How Laneway Found Its Home In South-East Asia
A Singaporean expansion is paying dividends for Australia's hippest festival.
St Jerome’s Laneway Festival is truly a story of slow-burn success. Born in a dive bar, the festival has blossomed over its ten years to become a true stalwart of the Australian summer festival season. As well as touring the country’s capitals, Laneway has stretched its legs to New Zealand and Singapore. Having launched the Singapore juncture as a single-stage set up five years ago, 2015 saw the festival’s first sell out crowd, with 30 percent of attendees travelling from outside of the country. LACHLAN KANONIUK was on ground to take in all the action – from performances by Angus & Julia Stone, Pond and Chet Faker to the breathtaking sights of Singapore’s Gardens By The Bay.
I’m trying, unsuccessfully, not to eavesdrop on the scenario playing out in the lift as it launches like a glass space pod from its watery base at the first floor (there are no “ground” floors in Singapore, I’m told). I’m looking upward, trying to scout a vanishing point of the magnificent, angular floor balconies overlooking the building’s hollowed core. The hotel is a de facto home base for Laneway Singapore’s international consortium for one weekend only. I’m sharing a lift with four dudes, three of which are wearing complimentary robes. The other, in a Simpsons tee, darts out onto a seemingly arbitrary floor with purpose; terse lips concealing a gap-toothed smile. The robed dudes make small-talk with a softly spoken Australian. They are strangers from different worlds in the same musical solar system.
“So, you guys are in a band?” says the Australian.
“Yeah,” one robed dude replies. “We’re Mac DeMarco. Well, his band. You?”
“Angus and Julia Stone,” replies the Australian, unsure if she needs to identify herself as the “Julia”.
Muzak fills the space as the lift stops at my floor. Later on – in the background of a welcoming soiree by the poolside – I see Andy, the new guitarist in Mac’s band, testing out machinery in an otherwise empty gym, robe still adorned.
It’s the first day of a sprawling journey – seven festival dates, plus sideshows, across three countries in two weeks – and there’s a slightly suppressed buzz of excitement.
This is the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival’s fifth consecutive Singapore excursion, beginning in 2011 with a single stage set-up at Fort Canning. The event has since relocated to its current home of The Meadow, Gardens By The Bay, accommodating an increasing patronage and multiple stages in Singapore’s largest outdoor garden event space.
It’s hard not to be awestruck upon entering Gardens By The Bay for the first time. The labyrinthine, futurist parkland opened in 2012 and it’s lush with greenery and ornamented by supersized installations – the Supertree Grove, the ridiculous scope of which is even hard to fathom in person, let alone an Instagram post; plus “Planet”, a giant sculpture created by contemporary British artist Marc Quinn in the image of his newborn son. Not to mention the horizon-dominating Marina Bay Sands (the world’s second most expensive building), and The Singapore Flyer (the world’s second biggest Ferris wheel).
It’s a lot to take in, as a small group of media are escorted around the festival site on the day before proceedings. We stroll around lush, curated grounds and koi-populated streams, booming sub-bass echoing overhead as crew soundcheck the main stage speaker array. There’s a weeklong load-in for the team here, a luxury afforded to compensate for any likelihood of seasonal downpour. There was none this year, allowing for a relaxed lead-up to the Saturday. As such, the mood is jovial on-site and the media’s presence is welcomed. We preview behind the scenes, perusing the artist green room tent as we’re regaled about the numerous “brand activation” points across the site.
We’re shown the media tent to the left of the main stage, where a string of press conferences with artists is scheduled on festival day. It’s not unbearably humid outside, but the huge air-con unit provides relief all the same. Danny Rogers – festival co-founder alongside “Saint” Jerome Borazio – joins our group as we make our way to the satellite Cloud Stage. He’s relaxed, in good spirits and ready for game day.
In its idle state, Gardens By The Bay is magnificent. As a crowd of 13,000 (the first sell-out in Laneway Singapore’s history) descend onto the grounds, that magnificence is parlayed into sheer spectacle. Malaysian band Enterprise perform the first set of the day, accentuating the backdrop of the Marina Bay Sands on the main stage, which has a side-by-side setup akin to Big Day Out. The layout is faultless with the hilly incline providing prime vantage points anywhere in the main field. The drink lines are never tedious and the drink token system actually works here.
In the media tent, Perth outfit Pond field questions before they take the stage. The local media is intrigued and obsessed with the notion of “indie” music, a form presented to the country fully realised with no real sense of grassroots growth due to the lack of a prominent alternative radio network like triple j. After a series of questions pertaining to “indie”, Pond frontperson Nick Allbrook retorts politely, “Um, we’re actually a major label band.”
A strong sense of familiarity is present at the festival. The fundamentals are done well – especially the supersized sound quality on the main stage – with the festival still maintaining its local nuances including food stalls from artisan bakery chains, a popular fish market and a distinctly Singaporean take on sliders . The crowd is easy-going and the reasonably priced drinks, ranging from whiskey bubble tea to Mexitos (tequila Mojitos), lubricate a steady buzz. A polite demeanour doesn’t come at the cost of party vibes here.
“I think this is a real coming of age year for Laneway in Singapore,” Danny Rogers tells me. We’re sitting in the cleared-out media tent, shortly after Pond’s press conference. Danny, like Jerome, speaks plainly. No bullshit. They started Laneway Festival ten years ago, planting its seeds in Caledonian Lane in Melbourne’s CBD, the location of their now defunct dive bar St Jerome’s. In the space of a decade, the festival has expanded into an international juggernaut, belying the downward spiral of the saturated festival market and bouncing back from a disastrous 2009 turn in Melbourne where the event outgrew its original home. Laneway has gone from strength to strength since, with the assistance of veteran Australian promoter Michael Chugg who helped facilitate the festival’s Singapore expansion.
“The word of mouth around the region is strong,” Danny says. “We’ve felt it can become this destination festival, in a similar way to what Fuji [Rock] is in Japan and Primavera in Spain. People travel all over the world to go to them. Laneway in Singapore isn’t as developed as those events, but it’s becoming that for Asia – people coming from Malaysia, Manila, Thailand, Hong Kong. We’re expecting 30 percent of people here today to be from outside of Singapore, and that’s fairly significant. There are 260 media from around Asia here today to cover the festival, which is sort of unprecedented for us. We don’t get those kind of numbers for any Australian show. It’s been an epic journey, really.”
A large factor in Laneway’s success is the sense of community between artists. You can put a lot of that down to Danny and Jerome’s approachability and their genuine empathy for the artist. At the BIGSOUND conference in Brisbane last year, Danny recalled how he comforted rapper Danny Brown who was in the midst of a meltdown after technical issues plagued his set at Melbourne Laneway. He convinced Brown to return to the stage, breaking the ice with, “Hey Danny, my name’s Danny too.”
“It’s so great when the artists come over here at the start of the run,” Danny says about the Singapore leg. “Most of them haven’t been to Asia. They get over here and see how passionate and enthusiastic the fans are. As an artist, you think ‘far out, this is amazing’.”
Rogers says that Laneway is unique because artists get to take the three-country journey together. “Bands are like any of us, the first time you go to any new place it’s a sensory overload. You’re meeting all these new people. Usually what happens at festivals is that bands play, then they’re ships in the night. One band will play the Friday, leaving on the Saturday to make it to another leg on Sunday. You have friends on the road but you never get to spend time with them, in cocoons of their own getting from one place to the next. We have 125 artists on the road for two and a half weeks – everyone becomes friends. Jerome and I love a good time, we love a laugh, we’re the ringleaders of this big crazy group of people. Every year is unique, every year has different stories and every year builds these lifelong friendships.”
The next time I see Danny is two weeks later, at the Melbourne Laneway afterparty. He’s dancing onstage, sweaty, shirtless, with Mac DeMarco.
Back in Singapore, bands are given directives before performing to be mindful of the country’s “outrage of modesty” laws, many unsuccessfully employing inhibition with swear-addled banter – local acts included. “Oh shit, we’re gonna be arrested when we get off stage.” All in good humour. Singapore duo .GIF –fleshed out into a four-piece for Laneway – were particularly affable, hitting the mark with world-class electronic-indebted compositions.
Australian heavyweights Chet Faker and Angus & Julia Stone are supplementary additions to the Singapore lineup, their profile too large for the festival’s hometown legs. Here they are presented as drawcards for the 13,000 attendees, crowds far bigger than they could amass at headline shows in Singapore. The press conference for Angus & Julia is packed and time runs out before I can up the inanity stakes with an enquiry as to how the two met. Chet Faker’s performance is scheduled for the smaller Cloud Stage, an obvious miscalculation as staff attempts to accommodate the swell by rearranging barricades. The rain makes a brief appearance triggering a rainbow of ponchos across the festival. The drops are heavy but not overbearing, and thankfully, not bumping the humidity into ridiculous territory in the warmth.
A spectacle in the daytime, the festival grounds explode with light after sundown – the horizon a veritable galaxy of installations from the aforementioned landmarks. The stage blasts energy with a formidable back-to-back chain of Future Islands, Little Dragon, Banks, into the headline of double jaw-dropping performances from FKA Twigs and St Vincent.
Soaked with Mexitos, I hop into a shuttle bus, into the glass elevator, into bed, then into the hotel pool. Somewhere in between, all artists board a plane direct to Auckland for Laneway’s next leg.
Lachlan Kanoniuk visited Singapore as a guest of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival. All photos are courtesy of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival.