When you’re sleeping on the grass under a sky full of stars, Disconnect Festival feels like it could be a whole world away. In fact, it’s less than an hour out of Perth. MATILDA EDWARDS discovers why the boutique WA event is the new Australian festival to beat.
Though it might seem longer when you’re cramming five people you don’t know, interstate luggage and tents into a tiny hatchback, Fairbridge – host to the brand new Disconnect Festival – is just a 55 minute drive from the West Australian metropolis of Perth. Founded as a farm school for children and then used in the mid-20th century to house child orphans who were sent from the UK to Australia for cheap labour, the eco-village near the Outback town of Pinjarra is now predominantly used for school camps and programs for at-risk, disadvantaged and disabled youth.
That is until a few thousand punters descended upon Fairbridge this weekend to set a new standard for Australian festivals. An equal mix of music, comedy and thought-provoking discussion with a fresh take on festival food, Disconnect is an event that manages to attract exactly zero of your stock-standard summer festival jerks without even needing a ‘no dickhead policy’.
From its stellar Australian and international headliners to the ease of making new mates at ‘bogan bingo’ in the comedy tent, the three-night event began to feel more like a little community as neighbours bonded in a way I’ve never before seen at a music festival. When my post-festival plans consisted of nothing more than winging it back to the airport, my camping neighbours objected profusely and not only drove me to Fremantle, but showed me the stunning port town’s best avocado on toast hotspot (imperative, obviously) and took me for a dip at South Beach, where I promptly fell in love with the Indian Ocean. Where else would you find that kind of camaraderie?
Though Disconnect hosted a relatively large crowd, there was never that typical festival feeling of being crowded in the main arena or cattle-herded through gates to check for wristbands or concealed alcohol. With the exception of some alcohol-free zones – owing to the fact that the festival catered just as much for families as for your stock-standard festival demographic – we moved freely through the various activities, never feeling overly policed by security or marshals telling us where to stand (or rather, where not to).
Punters were free to pitch their tents wherever they pleased: so long as it wasn’t on the porch of one of the cottages reserved for staff, artists and competition winners, the whole village was our playground. Not once did we feel crowded or as if they’d squeezed in every last reveller they could; less a reflection on ticket sales and more the product of the space available and the types of people the event attracted. Even the ‘moshpit’ for the busiest acts of the weekend gave ample room to have a decent boogie with your mates.
One of Disconnect’s biggest triumphs was its lineup, offering an array of international acts while also managing to showcase our proudest local acts from Perth and Australia. USA’s Father John Misty proved the hit of the final night’s musical bill, with much of the hungover crowd murmuring about how they wished he’d played for about nine hours longer than he really did. But praises were sung just as highly for Australian acts Flight Facilities, who put on a jam-packed show that persevered despite the electricity disappearing for a brief moment, Meg Mac’s powerful soul-pop and Pond, the Perth psych outfit that features much of Tame Impala’s live lineup.
Some of the best sets during the three music-laden afternoons came from local up-and-comers who provided the perfect soundtrack for sitting back on the Darling Hill amphitheatre under the blazing sun, cold beer in hand. Perth poet/rapper Mathas was a brilliant addition to the Sunday afternoon lineup, smashing all of our hangovers into oblivion with his astute but accessible commentary, delivered with wry humour. The most understated act of the festival was definitely Saturday afternoon’s Harts. Prince (yes, the Prince) has professed to be a huge fan of his, and it’s no surprise: Harts is the master of delivering funky guitar lines with simultaneous keyboard loops and sugar-sweet lyrics, with only a drummer for assistance.
Another honourable mention should go to Perth local legends Tired Lion – finally home after a busy year of touring and becoming Australia’s next huge export (yep, we’re claiming it), the indie-rockers certainly let loose on stage at the start of Sunday evening. Drummers’ pants were pulled down and there were repeated calls for underwear to be thrown onstage from singer Sophie herself.
Disconnect’s food precinct, aptly named Chow Town, was – apart from being supremely well-placed to grab a taco on your way to seeing a next band – exactly what festival food should be. While all the offerings were fuss-free and appealing to people in various stages of merrymaking, the standard was a cut above your normal festival gib. From authentic Brazilian dishes to cold-pressed juice, popping candy and meringue-laden crêpes to kosher, vegetarian breakfast bagels that quite literally sent waves across the campsites, it was fast food done classy: stuff we could enjoy whether it was 11am or 2am the next morning without waking up in a haze of deep-fried self hatred.
The alcohol selection was impressive, too – from local wines and champagnes to house-made elderflower cocktails and Bloody Marys for those regretful mornings. It was all beautifully managed by a token system that was good value for money and certainly minimised queues.
Where as so many music festivals focus almost entirely on the headliners, the main stage, and what’s coming up next, Disconnect was a festival of broader culture with a host of activities that catered to its wide age range and eclectic taste. There were intimate, stripped-back music sets in Fairbridge’s stunning chapel; there was barely even standing room for prestigious performing art university WAAPA’s Gospel Choir, sending genuine shivers down our weary Saturday morning spines.
The burlesque tent and Speakeasy ran late each night, providing cabaret, DJ sets and plenty of dancing until the sun came up the next day. But there was plenty to feel inspired and entertained by when our legs needed a rest from dancing. Perhaps the most popular, diverse and widely-discussed venue was the comedy stage. It featured politically incorrect activities like ‘Bogan Bingo’ and ‘Bullshit Trivia’, which brought campsite groups together (and probably tore them apart too). It also featured an incredibly heartfelt and thought-provoking chat from Senator Scott Ludlam, who – as well as dropping sick beats during a DJ set – answered questions, including one from 11 year-old boy who Ludlam advised to take what he loved and turn it into a platform to share his voice and beliefs.
The overarching theme of the weekend, as you may have realised, was a sense of liberty that really doesn’t exist at Australia’s bigger festivals. Perhaps it’s because Disconnect was a debut event, but that freedom really is underrated and it’s something that forms an integral part of a festival’s culture. It wasn’t the delicious crêpes, nor the star-studded lineup or even the array of extracurricular activities on offer that made Disconnect so brilliant: it was the crowd it attracted, and the fact that – for three brief days – we were partying with a few thousand of our best mates, whether we’d met them before or not.
(All photos: Dylan Moore)
Matilda is a British-Australian-French freelance writer. She has flat-packed IKEA furniture in London and Melbourne, and no idea what's coming next. She’s written for The Guardian, FasterLouder, mX and Grazia, and really likes hot chocolate.