Camp Cope talk music and mental illness
Georgia Maq’s words are simple and to the point: “If you call us a girl band, I’ll fucking kill you.”
The singer-songwriter-guitarist of the band Camp Cope is sitting at a table in a vegan restaurant in Northcote, Melbourne. Her directive, like a lot of what she says, writes and sings, is a mix of unequivocal honesty, deadpan humour and a sign that you engage with Camp Cope on their terms.
Around the table sit the other two members of the band, Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich and Sarah Thompson, whose head is rarely without a woollen hat. Like any friends who have shared thousands of hours in each other’s company, there is a lot of laughter, cross-talk and an absence of censorship.
I pull out my notebook to begin our interview. “What’s in there?” Maq asks.
“My notes and some questions.”
“Let’s compare notebooks.” She pulls a small scrapbook from her jacket pocket and flips its pages. Scribbles, sketches and torn pages flick past. “Here’s my lyrics for a new song,” she says. “Here’s my to-do list. I wrote that weeks ago and I haven’t done anything.”
She takes my notebook and copies her list out in a flowing cursive scrawl to ensure accuracy: Book appointment with ENT. Book appointment with speech therapist. Go to Headspace. See psychologist. Go back on meds.
It’s a list unlikely to surprise anyone familiar with the band’s music. From the opening lines of “Done”, the first song on the trio’s first album, a song about the guilt that comes from walking past Melbourne’s homeless, to the closing “Song for Charlie”, a eulogy for her stepfather, Maq sings with power and vulnerability. Every concern is met head-on. There is no detached observation, no angst.
Maq puts away her notebook and the trio orders an early dinner.
“I play guitar, Thomo plays drums, Kelly plays bass,” says Maq. “It works perfectly. We don’t need anything else.”
“It’s very stripped-back, honest music,” adds Hellmrich. “I plug straight into the amp, Georgia uses a booster pedal, that’s it. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
Evolving out of Melbourne’s DIY music scene, each member existed on its fringes before coming together. Thompson still works at Poison City, the record label responsible for releasing their album. Hellmrich was an itinerant bass player in several short-lived bands. And Maq used to busk around her shifts as a registered nurse.
Their self-titled album, released less than a year after the trio began rehearsing together, is 36 minutes of raw rock’n’roll. Melodic bass motifs, cymbal-driven beats and slashing guitar are kept in service of Maq’s keening voice, all intention and revolution. The album debuted in the Australian Top 40 chart, won end-of-year awards and earned universally positive reviews. Shows sell out in seconds. Music site Project U published an article titled: “How far into the Camp Cope album did our writers get before they cried?”
Maq’s songs are introspective confessions couched in rich detail and delivered as if experiencing situations for the first time. There is no effort to transcend or triumph but, rather, to document, understand and share.
Kids from my high school still ignore me
when they see me busking in the city
And I think they’re going somewhere
to take horse tranquilliser and act like they’re too cool to be there and
they’ll still call me when they wanna get high
Plates of sizzling vegetables, tofu and other various incarnations of textured soy protein arrive and the band members share the dishes among themselves.
“I’m like a seismograph,” Maq says between mouthfuls. “When I’m writing, I don’t really decide what’s in and what’s out, it just happens.”
Hellmrich says, “Sometimes you put personal stuff in and then you text us the lyrics and say, ‘Is this okay?’ ”
“Sometimes I get worried and someone else tells me not to worry about it, so I don’t worry about it,” Maq says, laughing. “Cured.”
Their rapid success has drawn some criticism that the band has merely been lucky, has a good publicist or was boosted by some slick album production.
“People are so willing to give credit to anyone except us,” Maq says. “Everyone said, ‘It all happened so fast.’ But we literally played around four shows a week for the first six months. We’d play every show we were offered. My mum says the album was actually about 10 years of work.”
“It wasn’t like we’d just picked up instruments for the first time and that stuff just happened by magic,” says Hellmrich.
As soon as Camp Cope had a platform, they turned their attention to the Australian music industry, with a campaign that has won them more attention than their music, #ItTakesOne. Aimed at ending sexual harassment at concerts, the initiative won support from other Australian acts including Luca Brasi, Frenzal Rhomb and Harmony.
“It’s been a big 18 months,” Hellmrich says. “I think my favourite thing from 2016 was #ItTakesOne. I was really proud of that.
“Abuse at our shows happened very rarely. For others, especially heavier bands, it happens at every show. We specifically picked people in those bands, mostly guys, and got them to talk about it so they can role model that behaviour, because it’s not being talked about in that genre really. I’m excited to see where that goes in 2017.”
“People know that there’s a standard of behaviour that you need to meet if you’re going to come to one of our shows,” Maq says.
“It’s like an unspoken rule…” Thompson adds.
“And we’ve got to give credit to the riot grrrl movement,” Maq continues. “And every other band that provides safe spaces for the audience so people leave shows happy instead of having had their boob touched or with a blood nose because they got kicked in the face by some idiot crowd surfer.”
Camp Cope describe themselves as a pop-punk band, a genre Hellmrich describes as “predominantly male”. “For us the most important thing was that our audience felt safe,” she says.
“Women have been talking about this,” adds Maq. “Men haven’t been listening.”
“It’s not that they don’t think it happens or that they don’t think it’s shit, but they’re too scared to lose the support of their bro fan collective,” Thompson says. “It’s easier just to be bros and look the other way than it is to say something, have a conflict about it and have to discuss it.”
The fuel for this drive to create safe spaces, self-help and freedom of expression, Maq says, is revenge.
“It’s a silent revenge,” she smiles. “Rather than yell at people and say, ‘We can do that’, we just do it and they’ll shut up. It’s revenge against everyone who told us we couldn’t do this our way. In some obvious and some very subtle ways, people have put us down and undermined us, as happens to women the world over.
“This album is me capitalising off depression. It’s great. Finally, it’s paying off.”
Thompson leans forward. “People think they know us and so they’d write us these gigantic emails about suicide and children dying. It got really draining.”
“I’m singing about bad stuff and then people talk to me about that,” Maq says. “I’m dealing with shit, and trying to process other people’s shit… I mean, I’ve got 30 unread messages on my phone from people I know…”
“We’re a rock’n’roll band,” Thompson says.
“You can email us still, that’s fine,” Maq continues, “but we’re not professional counsellors, we don’t know how to get you through this. We don’t know if you want us to talk to you, or even if this is real… It’s too much.”
Her reply ebbs away as she eyes a figure approaching the table. “Excuse me,” she says, “does anyone know this person?”
Through the door comes musician Courtney Barnett, a wide smile and dark hair that is soon draping itself over the shoulder of each member of Camp Cope as she hugs them hello.
“Can you answer some of these questions?” Maq asks, assuming the role of interviewer. “So, the band name, what’s all that about?”
“It’s about loving camping,” Barnett says with a grin, an answer the band finds funnier than the real one, a play on Camp Cove, one of Hellmrich’s favourite places to go night-swimming in Sydney.
After chatting about the phenomenon of glamping, Barnett defies protests from the band and leaves with a friend.
A Camp Cope concert is far from the straight delivery of their repertoire. The band huddle together between songs, as Maq addresses the microphone in a way that recalls a high-school assembly more than anything. “I don’t even have funny things to say,” she mumbles between smatters of embarrassed laughter. “I don’t know. I’m no good at this.” Within seconds the band burst into seamless force as the crowd unite to sing “Lost: Season One”:
How it always ends up like this
Two lovers staring at each other through a phone screen, lost
For this, I really can’t find the time
Trying to keep running with my life, ’cause if I stop
Eyes closed and pushing her toes against the ground to give herself another inch over her microphone, Maq pulls her red sparkly guitar tightly to her chest. Her subjects are those of someone who can’t remember life without the internet: TV shows, local bands, memes, apps, superficial connections and the struggle to maintain meaningful ones.
Back at the restaurant, empty plates are pushed towards the centre of the table. Talk turns to the band’s agreed priority: mental and physical health. Months of touring and stress came to a head last May when vocal nodules caused Maq to nearly lose her voice, on the biggest night of the band’s career to that point.
“Album launch night was when it happened,” she explains before adopting the view of an omnipotent god: “ ‘Here’s this amazing thing. No – curve ball – you’re fucked.’ ” She sighs heavily. “It’s been the hardest seven months.”
“Sometimes we just have to say no and chill a bit,” Thompson says quietly.
“If we have to cancel a show, we have to cancel a show,” Hellmrich adds. “But we haven’t had to do that yet.”
“We’ve gotten insanely popular,” Maq says tiredly, then laughs. “Well, we’ve gotten a little bit popular. But I still sleep on a mattress on the floor and cry all the time. So sometimes it doesn’t feel that real.”
“Things haven’t really changed that much,” Thompson says. “We’re all just really tired because our lives are like they were before but now with all this. We’ve all got the same jobs, we’ve always worked and do this on top of it.”
A rare silence blossoms as the band members smile at each other.
“I love this band, it’s so much fun,” Thompson says, laughing.
“It’s the best thing in my whole life,” says Maq.
Hellmrich pauses. “The best thing in my whole life is my dog. I’m sorry.”
Several hours after we talk, Camp Cope play their final show for 2016. It’s sold out, and scalpers are offering tickets for $100. Maq dedicates the show to her father, Hugh McDonald, violinist and co-vocalist with the band Redgum.
“I used to go and see him play all the time,” she says. “I grew up in pubs drinking raspberry cordial. He was such a great parent, but he was also like a mix of Bill Hicks and Christopher Hitchens.”
The album cover for Camp Cope depicts a two-year-old Maq smiling happily, sitting on a hospital bed, wrapped in bandages, recovering from a near-fatal accident in which she fell onto a broken bottle. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the album: painful, defiant and with a bright future. Or, as Maq sings, “There’s something about the truth that makes existence bearable.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 18, 2017 as "Coping mechanism". Subscribe here.