While parties are a welcome distraction for many students, they became the main act for two Wellingtonians – and their commitment to partying has paid off, big time.
In a new Stuff documentary series, Tribal, Olly de Salis and Cameron Morris explain how they built 121, the name of their festival, events agency and also Wellington nightclub. Watch the episode above.
The two young entrepreneurs and music lovers didn’t originally set out to build an events empire, but when the opportunity arose they knew they couldn’t let it go.
“It was the first year out of high school,” de Salis recalls. He’d been kneed in the face, and was dealing with a major concussion alongside a shattered eye socket.
“That injury really sparked something in my brain, that I really needed to make the most of every opportunity. It woke me up to themes of life and death… and my perception of right and wrong at the time was completely out the window.”
Enter, the partying.
It all started at de Salis’ family home in Wellington. While his parents were away, he says he made the most of their absence and decided to invite a few people round. As a fine art student, he made a few art installations – and explained parties to his parents as “art exhibits”.
Kitchen benches were no longer just benches, but in his mind, they were stages at DJ booths. Hallways could be glow-in-the-dark tunnels. The options were endless.
Those exhibits were rather creative; one included pizzas hanging from the roof.
These artful parties became legendary, known as “121 parties”. The name came from the street number.
Morris, the other young co-founder of 121, ended up flying down to one of the 121 house parties. He planned to DJ at it, and at the party he introduced de Salis to dance music. That meeting changed their lives.
They realised these house parties were unlike anything else, and teamed up to throw bigger, more elaborate parties.
I first met de Salis back in 2017. As a culture reporter for Stuff, I’d heard about the “office raves” and skate park concerts he’d been putting on at secret locations around Wellington.
They even threw a rave on an old tugboat, although de Salis said the acoustics weren’t too good.
In an article, at the time, I described him as a 20-year-old “who quit university to focus full-time on partying”.
It is an accurate description, although a bit tongue-in-cheek, and one de Salis reminded me about when we met last year to film Tribal. He liked the description, although in hindsight maybe I didn’t portray just how much foresight de Salis and Morris held.
Just a few years later, the parties in empty office buildings and car parks had evolved into one of the country’s most highly anticipated festivals. They were also running their own nightclub, which they hoped would revolutionise Wellington’s nightlife.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. As they told myself and filmmaker Chris Graham, in our just released documentary series, there were many moments when this empire could have crumbled down.
The Tribal series is about meeting the incredible musicians, creatives and – in this case – businesspeople and talented bar and events staff, who are shaping the modern New Zealand culture.
Across six episodes, we meet six communities which have formed thanks to music.
The evolution of 121, from house parties to festival, hasn’t come about because of de Salis and Morris alone.
“We started doing the club when we were 19 and 20. We had so many friends around us who were at uni, and we all just partied together,” Morris says.
“We lived together, partied together. We did everything together. That naturally grew this incredible support system around us.”
In Tribal, we meet the committed musicians, DJs, bar staff and mentors who have been drawn to the music and culture that’s formed around the brand.
The characters of 121 vary in age and interests. There’s Tim Ward, a veteran of Wellington’s hospitality scene who offered to help them set up a nightclub.
And then there’s people like Roxy, who started out as one of Club 121’s biggest fans, before getting a job there. She does a bit of everything, first introducing herself as an undercover raver, who makes sure everyone’s safe, she learnt to DJ as well and now tours the country to play her own gigs.
What drew her to 121? The music, at first. But it’s the people who kept her coming back.
“I love dancing and singing and being the person behind the decks, putting our nice music,” she says.
“It’s just so spiritual.”
Meet the scene, in episode two of Tribal. It’s out now at stuff.co.nz/tribal, or at the top of this article.
Tribal is made with the support of NZ On Air.