Remembering Mudbake: How Silverchair dominated the first ever Homebake festival
Before 1996, most local promoters wouldn’t risk assembling a festival line-up without an international drawcard or two. The idea of building and selling a festival on the strength of exclusively Australian acts was daring, to say the least.
The first Homebake changed all that.
Staged at Byron Bay’s Belongil Fields in the Summer of ’96, the festival capitalised on the growing momentum and love of homegrown music and pulled 15,000 people to see the likes of Spiderbait, Powderfinger, Magic Dirt, Regurgitator (filling in after You Am I pulled out), young triple j Unearthed winners Grinspoon, and Silverchair.
Looking back, the only thing more legendary than that inaugural line-up was the mud.
“My eternal memory of that wild day was a mass tribal-like ‘friendly fire’ crowd mud-slinging match like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since,” Homebake director Joe Segreto tells Double J; “… and throwing up from the stress.”
Torrential rains had hammered the festival site in the lead-up to the event, now affectionately called ‘Mudbake’, and the downpour didn’t let up when bands, crew, and triple j’s broadcast team showed up on 4 January, 1996.
“I can’t describe how much it rained,” remembers Richard Kingsmill. “Belongil isn’t great for drainage; it’s a swamp at the best of times. It was a logistical nightmare… It was amazing that so much live music got played.”
Anyone who wasn’t soaked and caked in mud soon found themselves converted.
“If you were clean, you could not walk across the fields and not get pelted with mud. The crowd was out for revenge, if they were wet and muddy, they wanted everyone wet and muddy. You just had no choice.”
“It had a bit of a Woodstock vibe to it because of all the mud,” drummer Ben Gillies told Sydney Morning Herald in 2006.
“It was really cool, very manic. Even the organisers [were manic], it was almost like they felt they’d swallowed too much. But it came good.”
Mudbake wasn’t Silverchair’s first festival show. By the time they were asked to play, the teenage Daniel Johns, Chris Joannu, and Ben Gillies had already performed at the Big Day Out and European festival staples like Pukklepop, Lowlands, and Roskilde thanks to the international success of their 1995 debut album Frogstomp.
“It had a bit of a Woodstock vibe to it because of all the mud"Ben Gillies, Silverchair — Sydney Morning Herald, 2006
Silverchair weren’t just riding the wave of Australian music’s popularity, they were arguably the groundswell behind it.
However, their success outweighed their experience. In little more than 12 months, they’d gone from jamming in a garage in Newcastle to selling a million records, racking up a #1 hit, and going platinum – all before they’d turned 16.
“They were so young but this was our Seattle moment, if you like, it’s what we were waiting for,” Kingsmill says.
Silverchair took to the Homebake main stage in the early evening, arriving to a wet ‘n’ wild sea of muddied punters and unrelenting downpour.
“I was wondering why they weren’t getting electrocuted,” says Kingsmill, who watched side-of-stage as the band braved the elements, dodged mud being pelted on-stage by spirited punters, and seeing shoes and shirts go flying in the mosh. Whatever the frenzied audience gave them, Silverchair gave back in spades.
“I’ve been to so many festivals and seen really shitty weather conditions, this one will always stay with me for just how torrential the rain was and how remarkable Silverchair's set was and how they managed to play and perform,” Kingsmill remembers.
“The band couldn’t care less about those conditions. The thing that got me about that performance was how focussed they were, watching the three members on stage play as if they were in a dry venue playing in front of thousands. They were so zoned in on what they were playing, I was just mesmerised by how they weren’t letting anything get to them. They sounded fantastic, committed, and nothing was putting them off.”
"[Mudbake] will always stay with me for just how torrential the rain was and how remarkable Silverchair's set was"Richard Kingsmill — Double J, 2018
“You’ve got to keep on remembering: these are 15 year old kids! They were so mature in the way that they performed and played, so dedicated to giving the audience what they were feeling onstage as musicians. It was remarkable!”
The band sounded ferocious on Frogstomp highlights like ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Leave Me Out’, and ‘Suicidal Dream’, and listening back, it’s striking how much Daniel Johns’ voice has developed the strength of character that would come to define the band’s later work.
“You can hear the past – the Seattle influences – but then you can also see where he is going to take it and what he wants to do with his voice,” Kingsmill reflects.
“Thanks for all staying in crappy weather, and keep jumping because it looks really good,” the frontman said to roars of approval after performing ‘Slave’, one of two new songs in the set, which wound wind up on their second album, 1997’s Freak Show.
The other was ‘Learn To Hate’, a savage track that leans on textbook angst in its lyrics and verse before bursting into a punchy, screamo chorus that demonstrated the band’s sound and tastes were developing beyond grunge, towards hardcore, metal and beyond.
They also showed off their historic Aussie rock cred by squeezing in a cover of ‘New Race’ by influential Sydney punks Radio Birdman - the song they’d just performed with You Am I’s Tim Rogers at the 1995 ARIAs, and later record as a studio B-Side for their next #1 single ‘Freak’.
Before closing their Mudbake set with ‘Israel’s Son’, Silverchair’s monitors went kaput. A nervous Johns cursed into the mic and urged Chris to begin the song’s iconic sludgey bassline but the tech issues slowed the band none. In fact, they savoured the moment, extending the song into a wild but welcome 10-min version, a fitting ending for what was to be the final performance on the Homebake main stage that day.
“Not because they were headlining but because the rain made that stage completely unsafe after Silverchair,” Kingsmill says. “They had to cancel the rest of the bands on that stage and force them onto to the others.”
In fact, Tumbleweed – who were set to follow - were bundled up into the triple j van backstage and ferried elsewhere. In the rearview mirror: the sight of two mud-caked tribes going to war in the fields, gleefully slinging dirt at each other in celebration. True grunge.
A month later, Silverchair would jet overseas for a stretch of American and European shows and Homebake would go on to cook up some of the country’s best homegrown line-ups for over 15 years, including several featuring Silverchair, but Mudbake remains significant not only for being the first but as emblematic of how Silverchair would face the odds and overcome.
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Despite being widely loved, the trio were also obvious targets of tall poppy syndrome. It’s likely the Mudbake crowd was filled with haters willing to sling cynical tags like ‘Nirvana In Pyjamas’ as willingly as the Bryon Bay mud.
“People were basically trying to tear them down because they thought they were just doing what Seattle did back in 1991,” Kingsmill says.
“Some thought they weren’t doing anything new or fresh with grunge, older people who wanted to bring them down. But Silverchair never let them.”
The band would outgrow their influences after Frogstomp, evolving rapidly over four subsequent studio albums and eventually become Australia’s biggest rock export since INXS and Midnight Oil.
“I saw them at a lot of festivals, and they didn’t let the crowds get on top of them,” Kingsmill says.
“That was the remarkable strength of Silverchair all the way through their career. They could’ve folded after that first record and success, it could’ve all been too much for them but no, they were resolute. A strong band.”
Here are some of your memories:
We put the call-out to you for your highlights from Mudbake '96, and you did not disappoint.
- "Mud first thrown whilst waiting for Siliverchair and as it progressed it became a war of two tribes. Once everyone was covered in mud attention turned to the big tent where drinks were being served. After that, it continued down the lane where all the food stalls/vans were who quickly shut up shop. What a great day!" - Andrew
- "Haha! So cold, so muddy! I had a white Tumbleweed shirt on. Didn’t stay white for long!" - Alicia
- "So much fun. I remember Quan [from Regurgitator] in the pink slip, a couple of guys climbing the tent poles in the Spiderbait set, and the campsite running out of water to wash off all the mud at the end of the night. Then backing up for the three day Byron Arts and Music Festival." - Bella
- "It was the best day of my gigging life. Baptism of fire for Silverchair lol. But babes getting hammered on stage by mud slingers. 20 strangers holding hands, running full pelt in a line, then skidding and tumbling around like pinballs." - Elisa
- "This was my first festival and I LOVED it! Grinspoon under the big circus tent and people climbing up the poles! Mud flying everywhere at Silverchair, getting slightly bogged and then driving back to Palm Beach in underwear in my Datsun, so much fun!" - Rachel
- "Managed to work backstage and got to see the whole mudfest drama from the stage. Nothing quite like those scenes when Silverchair played." - Michael
- "Stood in the rain till I was finally soaked to the core waiting for Silverchair. Fantastic." - James
- "Got blinded by mud in the fight. Had random strangers helping me to a tap to wash mud from my eyeballs. The next day I was still fishing grime from my eyelids." - Pete