Newcastle is a city in flux; the health of its government, infrastructure and cultural scenes are inextricably linked. Politicians and property developers looking to make fast money flatten heritage buildings and in the last two years this has seen many struggling music venues finally close.
For Chris Hearn, musician and promoter of this weekend’s Newcastle Weekender festival, the recent fate of the iconic Star Hotel (in 1979 the closure of which sparked an infamous riot and eponymous song by Cold Chisel) is symbolic of this landscape. “They’re about to reopen [the building] as an apartment complex with a Peroni-branded small bar downstairs,” he says. “That’s the sort of thing that we’re looking at in Newcastle right now.”
But rather than ringing the death knell for the city’s music scene, such adversity has encouraged grass-roots innovation and a community spirit. Newcastle Weekender is a festival of underground and experimental music, offering electronica, punk and everything in between. It has been funded through Creative Partnerships Australia and a Pozible crowdfunding campaign and runs in conjunction with This is Not Art (TiNA); Newcastle’s experimental and emerging arts festival. Sound Summit and Electrofringe previously made up the musical contingent of TiNA and in their absence this year, Hearn is aiming to present not only a strong line-up of local and national acts, but a forum for discussion.
“I feel like at the moment artists are a little bit displaced in Newcastle,” he says, “and I’m hoping that over this weekend there’ll be a lot of dialogue – people talking about what directions they’re going to take to deal with the changes that are happening in the city around us. If you bring a bunch of people together you get an exchange of ideas and a collective energy.”
The weekend will see plenty of cross-pollination and collaboration, including Sydney record label R.I.P Society curating Sunday’s proceedings alongside Brisbane’s Bedroom Suck Records and Newcastle’s Y202 Records.
Y202 Records is a group of artists who work out of a self-storage shed used by several bands, and each shares members and practises together. The name of the label refers to the shed’s serial number. This enterprising solution to a lack of resources is an example of the DIY projects pushing through in Newcastle, and the tight-knit communities a smaller scene can engender.
Playing the Weekender on Sunday, Bare Grillz is one Newcastle band to have emerged from the Y202 collective. “[It is] definitely a group-thought process,” says member Evan Hill Porteus. “Everyone has to pitch in or it’s not going to work. The music scene [in Newcastle] has its pretty strong ups and downs … and when things are going well there isn’t a more supportive and genuinely loving collection of people and bands.”
The industrial landscape of a storage shed lot (or equally, Renew Newcastle’s initiative to fill boarded-up, vandalised and decaying CBD sites awaiting development with creative projects) plays into a sense of rawness and looseness that comes across in artists’ outputs. It is a, “Distinctive aesthetic,” says Hill Porteus. “Whether real or imagined, it shapes outsiders’ mental image of the city: be that as a, grotty steel town, dirty and small … or a dangerous, thuggy place. When you’re a Newcastle band, a part of you will always play that up a little bit in some way, whether it’s serious or just for fun.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Bloody Fist Records, renowned proponents of industrial, hardcore and noise genres, were from Newcastle. It is music that yields a sense of claustrophobic nihilism, often a sound born of frustration and disenfranchisement. But for all this bleakness, the label is reuniting for the festival exactly 10 years after its closure. That the news has been greeted so emphatically – “We’re really excited,” says Hearn – shows the genuine fondness that closely bound artistic communities create.
As for the rest of the bill: “Essentially everything that I’ve put into that festival that’s local, I believe in,” Hearn says. “I always try to encourage bands that are less competitive and more friendly and want to act as communities for shared aims.” If you have an idea and a proactive attitude, then the opportunities are there, he believes. “Everything’s pretty mental in Newcastle at the moment but ripe for the picking as well.”
The Newcastle Weekender runs October 2–5 at the Croatian Club and Terrace Bar, Newcastle. See oztix.com.au for full program and ticket information.