Review: Sugar Mountain Festival

ACCLAIM negotiates the boutique Melbourne festival's ambitious and eclectic line-up

Words Photography Craig Johnstone

There was both an excitable buzz and an air of aloofness surrounding Sugar Mountain Festival at Melbourne’s Forum Theatre. What else can be expected from the trendiest night in January? With a line-up that boasted a diverse, if unusual, array of performers – Brooklyn-based bands, hip-hop legends, YouTube channels and electronic artists – it brought an audience that wouldn’t have looked out of place if Andy Warhol had a Tumblr. “Are you going to Sugar Mountain Festival?”. “Man, like, maybe.” But you couldn’t deny the unexpected delights – the night saw people booed off stage, headliners almost arrested and the crowd pulled into the undertow of it all.

It began for me, with Nayser and Gilsun. Their audio/visual show is hard to capture in words, performed this time away from their usual club setting in an ornate theatre upstairs at the Forum, the crowd was sitting rather than dancing. This gave them more time to take in the hypnotising visuals and clever manipulation of film and music. A Rocky Horror Picture Show for the internet generation, they loop film, turn dialogue into lyrics and it’s all underpinned by a live dance set. The second show I’ve seen from them was no less awe-inspiring than the first, with the seated crowd responding to basslines and suddenly sped-up visuals with cheers and applause. The duo manage to create both an uneasy and unselfconsciously funny act: Kelly Clarkson merging with a ’70s advertisement for Coke made me feel a little bit unwell for a reason I can’t quite pinpoint.

After a brief lap of the Boiler Room stage set up in the foyer area – to get an unsurprisingly expensive beer – I glimpsed an audience trying to get YouTube famous. Just in case you’re not really an online music hunter, Boiler Room is a collective that throws secret-location parties internationally where they live stream some of the best underground music, spun by notable DJs. Meanwhile in Melbourne, Edie Sedgwick-like girls with dip-dyes and few dudes that looked oddly like Machinedrum were dancing the two-step to the Boiler Room DJs, who probably felt a long way from Berlin. Usually, the live streams are accompanied a drawling London accent going ‘Jamie xx live on the ones-and-twos, innit’ with a few dudes lunging around awkwardly close to the decks – but the Sugar Mountain set was straight up dancefloor featuring locals Collarbones and Brother’s Hand Mirror – who I didn’t get to see as I was in a green room blushingly interviewing Jonti and nervously asking Peanut Butter Wolf about his illustrious career and re-releasing Dilla’s Donuts.

Was it a full moon on Saturday? Shortly after I left the media room the night descended into depravity. Kirin J Callahan and director Kris Moyes promised a curious performance. The artist known for his aggressive beat-based music and a large amount of press shots where he’s hanging out on cliff faces in his underwear and Buddy Holly glasses – which I’m not even going to pretend that I deeply understand or indeed care about. I glimpsed a minute of the set to know it was not for me. Black and white shots of him working out and naked for visuals while he mumbled something about not having any friends in the audience – yawn. I headed outside for a double G&T whilst Kirin and Kris were having a conversation on stage. Now, I’m not sure I can report the rest since I didn’t see if for myself – not that this ever stops The Herald Sun. However, I heard from many sources immediately afterwards that after enduring pornographic images of Kirin rubbing himself in oil, he then invited an epileptic guy to have a fit on stage to some strobe lights – this happened according to some, whilst he merely threatened it from others – until an audience member shouted ‘This is fucked’ and the entire crowd walked out as he was trashing around in a hoody – this was unanimous. I’m all for the unusual when it comes to music, and since I wasn’t there I can’t entirely attest to the truth of the reports, but to completely isolate yourself from your audience with what can only be described as self-indulgence as well as – potentially – putting someone’s life at risk isn’t art in my opinion – it’s straight-up wankery. I just hope he didn’t get paid.

From performance art pretension to hood hip-hop, Action Bronson arrived to a near-empty main stage. I was by the bar when the few audience members suddenly rushed forward to the entrance. ‘Is that Action Bronson or a really short bouncer?’ asked my friend as we got a little closer. Suddenly, mic in hand with a rather jaded looking DJ on stage he announced his arrival. ‘Yo fuck that stage,’ he yelled. ‘Just don’t fucking touch me.’ He launched into a series of raps, veering across the dance floor as the crowd grew around him. About five minutes in, as a girl was madly krumping behind him and Action was leering into to everyone’s iPhone camera flash, bouncers tried to steer him towards the stage. Having none of it, Action lead the crowd to the bar and ordered a Scotch mid-verse. I watched from the back as he spat loudly over the music and was suddenly swept away by how actually raw and personal he was especially fuelled by a standoff with security. Whatever it was that he was saying about hookers and cars and high school, he really fucking meant it. After less than twenty minutes of playing, he finally yelled ‘I love you, go fuck yourselves, have a great night!’ Some slight mixed messages there, but the crowd was too buzzed by his rebellious nature and the sight of his red beard to care.

The less dramatic performances, however, actually involved music. The Bronx band of siblings ESG were exceptional, the simplest of arrangements turning the Forum into what I imagine a humid rooftop party in the height of NYC in the summer of ’82 would have been like. Their laid-back style and tracksuit pants were a stark contrast to some of the earlier shows of the night. While they played large Jamaican percussion, audience members and maybe some of the organisers joined the band on stage for a disco dance-off.

Local bands Boomgates and Lower Plenty began the night with a needed dose of relaxed rock, whilst Dirty Projectors finished the night with smooth-sounding pop. Stand-out, of course, were Stones Throw’s creator and Australian signee, Peanut Butter Wolf and Jonti respectively, who commanded the Boiler Room crowd with effortless ease. Jonti created his own intricate music live through a series of sampler pads and homemade-looking electrical equipment, playing songs from his first album, the lovely and layered Twirligig and singing the vocals live. Peanut Butter Wolf, the LA legend who signed the likes of Madlib and Mayer Hawthorne, amongst many others, and who owns a vinyl collection that famously weighs no less than a ton, crafted a set of throw-back funk and hip-hop classics. It was just a shame that he was in the foyer rather than a main stage, and with a crowd spilling onto the staircase to listen, it clearly wasn’t just me that thought so.

Now in its third year, Sugar Mountain Festival was curated with confidence and defied the usual summer festival formula of singlets and vomiting in port-a-loos. It was refreshing that the organisers weren’t pushing the same old tired line-ups or musicians that just so happen to be touring. With an ambitious and talented array of musicians and a strong emphasis on art there was a diverse crowd of hipsters, punks and hip-hop heads in front of the Forum at the end of the night. The six patrol cars of police who showed up to usher Action Bronson back to his hotel at the end of the night were probably wondering ‘What the hell are kids listening to these days?’

www.sugarmountainfestival.com