Yours & Owls

Interview and photos by Aaron Hughes

The Yours and Owls trio, from left, Adam Smith, Ben Tillman and Balunn Jones, shot for an Illawarra Mercury editorial piece last year (hence the vocal t-shirts).

Yours and Owls was birthed five years ago as a small cafe in Wollongong, with the goal of providing a sweet place to hang out in a city that, at the time, didn't have many sweet places to hang out. It wasn't long however before it transformed from a classy cafe with great art on the walls to an all-out bar and venue with live music every night of the week. The three owners, Adam Smith, Ben Tillman and Balunn Jones, took the ball and ran with it, fostering a prolific creative community in a very short space of time. Three years in, to the surprise of many, they burned out on the day-to-day of running a venue and decided to set their sights higher, aiming towards creating something that the small four walls of what has since been renamed RAD Bar couldn't contain. We caught up with one of the three, Adam Smith, to fill us in on the announcement of their massive fifth annual birthday festival, along with the history and current status of Yours and Owls and the subsequent offshoot, Farmer and the Owl...

Aaron Hughes: You guys have just announced your fifth birthday. It's your biggest announcement yet, a full festival, how stoked are you?

Adam Smith: Well I'm really stoked! It's been sort of building for a while. These things take about nine months to plan, so we've kind of been psyched really since last year. Since the fourth year. We've kind of had the lineup locked in the last few months so we've been pretty excited to get it out there and tell people, make it public. I’m pretty excited about the cake! (laughs)

So the cake is a real thing?

We’re gonna do it. I don’t really know how but we're working with the finest cake makers right now to figure this out logistically. That’s what we're mostly excited about!

(Laughs) Nice. So, five years ago you guys opened the Yours and Owls cafe in Wollongong, when you started there, did you think this is where you were going to be in five years?

Oh man, no way! I guess along the way you kind of get pipe dreams and you have ideas and you want to turn them into reality. I think eventually we kind of did get there with a lot of our crazy ideas. Some were shelved but...

It started out as a cafe we didn’t even want to run it as a venue. We just wanted to make good food and coffee and a nice chilled place to hang out. We all loved music, we all played, we used to go hang out at the Oxy (the iconic Wollongong music venue, the Oxford Tavern). So yeah, we were looking for a place to hang, for musos to hang. Ben had a bit of a background in booking music and I think I was the one who convinced him to do it...for better or worse here we are! (laughs)

He didn't want to do it at the start. Live music is just such a hard thing, especially in Wollongong. There wasn't really a scene - the scene was dead. So we had to smash it out a bit at the start and just really stick with it. It was crazy though, after a year, the amount of support we got was insane. So many young bands popped up. From that momentum we wanted to expand and then when the cafe wrapped up we thought we'd start throwing bigger shows, and here we are.

The three amigos during the first week of business at the Yours and Owls cafe.

So the initial unit that started Yours and Owls was you, Balunn and Tillman, are all three of you still involved in putting the shows together and the other elements of the business?

Yeah, all three of us. We've been mates since we were kids so it's nice that we're still hanging out and still doing stuff. We work together pretty well, we've all got our different roles. It's the same Yours and Owls crew.

And then obviously you have the connection with Music Farmers, together with the label Farmer and the Owl. How much of a part do you guys play in the label? And in the Farmer and the Owl festival?

It's pretty confusing, I get confused myself sometimes! Ben (Tillman) and Jeb (Taylor, owner of Music Farmers) started Farmer and the Owl, effectively that is Farmer and the Owl. But it's a small scene, you know? So we kind of just all decided to start helping each other out pretty early on. Even in the early days when it was just Yours and Owls and Music Farmers we'd always work together. It's like a family. It started out as just favours and then this year Balunn and I got on board with the Farmer and the Owl properly, so that we could help out with the logistics side of it. That's how it ran for this year. But it's Jeb and Ben's baby. They run the label, they've got the creative control in that sense...but it's all about sticking together really. Now we all meet regularly, talk about how we can grow the scene. We've all got the same interests you know? That's what we care about at the end of the day. It's a job but we want to sort of grow it. Hopefully that makes sense. Essentially Yours and Owls is separate from Farmer and the Owl, but it all gets a mixed up as well! (laughs)

Obviously RAD Bar continued on from where the Yours and Owls cafe left off. You guys sold the cafe and bar effectively to Dan, do you play any part in that anymore? Or is that entirely his baby? You built it and now you've let it go...

Yeah, again, things get a bit confusing, because it's like a big family. Those guys have been in our crew for a while as well. Dan used to manage the bar for us before he bought it off us. We all still help out, but it's his thing 100%. Ben books bands for him, so that's why it sometimes can fall under the same umbrella, but it's Dan's bar. He's sort of renewed it in a way. It was getting a bit old for us in the end, so he gave it a new direction, which is cool. It's nice for us to be able to go in there and hang out now! (laughs) To see that it's gone into good hands. We kind of got approached by some sleazy dudes, just some people we didn't want it to go into the hands of...I'm so glad it's in capable hands now.

It is so good that it's still part of the family, so to speak. That same vision and everything that you guys have...

For sure. We help out where we can and he helps us. That's how it works. You've got to stick together, otherwise there's nothing here, that's the nice part of being in a community like this. There's not really any competition and it is what you make it. You have to make your own fun and enjoy it.

Shining Bird bringing the vibes to this year's Farmer and the Owl festival.

Definitely. So, for the festival, that lineup, you've had to sit on it for nine months and now finally let it out of the bag. That must feel good! You're doing a few different things with the festival this year as well, obviously there's going to be that amazing birthday cake, but there's also multiple days, you're having food, markets, surf films...

Yeah. So last year it was just one day, and it was really just a big party. We still want to keep that vibe of it being a party, 'cause it is our birthday. We want to make festivals fun and not too serious. This year we're just expanding it over two days, we're offering camping as well...we want to try and make it a weekend experience. It's on the October long weekend, so for people that are coming from out of town it's a chance for them to take the weekend off and chill by the beach. That's something that we're so stoked on to have grown up being in this area, so we want people to come and experience it. That's how we're trying to pitch it, as being a weekend down on the coast.

With the whole vibe of the festival, we're kicking it off on the Friday with a much more chilled lineup. We've got Shining Bird - great local band, mates of ours - we've got Russell W who’s going to re-work an old surfing classic.

That's what I’m looking forward to the most personally...

That's the one I'm most excited about as well to be honest. That'll be amazing. That's, again, a pretty unique thing. A live performance, showing a sweet, old classic...the surfing side too, which is a big part of what we do in this area, so a good reflection of that as well. That'll be a nice way to kick it off. Then there'll be DJ's to close up that night. So that first night will be a good way to kick it off, but not too crazy, you know? Just ease into it. I think at a lot of festivals people get burnt out too soon. We’re going to try to ease it in...

Let everyone arrive, chill out, get ready to party...

Yeah, everyone can arrive, have a good feed, have a couple of drinks, but just ease into it, and then the Saturday is kind of the main big day. That's the kind of experience we're trying to create.

This is the first year you've had some major backing behind you. Is it different having the support of someone like Triple J going into it?

For sure. Definitely. We've always done everything ourselves. We've never really had enough money to pay for big marketing pushes. We've always relied on our ability to shake things up and do controversial things to get us free marketing! (laughs)

I guess, in some ways it's a lot more grueling and painful doing everything yourself, but it's taught us a lot more. So we kind of like to keep it that way. Over the years people start to eventually see what you're doing and they either like it or not. We were really stoked that Triple J and people like that are starting to help us out and see that we're doing a good thing. I think mostly the appeal is that it's a regional thing and that there's not much else going on down here and they really got behind that which is awesome. Yeah, so it's made a huge difference. The difference is crazy! (laughs)

Proteges of the early Yours and Owls cafe days and presently Wollongong's most successful band, Hockey Dad, playing to the masses at this year's Farmer and the Owl festival.

Sweet, awesome. So then, I guess, this is five years on, it's a completely different landscape than when you started. What about in another five years? What are your dreams for that at present?

Um, I don't know. We're really excited doing what we're doing now, doing the festival thing, I think that's got another at least five years in it. But, you know, you've always got to rethink things every now and then, and know that everything has a lifespan. I mean, the bar had a lifespan and we knew that from the start, so who knows what the next thing will be. As long as we're still keeping it fresh I'm happy to do it.

If we start getting old and repeat ourselves and aren't pushing ourselves then I think it'd be time to stop, but for now we're really stoked. I mean it's our second year doing a major festival and it still feels really new to us, but maybe in five years it won't. Maybe we'll be burnt out old dudes! (laughs) I mean there's some things I'd love to do. I'd love to have a property and go down south and do something, a real outdoor experience, but that's just a pipe dream. I'd love to get that label really going and focus on that over the years, maybe even have a studio but they're all just pipe dreams. (laughs) Who knows...

I think either way, this is where we're going to do it, this is where we want to be. If we can be here and still achieve all those goals then we'll be happy. We're not going to move to the city for it, that's for sure!

Good, we need you here! Obviously for you growing up there was a good thing happening with the Oxford and everything back in the day but it had gone pretty stale before you guys started. Now between the festival, the label and the different local bands all doing their thing there's a lot of stuff starting to happen with music locally. What do you hope to see in the long term?

Oh man, already, even just looking back, it's definitely exploded. I mean I don't know if it's just because we're actively seeking it out or whether it's just a coincidence...but I don't think it is a coincidence, there's definitely been a major explosion in creativity. That's probably because a) they've had a place to play again, and b) we've been able to offer some support to some bands and then other people have become involved.

You can get talent anywhere but if there's no reason for bands to stay here they'll just move on, they'll go to Sydney or Melbourne or overseas or wherever, and then the area loses it. But if you have that support and the captive audience then people will stay. And that's what we've seen over the years. We've seen some awesome young bands stay, though some move on as well. Obviously the ones we're interested in, bands like Hockey Dad and The Pinheads, they're our guys, but you've got some awesome talent, Shining Bird, You Beauty, they're all local crew. There are so many bands you could rattle off, then new ones coming through the ranks that I'm like, "Who the hell are you?" (laughs) 16 and 17-year-old kids that are just blowing us out of the water. It's an exciting time!

Another one, Obscura Hail, always love that guy. Totally a different vibe. There's just so much versatility. And then as well, you've got more established musos moving down here and that's sort of mixing it up as well. It’s a good time to be around here...

The fifth annual Yours and Owls Festival Weekender will be happening October 2-3, 2015 at Stuart Park in North Wollongong. Tickets are on sale now and selling fast! Get yours from Moshtix before it's too late...

For more on Yours and Owls visit them online at www.yoursandowls.com.au.