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A series of house parties became a Cuba Street nightclub, and this year steps out for the first time as 121 Festival, a three-day music event.
Melody Thomas speaks with 121 founders Olly de Salis, 23, and Cameron Morris, 24, about their journey so far.
The story of 121 is, in many ways, a familiar one. A couple of friends fall in love with dance music and search for the underground raves and secret warehouse parties that foster exactly this vibe. When they can’t find any, they decide to make their own. The reason it’s familiar is that something very like it has happened here before.
In the 90s and into the early 2000s, New Zealand bore witness to the birth of a dance scene that was unlike anything we’d seen till then. In clubs, old warehouses and middle-of-nowhere fields all around the country, stages were erected and massive subs wheeled in. As the sun went down, these spaces filled with (mostly) young people with a proclivity to dance in a pulsing throng of thousands. There were lasers and black lights, glow sticks and fire poi. There was inevitably a thudding bass that seemed to reverberate in the very core of your soul. Alcohol took a back seat to substances that made you more likely to still be dancing at sun-up, to make a best friend in the line to the toilet, and cradle a tender jaw for a couple of days following.
It was a beautiful scene, but like all scenes it peaked then receded, so by the time 121 was formed, its founders felt very much as if they were “sculpting and moulding a scene from scratch.”
121 began in 2015. De Salis was 18 years old, studying fine arts at university, when his parents set off to Europe for six months and, perhaps naively, left him in their house. Keen to celebrate the end of the school year (and, as he tells it, make some mates), De Salis organised a massive multi-media party at his parents’ house, featuring more than 20 artists, painters, photographers, and musicians. The party went off so naturally De Salis organised more, and his parent’s house became a thriving hub for like-minded people to “hang out, create, and party” (think Andy Warhol’s Factory, but in a family home on the side of a hill in Wadestown). “We had no rules or regulations to follow and made the most of the creative freedom,” laughs De Salis.
De Salis did make friends, including his future business-partner Cameron Morris, whose band headlined one of the parties. The pair bonded over their shared love of “curating parties and social gatherings”, and Morris introduced De Salis to house music. They parted ways for a bit – Morris to Sydney to expand his musical horizons while De Salis kept up the 121 parties in Wellington – but they continued to swap house beats, and eventually Morris moved home to officially get on board the 121 train.
By this point, De Salis’ parents had returned and regained possession of their house (complete with a fresh lick of paint), but the pair continued to host one-off events together. Then in 2017, Tim Ward, San Francisco co-owner and soon-to-be 121 business partner, offered them a club space on Cuba Street, where Good Luck bar used to be. Soon after, Club 121 was born.
For two years, Club 121 was the place to go if you wanted to dance in a “smokey basement rave cave with raw edges, a high quality soundsystem, an impeccable roster of DJs, jet black walls, and tons of vibes.” De Salis and Morris continued with their one-off parties, selling out a warehouse rave with Fat Freddy’s Drop and a couple of others in the surprising setting of DIY sculpture-garden-mini-golf-course Carlucci Land.
But it wasn’t all easy – the day to day of managing a club proved a steep learning curve for the boys and, a year in, Club 121 suffered that same frustrating fate of many inner-city music venues: somebody moved in upstairs and decided they didn’t like the noise.
“They were constantly complaining and harassing. We had little support from the council and felt our creative expression was being squashed by this uptight upper-class resident who purchased an apartment above a pre-existing night club, whose goal was to squash us to the point of leaving,” says Morris.
When it was revealed that the space needed earthquake strengthening, the 121 team decided to cut their losses and move out. “The closing weekend was bittersweet. We were so sad about leaving, but it was also one of those ‘take a step back and realised what you’ve achieved’ moments,” says De Salis.
The future of 121 looks bright. This month, the inaugural multi-day 121 Festival kicks off in Tauherenikau, near Featherston, and is on track to sell upwards of 4,500 tickets. As well as a bunch of exciting international dance music producers and DJs like Richie Hawtin, Nina Kraviz, The Black Madonna, and Ben UFO, the festival will host local festival staples The Black Seeds and Trinity Roots.
They’re also dead keen on getting back into another regular club space where, just like always, anyone and everyone can enjoy the “fully immersive multi-sensory experience” of a 121 event. “Dance music has no prejudice on age, race, gender,” says De Salis. “It’s an all-inclusive space where anybody and everybody can dance and have fun.”
Morris agrees: “The music and art is the main focus of our events, and we regularly see it breaking down any boundaries people may think they have between each other. There’s only one rule, no f*ckwits.”
Consider yourself told.
121 Festival, Tauherenikau was held 13–15March 2020