Tuning up for the Adelaide festival – the Edinburgh of Australia

David Sefton, Adelaide's new artistic director, was hired to overhaul its programming. And he started by reuniting one of his favourite bands: industrial stalwarts Severed Heads

As the perks of a job go, persuading one of your favourite bands to reform and appear at a major arts festival you are organising isn't a bad start. For the British artistic director of this year's Adelaide festival, David Sefton, it's the best part of his new role: "There's no question that, as festival director, you get an opportunity to play your own records," he says, with a hearty Liverpudlian laugh.

Sefton, who founded London's alternative music festival, Meltdown, was a teenage fan of the 1980s Australian electronic music group Severed Heads. "They are cult artists and I played their records in my bedroom in my parents' house," he says. "I went to meet the lead singer Tom Ellard [now a university film lecturer in Sydney], and the first thing he said to me was: 'Just don't ask me to reform the Severed Heads.'"

But Sefton did, and the band now head the bill as one of the most anticipated acts at the March festival, a 17-day extravaganza of new and old music, theatre, dance and visual art, including big names such as Nick Cave, Van Dyke Parks, Laurie Anderson and dancer Sylvie Guillem.

With his reputation as a risk-taker, Sefton has been hired to shake up the festival's programme – in particular the music strand, as part of a push to address an audience that may not have attended the event in great numbers before. "I think there's an absolute responsibility to bring in younger people as well as a moral, ethical and cultural responsibility to widen the audience," he says. For the first time, the festival will partner with the Guardian, which will run daily coverage of events ahead of the launch of its digital Australian edition.

New music will play a big part: artists from the New York label Brassland, described as the heart of the Big Apple's "other" music scene, will also feature. So, too, will underground electronic artists, as part of Unsound Adelaide, a new multidimensional electronic music strand. Sefton describes Unsound as one of the "most interesting things happening in music today".

Part of Sefton's strategy has been to show how established musicians have influenced younger performers: Van Dyke Parks (the one-time Beach Boys lyricist) worked with Silverchair's Daniel Johns on two albums, and the two will perform together in Adelaide – along with singer Kimbra (best known for her recent Grammy-award-winning duet with Gotye, Somebody That I used to Know).

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"Van Dyke is still the go-to guy for this whole generation, even though many of them weren't even born when he started making records," explains Sefton. "He's an abiding force and you can hear his influence in lots of places. I like to make those links and draw out those connections."

In terms of visual art, Sefton's programme also juxtaposes old and new: a multimedia retrospective by Laurie Anderson will run alongside Turner from the Tate, which makes its Australian debut in Adelaide.

Does Adelaide's small-town feel (population 1.2 million) and the fact it remains off the beaten track when it comes to most artists' international itineraries count against it? Not according to Sefton, who compares the event's pull to that of the Edinburgh festival. "The thing about Adelaide is, you can't miss it when there's a festival on – it occupies the whole of the city. You can't create that sort of atmosphere in Sydney or Melbourne because they are both too big and splintered, and there's so much noise in the system," he says.

Sefton, who is already busy finalising his 2014 programme, comes to Adelaide at a critical juncture. Since its inception in 1960, the festival has run every second year; 2013 will mark the start of an annual programme. The festival has a history of pushing boundaries – sometimes too far. American opera director Peter Sellars was briefly at the helm in 2001, but moved on after being deemed too avant garde. Will Sefton's ambitious, international festival programme alienate or engage?

"The city has a very strong ownership of this festival and you have to be aware of its long history," he says. "I've watched other people be parachuted into situations and not factor in the audience. But one of Adelaide's charms is that it has been responsible for introducing a lot of names people haven't heard before. Some people have been coming here for 40 years, and they've been coming to see things they've never heard of and to have their preconceptions challenged. That is very compelling."

• The Adelaide festival runs from 1-17 March. The Guardian's daily coverage starts on 1 March at guardian.co.uk/music/adelaide-festival-2013, supported by Emirates.


Alison Rourke

The GuardianTramp

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