There are certain things that should be left unsaid in order to avoid conflict. At this year’s Sugar Mountain festival, Nas bulldozed through that rule with charming American gusto: “Man, these buildings – it’s like we’re in the projects”. Hold it there, mate. If you were looking for one sure-fire way to turn Sugar Mountain’s inner- city white kids bright red, this was it. The Victorian College of the Arts isn’t exactly the same place Jenny used to sing about. But you can’t really blame Nas for getting a bit carried away—this year’s Sugar Mountain played itself out like an epic.
We were made to wait two years. 2014 saw the festival get a much-needed injection of cash from the Mushroom Group. This was like Broad City’s comedy central moment. And boy did they sure deliver the goods—Nas’ Illmatic (in full), Kim Gordon’s art rock experiment Body/Head, and surprise appearances from Neil Finn and Dev Hynes via video link during Kirin J Callinan’s set. Throughout the day, though, you got a sense that this festival wasn’t riding off sheer spectacle. Sugar Mountain bills itself as a “summit of music and art”, but that tagline forgoes the most important assertion of all—this festival does so much to distill and communicate a Melbourne story that’s wholly our own. For some of this city’s inhabitants, our ‘indie’ culture is increasingly bleeding into a mainstream definition of Melbourne. We’re a city that boasts of coffee that’s second-to-none, a music city that bites the hand that feeds it and wins, and a city that “demands some level of civic engagement beyond simply walking the streets.”
From the inner-city’s gentrified masses to the sports-luxe goths roaming Melbourne’s CBD till the early-morn, Sugar Mountain was a summit for Melbourne’s disparate microscenes. If we’re a city defined by villages, then the villagers flocking to Sugar Mountain would all have a link to an ‘alternative’ culture that’s continually eroding into ever more niche divisions. The club kids could’ve stayed with the 2 Bears while Kim Gordon resonated with the crowds old enough to remember Sonic Youth. Melbourne, though, was in fine form: Twerps, Chela, Slum Sociable, Banoffee, NO ZU, Oscar Key Sung, Ash Keating, Leif Podhajsky—if you thought there couldn’t have been a more ‘Melburn’ festival than Paradise, then Sugar Mountain sure blew that out of the water.
Oh yeah, and don’t forget our local craft beer and gourmet food trucks.
As much as this could’ve devolved into an insular Melbourne love-in, SM felt more like a celebration of local and international artists who have contributed to the city’s broader culture. Twerps’ Marty Frawley revealed that his Mum studied painting at VCA. I’lls‘ Hamish Mitchell (as Sangkhara) and collaborator, Nicholas Keays did the video art for Oscar Key Sung and Cassius Select. Lauded Melbourne photographer Prue Stent helped to create Sugar Mountain’s art direction. Ash Keating’s multi-storey abstract painting, arguably the festival’s artistic centrepiece, adorned the VCA (of which he’s a graduate). The very fact that Sugar Mountain hosted art reminded us that we’re a city that we do ‘culture’ without tokenism, sometimes.
People actually went into the VCA’s exhibition spaces and viewed Leif Podhajsky’s mixed- media works—the same could be said of Hisham Baroocha’s sitting next door. If most major galleries are afraid of declining audience numbers (apart from MONA), then Sugar Mountain went on to show that it’s not that hard to re-contextualise visual art’s consumption (despite parts still being shown in a traditional white cube). The idea of mixing a music festival with visual art is a promising one—a decision that lends itself to Melbourne’s inherent thirst for involved civic engagement (ahem, MPavilion, NGV’s Friday Nights).
So as much as it could’ve been criticised as a festival where privileged inner-city white kids dance to Nas like they’ve been through their fair-share of #struggles, Sugar Mountain is at its best when it lets Melbourne tell its own stories through a mix of local and international artists who have directly or indirectly contributed to our collective identity. For a generation raised on a late-90s definition of pop culture—one where hip hop, R&B, and pop reigned supreme—Sugar Mountain gave everybody the chance to relish a interpretation of popular culture, which made the Johan Rashids of this city sit alongside Body / Head without fear of being caught in their shadows.
It’s these moments which remind us all, that hey, not only have we got one world, but we’re actually making a contribution to it even though we’re stuck at the end of the earth.
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