When I meet the team behind Sugar Mountain, they’re knee-deep (or higher) in festival planning. That morning they launched the program for the Sensory Restaurant, the festival’s one-day pop-up restaurant. The mysterious mash-up of food, music and design will see diners eating a meal by IDES chef Peter Gunn in an environment designed by artist Daniel Arsham and scored by Stranger Things composers SURVIVE. The day before they were at the festival site, the Victorian College of the Arts. There they met Tokyo-based visual artist Karan Singh to discuss his Sugar Mountain installation and how augmented reality will bring his 2D works to life.

On top of this, there’ll be three stages of local and international music, including one stage that will be broadcast online as part of the global, long-running Boiler Room project.

In a little under two months, Sugar Mountain 2017 will come to life. For the team, Tig Huggins, Pete Keen and Brett Louis, this means running a music festival, an art festival and a restaurant, all at once. It’s a 12- to 15-month battle for one day of fun.

The team behind Sugar Mountain shares a little office in Mushroom Group's headquarters in South Melbourne. The trio has been together since day one. Huggins looks after the music acts. Pete Keen is the “vision guy” who handles the visual arts. Brett Louis is the festival director, and handles the logistics. But they’re a tight crew and all do a bit of everything. This windowless room is where they spend long hours throwing ideas around and arguing.

Sugar Mountain isn’t a festival cut from a cloth. There’s no precedent.

“We definitely don’t want it to be a music festival with a little bit of art and a little bit of food,” says Keen. “It’s all on the same level. We want it to be a cultural event.”

“People are going to be there for a good seven or eight hours,” says Louis. “They’re going to want to see and feel different things.”

This year Keen is leaning on more interactive, experiential artwork. “We want the art to be a part of your day,” he says. He digs deep to look for art that’s going to engage over-stimulated festivalgoers. Morag Myerscough and Luke Morgan are building an elaborate festival entrance incorporating a viewing platform and camera obscura. Robyn Moody and Caroline Polachek are installing a giant interactive harp made of lasers. Basically, you won’t be bored.

As with any event planning, things can go sideways. Last year the art duo NONOTAK planned to debut a vast sound-and-light installation piece, Hoshi. But just as the gates were opening on the day of the festival, the organisers and the artists, who had been battling technical problems for days, agreed it just wasn’t up to scratch.

“We just walked through the space where that was supposed to be the other day,” says Louis. “I think we all felt a pang.”

“People worked around the clock to make it happen,” says Keen. “People were sleeping in the installation space at night.”

“We knew exactly what we wanted it to be,” says Louis. “But regardless of how much time and effort went in from us, the artist, engineers, suppliers … when one small thing goes wrong, when just one small measurement is out, it can sink the whole ship.”

“It was the one and only time our standards couldn’t be met,” says Keen.

When they started out, the three of them worked at the Workers Club in Fitzroy. Louis was running the venue and booking bands. Huggins was DJing. Keen was working the bar. They started daydreaming about their own festival.

The four days they have to prepare the space for the festival is a luxury they didn’t have back then. In the first year, 2011, they had all of four hours to prepare the Forum Theatre. They laugh about it now, but you can sense the camaraderie of people who have seen some shit. “We still don’t sleep much in the run-up to the festival, but back then, the three of us were there until 4am bumping out PAs,” says Louis. “It was … very DIY.”

But starting with a confined space turned out to be the right thing to do, says Louis. It gave them limitations, and a relatively modest starting point.

These days the festival is part-owned by Mushroom Group.

“It was nice to start off small and grow to understand what we were doing before it grew into a much larger beast,” says Louis. “We definitely needed the help of Mushroom to do that. They take care of all the back-end stuff, and we just get on with it.”

And despite the corporate backing, they’ve still got the all-important creative control.

“That’s been the greatest thing about it,” says Louis. “They trust us.”

Sugar Mountain 2017 will soon be upon us. But the team has already started at the bottom of next year’s summit. In 2018 expect more collaborations between music, food and art, and more pushing against the frontiers.

“You learn from each one,” says Louis. “We have to work and fight for it all the way through to make it work,” he says. “Then every year we have to kick off straight into the next one like the last one didn’t even happen.”

Sugar Mountain will take place at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, on Saturday 21 January, 2017. Second-release tickets are now on sale.


Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Sugar Mountain.