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Matt Grant is a Festival Pioneer
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Matt Grant is a Festival Pioneer
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1 July 2010

Matt Grant is a Festival Pioneer

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Steve Baccon

At most big events, the Portaloo experience is generally one which it’s almost worth forgoing another beer for, if it means it can be avoided. Peats Ridge Festival 2006 was the first music festival I’d ever been to where the toilet experience wasn’t a nightmare, in fact, the self-composting loos there were a joy – well almost. I certainly came away with a new perspective on the future of plumbing and sanitation.

And that’s the whole idea of Peats Ridge – to show people the realities of sustainable alternatives, as well as a damn good time. When Matt Grant put on the first Peats Ridge Festival in 2004, it was the realisation of a dream he’d held onto for ten long years, and one of the first times in the world that anyone had thought to attempt to produce a music festival sustainably.

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

KATE BEZAR: How long ago did you move to Australia?

MATT GRANT: Twenty years. Music brought me out here originally. I was brought up in England. I have to go back to tell the story … My parents separated when I was four, so I spent my childhood with my dad on the weekends. He’s retired now, but he set up and was part owner and the driver behind a recording studio in London called Olympic Sound Studios, one of the two major studios in London. Most of the really influential albums of the ‘60s and ‘70s were recorded at either Abbey Road or Olympic. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix and all those guys recorded there.

Before you were born?

Yes, he’d worked there since he left school at 16. I think he got eight out of a possible 800 in his exams, so he left and got a job making tea in the studio. It was in a different location in London at that time. He grew with the studio and ended up running the whole thing. Then, when they moved to the new site, he brought in my grandfather, who was an architect, to do all the design. My grandfather designed this amazing eight ton, floating, concrete cube which became a completely sound-isolated studio. That really hadn’t been done before and was one of the reasons the sound that came out of Olympic was so respected by musicians. Each weekend I’d go and see my dad and he’d always be working, he was a workaholic. I’d go in there and he’d be at the desk in Studio One and I’d skateboard round the studio, so I was exposed to music from a really, really early age and always had this history of music as well as a love of it. I was brought up and went to school just out of London in Surrey, then moved down to Bournemouth on the south coast when I was 17. Whilst there I went over to Spain on holiday, that was the first time I’d left England. I spent two weeks in Spain and befriended quite a lot of English workers who were working in the night clubs and bars. I was really quite excited and inspired by the fantastic life these guys lived; they’d work in the evening and go to the beach and hang out during the day. So, a year later, I went and lived in Spain for six months … Majorca.

You left school?

I left school at 15. I went to a good private school, it cost my father an absolute fortune. I was the only non-Catholic there. At the end of my O Levels it seemed to me a real waste to follow a path of education to A Level and then university if I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It seemed I would be doing education for education’s sake. I made the decision. I would rather go out into the world and see what came up for me instead.

That upset my dad at the time.

Of course.

He had a lot of hopes for me to go and get highly educated, but it wasn’t the right thing for me. So I went to Spain and there were a couple of job options you had. The first was standing outside the bars, trying to get people into them. The local federal police would drive around every couple of weeks, throw you in jail, beat you up a bit and then drop you back in the morning – that was the job description. Or, there was working inside the bars, playing music, getting paid twice as much, having a completely open was the first festival I’d ever been to.

Which surprises me given that Glastonbury’s been going for so long and you were so into music.

Well, there wasn’t really a festival culture in Australia back then, so that was really the first time I was in the right place and country to go to a festival. It was a beautiful weekend, one of the rare times Glastonbury’s been sunny. You walked in and were surrounded by this massive fence in this enormous space with 100,000 other people, and everything you needed was there.

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

It was like a wonderland. The rest of the world might as well not have existed.

Everything that you were, and thought, and was part of your life had very little relevance in the space you were in. I had an amazing time at Glastonbury. It was full of all sorts of different people doing all sorts of different things. I was exposed to different ways of looking at the world. That really moved me, and there and then I said, “This is what I want to do with myself. I want to put on a festival because this has got to be the pinnacle for someone who loves music and creating events and making people happy through that.” After that I came back to Australia, was accepted as a resident, and my first child was born. That was late 1994. I really came back here with the intention to put on a festival, so I told anyone and everyone that would listen that that was what I was going to do. They all thought I was mad. “How are you going to do a festival? You don’t have any money, you’ve just had your first child, you’ve got to support your family.” I’d say, “I don’t know, but I’m just going to do it; that’s it, I’m going to do it.” I started writing down all the plans of how I was going to do this festival. I’ve still got the book. It was things like, I’m going to approach this person, and it’s going to have this theme, and these bands are going to play, and I’m going to market it in this way. Yet I was living with my mother-in-law in a room at the back of her house with no money, a young child …

Oh God, really?

After about three months I realised I had to go and earn some money and set up a house and pay for my family, so I took a job managing a nightclub for a year, which was horrible. It was a suburban nightclub which had been there for 18 years, and a big part of my job seemed to be standing between two big blokes that wanted to beat each other up and telling them not to. After a year I decided that I couldn’t work for someone else, so I started a promotions business, which I ran up until last year. It serviced the entertainment industry, putting up posters and distributing flyers. I started the business because I thought it was something that would ultimately take me towards running a festival. In the way that these things happen, I ended up running it for nine years before I eventually managed to put on the first festival. It was a small business and small businesses are quite challenging. Someone once said to me, if you can’t leave your business for a year, then you don’t have a business, you have a job, and it’s the worst sort of job.

That’s very true …

It was very accurate. Still, the whole time I’m saying, I’m going to run this festival, I’m going to run this festival.

That’s a long time to keep a dream alive.

It was a long time and it was really hard. There were times where it was really, really hard. It was financially hard, but it taught me a lot about running a small business. Then, in about 1999, I developed an interest in sustainability. My second so was born 19 months after my first, so they are very close in age. As they got older I started to look at the world around me and become aware of the environmental limitations. It was from a logical point of view. I wouldn’t say I was a greenie or really strongly environmentally focused,

I just started looking at the resources we had and thinking, something’s not adding up here.

It started to become a strong driver for me, especially looking at my boys growing up.

It does force you to look even further into the future than just your own lifetime.

Ultimately I believe we’re all very selfish until we have children. Children force you to consider them just by the nature of your relationship to them, and the fact that they rely on you so much. I started reading magazines about sustainability. I remember reading one called Earth Garden, and coming across the concept of permaculture, which was brought together by an Australian guy called Bill Mollison. It’s a design process more than anything else. I started reading about it a lot and was quite fascinated by it. I signed up for a two-week Permaculture Design Certificate at Tyalgum, which was Bill Mollison’s property up in Murwillumbah (Northern NSW). I spent two weeks living on this amazing property – such an inspirational piece of land, completely self-sufficient – with 25 people from all over the world. There was a delegation from India, people from America – all learning about sustainable agriculture and systems, looking at the world and sustainable management of resources. It blew my mind. It totally blew my mind, that course. As a consequence I made a decision to separate from the mother of my children. I then went through quite a difficult period, for probably two or three years, where I was so inspired by what I’d learnt in the permaculture course that my whole focus moved from putting on a festival to the strong obligation I felt to work in the environmental field and do something about this massive issue which was coming our way. I went to the University of New South Wales and did a six-month bridging course so that I would be eligible to take a degree in environmental management. That was hard. I’m not someone who learns easily through books and writing, I’m someone who learns through doing. I was really split into two, because there was part of me which felt that the core of me was to put on a festival and another part which felt obligated to work in the environmental field. It was a real battle within myself. I could feel it going on really strongly. I was so drawn to these two streams for different reasons.

What was it that finally made them come together for you?

One day I was walking across Victoria Park in Sydney. I had been constantly weighing up the two sides of my head, trying to find some way that I could reconcile both of these drives within myself and it was this sudden – they call them aha moments – when I knew. It wasn’t a realisation, it was a knowing, that what I had to do was to combine sustainability and the environment with a festival. It was like, of course! What originally drew me to festivals was that you go to this space and you’re completely open; it takes away all the stresses and pressures of your normal life, and you can really open yourself up to a new way of looking at the world. Everyone’s interested in sustainability, but they get so trapped in their day to day lives that they tend not to make time for it. We get stuck in our groove and don’t make time for the changes we want to make, that we would make if we had the space to make them.

We also find it hard to even imagine a new way of living, so by taking someone for two days, or however long a festival might be, you can show them a new way of living, right?

It not only shows them, but it immerses them in a new way of living. I knew; I just knew that it would work.

Man, were you excited?

Relieved, just relieved to be able to reconcile these two things in my brain. I’d had a very hard time with it. I don’t know if you’ve ever been stuck in your life and you don’t know which way to go?

Oh yeah, and it’s awful.

It is awful, especially when it’s at that level, things that are core deep in you. To realise I could do both of these things; combine everything that I love and everything that I care about in the same thing, was just fantastic. Then everything just started to happen. Synchronicity has played a big part in the story for me, in fact it plays a big part in life. I’m a real believer that basically if you set yourself on a path and you start taking the steps down that path, then the universe will come and support you on the path. I bore people to death with this conversation.

I always say to people, just have some faith. If you’ve got a dream, start down the path of that dream, have some faith in the process, and you will find that support will come to you to make it happen. It may not be what you expect, but it will help you. I believe the guideposts in life are synchronicity, I don’t believe in coincidence, I believe in synchronicity. If you start looking for things that seem to be coincidences and if you follow those, you’ll find that they will lead the way. It’s sort of new age hippie thinking, but I don’t see myself in that way at all, I see myself as quite pragmatic. I see this as a logical thing based around the law of energies and the way that nature and the universe actually work. I saw this very clearly once I made the decision to start with the festival. Things started to happen around me. A person rang me up out of the blue, we met and they ended up becoming my partner in my promotions business. I offered them half the business, which I’d spent so many years building, if they would come in and manage it to give me the time to start working on this dream. Then I met two people, friends, who came and helped me with the organising. I went to Glenworth Valley – I just got in a car and drove up there and into the valley – and the guy that owns the land answered the door. I said, “Hi, I’m Matt, I’m looking for somewhere to put on a festival” and he said, “Hi, I’m Barton, I’m looking for someone to put on a festival.” I started with only $18,000 I’d managed to save; that was all I started the festival with. I had this vision of this enormous great festival, but I had no resources only some time, a small amount of money and a lot of drive, passion and belief.

When you talk about synchronicity like that, I know from experience that you’re right, but that it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be an easy road.

No, don’t fall into that trap. If you’ve got an expectation of an easy road it’ll probably be even harder than it was going to be anyway.

It’s all about faith, and it’s not about faith in the outcome, it’s about faith in the process.

I’ve been through huge amounts of extremely challenging things in organising the festival, extremely challenging. There have been times when the only thing that’s kept me going has been faith, where things have been so dark, or were perceived as being dark, and there seemed to be no glimmer of hope anywhere that things would work out …

Times when I felt, how on earth are we going to get through this? Certainly, with the financial strain of putting on the festival, there have been times when, really, any sane person or person that didn’t have such a huge amount of faith, would have given up. They would have said, “This is just not doable,” but faith will keep you going when all else is gone; it’s a funny thing. It may not work out how you wanted it, you may not end up achieving what you dreamt of achieving, but you will learn something, and something positive will come out of the process which will take you where you’re meant to be going. It’s all about process and process changes as you go through it. If you get attached to outcomes in life then you’re going to get stuck. I was chatting to Steve (the photographer who took these shots) and I said, “One of my beliefs is that if you never give up then you can’t fail, because the only people who fail in life are the ones who give up.” That’s such a truth. You can get knocked back, and knocked back, and knocked back, time and time again, but if you don’t give up then you’re still trying, and if you’re still trying then you haven’t failed. That’s the secret of it, just to keep going.

And you did eventually get your festival going.

I did. The first year of the festival was just crazy. We had 70mm of rain the first night and the main stage didn’t work – there’s story, after story, after story I could tell you. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never organised even one live band to go on a stage in my life. I learnt from scratch, but it was great; it was an amazing event; we got 1000 people. We put an environmental education space in there, it was the first event to have a container deposit system …

Sorry, a what?

When you’re looking at organising a festival, one of the key things is waste. The concept and the foundation of Peats Ridge is threefold. It’s firstly to produce an event sustainably, to minimise the event’s impact on its environment; secondly, to educate patrons of the event about a sustainable mindset and a sustainable way of living. Then ultimately, to fund education projects around sustainable agriculture – that’s a long term goal of the event. So, when looking at how to produce the event sustainably, waste was the biggest thing. We came up with a system of separating our waste at source into composting, recycling and landfill. As part of that we decided to put into place a container deposit system where, if you went to the bar and bought yourself a beer, you’d pay an extra dollar on your can. Then we set up stations where you took your can and got your dollar back. It’s very simple, but it has this great on flow in terms of psychology. When you put value on some waste, then in patrons’ minds you put value on all waste. Not only did we have no cans at all on the site, but at there was nothing on the floor, not one bit of waste. Not only did people not drop their bottles or cans, they also didn’t drop their cigarette butts. We had 1000 people and I think we charged $48 for a ticket that first year, so it really was a small event. After that first year I thought, let’s go back, let’s do it again. In the second year we spent about $250,000 on the event, so it grew a lot. I made the decision to run the whole event on renewable energy because I saw that as another wasteful area. We spent a year talking to different generator suppliers and eventually found a company willing to run their generators on 100% biodiesel. That was a big thing because no generator engine manufacturer would warranty a generator run on biodiesel, so, by running their generators on biodiesel, they were voiding their warranties. It was a big thing for them and it was a big thing for us because no major event had ever been run on renewable energy.

I imagine a music festival would suck huge amounts of energy to power those stages.

It’s massive. Everyone said to me, “You’re mad; don’t run all your generators on biodiesel, just run half and then if it doesn’t work you can still power your event.” They told me stories about generators clogging up and the filters clogging and not working, but I’d researched it and spoken to a lot of people, and the information I had was that it would work. It did work; it worked seamlessly. The event grew, about 2500 people came that year, and everyone had an amazing time; the vibe and energy were fantastic. In the third year, 2006, we decided to move it to New Year’s Eve.

That was the year I went.

Oh it was brilliant; it was the most chaotic year. In our infinite wisdom of moving it to New Year’s we didn’t think about changing the ticketing system and so, when almost everyone arrived within a three-hour period, I had to open the gates and just let everyone in so the cars weren’t queueing on the highway. We still had quite a lot of volunteers and were pushed to the max in running the event. We had ten stages and 300 bands perform that year. We came out of that realising that we now had a very big event on our hands and had to make some changes for it to be run properly. I spent quite a bit of time raising money and then hired a really amazing, professional team and we planned a very large festival for 2007 with 15 stages of music, 420 bands and a really major international headliner. In 2007 we had some pretty intense weather. There was a storm in June that was the biggest in 100 years, it actually washed out part of the Pacific Highway. All throughout the second half of the year it rained constantly. We went in to set up the festival and it was very challenging, there wasn’t one structure in the place we’d originally planned because we were trying to work around these terrible ground conditions. Then, for the last two weeks of the set-up, it rained in a way that it had never rained before. It was the highest rainfall ever recorded, and nine days out, with the whole festival pretty much set up, and 10,000 people projected to come, I had to make the decision to cancel because I couldn’t confidently say that it was a safe space for people to come into. That was a big decision and had far-reaching consequences, that’s for sure, but it was the right decision and I know that.

No other choice?

No, but it was quite cruel because over the days scheduled for the festival itself, it was beautiful and sunny. That wouldn’t have made a difference because there had been so much rain that the water table under the valley had come up to sitting on top of the ground. Anywhere there was a slight depression in the ground you could see it was pooled and it meant the ground wasn’t stable. So it was the right thing to do, but it was an enormous setback for the event. We were insured, but I spent nine months battling with the insurance company.

To get them to cover your costs?

To get them to pay on our claim. All our suppliers and everyone stood with us during that process. It was very, very, very stressful. That was what I was talking about earlier, the time of absolute darkness. Insurance companies are funny – they’re very good at what they do and they employ assessors whose job is to find out, however they can, the absolute minimum that you’ll accept and then stall you until you’re so desperate that you have to accept that amount. That’s what they did to us. It came to a point where they made us an offer which was about $100,000 less than I knew we needed to survive, but it was two weeks before the absolute deadline for being able to put the event on again. I really agonised over it, but in myself went, I don’t think we can do it for that, so I went back to them and said, “No we can’t accept it.” It had taken us months to get to that point and to say that to them took real faith and knowing that I valued the festival. I just thought they were taking the piss to a level that I couldn’t say yes to. I remember being locked away in my house saying, “It’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok”, going quite crazy wondering if I’d just thrown the whole thing away. I felt this click in my brain and it was like, “This is going to be ok.”

It was a physical thing, I felt it, and as I felt it the phone rang. It was this guy I’d met months before who went, “I’ve heard about what’s happening to you. I’ve been working in insurance for 20 years and I’ve got two weeks free, can I help you?” I said, “Yes please.” Basically he took it to a very high level within the insurance company and said, “Do you realise that your actions are going to be responsible for taking out this amazing event which is one of the world leaders in promoting sustainability?” They came back and increased their offer on the last day.

What an angel!

It was still less than we were due, but we could survive on it. So then we started from scratch on the 2008 event.

Had you lost credibility through all that?

No, completely the opposite. It’s a funny thing; everyone respected us for what we did.

It would have been a lot easier for us to walk away from the whole thing and give up at that point.

People saw that we weren’t just fighting for us, we were fighting for everybody who was involved in it. We communicated a lot and people saw how hard we did it. I think we gained credibility from it because people felt for what we went through.

It’s in the tough times that you really prove what you’re made of.

We did lose a lot, three-quarters, of our audience. I think that was partly because people were unsure if it was going to be on again and by the time we got to October/November, people had made other plans. People were also upset because nine days out from New Years we’d had to cancel and, while they totally thought it was the right thing to do, it had still left them in the lurch. So we came back and 2008 was a small event in the scheme of things. Only 2500 people came to it, but it was the best festival we’d done, in regards to professionally managing a festival. It was brilliant and everyone had an amazing time. So we survived it; we survived that cancellation and put the event on again and then in 2009 all these amazing things started happening. We won all these awards. We were voted the leader across all industry in sustainability in New South Wales, and the most sustainable small business in NSW through the NSW Green Globe Awards. We also won the best achievement in sustainability at the Australian Event Awards. Finally, we got approached by the UN to be part of the Music and Environment Initiative that they are launching through the UN Environment Programme. If you go back to 2004, the idea of music and the environment was something that was held by only a few people doing a few small events around the world, it was just not on the main radar at all, and now, one of the biggest and most powerful organisations in the world has realised that music is the perfect tool for communicating about the environment. They invited major festivals and players in the music industry from around the world to come to Norway to brainstorm how to run it. We were the only organisation invited from the Southern Hemisphere and, strangely enough, I’m sitting in the room with the guy that part owns Glastonbury.

It had gone full circle.

Yeah, and we were talking about sustainability and the environment … We came out of that meeting appointed to head up a task force to look at green technological solutions and how they can help the music and festival industries worldwide to reduce their impact. Because we basically set up small cities in a week or two, and we set them up in a sustainable way, we’re also looking at how the information we learn transfers to humanitarian crisis and disaster relief situations where they’re doing exactly the same thing. How can festivals be used as a training ground to learn processes that can be implemented in those sorts of situations? It’s this really massive, exciting thing that’s come out of the festival and it’s just started from the smallest idea and really just sticking with a vision, and this dream, and the belief, and the faith that this is the right thing and that it is achievable, and being positive.

This has taken you to places you never even dreamt of.

I had no idea that these things would come out of this … My dad couldn’t believe it when I rang him up and said, “I’m lecturing at university.” Actually, because 2008 was hard, and even 2009 was hard financially for us, my partner offered to take a mortgage out on her house to get us through. I also had to borrow money from my Dad. When I left school he wasn’t angry, but one of the things he said to me was, “That’s it son, I’ve spent all this money on your education. If you want to go out and see the world and do it your way, do it, but don’t look to me for help.” But I went back to him and said, “I could really do with some help right now,” and he said yes, so it’s healed that area of that relationship as well. This year is looking fantastic in regards to how much people love the event and how important a role it takes. We’ve run surveys, and half of our audience, who aren’t already living sustainably, say that they come out of Peats Ridge and they change their behaviour around sustainability and how they live their lives.

So it has real impact. To finish on the long term plan, we have set up a not for profit organisation called Sustainable Arts and Culture which we will ultimately turn into a charity. Its goal is to build an education centre for sustainable food production in Niger. I visited there last year with my partner to look for places to build the centre. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world with the highest population growth and one of the highest soil losses, so it’s really going the wrong way in regards to food and population. Building this centre has always been the long term goal of the festival and I have always kept this in my mind, even when in the darkest moments. Now we’re in the process of drawing up the plans and starting to do the budgets to make this happen so that once the festival does get profitable we can start straight away realising the long term goal.

After you’ve paid your partner’s mortgage back I hope!

And everyone else, including myself! The thing about festivals is that they can be massively unprofitable, but they can also be massively profitable. I really believe that if you have success, you have to put back, otherwise what’s the point? It’s not about yourself. If you make it about yourself it’s not going to work. You have to make it about helping other people and doing the right thing, especially on this planet because we really are all in it together.

 

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Steve Baccon

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