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Festival City Stories 30 Jan 2022
Artist, DJ, and venue owner Driller Jet Armstrong laments that Adelaide’s festivals have lost their “rawness and wildness” since the ’70s, but the impact of the city’s festival culture on his life – both past and present – is undeniable.
The British transplant first experienced the energy of a festival event via strange circumstances. In his early twenties and working as a police officer, Driller decided to use a night off as an opportunity to sneak into a Fringe venue.
“The weirdness of it I loved. I was really drawn to that,” he says of the scenes he discovered after pulling back the metaphorical festival curtain.
“I mean, I always knew that I wouldn’t be a policeman forever, but I always wondered what I would do. And, in a way, probably interacting with festivals and artists back then was an eye-opener for me and made me realise… that I could actually engage with an artistic life much more fully and realise it and live it.”
After a few more years in the Force, Driller threw the towel in and set off travelling around the world. On his return, a job in a pub helped him rediscover a childhood love of drawing as he created band posters for gigs.
His early years as an artist brought him full circle when he won the Fringe poster competition in 1990 – anointing him an ambassador for the event that originally opened his eyes to the possibilities of art.
The potential of festivals to stretch people and broaden their horizons – as evidenced through his own story – is one of the main reasons Driller sees the events as a crucial part of Adelaide’s future.
“Encouraging people to participate and even just dip your toe in something new and interesting is vital,” he says. “You’re only as strong as your weakest link… [it] is super-important, you know, because it diminishes prejudices.”
In the early 2000s, Driller added live music venue custodian to his creative career resume – taking partial ownership of late-night hotspot Sugar on Rundle Street in 2002. A beacon for high-end international DJs, Sugar has given Driller insight into how Adelaide’s festivals resonate on a broader stage as well.
“When we did the [pop-up] laneway [bar] next to Sugar and I had DJs from Scandinavia drinking in the laneway… and then going up to the club to perform, you know, and just seeing the people out on the street… they loved it,” he says.
“You know, [it makes me] so proud of my city.”
“It links us and creates links to other places… Yeah, it just exposes us to a wider audience and I think that’s great for tourism and culture generally.”
Now, even though Driller is frustrated as he sees festival culture becoming slowly more “homogenised”, the way these events touch his life remains frequent and profound.
From inspiring his seismic career shift, offering forums for his early art, bolstering the economic viability of his venue through peak Mad March trade, and supplying him with some deeply moving audience member experiences, festivals are woven among many of the seminal moments of Driller’s biography.
His story is a reminder that passing moments have a lasting impact, and that – oftentimes – those moments are not accidental, but rather arise from cultural currents that must be carefully encouraged to flow.
This article is part of the Festival City Stories series, a collection of reflections about Adelaide made by the people who make this a festival place. The project was funded through the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Arts South Australia, Arts Recovery Fund, and delivered in partnership with the State Library of South Australia.
Written by: Farrin Foster
Photography by: Thomas McCammon