Punk and hardcore will never die. Depending on who you talk to, it’s growing. And for many fans of the heavier stuff, it’s the stuff of life.
The team at UNIFY spotted an opportunity and seized it with the launch of UNIFY Gathering in 2015, which kicked off with a community ethos and a hit-‘em-hard music programme (The Amity Affliction, Northlane, In Hearts Wake), all packed into a single stage.
Now spread over three days in picturesque Tarwin Lower in South Gippsland, Victoria, the camping fest has chiseled its place on the calendar and returns in January for its fifth year, with a lineup featuring Underoath, Karnivool, Taking Back Sunday and much more.
TIO caught up with Rhett McLaren (UNIFY Gathering Director) ahead of the 2019 show to discuss its evolution, its community spirit and the source of its heavy music muscle.
The festival is entering its fifth year. Looking back, how did your existing audience and your wider business inform the shape of the fest?
We were lucky enough to know all of those artists via our label, management or just a friendship and a mutual love of heavy music, and that gave us a unique insight into just how big that scene was becoming. It just really felt like this underground movement, and we noticed the fans of the Australian artists were really passionate about the heavy music from this country, and we wanted to shape the festival around that community.
So we found the perfect spot, and developed a festival to link all of these acts up and included a new experience of allowing people to camp with their mates while seeing the local artists that they love. Even to this day, many of the biggest and most memorable sets come from Australian bands who often play one of their biggest shows to date at Unify Gathering. Apart from the four above, sets by Hellions, Trophy Eyes, Tonight Alive, Void Of Vision, Polaris and Hands Like Houses (amongst others) have been some of the most insane sets we’ve seen.
Your team has made an effort to reflect the tastes and lifestyle choices of the festival’s fans in the show itself.
The environmental initiatives and making plant-based food available is a big part of that. We think it’s actually even more important to the artists than it is to the fans, and that’s important to us too. We’ve always taken an honest approach with communication to our audience, as much as we can.
We let people in on why we do things, and how we do them. It feels better to say more than less. In the local community it’s always about complete transparency and communication. We constantly give them a platform to voice and discuss concerns, and we always give them all the information we possibly can.
WATCH: Hellions – ‘Smile’
You mentioned local community. How does the festival go about engaging with the locals and other organisations to the right balance?
Right from the start, it was really important to work closely with the local community of Tarwin Lower to ensure benefits from the event were flowing back to support their local clubs and initiatives. After all, festivals are all about connecting people. Since the beginning, the football and netball club, bowls club and Men’s Shed have been involved in varying aspects of the event, from food service backstage to the artist and crew, front of house, to patrons and volunteers, waste management, crowd marshaling and even the supply of the putt-putt golf course…shout out to the Men’s Shed for that one.
It’s built a great bond, a mutual respect and sense of giving back. Funds raised from selling food at the event has allowed the footy and netball club to install solar panels on the club rooms, bringing down the price of their power bills and helped the Men’s Shed to purchase a 13-seater mini bus to transport club and community members to events and social outings. An amazing aspect of the interaction between fans and locals is the intergenerational connection. Watching young fans engage and banter with the older Men’s Shed crew is just awesome.
We also have a focus on involving positive social change groups to offer services and education to our punters. Over the years we have had the likes of To Write Love on Her Arms and Headspace (youth-focused mental health organizations), Danzewise (which provides support for people suffering and offers substance abuse education)’ and Girls Rock (supporting women in music performance) on site to provide their services and education.
The positive social change groups get involved through our punter wellbeing program, The Lighthouse, which is supported and facilitated by our internal UNITY Crew team. During the festival members of the UNITY Crew, which is made up of experienced festival staff and volunteers, will be located in the UNITY Huts throughout the festival site. The Huts provide centralise points of contact for punters should they require assistance from event staff, medical services or security.
You mentioned Girls Rock, Danzewise and others. Does the festival actively seek-out partners and charities with a similar ethos and identity?
We do. It’s super important that we align ourselves with other like-minded organisations, this is super important to us. These relationships just add to some of the festival initiatives such as Your Choice and The Lighthouse. Its a win-win for them, us and our festival community. We see these organisations as an extension of the UNIFY ethos, outside of the music. If you share the same festival PREFACE as us – there is a place for you at UNIFY.
Australia’s festivals biz is going through a shift. We saw the end of the big, touring fests a few years ago, though with Download and Good Things, we’re seeing somewhat of a return to those big, traveling events. UNIFY is different. How so?
It’s exciting to see new faces in the game, sharing a love for heavy music like we do. We’re super proud of the community we’ve built over the past four years and in our opinion, it’s something you won’t find at many other festivals. For our fifth installation of UNIFY, we’ve moved to an amazing new site in beautiful South Gippsland. With rolling hills, amazing sunsets and windmills setting the perfect backdrop for the wildest weekend of the year. That’s why we only have one stage, which means no clashes. We want everyone to see the bands they want to see while hanging with their mates.
We also care about giving Australian bands a platform to play and share their music. Over the years, we’ve had some of the best Australian bands on our stage and that won’t stop.
That said, this year we have 32 bands, 11 Internationals and seven exclusive performances which we are super stoked about. It will be a crazy good time.
The fest has grown from 2-3 days. Are there ambitions to make UNIFY gathering a sprawling, mini-Glastonbury.
No, although Glastonbury is a mecca for music fans from all over the world, it’s not the festival we wish UNIFY to be. Our aim has always been to make UNIFY a long-standing annual festival that provides a unique platform for fans of punk, hardcore and metal to enjoy their favourite bands in a natural outdoor environment while getting to camp with their mates.
A unique aspect of UNIFY is that single stage setup. The fans have communicated their appreciation of this and it’s something we are committed to continue.
That said, we increased the number of nights of the event in 2017 from one to two, and in 2019 possibly three with an early access ticket. We’re adding value to the punters’ experience by adding more bands and letting them settle into the campsite for longer. We want to make it a camping “get-away” adventure, especially for those travelling a great distance.
WATCH: In Hearts Wake – ‘Passage’
Jaddan Comerford and the other directors of UNIFY were involved in the development of Your Choice, and UNIFY Gathering is a supporter. In what ways will your event reflect Your Choice and its mission?
Ultimately, Your Choice is about promoting ways in which punters can look out for each other and we’re committed to creating the safest festival environments possible for our patrons It’s about understanding that their actions can have a massive positive or negative effect on another’s experience of the festival.
This year at UNIFY we will again be promoting what is the expected and accepted behaviour of punters both in the lead up to and at the event via our socials and email communication, on-site promotion, including posters in toilets, billboards and displays on the stage super screen.
How are plans shaping up for the big show?
It’s full steam ahead. 2019 will deliver a new site, bigger stage and increased onsite activities. We might as well just call it “Australia’s Heavy Music Playground.” Our new site has allowed us to do much more to add to the punter experience. 2019 has the new addition of “Nottingham,” a pre-pitched campsite for those less inclined for a DIY space.
We’re also delivering more bands, more food, more bars. We’ve decked out our campsite with an activity space, food, games and a late-night silent disco. You may even see a few of the festival promoters getting down on the DJ decks. 2019 is going to be better than ever.
2019 UNIFY Gathering Lineup
Friday 11th January
UNDERØATH [Exclusive Australian Performance] KARNIVOOL [First East Coast Show since 2016] IN HEARTS WAKE HELLIONS [Very special return set] OCEAN GROVE WHILE SHE SLEEPS [Exclusive Australian Performance] CROSSFAITH [Exclusive Australian Performance] DREAM ON DREAMER THE PLOT IN YOU [Exclusive Australian Performance] HAND OF MERCY [Exclusive Reunion Show] DREAM STATE [Exclusive Australian Performance] DROWN THIS CITY OCEAN SLEEPER BETTER HALF
Saturday 12th January
TAKING BACK SUNDAY [Playing Tell All Your Friends in full] EVERY TIME I DIE [Exclusive Australian Performance] TROPHY EYES STATE CHAMPS [Exclusive Australian Performance] TURNSTILE CITIZEN WAAX CLOWNS ENDLESS HEIGHTS HARMS WAY SAVIOUR STAND ATLANTIC THORNHILL PAGAN GRAVEMIND AFTER TOUCH FALCIFER YOURS TRULY
Friday, January 11th – Monday, January 13th, 2019 Tarwin Meadows, Gippsland, VIC Tickets: UNIFY Gathering
Lars Brandle has reported at the frontline of the international music industry for almost 20 years. A former musician, Lars joined the American music trade “bible” Billboard in 2000 and went on to serve as Global News Editor, based in London. Now Billboard’s Australia correspondent and senior writer with The Industry Observer, Lars’ voice has been heard on CNN, the BBC and ABC, American Public Media's Marketplace and South Africa's EastCoast Radio, and he has spoken at Midem in Cannes, Music Matters in Singapore, Amsterdam Dance Event, London's City Showcase and at industry gatherings on both sides of the Tasman. His works have been published by Reuters, Media Week, Spin, and The Hollywood Reporter, and he has featured as a pundit in the Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly and Britain’s The Independent.