A music lover’s guide to Dark Mofo
Its pagan imagery and dark spiritual elements are more than just genius branding, it gives every element of the event a distinct overarching mood.
Among all of this is a music program that puts quality and artistic bravery ahead of any commercial aspirations, making for a weird but generally excellent program of diverse - but always dark - musical performances.
It’s almost gotten to the point where it doesn’t even matter who’s playing, there will be music that will both challenge and dazzle you. Stay openminded and delve in headfirst and you’ll find a musical experience unlike any other.
Want to know if Dark Mofo is for you? Want to know how to best approach it? Here are a few tips that will help you understand why this isn’t a regular music festival.
If I’m being honest, I probably would’ve preferred to spend Saturday night by the fireplace in one of Hobart’s excellent pubs, watching rugby with a pint of local beer in hand.
But it’s Dark Mofo time. So, instead, I sat watching a group of German men in their 50s and 60s smashing large pipes with mallets, and dragging chains, filing cabinets and other random pieces of metal against contact microphones in a performance piece commemorating the outbreak of World War I.
Industrial legends Einstürzende Neubauten had returned to Dark Mofo for the second year running, bringing with them what must have been an entire aeroplane’s worth of unorthodox instrumentation to perform their Lament show for the first time in Australia.
I’m no war buff. And there are certainly many people who adore these titans of industrial music more than me. But I was grateful to have this experience. To see one of the world's most groundbreaking bands perform a piece that doesn't conform to what we've come to expect a regular musical performance to be.
This, of course, extends outside of the musical aspects of the festival. While the rest of Australia was cracking their first end of week drink at 5pm on Friday, I was on an open-air boat in painfully freezing conditions, being talked through the process of decomposition my body will face when I inevitably die and have my body dumped in the water. Waterborne is just one example of dozens of pieces that will draw you away from the music if you head to Hobart.
Indeed, the absolute highlight of my Dark Mofo, musical or otherwise, was Laurie Anderson’s thrilling Chalkroom VR experience, coupled with the noisy and meditative Lou Reed Drones. More on that here.
Ditch the FOMO
This is the most difficult part of Dark Mofo for the hardened music lover. You cannot see everything. And sometimes there's a chance you won't even get to see what you thought you were paying for.
Whether it’s because of the blisteringly quick sellouts of some of the biggest shows, the fact that the drawn out program sees events spread across three weekends - pushing tourists to make some tough decisions about when they attend - or the secretive cruelty of the festival's late night, multi-disciplinary, multi-venue party Night Mass, you will miss great acts.
This year for me, it was Tropical Fuck Storm, Lydia Lunch and Olympia.
I simply couldn’t find TFS when they played Night Mass - the event features no timetables, enormous queues for every venue and absolutely no guarantee you’ll see what you want to see.
I couldn’t get into the Bang Bang Bar to see the legendary Lydia Lunch due to the sheer number of people queueing in the rain, trying to get inside. While I simply didn’t know that Olympia was playing, as the performances at the nightly Winter Feast and Dark Park aren’t advertised.
It’s novel. It’s fun. It forces you to see things that you might not have otherwise (I’ll save the story of the woman expelling water from her anus for another time). And it’s incredibly frustrating.
Most of the hundreds (thousands?) of people in attendance go along with it pretty happily. But a look at the Night Mass Facebook page reveals a small flurry of people more than a little upset with being so left in the dark.
Another troubling aspect of this method of seeing artists by surprise rather than planning is that great artists can end up playing to tepid crowds. Brilliant Melburnian garage rock quintet Tyrannamen were forced to perform for a small crowd of people who probably would have preferred they just stay quiet.
The thought of one of those bands I missed playing to a disinterested crowd makes my heart sink. But that’s the way it goes at this event.
Embrace the darkness
There’s nothing cheery about Dark Mofo and that includes the music.
You might not have a ticket for the frightening Hymns to the Dead show (featuring terrifying Canadian black metal group Blasphemy and Australian death metal titans Portal) but you might stumble across a High Tension gig or become more disturbed than you’d anticipated while watching an artist like St. Vincent or Tanya Tagaq.
After my last visit, I pledged I would bring something light to cut through the bleakness of the overall experience. I stand by this - you need some light with the shade - but don’t let it stop you fully embracing the festival’s theme.
There’s plenty of time for pop songs, sitcoms and endorphin boosting exercise when you get home.
No rest for the wicked
Do Dark Mofo properly and you’ll be absolutely exhausted after a couple of days. There’s no point in making a trip to this festival only to spend most of your time in your hotel room or a pub.
It’s insanely cold - don’t look at the temperature, because it doesn’t do justice to the debilitating fierceness of this icy city. That in itself can be draining, throw in an inordinate amount of walking between venues and you’ll find yourself looking for respite wherever you can.
But the experience will be over before you know it, and you need to make the most of it. Make sure you have tickets for shows every night. Push yourself to go and see that installation or band or performance you overheard people raving about at the cafe earlier that day.
The latest events carry through til the wee hours and, if you can handle it, it’s worth staying out til the crowd begins to peter. Humans change under conditions like this, and people-watching is like an exhibition in itself once everyone’s had a few drinks, seen some weird shit and frozen themselves numb.
Push through the tiredness, you can sleep another day.
It’s probably the most obvious tip, but it’s without doubt the most important. You've gotta keep an open mind.
Things get very strange at Dark Mofo and if you’re not prepared for that, you could end up having a difficult experience.
What might seem troubling at the time will almost certainly make you more well-rounded in the long run. Confronting fears that surround some of the challenging aspects of this work will make you a stronger person.
Conservative worldviews or just plain Catholic guilt may force you to feel uncomfortable with aspects of the event, but letting that get in the way of brilliant, world class artistic expression would be a great shame.
But, if it really does become too much, you can always find one of those pubs, one of those fireplaces, one of those local drinks and settle in.