WORDS + ILLUSTRATION: Robbie Campbell
The 20th Anniversary of Shambhala Music Festival is fast approaching (5.5 weeks!) and to continue the hype and celebration we are STOKED to be a part of the release of DJ Soup’s anniversary mix. In this mix, Robbie “DJ Soup” Campbell created a series of tracks that he played in 1999-2001 at the original SOUP parties. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Robbie, he has been an integral member of the Shambhala team, a Shambs OG if you will, since before the festival even existed and was just a simple idea. He has had many varying roles with the festival over the years and is currently the Pagoda Stage Director. In this role, he designs, builds and booms the stage. He also owns a 20k projector and does the video mapping as well as organize and manage the 100 person crew. And that’s not it! Robbie, along with his team are the people to thank for the incredible talent booked at the stage each year.
Below he shares his story of the festival’s humble beginnings, starting off as a small party on a farm in Salmo, hand painting many of the beloved props and stage designs you see today, developing the stages, curating artists and performing at what has become one of the world’s premiere electronic music festivals.
My history with Shambhala predates the party itself. I moved to Nelson to go to Art School in 1998. I had just spent the summer working in Alberta and was introduced to the Rave scene by a guy I worked with while we were touring around all over Alberta working for a company based out of Nisku. I went to a rave in a club called Lush in Edmonton, led there by a flyer called ‘Ravin Bran.’ The flyer looked like a plagiarized Raisin Bran box. The party itself blew my mind. There were multiple floors and the guy I was working with at the time was excited because he got a DJ spot in the ambient lounge in the basement. When we arrived downstairs somebody whispered to me “take your shoes off,” they had planted a lawn in the basement and had a little cabana bar in the corner and everyone was chilling, just lying around on the grass in the dark in this big warehouse. Coming from the skid town of Castlegar and growing up playing in heavy metal bands this was an entirely new experience for me. It felt so fresh and exciting. Later that year in art school, I met a bunch of people that started the underground Rave scene in Nelson and fell in love with it.
At the same time, I met a young kid named Jimmy who had moved from the Okanagan with his parents after they sold their apple orchard and moved out to Salmo. Jim was excited about cooking more than anything as he had just come back from working for his uncle at a fancy restaurant in Kelowna. Jim was in peril of failing his English class because he wasn’t completing his assignments. So he literally hired me to do his homework by painting a picture of some dude hiking on a trail for an English project for $40. I told him I would paint the picture but he had to write the poem on it so it would be in his handwriting. At the end the teacher’s remarks were “B+ nice artwork, the poem needs work.” Later during summer solstice 1998 Jimmy and another guy named Niaus threw a party on the farm which was actually the first Rave out there, predating Shambhala.
It was halfway up the driveway and not actually at the Shambhala site. It was called “Uplift.” Jimmy, a guy named Mike McConnell and me went all out decorating for it. We stole some lumber tarps from a local mill and cut down a bunch of skinny birch trees to make two structures that kind of looked like the shape of two Sydney Opera Houses facing each other with an opening in the middle where we dangled the disco ball. On one side underneath one of them we buried an elevated dance platform by digging one of his dad’s flat deck trailers into the ground. I quit my job at Subway at the time so that I could paint the inside of one like daytime and the inside of the other like nighttime. That party was essentially the basis of everything we’ve done at Shambhala. Building crazy stuff on Jimmy’s farm and the having a vibey party. It really felt like we were onto something.
There was another promoter involved with Shambhala at the very beginning who threw other festivals that were very successful and some of the backbone of what the Rave culture in Nelson is today. I was walking down Baker St. with Steve-O and he was telling me an idea he had about throwing a festival called Shambhala. His idea was to do it on a river barge at Paradise, which is basically a place where people go cliff jumping illegally because it’s right below the dam and they could open the floodgates at any time. I told him that was a stupid idea and my buddy Jimmy had an awesome farm out in Salmo and his parents were super fucking cool and from that moment on Shambhala was on the farm.
The first year of Shambhala was pretty hokey. They had tried to throw a Punk Rock Festival there earlier that summer called “Funk and Irie,” so we had a bit of a stage to start with. I literally painted over “Funk and Irie” with “SHAMBHALA.” We were all scrambling to get it done and I remember as the party was starting I was still trying to paint bricks on a crappy Castle we made with gray paint on black plastic. The party itself was documented by Rich E Rich and can be found on YouTube.
He had been working with Rich Gablehouse on the “Summer Love” festivals and had just showed up to Shambhala to see what it was all about. I remember seeing Rich sitting on some couches he brought out on the sidelines of the main stage. He had brought some of the props he had made with spray paint and had his own very very small fractal Vibe going already.
The only other stage the first year was the Jungle Pit which at the time was his dad’s hole that he dug for a gravel pit and we basically repeated the exact same thing we did at the Uplift site by building a little Sydney Opera House Dome with Lumber tarps over top of it.
The very first year of Shambhala the Friday night was my birthday. So I guess technically Shambhala was my birthday party. The party itself was pretty underwhelming. The dance floor was pretty empty with like maybe 40-50 people at the most as there was really only maybe a few hundred people total with most people scattered around. It was headlined by a mixed cassette tape that Hoola Hoop made because he moved to Halifax and couldn’t attend the festival.
Over the next year I started a friendship with Rich E Rich who had moved to the Kootenays. We continued to throw small underground parties and I would go and visit Rich who lived out of town hitchhiking throughout the winter to go and hang out with him. He showed me a model that was basically a diorama of a stump and a Chewbacca and a whole bunch of little platforms and flowers that all had glow paint dumped all over them. He told me it was going to be the Fractal Forest. I thought he was super crazy but living in Nelson, being weird was par for the course.
That winter Rich showed me how to paint props with spray paint. From that moment on together we forged the future of the Fractal Forest where I painted a lot of the classic props that are still there today. Over the years the caterpillar, the flowers and mushrooms, Cheshire Cat and many others that have become classics out there and the vibe of what the fractal was based on. I used to love going out and visiting Rich even though he lived in Salmo and I lived in Nelson. It was a big hitchhike to get out there but I would still do it even in the dead of winter. That year Hoola and Rich E Rich both gifted me a bunch of vinyl so that I could start DJing. I ended up trading a poster that I drew for Hip Hop night to Brian Ripple for a belt drive techniques turntable. I bought another Akai direct-drive turntable from a buy and sell for $40. The turntable had a really wimpy motor and only had minus pitch control not plus so I had to mix all my fast records on that one because I could only slow them down to beat match them. I bought a brand new Radio Shack mixer for a hundred bucks that only had two volume sliders and a crossfader. I’m glad I learned on such shitty equipment because when I finally got to use Technics 1200 and a proper mixer it seemed so easy.
The next year we all went out to the farm and started hacking away at the super thick forest, which was to become the Fractal that it is today. I remember being out in this overgrown pile of trees with a machete and looking over at Jimmy and he was saying one day this is going to be like Disneyland. I also thought he was crazy. He knew that he could clear all the stuff away because he was used to having access to all the farm vehicles and equipment but to me it seemed impossible. Jim always knew he could do it. We always liked hanging out together because neither of us is afraid of hard work. Essentially that is what shaped Shambhala.
That year the Fractal Forest was born. To my surprise Rich had created the exact diorama that he had shown me in his house earlier that year with glow paint dumped on top of Chewbacca and a DJ booth in a giant burnt out stump. I went from thinking he was crazy to thinking he was a genius. I littered the Forest with my first generation attempt at painting fractal props and we created a very cool space but by the time Shambhala #2, 1999 Aug 20,21 and 22 came around we weren’t ready for it. We had major technical difficulties that year not only with getting everything setup but also problems with DJ’s not showing up. That year Shambs didn’t go off very smoothly but it was the first time I got a chance to DJ in front of people. A DJ didn’t show up for their set in the fractal and Rich asked if I could play. I had only ever played literally in my closet. I agreed nervously and was intimidated by all the knobs on the mixer because I had never used a Pioneer 600 before. So I asked him which channels it was that we were using, Rich said if you don’t know how to use the mixer you better get down from there. I said ” I can do it just show me which channels to use!” As soon as that happened I actually mixed a pretty good set and Rich was blown away with the funky beats.
Unfortunately, Shambhala lost a lot of money that year on top of the experience being less than expected. Jimmy had to work extreme hours at his father’s lumbermill cutting boards to pay off a lot of the debt. We all felt like we owed everyone the party we meant to throw so to make up for it, that same year in 1999 on my birthday Sept 4th we threw the first “Soup” party or otherwise known as Shambhala’s ‘Owe U ‘party. We set it up in the Fractal Forest which hadn’t been taken down yet. In fact we had had all the time we needed to really dial it in. Jimmy’s Mom made soup for everyone because it was so cold at night by September 4th. That party will go down as one of the most legendary that has ever happened on the farm. The vibe was so fresh. People were finally catching on to it. Lots of people showed up and the party was incredible. It really was retribution for an otherwise mediocre Festival weeks before.
We had two more Soup parties following Shambhala at the farm in years following. The last one in 2001, I remember seeing Jimmy’s dad sitting down in the crowd with his arms crossed while I was super wasted playing records. I could tell by the look on his face that it would be the last time we were going to be able to have another party after Shambhala. I think they wanted their Farm back by the time it was all done. To this day it would be impossible to reproduce the vibes that we had at those parties. There was something so special about the refinement of having the party after we had worked all the bugs out. Plus at that time dance music was still largely unpopular. What we were doing was, especially for the Kootenay area, completely left-field. Raves, at the time, were misunderstood by the local authorities to the point that they even tried to make a bylaw that prevented people from playing music that repeated the same bar more than twice.
The freshness of that feeling of forging a new path with music and creating something that was so original still lives on at Shambhala today. With the inundation of EDM culture and the fact that DJ’s nowadays are the equivalent of mega rock stars in the 80s like Van Halen or AC/DC has definitely changed raving from its humble beginnings. The fact that people DJing at the party in those days wasn’t what the party was about. The party was a collective. The DJ was only a small piece of the puzzle. I felt just as good dancing on the dance floor as I did playing records for the people that were doing it. The environment and the vibe and the people were synonymous with what we were trying to do. I think nowadays there is so much lost in the smoke and mirrors of glorifying artists and making DJs the center of attention. To me, a good DJ isn’t about having some big ego or big Rider or big name on the flyer. A good DJ is somebody who connects with the people dancing. I made this mix with all the dusty records that I played at the original “Soup” party. A lot of them are old school French house. Music back then was a lot loopier so you could really lose yourself in it.
Each one of the Soup flyers I drew by hand.