Functions is our interview series profiling parties from across the world. Next up is Sydney’s Picnic Stuff.
Surviving through a pandemic and the Sydney lockout laws, Picnic Stuff has ironically been no picnic. In a frank interview with founder and sole manager, Carly Roberts, we hear the truths of running the high-demand event.
The dazzling list of names that have been printed on the posters of Picnic Stuff parties reflect its status as an essential event Down Under. With a long list of impressive headliners, Carly has worked tirelessly to bring momentous acts to Sydney for 15 years now, with plans for many more to come. Picnic has been responsible for many artists’ debuts in not just the city but Australia, including DJ Harvey, Peggy Gou, Jayda G to name a few.
The spirit of a Picnic party is not cucumber sandwiches and swarms of wasps but a classic rave with music being the number one priority. Curating each line-up Carly aims to “sincerely” make the “best decisions to do all those people justice.”
From running a night every Wednesday at her local nightclub, Carly has managed to become a crucial cog in Australia’s electronic music industry. Her enthusiasm for the genre and desire to keep people dancing in Sydney has led to opportunies such as juggling her promoter role with being the Australian agent of Andrew Weatherall up until his death.
The future for Picnic is bright as next month will see the third edition of it’s Maximum Joy party with Ben UFO, DJ EZ, Leon Vynehall, Call Super and more. The very next day, Picnic will be rolling through to the Liberty Hall with Âme, Mano Le Tough, Michael Mayer and others for more euphoric sounds.
Read our full interview with Carly Roberts of Picnic Stuff below.
Can you tell me about your relationship with dance music and raves?
Yes, it’s long and complicated. I’ve been obsessed with music my whole life and have spent hours alone listening to and compiling music for as long as I can remember. In the early ’90s while still in high school I started travelling from a coastal town an hour-and-a-half north of Sydney to volunteer and then present on a great community radio station called Radio Skidrow in Marrickville. That same train also took me out clubbing around the same time. On Thursdays, I’d travel to an amazing indie night called Rollercoaster and [then] more Saturday nights than I probably should have [too]. Dancing and dressing up was everything to me. I’d dance all night, and [that] transcended everything.
When I was 18 I moved back home to where my parents were in Canberra and one night I was standing in a nightclub – The Base – and the owner asked me if I’d like to run a night there and DJ. The answer was of course, yes!
I ran a Wednesday night there with friends for a while and then we had a Thursday night in the city at a place called The Asylum. Both are super eclectic, anything goes indie nights where we played everything from Bauhaus, Joy Division, The Cramps and The Birthday Party through to grunge and shoegaze and The Orb, The Shamen, Meat Beat Manifesto and Primal Scream as examples. To be honest, I considered it all dance – or dancing – music. But simply put, we played the songs that we were feeling from beginning to end on whatever format the music was on, including bringing in a CD player. Our first-ever sponsor was a place called Rent A Disc, and we got a discount on hiring their CDs for our parties.
I’d weirdly wanted to be a DJ pretty seriously for a while at this point so once luck gave me the opportunity I started to learn to DJ properly. Over the years my taste moved around a bit from that indie kid. I’ve always been into underground music and I hope – minus a few bleeps on the discovery path – good music that means something to me at least.
With raves I’ve never really been a raver, when all my friends were going to first raves – Happy Valley notably – I was always going to the club or to see a band. I definitely played some memorable ‘chill out room’ sets though.
As a pretty non-raver person, I never thought I’d end up playing house. But fast forward a good decade from the above – with pages more of stories – and since Metro Area and Daniel Wang et cetera started making their more spacious, disco-inspired – and often slower – house music in the early 2000s, I finally found myself as a DJ with a sound that felt really me. It has again morphed, twisted and turned for the 15 or so years since but it’s the biggest part of my foundations now and was definitely the jump-off point for Picnic.
Read this next: Uncovering Moodymann’s Detroit hip hop origins
What inspired you to start your own parties?
I just always have. In the beginning, it was luck and good timing. Later on, it was fun collaborations or more considered events and projects but nothing was ever like Picnic, probably because I hadn’t found the music that incited that kind of blind passion you need to stick it out as I have with Picnic.
In the beginning, Picnic was directly related to wanting to start a party where I heard music I’d not heard before or the music I loved but wasn’t hearing out. For years I’d DJ’ed on and off, worked in record stores and was generally immersed in music so every time I went out I felt like I knew all songs being played – a bit lol, but I’m sure DJs will understand. Then I went to catch Moodymann playing his first Sydney roller disco set. Obviously, those sets are classic in nature, but in my mind it was Moodymann and I still wasn’t schooled in the way I was hoping. Along the way, I’ve accepted that Moodymann – or anyone – is not required to be my projection of them, but at that time I was searching for so much purpose and that set did inspire me to start my own thing.
Just before this pretty funny story and fateful night, I’d started a fashion label, which in addition to all my music stuff was as hard a slog as my friends in fashion had warned me it might be. I had done some overly ambitious projects before this and I felt familiar stress rising so decided to abort the label and instead of doing the next collection I saved my money to go on a truth-seeking mission to London.
I’d met Simon Rigg from Phonica Records in Sydney and he’d said to me if you’re ever in London and looking for a job to hit him up. So I did. Not for a job, but for a two weeks unpaid work experience so I could go and be immersed in the epicentre of music and suss out all the fashion stuff at the same time. I wanted to see what would win – music or fashion.
Although I was stopped on the street to have a photo taken of the outfit I was wearing for that girl’s boss – the outfit was my own design and the boss was Vivienne Westwood my lifelong idol — I couldn’t deny that maybe for the first time in my life, I no longer felt like an imposter when I came to music and those few weeks in London.
Through Simon’s amazing hospitality and introductions, I had an open door to the London scene and really got to experience what I was looking for. Mainly dancing in nightclubs that were way better than anything Sydney has still ever had. But the real highlights came from behind the counter at Phonica. Two that still stand out are choosing some records for Andrew Weatherall to listen to and him buying most, and Felix Dickinson coming in and being chuffed this random person from Australia knew a pretty obscure record of his.
Read this next: Watch a new film about Andrew Weatherall: Sail We Must
I came back to Sydney deciding that it was music for me. Soon after coming home, I changed jobs to work at a more DJ-focused record shop and shortly after that moment with Moodymann, I organised my first international DJ tour with Darshan Jesrani from Metro Area who I’d become friends with when he came to a party I was running the night after he played the legendary Sydney party, Mad Racket. Not far behind that, I started Picnic with a guy who was coming into the record shop and was keen to start something. We ran Picnic together for the first two years.
Darshan and I ended up working together quite a few times including him playing for us at Sydney Town Hall. One of the next people I toured was Felix Dickinson, I reached out as ‘that person he met at Phonica’. I manage to land DJ Harvey’s debut Australian tour with DJ Garth and soon after I became Andrew Weatherall’s Australian agent for close to 10 years. It was working with Andrew that made me want to be really good at my job. Not meant as any disrespect – truly – to those that I completely winged it with previously but Andrew – by virtue of being him – set a new bar I had to rise to.
Can you tell me some more about your previous work in the music industry beyond Picnic Stuff?
I’ve been DJing on and off for more than my own entertainment since I was 18. DJing is the thing that I’ve dedicated the most time to being good at. I used to practise every day for a lot of my 20s and it defines me the most within the music industry as I’ve been doing it for close to 30 years.
Being a DJ is why I started Picnic and starting Picnic probably opened up years of DJing I may have never had. It’s the thing I feel the most confident doing as I’ve always practised making mistakes so I know what I’m correcting. As most promoters/DJs know though, there’s a line where being a promoter definitely impacts being a DJ but I’ve always loved both. One thing though for the first time ever over COVID I was unable to draw on skill to overcome promoter stress – that was pretty concerning and very telling.
I’ve always loved writing and did a bit of music journalism in my 20s. Nothing serious but I wrote for the local street press for years. I got to interview loads of my heroes. I worked in record stores for about eight years until worked solely on Picnic plus DJing full-time around the age of 34. My favourite role was as the dance buyer at a prominently rock shop called Red Eye Records – this was just on the cusp of internet shopping taking off in Australia and pre digis and CDJs so there were less solely electronic record shops and Red Eye had access to some wild European suppliers who had records that weren’t hitting the shelves in other record shops here.
I’d been on FBi Radio – Sydney’s no.1 community station – for close to 10 years presenting some great slots and I started doing community radio in high school. I stopped doing radio because of COVID’s impact on my business and my mental health in 2020. I don’t miss the weekly grin, but I miss doing FBi.
Obviously, Picnic has given me great event and production experience and one of my most cherished recent experiences were as an event producer for part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in February 2020. I’d lost a huge amount of money on an event and took this full-time, short contract job in secret – none of my other clients knew for most of the time I worked on it – producing an event where main inner city Sydney roads were shut down and 2000 people partied on them in a ticketed viewing area of the parade. It was one of my favourite jobs ever. I learnt more than what they probably thought I needed to on hiring me and felt so proud to be part of such an incredible team, being a team player and not a boss.
I’ve also done loads of music supervision, event curation that isn’t Picnic and running venues entertainment, along with some great Music Director roles.
Can you tell me about the first few Picnic parties?
The first few parties we did really highlighted what we did and didn’t want. Our first party was a collaboration and we had Rub N Tug play. It was a great party. The next one we had Felix Dickinson play. It wouldn’t be the party I’d throw now but it was fun and naïve and Felix was one of my favourite DJs at the time so it was such a great feeling in that respect. From there we launched Picnic as a name and instantly had a few experiences with shitty security at venues and moved to running warehouse parties for years to have better control over the environment along with bigger shows and becoming smarter with venues choices. Within the first four years of Picnic we’d had a very long list of my dream acts play or tour. We’d also sold out numerous 1200-capacity events at Sydney Festival.
In those first few years Lovefingers, DJ Harvey, Idjut Boys, Maurice Fulton, Felix Dickinson, Mike Simonetti, Greg Wilson, Darshan Jesrani, Horse Meat Disco, The Revenge, DJ Spun, Bottin, Rick Wade, Justin Van Der Volgen and loads more all played Picnic and the majority of the shows were national tours I’d organised. It was a sound that no one else was really doing here in the way Picnic was focused. Although there were hard times, unprofessional times and big lessons, there were also plenty of times when it was pretty great, which is something I’d not considered before doing this interview.
I’m also thankful to be sharing current lists that include a lot more females, as an aside and a jarring reflection on how much things have changed for the better over these last 15 years.
It’s been around 15 years since the first Picnic party right? How does that feel?
Correct, we turned 15 this week, we’re yet to celebrate as there’s a little re-calibrating to do before blowing out the candles on this milestone. It feels wild and has only been achieved by equal parts tenacity, passion, hustle, love and a sprinkle of luck and insanity.
I thought I was done a few months ago, COVID mainly – but we also had eight years of Sydney lockouts before that – it just finally really wore me down. Thankfully I had a few experiences – oddly at some of the hardest times – that made me remember why I do this still and am more determined to make it more sustainable rather than stop. Phew!
What makes Picnic so different to other events?
The thing that has always made Picnic different is that people are at the party for music first and foremost and it’s a really sweet vibe. I imagine being a female-led party makes this the case – but there’s a distinct lack of overwhelming male energy in the room. Whenever that has risen something is clearly off and I’ve changed tact. And that is mostly about using another venue as some do have inherently different values or practise that can really mess with the alchemy of a party. I’ve also always been keen on a great production and I think that makes a lot of difference too.
Can you describe the moment you felt that Picnic had become a big deal?
Picnic has never felt like a big deal to me. I work too hard for it to feel that way. I’ve obviously seen other promoters come and go over the years, and do clock that we’re still here but I rarely have time to think about what Picnic is as I’m too busy working on what we do.
For the last seven or so years – until July 2022 – we ran a minimum of two parties a week and then did bigger parties on top [except when lockdown restrictions prohibited it]. I’ve not looked up in years until recently when I had to work out what was going to keep me going, and of course, when COVID hit I did have a long hard look at what I was doing and the hows and whys. But at that time I thought more about all the things I could’ve done better and then I worked harder than ever to try and stay afloat from that point on. The only thing is we’ve put on way over 500 gigs and facilitated a staggering amount of opportunities so obviously, we’ve done something right a lot of the time. Ideally, I’d like to get to the point where there’s less emotional attachment to my work and the wins and non-wins are just points on the path. It’s a bit deep but it’s something my eye is on as a high priority.
Can you talk through some of the big names you’ve had play?
I feel like I’m going to miss some really important names, but we had a Ben UFO do a whole weekend of shows including two back-to-back One Night Stands that I reckon will forever be an untoppable experience. Skin On Skin at The Enmore Theatre which is a very stately and iconic Sydney venue was really up there. We’ve been the first people in Sydney to have some of the biggest names in dance music play from Soichi Terada, DJ Harvey, Peggy Gou, Jayda G, Powder, Lena Willikens, KiNK, Palms Trax, Young Marco, Gerd Janson, Pachanga Boys, Mano Le Tough and loads more. Recently we had a party – Wild Combination – with Job Jobse, Guy Contact , Spray, Surusinghe, C.FRIM, DJ Spit, Human Movement and Shake Daddy which is one of my personal favourite line-ups to date. Underground Resistance’s Timeline, the full band was also a big highlight.
Working with Charlotte de Witte was amazing on New Year’s Eve. She’s a sweetheart and a force of nature on stage, but her tour manager was so good. It was really great to work with an artist of that size and make sure it was all delivered as expected with a team who all have that one goal.
Can you tell me about your One Night Stand series?
Three years into running Picnic parties One Night Stand was inspired off the back of realising that to throw a really good party I had to do more than pay a DJ from overseas to be the main attraction and inspire people to choose to spend their time and money with us for the night.
So instead of booking or touring an overseas act who often only other DJs knew about, and putting their name on a really nice poster I booked local DJs I trusted to play all night and started One Night Stand parties at warehouse spots mainly. One DJ and one hundred dancers was how it started and was stated on posters designed by the talent that is Steele Bonus. It was the best decision, a party name I’m always quietly proud of and definitely some of my favourite Picnic parties.
It grew to 300 to 600 capacity parties over time and until COVID, Andrew Weatherall was the only international to play a One Night Stand and his second and final one was at The Sydney Opera House in 2017. Over COVID we ended up doing weekly parties at a small venue in Sydney that had a killer soundsystem and we ran One Night Stands there loads as it really suited the venue and times. Some of the Australian DJs who’ve done One Night Stands that deserve big shouts are Simon Caldwell, Dreems, Tornado Wallace, Ben Fester, Late Nite Tuff Guy, Andy Garvey, Reptant, C.FRIM, DJ Plead, Lauren Hansom, Adi Toohey, Claire Morgan and Sleep D.
Can you tell me about the parties at the Sydney Opera House?
It is without a doubt the most magical music venue in Sydney. We’ve done three parties there now, and I’ve personally DJ’d there even more times from supporting the likes of Robert Hood and Moritz von Oswald to Yaeji. I’m sure if you follow our socials something will pop up again soon.
Over COVID I also ran a series of Picnic Social parties. Casual, free Sunday affairs with a focus on live and Balearic music at Opera Bar, which is an amazing outdoor venue on the grounds of the Opera House and right on Sydney Harbour. It was just what the doctor ordered for Sydney’s creatives, musicians and DJs and was super successful when we were doing it, but unfortunately ended up not being the right fit for the venue.
We had a very lovely window when there were no tourists or suits working in the city due to travel restrictions. It was one of the best things I’ve ever worked on, I’m personally not really banking on ever taking so much pride in a free weekly event again.
Can you tell me about the music curation side of things?
It’s something I pulled back on over COVID. I guess it relates to honing in on what I really want the most for Picnic, but also when I started doing curation and music supervision, i.e providing playlists, mixes and often booking DJs and entertainment then as a bigger role. It was for someone I worked with for a really long time. A Sydney hospitality icon called Maurice Terzini of Bondi Beach’s Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, most famously. It felt like the right fit and we did some extraordinary work together. Multiple venues and everything from post-punk to jazz soundtracks. We stopped working together purely because of COVID and events have been my main priority since.
I love collaborations like this though and the work I’ve done in these roles holds some great memories. The biggest story in here – outside Maurice – was as the music director of a party pub in Surry Hills called Harpoon Harry for five years. Together we dropped the Harpoon and turned Harry’s into one of the most consistently well-programmed weekend destinations in Sydney. We host acts like Moodymann and Mike Dunn for our House Party series where we took out the furniture and ran ticketed events, and CC:DISCO! to DJ Seinfeld and bucket loads more for our free weekend or special event programs.
I had my eye and heart set on a role that was on the table for a while being the music director for a new venue and I was super keen to get stuck in, but that also feel victim to COVID complications as far as my involvement was concerned and it’s all pushing me further into less work for other people and more really distilling what Picnic does and making it best possible with greater focus, not being permanently spread too thin.
Can you tell me about your upcoming events?
I’m currently in the process of trying to go big or go home and focus on less events per year but bigger ones and hopefully build a festival. The baby steps include Maximum Joy on March 10. It’s a monster line-up with Ben UFO, DJ EZ, DJ Stingray 313, Jennifer Cardini, KI/KI, Kim Ann Foxman, Lady Shaka, Leon Vynehall (live), Moktar, Young Marco and others across three stages at the venue we can make look and sound world-class. The night after we’re throwing down with Âme and Mano Le Tough at Liberty Hall. A killer concert room that has recently had some new owners put a lot of TLC into it and where we hosted New Year’s Eve just gone. We’ll also get around to celebrating our 15th birthday soon, along with some super special things that are confirmed but in typical promoter style, I can’t say anything yet.
Becky Buckle is Mixmag’s Video and Editorial Assistant, follow her on Twitter
Written by: Tim Hopkins