YARDSTOCK WA’s DIY backyard music festival challenges conventional sounds

Yardstock – Photo by Pablo Walsh

There’s a counterculture experiment taking place in Perth’s music scene, and ground zero is probably your neighbour’s backyard. On Boxing Day 2017, KAVI GUPPTA had the chance to explore Yardstock. The day-long roaming music festival that spans five backyards was holding its latest string of shows in Fremantle. Here’s what he found.

For the past six years, Yardstock has been quietly hosting backyard gigs under a short and simple mission statement:

YARDSTOCK is local bands in backyards, folks having good times walking from house to house. It’s organised every so often as an alternative to the boganville-beer-barn-monoculture in Perth and most importantly to support local music and have a good time. We believe in creating free and equal spaces for us to all work, play and exist in.

Yardstock is always free.

The concept, founded by the small do-it-yourself music label Stock Records, is a response to many pains felt by local music fans and artists. Yardstock is for the fans who desire an alternative to repetitive commercial radio; for music junkies who are eager to take in eccentric and uncomfortable sounds; for performers who often find themselves shunned from the local music circuit; for audiences who want to spend a day partying in an open and accepting space.

The vision is slowly paying off. As of writing this feature, Yardstock has organised 13 incarnations of the event across Perth and recently exported a 14th version of its scrappy counterculture ethos to the backyards of bustling Melbourne.

In the heat of the late December sun, I cycled up and down the hills of Fremantle in search of each successive venue. As I journeyed around town that day I had the chance to reflect on the festival’s mission while soaking up the eclectic sounds and performances. Here’s what I took away.

Yardstock – Photo by Cheryl Millard

Do-it-yourself to the core.

The idea of a DIY festival isn’t entirely new. But it is re-emerging in an era when big radio and online streaming dominates how we discover and enjoy music.

Yardstock taps into a vast network of small independent labels; new music upstarts; local brewers; small businesses willing to promote the event; and most importantly, a handful of generous people willing to donate their backyards to performers and roaming strangers.

It’s bare bones. It’s rough around the edges. It relies on the goodwill of people to be respectful of each other and the venues they encounter throughout the day. Venue locations and set times can only be found via a flyer at select local businesses (festival goers were directed to Banjarra Tribal Rugs in Freo and the Moon Cafe in Perth for details). Volunteers cart beer kegs up and down the streets to each venue. Attendees are encouraged to pay a donation so Stock Records can continue to do the work it believes in. The audience, although mostly building up a buzz throughout the day, does its best to create a warm and friendly environment for all walks of life.

Yardstock – Photo by Cheryl Millard

Slightly odd sounds

Festival goers bobbed their heads to the sounds of Last Quokka, Dan Howls, Moistoyster, Felicity Groom (and band), Pulse Valley, Sean Gorman of Salary, and more. Some of these acts have been making tracks across across Perth, Fremantle and Western Australia, while others are fresh to the scene and hoping to cut their teeth alongside seasoned musicians.

At its core, Yardstock is home to musos that may never find space on the airwaves of Top 40 radio or Triple J. It’s home to the sounds that may always belong to the underground; for gritty and unclean sounds that are uncomfortable to the ears of the broader masses. It’s a practice platform for the performers who have yet to find a footing and a voice within the local gig scene.

Sean Gorman from Salary swayed the crowd through his gentle and soothing guitar work and breathy vocals. Pulse Valley laid down a collage of sounds rooted in the land and traditions of Australian First Nations people (the event frequently pays its respects to elders past and present from the Aboriginal community, however their presence was notably absent at Yardstock 13.0). The duo’s music was uniquely different, at times hard to digest, but brought a new dimension to the guitar rock and folk vibes that often snake around Fremantle.

Some performers are arguably seasoned and capable. Dan Howls blazed through an electrified set of muddy blues as the sun set over Beaconsfield. Last Quokka, as always, spurred the crowd to jump and jostle into a frenzy through its gritty punk rock numbers. Moistoyster, a staple name in the Fremantle scene, jived through the twang of their surf rock influences.

By the end of the night, slightly tipsy, and slightly bruised at the knees in search of the abandoned auditorium at Booyeembara Park (the festival’s final venue), I realized that this is how diversity in local music should appear. As listeners we need to be challenged. We need to be shown new ways of expressing opinions and ideas through sound.

That’s the trade-off you make at a festival like Yardstock. You have to endure sounds that you may not like, but others do. You have to endure brave performers who are still finding their way around their instruments. I certainly endured much of that at Yardstock. I will say I’m better off having experienced it.