Harvest Festival promoter Declan Forde: “We’re trying to create a much more enjoyable festival”

Harvest Festival promoters AJ Maddah and Declan Forde became friends after meeting at Ireland’s Electric Picnic festival in 2006 where they bonded over a shared love of George Clinton (of all things). Despite the crowded festival market in Australia, the pair saw opening for an event that was a little different and a true festival rather than “just a handful of music stages and a few toilets and bars” and over several years the duo cooked up their plans to bring us their ‘civilised gathering’.

The launch of the boutique Harvest Festival in November last year brought us the first Australian shows from Portishead since 1998 and sets from The Flaming Lips, The National, TV On The Radio, Bright Eyes, Mercury Rev and Death in Vegas. With a lineup that appealed to even the most jaded of punters and, overlooking some logistical issues in Melbourne (more on that later), managed to live up to the ‘civilised’ tagline. At the close of the festival tour FL’s review in Brisbane summed it up best declaring that “It’s obvious that Harvest is one of the best curated Australian festivals of 2011, immaculate in its execution and in turn having drawn the kind of punter you don’t want to smack in the mouth. Harvest is a festival’s festival, and we hope its next iteration is just as special.”

The 2012 Harvest festival does look to be just as special; its back this year with another impressive collection of bands including the long awaited return of Beck on his first real Australian tour since 2003 (we’ll ignore the one-off, illness affected show at Sydney’s V Festival in 2007), plus Sigur Ros, Grizzly Bear and Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane with a full orchestra setup.

Thanks to his Twitter addiction, the success of the gargantuan Soundwave Festival, Maddah has become something of a cult hero (and occasional villain) for music fans in Australia, but co-promoter Forde isn’t as well known here. The Irishman has his hand in several festivals in Ireland including the long running Electric Picnic festival and newer events like Forbidden Fruit (founded in last year and headlined by New Order, Wilco and Leftfield this year), Body & Soul (which has just played host to M83, Spiritualized and Little Dragon), and a festival called Liss Ard that will debut in August with a headlining set from Chic.

With tickets for Harvest on sale today, FL caught up with Forde to chat about the festival, the lessons learnt from last year and why he’s not “obsessively” interested in new acts.

Did you achieve what you wanted to with Harvest’s debut last year? And what did you learn from that first year that will lead to improvements or changes at this year’s festivals?

We feel that what we’re doing with Harvest is a little bit different from what’s gone on with other festivals in Australia. Not vastly different, but a little bit different. The Australian festival market is quite saturated with festivals that just offer a handful of music stages and a few toilets and bars – rather than an actual ‘festival’.

The Australian festival market is quite saturated with festivals that just offer a handful of music stages

We feel that Harvest is about the absolute experience for the punter from the moment they arrive on site to the moment they leave – and that’s what we’re trying to sell. That is meant to be reflected through the quality of the whole event. That means a beautiful experience and aesthetics through the nature of the sites, the décor on the sites which we add to enhance that, the quality of the food, the quality and range of drinks, and last – and most certainly not least – the quality and range of the bands and the quality of the production. We also have a top-level arts program. That word [‘arts’] can be associated with being very po-faced and being very serious, and while we’re serious about what we do, we want the arts that we do to be humorous, interactive and something that enhances the fun experience for people attending Harvest.

We felt that we really did manage to get that across last year. Each of the three legs we were very happy with barring some major cock-ups at the Melbourne leg which will be easily remedied. They will be remedied this year. It will be without the kinks of last year – mark my words on that.

Those ‘cock-ups’ happened at the first leg of the festival, but obviously both you and AJ are very experienced promoters – how did those issues end up slipping through the cracks?

There’s not a whole lot I can say other than to promise that it won’t happen again. It’s a source of deep embarrassment for all of us and it most definitely won’t happen again. We’re very conscious that we’ll be forgiven once for mistakes but we won’t be forgiven again for something like that and the whole team involved is very, very conscious of that.

Harvest is a single day event at the moment, which is different from some of the other events you’ve been involved with such as Electric Picnic or similar festivals like ATP. Are there plans to grow Harvest into a multi-day event?

We’re happy with the format we have at the moment and we’re not really looking any further than one year at a time. I wouldn’t like to guess where it might be in a few years time. Come the end of November this year [after the festivals] we might look and re-evaluate where it is, but we’re very happy with the format as it is. Australia’s unique in the nature of touring festivals are common for a very good reason: the cost of getting both bands and equipment out there. Because of that expense you need to be able to offer a string of dates. It’s not common in Ireland where you do have people just come in and do one leg. The only exception to that really is Splendour in the Grass which benefits from being situated around the same time as the two Japanese festivals and was probably deliberately set up for that.

On that issue of band’s coming all the way to Australia for a single show or just a few shows, there’s always plenty of debate and concern from fans about ‘having’ to watch bands in a festival setting rather than at a sideshow. Can we assume that sideshows in the same cities as the festivals might become more common once the festival is more established?

I suppose you need to make money at festivals and they’re very expensive to run and when you’re bringing over a number of international bands you need to cover your costs. I know that a few years ago when a number of the Australian festivals were selling out well in advance sideshows were able to be added on, but now with there being more festivals on and the market slowing down a little bit every sideshow you put on is competing for people’s cash. Hopefully soon Harvest will be in the position that if the festivals are selling out we could look at putting on sideshows.

I don’t think that’s a widespread feeling that people have; that they feel cheated when they go to see their favourite band at a festival. Sideshows are really a uniquely Australian thing to be honest – any festival (for example Electric Picnic in Ireland, Reading, Rock Am Ring in Germany, or Coachella in the States) usually has a certain amount of exclusivity within a few hours of the site for a few months around it. So if you want to go see the band you have to go to the festival. It [sideshows] don’t really come up that much in Ireland people don’t seem to say “oh, he’s coming to the festival. We can go see him at a club show in Dublin.”

I would like to think that if we can make the festival experience better in terms of the setting and the production values then people won’t look so earnestly at sideshows. I don’t think many who saw Portishead at any of the three legs last year would had preferred to have seen them in an indoor venue. You think of any of the other Australian festivals – would you have been given the same experience of Portishead at any of them? We’re trying to do something where we’re creating a much more enjoyable festival.

Next page