Glenn Wright had sworn not to get involved with musicians again. He’d spent close to 20 years booking Sydney’s Harbourside Brasserie, before relocating his family just outside the town of Mullumbimby, an hour shy of the Queensland border. “I live on a farm, grow avocados and breed ducks,” he says determinedly. “I’m happier with that than trying to make a fortune out of promoting.”
He soon found he couldn’t help himself. Mullumbimby, he noticed, had many venues to play music, but they were underutilised, and while northern New South Wales already boasted the Byron Bay festivals Bluesfest and Splendour in the Grass, there was room for something more boutique. “I had a lot of contacts and artist connections – and I was short of cash,” he confesses.
The result is the Mullum music festival, now in its ninth year. The festival stretches across four days and half a dozen halls, including the RSL, bowls club and high school, spanning either end of the town’s main street. It’s an easy stroll – maybe 20 minutes – but if you’re in a hurry, you can catch the double-decker “Magic Bus”, which trawls up and down the strip in obvious homage to Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
“In smaller venues you can have more intimate contact with the audiences,” says Wright. “There’s no VIP areas; there’s no backstage. The artists stay in the town, they get restaurant vouchers and mingle with everyone. I try to program artists that know each other, or there’s some similarities, so they end up collaborating. We develop relationships.”
The Mullum vibe is comfortably relaxed. Ticket sales across the festival’s four days are tightly capped, so while the town is bustling – especially on the Saturday – there’s no need for pushing or shoving. And while there’s a diversity of musical styles on offer, it’s mostly acoustic, roots, folk, world music and alt-country. There’s not a lot of rock & roll.
Wright says he quickly realised the festival had no room for growth. “I try to make sure that it’s always comfortable and go for the longer-term goals rather than how many people can I fit in the venue.”
Around the music, there’s yoga and forums on sustainability and renewable energy. A major theme at this year’s event is reducing plastic waste; there’s even a weaving workshop to “jazz up” your water bottle carry cover through recycled materials including packing tape and festival armbands to “bring style, ease and self-responsibility to your carry wears”.
Of course, there are other ways to jazz things up. “I see we’re coming into jazz territory,” notes a visitor wryly on the Saturday night. He’s not talking about the music. Melbourne songwriter Henry Wagons, who headlines on both the Friday and Saturday nights, is impressed. “I’ve just walked past a sea of dreadlocks with open bags full of herb,” he says with a grin. “This town is gonna get fucked up.”
Wagons is a born entertainer who will do anything it takes to win over a crowd, including jumping into the lap of a septuagenarian audience member, but others can’t help but be a little more cynical. “So whaddaya farm up here? Healing?” asks the Drones’ Gareth Liddiard, before pausing to shush a particularly vocal local. “Hey, pipe down, I’m trying to create some atmosphere here.”
Similarly, Melbourne singer Olympia – who provides a welcome splash of glam-pop colour in a pink, shoulder-padded pantsuit – seems disconcerted by the local freestyle. “You guys are gonna have to dance in time to this, your bad rhythm is depressing me,” she tells the kids in the school hall. “I’m gonna have to get the metronome out.”
Other acts are treated with more appropriate levels of respect. Indigenous singer-songwriter Yirrmal, a young Yolgnu man from north-east Arnhem Land and son of a Yothu Yindi dancer, has an enormous voice and appeals to the older crowd. Another Indigenous performer, Tash Sultana, can play seemingly anything and attracts a much younger but equally devoted audience to her high-energy show.
But the emphasis is on fun rather than earnestness, typified by Dustyesky, the punning result of Wright bemoaning his inability to afford a Russian folk choir. “I suggested to him in a drunken moment, why don’t we start our own?” says his friend Andrew Swain, who assembled a cast of local doctors, nut farmers, chefs, builders and Wright himself – none of whom speak a word of Russian – to learn the songs.
Dustyesky, coached in the lyrics by a Russian friend of Swain’s, are now a Mullum staple. “It’s just for fun, but we do get a lot of people coming to the gigs, and you can always pick the Russians because they’re the ones crying in the audience,” Swain says. “Because they know all the songs! They come up to us afterwards and say things like ‘These are the songs from my childhood.’ It’s unbelievable.”
First published in The Guardian, 21 November 2016