The sandwich board outside a charity shop in central Launceston reads: “Dear David, Thanks for sharing Mona Foma. Kind regards, Launceston.”
And why wouldn’t the owner of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, David Walsh, want to share the museum’s summer festival with Tasmania’s second city?
There’s an airport here to bring in all the mainland music fans, and great established venues for gigs – including some very pretty, historic theatres. And, as evidenced by Sunday afternoon’s block party, there’s an enthusiastic audience of local people who are quick to get into both the spirit of the event and into fluorescent onesies. But more of that later.
Since 2009 Mona Foma – Mofo for short – has been based in Hobart, in the south of Tasmania. In the past few years it has moved from its home at Salamanca out to Mona itself. Last weekend a mini-festival was held in Launceston before main events in Hobart this week. It also served as a warm-up before the festival proper moves to Tasmania’s second city in 2019.
The move north is dependent on state government funding, with the festival seeking $8m over four years to go towards relocation. A Launceston-based event makes sense for the government. It is hoped the massive tourism boom Hobart has experienced since Mona opened spreads further afield to other parts of the state – and indeed, Tourism Northern Tasmania is already claiming that occupancy rates for hotels in Launceston at the weekend were 90%.
So how did the mini-Mofo go up north?
The queues for Gotye snake around the corner and outside into the spitting rain. “If this were Melbourne the crowd would be feral by now,” observes one veteran of feral Melbourne crowds.
I watch the concert, a tribute to the electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, with Launceston locals. On the balcony we have a great view of the stalls and my companions are able to name practically every person in the first couple of rows – including Walsh and the festival curator and Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie, who sit front and centre at most shows at the weekend with an aura of Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington about them.
Gotye performs in the round with a band he had brought over from New York and dubbed the Ondioline Orchestra, including the very talented Rob Schwimmer on the theremin – an early electronic instrument that is like a magical stringless harp. When Schwimmer holds his fingers above it, a beautiful sound emerges from the ether.
What I knew about the ondioline – the rare instrument Gotye was there to celebrate – could fill a Post-it note (although some sounds were familiar from samples used by Beck and the Beastie Boys). But Gotye leaves lots of room between the short, sweet and quirky songs to explain the instrument and its great champion Perrey.
The ondioline is a delicate thing: changes in temperature when it was freighted from New York made its sound a little wonky on arrival – not that anyone in the audience can tell. The concert is charming and magical, and the music nostalgic, space age and, at times, silly – it makes me think of the Jetsons. But Gotye pulls back before the sound effects get too over the top and uses the ondioline to great effect in ballads such as Dandelion Wine.
There’s a lot going on in Launceston including a beer festival, a classic car convention and the Tasmanian Psychics Expo. Although it’s not on the program, I feel it’s in the spirit of Mona Foma to attend the latter.
In a conference room at the back of a hotel of faded glory, the psychics gather. There is a woman with a menacing sign on her table that reads: “I WILL TELL YOU THE TRUTH FOR FREE.”
“Eugh, no thanks! I will pay you to tell me lies,” I think but do not say – and then wonder whether, with all the psychic energy in the room, someone, somewhere heard me anyway.
The Scientologists are here, as well as palmists, numerologists and aura readers. I briefly consider going to the gala on Sunday night: there are 100 tickets for sale and only 36 have been sold, which could possibly guarantee me a “reading with our star psychics”, one organiser says. It’s tempting – but it also clashes with a Violent Femmes gig. Instead, I have a palm reading with a man who used be a newspaper proprietor. It is alarmingly insightful.
On Saturday night it’s off to the Princess theatre – a beautiful, restored venue more than 100 years old – to see a show that mixes contemporary dance, mixed media and live music. It’s venues like this, gorgeous, mid-sized and unique, that make me think Mona Foma will do well to make Launceston home.
Monumental is collaboration between a Canadian contemporary dance company and Montreal’s kings of post-rock, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The music is heavy, very loud and – as is the case with most post-rock bands – entirely instrumental.
The Holy Body Tattoo dancers are in corporate-wear and on pedestals, atomised on their individual blocks as they pull at their hair, scratch wildly at their foreheads and contort their faces in frustration and pain.
Slogans flash on the screen above the band, like depressing Zen kōans about conformity and corporate culture.
The performance is technically brilliant and unrelenting – probably about 30 minutes too long – with all the elements combining to produce a sense of agitation and alienation.
The weather clears for the main event of the weekend: the block party.
Entry is free for locals; you just had to register. As part of the deal, attendees were encouraged to order and wear free onesies that were specially sewn for the event by some 80 people from TasTafe.
The initiative was led by the Melbourne designer Adele Varcoe and Firth Loone of Onesie World. Varcoe, who wears a onesie everyday, told the Launceston Examiner: “We want people to come and wear a onesie if they want to. The idea is to make people feel really connected through wearing and having conversations with people they otherwise wouldn’t talk to.”
The courtyard space at Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery is ideal for the party, attended by about 5,000 people – 1,000 in onesies. Inside are laser works by Robin Fox, and the Sound Bubble: a high-tech cube containing the violinist Anna McMichael.
Most acts are local, including Slag Queens and Dispossessed, except for the Violent Femmes – and the Femmes are magnificent. Gordon Gano has one of those voices that just doesn’t age, and nor do songs like Add it Up and Blister in the Sun.
Brian Ritchie somehow manages to shred an acoustic guitar – but I’m not sure about giving the Tasmanian premier, Will Hodgman, a slot performing with the band. It had the distinct vibe of a competition winner being invited up to the stage.
So, are Mona Foma and Launceston a good match? The block party in particular, felt like a local, family-orientated event, but the rest had a draw well beyond that. As Kevin Costner once said, build it and they will come.
• Mona Foma continues in Hobart until 22 January. Guardian Australia travelled to Launceston as a guest of Mona