THE self-described “cosmic country weekender”, Dashville Skyline, returns to Lower Belford starting Friday, September 28, for its fourth and biggest edition yet.
Weekender caught up with the founder Matt “Magpie” Johnston about why the quirky little festival has become a treasured event on the Hunter Valley music calendar.
Weekender: This is first time you’ve gone to three full days and nights, are you happy with how Skyline is progressing?
Johnston: It’s the full three days and then there’s the opportunity to grab a single day if you can’t make the full weekend. It’s the first time we’ve gone with that format and it seems to be popular. There’s a lot of things going on these days and it’s not easy to commit three days to a festival.
It’s more accessible and more flexible. People might come for a day and then realise they can shake off those commitments and stay for the whole weekend.
How would you describe the differences between Skyline and Dashville’s most popular festival The Gum Ball?
If it was ever possible, it’s more laid-back than Gum Ball, with it being a little genre-specific with music. There are still some differences between some alt-country to say psych or alt-rock or old-school folk music. There’s still variations with sounds that get played.
They are very similar, and I guess for Dashville Skyline, I’ve heard people’s suggestions that they like Dashville Skyline because it’s kind of like what Gum Ball was before it got too busy. It’s like an early Gum Ball, but more inspired by the alt-country and Americana styles.
How did you envisage the festival and what inspired it?
The inspiration came about from learning more and more about older music and the history of Americana, country music and folk music and the way its evolved. For me, there was always a high priority towards encouraging the learning.
History is very important, no matter where you’re at, to know where you’re going. A lot of festivals are all about the now and new artists and musicians themselves, we all have a passion for certain styles of music.
With Dashville Skyline it was definitely trying to capture the essence of where the music came from and to respect that, as well as put it on display and honour it.
The title of the festival is derived from a 1969 record [Nashville Skyline] by Bob Dylan, so that’s a point of difference with the festival.
Have you aimed higher this year by signing The Waifs and C.W. Stoneking to headline?
The Waifs are a massive band, but it’s a band we’ve been trying to get along to Dashville for a few years now. It just worked this year. Part of the beauty of booking a festival each year is sometimes you’re not quite sure what you’re going to get up.
You obviously have your first intentions and then something else comes along and you think that’ll work.
There’s a strong local flavour this year in William Crighton, Grace Turner, Melody Pool, Tori Forsyth, Ben Leece and James Thomson, is that vital for you?
I think it’s essential and we’ve always thought that way about Gum Ball too. I didn’t even realise it until I looked at the playing times for the Sunday of Skyline and there’s only three bands who aren’t from the Hunter, and one is The Waifs.
There’s an amazing influence at the moment going around the Hunter Valley. I don’t know if it’s always been there and we’re only becoming aware of it or if artists are evolving and getting stronger. It’s very healthy nonetheless. It’s cool to be a part of it and to embrace it.
Any lesser-known acts you’re particularly excited to see?
There’s talk about Halfway from Brisbane. They’re popular in Queensland and they just got five stars from The Australian for their latest album [Rain Lover]. They haven’t been down before and it’s something we’ve been trying to connect for a while.
Lehmann B. Smith is bit of character from down in Melbourne. There’s all these different kind of bits and pieces we’ve put into the festival. The Bushwackers are a different kind of vibe and that’s going to be fun.
Who are your dream artists for the festival?
I think I achieved it this year, C.W. Stoneking, I’m a big fan of his. There’s a lot of big-name artists. Obviously we’d all like Willie Nelson to come out and sing us a tune. In this point of the game we’re only as big as the capacity of the festival.
I’ve been dreaming about certain artists for a long time. Like I’d love to get Paul Kelly one day, Crowded House would be amazing. But when they’re doing shows on the Sydney Opera House steps it’s hard to compete.
It’s all about being sustainable. Sometimes when you shoot for the stars, you fall over.
Is the festival at the point where it’s sustainable and profitable?
It’s going along alright. We do a few other things during the year and we’ve structured it like that and we have a lot of event equipment which helps keep the costs down a bit.
I’m still here. It’s been 15 years since the first Gum Ball, so I can’t be doing too bad. I’m still putting food on the table in the simple life we have. This year we’ve been working ourselves pretty hard. Thrashville might take a seat this year and PigSty [In July], we’ll make a call on that later on, but there’s definitely an element of putting too much on the plate.
We’re trying not to put too much on and maintain the quality at the same time.
How big is the Dashville team?
There’s four. There’s myself and my wife Jess and then [media officers] Nick [Milligan] and Tracey [Griffiths] who help out with bookings and publicity. We have a few people on site come festival time and obviously the family who chip in where possible. We’re getting better at it, that’s for sure.
At this year’s Skyline you are also launching a charity compilation album to raise money for farmers effected by the drought. It features songs from artists at the festival.
That’s a pretty exciting prospect of what we can achieve if everybody gets behind it. We’ve sold a few records so far. The way that the musical community has supported that from the get go has been great.
It was just an idea after seeing the devastation that’s happening and everybody is thinking what they can do.
With us at Dashville, we never like to just tell people to reach into their pockets and fork it out. We like to make it a win-win.
With the album it’s 40 different songs donated by 40 different artists, which is easy to do. We managed to throw it together quickly, which is a testament to how willing to help the musos are.
There’s a lot of correlation between farmers and musicians, really, when you look at the broader sense of the world. Farmers get governed by major corporations.
The price of milk really isn’t what it should be, and the price of someone’s art really isn’t what it should be with Spotify and things like that which come into play.
There must be a high number of farmers that actually attend Skyline?
It’s completely regional. I’m here now [on the farm] and we have a little bit left in the dam, but not a great deal. There’s farms all around us and it’s crispy.
We’ve had a bit of rain over the last week or two. I think the drought is going to go on for a while yet, I’m not sure how long. We’ve got an opportunity to help them out.
I don’t think it’s all about the money. While it does help, it’s about letting them know that we’re here and that we can support them.
I don’t own cattle but I know when you’re in a drought it’s the most miserable thing you can think of. Everything seems to be on its edge.
Are preparations on track for next weekend?
We’re building the stages now. We have two full weeks. I have a sore back going into it, I don’t know if that’s anticipation or if I’m just out of shape.
We put a lot into the festivals. We do our own stages and a lot of decor and design. We have made it easier over the years and we’re quite fortunate to have it on our own property so we can do what we want, to an extent.
I’ve got a few jobs ahead and hopefully a few willing hands to help.
How many hours a day are you working in the final week?
It’s daylight to daybreak. If I’m not in the paddock, I’m on the phone. If I’m not on the phone, I’m on the computer. If I’m not any of them, I’m usually sleeping or maybe rehearsing frantically [for Magpies Diaries and Dashville Progress Society].
The three-day Dashville Skyline begins next Friday at Lower Belford. Tickets available at dashville.com.au.