Two policemen holding coffee cups march towards me. “Do you know The Wombats?” says one, looking stern. “There’s a girl out there who says they’ve got her hat.”
I’m backstage at Groovin the Moo in Bendigo, talking to Richard Moffatt, who books artists for the festival. We don’t think The Wombats, who have just finished the second-to-last headline slot, have her hat. “Yeah someone took it off her head and threw it on stage,” says the cop. “She showed us a picture of it. It’s really cool. It’s got doilies on it and everything. She’s upset because she made it herself. So if you can have a word to them, let us know.” I can't find any Wombats, and return to tell the police. Their voices lower. “We’re gonna have to tell her it’s gone.”
Groovin the Moo isn’t like other festivals. Not just because policemen wander backstage asking after a hat with cool doilies on it. But because festivals like this don’t exist anymore.
You remember them. Two adjoining main stages of black scaffolding around giant speaker stacks, a white dance tent thudding in the distance, food trucks ringing the showgrounds and a large area for people to drink beer. A callback to the multi-genre festivals that ran rampant in the 1990–2010 era, when tribes interbred, people bought merch and fashion was unfashionable. When fans travelled. Because a drive to Bendigo to see heaps of bands for $99 is way cheaper than paying $120 to see Sigur Ros at Margaret Court Arena.
That’s what Kate says. Kate, 24, and her friend, Mia, 25, are at Groovin the Moo today because they love The Wombats. “We’re up from Melbourne but staying with family,” Kate tells me across a cup of hot chips and a wooden bench at the back of the Prince of Wales Showgrounds. “We came here because tickets are $99. I mean you can see so many bands for that price.”
Math checks out. As is custom, this year’s Groovin the Moo line-up was a dartboard of mid-tier acts either in the twilight of their heyday or newcomers still yet to know how they’d handle one. It tours not usual major cities, but Canberra and regional areas across three weekends – this year going to Wayville (SA), Maitland (NSW), Townsville (QLD), Bendigo (VIC), Bunbury (WA) as well as the nation’s capital (ACT). It began in 2005 as a one-off event arranged by friends, Rod Little and Steve Halpin, in the dairy town of Gloucester, NSW. That first year attracted 1400 people. This year the festival collectively sold out all its 110,000 tickets. In 2017, that officially makes it the biggest national festival in Australia.
Not that this was ever something Groovin the Moo aspired to. “When I started booking here there was the Big Day Out, Soundwave, Future, Good Vibrations, Parklife, and Stereosonic,” Moffat says. “They were all bigger and they all went out of business. So be careful what you wish for. Selling the most doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be around for long. The only other significant touring one now is Laneway. Which is an incredible show, but we’re so different to them that nobody ever compares the two. But yeah, at the end of the Big Day Out, it seemed like there was nothing less cool than a multi-genre festival.”
Those big, multi-genre marquees may have competed themselves out of existence in major cities. But for regional kids who never could make the last train home from the big smoke, the attraction of Groovin the Moo is obvious: instead of being asked to make the trip, the trip comes to them.
The Smith Street Band feel it. Seeing the Melbourne four-piece launch into their earnestly aspirational, plain-speak music on the triple j stage under leaden afternoon skies here in Bendigo, they make perfect avatars for teens in regional heartlands. “People will tell you you can't do anything you want to do,” says frontman Wil Wagner before, “Shine” from their new LP, More Scared of You Than You Are of Me. “But two years ago I was down there with you and now I'm up here playing. So you can do anything you wanna do.” He’s glossing a few cold truths. But when he bellows, “It’s hard to not feel loved right now, let’s wrap our arms around each other, shake our imperfect bodies around,” the motley crew assembled on this brisk footy field – the guy in the Akubra, the hardcore bro with tatts crawling up his skull, the primary school-age girls twirling next to ladies wearing more glitter than clothes – appears to commit. Everyone pumps their fists and thunders along to “Death to The Lads”, especially the lads.
As The Smith Street Band shuffles away, rising Gold Coast-er Amy Shark arrives. I have heart for “Adore” but her wispy set doesn’t travel. Getting food, I’m stopped by the sequins-and-ripped-black-stocking attired Kikki, from South Yarra. She’s 25 and a flight attendant. She came here last year, but says she’s only back because she’s friends with Allday’s brother. “The lineup’s not as good as last year,” she says. “But it’s still pretty good.” Enough.
“People will tell you you can't do anything you want to do. But two years ago I was down there with you and now I'm up here playing. So you can do anything you wanna do.”
Groovin the Moo sees value in presenting its lineup as a singular democratic ecosystem. It’s released in a single announcement, with each band listed in the same size font and in alphabetical order, meaning two of this year’s “headliners”, Violent Soho and The Wombats, both appeared last. “We deliberately book an all-over-the-shop lineup with the idea that no one knows who the headliner is,” says Moffat. “There’s something for everyone. We try and get as many varied artists that people are curious about, without ever catering to one crowd over another. That’s very much a part of what the show is.”
It works. In 2016 the festival sold 45 per cent of its tickets on the first day of sale. This year that figure was 70 per cent. What’s more, 70 per cent of those ticket buyers were female. Data that suggests the all-ages event is considered “safe”.
Mike, 60, and his wife, Robyn – “not 60”– don’t know that figure, but they might sense it. Yesterday the couple drove from their home in Warnambool to chaperone their daughters, 18 and 16, to the event. Do they worry about them now, out there among the swarm of 20,000? “Not at all,” says Robyn. “This is our second time here and we think it’s great. And our kids are really responsible. They have their own rules. One: always stay together. Two: have a bottle of Gatorade each. Three: Eat a souvlaki. Four: Don’t drink alcohol.”
Mike says he used to go to festivals like this when he was younger. Apparently he once dated Julia Bourke, a member of ’90s Melbourne electronic band Snog, and toured with them around the country. Now he bugs his daughters by liking the same things they do. “I’m looking forward to seeing The Wombats,” he says. “The Darkness. Milky Chance.” Earlier in the day Robyn was watching UK metalcore dudes Architects and boys kept chatting to her. “I was saying the guitars are quite similar to Pantera, aren’t they?” she says. “And they kept giving me high-fives.” Both say Bendigo is lovely. “We’d live here,” says Mike. “Here, Torquay or Warnambool.”
UK rap newcomer Loyle Carner was born in Lambeth, South London. Now he’s in Bendigo pulling a solid crowd to the Moolin Rouge tent. He reappears after his set to guest with Thundamentals, who peak early with rambunctious single “Never Say Never”. The dull grey skies cast a bleached pall over the oval, but at eye-level it’s bright costumes and facepaint; flannel and flexing in denim; side-eyes, side-boob and hivemind. “Oh shit that’s someone I picked up Wednesday night,” gasps one in a cloud of girls through the dusk.
By the time German men-children Milky Chance come mewling, it’s dark. The band have synthesised their early folk leanings into mild dance pop, the kind of thing that rankles to consider but is entirely okay at staving off the bitter cold that hits the showgrounds as night falls. People dance and sing. By the time Pnau get going it’s freezing, but when they open with the sensory blast of “Wild Strawberries”, some kind of rush kicks in. The forest of silhouetted fists make it a scene from anywhere.
Moffat says keeping Groovin the Moo localised is paramount. Organisers massage this in two ways: keep ticket prices at $99, and reserve a heap of physical sales for local businesses. This way even if it sells out online, locals can still collect them from a shop. “We don’t actively try and sell tickets to city kids,” says Moffat. “That’s not what the show is about. It’s not they’re unwelcome, but we’re not trying to sell more tickets to them. We want to make sure we can sell tickets to the people in our local areas who may not have $100 ready to go when we first announce.”
Putting on shows outside of major cities is a lure to the bands playing, too. “I say to bands, if you like Australia and you want to play in places you haven’t been before, this is the best option,” says Moffat. “We don’t chase hard to get artists no one’s ever seen or anything like that. We try and find artists that, for whatever reason, have an affinity with Australia. There’s a lot of Australia beyond Melbourne and Sydney, and it’s really nice to help bands get there.”
In return, the towns on the tour schedule welcome the late autumn influx. “More or less, they understand it brings something to the town,” says Moffat. “It’s not too taxing and it brings in a bunch of economic benefits. It doesn’t cause social problems and it doesn’t bring in a bunch of idiots. There’s still a perception in some areas that live music causes violence and trouble. So to hear, for example, a bunch of local policeman in Bendigo say they fight to get a shift at Groovin the Moo because it’s fun, is really nice. There’s a lot of goodwill.”
Whatever the bands call it when they find themselves here. “Ben-dee-gooooo!” gushes Justin Hawkins, frontman for rock-pomp believers The Darkness. Then he stands on his head and claps his legs in time with the drums, his shiny purple onesie undone to his groin. Hawkins’ efforts at igniting a Queen-style singalong don’t quite catch, until “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” has the crowd pogoing. On paper The Darkness scan like a relic of the ’00s here on a heritage tour, but watching tonight casts them in a new light. Outside of the major city tug-o-war of “cool”, the service they nail is a freedom to enjoy yourself unironically. Soon Hawkins is on someone’s shoulders and playing a guitar solo in the crowd, as fabulous over-the-top rock bands have always done and will do less frequently as no-one plays guitar anymore. They are so much fun. Then a young guy gently swaying next to me asks if I’ve ever fisted anyone.
The Wombats finally arrive sounding like a dozen bands at once, all of whom are forever 20 years old. This makes their jittery greatest hits set a shoe-in for Groovin the Moo. “Moving to New York” is frazzled guitar indie; “Jump Into The Fog” adds grandstanding electro flourishes; “1996” and “Your Body Is A Weapon” full dance-pop. It goes on, a waterfall of nervy singles leading to “Let’s Dance to Joy Division”. In their wake, Brisbane grunge-kings Violent Soho emerge slacker champs. They kick into “Viceroy” and for the huge crowd now jumping you suspect a memory is being made. Every music fan has the same one: you’re in a crowd of thousands facing a distant floodlit stage. The band is so far away you just have to stand and sing with your friends. Somewhere a hat is being lost.
By mid-2016, when seemingly invincible behemoths Big Day Out, Soundwave, Future, and Stereosonic all capitulated in neat succession, consensus was smaller “boutique” festivals had white-anted the old model. Sure enough, a spate of new, much smaller festivals sprung up on their graves, often held in scenic rural locations and catering to a niche audience. But Moffat doesn’t buy it as a sustainable business model. “I never understood how those shows weren’t just loss-leader parties,” he says. “I’ve been involved with shows that sell 10,000 tickets and still lose money, shows that haven’t spent much on talent. You still have to have a lot of toilets, a stage, production. Even if you ask all your mates to work for free – which I fundamentally disagree with – you still have to sell tonnes of tickets to cover the costs. Some of those smaller shows where they’re only selling one or two thousand tickets, I don’t understand how it can cover costs.”
After Violent Soho I return to my room at The Schaller Studio in Bendigo. It’s one in the chain of the Art Series Hotels, the kind of delightfully angular designer pad that attracts bands and the people who work for them. (In each room there’s a canvas and paints for guests to use. In 2015, when Till Lindemann, the frontman for German band Rammstein stayed at The Cullen in Prahran, he daubed a large penis on the wall and the word “cunt". Art, it’s a process.)
When I get into the lift, a local delivery driver from Bendigo pizza institution Clogs is racing in with a stack of pizzas. “What time do you deliver to?” I ask as we ride up together. “Oh we’ll be going in and out of here all night,” she says. “Yeah I could just set up shop in here if I wanted to, there’s so many bands here.” Is the pizza any good? “Look I’m not biased or nothing but I’d be eating it even if I wasn’t working for them.” She’s still annoyed she couldn’t go to the festival today because of work. I shut my door and pick up the phone. Support local produce.