Interview: Inside the mind of Bluesfest director Peter Noble

Bluesfest has been a staple on the Australian music scene for well over twenty years and director Peter Noble has been involved for most of that time. We had a chat with Peter on what motivates him and some of the reasons behind the success of the event.

Let me start by asking how does your year evolve heading into Bluesfest?

My role has changed. I just got back from a conference, I’m in the office for a week then back off again. I’m going to Darwin for the Australian tourism awards finals. Bluesfest is nominated again, but always get beaten by the Victorians. Last year we were up against the Melbourne Cup. As if we had a fucking chance. This year, we’re up against the Australian Grand Prix. Then I’ll go back to my place in Bali, because I’m so close. Hang out there for a week then off to London for meetings. So that’s what I do, I travel. That’s my job. Since December I’ve been in Bali three times, America twice, the UK, Africa, Singapore; that’s what I do.

I’ve been around the world one and a half times and I’m going again. I’ll probably have more meetings with people from Australia than I would here. We all tend to go to the same conventions. I’ll be on a massage table Saturday, getting ready for a festival; bringing out my creative thoughts.

Sounds like a perfect lifestyle.

It is if you don’t mind flying. A lot. But that’s what this business is. That’s what guys like me really do. You can’t do it all on the phone and Australia is perceived as being a long way away by a lot of people, but it’s not the truth; it’s a good sleep from anywhere. The fact that you’re in offices in Nashville or LA or London, eyeballing people, you get a lot more done.

Do you book acts like that? Face to face?

Well, they can come any way. I can go after them, or be offered artists, by email or phone, or it can be by sitting down with someone and getting an idea of all the artists that they have and their future touring plans. Most people are thinking a year or more ahead nowadays. Let’s face it you want to be on sale a good six months before a show so you’d better be thinking a year or more ahead.

On the Bluesfest page, some of your staff have picked their top five acts they are looking forward to seeing. To me, the big advantage of a festival is not just seeing the acts that you know but discovering new music. It must be a real juggling act finding artists that fit.

That’s one of the most exciting parts of being in our business. Good managers and good agents are always looking for great new talent and so should good festivals be doing that. You always must be developing talent and there’s nothing better for the fan that comes to see an artist because he’s a household name and discovers x amount of other artists that he thinks are great.

I spoke to Beth Hart last year, for example and she loves Bluesfest; she said it was her favorite festival. I really get the feeling that a lot of other artists feel the same.

We try to do it in a way that makes the artists feel very welcome. We create an ability for them that all they have to think about is being creative people. It’s kind of a no-brainer when you think about it. There’s nothing worse than if you arrive at an event and your dressing room’s not available or there’s a bunch of things not working, so you’re dealing with all that and you’re not getting in the zone, getting ready to do a great show. There shouldn’t be an issue with dressing rooms. There shouldn’t be an issue with meals. You walk on stage and the sound should be great. That’s all the artist wants, a place to create and it’s amazing how many people get that stuff wrong.

Obviously, looking at the number of awards that Bluesfest has been getting recently, you’re doing something right. There seems to be an incredible number of other festivals failing for some reason.

We’re a music festival. We’re not trying to appeal on any other basis apart from that. We’re all about music, creative music, and having artists get up there and do what they do and giving them the environment where that can occur. That to me is what my role is. Sure, finding the right artists that appeal to the public, so I can continue to do that on a financial level and with Bluesfest we’ve been fortunate that we’ve attracted this amazing team around us, so it makes my job easier. I’m not worried about who’s going to be working the carpark, for example. All that stuff that takes you years.

I always imagine that the average concert-goer has no concept of how much work goes on behind the scenes.

The complexity of it, no. They only know that the hot water in the shower stopped working in campground X and I’d better put it on Facebook and tell these guys what arseholes they are. Rather than look at my wristband and call the number listed if anything goes wrong. Western attitude is to act in aggressive manner if you don’t get what you need. The louder the better.

So how do you think social media has changed us?

Well there is that side to it, but in another way, it’s a great way to meet people. You can get to know people better who have been associates, and I look forward to getting up in the morning and seeing what my friends have posted. Somebody you knew a bit ten years ago, they live in New York, and those people become your friends. I think it’s brilliant for that reason.

So onto Bluesfest, I’m really excited to see Patti Smith and Billy Bragg to name just two.

I just saw Billy Bragg play in Glasgow, in the Old Fruit Market, which of course is an old fruit market which has been changed into a theatre. I have to tell you that show he does with Joe Henry that is a beauty.

I remember meeting him many years ago after a concert I went to.

He’s an interesting guy to talk with, isn’t he? He’s got a stage at Glastonbury and he gave my kids access to the back of that stage to camp. I was his guest, so up he comes and says, “So what do you think of Brexit?” The whole thing had happened while they were there at Glastonbury. You went to bed with all the pundits going, “We’re staying in the European Union,” and woke up with, “We have left.” It was a shock and many people in Glastonbury would be in the “remain” camp, so Billy and I got into a great conversation about it. It was quite interesting. He asked, “What was your take in Australia?” and I said it seemed like lemmings headed to the cliff. I found he was an engaging listener as well as speaker.

What he’s doing now, with his train songs, is really interesting. Some of the songs are quite well known, if you know folk music, but the stories of getting on the Amtrak and going across the US. They even went to the room where Robert Johnson recorded his classic album; things like that. He recorded there. Fascinating stuff; I’m not just going to do a train record. Not with Billy.

It’s always interesting for me to understand if the recording environment changes the music. Some artists don’t seem to care, for some it becomes very important.

There’s a whole world of music out there. I’m going to flick the switch for a moment. I have had years where I’ve never traveled. Basically sitting at home, on the web, and discovering artists that way. A lot of it can come to you, but the fact that you do travel takes you to areas where you discover things. On Celtic Connections, I discovered a wonderful band called Elephant Sessions. I never would have found them if I didn’t go. I guess for some artists it’s just a studio, but I think for some artists, going to a studio where something brilliant has been done – the only recordings that Robert Johnson ever made were in that hotel room – and they’re some of the most seminal recordings ever made in Blues music.

You just can’t think about Blues without thinking about those recordings. For me, I’d never been to Glastonbury; I had to go. It was the worst weather ever, there was four or five inches of mud across the whole site. SO what should have been a twenty minute walk was a two hour walk and with every step, the mud’s trying to pull your gumboots off. I only went over once, but once was enough; covered in it.

But to do that, it was fun. Aussies wouldn’t put up with it. They don’t even have showers at Glastonbury. At Bluesfest if our showers go cold we hear it. What’s on the stage is brilliant but I wouldn’t dare offer the public what they do. They’re quite counter-cultural, but I still think hippies wash.

I always think of music as the one art form that is both immediate, yet enduring. People remember musical times, yet it’s fleeting. It’s not like a picture on the wall.

Music goes around in my head all the time. Humanities have got the ability to move you and creativity is what we always need on the planet. There are guys that come and go, like the current US President, but things like that are great opportunities. We can go out as artists and present a strongly differing viewpoint and all of a sudden you have the age of protest beginning again.

You must always be watching and aware. You have to be involved otherwise half of our species may go and do something terrible. May we all live in interesting times, as they say. The arts is the bellwether for all that.Music is in the now then it’s gone. That’s what’s great about it too. But the memory isn’t.

What motivated you to start Bluesfest?

I’d always been in the music business since I was fifteen or sixteen, when I picked up a guitar. I was professional by the age of seventeen. That part of my life ended after about ten or twelve years, and I’d been a pro musician in the US, so went into business. When I came back to Australia for a holiday, I thought “Gee, I don’t mind this place.” I’m an Australian, but I’d left and was living in the US.

Bluesfest came about because I started touring a lot of Reggae, Jazz and Blues which just wasn’t happening here. People would say to me “How are you going to make a living touring John Mayall?” I toured other stuff too, from The Sweet to Anti-Nowhere League, but when the guys started Bluesfest in 1990, I was just supplying them acts. I think I supplied them Canned Heat in the first year and John Mayall in the second.

By the third and fourth year they went outdoors and lost a lot of money, as is easy to do in festivals and that’s when I got offered a partnership. So I wasn’t an original, I came in in 1993. After about ten years my original partner and I had a big bust up, so it was up to one to buy the other out, so I bought him out. People like Chuggi came in for a few years, but it didn’t work. We both had different ways of looking at it, so I bought him out, so I’ve only had the event since 2009. It still feels new; I finally got to do it myself for eight years.

What would give you the most satisfaction?

I was just in LA for the Pollstar Awards and Bluesfest was nominated for the fifth year in a row for the world’s best (non-American) music festival. Glastonbury wins every year, but we’re the only event to be nominated that many times and we’re the only event from Australia to be nominated for over a decade. It’s our peers, the agents and managers that nominate you, year after year, and I realise that Bluesfest is being nominated, where Montreux Jazz Festival isn’t, North Sea Jazz Festival isn’t, Jazzfest isn’t, Reggae Sunsplash isn’t and I go, “My God, we’re rated above those events.” That realisation is an amazing one and we’re in Australia and Australia is much more difficult to do presentations in; people have to fly in and devote time. Everything costs more to do here. So that’s a pretty big wow.

I think the bills that I put on are engaging and creative. It’s finding that line of doing a commercially successful event and an event that’s challenging. You have the headliners but you also have artists who will become your new favourites. You never get it 100% right but if it’s around 80 or 90% there’s a lot of satisfaction. Money’s not my main motivator; you have to be financially successful or you won’t be around, but I decided to be less hands on and travel more and discover more.

I just spent a week in Ghana listening to the music there. Last year I went to Morocco, I spent time in the south of Spain listening to Flamenco. I was also freezing my butt of in Glasgow. Believe me, Glasgow in January is not a pleasant place. But you have to do that; if you want your event to be the frontrunner, get on your bike.

The social responsibility part of Bluesfest is something that you take very seriously.

We have an apiary on the farm site, which produces Jelly Bush honey, which is the equivalent of Manuka. It’s a business occurring on my farm and the guy just gives me honey. But we have incredibly special wetlands in the area, which produce certain flowers at certain times of the year which allow this amazing honey. It can only be produced in one area of Australia, the north coast of NSW. With koalas, our big thing was, to buy a site and take responsibility for the fact that there were koalas on the site.

Our initial study showed a highly diseased colony, nobody had ever studied them and they were dying in huge numbers, three or four between every study. I got the University of Queensland research centre in five years ago, Bill Ellis who is the eminent koala researcher in Australia. He said, we need to create a healthy site. Whatever the population, it’s immaterial, as long as it’s healthy. Healthy can breed healthy young and we can repopulate the site. So we started capturing diseased koalas, taking them to the Crocodile Hunter Zoo and treating them. We put in sensor lights and discovered wild dogs were coming in so we started trapping them. It took five years, but this year is the first year we haven’t had one koala death, in fact we’ve had two females give birth to healthy young.

We have a successful disease free colony now and it’s proven that on bushland that has been fractured by roads, that you can have a disease free colony. If we can keep this up for another couple of years we believe that we have the blueprint for koalas in NSW, to bring them back from the brink of extinction. If you’re going to do something in life you have to have social responsibility. We’re now leading in that area because we did take that on. I’m a Buddhist, I honour all sentient beings. I think that philosophy comes across in the festival as well. I hope so. You only have to come.

There are incidents of course; for example Neil Young cancelled. He didn’t go out there and do a press conference or press release; all his fans were left frustrated and angry and of course they took it out on us. The artists that we booked at the same timeslot… Jimmy Buffett wasn’t acceptable, but you know what, they really wanted Neil. If he had come out and said, “You know what, my life has changed; I need to do this now, I’m sorry,” it would have really helped. But he chose not to. You just have to deal with that and roll with that. You can’t get caught up in things that you can’t control. I guess at his age he can get away with it.

Last question, how is the Boomerang Festival going?

The Boomerang Festival has one issue, and that is that the government has stopped funding. As of today the Boomerang Festival doesn’t have funding and I’m attempting to get to a point where we can figure out how to address that. We at Bluesfest are not going to walk away from Indigenous Australians, the first nation’s people.

The Australian government is attempting to balance the books and forgetting that black people have rights in this country, and one of those rights is to have their story told. They’re more marginalised when they’re not allowed to present their culture to the rest of us, so we need to become more involved in it. We will find a way to make Boomerang work. Anybody who has a heart and votes for liberal party after what they’ve done to the arts and our indigenous brothers and sisters, really you don’t have a heart. How can those people ever feel a part of Australia when we treat them like that?

Bluesfest showcases music from around the world annually on the Easter long weekend on 120 hectares at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, just north of Byron Bay, NSW. For more information and tickets, head here