Features/What to SEE/Music

Time to party in the Pines

26 April 2023

WA’s best and longest-running boutique festival, In the Pines, turns 30 this Sunday. And it’s bringing out some big guns to celebrate, writes Harvey Rae.

Chris Wheeldon is persistent. And persuasive. Two attributes that have helped him fulfil a long-held dream for a very special occasion. 

The RTRFM event manager and producer grew up listening to Ammonia, who dominated Australian charts in the mid 90s with hits such as Drugs. They were also one of the bands to rock the community radio station’s inaugural musical festival in 1994, where Wheeldon began volunteering four years later at just 16.  So he’s thrilled to be bringing frontman Dave Johnstone back to In the Pines for the event’s 30th birthday this month. 

“I have been asking Dave Johnstone for a few years to play as Ammonia but he was never quite in the right space,” Wheeldon says. “I kept in contact and early last year he let me know he was getting a band together in Melbourne playing the Ammonia tunes, and when he was over to do some shows at Badlands and The Aardvark, we had a coffee. 

Ammonia playing the first ever In the Pines in 1994. Photo supplied

“I remember Ammonia being such a huge band when I was a kid, so it is surreal to be chatting on Facebook and email with him but also understanding that 1994 was so long ago and such a small part of his life but also such a massive part of it. It’s great to be able to give him a space to revisit the songs and connect back with Perth.” 

Johnstone confirms this version of events. “Chris bought me a coffee and asked nicely,” he says, perhaps wryly after all these years. “We’re playing all the old classics and a brand-new track called Black Balloon that I’m really proud of. I’m old, but still love it loud.” 

At their peak, Ammonia were living out Tame Impala-like fantasies, recording their 1998 second album Eleventh Avenue with famed producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Tame Impala) in New York.  

“Dave was and is a super creative guy and would make sure anything I had in my head would make it to tape,” Johnstone fondly remembers. “We were in a foreign location and completely out of our comfort zone, but that was kind of the idea.” 

He’s not the only singer returning for this birthday bash held, as always, among the idyllic pine trees of UWA’s Somerville Auditorium. Humbug, who haven’t played for 20 years, will celebrate the vinyl release (finally) of their acclaimed 2002 record Midheaven.  

Humbug guitarist Ben Clemson at an early In the Pines gig. Photo supplied

“Unofficially I see my personal role as something along the lines of ‘chief reunion officer’ (and) I hope to be tearfully reunited with a good many dear old friends and faithful buggers from way back,” jokes singer Ryan Johnstone (no relation to Dave). “It’s going to be wonderfully intense!” 

With three band members living in Melbourne and one still in Perth, Humbug’s reunion shows (they have another at Badlands on Friday night) have been a long time coming.  

“Cue RTRFM, their generous invitation – it felt like good timing and a real opportunity to have some fun together again, and of course to support an awesome community service,” Johnstone says. 

Sugar Army, Split Seconds, The Love Junkies, Schvendes singer Rachael Dease and Rabbit Island are among other artists long coveted by RTRFM organisers and presenters who we don’t hear enough of in 2023. They are all on the birthday setlist. 

With the 30th anniversary fittingly scheduled for 30 April, Pines is a benchmark event on the local music calendar. It has also long been RTRFM’s flagship fundraiser.  

Wheeldon says the aim for this year’s event was to ensure the biggest line-up since 2013’s 20th anniversary spectacular. 

The poster for the inaugural In the Pines.

“We knew we wanted to expand on that a fair bit but not go all out with reformed bands like we did in 2013,” he says. “We also knew there had to be something else, so revisiting the idea of having DJs play came up pretty early on. Having DJs out on Riley Oval next to the Somerville is a nice change. 

“We wanted a handful of bands that haven’t played for a while … but also a collection of bands that we have loved and have been big parts of RTRFM over the last 20 years or so. And then we wanted to show the future is bright, so Noah Dillon, Angie Colman, Sooks, Maatakitj, Smol Fish etcetera. We hope we have found the right balance of old, current and new.” 

Em Burrows, who’ll perform on Sunday as part of Web Rumors ex Machina, has volunteered as a presenter for more than nine years on RTRFM shows such as The Mag and Golden Apples of the Sun. Her experience speaks to the station’s community appeal. 

“For a local musician, the station is just invaluable,” Burrows enthuses. “Even if I wasn’t a musician, I’d still present radio, though. Being able to hone a skill set, curate playlists and share them with an audience, and meet like-minded folks … that’s just the best thing ever.” 

Under her ex Machina guise (Latin for “from the machine”), Burrows promises a set made for dancing, with fewer vocals than previous Web Rumors incarnations. “It’s more like an electronic set. There are four people on stage and it’s all my dancier music really.” 

Em Burrows is promising a ‘dancier’ set. Photo supplied

For three decades, In the Pines has offered all kinds of music to all kinds of music lovers, making the festival a favourite with those who enjoy a picnic blanket and chilled vibes early on with family, and those looking to rock out later on.  

As Wheeldon notes, efforts are constantly being made to ensure the day is as inclusive as possible.  

“We have, particularly over the last 10 years, made a real effort to make sure we have a 50/50 split of female/non-binary to male bands, both in members and being fronted by,” he says.  

“This year is on par with that, with 15 of the 30 bands and DJs having a female member and 13 of them being female fronted. We also have three indigenous performers and three of the DJs are First Nations folks.” 

Organisers have also worked hard with the RTRFM Disability Inclusion Action Group to ensure this In the Pines is the most accessible yet. 

“There’s a dedicated space to get away from the noise if needed, our Pine Pals volunteers on hand to help those who may need some help, walkways and access for folks in wheelchairs, and communications boards available for those who may be non-verbal,” Wheeldon says.  

“We are also working with the Department of Biodiversity, Conversation and Attractions and a company called Go2Cup to limit our waste to as close to zero as possible. We went from 60 waste and recycle bins in 2021 to just 10 in 2022; we hope to have less this year with reusable plastic cups, food utensils and bowls on hand, compost stations and Containers for Change bins on site. A small thing but it really does help, particularly that close to the Derbal Yerigan (Swan River).”  

Feels good to be 30! 

In the Pines hits Somerville Auditorium this Sunday, 30 April 2023

Humbug play a one-off headline show at Badlands this Friday, 28 April 2023

Pictured top: Smol Fish are one of the bands showing “the future is bright” at this year’s In the Pines. Photo supplied

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Author —
Harvey Rae

Harvey is a familiar face in the Perth arts scene, having been a journalist, promoter, events manager, artistic planner, songwriter, radio host, marketer, publicist, label owner and more. Music may be his first love, but you'll regularly find him at anything comedy, theatre or food related. Harvey gravitates towards the swings but sometimes forgets he’s too big for a playground flying fox, too.

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