Locality is a series about places and spaces. In this instalment we speak with the directors of independent music festival Inner Varnika.
Inner Varnika started with a patron base of 500 and gradually increased numbers to 1700 over the span of five years. The festival has shown modest growth over an extended period of time and in doing so, has organically developed a extremely loyal community. Despite increased demand for access to the event, Inner Varnika chooses to cap their event at a manageable number in order to preserve atmosphere and ensure a positive experience for all attendees. Inner Varnika champions local talent first and then selectively invites international guests to complement the precisely curated lineup. They don’t rely on big name lineups to drive sales because their key selling tool is the experience. Set in an apocalyptic rural location two hours west of Melbourne, Inner Varnika carefully ensures that all aspects of the sound and setup is environmentally neutral. They encourage attendees to express themselves freely, so it’s no surprise to see traditions at the festival already, such as the famed ‘Suit Sunday’ wherein people wear their wildest suit on the Sunday of the event. The festival organisers spent a number of years attending similar events before attempting to create their ideal festival environment and are adamant that they “choose to keep it intimate because we value our purpose over our bank balance”.
How did Inner Varnika come to fruition? Was running a festival something you had always wanted to do?
The idea of running a festival in the bush entirely focused on the music was something that resonated with each of us after more or less exhausting the local doof circuit for viable meaningfulness. From here, we ventured together beyond our own shores on more than one occasion to see how it was done elsewhere, felt what worked and what didn’t and tried to furnish Inner Varnika with the best parts. In short, the idea behind Inner Varnika was unknowingly conceived somewhere between Prospect Park in Brooklyn and a Wendy’s diner in Las Vegas back in 2011. The idea being, as eager party-goers, we wanted to create that perfect environment to experience the music we loved.
Do you have a background in events? Had you worked with any other festivals prior to Inner Varnika?
Apart from a year or so of throwing parties as Sound of Thought and Out of Focus, the only background we had in events prior to Inner Varnika was what felt like a lifetime of attendance (or ‘research’ as we like to call it now) in those dark and dank spaces romantically referred to as nightclubs and dance music festivals. Of course, no information from those studious years was retained so we had to build the festival from the ground up and make all the mistakes ourselves.
How important is it to you to work and build with local talent?
Highly important. Yet at the same time, it also strikes us as incredibly logical – we are throwing a festival in Australia and we have some world-class talent down here, some known and plenty of unknown. So rather than filling the bill with mostly internationals, it makes perfect sense for us to have the locals form an integral component and in doing so, afford them a platform that the large majority rarely get in our cities.
Are you affiliated with any other local crews? Who has been part of the journey from the beginning?
Our friends and families who have encouraged us from the get go are the ones who have really made the most impact on us – they all know who they are. There has also been a really supportive tight-knit patron base who have come to every Inner Varnika and that really means a lot to us.
The festival size is quite intimate, do you see there being room to grow and expand this festival? Would that require moving venues or is there opportunity to expand in your current location?
Several Glastonbury’s could fit on the property, so size has never been a restriction placed on us by external forces. There is always demand for more tickets than the amount we release but we choose to keep it intimate because we value our purpose over our bank balance. We’re a small, dedicated music festival that isn’t trying to recreate the wheel, nor are we trying to cater for every type of music under the sun. We do plan to slowly increase the number of tickets on sale by a couple of hundred each year until we reach a point we think we can sustain the right amount of intensity. Growth for the sake of growth is unsustainable, and quick inflation can also cause distortions to atmosphere. We started with 500 people and five years on we are sitting at 1700. For lack of a better term, we want to grow organically with our little community.
Is the location of the festival integral to the brand or do you feel Inner Varnika is more about the atmosphere?
This will be our third year in the same location and what we have come to learn is that vibe is intrinsically tied to environment and context in one way or another. We never imagined the location playing such a huge part in our idea – in fact we would have been happy to set up shop just about anywhere in the outdoors. However having built such a close relationship with the landowners and the land itself over the last few years, we really cannot envisage the festival taking place anywhere else.
What are some of your favourite/most bizarre moments that have occurred since the first year?
Too many to name, but from thick fogs and lunar eclipses, to mini tornadoes to Brian Not Brian emerging from the clutches of death to heighten the Sunday insanity to fever pitch last year, there are too many bizzaro moments to recall. It’s a special place where strange and wonderful things tend to happen instantly, so better to experience it yourself.
The underground dance scene in Australia has been so strong recently, what values or influences would you attribute to this?
Kids these days are now more exposed to underground acts like never before. This is a result of the instant access and connectivity of the digital world, but also due to big, wide-reaching, multi-million dollar festivals trying to reach an even wider audience by sinking their teeth into a few highly marketable underground artists. There are two sides to this coin, obviously. But the sheer quality of music that has been flowing out of Australia (for the past 30+ years) is most likely the main factor for the deserved hype we’re seeing down here.
How does Inner Varnika handle social discussions such as pill testing, safe spaces, and gender equality when organising the festival?
We’ve always held the belief that what is possible within a festival microcosm, should also be possible outside the gates in the ‘real world’. There is a never a reason to discriminate based on gender, race, sexuality or any other form of preconceived bigotry. We try to stamp out any potential of this arising by booking a more diverse lineup each year, and by communicating to our patrons what is and is not acceptable behaviour inside the festival. We hope people will continue the respect and positivity shown to one another once the music is over too. Also, don’t litter! With regards to pill testing, we’re ultimately at the mercy of government policy, so as much as we are for safe partying and proven harm minimisation techniques – we have to play by the rules.
For those who don’t know, what is Suit Sunday and who donned the first suit, on a Sunday?
Suit Sunday is actually a tax loophole that we found a few years back that only works on Easter weekend – technically if more than 30% of attendees wear church-appropriate clothing (ties, blazers, slacks etc.) then the festival actually qualifies as a religious gathering and we don’t have to pay any tax.
Will you be expanding on Inner Varnika throughout the year, have you got any wild plans for next year’s event?
We go into hibernation after Easter, but even if we had any plans we wouldn’t divulge anything.
Follow the Locality series here.