ve seen in years and that’s JUST the international guests - my draft of NZ and Australian acts is phenomenal. I’m still honing that at the moment, but it’s ridiculous. At the end of the day though, fuck the bands, if hanging out surrounded by thousands of hectares of native bush and having freedom to go crazy, eat and drink what you want, sleep under a tree, party with friends, swim, dance, play a gig, DJ a party, get busy or maybe watch some bands doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, you’re crazy.