Published on September 22nd, 2016 | by Robert0
Happy Trails: the Rocky Road to Establishing a Music Festival
I’m a chronic daydreamer. I’m very rarely in the here-and-now. My daydreams are only about a couple of things, though.
The first dream involves running a little cafe with my wife, just like La Paloma in Brunswick. Fela Kuti is playing through a really nice sound system and all the customers are happy because their coffees are just right.
In the second daydream, I’ve organised a festival where the bands are all perfectly chosen, they sound great, the location is spot-on and again, everyone is happy. I’m standing up the back by the mixing desk watching these people have a good time.
“I only remember the heat, the dust, and my Li-lo deflating in the middle of the night.”
These dreams have been going round and round in my head for well over a decade. The funny thing is, I don’t drink coffee and I don’t particularly like music festivals.
I only went to Meredith once about fifteen years ago. It was alright, I suppose. Sleater-Kinney was amazing, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was pretty good, but on the whole, I really only remember the heat, the dust, the hangovers and my Li-lo deflating in the middle of the night.
I had a similarly uncomfortable experience at a Big Day Out ten years ago. Seeing the Stooges before Ron Asheton died was mind-blowingly good, but it was a bloody long and uncomfortable day surrounded by drunken teens. On both occasions I felt like I’d been reamed too. Even back then, festivals were ridiculously expensive.
I couldn’t help thinking, “Why didn’t I just go to the side shows? You can properly see and hear the bands and it doesn’t feel like an such an effort of endurance.”
Around the time I went to the Big Day Out I became involved in the Devil’s Kitchen festival.
Skye Bird, the main organiser, started it a couple of years before I came on board. The stoner band I was playing in, Molten Duke Ranch, played the year before when it was held at the Tote. She wanted to expand it, so she and I—as well as Nick Winterun—organised an outdoor event held over two weekends at Ceres Environment Park in Brunswick.
It was really successful and fun. The line-up was stellar: Rollerball, Budd, Ancient Man, My Left Boot, Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Ahkmed, and Wicked City on the first Saturday and Legends of Motorsport, Peeping Tom, Winterun, Clagg, Molten Duke Ranch, Fire Witch, and The Mexicans on the second weekend.
I think Birushanah (the most awesome Japanese band) was supposed to play at it too, but that didn’t end up happening for some reason.
That year, Skye also organised Devil’s Kitchens in other cities around Australia and it became a big thing for a while. I was only involved in organising it for one year, but those two Saturdays at Ceres were a heap of fun and so satisfying.
Budd was pretty much my favourite band when I was sixteen, so watching them amongst a decent crowd of really happy, friendly people at an outdoor festival that I’d helped organise was pretty special.
I preferred our little festival to the bigger ones I’d been to, because there was no separation between the performers and the audience. Everyone was a friend, and there was no hierarchy whatsoever.
My involvement in this tight-knit community of stoner bands ended when Molten Duke Ranch finished up. My wife and I got married that year and we had our first child the following year, so I went into hibernation for a while.
When I emerged, married and two children later, the other long-running band I’d been in, Dad They Broke Me, had also shut up shop.
I started a new band with a friend from work, Shack of Bells, around this time. We had a drum machine and I guess you’d say we had a post-punk sort of sound.
“I guess that’s the way you become involved in a scene, by supporting others.”
Molten Duke Ranch and Dad They Broke Me both found their places in welcoming, tight-knit scenes with reasonably healthy audiences. For this reason, booking shows—and getting people to turn up—wasn’t a huge problem.
This wasn’t the case for Shack of Bells. We played with some great bands, but we never really found a community in the same way I had with my other bands. It also got harder and harder to get people along to shows because parenthood and a move to the suburbs meant I grew apart from my old friends. Many of them were also having children and leading quieter lives that didn’t involve drinking and seeing bands.
I wasn’t able to go and see bands either, and I guess that’s the way you become involved in a scene, by supporting others.
It was particularly hard to get bands with some sort of name to play on a show you were trying to book. Understandably, venues want you to draw a crowd; empty rooms don’t stay open for long. The problem is, there is a food chain, at least in the much bigger sea of bands that make up the indie community, and it seemed very cliquey. We’d asked bands to play and there’d be no reply.
I understood why; we didn’t really have anything to offer them.
That’s when I started thinking about doing a festival again. I figured if we could put on something great, that bands would want to play at, we might generate some goodwill towards our band that would hopefully translate into shows for us down the track. I wish I could say my motivations were more altruistic, but sadly they weren’t.
In 2014, I decided the time was right to have a go at running my own festival, Happy Trails, named after the import record store my mother ran in Geelong in the ’70s. I had a location in mind too, Seaspray, a tiny little town up in Gippsland on the Ninety-Mile Beach. The drummer from Molten Duke Ranch had a family holiday house there that we went to a few times to rehearse.
I loved it because it hadn’t been gentrified yet, unlike all the other coastal towns in Victoria. You could still get half a dozen dimmies and a Big M from the local milk bar. Aside from the milk bar, the only other businesses in town were the surf-lifesaving club and a caravan park. Seaspray seemed perfect, because there was a tiny little hall next door to a caravan park, and straight across the road was the most amazing beach that was totally deserted.
“It was a big failure, and a fairly public one. It was completely my own fault too.”
Stupidly, I tried to go big, or at least, big for me. I wanted to charge $50 a ticket for a two-day event three hours from Melbourne. The hefty ticket price was to pay for a big sound system, hall hire, and a publicist. I needed at least fifty payers to cover costs, which didn’t seem a crazy number of people.
The signs were ominous. A couple of months before the festival, the other half of my two-piece band decided to pull the pin. I wanted to play on the festival I’d organised, so I bought a looping pedal and tried to cobble together a solo set as quickly as I could.
On top of this, all the bills were due a week out from the event, and by that time we’d only sold six tickets. Some of the better-known bands on the bill understandably started pulling out when it became clear that stuff-all people were going to be there.
I really couldn’t risk taking a two grand loss on it, so I decided to knock it on the head before I owed anyone money. My wife is a stay-at-home parent and I’m a high school teacher, so we don’t have any spare cash for my vanity projects.
It was a big failure, and a fairly public one. It was completely my own fault too. I hadn’t properly organised it, and I really didn’t think things through. I’d taken a big gamble that I really couldn’t afford to pay if things didn’t work out.
Worst of all, I’d been warned. This guy, Don, who plays in Fraudband, said to me early on that it’d be tough to get that number of people to travel so far. He suggested I hire or borrow a much cheaper vocal PA and charge a much smaller door fee so it wouldn’t matter if stuff all people came along. If only I had have listened.
Early in the following year, my solo project became a two-piece when my old friend Chris came on board playing drums. We changed the name from Labradorable to Green Mules and once we had a set together, we started talking about shows.
I told him I wanted to redeem myself for last year’s failure, so we sat down with Don from Fraudband and fleshed out an idea for an event that wouldn’t lose us money and might have a half-decent chance of succeeding.
“I really liked looking around and seeing people having a good time.”
Don suggested we do it somewhere within two hours of Melbourne that had its own local scene of bands. We decided on Ballarat because Chris and I used to play in a band with a guy from Ballarat, Nick Ward. He was pretty well connected up there and we knew his friends, Lyndon and Mango, who play in Lime Lagoons. They’re a terrific garage punk band and they know pretty much everyone who plays in bands up there.
They put me onto Mark with the Sea as well as Onion Engine, and we had ourselves a solid local contingent.
I found a terrific venue in a little town fifteen minutes from Ballarat called Creswick. It was an old railway goods shed that backed onto the platform of the train station. It’s a beautiful old building that hosts community events and a trash-and-treasure market run by a dedicated team of locals and led by Judy Henderson and her husband, Don. They ran a barbie and made veggie curry and dhal to raise money for the local scout group.
We had a great day. Fifteen bands, from midday to midnight. The lineup was ludicrously diverse, but it too had the friendly, egalitarian vibe I’d loved so much at Devil’s Kitchen nearly ten years earlier.
“Chris and I decided the Eastern was the perfect venue for the next Happy Trails.”
The bands could sell tickets directly to friends and family, so a couple of the bands did pretty well out of it and made some alright money. The rest of us came out with about twenty bucks each. Most importantly, it didn’t lose anyone money.
I really liked looking around and seeing people having a good time. I’m a pretty socially awkward person—for whatever reason—but I like the organising side of things, while other people do the socialising. It felt like a success and I definitely felt vindicated after the previous year’s failure. Everyone said they had a great time and were keen for me to organise another one.
I sat down with Chris and his partner, Wendy, a few months later and we discussed what we thought went well and what we could do differently. We decided that fifteen bands were a bit of a slog, especially when a fair few of them were crushingly loud.
We figured eight would be a good number, and we thought quieter acts would be less taxing.
Around this time, we played a show at the Eastern with our good friends, Hard Rubbish and Mark with the Sea. It’s such a great pub, and the band room sounds fantastic.
We got absolutely smashed and stayed at the pub in a dorm room behind the stage with the Hard Rubbish lads. Big nights out are few and far between for me since having kids, so it was the best night I’d had in ages. It made me want to move up to Ballarat so I could make it my local.
Chris and I decided it was the perfect venue for the next Happy Trails. Even though the first one had been the lowest of low-key festivals, it still was a lot of work and it ate into the little free time I have outside of work and family. I figured doing the next one in a proper venue would dramatically cut down the amount preparation required, and thankfully, it has.
Marc Oswin from Mark with the Sea runs a Ballarat-based label called Heart of the Rat Records. He’s going to be performing as A MINER, which he describes as “down-tempo robotic folktronica”. He’d just put out an album by MATT MALONE, called S.I.X, which was described by The Sydney Morning Herald as a “dissonant, cracked, haunted” collection of murder ballads.
I really liked it, so I contacted Matt and he was keen to play. He put me onto a few of the other acts from this year’s line-up too, such as TRAPPIST AFTERLAND and DAFFODIL ELEVEN-DAY INTERVAL.
Adam Cole’s devotional psychedelic folk project, TRAPPIST AFTERLAND, has garnered widespread praise for its “assured, powerful and majestic songs tinged with mystery, ritual and beauty” (The Active Listener). Adam has toured Europe extensively and pressings of his records sell out ridiculously quickly.
One of his Trappist Afterland collaborators, Phil Coyle, will also be appearing with his new(ish) outfit, DEEP WATER ORCHESTRA. These guys describe themselves as the “soundtrack to your subconscious” and they work up some pretty mean Middle Eastern drones. They’re gonna seriously blow minds.
Ballarat native Pete Warden has toured widely with his mighty noise-rock group, Shovels. He leads the equally impressive ONION ENGINE, which for many (including me) was the highlight of Happy Trails 2015. Onion Engine sounds like Swordfishtrombones had Tom Waits accidentally erased his vocal track from the mix.
TAMMY HAIDER is one half of dormant psych-pop duo Royalchord. Her songs are “tender, intimate, confessional tales of the pitfalls of relationships, an inexplicable fear of the future, and learning things the hard way” (Triple J Unearthed). I did a show with her when I was playing solo, and I thought she was really good.
Coincidently, one of her songs from her Royalchord days was featured on the soundtrack to a film I taught for several years to Year 12 English students called Look Both Ways. Small world, eh? She and her Royalchord partner moved to Berlin for several years, but she’s been back and playing solo for the past two years.
GREEN MULES is mine and Chris’ band. I organise the festival, so I’ve obviously put our band on both years. We don’t get asked to play festivals too often (at all), so that motivated me to start my own. We describe our music as “fringe-dweller stories sung with a thin, reedy voice; looped guitars; drums with plenty of cymbals and toms, the snare always turned off.”
Our first EP was pretty jangly psychedelic folk-rock, but our latest batch of songs, which we’re planning to record in coming months, has evolved into an altogether different beast.
Ballarat’s ALPHA HALL was recommended to me by the Eastern’s terrific booker and general legend, Doug. He said they sounded a bit like The National. They haven’t been round very long or played many shows, but their recordings are superb. The adjective “cinematic” comes to mind.
I didn’t know anything about DAFFODIL ELEVEN DAY INTERVAL till this evening, really.
It’s a solo project by Anthony Ynohtna and was suggested to me by Matt Malone. I bought one of his recordings on Bandcamp, an epic track called Ox Rails. I am reminded me a bit of Six Organs of Admittance, who I absolutely love.
I spoke to Matt on his community radio show this evening, and he said Anthony is an unassuming young fella who hails from the Ballarat punk community.
I’ve gotta say it again, Ox Rails is such a great song. I can’t wait to hear Anthony play live.
Happy Trails starts from 3pm at the Eastern Hotel on Humfray St, Ballarat, Saturday 24th September. Tickets are $15 on the door (no pre-sales). For more information, check the event listing on facebook.