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#communityvibes in the middle of nowhere

Friday 22nd December 2017

We get the lowdown on the A Gathering in the Forest festival from organiser Joel Cosgrove.


The crowd at the first A Gathering in the Forest.
The crowd at the first A Gathering in the Forest.

Photo: Supplied

Indie festival A Gathering in the Forest is back for a second year, happening over Waitangi Weekend in the hinterlands of Whanganui. One of the organisers, Joel Cosgrove, shares how the festival came to be in that little slice of paradise. 

Tell me a bit about the festival, the ideas behind it.

A Gathering in the Forest, we did it for the first time this year. A whole bunch of us had been involved to varying extents with Camp A Low Hum and with Chronophonium, which happened up north. Camp being a more Wellington thing, and Chrony being a more Auckland thing, and they both wound down within a year or two of each other. 

A whole bunch of us were at the last Chrony, and we were like, "Damn, what's happening next year?" and sort of like, "Oh, I guess we'd have to do it." It's always sort of that, a bazillion and one people are like, "Oh yeah, we'll do our own sort of festival thing. That would be cool."

But it's all the site. If you sort yourself out the site, then everything sort of flows from there.                  

We found a really beautiful site, just a bit of empty isolated farmland about 50km in from Whanganui. There's no cellphone reception. There's no internet. It's about a 30km drive to get to reception. It's kind of beautiful in that sense, but also, it's just a beautiful little corner of New Zealand.

You mentioned Camp A Low Hum, which ended several years ago. Do you think it's a similar type of vibe and similar people that came to the festival?

Broadly, I guess, yeah. Obviously, it's indie music, and it's one of those things that like ... It's hard to say. It's interesting because there's a lot of people who actually haven't been to one, been to a Camp A Low Hum. I know [CALH organiser] Ian [Jorgensen] put on his New Year's last year, which wasn't Camp A Low Hum. He's really particular about these sorts of things. Yeah, totally. It's good vibes. It's like a chill event. There's some overlap with Camp, but there are also points of difference, things we do a little differently. That's just what happens.

Music, friends and nature at A Gathering in the Forest.
Music, friends and nature at A Gathering in the Forest.

Photo: Supplied

Yeah, definitely. What do you remember most about the festival this year?

What do I remember most? Just trying to find time to have a swim, rushing about, making sure things were happening. I realised that we brought toilet paper and that no one was putting it out. Then during sound, I was really rushed, we've got more people on board, and most of the peeps involved hadn't organised a festival before.

A lot of people were going into it with an idea of what it will be like, what [they] imagined organising a festival would involve, whereas this year, everyone's like hardened veterans, and it's like bang, bang, bang. Floating about, just keeping an eye on things, juggling way too many jobs

What do you think was the most rewarding part of the festival?

Just the good vibes, people having a good time. It's like hosting anything. You're successful when everything just works and works well and things don't ... sort of like sussing it, leaving everyone happy with it, and just building a team. One of those things when you do something like that, it's like a life experience.

I don't want to get too new agey and shit, but everyone gets closer from having done that sort of thing. Everyone's rushing around trying to sort stuff out. There's a tight crew, and memories and experiences of just having the best time, but also helping other people, facilitating other people having a good time, that's a real good feeling.

Is the festival going to be in the same location this year as last year?

Yeah, as much as possible. From what I've seen from Chrony and from Camp is that, the first time you go to a place, the first time you put on an event at a location, you're sort of figuring it out. You're sort of getting a feel for, literally, the lay of the land, how slopes work, where you need steps and stuff, how people move in a space.

Trying to find a place is like 80 percent, 90 percent of a festival. You listen to Campbell Smith who does Big Day Out and Auckland City Limits. He says the same shit. It's finding that space. Everything else then flows from there because we've got the size of the fest, we're not going to get much bigger than we were last year, maybe an extra hundred people.

That's dictated by the space. It can fit so many people. You can do so many things. That's really fun in the sense of the greater you know the space, the more options it opens up to you, and the more it shapes what you can do.

I saw that the Wanganui Chronicle tried to get you to tell them where the secret location was.

That was really weird. 

The Wanganui Chronicle headline was like, "New Festival Setting Up in Mysterious Location" or whatever. But the Herald one was like, "Festival Organisers Refuse to Reveal Their Location," and made it seem real edgy and confrontational. I don't know why we kept it a secret. It's kind of ... I don't know.

I mean, if you want to tell me ...

I mean, it's in Mangamahu. It's in the middle of nowhere. It's not like a secret. Four hundred people came to it last year.

Yeah, so I guess 400 people now know where it is.

I like the idea of it. I don't know why we keep it a secret now, but we do.

I guess in a way, for the first year, it totally worked. The keeping it a secret thing worked for the vibe. But, I guess as years go by ...

People just accept that as being just part and parcel of whatever.

There are a lot of festivals over summer, obviously. What do you think makes A Gathering in the Forest different?

The smallness. What I've really learned and what I've had fed back as well, from working at fests and being involved in them, is there's a community aspect you get when you have 600 or less people. That's the limit where you can't recognise everyone. Below that, you can kind of recognise everyone on site.

You're like, "Oh, there goes the lady with the brown dreads," or like "Here's, bleach blonde dude." You just recognise people. You don't necessarily know them or even talk to them. What you see in those spaces is above 700 and you sort of stop. You don't recognise everyone, and so everyone just merges into a crowd a bit more.

I think also in terms of our music, there's a bit of a niche for that in terms of indie New Zealand music. You'll either have your big festivals, your Auckland City Limits, Laneways, or whatever or your crazy psytrance top of the South Island brain-melting fests.

We're sort of doing our own thing. Pretty much that sort of temporary community aspect of it. Intimate, I guess the intimacy of the fest would be the point of difference. Location, it really is about tenting, camping.

The lack of cell phone internet reception, it's really funny watching people adjust to that for the first few minutes of arriving on site and being like, "What the fuck do I do?" waiting for the brains to start processing in a different way. The intimacy, location.

How do you choose the lineup for the festival?

Our organising crew will just be like ... We had this earlier in the year just a big round table, "Who do people like? Who are people digging right now?" Then you just have arguments and stuff, and you get a list of names. How we did it initially, so, we had a list of names of indie bands people were suggesting. We went through from there what are the bands we really want, what are the most favourite bands, what are the bands people are most passionate about. So then, working through from there, finding what are the core bands we want to see are and then that wider net.

I think we had about 50 or so bands...There's heaps of bands who want to play. On a scale of easiness, the easiest thing to find is bands, the second is volunteers, and way past that is ticket sales. There's peeps keen to play, but then we had this band Quivers from Australia. They got in contact being like, "Yo, we want to play." I was just like, "OK."

Awesome. How many people do you reckon played a part in next year's festival or will play a part?

We're going to have 18 people working on the door, on the gate. You have three days, and the gate will be open from 11 to about 11, so that's 12 hours. You really need three people for each shift, two people to be looking up the names and one person to keep an eye on traffic, making sure people are parking where they're meant to. That's three people, and each shift is three hours. We ask for people who are volunteering about six hours of their time. Tickets are about 130 bucks. If you divide that by about 20 bucks, that's six hours of work gets you entry. Three times three, times two ... 6, 2, 12 ... I don't know, lots.

A lot of people.

You get to 18. That's just for the door. Eight people just keeping an eye on rubbish and recycling. Last year, we did epically in terms of minimising that. That's a big focus for us because it means we have to chuck out less, less work for us. It's like the ego side of sustainability. But, it's also that carbon footprint side of things. We're trying to be as environmentally friendly as we can with what we do and how we do it. You'll be looking at 40-odd volunteers, crew members and 120 people playing, all up. The numbers all sort of rattle off from there. It takes a family to raise a festival.

You can even bring your dog. A Gathering in the Forest
You can even bring your dog.

Photo: Supplied

I love that. What are your hopes for next year's festival?

The lineup is pretty awesome. It's one of the fun things. It's just being excited. We've got a decent variety, and it's always fun to come back and reflect on it and improve on. But, a real good variety of stuff and there's bands peeps know like Eyeliner is one of our ones we're just announcing now. Totems, Eyeliner, Earth Tongue, there's various bands along those lines that are just ... Miss June. They're awesome bands. People know them. They're going to be sweet.        

Then there's other bands like Hot Drugs and stuff who hardly anyone's seen. I think they're playing their second gig on the weekend. They're awesome. They're sort of real, crowd rocking, lounge music, just real dancey shit. It's weird and cool. They've got a horn section, keyboard player, and then a real sweet rhythm section. That's going to be really weird. It's really just putting on that.                       

We've got my friend George. I saw him in the street, and he was like, "Hey, I'm a certified relaxation massage therapist." He was like, "Could I do that at The Gathering?" I was like, "Hell, yeah. Of course, you can," and was just like, "Well, what do you need?" He's like, "I just need a space to set up." I was like, "Totally. What are you going to charge?" He was like, "A dollar a minute," and I was like, "Cool. Sweet."

Do you have many other activities like that planned?

My little sister and the drummer in my band are running Magic the Gathering tent. There's going to be a real ruthless knuckle bones competitions. I really just want to get everyone circling around it, real intense sort of NBA final atmosphere and stuff. Apparently, someone might be doing yoga lessons or something. I don't know.            

My sort of delegation style is to make sure that the core stuff happens, like we want our long drops working. We want the stage happening. We want power. We want the PA. The food that we've said we're going to sell, like coffee's really important, I want that stuff there. That stuff will be there, and everything else it's like, "Sweet. You want to make that happen? Cool, keep in touch. Let's keep talking and then see if it happens." 

Last year, we had three food trucks not show up, and we said, "Yo, don't rely on this, but this will be here." Then they weren't there, and we're like, oh, yeah, what do we do about that? We just chucked some money in from the festival, a couple hundred bucks or whatever, and then collect-

So everyone chucked in some money?

Yeah, we're just like, "OK, let's make some food happen." Then we sent one of the vans down to PAk'nSAVE or wherever in Whanganui and then just got some hash browns, some bread, some tomatoes and stuff, and then just gave out free sandwiches. We had food made for the artists and the crew. This year, we're like, "Stuff it, we'll do it ourselves." So Lucky Jim's with Lucky Bar, they're making food for the bands and the crew.

We've also said, "Hey, 30 bucks, we'll give you three simple breakfasts and three simple dinners. It won't be flash, but it will be tasty as hell," which it was last year. I think we spent 75 cents per person per meal, and we each ended up having some really good dahl. This year, we increased the budget for that, but also peeps were chucking in, paying 30 bucks, and you get some hot food without having had to do anything about it.

Awesome. Well, it sounds like an amazing festival.

It's not like we sat down, we're like, "We want a really chill relaxing festival with really good vibes," but you get a small one with a relatively small group, a couple hundred people and stuff, and I think one of the things we really emphasised when we're doing public announcements and stuff like that was that everyone there, this a temporary community and stuff, so everybody plays their part.

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Devon is studying journalism at the New Zealand Broadcasting School.
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