Let’s talk about what a festival really is. Rather than list all the bands I saw and tell you the things they did while they stood on the stage (spoilers: they played songs), a festival review should be about the larger experience. What is it that makes people go? Why did Down The Rabbit Hole sell out so quickly this year? If it was just about the bands playing then why bother with the other stuff. Just get a bunch of stages, a few kennels for the people who want to stay overnight and job done. You get better views on YouTube.
No, festivals are about more than that. They’re about letting go, about detaching yourself from society even if for a short amount of time and to do whatever the hell you want as long as it isn’t hurting others. It’s about making friends with strangers, trying new things, doing whatever feels right. For some people, this is already a way of life, but for memory, this is the release they need. That’s why I decided to attend most of this year’s Down The Rabbit Hole dressed as a hotdog.
I almost didn’t go at all, but I ended up being one of the lucky few who got one of the last 188 tickets, mashing the F5 button on my keyboard the minute they went on sale a few days before. I’m glad I did. I only moved to Nijmegen from Australia a few months ago and the concept of cycling to a festival sparked a Dutch-flavoured excitement in me that I didn’t even know I had. I got to drive past cows with no-one else around. I moo’d at them and they didn’t respond, but I think we’re still cool. Oh, and the festival had a great line-up too.
The days before were spent with the almost-too-nervous-to-look weather forecast checks, which kept promising to be so ridiculously perfect that the only enemy would be too much sun. As someone who still twitches slightly at the memories of muddy Glastonbury and Splendour In The Grass, forcing myself to ignore that utter grossness in an effort to enjoy the situation as best as possible, I was more than a little relieved to see this was going to be a dry one. I packed some jeans and a rain poncho just in case, but the most they ended up seeing of the festival was from the inside of my bag.
I was relieved to see short queues at the festival entrance as I struggled to carry all of my stuff. The ticket inspection was painless, with an overly sophisticated machine being used to attach your wristbands. Despite it being such a simple process, a part of me felt nervous I was going to lose a hand as I was encouraged to put my wrist into it by a man smiling a little too hard. Fortunately my fears were unfounded and it merely made it tight enough that I couldn’t later slip it off and throw it to a friend over the fence. I was free to continue. No-one even checked my bag to see how much booze I had with me. 8 litres maximum it said on the FAQs, I could have brought 9.
As I went in, I instantly found our esteemed editor who had bagged us a premium camping spot right next to the front gate. It was the easiest possible location to describe to others. When asked, we would be able to say “You know the front gate? The one where you came in. Next to that. Literally next to that. That’s it.”. None of these endless conversations about things like “Near the tents, the far tents. No, not those tents. I’m under a light. No, I can’t see a fence. Wait, there’s a fence in the distance” etc. etc. Being next to the front gate meant there wasn’t much foot traffic late at night either, rendering it a near perfect location, so write that one down, my friends, because it’s a top tip you can remember for the future.
As I struggled to put up my tent, tempted to just use the underlayer so that the morning sun didn’t wake me like a fish in an oven, the punishing heat beat down on me and my belongings turning my red wine into mulled wine and my face the colour of both. As I tried to inflate my own airbed my biggest concern was not passing out from lack of air. I was a hot mess. Though desperate to finish the task as quickly as possible I knew that if I didn’t do it at that point, I’d just end up sleeping on the ground. By the end I was mostly sweat.
My first disappointment of the festival came from the discovery that they were using “munten” as currency. Rather than use actual money, you have to buy a series of plastic tokens to use instead. The Dutch can’t get enough of these things. I shudder to think of the number of those valuable fragments that fell out of my pockets over the course of the weekend, conveniently deployed from the machines in a shape that fits no pocket. I appreciate it means fewer transaction fees for the organisers and a detachment on the cost of what you’re buying “How much? Two stukjes? Yeah, sounds cheap maybe?”, but as a member of the public it does me no favours. I also found some of them quite hard to snap in two which was painful for my fragile male ego as I tried to pay for certain things. It made me only want to buy things that rounded up to whole numbers.
The festival site itself was beautiful, lined with a series of massive vertical wooden poles to warn the other trees around what would happen if they didn’t play ball. There’s something about being at the water’s edge that never fails to fill you with an inner peace as hundreds of revellers were able to look past the fact that the water was so murky you had approximately 1cm visibility through it. It didn’t matter, though; wallowing in it was the perfect respite from the punishing heat. The sight of so much exposed skin did make me worry about the amount of pinkness we’d see by day three, but what are you gonna do? I’m not everyone’s dad. I didn’t see any stations for dispensing free sunblock around the place as you would at an Australian festival, but as a Brit, I know how most people probably wouldn’t have bothered anyway. For the record, I forgot my sunblock and used bits and pieces of other peoples stuff whenever I’d remember.
There were three main stages, which all had incredibly niche and forgettable names. I’d get WhatsApp messages saying that someone was by the Teddy Norman stage or something and would have to get my organiser out in order to work out what the hell that was. Festival organisers, if you’re gonna insist on having stages, then may I recommend names like “Big Stage” and “Not Quite As Big Stage”. I’d also accept painting them a particular colour and then giving them names like “The Red Stage”. No confusion, everyone knows where they’re at.
I took advantage of those early afternoon lulls where you had time to explore to see some of the non-musical offerings on the site. One of the most visually striking things I was immediately drawn to was the Maison The Faux. A glasshouse with a Lynchian monochrome aesthetic inside full of characters dressed in checked clothing that hid enough of their face to render them instantly untrustworthy. Rather than find out what it was and spoil the surprise, I decided to instantly sign up for the rebirth experience. Shortly after, I had my belongings taken from me and was laid out on a hospital bed being wheeled into the glasshouse. I should mention that before I went in, I was given a safe word. I assumed it was a joke, and gave a knowing wink as I was made to repeat it three times. Kip. I still remember it. The next thing I knew, electrodes were being strapped to my stomach as white gloves stroked my face in a sensory overload of sensation attention centred around a witch-doctor type literally standing on the bed over me.
It was an interesting enough experience until the pain started. Suddenly, electrical currents started causing my stomach muscles to contract. Suddenly, rather than playing along, I was feeling genuine pain in my stomach, and trying not to let it show on my face that I was freaking out. “Is that OK? We can decrease the strength if you’d like” I was told. “No, I’m fine” I said through wild, terrified eyes as I tried to convince myself this was all part of the experience. Trust the strangers. As I was instructed to close my eyes, water fell across my face and sweet nothings were whispered into my ear with an intimacy to almost become an internal monologue. There was so much happening in such a short space of time, so many hands touching me, that I struggled to concentrate on anything. Then just as quickly as it started, it was over. I was unceremoniously wheeled back out and hurried to take my belongings and leave the birthing area. It was one of the most physically engaging moments of the whole festival, and one I kept telling people about for the rest of my time there. My stomach hurt for days afterwards, and though it was nothing like the intensity of a real birthing I was assured, I was glad it was over.
Nearby there was a caravan where you had the opportunity to talk through your sexual fetishes in depth in a safe space where your recordings would be used for a future art exhibit and podcast where these would be played anonymously. The sessions were supposed to last fifteen minutes, but I ended up spending thirty minutes in there and had to go for a walk and some water afterwards. Gosh. Speaking of water, this was surprisingly difficult to come across on the festival site itself. While the camping area had an adequate supply of taps, there were just two locations in the festival arena itself which I could find dispensing water and only discovered one of those on day two. Now, this may say more about my observational skills than the number of places themselves, but the main thing is that I was very dehydrated and too proud to ask anyone what I could do about it.
Before you go to a festival, you’ll often take a look at the lineup and work out who exactly it is that you want to see. While this makes sense in the cold, sterile conditions of sitting in front of a computer screen, the reality of the day can often make you crave something different. There are some great bands out there with four white guys and guitars, but there comes a point where you need something different. It’s like if you eat burgers every day and someone offers you a burrito, you might prefer burgers in general but damn that burrito will taste good. There’s no greater joy than going for a wander and discovering something unexpectedly wonderful. It’s what made sets from artists like James Holden and Nils Frahm feel so special, in contrast to that which preceded it. Sprawling electronic sets that combined the digital and organic into something that felt deeply personal and almost hypnotic.
I started to psychoanalyse the queueing strategies around me to work out ways to minimise the amount of time I needed to queue for things. Less queuing, more time for activities, right? I took showers at 14:00, drunk beers at 10:00 and familiarised myself with the concept of breakfast burritos. I’d go to the bars furthest from where any music was actually playing. When I’d arrive, the staff members would look like they were ready for a well-earned break but I’d come and ruin it all, fumbling with my stukjes. For some reason, coffee queues were busy all day on the Saturday which meant that my caffeine intake was suboptimal. You wonder sometimes if the queues feed themselves, people joining them because they don’t know what else to do and don’t want anyone to realise, before getting to the front and not realising why they were even there. Deep.
One of the most frequent questions I got asked by strangers during the festival was “Why are you dressed as a hotdog?” which was because I was dressed as a hotdog. Many speculated about a bet, a stag-do or other reasons, but the truth was much simpler. Going to a music festival dressed as a hotdog is a much more interesting experience than not dressing as a hotdog. Strangers felt happy to walk up to me and engage in conversation as though it were the most natural thing in the world. At one point I got asked to join one of the impromptu Porto Parties dedicated to trans-fats where I was plied with gelatine ridden sweets which I happily ate. I’m not saying that the hotdog life is one I’d choose long term, but in short bursts, it’s something I highly recommend to everyone.
Sure, I could write about the bands themselves, the ones who clicked the most, but if you were there, you’d already have an opinion and if you weren’t, do you really care? Are my words on a particular show going to change your mind about anything? I could tell you that St Vincent put on an incredible performance, but her timing on the Sunday meant that at one point I needed to go for a sit-down and couldn’t truly appreciate it. I could tell you how Jon Hopkins’s set matched my buzz so perfectly that it felt like the most euphoric hour of the whole festival, his palatable dance music making me move like a hosepipe at full stream with no-one holding on. I could mention that Idles played such an intense yet joyous set that my feet barely touched the ground, but if I described every single thing they did to make it so enjoyable, wouldn’t I just be taking away from it all for you if you decide to go see them? The music itself is simultaneously the most and least important part of a festival. I was so assured of my disinterest in Franz Ferdinand’s diminishing returns on each album, yet the moment the opening notes of Take Me Out played out, shortly followed by a giant ending of Burn This City, the joy around me was contagious and real. It’s what you make it and in letting go of control. If something’s not doing it for you at any point, you wander somewhere else.
Down The Rabbit Hole is a great festival. My complaints are minimal in something that had a wide-ranging line-up that never got stale. I lost count of the number of moments where I had to take a second to just take it all in, the wonder and amazement of it all, and feel an inner happiness. I met new people, I caught up with old. I danced more than I have in years. Were there any rabbits? Some. Were there any holes? At least one. If you were to ask me again, I would do it all again in a flash.
All images are courtesy of the author, unless stated otherwise.