There’s a new music festival in town, and it’s playing a different tune. Gone are the usual big names, replaced by a handful of local and international artists that could be best described as “well kept secrets”. The inaugural Sugar Mountain festival will annex the Forum Theatre this coming weekend, offering a unique mix of music and visual art that’s a little bit, um – well, what is it exactly?
Festival co-director Brett Louis admits Sugar Mountain will be hard to pigeonhole. The performers aren’t quite rock, aren’t quite dance and aren’t quite pop – and the chances are they’ll be largely unknown to all but the most dedicated music fan. Still, as far as Louis is concerned, the element of surprise should prove a winner.
“I always find when I go to festivals, it’s the bands I didn’t know about or expect I’d see that really blow me away,” he says. “We’re hoping we’ll give people a chance to see what else is out there.”
Melbourne certainly loves its festivals, so much so that we like to throw a new one every few days. After all, this is a city that coined the phrase “festival fatigue”. What does Louis see Sugar Mountain bringing to an already crowded table?
“We’re sick of seeing the same kind of line-up and format at every festival. So we’ve tried to pick bands that are bit unpredictable, alongside visuals and art, to make something that’s a bit more out there and show what can be done.”
One of these unpredictable bands is Canadian group No Kids, who will be swapping hemispheres for the first time in their career, in order to take to the stage at The Forum. Lead singer Nick Krgovich says he isn’t too worried about playing to a room of clueless strangers – or blind tasters, as it were.
“No Kids have a pretty rich tradition of putting ourselves in strange situations. Our first show was at the SXSW festival and we didn’t bring any gear, we had to just borrow it off other bands,” Krgovich says.
“I guess it doesn’t really matter where you are or who’s watching, you’re trying to bring your world and your ideas and have them resonate in some way with the audience.”
No Kids are a perfect example of the stall Sugar Mountain is setting out: unknown enough to be unquestionably cool, and offering an eccentric blend of pop, R & B and – if you believe hipster music site Pitchfork – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This slightly-crazed mesh of music genres is an approach whole-heartedly embraced by Australian electro duo Collarbones, who will be making their festival debut at Sugar Mountain. Their much-lauded album Iconography is an astonishing blend of influences, all of them hacked to pieces and then sticky-taped back together.
One half of the ’bones, Travis Cook, says he prefers to ignore genre labels and make his own mess.
“I just try to absorb as much music as I can. I’m pretty open-minded really, it’s not really the influences that matter, but the amount of them. I try to grab from everywhere, so I’m not being too derivative of any one thing.”
This freewheeling approach to music making has its roots in the oh-so-modern way Collarbones were formed. Cook met fellow Collarbone Marcus Whale on an internet forum when both were still in high school, and they recorded their first track before they’d ever shaken hands. Evolving as a band online, Cook says, meant they weren’t trying to impress anyone in particular.
“It’s a bit liberating having the internet as your scene, rather than being geographically tied to any one place, like Adelaide. Adelaide’s great, but there’s not too many people making similar music to us here. They’ve all moved off to Melbourne.”
Because of this refusal to fit in with any one scene, Cook says Collarbones are a good fit for Sugar Mountain and applauds the curators’ determination to unearth bands sitting outside the limelight.
“Normal festivals rely on bigger artists, so these guys are taking a gamble. But a lot of people who won’t have heard of these bands will get into them because of this festival. And a lot of local bands in Australia who aren’t well known might get a break.”
Brett Louis is keen to stress that a surprising line-up is only one of the aces up his festival’s sleeve. The onstage antics will be supplemented by an extensive exhibition of works by local and international visual artists.
Renowned American artist Thomas Campbell promises to be a star attraction, bridging the gap between performer and painter as he tackles canvasses before a live audience. Louis says that, unlike most other festivals, the displays here will be more than mere gimmickry.
“On the day, what will make us stand out is how we combine musical and visual artists. There’s a lot of things at the moment that call themselves art and music festivals, where they have huge music programs and then maybe one tent in the distance, with some visual art. We wanted to use art to really transform our venue.”
No matter how slippery and surprising Louis hopes his festival will be, he has a clear idea of who will be shelling out for a ticket. Filling the stands will be discerning inner suburbanites who keep their stereos tuned to public radio and spend their time keeping up to date with new labels and releases. Basically, these are people who care about what’s going on. (Chances are, if you’ve read this far, that’s you.)
Aware their target market already has plenty to be spending money on (limited edition vinyl doesn’t come cheap, after all), the directors have done their best to keep ticket prices low, a day pass checking in at less than half the price a festival goer might expect to pay.
For that handful of dollars, they just might have their gig-going expectations well and truly raised. As far as Louis is concerned, his newborn festival intends to shake Melbourne’s musical landscape out of its complacency.
“Every gig just seems the same these days, you know, with a three-band line-up which is all just rock or pop or whatever. I think when people come and see what we’ve done here, they’ll start expecting a lot more from normal gigs.”
SUGAR MOUNTAIN \ Saturday April 30, The Forum Theatre, $65