Strawberry Fields At Tocumwal Bushland

"Let me take you down / ‘cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields", sung Lennon fifty years ago. It's unlikely he could have imagined anything close to his song's modern-day namesake: a three-day electronic music festival set amongst verdant swamplands on the border of Victoria and New South Wales. Could any of us have imagined it? With four years in the running and this year's stellar international line-up spanning techno, psytrance, glitchy beats and everything in between, supported by a strong local contingent, it was always gonna be a hell of a party. So what kind of madness went down this year? Let's start from the top.

Held up in heavy traffic coming out of Melbourne, we arrived on site relatively late in the night. When we drove up to the first checkpoint we were met with a few friendly, excitable volunteers checking tickets. It's amazing how a warm reception to a festival can lift your spirits after a few hours on the highway. As we continued on through the thick dust, our path illuminated only by the periodic flashing of hazard lights, we felt... home!
When you arrive at a festival after dark and the music's already started, there's only one thing to do: ditch the car and head straight for the dancefloor. Campsite? Tent? Meh, that can wait. As we arrived at the mainstage, Baths was about to start. The LA-based beatsmith took to the stage in a singlet and shorts, looking almost like a local. He played a great set, messing with his already tweaked-out, complex beats and getting the crowd right into his groove.
Next up was Scott Hansen, better known as Tycho. The swampy, verdant surroundings seemed to be a perfect setting for his lush, vibe-drenched sound, and an expectant crowd had gathered reverently about the stage. Performing as a live band, with Hansen on keys supported by a bassist and drummer, Tycho were the highlight of the night. Set to a backdrop of projected visuals (of Hansen's own making; besides being a musician, he's also an accomplished graphic designer), the band led their rapt audience through an hour of mellifluously chilled-out beats and seamless visuals. Tracks from last year's Dive got quite an airing, as well as old favourites such as "Cloud Generator" and "Past is Prologue". Hansen finished up with some new songs, which were equally well received, and closed his set with a few heartfelt words of gratitude for his first-ever Australian tour.
After a relatively early night, I awoke early to explore the festival grounds. Lush, swampy wildlands, creaking with frogs and crickets, stretched out in every direction, and the Murray River was just a short walk away. Although the river was technically out of bands, many sun-addled punters enjoyed a dip in its slimy yet soothing waters before being told off, albeit rather politely, by festival security. In fact, special mention must go to all of the security personnel, who were refreshingly friendly without being lax in their duties.
With the exception of some new camping grounds, the main festival area was set up similarly to the year before: two stages, separated by a short walk across a grassy plain bordered by food stalls, a bar and the chill havens of Psy Bus Space Lounge and Holy Cow Chai Lounge.
Glancing at the program for Saturday, one couldn't help notice the enormous, four-hour block from late afternoon to evening on the mainstage. It was marked simply: JAMES HOLDEN. This was the reason a lot of people were here: a veritable wizard of prog with a set long enough to really delve deep into his extensive basket of tunes.
Backstage, minutes before his set, I was surprised to see Holden looking a shade nervous. He was wearing a long, plain white shirt and large boots. Short in stature, he gave the impression of a gifted pupil about to debut some kind of crazy experiment in science class. His fingers trembled ever so slightly as he lit a cigarette and returned my smile almost shyly. But when he mounted the stage, any trace of nerves soon vanished as he quickly eased into his groove.
Holden had the crowd from the word "go", dropping Daphni/Caribou's "Ye Ye" early on. The track's complex, rolling bassline sounded incredible through the immaculate Funktion One soundsystem of the mainstage. Playing his own material as well as plenty of tracks from his label Border Community, Holden took his spellbound audience through four hours of sonic storytelling. I was amazed by his ability to weave a narrative from strange, orphan tracks, combining them into a cohesive whole. There were more than a few delightful surprises through his set, including a New Order remix and a little-known Orbital b-side, but it all fitted perfectly into place in some sort of musical masterplan.
After Holden stepped down from the decks, leaving us dazzled and dazed in his wake, Melbourne jock Sheff mixed things up a bit with some fun, upbeat housey vibes. Wearing a cowboy hat and getting his shimmy on behind the decks, he segued the crowd out of genius-appreciation mode and into all-out-party mode.
Following Sheff's set, security and crew began building what appeared to be a makeshift catwalk directly in front of the stage. The hour had come for Fashion on the Fields! On sudden impulse, my friend and I rushed back to our campsite for a quick costume change. Rummaging through several duffel bags full of colourful jackets, fisherman's pants and assorted wigs, we quickly threw together some outrageous outfits and sprinted back to the stage, hooting with glee.
We found ourselves waiting backstage with an assortment of oddly- and excellently-dressed characters. Here — where I had spent much of the past day and a half meeting my dj heroes, schmoozing with the festival organisers and generally enjoying media perks — I found myself undoing any progress I had made in presenting myself as a respectable music journalist. Standing there with my friend, still sweating and panting from the run, with both of us dressed up like a pair of cosmic disco pirates, I felt my professional credibility slinking off into the swamp. Oh well — too late to back out now, I thought, as I leapt out onto the catwalk.
After fashion show was over and our dreams of stardom thoroughly crushed — the winner was a nubile lass wearing an elegant, glad-wrap-based outfit — we headed back into the crowd to mingle with the common, non-model folk. The rest of the night passed in a daze, with the bpms increasing as a series of mostly-local psytrance acts kept the Funktion-Ones booming until dawn and beyond.
And then it was Sunday — the last day of music for the weekend. And what a Sunday it was! For me, it's what happens in the daytime that makes these festivals special. You can rave all night anywhere, under the anonymity of blinding lights and lasers, and never exchange more than a glance with that girl dancing next to you, or that guy who keeps clapping his hands and yelling stuff. Sometimes, it's like everyone's dancing away in their own little bubbles. It gets a bit solipsistic. But in the light of day, you see those shadowy faces from the night before, illuminated and smiling this time. We're all in this together, you realise. Last night might have been the last night on earth, spent raving 'til the break of dawn, but today you wake up and it's all still here, the dancing and the doof and the dust.
All three of these things were provided in ample quantities by Israeli prog-psy purveyor Perfect Stranger. I've previously had the pleasure to interview Yuli Fershtat, as his mother calls him, and besides a wickedly talented dj and producer, he's also a really nice guy. He should be called Perfect Friend You Haven't Met Yet. His style of music is friendly, too: an amicable mix of psytrance, prog and just a little bit of cheese (but tasty cheese). Playing for two hours on the mainstage — after his earlier performance as more straight-up psytrance alias BLT — Fershtat rocked a killer live set composed of material from his new album, mixed in with old classic tracks like Stardust and W, and got the crowd moving and shaking in the heat and dust.
Right up afterwards was German prog favourite Neelix, who carried on the upbeat vibe with his tight, bassy grooves. Tracks like "Call Me" and "Open-Minded" really came alive on the Funktion-Ones. I'd listened to Neelix at home a bit and had been mildly impressed, but after hearing his live set I understood better what all the fuss was about. Ze Germans... how do they do it?
While on the subject of Germans, the time was fast approaching for Berlin-based duo Kollektiv Turmstrasse to take to the stage. Just like before Holden the day before, the anticipation on the dancefloor was palpable. Kollektiv have this certain thing about them. Even people who don't listen to techno like them; it's impossible not to get down to "Schwindelig" or get teary to "Tristesse". There's a certain degree of naïve beauty to their music that draws people in, and in just a one-hour set they did incredible things to our ears, hearts and minds. From the rich strings of "Heimat" to the Krishnamurti-sampling "Addio Addio", and of course their immortal remix of Federleicht's "On The Streets", Kollektiv slew us with sweet sonic arrows. A friend of mine nearby — a bit of a techno nerd, and always the guy to go for a track i.d. — turned around towards the end of their set and said with certainty, "That's "Tristesse" they're mixing in now." He was right, and when everyone else twigged, one of the biggest cheers of the weekend went up. Beautiful. Then it was over, all too soon.
In another example of great festival programming, Ryan Davis followed the Berlin boys. Casually dressed in a singlet and baseball cap bearing a large capital "R", Davis leapt into the breach left by Kollektiv and was able to move straight into his style of melodic, dreamy techno. The dancefloor denizens who'd stayed on through the afternoon were dusty and dazed, content for the most part to drift in hazy euphoria.
After Davis, we went back to camp took some time to recollect ourselves. Much of the crew of our campsite had set off back to civilisation throughout the day, as had much of the festival crowd in general, it seemed. One in four campsites on our way back looked deserted apart from clusters of garbags, empty cartons and the ubiquitous half-destroyed Big W camping chairs that never seem to last the weekend. Unfortunately, many festivalgoers had left behind entire trashed-out campsites, half-standing tents and bizarre scraps such as neon boa-feathers and deflated blow-up girls. To their credit, this year the organisers had tried to emphasise a "leave no trace" policy as one of the tenets of the festival, but even with volunteers cleaning up regularly at both stages, rubbish was a constant problem throughout the weekend.
Strawberry was almost at an end. We headed to the smaller stage (the "Back of Burke") to catch the closing set, courtesy of Floating Points. Brain surgeon by day, beat surgeon by night, UK-based Sam Shepherd is one of the most interesting figures in UK dance music. With a distinctive yet hard-to-pin-down style that is perhaps best named after one of his tracks, "Vacuum Boogie". Shepherd played a vinyl-only set, perhaps a little rough around the edges in parts, but refreshingly so after all the laser-guided precision of laptop-based live sets. The smallish yet tight-knit crowd were all but obliterated from the excesses of the past few days, yet danced on through FP's eclectic selections. When the clock struck nine and one of the festival staffers sadly announced that the music had to switch off, the crowd begged and pleaded for "one more song!" Shepherd held up a 7" record to massed applause, showing his acquiescence. Ever the joker, his last song turned out to be some Arthur Verocai number with a Polynesian-sounding jangly disco jive. Clearly expecting some epic, end-of-festival anthem, the crowd was a little bemused but danced until the last beat regardless. Then it was all over. We headed back towards the campsite to lay our weary heads on dusty pillows for the last time.            
As we debriefed the next morning in the Big Strawberry restaurant at Koonoomoo, slurping down our strawberry smoothies, we found ourselves in the company of a group of sixty-somethings eating breakfast in their Sunday best. They'd grown up with a different kind of Strawberry Fields, the kind Lennon sang about, in a time more innocent and pure. Our Strawberry Fields was a little different. For us, it was about psytrance, lasers, getting lost in the swamp, making weird friends, tipi chills, passing out in portaloos, flirting with nang pixies, haloumi and eggplant baby burgers, hot chais and badly-rolled durries, talking metaphilosophy with techno shamans, swimming in the muddy Murray with floating pants and finally, that eternal dancefloor moment, spanning hot dusty days and cool nights under a million stars, when time stands still and there is only smiles, raised hands and the beat of a kick drum. Yep — this was our Strawberry Fields, and it was forever.
Picture Credit: Shaan R. Ali