It takes a person of a certain ilk to start a music festival.
There are a few things in life that take such a mammoth effort to organise, but Splendour in the Grass founders Jess Ducrou and Paul Piticco just ooze passion for the festival that they’ve created, and that’s why they keep torturing themselves year after year in aid of your enjoyment. Both have roots that run
deep in the music biz, and it was this that originally brought them together. Like all good double acts, Jess and Paul met in the pub.
“We met in a bar in Byron almost 25 years ago,” remembers Paul. “Jess was pouring beers, and I was complaining about the world,” he laughs. At the time, Jess was taking a break from city living in Sydney where she worked at Rolling Stone as the “accounts chick”, and Paul was the manager of an up-and coming band called Powderfinger. He gave Jess a demo, and the two stayed in touch.
As we all know, Powderfinger’s star headed true north, and as a result Paul ended up travelling to Sydney with the band. That’s when Paul and Jess’s friendship went professional. “I was booking gigs at the Lansdowne,” remembers Jess. “I started giving the guys shows and then Paul and I started working together more formally as agent and manager. We worked together for a decade or so before we started Splendour.”
Paul explains that one of the major issues they faced, that eventually led to the birth of Splendour in the Grass, was not being able to get Australian bands like Powderfinger a platform to perform on. “As Powderfinger developed into a big Australian band during the 90s, we had trouble negotiating our way into festivals like Big Day Out. So Jess and I had a meeting and decided to come up with our own festival, and rather than compete with the other music festivals we decided to hold it in the winter.
Because of what was happening in the Northern Hemisphere, it was just a natural time of year to have it. Festivals obviously originated in Europe, where summer is the only time of year when the weather would permit having these kinds of festivals. Whereas here, some summer’s days are 40 degrees, so I suggested we try doing something in winter.”
The slot in the calendar that Splendour occupies is a significant part of its charm; it’s one of the few winter festivals anywhere. And its date was a deliberate ploy from Jess and Paul to give the festival a different feel and character.
“I had been doing Homebake up in Byron which had been in summer,” explains Jess. “And the council never approved anything in Byron in peak holiday time, so we thought to do something in winter would be in line with what local council was going to approve. And Byron always resonated with Paul and I, we met there and established our working relationship there, it just seemed right.”
One of the major challenges for the formative Splendour years was booking big international headliners. “In the beginning, the international festival calendar was so uncrowded that if you were a big event like Lollapalooza or Fuji Rock, once you staked your claim to a weekend people would avoid
you. But in the last five-to-seven years, festivals have just exploded in America, there’s a festival on every second weekend now and they’re generally competing for those dates. Also, because in the Northern Hemisphere that window of when you can actually have a festival is a lot tighter in the
colder countries, people don’t really have much choice.”
The festival experience is such a personal one, that I wonder how as an organiser you can effectively gauge the success of what you’ve put on. Paul explains that for him, it’s the chatter among the masses that he overhears that acts as his barometer. “Just hearing people talk about it,” he explains. “When something becomes an ‘I was there’ moment, then that’s very satisfying for me. You know, 30,000 people jumping up and down and just going mad to a particular band that you’ve booked, and knowing that it’s the right music or the right band at the right time—that’s a pretty good validation for what you’re doing.”
For Jess, who’s deeply invested in the multitude of other things that you can do at Splendour, often people going off on a tangent is what gives her the most joy. “I think people come to Splendour firstly
because they want to see the bands that are advertised,” she says. “But if they come along and get waylaid or side-tracked by anything else going on that’s not a band, then it’s a bit of a win for me. I can see they’re having an experience that is probably more than they had hoped for, and that’s pretty
The amount of toil that goes into the festival is monumental, and the staff—everyone from the technicians to the guys who clean the toilets—all play an equally important role. I ask the duo when they officially kick the boots off, and whether it’s one of the most satisfying moments in their calendars.
Paul explains that it’s Monday that the Splendour hair really gets
let down.“That’s when the official staff party is, and everyone’s ready to pop so you have to let the steam out pretty quickly,” he says. “On the Monday, when those last people leave, it’s like that house party when the last person lingering around leaves at 2am and you just really want to get them a taxi. That sense of relief when the last person leaves, it’s a good feeling.”
Splendour in the Grass is known for its vibe of tolerance and fun, and in parting, I ask Jess and Paul what their advice would be for anyone planning to attend the festival for the first time. Their responses
reflected in many ways, their roles. Jess the practical replied, “Bring gumboots and warm clothes because it actually gets really cold at night.”
Paul, the philosopher, went a little deeper. “Whatever the best version of you is, bring it along. Keep the Splendour spirit alive, be cool.” If you adhere to these shards of advice from the top, you’re likely to have a pretty damn good time at Splendour in The Grass.