Ben Howe
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Travel, videos and music written, filmed and photographed by Ben Howe.

Newtown Festival, Wellington, New Zealand: Bands, photos & 35mm Film

Last week I attended the Newtown Festival in the suburb of the same name, in Wellington, New Zealand. It was the first time I had attended, being a recent immigrant to the capital city. 

Newtown, Wellington

Newtown is an old central area, partially, but not entirely, gentrified. It is located in a sunny valley. Many houses are old wooden villas, some looking a bit rough, others fresh and brightly painted. The shopping centre, quiet during the week, is a mix of new, old with a multicultural vibe. I live higher up the hill in nearby Brooklyn, but I’d happily be down in Newtown. It’s a bit more gritty. It has good second-hand book and record shops.

Newtown Festival - Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film

I’d heard of the Newtown Festival because of the bands that had played there over the years; The Courtneys, Mermaidens and others I know and work with. From the occasional photos, I’d seen the festival looked part Notting Hill Carnival, part music festival; hazy urban sunshine mixed with Wellington thespianism. 

Music and Bands at the Newtown Festival

This year there were a lot of good bands to see. Wax Chattels of course - plus a cast that included friends, friends of friends, associates; indi, Earth Tongue, Onono, All Seeing Hand, The Beths, Carb on Carb and a whole lot more. 

I took along a couple of cameras, shot some 35mm film on my Nikon FE2.  There were a lot of interesting people - great for street photography. I was glad I’d taken colour film (Ektar 100). I also filmed a bit of random footage - bands and people wandering around. You can see the video here:

Attending the festival got me thinking about some of the differences between Auckland, (NZ’s biggest city, my hometown and from where I have just moved) and Wellington. Mostly the differences I was thinking about were in the music environment. And related, the differences in the attention music in each city gets.

Auckland is more prominent and louder; home to the music industry. Most of the NZ media is also based there. Auckland is a more mainstream city and gets all the attention. Wellington, in contrast, is more experimental, leftfield. Often it’s music doesn’t enter the national awareness. 

In theory, I already knew this. But I hadn’t noticed how it works.

Newtown Festival - Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film

The Newtown Festival is big. Apparently, 80,000 people go. This year more than 100 bands were playing on about 12 stages, not to mention hundreds of stalls, entertainers and improvised children’s playgrounds spread across kilometres of closed streets. Pretty much every specialist interest was represented here, from shooting bow and arrows at guys dressed as medieval knights, to radical left-wing political advocates. Anything weird and wacky goes - including the music. People come in their droves to get involved. 

One of the reasons they come is because the music is (mostly) outstanding. All Seeing Hand performed on the back of a suitably grubby truck, Earth Tongue blasted out intergalactic psyche-rock from a carnivalesque caravan, Wax Chattels and the Beths played big rock shows, other known and unknown dirty punk bands, violinists and more just set up in front of (the excellent) Death Ray Records and Ladi6 got the big stage hopping. Anything that wasn’t so good was at least entertaining - community trumpet bands, experimental DJ’s and other freaky stuff.

Newtown Festival. Nikon FE2, Nikkor 20mm f3.5. Ektar 100 35mm film

On the same weekend as the Newtown festival, further north, was the Auckland City Limits music festival. A more standard music event, headlined by Grace Jones, Phoenix and Beck, it was apparently attended by 20,000 people - about a quarter of the Newtown festival.

Auckland City Limits looked like a fun day, and its story was everywhere. The next day, at home, surfing the news websites, social media and elsewhere you would think it was the only music event happening over the weekend. There were multiple stories about how great Grace Jones was, but how All Black Dan Carter ruined the end of her performance, the beer was discussed, scheduling issues and more. My social media feeds were full of it.

In contrast, if I hadn’t gone myself, I wouldn’t have even known the Newtown Festival had taken place. It was like a phantom festival. Plenty of buzz when you were there, but zero in the media or from music tastemakers afterwards.

Newtown Festival. Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film.

Admittedly,  there are many differences between these events. One is a paying ticket event with international bands/acts and the other being a free event with mostly underground local groups. There are other factors; perhaps I have more cool industry facebook friends from Auckland posting stuff, maybe the PR team at Auckland City Limits are real pro’s? (yep, they are). Possibly Newtown Festival doesn’t need the publicity? 

I’m sure it’s no conspiracy, but the difference in attention was marked. One much larger music event, which has been going for 20 years, attended by apparently 80,000 people, all local performers, goes mostly unnoticed by anyone who wasn’t there. Another music event, attended by a quarter the people (20,000), a mix of international and local acts, eats up all the attention (both good and bad). One in Wellington, the other in Auckland.

I’m not sure if this discrepancy is a good or a bad thing, but it exists.

I now have sympathy for those non-Auckland creatives who feel aggrieved they have to work extra hard and have twice the talent to get noticed. But I also like the fact that this city just gets on with it and does interesting shit. No need for the hype and bluster. As they say, the coolest people don’t know it.  

Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 20mm f3.5, Ektar 100 35mm film

Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film

Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film

Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film

Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 20mm f3.5, Ektar 100 35mm film

Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 20mm f3.5, Ektar 100 35mm film

Wax Chattels, Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 20mm f3.5, Ektar 100 35mm film

Wax Chattels, Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film

Wax Chattels, Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film

All Seeing Hand, Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film

Newtown Festival, Nikon FE2, Nikkor 85mm f2, Ektar 100 35mm film