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Astral People talk beginnings, being tastemakers and what's still to come

5 September 2017 | 5:00 pm | Rosie Rae

It's no secret that Sydney's music community is as rich and diverse as it's population. One of the most revered music crews that has managed to blur the boundaries of genres, and bring together a diverse community is none other than ASTRAL PEOPLE (helmed by Tom Huggett & Vichara Edirisinghe). What began as a group of friends throwing parties to play the kind of the music they liked, has evolved into one of the most interesting and eclectic music agencies in Sydney, and Australia. With a strong focus on personal taste, it's clear that Astral People had their finger firmly on the pulse since their inception. Astral People have showcased and nurtured some of Sydney's most cutting edge contemporary sounds. With artists like WAVE RACER, GL, and their most recent signing WINSTON SURFSHIRT on their musical roster, it's not hard to see just why the Astral People crew have carved a name for themselves as tastemakers among their peers.

But it's not just local events that Astral People is involved in. They've also extended their international touring arm, bringing some of their underground international heroes from emerging genres like grime and beyond with artists like D DOUBLE E, LOEFAH & CHUNKY, STORMZY, OMAR S, PALMS TRAX and so many more.

Aside from touring and throwing events like SUMMER DANCE, Astral People have been busy seeding their overseas relationships, aiming to launch Aussie acts around the globe. This year, celebrating six years of being on the cutting edge of music, we were lucky enough to sit down ahead of their 6th birthday party and chat about what the future holds for Astral People...

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Astral is pretty out of the box in terms of the types of artists that it represents and book, can you tell me a bit about how the marriage of non-conventional ideas came together?

Tom: It definitely forced us to think outside of the box. If we had to stick to the same formula, we don't know where we'd be now. It helped us discover cool new spaces and think about new concepts. We definitely like to explore by doing weird one off parties when we can- no photos, secret location type of deal.

How do you balance underground/secret events with above ground and staying sustainable as a business?

Vic: We book in advance until June/July next year so we know, "Okay as a business we’re stable for this long," and how we’re shaping up financially. Then we’re in a fortunate position, so we can do some creative things and take on cool opportunities that do come up. We call it gambling time. For example, a few weeks back we hosted UK performer, INGA COPELAND [former member of HYPE WILLIAMS]. An artist we have tried to book funnily enough, but it was a bit over the top. We really took a good look and thought that not only does it make a lot of sense financially, our events aren't focused on over-hyped gimmicks. When we know we’re all set, i.e. we can cover wages and rent, that's when we get to take a risk and do a party purely for the love. Once we know the business can sustain, we can take a few gambles with cooler underground stuff.

You bring some awesome people here, how do you go about sourcing the talent that you book/represent?

Vic: Personal taste mostly. Everything starts with us having to like the music and coming across the music because we are actually interested in it, in some regard. From there, Tom would go through and look at iTunes figures, Spotify charts. By looking at the localised data, we can assess if it would work here. Then we will reach out and see. It boils down to taste. We’ve worked really hard not to pigeonhole ourselves in one genre. If anything, we’ve only diversified: working from grime to hip hop, to live indie band, to funk, to soul, to house, techno - basically any genre under the umbrella of electronic music. First we have to like the music and then from there we’ll look into whether there is an audience for it. There are a few ways we can do that with collecting data and then we give it a red hot go.

Have you always been taste makers?

Vic: Funnily enough, me and Hugs were good friends before Astral started and that’s how we linked up with this company. We’ve always found ourselves surrounded by like minded music listeners, [and] we’ve always had similar taste to our friends. Plus we’re always introducing each other to new stuff. Since working in the industry, I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends don’t listen to a lot of new music these days. Maybe because we’re surrounded by it 24/7. We’re keeping up to date with music more constantly.

Tom: It’s a full time job though, trying to keep up. I usually try and set aside four hours a day to listen to music that I’ve never heard in my life. And that’s a job that I do, even if I don’t like it. I need to see what people are doing, new sounds. It’s my job to know everything. Even back from when I was a kid, I used to make mixtapes for all my friends since I was about 12 years old. Used to make them for some of my teachers in school, I’ve been making mixtapes forever. I haven’t actually done one in so long. But back when that was a thing, that was my thing.

What have been some of the best responses to what Astral has been doing for the local music scene?

Vic: When we started Astral People, one of the big supporters that we didn’t expect to come on so strong with their support was FBi Radio, they’ve been very supportive of us since day one. Now, as a natural evolution, that’s moved into a bit more mainstream media with a lot of our artists now moving on to Triple J. Now we’re really lucky to have Triple J as a big supporter as well, it’s probably one of the biggest reasons that our management roster has been able to expand at the rate that it has been expanding. We’ve also been very lucky that we were able to tap into various crowds within the Sydney scene. We’ve done house and techno parties, we’ve done grime artists, hip hop artists. Just being able to get loyal fan bases from each of those sort of sub-genres and bringing them together in one sort of cohesive manner.

Tom: Our main influence is definitely through our artists. I was meeting up earlier today with these big guys from the J Pop world in Tokyo. They’ve been working in J Pop and K Pop for the last 35 years, and they just came to me and said, "We have to meet you, you manage WAVE RACER." Wave Racer invented a genre which everyone in Japan is crazy about. Just to hear that we were part of creating a sound that’s such a global phenomenon is amazing. Every time we go to America, everyone’s just asking, what sound is happening next, and we’re the go-to people when they want to know what’s happening there within different specific sounds. Right place, right time... Bringing STORMZY on the verge of grime- grime’s something we’ve been listening to for 12 years, back when I was high school that was my thing. We never thought there’d be a day that the genre would be big enough to tour these sort of artists. I mean it was always just DIZZEE RASCAL and WILEY, but we’ve managed to tour some of our heroes like D DOUBLE E, AJ TRACEY. We’ve just kind of been there at the right time. Now the lines are so blurred, everyone likes everything. Music doesn’t stay in the one pocket. It crosses over, and now it’s financially viable.

In what way has multi-cultural Australia influenced the blurred lines of taste?

Vic: An interesting comparison that we’ve come across recently would be if you were to look at grime, for example. Grime has the second biggest market for its genre outside of the UK in Australia. You go to the US and SKEPTA’s only really just kind of crossed over, but Stormzy hasn’t really crossed over, and the younger guys like AJ TRACEY and DAVE haven’t crossed over, over there. A big reason is their British accent. In America, they’re really protective of their sounds in hip hop and how it sounds. Because we live in such a multi-cultural country, I think we are a lot more accepting of genres.

That was something I noticed about Berlin. Kind of going there a few years ago and expecting to be on this techno journey and being inspired musically. But I actually came back here feeling more inspired about what’s going on here in Australia than ever before. Because being over there and seeing how limited some people’s tastes were, it was very linear, like you only listen to this techno, or you’re not cool. I think we’re a lot more accepting of different genres, especially here in Sydney. I think we are very open. I mean we’ve been to indie band nights, hip hop nights, we’ve been to techno nights.

Tom: It’s great that you see the same faces at all these different nights. Everyone’s like us, and that’s why we do what we do.

Summer Dance event at Sydney National Art School 

What kind of goes into an Astral event in terms of sound systems or do you think that’s a bit over hyped?

Vic: We don’t really buy into it, to be honest. If a venue needs help sound wise, our production team will fit it out. We’ve got a very trusted production team that we work with, the Gas Audio guys. They really help us particularly with new venues or in spaces that we haven’t worked before, for example Summer Dance. We have a meeting with them at the site and get them to look at that sort of area of things and come up with the best set up for the event. We don’t think a Funktion One system should used to promote your party.

Tom: One of the sound systems I care about is the Inner West Dub Crew, that’s when I care about a sound system. That’s an actual spectacle, that’s worth promoting. It’s a bit hard in Sydney with heavy restrictions, especially around outdoor events. Just keep in mind if you think it’s a bit quiet, it’s because of the council.

Vic: We all like our music loud [laughs]

How has Astral evolved over the last six years, and what’s plans for the the future?

Vic: I think it’s been really amazing, especially in the last couple of years. We’ve kind of shifted. Post-lockouts we’ve had to shift our mentality towards what sort of nights are financially viable, and what sort of nights can help the business grow. Seeing our local artists flourish in the way they have and go from selling 200-300 tickets in most cities, to selling 1000-2000 tickets in most cities- it just kind of shows that if you stick at something for long enough and you believe in it for long enough, the results will come. We’ve obviously got our top tier artists on our local management roster doing their thing. And then we’ve got this whole new sort of pool of artists that are coming through as well which is super exciting. Our sounds are diversifying, picking up our latest signing WINSTON SURFSHIRT, a six-piece soul/hip hop band, that’s a sound we’ve never represented at Astral People before.

Tom: But it’s a sound that we’ve always loved and wanted to do. In terms of the future, we’re looking to cement ourselves on a more international year. Every year, we make sure Vic and I go do the rounds overseas, but I think in the next few years I want to focus on being based over there and getting cemented in the communities in New York and London, Los Angeles. That’s definitely what we’re seeing a lot of the other industry doing. Once you step out in the world, you realise Australia is the smallest slice of the pie. There’s so much more to it.

Vic: We’ve started planting the seeds for that with a lot of our local artists that are touring over there and doing smaller tours. Hopefully with us overseas over the next few years, we can see a lot more of that. And who knows maybe some even some Astral events curated overseas.

One of the massive changes in Sydney post lockouts has been the localisation of the music scene, more local, small-scale events. Are there any local artists/events that you’d champion?

Vic: While we’ve had to focus on growing internationally, personally, I’ve got so much more of an appreciation of what these local communities are doing. Everyone from House of Mince, to Heavenly to what Picnic are doing. All those guys that are week in, week out doing it tough, and these guys are the ones that are taking risks when there’s not a lot in it for them at all, it’s purely for the love. Just seeing them exercise that. Crews like Sidechains.

Tom: If you look to Melbourne hip hop crews like Thank Guard crew, Valve Sounds. When we went to Melbourne, we were amazed by all the untapped hip hop and RnB sounds coming out of there. Our minds were blown every night. We were blown away by all this stuff that’s been in our backyard without us even knowing about it. You have to be there to see what’s happening. It’s amazing how many unearthed acts there are in Australia right now. You’ve really got to get out and see, because even in an internet age a lot of this stuff is extremely untapped.

You can get a piece of the action later this month at ASTRAL PEOPLE'S 6th BIRTHDAY, happening at the Hudson Ballroom on September 16th.

Ticket details HERE.

Words by Rosie Rae