Kill Your Stereo chats with UNIFY producer Rhett McLaren – plus members of Ocean Grove, Thornhill and Yours Truly – to explore the most ambitious rock and metal tour of 2023.
UNIFY Gathering (Source: Supplied)
It was on January 10, 2015, that Australia’s heavy music scene changed forever. The inaugural UNIFY Gathering had kicked off in the sprawling farmlands of Tarwin Lower – a country town in Bunurong/South Gippsland, some 130 kilometres southeast of Naarm/Melbourne – uniting 3,000 pit-starved psychos for one unforgettable night (and a few very chaotic/hungover hours the following day) of metalcore, mates and mosh-fuelled mania.
It was an experiment of sorts – a test to see if the heavy music community was strong enough to support a destination camping fest à la Splendour In The Grass – but when tickets sold out almost instantly, the team behind UNIFY knew they’d struck gold.
From there, the gathering’s scope broadened with each new edition. The fields were opened to host an extra 2,000 punters in 2016, and for UNIFY 2017 and 2018, the entire farmlands were used to welcome 7,500. To keep up with the ever-surging demand, the gathering moved to a new site in 2019. Tarwin Meadows – just five minutes up the road from UNIFY’s OG farm – welcomed 12,500 campers that year, and a stonking 15,000 the year after.
But like most events of its ilk, UNIFY was decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It made a one-off comeback in 2022 as UNIFY Forever – a return to its roots, albeit forced, with a 7,000-punter capacity (due to social distancing protocols) and all-Australian line-up (due to uncertainties around border reopenings) – and although it was ostensibly successful, it was indeed a one-off.
New Year’s came and went without the announcement of UNIFY 2023, and in April, the gathering’s team shared a public statement declaring that “the future of UNIFY in its current form is not certain”.
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Never ones to rest on their laurels, though, Rhett McLaren and his team shifted their focus to a new outlet: a unique way for the spirit of UNIFY to live on, at least until the gathering itself can return. On paper, the idea almost seems as ambitious as the gathering itself did in 2015: if there can’t be one big event in regional Victoria, what about a whole bunch of smaller events all around Australia? Punnily dubbed UNIFY: Off The Record, the first official UNIFY spin-off is a five-show run of micro-festivals – each with a unique line-up, program and vibe – hitting Yuwibara/Mackay, Kaurna/Adelaide, Dharawal/Wollongong, nipaluna/Hobart and Bunurong/Frankston over the last chunk of May and few days of June.
McLaren – UNIFY’s co-director and producer – tells Kill Your Stereo that UNIFY: Off The Record has actually been a long time coming. “Touring UNIFY has been a concept we've thrown around for a long, long time,” he reveals, noting that this year’s decision to put the gathering on ice (as well government funding from the RISE initiative) encouraged them to make the dream a reality. He explains: “It was like, 'Well, if people can't go to UNIFY, let's bring UNIFY to them.' But we've always wanted to put on more regional shows like this; I grew up regionally, so it's a big priority for me. We know the fans are out there from all our ticket data – people travel miles and miles to attend these shows from all over the country – so it's been awesome to actually go and spread our brand and idea to some new areas.”
Up first on the itinerary was Yuwibara, where a few hundred punters gathered to catch intimate sets from Thornhill, Banks Arcade, Young Lions, Wildheart and Arcade Stories. McLaren gushes that it was “a great show”, while Thornhill frontman Jacob Charlton says he and his bandmates had “a really cool time” reconnecting with fans in central Queensland – even if they weren’t exactly in their sharpest form. “We probably weren’t that good,” he chuckles, citing brutal jet-lag from their recent US tour (which ended exactly a week prior).
“We made the most of it,” Charlton says, “but it was pretty touch-and-go. We never practised the set, because we had to make it while we were in the US and we had a hired [drumkit] that fell apart. And we'd just gotten back to Australia, so we were cooked. It was also the first time I had sung Reptile in... Shit, probably since the first regional tour we did, like two years ago! But the crowd was lovely, and we all had a great time. Mackay definitely turned up for us, which was so great to see.”
Thornhill will play again at this weekend’s Kaurna edition of UNIFY: Off The Record, where they’ll co-headline with Teenage Joans, Ocean Grove and Yours Truly (with the rest of the bill rounded out by Alt, The Gloom In The Corner, The Beautiful Monument, The Last Martyr and Wildheart). “We haven't seen OG in a while,” Charlton says, “so I'm really keen to hang out with those guys again. And we just saw Yours Truly on the American tour, so it’ll be great to catch up again so soon. There’s a lot of good friends on that show – it’ll be fun!”
Ocean Grove’s Dale Tanner is equally keen, praising McLaren and co. for coming up with “a really clever idea” to keep the ethos of UNIFY alive while the gathering is on ice. “UNIFY really feels like home to us,” he says. “It’s synonymous with Ocean Grove more than any other event, so it’s really nice that we get to continue this tradition in another format.”
The genre-bending quartet will also play UNIFY: Off The Record in Dharawal and nipaluna – they’re one of only two bands to be playing three of the five shows (Banks Arcade being the other) – and as Tanner explains, there was never any doubt they’d be up for the trek. “As soon as the 'UNIFY' tagline comes across the desk,” he beams, “it's sort of like, 'Well, unless there's something serious getting in the way, we're definitely going to do it.' I think the thing that probably got us over the line – not that we needed any convincing – was the fact that it has a different line-up in each city.”
Another core factor, he says, is the tour’s focus on regional cities. “It’s taking the experience and the energy that’s been created at UNIFY – and that community-centric vibe and ethos – and putting it in live music venues all around the country,” he says. “And the fact it’s different every time makes it even more exciting; I think that’s what really sets it apart from UNIFY as we know it. There’s probably people out there who are going to go to more than one, because it’s not just like Groovin The Moo where you have the same line-up that hits different cities – it flips that formula on its head, where it’s like, ‘Actually no, every one of these shows is going to be totally one-of-a-kind.’”
Also frothing this one-of-a-kind vibe is Mikaila Delgado, frontwoman of Yours Truly, who said in a recent Kill Your Stereo interview: “We play the Adelaide date with Thornhill – we've known them for so long. It was never on the cards that we would ever do anything with them because our music is so different. So getting to play with our friends – even Teenage Joans is another band we’ve never been able to play a show with.
“Since the world opened up again, Australian bands have been trying to get out of the country and doing a lot of overseas things. And, you know, we have a lot of [international] bands coming to Australia, but it's nice that we're all going to come together and do the shows with friends and labelmates. That’s something that I didn’t really see happening anytime soon.”
The notion of “family” is one that’s always been central to the UNIFY brand. From day one, McLaren – working closely with Luke Logemann and his team at the UNIFIED Music Group – has aimed to foster an environment that is “inclusive of everybody, no matter your background, your gender, your race…” It’s a gathering in the truest sense, “where everyone can feel safe and respected and comfortable watching their favourite bands”.
Tanner is uniquely qualified to speak on what makes the UNIFY Gathering so special, given that Ocean Grove has performed at four of its seven editions (in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2022). Smiling wistfully as he reflects, the frontman gushes that he’s made “countless memories and friendships” across the years, branding UNIFY “a festival that truly feels like no other”.
He says of just how formative UNIFY has been in Ocean Grove’s tenure: “The first one that we did, we camped in the general admission area because we wanted to immerse ourselves as much into the festival as possible. I'm glad we did that – we probably couldn't have gotten away with that in 2022, but in 2016, when we were sort of still just starting out, it was a really fun thing to participate in and be like, ‘Oh, this is what UNIFY is all about!’ Being a part of the whole experience was so cool, and I think it really set the tone for what we wanted to do as a band.
“I'd never been to a festival like it before. It was just so great to see the heavy music community getting to experience what a lot of other people do at something like a Falls or a Splendour. It kind of felt like we’d earned it, you know? We deserved to have that experience in that format. And getting to experience heavy music in that kind of way, it really felt like it unleashed this new kind of energy, which everyone had kind of been building up over the years and just needed to release.”
Charlton echoes the sentiment, saying the UNIFY Gathering has given Thornhill (who also played in 2019 and 2022) opportunities they’d never had elsewhere. “That first one was probably one of the most insane shows we'd ever played,” he said, a toothy smile plastered on his face. “I'd never seen that many people come to see us play at that point. It was crazy. [2022’s show] was really cool because we worked so hard on the backdrop and all the pyro – it was the first time we'd had a big production for our set, and it was the highest we'd ever been listed on a festival, so it was a really big deal for us. And I think it paid off! I think everyone was very, very stoked.”
So what does the future hold for the UNIFY Gathering? Well, in last month’s statement, the team made it clear that UNIFY: Off The Record is not replacing the main event. “We’re not doing Off The Record instead of UNIFY Gathering,” they wrote, “we are doing it instead of doing nothing.” McLaren tells us there’s nothing new to report since the statement was made, but he and his team are “doing everything [they] can to run the main show again”. And as for what it will look like when they do, McLaren and co. are “running through all the scenarios – whether it's bigger or smaller, whether it moves sites or stays in Tarwin Lower…”
UNIFY: Off The Record, too, will be in a state of limbo after June 2 – McLaren hasn’t yet begun planning a 2024 run, but rest assured he’s certainly not opposed to the idea. "We'd all love to do it again," he says, "because this one is feeling great. But we'll see how we all feel and work it out at the end of the tour. It's awesome to see people coming out and supporting it – tickets sales for all the shows are really solid – and yeah, we would definitely love to do things like this all the time, it's just that the financial challenges [we're facing] at the moment are very difficult. The RISE funding has definitely helped keep ticket prices in check – to put a tour like this out without that government funding would be pretty hard.”
McLaren also notes that RISE was key to the ancillary programming at UNIFY: Off The Record. In addition to its performing roster, each edition will sport a unique itinerary of band-hosted panels and ‘Songcraft’ songwriting sessions (co-presented by APRA AMCOS), as well as Primal Therapy panels (co-presented by Support Act) to encourage and promote mental healthcare. McLaren leapt at the opportunity to broaden the festivals’ offerings, as it reflects the UNIFY team’s keenness to make their main event stand out.
And it does stand out, McLaren says, for much more significant reasons that its genre-specialised concept. "I love watching the passion our fans have at UNIFY," he says. "I think all festival audiences are passionate, to a degree, but it's the cathartic release that I see at UNIFY – and heavy shows in general – that really makes it unique. Heavy artists and their fans connect in a way that is [uniquely] expressive and passionate.
“There's never been a fight, either – they always seem to be the nicest audiences, and I think it’s because they're able to get their anger out in a really productive and healthy way. All the negative emotions get burnt out and cleared in this cathartic release of energy, which I only see at heavy shows. Where other concerts that we run are more about partying and just having a good time, UNIFY is a unique atmosphere because people in the heavy music community, when they connect, there's something deeper to it. It's more visceral.”
We’ll be keeping a close eye on UNIFY’s future, ready and rearing for our next big trek to Tarwin. In the meantime, UNIFY: Off The Record will continue in Kaurna and Dharawal this weekend, before wrapping up in nipaluna and Bunurong next week. More info on those shows – and remaining tickets – can be found here.