Who would run a music festival?
While the opportunity to curate your own artists, share the love with friends and have one huge weekend party a year all seems very enticing, the logistics of running a festival in this country are huge and risky. As they enter their tenth year, The Hills Are Alive festival has proven that it’s possible as they continue to bring a collection of mates (or mates of mates) to their home every year to watch carefully picked artists perform in a beautiful setting.
McLaren, along with his brother Rhett, were musicians doing the hard yards and trying to make it overseas with their band Long Walk Home, but after a chilly winter in Berlin and missing the warmth of Australia (and the warmth of money!), they came up with a plan for a welcome home party late one night. The next morning, they emailed a sketch of their family property, along with the plans for The Hills Are Alive party to their parents back home (Kerena and Peter McLaren). They’d been away three years, so their parents – perhaps in a moment of weakness – agreed.
McLaren reminisces, “10 years! It feels like it’s gone in a bit of a blink of an eye. We grew up in the middle of nowhere on this fifth-generation dairy farm [around 95 mins South-East of Melbourne], but our father was into music and he’d actually converted an old dairy into a rehearsal room to local musicians or anyone in a 50km radius who would drive out there and jam away some tunes. So we grew up with that, which is where the love of music came from. You combine that with the boredom of being in the middle of nowhere and music becomes a bit of an outlet!”
An outlet indeed. What started as a party with a dozen bands, 334 closely chosen friends (and their friends) has become a feature on the Victorian music calendar for its taste-making curation of artists who are not only great performers, but good people.
“Because everyone was a friend of a friend, everyone just acted like you were at a friend’s party and if you didn’t know someone, you’d just offer them a drink and you’d end up chatting and hanging out!”
For seven years, the festival grew by word of mouth. The original attendees were all given a password that they could use for the following year – and so on, and so forth until 2015 – where tickets were made available to the public as a whole. Even though the festival is now public, it is not seen as a money-making venture. McLaren and the other organisers have gone on to create the NYE On The Hill festival, which is more about turning a profit and supporting the labour of love that is The Hills Are Alive.
Like any DIY outdoor festival (especially one in the four-seasons-in-one-day Melbourne), the success (or mess) of a weekend can be dependent on Mother Nature. So has there ever been a year that nearly didn’t make it? McLaren recalls, “There have definitely been challenges! We’ve had a couple of years where the day before the event we’ve just been hit so hard with a storm that it’s basically destroyed the week’s previous set-up work and we’ve had to hold gates the day before with strong winds and we’ve been really nervous. But thank the weather gods and touch wood, it’s always just got there.”
With fifteen successful events at the site, it was the sixteenth that finally got affected by weather. McLaren’s own wedding, earlier this year, copped the “100-year storm that we’ve been avoiding for all the festivals,” so McLaren feels like they were owed one at some point, but now they should be right for another fifteen events!
One of the key factors in the success of The Hills Are Alive are the performers. While the early years’ line-ups contained mostly friend’s bands and local artists, McLaren and his brothers have attracted names that weren’t so big when they performed. Household names such as DZ Deathrays (2011), Saskwatch (2012), Vance Joy and Courtney Barnett (2013) and Tkay Maidza (2014) have all played at the festival.
How do they find these acts before they blow up big? Mclaren gushes, “That’s the thing we love, seeing people react to a band that they’ve never seen and going, ‘Yeah, how good are they!’ Every year we have that. We have people’s favourite band ending up being the one they didn’t know before coming.”
I can tell how passionate McLaren is – along with his brothers Rhett and Angus – because of how much live music he takes in to prepare for these festivals. He tells me about a gig that he’s going to tonight and about where the ability to curate the festival came from, “I think it grew out of a passion for live music. Getting [to gigs] early and watching the support bands and so often we’re gone to see one band expecting something and it’s been the opener act who you’re like ‘Whoa, this is incredible!’”
This leads McLaren to pause and then share the most important rule that he has as the festival’s organiser, “We’ve always had this thing; unless we’ve stood in the crowd, we don’t book a band. No matter what someone tells you about it, we have to physically stand there ourselves and whether there’s 10,000 people or ten people, it’s like, this band is going to work for us.”
The Hills Are Alive festival is in great hands and as tickets reach the verge of selling out and with a huge line-up ready to go, including Alex the Astronaut, Ali Barter, Alice Ivy and Luca Brasi, here’s hoping this ten-year anniversary is just the start of many.
The Hills Are Alive will take place between March 23-25.