Music

Camp Cope Aren’t the Openers Anymore

Show ’em, Kelly

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Georgia Maq, Sarah Thompson, and Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich of Camp Cope
Georgia Maq, Sarah Thompson, and Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich of Camp Cope

On an early summer afternoon in Greenpoint, Georgia Maq and Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich of the Australian rock trio Camp Cope are talking about confidence, or, more specifically, the lack thereof that defined their coming-of-age in punk. “I was involved in music for such a long time, but there were so many things I believed I couldn’t do,” says Hellmrich, who plays bass in the band. “I’m still learning. I still have to remind myself, ‘You can do that.’ ”

“I’d always be the acoustic female opener on a bill of dudes,” deadpans Maq, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, who started playing solo at eighteen. “That was the norm. I thought, ‘This is just how shows are, I guess.’ And I was so much better than all of them.”

“She played with some pretty shit bands,” confirms drummer Sarah Thompson, who they all call Thomo.

The confidence gap is a plague on society — the cultural reality that makes women more likely to underestimate their abilities, while men overestimate, get more opportunities, and earn higher pay. In 2018, “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man” is a line so commonly told to women that an Etsy search yields more than a dozen results, with cute items like tote bags and cross-stitch kits. In her Melbourne music community, Maq knew things were unfair. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she says.

“People around you kind of make you feel like that’s what you deserve as well. They kind of put you in your place,” says Hellmrich, turning to Maq. “You played first, and had the biggest crowd.”

That kept happening. “I kept having the biggest crowds,” clarifies Maq, “and getting paid less than all of them.”

Camp Cope’s latest record, How to Socialise and Make Friends, sounds like a revelation. Not because three women playing in a band in 2018 is novel, or because women are saving rock music. But because of its clarity and bravery and emotional scope. Over its 38-minute running time, you can hear a band that’s been through the ringer and come out stronger on the other side.

“The Opener” is its grand entrance, an epic, searing anthem that tells the story of the band’s year leading up to its genesis. Its verses detail what women in music still deal with on a regular basis: unsolicited advice, backhanded compliments, the near-constant mansplaining. In her lyrics, Maq takes some of these off-the-cuff comments verbatim and pieces together a constellation of reality.

“Almost everything in that song is a quote,” says Maq — things the band was told over the course of a year by specific people. “That’s why I was so impressed the first time I heard it,” says Thompson, laughing. “I was like, ‘Georgia literally rhymed all these things.’”

The song is the album’s opener, but it sounds like it should be playing as the credits roll. In some ways, for them, it is: if the entirety of the male-dominated music world that they came up in was actually just one long, bad movie of sexist cliches, mansplaining and constant one-upping — maybe this is point where it stops.

“You worked so hard but we were ‘just lucky’
To ride those coattails into infinity
And all my success has got nothing to do with me
Yeah, tell me again how there just aren’t that many girls in the music scene!”
— The Opener”

Lately, when I think about the hatred for women that seemed to hang in the air in the emo and pop-punk music spaces I came up in — similar to the scenes members of Camp Cope came up in, they tell me — I am consumed by thoughts about those women who were most failed by the deep-rooted sexism there: the women who just stopped, who endured enough, said “fuck it,” and never went to another show again, who ceased playing, booking, or writing about music at the whim of men who wanted to stomp them out. Who could blame them? That’s partially why, speaking to the women of Camp Cope, their existence feels like such a victory.

Hellmrich says she had all but given up playing music before Camp Cope. In high school, she played in metal and shoegaze bands, but was always the token woman, playing with men who belittled her and would rewrite her bass-lines. At seventeen, she moved into an apartment above the now-defunct all-ages Sydney venue Black Wire Records, where she helped run shows. “I knew that venue in and out,” she says, but still, men would regularly speak down to her, “as if they deserved the space more than me.” She eventually met women musicians there, and joined a band dubbed “suburban feminist screamo,” an experience she describes as “infinitely better” than those other bands. But when they broke up, she just stopped: “I moved to Melbourne and I was like, ‘I give up on music. I only liked that one band. I’m never playing in a band again.’ ” 

Thompson had also given up playing music for seven years before Camp Cope. A self-described Hole-loving ten-year-old in the mid-1990s, by age twelve she had found some other girls who liked Nirvana and started a band in her family’s garage. She played in bands for years despite the challenges (“It was either be one of the boys or just go away”), but ultimately decided to stop: “I always played in bands, but I also always worked in music.” (Thompson works at Australia’s Poison City Records, who have released Camp Cope records, as well as the likes of Cable Ties, Iron Chic, Pity Sex, and a long roster of others.) “I couldn’t do both,” Thompson says. “You get treated like shit in one and you get treated like shit in the other. I was like, ‘I’m gonna lose my fucking mind…it’s one or the other.’ So I quit playing music for seven years.”

Then they each met Maq. Georgia Maq describes herself as a lifelong singer and feminist. As a child, growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne, her musician father (Hugh McDonald of the chart-topping political folk-rock group Redgum) would teach her Green Day covers on guitar. When she was about ten, she organized a wage-gap protest at school. She loved playing piano, too, but ultimately dropped out of music lessons (“I hated the bureaucracy of it”) and studied nursing in college. All the while, she began playing shows, just an acoustic guitar and her maximalist, folk punk–tinged songs on topics ranging from dumpster-diving to “white male propagandists on the outskirts of the truth.”

“I always wanted to start a band but nothing ever felt right,” Maq says. “I was too self-conscious to do anything with boys. They didn’t get me or what I wanted to do.”

In 2015, she formed Camp Cope, recruiting Thompson, whom she knew through the local punk scene, and Hellmrich, whom she met while getting a tattoo. Though the band is still relatively new, when the trio came together, they brought collective decades of experience playing and booking, working at labels and venues. They knew what they did and did not want to deal with as a group. By 2016, Camp Cope released a debut, self-titled record, and on the strength of those songs, they’d soon be opening up tours for the likes of Against Me!, Modern Baseball, the Hotelier, AJJ, and Waxahatchee.

How to Socialise and Make Friends is a louder and more collaborative record than their first record. It’s an album that contains multitudes: blunt criticism of sexism in music, but also slow burners on love and death and friendship, ripping pop songs on anxiety and empathy. Maq’s songs tell stories, and within them there are women who have agency, sleazy men who get left behind, images of herself out at night alone. “I can see myself living without you,” she shouts on the title track. “And being fine! For the rest of my life!”

Like their debut, How to Socialise… is an emotional roller coaster, where Maq’s bandmates’ dynamism makes her all-caps poetry all the more potent. Among its most devastating moments is “The Face of God,” in which Maq recounts a sexual assault by another musician, an encounter in which she had to say “no” too many times, where boundaries were crossed. “Could it be true? You don’t seem like that kind of guy,” she sings from the perspective of the subsequent skeptics, drawing out every word. “Not you, you’ve got that one song that I like…”

The album “just depicts the year we had,” says Hellmrich. “The anger is in that album.” Performing the songs now is cathartic, she adds: “Even the quiet songs have loud messages. It’s unforgiving.… Playing these songs, even though I’m not shouting, I can feel the same things as Georgia and I’m getting them out too. We always talk about how amazing playing ‘The Opener’ is. It’s this huge relief. Of all that shit we went through. And finally getting to let it out.”

It’s equally cathartic to listen to. Maq’s raw, booming voice makes each line feel visceral. “I’ve always been very loud and emotional. That’s my whole thing,” she says. “When I first started playing shows, I was very loud, very unapologetic. Then there was maybe like a year where the boys’ club slowly ate away at me, so I started writing songs that were quieter, where I didn’t yell as much. Then I started yelling more.”

“It’s another all-male tour preaching equality
It’s another straight cis man who knows more about this than me
It’s another man telling us we’re missing a frequency
Show ’em Kelly!”
— The Opener”

When we meet up in mid-June, the band is passing a few days before taking off on a six-week, full U.S. tour with fellow pop-punk-adjacent indie rock band Petal (a tour that wrapped up last weekend in NYC). While they wait for the tour to start, Camp Cope have been crashing in Brooklyn on the floor of their previous tourmate Jeff Rosenstock. Today they spent their day off getting manicures with Jeff’s wife, Christine, who is also their good friend; Maq and Hellmrich flash their newly painted nails for me to check out — baby blue, highlighter orange. Maq sips water from a bottle donned with a sticker reading MEN ARE TRASH.

“I remember when you sent it to me,” Kelly says, reflecting on the first time she heard “The Opener.” “I put it on in my kitchen. I was living with a bunch of people, and they were sitting at the table, and I was cooking. And we all had to just stop. Almost every sentence, we were like… OK! Yeah! OK! We’re gonna do this!”

“I had that too,” says Thompson. “I was at work. I sit at a desk with my boss, and he’s putting the record out. I put the phone down and I press played. And I’m like…,” she continues with a big smile and a sarcastic shrug. “Sorry, Andy!”

Although Camp Cope has only existed for three years, they seem like sisters — a tight-knit unit, the type of support system necessary when doing the sort of work Camp Cope has taken on. Together, the band has been unafraid to call out gender inequity in music at a time when on the surface level it seems that things have changed. Their approach seems to be: just uncovering the truth. Earlier this year, for example, they played Australia’s Falls Festival, and onstage they sang, “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up a tent/It’s another fucking festival only booking nine women,” swapping some lyrics on “The Opener” to criticize their surroundings. Their commentary made headlines. “It was weird. People said it was a controversy when all it was was the truth,” Thompson said in an interview earlier this year.

Camp Cope recognizes that visibility doesn’t always equate to support — that although this is indeed a moment where more women artists are being given wider platforms, there is still a great disparity in terms of the scope of opportunities provided to underrepresented artists, not to mention the persistence of day-to-day sexism. And sometimes shallow industry “support” can actually be a means of exploitation that serves to benefit the appearances of the festivals and the publications more than it helps the artists. “It may appear that there’s all of this diversity in music, but so many of our friends are in the industry and we can see the people who are suffering,” says Hellmrich. “The ones that aren’t getting by, the ones that are getting exhausted, the ones that are burning out the most are women and queer people. It gets incredibly personal and frustrating. They may be getting a spot on a bill because people are trying to champion diversity, but they still can’t afford to live. It’s not working.”

After her seven years away from playing music, Thompson feels like not much has changed — not enough to celebrate, at least. “Coming back to the music scene, it was literally the same,” she says. “There’d been no progression in seven fucking years. Men are still being pieces of shit, sound guys are still fucked, other bands are still fucked. It’s all still fucking the same. I got so mad. I was like, ‘No, fuck it, I’m going to just do it, and I’m going to rip all of your heads off if you’re being cunts.’”

“It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up the room
It’s another man telling us to book a smaller venue
‘Nah, hey, c’mon girls we’re only thinking about you’
Well, see how far we’ve come not listening to you!
“‘Yeah, just get a female opener, that’ll fill the quota.'”
— The Opener”

Thompson is a bit like the tough mom of the group. (Her bandmates sing her praises and also say lots of people are “scared of her.”) About a decade older than Maq, who just turned 24, Thompson is a long-time employee of their label, which puts them in the empowering position of not needing a manager or agent. Instead, Thompson is the manager. On tour, she does everything: playing, managing the band, advancing shows. “And people will still come in and be like, ‘you should do this, you need someone to do this, you need someone to do that,’” says Hellmrich.

With Thompson’s expertise, they’ve stayed staunchly independent even as they gain mainstream attention in Australia: from airplay on major radio stations to attention at national award ceremonies — winning Best Emerging Act at the Age Music Victoria Awards and the Heatseeker Award at the NLMAs, and nominations for the J Awards and the Australian Music Prize.

“We’re in a super lucky position,” Thompson says. “We’re a fully independent band. We’ve never had a cent of debt. We’re in a much better position than most people we know. They appear to be doing so well, but they probably owe fucking $50,000 to somebody. In ten years time, when they’re still paying off their debt, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, I’m glad that you tried to tell me what to do.…’”

The band is critical of music business in general. “The way the industry works is backwards,” says Hellmrich. “Art isn’t valued, artists aren’t making money.” But mostly they want to exemplify that artists have choice — that quickly signing away 20 percent of your income to a manager “doesn’t have to be the only way.” 

“It was super important for me to see people like me playing music in order to make me feel like I could do it,” says Hellmrich, who last year was inspired to release some solo music of her own, under her nickname, Kelso. It’s a collection of dreamy guitar-pop, self-described “cute weird songs for cute weird people.”

We carved our own path of what we wanted and what we wouldn’t accept from people,” says Maq, who these days also fronts a more aggressive five-piece rock band called Würst Nürse, harkening back to her nursing school days. (First single: “Dedication Doesn’t Pay the Rent”.)

“I feel like this is meant to happen in our lives. We were put on this Earth for each other,” Maq says, looking at her bandmates. “We’re soulmates. We were meant to start this band. We were meant to change this little bit of the music scene.”

January of this year, Camp Cope filmed a session playing “The Opener” at the Sydney Opera House. As Maq belts out her lines about not listening to shitty music industry men, the ones who worked so hard while her band was just “lucky,” her expression says it all: she scrunches her face, rolls her eyes and screams it all out. This week, the band returned to the Opera House to play its iconic, 2679-capacity venue. And they weren’t the openers — they were headlining.

THANK YOU SO MUCH EVERYONE! THAT WAS AMAZING!

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