All things considered, Ben Tillman thinks of himself as a pretty chill bloke. And he sounds like one too – the Yours & Owls co-founder and music industry veteran speaks in an affable drawl, his voice full of the softness and warmness that makes you think he’d be good in an emergency; like he’s the kind of guy who could casually take control while everyone else is losing their heads.
But even Tillman admits that in the weeks before the 2017 Yours & Owls Festival lineup was announced, that casual facade withered away, revealing a mildly terrified man in charge of an unstoppable, multi-part machine.
“I thought I maintained [my composure],” Tillman laughs. “I thought that was the case even when I was getting no sleep in the weeks before tickets went on sale. And then the day that they did, I just felt so much lighter. I was like, ‘Oh God, this feels so good – I must have been stressed.’”
Not that Tillman necessarily needed to worry – the 2017 iteration of the all-ages powerhouse is bolstered by one doozy of a lineup. Boasting an array of acclaimed international names – including At The Drive In, AJJ and The Orwells – as well as a carefully curated host of local superstars – Montaigne, Bec Sandridge, Cash Savage and more – the festival bill received almost unanimous praise when it was announced, and was taken as a sign that this proudly DIY event is becoming bolder each year.
But who would have thought that a Wollongong-hosted event founded by the one-time owners of a coffee shop might one day transform into a beloved staple of the festival scene?
“You spend all this time booking a lineup,” Tillman says. “It’s kind of a personal process. It reflects your personal taste, and obviously, in doing that, you’re hoping that people respond positively to it because you’re putting a bit of yourself in there. And then you go through the process and book [the lineup], and stuff starts locking in, and then there’s this period of a week or so before it gets announced and after the whole thing has been confirmed and you’re just sitting with the lineup for a few weeks.
“You can’t really tell anyone, so you just send yourself a little bit mad, overanalysing it. You’re going, ‘Are people even going to like this any more?’ Then you start second-guessing yourself: ‘Why did I book that band? Oh God, this will be a mistake.’ But it was such a relief when the lineup did get such a good reaction, and people started buying tickets. That’s the ultimate encouragement.”
For Tillman, booking a great lineup is a kind of art: one that requires a careful navigation between commercial concerns and real musical artistry. In other words, he’s never going to book a lineup just so he can make ends meet, or in order to satisfy some kind of nebulous critical consensus.
That’s why Yours & Owls 2017 features a lo-fi folk punk band (AJJ), a fiery rap duo (A.B. Original), a nascent bunch of art rockers (The Orwells) and the math rock world’s chief undie enthusiasts (Totally Unicorn) – Tillman doesn’t want his festival to be pigeonholed as one specific thing, and wants the brand to be an ever-evolving catch-all.
“If I wanted to book a lineup based on bands that just I wanted to see, that I booked for entirely selfish reasons, maybe 20 people would turn up,” he laughs. “It’s definitely a balancing act. If you book entirely based on the idea of statistical analysis and what’s getting played on the radio right now, then I think that’s a pretty soulless venture. That doesn’t really interest me. If you wanted to get into music to earn money, go work in a fucking bank.
“There’s stuff that you know isn’t going to turn many heads, but it’s stuff you want people to see. And you know it’s going to be good on the day and people are going to enjoy it when they’re there – but you also need those acts that you know people are going to go for.
“That’s not saying those things are mutually exclusive either, because there’s obviously those bands that will sell tickets but are also fantastic, and of whom I’m a big fan, and you know are going to put on a good show … But we’re not going to book anything that we don’t like at all. It’s about showing people what you’re actually into.”
You start second-guessing yourself: ‘Why did I book that band? Oh God, this will be a mistake.’
Tillman talks with a fair bit of confidence these days, but surely it wasn’t always this way. In the early days of Yours & Owls, the festival was beset by a range of self-imposed problems, and as it has grown, so too has the skill of those in charge. But that’s exactly the thing: because Tillman and his team have evolved with the event, they have managed to sidestep most of the terrifying pitfalls that lay waiting for them.
“It’s been such an organic thing. We’re real dudes and we’ve just grown into doing this. We started out as a coffee shop, then evolved into a venue, then started putting shows on at other venues, and I guess there’s been people with us since the start who have always been a part of the family.
“I think that translates well – we still try to consider all those people in what we do. We’re not just doing this for money – we’re doing it because it’s a lifestyle. It’s a celebration that happens once a year of people coming together and putting our heads together to produce [a] cool, unique festival with a good vibe.”
We’re definitely not getting Ja Rule to come forward as a consultant, we’ll put it that way.
That’s not to say that Tillman doesn’t shudder when he recalls the first iteration of the festival. That training wheels attempt at putting on a massive event makes his usually laid-back tone tighten, and he sounds a little like someone being forced to recount some awful first date.
“The first festival was a fucking shambles,” he laughs, a little nervously. “It was ridiculous. But people still had fun. I guess what made it OK is that we’re honest. We don’t pretend to be Splendour In The Grass or some professional festival. We were just like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll see how this goes.’ And it was a shambles, but it was still really fun, and people definitely enjoyed themselves, and it was cheap, so people couldn’t get angry … We made mistakes and we’ve gotten better and better over the last three or four of these things. Now we’re a semi-professional outfit.”
That, in some ways, could be the Yours & Owls mission statement: to never, ever pretend to be something they’re not. Those in charge don’t seek to offer their punters the chance to bump shoulders with Instagram influencers, or restaurant-quality food, or anything other than good music, delivered honestly, and with an emphasis on punter happiness.
Tillman puts it best: “We’re definitely not getting Ja Rule to come forward as a consultant, we’ll put it that way.”
Yours & Owls Festival 2017 takes place at Stuart Park, Wollongong on Saturday September 30 – Sunday October 1 with At The Drive In, Allday, Dune Rats, AJJ, Holy Holy, Montaigne, Illy and many more. Tickets are on sale now.