Look, we love your standard music festival as much as the next punter. Tightly-packed crowds, constant lineup clashes, queues galore… There’s something undeniably satisfying about cramming way too much music into a single day or weekend, but maybe – just maybe – there could be a reason or two to consider another alternative.
That’s exactly what boutique Melbourne festival Shimmerlands has done. With its inaugural showing this year, the organisers decided that, rather than stuffing their lineup into a single day, they’d run things at a bit more of a leisurely pace.
While it boasts all of the fancy additions you could ask for from a boutique fest, Shimmerlands took the approach of letting everything breathe a little more, spreading their curated lineup of music and film out across the course of two months, and creating a semi-permanent space that was given the time to become an ongoing part of the summer calendar rather than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair.
It’s an interesting move from the team formerly behind Melbourne’s favourite music and film space, The Shadow Electric, and one we wanted to find out more about. What are the benefits to running a music festival like this, and the pitfalls? To find out, we spoke to Creative Director Jay Rayner about Shimmerlands, Kurt Vile and, of course, The Big Lebowski.
Even this party had to come to an end at some point though, and Shimmerlands will go out with a bang this Sunday with a huge day-party celebration, featuring a tight selection of sounds from US legend Awesome Tapes From Africa, NY DJ and label boss Tim Sweeney aka Beats In Space and LA beatmaster Egyptian Lover, all supported by local hero Andee Frost.
It all kicks off this Sunday the 26th with tickets available here, so with its inaugural year about to draw to a close, let’s find out exactly what went into this festival experiment, and why Jay and teh Shimmerlands crew swear by their more relaxed approach to a boutique fest.
Shimmerlands is, of course, a follow-up to the beloved Melbourne music venue and outdoor cinema The Shadow Electric, which used to occupy The Convent. What did you set out to achieve with that earlier space, and with the brand itself – and were you able to?
Jay Rayner: We initially set out to create an outstanding open-air cinema. We set out to create an environment in which cinema was presented with a sense of occasion, atmosphere, and a sense of expectation that we felt was missing from the modern cinema experience. Once our relationship with the Convent was established, we were able to spread our wings a little and open up the band room and some very memorable outdoor music shows.
I think we achieved beyond what we initially set out to achieve in the early days of Shadow Electric. The move to a bigger and broader home with Shimmerlands seems to be in step with our growth and continually developing vision so far.
What sort of gap did the closure of The Shadow Electric leave in Melbourne’s music scene?
For me, the closure of the cinema and band room at the Convent left a significant gap. There can never be enough small scale music venues. This is where artists develop, communities form, and the magic happens. We saw artists come through our doors on the way to great things.
As we saw in Melbourne in the past, and are witnessing at the moment in Sydney music venues do not grow on trees. In fact, they are hard to keep running even if they are already established, let alone start from scratch.
For better or worse, weddings pay the bills more than live music – if only they got rid of the horrible cover bands!
We felt extremely nurtured and supported as an organisation at the Convent. In the end however, music, cinema, and outdoor culture were not considered as part of the long-term plans down there.
There was a definite sense that the Shadow Electric Band Room and the Outdoor Cinema was, in the end, making it hard to coexist with weddings at the Convent. For better or worse, weddings pay the bills more than live music – if only they got rid of the horrible cover bands!
It was a great venue while it lasted. What were some of the biggest highlights of your time there?
So many. Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett outside. Waxo Paradiso’s amazing parties. Olympia in the band room. Alex Cameron (twice). Some mad Animals Dancing shows. Lost Animal in the band room and some of the staff Xmas parties are definitely up there.
Our first ever screening down there of Drive to a sold-out house was a highlight of my life – and every year the people that turned up for our annual Big Lebowski screenings!
The Big Lebowski screening is a tradition that’s carried on to Shimmerlands this year. Has the idea for Shimmerlands brewing before the Shadow Electric closure?
No, not as it is today, but we were certainly looking for more space, and we definitely wanted to move further outdoors rather than scale down. We knew quite early on that the days were numbered at the Convent and put the feelers out.
The University of Melbourne saw some value in our established audience and took us up on our offer to work with them to spice up the campus over summer. The vision developed from there. Always from the space for us, the ideas we have always stem from the physical space – every space has inherent opportunities and limitations.
How has the goal for Shimmerlands varied from that original concept for Shadow Electric?
The goal is still the same. A great sense of occasion and attention to the delivery that makes an event truly a special evening or afternoon. We are just a little more grown up. We know what works better now and we perhaps aren’t burning out our loved ones as much!
Many of the current ’boutique’ festivals try to condense as much music, art and food as possible into a short stretch. What convinced you to spread the program out over two months?
Existing for two months allows us to consider and build a hearty, well-considered installation. We can offer up club-sized shows of all sizes outdoors, which is something truly unique in Melbourne.
It gives us a lot more room for programming. No one event or day has so much pressure to ‘work’. Most festivals, even boutique festivals, rely on high attendance to a single day, heavily relying on headline acts to lead the program.
We’re able to present shows that would usually be inside the Corner, or Howler or something, outside under the trees – and if it works it’s amazing. If it doesn’t quite work or it rains, well, we have many more opportunities up our sleeve. It’s about the diversity of the program.
Was there ever the temptation to run a more traditional one or three day festival?
No, because it would need to be either very large numbers – therefore unsustainable at the uni – or very low attendance, meaning low quality. We aren’t interested in either. The one-day festival circuit has been done to death, and done very well by others.
Cinema is as big a part of the festival as music, as it was at Shadow Electric’s outdoor cinema. Why have you always linked the two together?
Dave and I have come from a music background. We love music, see music whenever we can. At Shadow Electric, music documentaries had some of the greatest atmospheres of any events we produced, so it was a natural progression to put them together.
We aren’t like other cinemas and we aren’t like other music venues; we feel like we are doing our own thing in that sense, and we feel like we’ve created our own space in Melbourne doing that.
How does curating a film lineup differ from curating musical acts? Do you still pursue a special mix of styles and genres, and a blend of new and old?
Totally different – they are essentially very different business relationships.
Bands and DJs are, a lot of the time, being booked from personal relationships – especially in inner Melbourne where everyone knows each other. We work with promoters whose house parties we have been to, and dogs we have walked.
We are certainly a long way from visiting Martin Scorsese at his house party.
Films, mostly are a big big business and we have relationships with the distributors, but they aren’t personal relationships. We are certainly a long way from visiting Martin Scorsese at his house party.
Bands and musical artist are playing at one time in one place in the world, that’s one of the things that makes live music so special. Films, however, are playing everywhere all the time, so we need to be very picky, and perhaps clever about when is the best time for us to show a title.
What’s the venue been like to work with as opposed to the former digs at The Convent, and what’s on the cards for next time around?
Awesome. Our team has had to really step up to work with a bigger site and a program that runs 7 days a week. The support and team at the University have been top notch. Very professional.
It’s been pretty much 100%. We had some trouble with food vendors early on, which undermined our vision a little bit, but that seems to be sorted now. Next year… we have some big things planned, but we’ll need to save that for some announcements later on this year!
Don’t miss the final day-party this Sunday the 26th featuring Awesome Tapes From Africa, Tim Sweeney aka Beats In Space and Egyptian Lover, all supported by local hero Andee Frost – tickets available here.