“MY hands couldn’t be any dirtier really.”

This is Holly Rankin’s response when I ask how hands-on she is in the running of Grow Your Own, the festival she co-founded in the twin towns of Forster-Tuncurry on the mid-north coast of NSW.

Holly – best known these days as the singer Jack River – started Grow Your Own with childhood friend Lee McConnell as a way of giving back to their community the thing they lacked the most growing up: creative role-models that followed their “weirdo” dreams and found success.

Featuring local talent such as Skegss, Los Scallywaggs and even Jack River herself, Grow Your Own expanded to a capacity of 3000 in just its second year, and is part of a wave of Australian festivals where artists call all the shots.

The most notable example perhaps is King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard’s annual Gizzfest, which spans five states and has grown into a Big Day Out of sorts for the band’s cult of psych-loving fans.

Photos: Ben Everden

After a year hiatus Alison Wonderland’s WonderlandScarehouseProject returned to Australia’s east-coast with a spooky premise; off-the-grid locations; a lineup featuring Lido, Party Favor, Quix, and A$AP Ferg; and the promise of “no lockouts”.

“There’s not that much in terms of a festival experience in Australia right now that’s coming from a super DIY perspective,” Alison told LNWY.co back in November 2017.

Overseas there’s FORM (Hundred Waters), Eaux Claires (Bon Iver), Parahoy! (Paramore), and Sound On Sound (Bleachers). Wilco have run at a 19th-Century mill in Massachusetts since 2010. My Morning Jacket will head to the Dominican Republic for their One Big Holiday destination fest. And even The National are dipping their toes into the festival market in 2018, hosting the likes of Father John Misty, Feist, Future Islands, and The Breeders at the aptly named Homecoming in Cincinnati.

We spoke to three acts who curate and run their own events in Australia: Jack River, Cable Ties, and The Smith Street Band.

The Smith Street Band’s Pool House Party

(Interview with frontman Wil Wagner)

What’s the story behind the Pool House Party?

We’ve done a few mini-festival type things before and had always talked about doing our own slightly bigger festival. Then after we started the label [Pool House Records] it made sense to throw a party with bands we’d signed and other bands we like.

Did you feel that typical festivals or events weren’t reflecting what you or your audience wanted?

Not really, there’s so many different boutique festivals now that all the bases are pretty much covered. We’ve just always been a pretty community oriented band and having put on smaller festivals before it just felt like a natural extension of what we’d already been doing to organise something a little bigger.

What was the thought behind the programming of your inaugural lineup and who are you particularly looking forward to seeing?

We basically all discussed and agreed on a few of the bigger acts and then all picked a few of our personal favourites for the smaller bands. I’m really excited to see Astronautalis again, he’s a rapper from the States who we did a big tour with last year, and is an incredible performer. I’m also so happy we got Baker Boy. I saw him a few months ago and it was one of the best sets I’ve seen in years. But I genuinely like everyone on the bill.

Is there anything uniting these artists?

I guess we wanted to pick people who we linked up with morally, get acts who believe in the same stuff we do and have similar attitudes towards music. To me the uniting thing between all the acts is that they’re good people making good music.

Photo: Ian Laidlaw

There’s a lot of talk about the lack of diversity on Australian festival bills. Was this a way of addressing that?

Not really, we just picked good artists. Luckily there is so much good music coming out of Australia at the moment being made by so many different kinds of people. It’s pretty easy to put together a diverse and interesting lineup.

What festivals inspired you growing up?

I went to V Fest when I was maybe 16, and I got to see The Pixies, Phoenix, and Jarvis Cocker on the same show. It blew my mind and I remember imagining them all hanging out together backstage and how cool it must be.

Are you crunching the numbers, organising the booze etc., or have you had to consult people outside the band?

I won’t take any credit for the actual running of the festival – I’m very unorganised – but I’m really proud of our lineup and it does feel cool to have our band name on top of that poster.

The [Coburg] Velodrome organises a lot of that stuff luckily. And we all have our own jobs within the band already for organising tours and stuff so we’ve just kinda extended those responsibilities.

Bosma – our manager/booking agent/spirit guide – has worked really hard to make all the logistics happen and our crew has really stepped it up as well. We’ve worked with a lot of the same people for years and they’ve grown with the band so it’s been pretty natural.

Are artist-run events the future of festivals? Or will they just continue to exist alongside more traditional events?

That’s a really good question. On one hand, the idea of seeing a more niche lineup of acts that are all in the same kinda world does make sense. And I love the model of the All Tomorrow’s Parties, where they’d have a different artist picking line ups each year. It’s great if you’re a real fan of a certain scene or label or artist.

But on the other hand, I love playing bigger, more generic festivals where you’ll have us and then Amy Shark and then Flume on the same stage. It brings more people in, and there’s a special unifying feeling to that. It’s also good as a musician to get out of your own bubble and see what other acts are doing and make new friends.

What’s harder: organising a festival or recording an album?

Recording an album is the hardest but also most beautiful thing ever. We’re gonna make another one real soon and I can’t wait.

Grow Your Own/Electric Lady

 

What inspired Grow Your Own?

Lee McConnell (GYO Creative Director) and I grew up in Forster as creative kids with hardly any local role models, and no events to go to. Because of that, it’s fair to say we felt like weirdos when we both decided to pursue creative fields professionally.

Meeting back in our mid-20s we realised we had followed our weirdo dreams so some level of success where we had access to unlimited creative people and all the resources we needed to take something back to our town.

We put all our dreams of a festival together and birthed Grow Your Own to be exactly what we would have wanted in our town growing up. More than just a festival, we see it as a platform for kids in our regional area to see, meet and touch all the great things coming out of their own backyard, and learn the stories of older kids who have trodden the same path and found success.

Did you feel that typical festivals or events weren’t reflecting what you wanted? Or maybe they weren’t reflecting what regional audiences wanted?

Firstly it’s a geographical thing, there is no festival between Newcastle and Port Macquarie. Secondly, our area spoke to us of a certain type of festival that blends music with sustainability and food, without losing the psychedelic/coastal edge that we love. We found most festivals swung one way or the other (from environmental to family friendly to gnarly hypo festival lyf) – and we wanted to make something that sits in between.

We’re still learning what regional audiences want, but we ourselves love gritty, authentic acts who have a story that regional audiences can resonate with. We try to book bands that have come from regional areas, if they haven’t come from our own. Regional crew need to know what is possible, and kids need to learn that you don’t necessarily have to move to the city to “make it”.

This festival is based around ”homegrown talent and produce”. Can you tell us a bit about the region and the music/produce coming out of there right now?

Sure, the mid-north coast is from the edge of the Hunter, right up to Coffs Harbour. There are so many bands coming out of these places but some of our favourites are definitely Skegss, Kita Alexander, Los Scallywaggs & Wings!

Produce-wise, like many coastal regional areas at the moment, we are experiencing an influx of small-scale farmers and producers creating products directed toward local markets only. I am personally extremely passionate about local produce and buying locally and in-season, and I know that a growing percentage of my generation feels the same way, too.

As a festival company, we want to widen access to these things in a creative way. For example, to spread the story of locally made beverage company Saxbys, we matched them with local band Los Scallywaggs to create “Scally’s Soda”.

There have been a spate of artist-run events and festivals over the years. Why is that?

As an artist, my work time is super cyclical. I started both festivals [Holly also runs the travelling Electric Lady series of events] when I had a fairy bit of spare time and wanted to spend it working within the industry I had already worked so hard to get into.

Also you can only get your hands so dirty before you start being kinda annoying to your management and label team. There are all kinds of artist-run businesses, but for me a festival involved all the moving parts and people that I love: artists, managers, agents, production, event building, a physical site, a touch of community engagement.

If it seems to be a movement, it could be that festivals are super fun and they involve the creation of a feeling and a place that wasn’t there before – much like an album or a song. Just a hell of a lot more logistics and fuckery.

What were some of the lessons from 2017?

We are looking to grow the festival over a 10-year period, so capacity-wise we are 100 percent still in the early stages of our growth. To note all of the lessons would take too long, but some overarching lessons would be: never assume something is done, quadruple check, and never take “industry standard” as your own. If your standard is higher, keep expectations aligned with reality but never lose the dream (always make time for it).

Photos: Charlie Hardy

Was there a particular moment from the 2017 Grow Your Own that stands out?

Yes. The Gathung Welcome Ceremony at 5pm in which around 12 young indigenous males and three men gave the most sacred welcome to the land and our festival. Tears were rolling down my face as I saw 1500 people gathered around the boys in a circle; smoke rolling through the crowd, faces of sacred amazement and deep appreciation for our local indigenous culture.

There was a deep sense within the crowd that we had been missing this all our young lives: a communal connection to the culture that has lived next door to us, but has never been reachable because of the historic divide that still exists.

There’s a lot of talk about the lack of diversity on Australian festival bills. Was your “other” festival, Electric Lady, a way of addressing that?

Yes, definitely. But Electric Lady is less of a band-aid option and more of a concentrated celebration of women on fire in music. We created it outside of the diversity conversation, although it obviously does address the need for more females in every role in the music industry.

What was the experience like in comparison to Grow Your Own?

Grow Your Own was built in my local community, a market place which my team and I knew like the back of our hands. Jumping straight into a Metro [Sydney] and Corner [Melbourne] capacity show was a huge challenge. We also didn’t expect as much interest and press as we received, so we quickly had to grow up and make Electric Lady a success – even though it was our first crack at a multi-headline city event…

We have global goals for Electric Lady, so the thinking, planning and conversation sits in a different universe to Grow Your Own. In saying that, both entities seek to direct energy toward something bigger and something meaningful on a cultural level.

Electric Lady has expanded out now to the Gold Coast and beyond “electric guitar” music, what’s your vision for the future of the event?

Our vision is to make Electric Lady a female-fronted, multi-headline event that can happen in any city and genre. We are looking at a major national series, and opening up conversations with international locations too. We’re continuing to make all fields a part of the movement – with regular interviews spreading throughout our socials. I’d be lying if I said a podcast wasn’t on the table too.

What festivals inspired you growing up?

Bluesfest was the first festival I attended (age 15) and it had a huge huge impact on my life. It introduced me to the feeling of being a part of something greater, it gave me access to that feeling that I now live off/might die by: that ridiculously flammable feeling of a crowd who are all feeling the same thing, on the same wavelength. It’s a sacred thing that feels like it can change the world.

Next would be Splendour. Waiting for days and days for the lineup; researching every sideshow; working for music media just so I could go to the festival and be in the photo pit (as close as possible to the artists); and being so obsessed with the festival artwork and collecting every poster I could. Remembering and drawing from this obsessive feeling for a festival brand makes me want to create something just as strong.

How hands on are you in the nitty grittys of organising the events?

My hands couldn’t be any dirtier really. [Laughs] Both events are only in their second year, and have been started from scratch with no major partnership. As the director I have been across every single aspect of their creation…

I love trying to become a faux expert on things in a quick amount of time – we work with the best and I try to learn as much as I can from each person. It’s an incredible way to fast track industry knowledge, from production to legals and basic communication. We are building a company from scratch…

Are artist-run events the future of festivals?

I have no idea what the future holds, but I do think “artists” will become smarter, stronger and have more ownership of their assets as the marketplaces for culture become increasingly more digital and therefore hands-on. Creating businesses and festivals are as interesting to me as creating albums. They complement and influence each other in a way I don’t see myself getting sick of. I’m guessing this is the same feeling for any other artist that wants to do more than music.

The Cable Ties Ball

(Interview with bassist Nick Brown)

Is the Cable Ties Ball experience similar to throwing a massive house party, or is there a lot more involved?

[Laughs] There’s definitely more emails than this than a house party. And the flipside is we don’t have to do nearly as much cleaning up as this if it was at our place, so I’m pretty welcoming of that.

What’s the story behind the ball? Was it born out of WETFEST [the annual mini-festival run by Cable Ties singer Jenny McKechnie’s “other” band, Wet Lips]?

We played our first gig at the first WETFEST. That was a backyard music festival and that was really great. We’ve been working on some ideas of parties we wanted to throw that’s an expression of us and what we’re into. Obviously we have a close relationship with Wet Lips, so there’s a bit of crossover. But I think we were just looking at an event that’s a bit of a celebration of all the bands that we love and admire, which is hardly a unique concept, particularly in Melbourne. People love throwing big gigs and parties to celebrate all the people around them.

We’d been thinking about it for a bit, and then the Corner Hotel gave us this really lovely award and helped us out massively with putting on a show at the corner. And we were like, “Oh, this feels like the right time to be doing something a bit bigger, and a bit more expansive and fun than we’ve done before. We had the opportunity to do two stages in one room and go to town on the booking. It’s a bit of a dream lineup as well.

Whose concept was the ball?

It was an idea the three of us had been kicking around for a while. About 18 months ago we did a split 7” with Wet Lips and we had a big launch at The Gas [Gasometer] in Collingwood. I think we had six bands play, and a DJ afterwards. It had a real party feel to it, and a real focus on people’s music and the cool things they were up to.

We liked the idea of it being a party, but also that people weren’t just there to get wasted, but love these bands and maybe get exposed to something they hadn’t seen before, as well as seeing their favourite stuff. After that we thought down the line we’d do something similar. We didn’t really get a chance to do that last year. We did the album launch and tour, and this opportunity came along and it felt like the right time.

There seems to be a spate or artist-run festivals and events. I’m wondering if that’s a reaction at all to what you’re seeing out there with mainstream festivals?

Yeah, maybe. There’s a sense that if you have a dream for something you can kinda make it happen in Melbourne. There’s a critical mass of people who are interested in coming along and supporting new stuff, interesting stuff, and different ideas. You can look around and see that it’s actually possible to throw a super fun party with lots of bands, and for people to come along and make it a great time. That’s really nice … It’s a reaction more to the cool things going on in this city.

There’s a big debate around diversity on festival lineups. Do you think this is a way of addressing that?

We just pick the bands we love, and the bands that have inspired us – whether it’s musically (a band like The Dacios who we look up to immensely as an incredible rock’n’roll band that got us into all these things in the first place) or Simona, Miss Blanks or Habits, who are super powerful, super inspiring people making really interesting art, and going out there and doing it every week of the year.

Is there anything uniting the artists that play the Ball?

The stories they tell and the narrative in their music really speaks to each other. If you’re a person that likes what our band does, or what Miss Destiny does, I don’t think it’s a massive leap to actually understand what Miss Blanks is about … Most of the bands are our friends, or our mates. We go to their gigs, and they come to ours. There’s no sentiment we can’t understand across a divide that might just be there because of how a band sounds.

Is this the future, do you think, of festivals? Things that are run by artists themselves as opposed to the older models?

I think there’s space for both. People respond really well to grassroots stuff because they can see how positionate and how involved the people that make them are in it. They really respond well to a bit more of a direct feeling of a community. But there’s always going to be room for big music festivals. We can’t bring out a band that plays to 10 or 15,000 people to the Cable Ties Ball. That’s not feasible…

[So] I think there’s room for both to exist. There are people that go to the Cable Ties Ball who are always going to go to a music festival with 20,000 people in the summer. Hopefully they’ll be able to enjoy both. There’s room for both of those things to live harmoniously.

"A festival involved all the moving parts and people that I love: artists, managers, agents, production, event building, a physical site, a touch of community engagement."

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