Last February, at the last Camp A Low Hum ever, Ian Jorgensen, who goes by the alias “Blink”, woke up to muddy, sodden grounds and the faces of some festival-goers who were clearly not having a good time. “I’m not proud,” he wrote after the event finished, “but at that moment I threw my head back and wept.” The festival he’d painstakingly created in 2007 and curated every year since—and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say he did this single-handedly—was at serious risk of ending not with a bang but a saturated whimper. Stages had to be closed. Gigs were pulled on account of rain. Artists pulled out, retreating to the warm aridity of nearby hotels. It was damn-near disasteradious.
His tears, fortunately, were premature. Concertgoers rallied and ended up having a great time, and the legacy of Camp was upheld. But it felt like a definitive end to the festival. Rumours that he’d booked out the Wainuiomata campgrounds for the next two years, circulated by devotees (“he wouldn’t cancel on us!”) and detractors (“classic bloody Blink, it’s been the last Camp for three fuckin’ years now”) alike, lost their credence. Even aside from logistics, and Blink’s unwavering belief in putting projects to rest once they’d reached their apex, who was to say he’d have the energy, the passion?
About half a year later Blink shut down his bar Puppies, a quintessentially brief Wellington institution, for good. In the man’s own words, “those last few months were fucking great, but I felt like I was just going through the motions for a while there,” and while the closing weekend was a “rager” befitting the electronic grooves the venue focussed on, the doors closed without any word from Blink on any future project. The double-whammy of CALH and Puppies’ closure, along with Blink finally completing a book he’d been itching to write for a looooong time (The Problem with New Zealand Music, How to Fix it, and Why I Started Puppies for those who want to commit to further research), had an aura of finality about it. Blink’s tenure as tastemaker and NZ music impresario seemed over.
However, the hopes of his acolytes and the fears of his h8rs were proved correct. The man just couldn’t stay away. He made his re-entrance in a slightly subdued fashion with a small New Year’s Eve festival in Ohakune, a sort of Camp-lite, and now he’s back with a bolder scheme than ever: a two-pronged document of New Zealand music. He has curated A Low Hum: A Movement, a set of shows in different locations within a line-up of bands he either likes or mentored, but the really novel piece is his 10-volume collection of photographs (all taken by him) that spans his entire involvement with the New Zealand music history.
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“I had this idea back in, like, 2002, when I was on tour with The Mint Chicks, that I’d release a collection of some of the photos I’d taken,” Blink told me. The setting was his flat, and I was interviewing him over tea. Blink was nervous about the quality of the beverage—“I actually only Googled how to make tea a couple of weeks ago. It was one of those things I’ve been meaning to do for ages but haven’t had time. [It turns out] you’re meant to pour the milk in first? Anyway, I hope it’s alright”; I was nervous that the (in)famously garrulous man would find me tedious. It turned out neither of us had anything to worry about. The tea, FWIW, was superb, and I can honestly say that he was the most accommodating interviewee I’ve ever had.
A couple of things about Blink’s flat I thought were illustrative of the man in question. Blink’s love of things both “high” and “low” culture—the man has equal regard for 8 Foot Sativa and The Dead C, for example—manifested itself in a kitsch Elvis poster that loomed over the hallway, adjacent to a framed picture of Frida Kahlo and a replica of a Egon Schiele piece. I also noted how sparse it was with interest. There were no CDs, few books, mementos or trinkets; when I asked why, Blink explained that mostly everything was in storage because “we [he and his partner] don’t know how long we’ll be here… maybe a couple of months.” The impression of transience was fitting for a man who has flung himself into projects only to abandon them before they reach fruition, who seems to live professionally in a state of constant flux.
A word on Blink, too, that might help you orient yourself when it comes to his persona: in person, the man is larger than life. Not in a literal way—although he is one of those people who seems to take up more space than he actually does—but his manner commands a sort of attention. His knowledge of New Zealand music is encyclopedic. I’m not surprised that he is polarising figure who attracts defenders and critics in equal measure. He answers questions effusively and at length or, as he puts it, “I answer more than one question at a time.” But for all the digressions, tangents and verbal parentheses, I found him weirdly measured.
This is perhaps unsurprising considering how long he has had to consider the state of New Zealand music. Blink, then an aspiring gig photographer, got his break when he asked Shihad if he could shoot some pictures backstage. The band warmed to him immediately and invited him to be their gig photographer. “Back in 1999, once you’d photographed Shihad, y’know, you’ve made it! No-one is going to turn you down.” Based on this credential, access to bands was given without fuss or hassle. “I’m like the reverse Drake! Started from the top now I’m here,” Blink laughs, “…at the bottom.” Does he retain soft spot for Shihad these days? “Churn and Killjoy were huge for me… I listened to them recently, actually, and you know what? They’re still fucking great rock albums. I tried to get them involved in A Low Hum: A Movement actually, but they were too expensive.”
From these unlikely roots grew Blink’s passion for New Zealand music and his desire to nurture bands he liked. He went on tour with the then up-and-coming young recalcitrants, The Mint Chicks, fondly remembering their first Wellington show: “yeah, people hated The Mint Chicks. All these people from Wellington, they’re quite territorial… we have massive tall poppy [syndrome] here in New Zealand and ‘specially in Wellington, and The Mint Chicks were getting acclaim from overseas before they played a show in Wellington, so you can imagine… people were like ‘who do these posers think they are?’ It was considered bad form.”
It was on tour with The Mint Chicks that the idea of released a book of his photography first started percolating. So this is a project that’s been literally years in the making? “Yeah! … although I didn’t see it as a ten volume project back then.” The project has expanded alongside Blink’s experience. He toured with Die! Die! Die! and remains proud of them being one of the “few bands to survive after they all finished uni… I think they’re on hiatus now, in that Dunedin Sound way, but I don’t think Andrew and Michael will ever stop making music together.” They have quite an overseas following now don’t they? “They were one of the few to make it big overseas as well… the thing that’s great about New Zealand bands is that by the time they go overseas they’re really tight music-wise, no sloppiness.”
He toured Conan when he performed under his “and the Moccasins” moniker. He began a tradition of going to Australia for a few weeks every year to scope out new talent, finding amongst others Bear Gryllz and No Art (“I love that their riffs are so simple… but so effective”). He organised or supported tours from countless overseas acts, though his focus has always been nurturing local talent—one example of which, Disasteradio, he even took overseas.
The wealth of experience Blink has accumulated has resulted in the ten-volume tome, handily designated into sections: The Mint Chicks and Indie; The Datsuns and Garage Rock; Internationals; Betchadupa and Good Pop. Wait, what? The Datsuns? Garage Rock? “One of the reasons I don’t announce line-ups is because when I did one gig, back in 2006, there was lots of Garage Rock on the line-up, which was considered ‘lame’, and no-one showed up.” This ties into Blink’s critique of the parochialism of New Zealand music aficionados: “I didn’t want people going to Camp to see a certain act, I wanted people to hear some sweet music they might not have wanted to see otherwise. Don’t like metal? Give Beastwars a chance! Think you don’t like Garage Rock? Try seeing, you know, The Checks live.”
Long gone are the days of reppin’ The D4, however. While he ran Puppies, there was one individual and one collective Blink fostered ahead of all others: Eddie Johnson and Kerosene Comic Book, commonly abbreviated to KCB. Eddie Johnson’s current carnation, Race Banyon, has met with astonishing success complete with shout-outs from Ryan Hemsworth, and he played at Puppies frequently.
I remember seeing Johnson in 2011 opening for a (vastly under-rated) Kiwi band named Brains (Blink gave a grin of recognition; v. edifying). While the tunes were sound, his stage presence was not. To give him his due, he was, like, 14 at the time, but when he asked “can I leave now?” after every song and played with his face averted, it was a bit excruciating. Earlier this year he played an antithetical set at Laneways. He was confident, bopping, enthused, and though his reading of the crowds mood wasn’t perfect, it was still a damn cool performance. How much does Blink credit himself for this transformation?
“Yeah, Eddie’s interesting. His side-project as well, now it’s not rock and more pared-back, minimal covers. When I first started Puppies, Eddie didn’t dance or face the crowd. He ended up headlining a show just before The End of Puppies. I remember we did his EP release in our back room, after taking a long time persuading him… it’s the first time I saw him dance. What an incredible show. There was sweat dripping from the ceiling.”
It is the Kerosene Comic Book club that has probably earned him more ire. A common critique of Puppies—and thus Blink—is that it focussed on a narrow subset of electronic music to the exclusion of other, arguably more deserving, artists. One aggrieved person commented on the Salient website that “Blink has been a large part of the problem of cultivating narrow music taste in NZ for a long time now, and the particular brand of ‘electronic music’ you seem to be gushing about is more often than not a straightforward switch out of guitars for laptops—the mentality is exactly the same. New Zealand has a really long, really interesting history of electronic audio production and consumption, in comparison Blink’s wares are pretty much at the same level as Fly My Pretties.”
Essentially, the Kerosene Comic Book club is comprised of what I term the “white guys with Macbooks” subset of electronic, which is fine if you’re in the mood and dreadful if you’re not and whose use of (post-)ironic airhorns and frequent refrains of “thank you based god” veered towards the actively offensive. There is also the juxtaposition between Blink’s accusation that New Zealand music consumers don’t explore new things and Puppies’ perceived inability to branch out from a very niche style, leaving some listeners and many electroacoustic/noise musicians—and even some minimal techno ones—a bit miffed.
I put the question to Blink, and he answered thoughtfully: “I mean, I didn’t dislike a lot of the music that you’re talking about. I even used to open Puppies on Wednesdays, do an open-mic night kind of thing to try and find new music, and I reckon I lost heaps of money doing it. But a lot of it just wasn’t right for the space. Even Lontalius… I mean Puppies is an abandoned warehouse, right? Of course I’m going to play stuff that you can dance to; no matter how much I liked some stuff, I just couldn’t put it on.” Not that he dislikes Kerosene Comic Book by any stretch. “Take Reuben, who does this amazing electronic act [Totems], and Caroles, which is a rock band, and he has the talent and freedom to do both… Caroles could be huge. I know it.”
Another issue is unconducive venues. Blink, as he makes exceedingly clear in his book, is not a fan of bars. Though not sanctimonious, he did take swipes at the alcohol industry’s domination of Kiwi music (Ghost Wave are sponsored by Becks despite the fact one member, Joe, doesn’t drink and has previously spoken out against alcohol; Homegrown is sponsored by Jim Beam) and bars are part and parcel of that, fostering crowds that are less receptive to the music and more receptive to inebriation.
There are problems in terms of acoustics and dynamics as well—“who wants to play a show where people are chatting loudly in the background”—and he did not think Puppies was an appropriate venue for a lot of his acts. “Like Lontalius—put them in a gallery.” Rebuttal: Mount Eerie played one of the best shows I’ve seen at Puppies. “Yeah, it was OK. Could have been much better, if it was out in the woods or something… or someone’s living room! Imagine how great that would have been. We [New Zealand] need more house shows man.”
Sometimes, however, not even venues are enough. Blink showed me the Demo of a nice wee post-rock-cum-country outfit which I like a lot. “I’ve tried to give them exposure, I’ve tried to get Jakob to let them open for them… I even emailed Eddie, asked what he thought, and he said he knew about five people who would listen to them,” he laments with an accompanying head-shake. The flip-side though is they might get their day soon enough. Blink prophesies that emo is due for a resurgence. “That new Carb on Carb album… I was listening to it, and I was thinking, dude, this is emo!”
People forget, I think, that through Blink’s force and influence—and sheer individualistic bloody-mindedness—he becomes synonymous with an institution, a kind of charitable establishment that should invest time in helping everyone and doing everything right. He is, despite the many sleepless nights and countless hours of work, just one dude, wanting to nourish the music he likes and try to improve New Zealand music in a way he thinks advantageous.
Blink is forthright about his motivations. “When I first came up with the photography idea, I did it for me… because I wanted to.” This sums up his entire modus operandi: he does things that he wants to do, and if other people want to come along for the ride all the better. He does not claim moral authority or selflessness and, love him or hate him, there’s no denying the influence he’s had on New Zealand music, in terms of both artists (no Blink, no So So Modern) and the surrounding culture. Blink’s laudable demand that people pay $10 on the door to see gigs, and not the previously customary $5, is gaining traction in venues throughout Wellington and Dunedin, doubling the amount of financial support given to gigging artists. The compilation of photography will hopefully offer artists posterity and cement their importance; it’s hard to find something errant or misguided in that.
I put it to Blink that his career has been marked by both freneticism and completism. He agrees: “when I think a project is done, it’s done. Camp could’ve ended two years before it did, but I didn’t want to screw people over, and Puppies was always a two-year project and if they don’t think it was successful look at Wellington music now. Look at Eddie.” But he’s always on the lookout for new projects—the photography, the book, new bands to listen to and support.
Has living this kind of life taken its toll? “Absolutely. I mean, part of the reason why I stopped Camp was because I literally couldn’t stop thinking about. I’d wake up and stress about the line-up, I’d go to sleep thinking about it. By the time I closed Puppies for good? I needed a break. Opening only on weekends made it easier, but I was burnt-out.”
So what’s on the horizon then? Blink is unsure, but there is one thing he expresses a desire for. It’s stability. “I want to try and force myself to work on a nine-to-five schedule, to go home and watch a series of The Wire once I finish work.” Watch this space, but don’t ogle too hard. After fifteen-plus years, the dude deserves a break; the only question is whether he’ll impose another challenge on himself, or rather when.
The most poignant moment of our interview occurred when Blink betrayed a little bit of selflessness. “I want these books [of photographs] to end up in libraries, or in parents’ book collections, and when kids starting getting into The Mint Chicks or Die! Die! Die! or whatever, they’ll wonder who these other bands in the scene were, who The Coolies were, or who Batrider were. The cool thing about the internet, being post-internet, is that everyone’s music is out there… you just to know who to look for.”
A worthwhile endeavour, I thought, and said so. “Thanks. New Zealand has some fucking cool music,” he responded, and for the first time in the interview he drifted away a little bit, perhaps thinking of that night at Puppies where Race Banyon debuted his EP to deserving recognition, when the crowd was all joyful shouts and camaraderie, sweat dripping down the walls and bodies grooving and gyrating, an ear-to-ear grin that didn’t leave Blink’s face the entire night.
HONOUR ROLL (i.e. New Zealand Bands Blink expressed a particular fondness for)
Shihad, Blindspott (great to photograph), 8 Foot Sativa, The Dead C, Yellow Swans (not NZ but one of the best gigs Blink has been to), Batrider, Sarah Mary Chadwick (opened for Mount Eerie, SO GOOD), Connan Mockasin, The Mint Chicks, Die! Die! Die!, Jakob, So So Modern, Coolies, The Accelerants, Ejector, Betchadupa, Goodshirt, Disasteradio, The Shocking Pinks, Jakob, Totems, Caroles, Mermaidens, Lontalius, Cheats, The Checks, The D4, The Datsuns, The Chills, The 3Ds, The Clean, Tall Dwarfs, Ghostplane, The Sneaks and—of course—Race Banyon.