Music / Interview

Farmer & The Owl’s Ben Tillman on building community

With a lineup featuring Beach House, Deafheaven, Snail Mail, Dinosaur Jr frontman J Mascis and pop-punk act Joyce Manor, curated by label bands including Hockey Dad and Totally Unicorn, Farmer & The Owl is going to be huge when it lands in Wollongong this March.

We chatted with Farmer & The Owl’s Ben Tillman to find out how the lineup came together, why they picked McCabe Park as their new home, and building a community within Australia’s indie label scene.

It’s quite an interesting concept – a label working together with their artists to curate a festival. How has that curation process grown and changed throughout?

It was just a bit of a wacky idea, to be honest, at the start. It’s always interesting going from an idea that sounds quite simple, “Oh, hey, do you guys want to all help us curate a lineup?” The idea sounds quite simple, but the reality of it becomes a little bit more complex.

We work with these bands on our label for their releases, but part of the reason we like them (well, we obviously like their music), but I think a big part of how they got to where they are with their own music is from who they’ve been influenced by.

Generally, when you program your festival, there are all these little things you need to consider, whether it’s, “Oh, does the band have high rotation, triple j play? Or do they have a current album out that’s selling lots in this particular market?” or whatever. This was a bit more programming music for music’s sake, and having our bands have a direct input into which music we picked.

We told each of our bands about the concept and they all loved it. Initially. we were thinking each band would program a stage, but that became a little bit difficult logistically – different size artists had to play on certain size stages, and that might not have fit the genre of the band that curated that stage – so we scrapped that. Each band provided us with a big hit list and we went out and targeted a bunch of those bands. Then stuff came through us as well, whoever was touring at the time, or agents would hit us up. And from there, it became a democratic process – we’d take those acts to the label bands and see if everyone was happy with it. If everyone was happy, then we’d go ahead with it.

There’s been a lot of talk about the location, and the different spaces spread throughout McCabe Park. How do you hope the location will shape The Farmer & The Owl festival experience?

That’s why we picked that location in the first place. We’ve done a couple of events there and utilized different parts of the park individually, but it’s such a cool little space with all these intricate little zones, that we have always wanted to do something a bit bigger that is able to bring all of those elements into it.

Our other festival is down on the beach; it’s more of a party vibe. Whereas this one’s a little bit more around discovery; it’s a little bit grittier. It’s a little bit more underground and alternative, and the park reflects that as well, because there is a lot of industrial buildings around there. It touches on the CBD area, so it’s a lot more urban. I think it lends itself to discovering new and cool, interesting music.

What was behind the idea to add the Record Room to the festival?

Farmer & The Owl is essentially a record label, and we’re throwing this festival as well. My partner in the label [Jeb Taylor] owns a record store, so records and record collecting is a massive passion of his. And we’re an indie label; we know how hard it is to be an indie label, and we also know how important indie labels are for the fabric of a music industry, of an eclectic industry and helping build these bands that might not necessarily fit into triple j or other, more popular, stations.

We know how hard it is; we’re passionate about indie labels. We’re all doing a similar thing, so it’s cool to be able to go, “All right, let’s all put our heads together, hang out, watch some cool music, and dig through each other’s record collections.” A lot of our stuff is around community; all our label bands, we try to encourage them to be talking to each other and hanging out – we see everything like a bit of a family, because they’re stronger like that. And we’re trying to create that in a broader sense within the indie label, trying to create a bit of community around it, because everyone gets very busy, and it’s a bit of a solo pursuit often. You get stuck in your own world and do your thing, so it’s nice every now and then to come together and share a special social experience.

What impact has the greater independent music scene, and its support, had on you and Farmer & The Owl being able to do what you do?

When we started out we’d never run a record label before, I’d never done anything like that before. But I was passionate about it. Our whole goal was to try and create a platform that would help bands in our area, in Wollongong, be able to get out of Wollongong and have a bit more of a national platform and profile. That was always our goal. And we’ve always had a very strong sense of community in Wollongong, in our area, and amongst all those local bands and that whole scene. So, that’s been very much what we’ve been focused on.

And then now it’s hitting this point where the label is finally starting to be able to support itself, or it feels like it’s starting to work now. We’re hitting a point where we don’t have to be so focused on ourselves, and introspective, and just looking at our own projects as much. Now it’s like we’re coming up for air and going, “All right, well if we’re doing this, there are probably lots of other people in the same boat. Let’s talk to them and get them together.”

When Farmer & The Owl finally rolls around, what are you most looking forward to? 

The set times haven’t been announced yet, but there’s going to be a pretty crazy run. I’m curious to see what the crowd is going to do when there’s a transition between Deafheaven and Beach House, I reckon that’s going to be crazy. You’re going from a black metal band to a dreamy pop band, I’m really interested in that. The programming is pretty whack, and I’m curious to see how everyone reacts to that.

Farmer and The Owl will go down at McCabe Park, Wollongong on Saturday 2 March. Tickets are available through our partner website Ticketweb.com.au.

Farmer & The Owl 2019

Beach House, Deafheaven, Snail Mail, J Mascis, Joyce Manor, and more

  • McCabe Park, Wollongong

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