Paul McNeil is the unofficial mayor of Byron Bay and the self-titled chief of fun for the town.
Paul cruises up to our Daily Splendour bunker wearing thongs and politely asks if the interview can be delayed for an hour so he can go and see King Gizzard. A Mayor that’s into King Gizzard? Now that’s someone we’d vote for.
“I see Triple J have a mayor again,” Paul says referring to their pretentiously appointed ‘Major of Splendour.’ “I don’t want to mess with that guy. I had a punch on with the mayor the first year they had one. I won obviously, but I’ll be avoiding the mayor this year.”
Paul McNeil’s an iconic Australian artist, and he plays an integral part in Splendour’s aesthetic, under the direction of creative senior manager Janne Scott. Every rainbow, hotdog and smiley faced popsicle Splendour-goers have seen this weekend came from the touch of Paul’s brush—with the help of an entourage, of course. But when asked about the now iconic Splendour in the Grass fluro letters that punters see in the entry way, Paul had no idea that cheeky festival-goers the night before had switched up the letters, again. Reducing the sign to garble.
“Have they?” he asks. “It’s been such a problem. Every year they get moved around, but now they’ve made them so tough, they’ve got metal frames behind them, but they’re still determined to play scrabble with them.”
Paul’s work travels far beyond the transient festival world that springs up in the Byron Shire each year. He’s produced album covers for The Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Hoodoo Gurus (that he just quietly won an ARIA for), and he was one of the original Mambo artists. He owns an artist residency and gallery in Byron called Art Park, and last year he collaborated with The Rolling Stones. The way he downplays these incredible feats however, almost makes it seem like he’s chatting about winning the meat tray raffle at his local RSL.
“I did a poster and some other artwork for The Rolling Stones last year,” Paul tells me. “At the time I thought, ‘Oh yeah that’s cool,’ but later I realised, ‘Shit, that’s probably as good as it gets.’ In the 90s, pretty much all I did was music. I did rock posters and album covers and videos, but now it’s been morphed. Everyone still has album covers and art, but they’re only the size of your phone screen.”
When I asked him how he’s supposed to do any better than working with the biggest band in the world, he remains both humble and realistic. “Well I haven’t won an Oscar yet have I,” he laughs. “Does that come after an ARIA? Or maybe a Golden Globe? I just like producing things that make people happy.” But what dream album cover would make him the most happy? “I’m lucky enough to have worked with a fair few of the artists that I admire,” Paul says. “But Neil Young and Patti Smith would definitely be on the list because they’re people who’ve had a lasting impression on music through the ages. Neil Young’s always been cool, had really good covers, and done whatever he wanted. I respect that.”
When we go for a wander around the Splendour grounds to inspect Paul’s installations it’s damn hot and the crowd is starting to fire up watching Gang of Youths. Standing on top of the hill looking at the sea of people, it’s easy to agree with what Paul says about Splendour. “It’s one of the most incredible festivals in the world,” he says. “They put a lot of love into decorating it, it’s not just wire fences and hotdogs. Let’s go over to the hotdog actually, it’s nearby.”
Paul’s love of everything produced in the name of art, even an oversized hotdog in front of food trucks, is evident. And when you see Paul’s art on show here at Splendour, it’s easy to see how his work would be suffocated in a traditional setting. “Real pieces of art are skateboard decks and art that anyone can own,” Paul says. “They can’t all afford paintings or go to galleries, but all the people today wearing cool shirts around, it’s art for the people.”
There’s certain artists who get hung up on the blank boxes known as galleries., and Paul McNeil is not a fan of galleries in the traditional sense. “The average person will never go into one in their lifetime,” he says. “They’ll go into a church before they go into a gallery. They’re boring, the walls are always white and the people that work in them speak funny.”
A hub of artistic creativity—among many other things—Byron Bay is now Paul’s adopted home after he spent many years living in Bondi (where he tells me he was also the social mayor). The enormity of what Splendour brings to the Byron region is not lost on Paul, who sees the crowds descend and then disappear every year. “I don’t think people realise, Byron is like a 10,000 people town. It’s a tiny town, and we’ve got The Cure and The Strokes playing here? It’s mind blowing. I hope it’s not lost on everyone.”
Before checking out his famous hotdog, Paul takes us past one of his favourite zones, the Moet Chandon tent. Paul McNeil is a living walking testament to everything that’s great about Splendour in the Grass, and after working like a dog in the fields for the week prior to Splendour, he watches the sun set on Splendour’s Saturday with a glass of french bubbles in hand. “It’s a gorgeous respite from the madness,” he says.