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Reaching for the Stars: UniTunes Live at the Lansdowne

How podcast hosts Archie Wierum and Fynn Ferdinands built a bridge of connection between rising artists and newfound audiences

Photo by Fynn Ferdinands

There was a sea of reaching hands at the first ever UniTunes podcast live show, UniTunes: Live at the Lansdowne, presented by Sydney Uni Radio Group (SURG). 

The crowd reminded me of a recent comment made by Matty Healy of The 1975: “grown people will go to a show and they know they can’t touch you but they’ll do that”. With the word “that”, he reached his hands out, grasping at blank air. “It’s because they’re reaching for that one thing that connects you and the artist. It’s this transient, ephemeral thing that is what music is,” he said. 

The UniTunes podcast, started by Archie Wierum and Fynn Ferdinands this April, allowed listeners to connect to unknown upcoming artists.The podcast showcases local Sydney artists hidden from mainstream audiences by social media algorithms and the impacts of lockdown on live music. 

At the UniTunes live show, this palpable desire for connection between the artist and their newfound audience was amplified beyond the boundaries of podcasting,answered by the interactive performances and on-stage conversations that took place after each act. 

The artists selected to appear at the Lansdowne appealed to many musical palettes. Astral Juice, pioneers of neo-soul in the inner-west. ATARI Y, synth-based alternative hip-hop Tyler, the Creator inspired garçon. The Lenores, an agitated-rock unit influenced by noise-pop musician Wavves. Chuey and the Dumplings, instigators of jazz-infused funk and improvised instrumentation. Before The King, a ‘70s garage-rock group, reminiscent of British crooners such as Alex Turner. And finally, Rozera, a DJ and singer fusing shadowy production with whimsical, airy vocals. 

Existing for many years as the go-to place for live music in Sydney, the Lansdowne was recently saved from lockdown closure by Mark Gerber, founder of Oxford Art Factory. Today, the venue is symbolic of the survival of the arts, facilitating the growth of musicians post-COVID, and making it the perfect spot for the UniTunes show. 

Photography by Zara Upfold

The evening began with 6-piece contemporary RnB band Astral Juice taking the stage, transporting the crowd back in time. Shimmering in a 1920s-inspired mini flapper-dress, sky-high mary-janes, and a single black glove was front-woman, Justina Blahs. She conducted the room with jazzy arms, galvanizing the previously apprehensive audience to groove towards the stage. Through the act of invitation, she facilitated a relationship between Astral Juice and the crowd. 

The debut of their song Dinner Party, a satirical piece on the Eastern Suburbs, was reliant on Skruish and his keyboard-based instrumentation. When an audience member held up a sign equating his creativity to that of Dr. Suess’, Skruish smiled at it, deepening his bond with the crowd. The song included an amusing sing-song between Justina and the audience wherein the crowd inharmoniously attempted to recreate her vocal runs. Her accepting enjoyment allowed even those unused to concerts to sing freely.

ATARI Y expressed his high energy debut performance through excessive movement and an unique approach to hip-hop. He played an unreleased track consisting of hard rap and fat 808s, reminiscent of Denzel Curry, that hyped up the audience to purge pent-up emotions through dance. Bodies bounced beneath the Lansdowne’s updated strobe lights as ATARI Y contorted his body.

On a run-down couch, ATARI Y explained to me the source of his sonic dissimilitude. “My inspirations are the ones that do their own shit, if one of their songs came on you would know that’s them.” 

ATARI Y’s willingness to be unique, paired with his honesty about the Lansdowne show being his first, showed vulnerability that allowed the crowd to connect with him.In fact, he  was the first guest on the UniTunes podcast. During his episode, Fynn predicted that when played live, audiences would sing back the melodic chorus of his original track, Rocky Balboa. 

Before ATARI Y began singing the chorus, “Hey I wanna,” was heard all over the Lansdowne. The audience surprised him with their dedication in knowing his song word-for-word, and his shocked grin was visible from the back of the room. 

Photography by Zara Upfold

Audience members unused to watching rock concerts stayed and welcomed the thick wall of sound created by The Lenores: Cobain style singing, heavy drumming and uncontained guitar solos that extended into the crowd. Attendees split between headbanging and feeling touched by the meaningful lyrics of their originals.

During The Lenores’ post-set interview with UniTunes, the audience was invited to play a word-association game with the band. For this, the mosh pit was briefly raised to the same level as the stage, giving equal chance for any attendees to participate if they could catch a t-shirt thrown off stage. Allowing conversation between crowd and band members, the experience was a rare one in the live music scene.

Next, the seven members of Chuey and The Dumplings dotted the stage like freckles, bringing the spirit of jazz back to Sydney. The creative mind behind the band, Chuey himself, drew attention both for his piano skills and Elton John-esque expressions of rapture. His stage-presence peaked when he charismatically pulled out a pair of glasses, attached them to his bopping head and shouted, “who’s ready to get funky!” before launching into a spontaneous piano solo. 

Influenced by the jazz genre, Chuey emphasised the importance of the Dumplings each having an individual solo throughout their set, allowing the audience to appreciate each talented musician, as though being introduced to a new group of friends. 

After this act, Before the King took the stage, with the deep, clear, swoon-worthy voice of frontman Dean Smusko focusing the crowd’s attention. ‘I know I’m falling through, all night I was dreaming of you,’ he sang across the Lansdowne like Frank Sinatra.  

Photography by Zara Upfold

Before The King presented their new single, Manhattan, which embodies the heartfelt rock of The Strokes’ discography. The sound was a nod to their history, as guitarist Oscar Dalkin’s insertion into the band occurred three years ago, when Dean gifted him a drawing of the album cover for Is This It.The set drew to a close with Smusko standing on their drum kit and an in-crowd guitar solo by Oscar Dalkin.

Finally, DJ and singer Rozera performed. She has a certain dualism; in her day-to-day life she is bubbly and energetic, but on stage she allows a darker side of herself to exist. The first half of her set combined light and airy vocals with moody production inspired by The Weeknd. Rozera said she was grateful to be given the opportunity to sing her originals, as she is often bound to her role as a DJ.  

The second half of Rozera’s performance saw the energetic DJ side of her come out, mixing genres with fluid transitions.  Her selected tracks ranged from the upbeat About Damn Time by Lizzo to the smooth Do I Wanna Know by the Arctic Monkeys. These songs were the soundtrack to community celebration; though it was late for a Wednesday night, the audience began dancing in sync.The coexistence of UniTunes hosts, artists, listeners, and loved ones in the pit became the genesis of a community.

Reflecting on UniTunes: Live at the Lansdowne, my parasocial cravings as an audience member were satisfied. The five acts were able to connect with the crowd wholeheartedly. This show filled me with hope for up-and-coming artists in Sydney’s music landscape, knowing that the UniTunes community will be there to help them navigate. On the night, the desire to be touched was mutual between audience and artists. Each individual act created a space for dialogue and UniTunes mediated that connection, making it tangible. 

To the drummer of Astral Juice, proud Gumbaynggirr man River Hugh Langford, dialogue is what personnalises artists. 

“We love those big mainstream acts because when we listen to them, and then we hear their podcasts, we meet them. It’s no longer just this deity, it’s this person that’s speaking to you and it’s beautiful. It’s great for UniTunes to facilitate that,” he said.

Fynn also reminisced: “the energy on that second level of the lansdowne hotel was something that I have never felt before.” 

The UniTunes duo plan to do it again next year. Until that time comes, as Archie says, “That’s all folks!”