Sugar Mountain's Pete Keen On Maintaining The Uniqueness Of A Festival


While bigger festivals seem to be crumbling around it, Melbourne’s Sugar Mountain Festival is one of the few success stories. The festival returned after a year break earlier this year at its new site, the Victorian College of the Arts, pairing music and art and offering punters a unique festival experience.

Our writer last year called the festival “a day full of good vibes,” and that seems to be one of the festival’s greatest achievements. They’ve managed to attract an energetic but reasonably small bunch of punters who are friendly and genuinely excited to experience music in different capacities.

Next year, the festival will return again with a new lineup headed by Hot Chip, Dirty Three and Courtney Barnett. They're also repping for the new artists enlisting Sampa The Great, Pearls and Empress Of to unleash on an unassuming crowd. On the art side of things they’ve pulled in Daniel Askill who worked on Sia’s mind-blowing videos last year and a world premiere of the NONOTAK song which combines art installation with electronic music.

We spoke to Sugar Mountain’s creative director Pete Keen to chat about the state of music festivals, what sets this event apart from others and what to expect from the 2016 event.

You must be excited things are heating up for the 2016 event now?
Yeah it feels really nice to be sitting where we are. It’s our fifth year but as of returning from our little break it feels like our second year. We feel like we’re sitting in a really nice place and feeling a little more at home with things.

Were you guys satisfied with last year’s event returning after a break and moving to a new site?
Yeah. We had a break which was much needed for the growth of the festival with our new situation with new partners and we also had to reevaluate where we wanted the festival to be and what we wanted to deliver. And I think we got it right last year for ourselves. Aside from whatever positivity came from everyone else, for ourselves it felt really nice. Coming into this year we’re feeling positive.

Even though you were really happy with last year was there anything you wanted to change for 2016?
I’m not really sure a change as such but just developing on the things that worked. I feel like a lot of the things worked for us so we were quite lucky. The negatives were so minimal if anything so it was a pretty hugely positive return. For us coming into this year it was stepping forward on a really good foot and still having the freedom and trust from our community. We could deliver a really interesting lineup and have fun with it.

It must be interesting for you guys to watch big festivals crumble around you.
It’s really interesting to see things come and go around us. The ones that I went to as a kid when I was first a legal age are now not around and younger festivals, which are even younger than us, are doing well. Personally, I don’t attend many other festival, if any, in Australia so I kind of focus on our own and try not to be too attracted by anything else that’s going on around us.

When you finish an event and sit there with a blank canvas for the next year what are your first steps?
I’m already a few months into the next year of the festival. I’m trying to roll on things that have worked. I see a nice recipe but also try to push myself creatively. We’ve always been interested in unique collaborations where we are putting a musician with an artist or a contemporary dance choreographer. This year stemming on from the NONOTAK premiere this year, you’ll see a lot more of that stuff in the future. There will be a lot more unique stuff that our audience will receive first over the rest of the world rather than going to a festival and experiencing something that the rest of the world has seen and we’re maybe on the tail end. In the future you’ll see from us a progression where we are the pioneers.

It’s quite cool to see you guys pick up on someone like Daniel Askill who was part of Sia’s creatives last year. Was he high on you list to get?
Yeah definitely. For myself, when looking at Australian that are really making a name for themselves...well, someone like Daniel already had a profound name before working with Sia but after stacking up a few million views on YouTube it’s helped his career. It’s good enlisting hometown heroes that have done really well overseas, we wanted to represent that at the festival.

One of the great things about Sugar Mountain is it pairs the heavy players with new names at the bottom of the lineup. Is it important for you to rep new artists?
Definitely. The younger emerging artists are as important to the lineup as anyone else. Even more exciting than some of the bigger names. Once you give an up and coming artist the chance to play on a larger stage to a larger audience, it’s amazing to see how many of those artists actually step up and really own it on the day. These artists are just as much our peers in the Melbourne creative scene so it’s awesome to have them on board.

How good has the new space been for the festival?
With VCA or the arts precinct as a whole we’ve got huge amount of room to move. This year we’re using the Melbourne Recital Centre as well and there’s so many spaces and places to take advantage of and show the greater public that may not have poked their head down there. It opens you up to being able to do special performances in little rooms or larger performances in rooms that may not be available in the city.

One of the main parts of making a successful festival is finding a good demographic. Have you guys been pleased with the type of people that are coming through to the festival?
Yeah definitely. The most special thing for me personally is if you come to our festival, and it’s not me trying to sell the festival, is primarily our crowd is such a positive, good vibe crowd. Anytime I’ve worked around it seems like you can join any group or individual and have a really enjoyable day rather than being squished between people that are on a different energy level to you. It just feels really good. That’s stuck with us the whole way along. We’re definitely aiming to keep that vibe intact and not grow too large. God, I sound like a hippy.

Is there a temptation to grow the festival larger?
Not at all. We’re very keen to keep the numbers to a comfortable size. It may grow the tiniest bit in the next couple of years but it won’t be much bigger. We’re really keen to keep it limited numbers.

Read our interview with Empress Of who will play Sugar Mountain 2016.

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