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The Bill Drummond Cake Circle: In Conversation with James Birchall, Co-Founder of CAMP Mountain Music Festival

On the weekend of 13, 14 and 15 September, the tiny Pyrenean town of Aulus-les-Bains will play host to a cast of characters the like of which it will never have known before.  A destination most famous for its hot springs and Belle Époque architecture, its residents (population approx. 250) are more familiar with hikers, cyclists and skiers than they are international techno DJs and Iranian noise artists. But for three days and nights, the Aulusien community will abandon their church and their school to the inaugural CAMP Mountain Music Festival and the diverse roster of artists booked to perform there by James Birchall and Sarah Faraday, two British ambassadors for the obscure who have called the sleepy spa town their home since 2017. .

Proprietors of Bradford, UK’s Fuse Art Space, heads of the (currently dormant) Bomb Shop label, and occasional performers in their own right, Birchall and Faraday definitely like to keep busy. Since arriving in Aulus-les-Bains they have also facilitated a series of arts residencies at their CAMP headquarters, which has seen luminaries such as Chris Watson, Gavin Bryars and Christina Kubisch deliver lectures and host workshops in the town. Yet none of that will have quite prepared it for CMMF.

I have known James and Sarah for several years now, in one capacity or another. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was shipping tapes to their house in Hebden Bridge where James would do me the huge favour of dubbing them before they shipped as early J&C releases (he had absolutely no reason to do this job for me – that’s just the kind of guy he is), and then there was the boozy day we all had in Sheffield with Bob McCully from Wizard Of. I was awed enough when they opened Fuse and welcomed  artists such as Richard Dawson, Steve Hauschildt, Eartheater and Jason Lescalleet through their doors, but then I heard they’d moved to France…

I checked in with James the weekend before CMMF’s launch and found a man living some kind of mountain dream life.

U_: So tell me about how CAMP got started.

James Birchall: Me and Sarah started Fuse Art Space in 2013, so there’s that as a starting point. We did exhibitions, concerts etc – you know about all that stuff right?

Yeah. A big leap from Bradford to where you are now. 

Yes! So, we were doing a lot of residencies ourselves, as artists. At one point we ended up in Iceland for a while. It was awesome, and we started considering starting a residency project ourselves, linked to Fuse.

Why the Pyrenees? Do you have connections there?

CAMP was meant to be in Iceland, but things fell through. Then we looked at Estonia, Canada and Spain [before] we remembered this place. I’ve been coming to the Pyrenees since I was a kid, on family hiking trips; Sarah and I came once or twice and had an amazing time. So we moved here and spent a year living in Saint Girons, a town near Aulus-les-Bains.  Just driving around, looking for the right place [and] trying to raise the money.

“When we came here I couldn’t put a fucking shelf up. Now I can do a roof!”
– James Birchall 

You must have been looking for specifics though, in terms of set-up.

Basic stuff, really. It had to be somewhere stunning, remote, inspiring. Building needed to be the right size at least. And cheap! The whole thing was done on a shoestring; we did all the renovation work ourselves.

So the shell was there? 

The building is an old hotel. It had no roof; it was falling down. There’d been an earthquake and the whole thing had snapped in half. We were renovating in winter in -15°c, with a metre of snow and no electricity or hot water. When we came here I couldn’t put a fucking shelf up. Now I can do a roof! YouTube…

What!? You learned how to put on a roof on YouTube? 

Everything man: fitting glass in windows, flooring, plumbing, electrics.

So the festival I guess is a natural progression from all the residencies over the years.

Yeah, we started thinking about it last year, like what would it be like if all these amazing folks were here at once?  Actually, the lineup doesn’t contain a lot of the people who have led courses here, but it does contain a lot of people who have taken part on the courses. Kirk Barley (Bambooman), Jeyne Dent (Me Lost Me), Apres Anora, Aurélie Ferrière, Alexandra Nilsson… they all came and took part on courses at CAMP. 

That’s great. Kind of like supplying yourselves with talent. 

Yeah, it’s amazing to work in a long term way with people who come here. Our last few exhibitions at Fuse have also involved CAMP alumni.

How are you running Fuse at such a distance?

We have a crew there. A really good one, led by Lukas Hornby,  who is ace.

I honestly don’t know how you do it.

Ha, thanks man.  I’m definitely up for a rest this winter though.  I’m gonna hibernate like a bear.

Well deserved. Has there been a stand-out residency at CAMP?

They’re all amazing in different ways.  Chris Watson‘s courses are very relevant to my interests personally – listening, recording, spending the night on the mountain, that’s totally my vibe. But they’ve all been really special. Laurel Halo‘s course this year was really lively and productive [with] great people and loads of amazing music happening. Laurel is a brilliant teacher, too.

What is the vibe like on a course? Like serious study?

It can be [serious], sometimes, but there’s always social time too, [and] that’s really important. I think often, because you’re spending the whole week with the person leading the course, including eating, hanging out, hiking, etc., the breakthrough moments and most interesting conversations often actually happen outside of the “classroom.”

Allow me to imagine a typical day at a CAMP residency. 

So most people leading courses run three session per day: morning, afternoon, and an evening hangout. That could be a film, performances, whatever. But what actually happens in those sessions is massively varied. Sometimes it takes place here at the house, other times on the mountain… It’s intense though – we fit a lot in. For example, on Chris Watson’s course, we go up to a high ridge where there are many different habitats – alpine, woodland, grass. It’s about 1500m altitude; we go up before dark, and everyone picks a place they want to record. They put microphones out, and run cables back to where they want to sit. The we go home, sleep for a couple of hours, and go back to the spot in the pitch black. [We] plug recorders in and sit there all night listening to owls, deer, wild boar, all kinds of stuff, waiting for the sunrise over the mountains, for the birds waking up, the insects starting.

“On Bill Drummond’s course, we constructed the Aulus-les-Bains Cake Circle.”
– James Birchall 

It sounds incredible.

On Bill Drummond’s course, we constructed the “Aulus-les-Bains Cake Circle.” This involves drawing a circle on the map, centred on CAMP.  Wherever the line crosses a building, we bake a cake, go knock on the door, and say, “Hi, I baked you a cake.”

What? Did you record what happened? 

Nope. [We] took a few photos. Results were written down. Some people laughed, some people actually cried, like “nobody has ever baked me a cake before.”

The festival is more geared towards performance though, right?

Yes. We have three venues: the village church, the disused school and CAMP’s own performance space.

What are the townsfolk going to think? 

They’re cool – people are pretty excited.  People here are incredibly nice, welcoming, open-minded [and they] love culture and fun. I had to send Soundcloud links to the priest.

What did he think?

No response.

Are tickets still available?

Yep.  We’re only selling 150, and there aren’t many left.  All tickets also include camping and a bus from Toulouse. 150 tickets and 40+ artists, [so] the crowd is gonna be 25% artists.  It’s gonna be really nice [and] most of the artists are hanging out for a few days before or after.

Final question: what if it all goes Fyre?

Don’t mention Fyre. People keep saying that, and it genuinely fucking almost makes me run into the hills.