yours & owls
It’s more than fair to say the Yours & Owls team, made up of local guys Ben Tillman, 31, Adam Smith, 31, and Balunn Jones, 30, have had a huge hand in putting Wollongong firmly on the music map! Since the festival began in 2014, the calibre of acts to have graced our shores has been impressive. Despite the enormous success of the festival and the offshoot music label, Farmer & the Owl – who represent one of the biggest Aussie bands of the moment, Hockey Dad – the boys remain humble. “If you’d have told me when I was 15 that I’d be putting on a festival with At the Drive In headlining, or co-owned a label representing a band that sold out The Metro twice, I would have said you were crazy,” Ben admits. “But you don’t think about big-picture stuff like that when you’re in the day-to-day. You just get it done.”
Having known each other since they were kids, Ben, Baluun and Adam have grown up together, and together they have grown the Yours & Owls brand to be the monster music force it is today – from coffee shop to small bar to the biggest festival in Wollongong! In 2017, close to 14,000 revellers partied the long weekend away thanks to the boys, and this year alone, they’ve brought big-names like The Lemonheads, Jimmy Barnes and John Butler Trio to the Illawarra. But despite the growth, the boutique event hasn’t lost its core – Yours & Owls is a family. In a time when we’ve seen the collapse of huge music events all over Oz, this homegrown festival launched by a bunch of mates has hit the right note.
“Our whole thing has always been trying to put on shows we would have wanted to see when we were growing up here,” Ben says.
We caught up with the music man to talk the rise and rise of Yours & Owls, and the infamous Sandon Point barn parties where it all kicked off…
Tell us about these barn parties?
I moved out of home at 18 and lived in a waterfront barn-style house in Sandon Point with friends, and Adam and Bal were always there. Everyone lived at our house. We had one of the weirdest guys living there, who’s now one of my best friends – he’d sit at home shooting potatoes into the roof with an air gun! Rumours got around they were called demolition parties – people would literally walk around and punch holes in the walls… We didn’t get our bond back. The parties were pretty big. At one of the last ones, we had about 600-700 people at our house. It was crazy!
When did the transition begin from parties to music festivals?The parties started to get out of hand and the police turned up a lot. They told us if we wanted to have the parties we’d have to register them, so I was like, “Sweet, we will register them”, which was the dumbest thing we ever did, because we were just giving police the heads up! It got to the point where there’d be hundreds of people out the front, and our friends were being arrested. The wrap up from that was we got heaps of fines. Our solution was to throw another party to pay it off.
Where did you throw the next series of parties?
We held them at Castro’s, and called the parties Liberteen Ranch. We did about five of them, paid off the fines and have a lot of good memories from those times. Then out of the blue I was offered a band called Ratatat. I’d never booked a legitimately big band before. I remember the agent saying it would cost 15 for them to play – and I didn’t know if that meant $1500 or $15,000, but either way I didn’t care! The party was at Waves, Towradgi, and Ratatat played alongside Tame Impala and The Vines. Then I starting booking bands for a venue in the Gong, but it was dodgy.
From there you opened the Yours & Owls Cafe in Crown Street?
Adam and Bal came home from travelling around South America and had the idea to open a coffee shop. I was burnt out from doing music, so I said, “Sweet, let’s do it”. We were 22 and had no idea how hard it would be. Then we got our liquor license, and started booking gigs, and that’s what changed it all. We didn’t make a lot of money; we were all living off $200 a week… There were a lot of free beers handed out! Then I had a car accident and was in hospital for a while.
You sold the coffee shop and it became Rad Bar – what came next?
I started hanging out with Jeb from record store Music Farmers, and we decided to host this dodgy laneway show with the band Jeb had been offered, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. After that gig, Jeb and I threw a festival at Wollongong Uni called Farmer & the Owl… and lost heaps of money because we had no idea what we were doing. But Adam saw the potential of having a festival in Wollongong, so the following year, Adam, Bal and I held the first Yours & Owls at Stuart Park, and it worked. We did everything ourselves with the help of friends. It was a shambles… ridiculous really. But we scraped through.
How did you book bands for that first Yours & Owls?
It was surprisingly easy. Most of the bands we booked we had previous relationships with. It’s not like bands didn’t want to play in Wollongong, they just didn’t trust that it could happen down here. We started doing it, and it’s grown. Bands now know they can book legitimate shows in Wollongong, and it’s becoming more and more professional.
Do you have a better hold on the running of the festival today?We do, but we just get different problems. It definitely feels and looks more professional, and booking any act doesn’t feel impossible anymore. At the Drive In was a huge band for me growing up. I did get a little starstruck by them. High school me would have been pretty stoked about booking them!
Do you, Baluun and Adam have specific roles?
It’s collaborative, but we all focus on different things. I do the bookings and get information to the public, Bal builds the site and Adam is responsible for managing the partnerships and production. It works well. In the music industry, you have to wear a bunch of different hats to make it work, but the day-to-day is not simple and structured – it’s very reactive.
How did record label Farmer & the Owl come about?
The label started after the two-failed Farmer & the Owl festivals that Jeb and I hosted – the festival was all about showcasing local talent, and also cool, unique music we were big fans of that wasn’t being played on the radio. There are so many good Gong bands but no pathways for them to promote themselves. We wanted to help musicians branch out of Wollongong.
Who was your first signing on the Farmer & the Owl label? Hockey Dad was the first band we signed to the label. It just worked!
Do local bands approach you to get on the label?
They do, and it’s a shame because I’d love to be able to work with more awesome local bands, but it’s takes a lot of time, and we want to dedicate enough time to acts to give them a chance to work. There aren’t a lot of record labels down here because there is no financial incentive. Hockey Dad is the most played song on Triple J this year and we haven’t taken a cent! That’s just where the music industry is at. Farmer & the Owl was never about making money – we just thought, ‘This sux that these bands are never going to get heard.’ We wanted to provide a platform.
Who is hot at the moment in Wollongong?
We’re working with Tropical Strength, Shining Bird and TEES. It’s also good to see a lot of young girl bands coming up in Wollongong, which there’s never been a lot of.
How important is community involvement to you?
We wouldn’t be where we are today without the support of our friends and community, so we give back where we can. Our whole approach is to be able to nurture the talent that is already here. It’s key to us to support what’s in our own backyard – it’s always going to be stronger, more organic. That’s why last year we set up a local area in the festival, to encourage party crews and creative collectives to collaborate.
What’s next for Yours & Owls?
Keep throwing shit at the wall and see what sticks! Nah, I feel like we’re in a stream and heading in a direction with a lot of momentum, and obviously stuff pops up along the way. All we can do is navigate which turns we’ll take. It’s not going to divert too much from the path we’re on… hopefully, just get bigger and better!