Inside Peats Ridge Festival

Far from the madding crowds of a Sydney New Years Eve, Peats Ridge Festival is a true live-in experience. With four days of music in the idyllic surrounds of Glenworth Valley, there’s ample time to ease yourself in and unwind. That is, until the partying starts.

As part of FL’s Festival Awards series, we quizzed Peats Ridge main man Matt Grant about creating an “alternate reality” in the bush.

Is it important to keep Peats Ridge an intimate affair?

We limit the size of the festival, because first and foremost for us is the experience of people. There’s nothing worse than being squashed in and you have to queue for an hour to get a drink. It takes away from the experience. We’re always mindful of that and wouldn’t let it grow too much. Especially as it’s over New Years – when you’re there you want a more relaxed experience.

Peats Ridge happened in early December for its first two years. What inspired the move to the New Years period?

There were a couple of reasons. Firstly, you put an enormous amount of effort into putting on a festival and on the date we had it, quick a lot of people rock up on Saturday morning. Then most people would leave Sunday afternoon. It felt like we were putting in all this energy just so that people could come for one night. Where we are now, they can come in on the 28th of December and leave on the 1st. They’re there for five days, and you get the feeling you’re providing a nice spread of festivities.

The venue of Glenworth Valley plays a major part in the festival’s character. How much does the natural setting shape how you do things?

I think with any green fields site, you have to be sensitive to how the venue works. Obviously with the strong sustainable focus of Peats Ridge, we’re very mindful of the impact we have on the venue anyway. Luckily, it’s almost perfectly laid out for a festival. You’ve got the big paddock in the middle and satellited all around it are the campsites. There’s a river that cuts off the paddock from the campsites so we’ve got bridges you cross over. One of the campsites is a good six or eight minutes walk away, if you want quieter camping. We’re very lucky this beautiful site is so close to Sydney.

You mentioned the festival’s focus on sustainability. Have those initiatives remained fairly consistent over the history of Peats Ridge?

We keep on developing what we do. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’m never quite happy with it. We’ve developed in broad strokes the principles of running a sustainable event, and now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of it. For example, we run the entire festival on renewable energy since 2005. What we’re now trying to start to look at is doing individual energy audits on each stage. We’ve always tried to make what we discover publicly available, so other event organisers can access it.

You got a sense of how sensitive the location can be when one of the festivals was cancelled due to weather conditions.

Absolutely, it’s something that can happen to any outdoor festival. We learned a lot about the site then. It was a one in a hundred weather pattern. If we’d have known what we knew afterwards, we could have planned for it. Nobody had that information because it hadn’t happened for a 100 years. If that happened now, we could go on. It’s a positive thing to be honest – it allowed us to take a look at the festival. We were growing really fast at that point so it gave us a chance to stop and take stock.

How does the New Years timing affect the vibe?

Ah, it’s great! We have a thing we call the masquerade, we encourage people to put on a mask and come out for New Years Eve. Probably two-thirds of the festival does it. There’s something about putting on a mask and getting dressed up that makes you let go of your normal persona. The energy that flows through the place is so amazing. We don’t sell day tickets to New Years Eve, so everyone has been there for three days. People have been through the festival together; formed friendships.

When devising the line-ups, is it fun to go after acts you know fit the Peats Ridge feel?

We approach the line-up in a few different ways. Firstly, the acts we think would be great for the festival. It’s a very diverse and eclectic range of music. The people who come to Peats Ridge are choosy about their music but like to be exposed to new things.

The other way we approach it is through an applications process. In 2005, I remember getting a CD from a band called The Stones. We programmed them, and they would become Angus and Julia Stone. To see them coming from a set in our Chai Tent to the mainstage is great to see. We get 600 to 800 applications and people know if their music is good, they’ve got a fair chance of getting on. We work with co-programmers as well on certain stages, so often people say to us, –  “Wow, I really come away from Peats Ridge having discovered so many great bands.’

What is the most important element to get right in a festival?

The experience for patrons, I think. It seems a bit staid, but that’s the core of what you’re doing. From there, I’d move onto production values: great sound, great lighting. I’m a big believer in the arts, decorative and theatrical component. What makes a festival is when the sun goes down and the place really comes alive. You’re creating an alternate reality for people at a festival – an opportunity to step out of their everyday lives.

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