As Sugar Mountain enters another year of delivering a stellar line up of music and arts, preparation for the annual festival held at Melbourne’s VCA is heating up. The festival boasts an amazing array of diverse musical acts, artwork, and sensory experiences, and Sugar Mountain’s team of curators are determined to craft an environment that is immersive and interactive. During this busy week leading up to Sugar Mountain on Saturday the 21st of January, we sat down with one of the festival founders and creative directors Pete Keen, to discuss the various aspects and happenings of the diverse festival.

Pete’s motivations for starting Sugar Mountain stemmed from a need to create something that he could share. “There was a period where I was a graphic designer, and it felt very insular. So, I guess I wanted to create something that was a bit more collaborative, communal, and social, while also infused with my background in music. I just wanted to work on something that felt more giving.”

Although the 2017 incarnation of Sugar Mountain is only its third year at VCA, the festival itself has been running for six years now. Pete tells us, “the first three years we held it at The Forum Theatre, and it was about a third of the size of what it is now. Starting on that smaller scale was a great way to work out the kinks, and realise what we were trying to achieve. There were a lot of hurdles that we had to come up against and overcome. Holding it at The Forum Theatre meant it was quite contained, and it was easy to work things out in those early stages. Then we had a year off where we joined forces with Mushroom Records and worked out the next stages in the development, which put us at VCA.”

One of the most unique things about Sugar Mountain is how it blends so many different artistic mediums, and creates an all-encompassing experience. When we asked Pete what he interprets the core philosophy of the festival to be, he told us, “it kind of changed and developed over the years. Early on, Sugar Mountain was designed to reflect the various creative circles of Melbourne, while also involving international artists and musicians that complimented those communities. We’re always trying to find the meeting point between music and art, and ideally explore that in various different ways. Year to year we try to expand on our delivery, and establish different ways of working with the environment, and working with the flow of the festival -goer.”

This year, Sugar Mountain have established a way to incorporate people’s obsession with their mobile phones into the festival itself, which is a terrific example of how they are actively expanding their delivery, and establishing an environment that gels with the festival-goers. “In the last few years, a lot of people have been glued to their phones more and more, and it’s becoming a huge part of our day. We’re trying to involve different aspects of social interaction. Technology is quite a big part of that; we had been interested in dabbling in virtual reality, but we thought that wasn’t as interactive as augmented reality, which has a bit more of a social application. So we’ve involved that technology in our festival app this year. Basically, you’ll enter one of those stage environments, and there will be a lot of 2D designs within that environment, and you can use your festival app to augment and warp your experience in those areas. Once you hover your phone over the 2D artworks in that space, they will animate. We’re trying to keep an eye on social movements, and trying to infuse that with the energies of the day. People are on their phones so much, so you may as well put them to work. That’s just one of many ways we try to interact with our patrons, and keep them excited.”

One of the aspects of Sugar Mountain that resonates with audiences most is the inclusive, safe space for all patrons crafted by the festival. Pete tells us that this is no accident, and something that he and the other organisers have actively tried to pursue. “We spend a lot of time piecing everything together in order to reflect the right communities that we want to have involved. Keeping it a really comfortable space to party in is something we’ve really thought out, and something that is very important to us.”

As the festival takes place at the Victorian Collage Of The Arts, Sugar Mountain makes sure to offer students at the school a chance to contribute to the happenings. “Year to year we have an art prize, for which we have VCA students proposing artworks, and this year we’ve selected an artist by the name of Trent Crawford, and he will be delivering a tech piece indoors.” Sugar Mountain is not really comparable to any other Australian festivals, as the atmosphere it creates is entirely unique, original and fresh. It’s not just about making money. For the founders of Sugar Mountain, experience is paramount. “I steer away from going to other festivals in Australia, because I’ve been in this mindset of not wanting to be influenced by anything else. Dark Mofo in Tasmania, which a very dear friend of mine curates, is quite a complimentary offering to what we’ve created with Sugar Mountain. The thing that we have in common is a focus on curatorial offerings that are reflective of our communities and offer something a little bit different and more considered, to focus on a greater experience for the day, rather than just booking bands that are going to sell thousands and thousands of tickets just to make us rich. Experience is more valuable to us than the money.”

These aren’t just words, either. The offerings of Sugar Mountain are varied and diverse, which you can see as soon as you jump on the festival’s website. “Early on, we tried to make it a music and arts festival, but we’ve realised that it needs to be more than that as well, to really be experience based. That’s why we stepped into the sensory experience side of things. The sensory restaurant is a combination of music, food and art. Sensory has been a great component to involve, to evolve further than just being a music and arts festival – it’s more about experiences.”

The rather special nature of Sugar Mountain is not lost on Pete even after all these years of managing it, which is clear in his affinity for the festival as he speaks about it. “The one thing that I can say I take away from the festival every year is that we’ve got the most amazing customers. I’ve never been to a social event that has had such a positive audience – everyone can actually just go and have an amazing time and listen to new music, and I feel like I’m discovering new music every time I go to my own festival, even though I curated it. It’s a nice, fresh, new experience, which is hard to come by. I feel really honoured to be involved in something like this.”

Sugar Mountain takes places at VCA on Saturday the 21st of January, and features an impressive line up featuring The Avalanches, Young Tapz, HABITS, Spank Rock, Rolling Blackouts, Big Scary, Methyl Ethyl and more. Get your tickets here, and we’ll see you on the dance floor.