Neon Lights Glows as Mumford & Sons, King Gizzard & More Hit a Wet Singapore

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Bryan Woo
Mumford and Sons perform at Neon Lights 2019.

Asia for beginners. Paradise for expats. Cashed up kids with a lotta love for music. Singapore has a lot going for it, and concert professionals have been working it for years, to varying degrees of success.

Singapore's music scene is growing. No doubt about it. U2 will play there for the first time on Dec. 1 with their Joshua Tree Tour, details for which are splashed on cabs in the city state. Former Chugg Entertainment CEO Matthew Lazarus-Hall recently relocated to Singapore to join AEG Presents in a pan-Asian executive role. Laneway Festival, organized by Chugg and Lunatic Entertainment, was a regular feature on the Singapore events calendar until skipping this year and next. Neon Lights isn’t going anywhere.

On a wet late November weekend, the music and arts festival celebrated its fourth year with a lineup featuring the likes of Mumford & Sons, Nick Murphy (aka Chet Faker), Mura Masa, Hot Dub Time Machine and G-Flip, the latter two replacing Halsey’s day two-headline slot after the U.S. pop artist pulled out in the week leading up to showtime and slotted right into the AMAs lineup

Neon Lights is held at Fort Canning Park, a historic, elevated green space where Malay royalty once ruled in medieval times and where, as its name would suggest, a former military fort once sat.

Music festivals in Singapore are in a much earlier stage of evolution than in Europe, North America or Australia, and NL is trying something different. Running for 11 hours each day, across multiple music areas with roving acts and kid-friendly spaces, Neon Lights can claim to now be one of Singapore's longest running multi-stage events booking international indie and electronic acts alongside buzzy local artists.

Rain threatened, sometimes it poured during the Nov. 23-24 fest. In Singapore at this time of year, it’s never far away.
It didn’t dampen the spirits. The Neon Lights crowd, which numbered an estimated 8,000-plus each day, was a melting pot of personalities. Of Hijabs and tattoos, young, edgy locals, 30-something Brits, Americans and Aussies with their kids riding piggyback, grown men in Santa hats.

When it rains, it pours. And when it’s hot in Singapore, you wear shorts.

Trousers above the knee were the order of the weekend, not just in the crowd but on stage. During their sweaty late afternoon day 1 set, Aussie psychedelic rock outfit King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard set the tone with five of its seven members wearing shorts. On day two, both members of compatriot disco-leaning electronic duo Cosmo’s Midnight went with short pants, as did members of Canada’s instrumental outfit Badbadnotgood later in the day.

Marcus Mumford apparently didn’t get the memo. Clan in black, the London rocker and his band Mumford & Sons played to a packed main stage crowd Saturday night. “It feels like playing in a hot bar,” noted the frontman, who made his apologies for never bringing the band to Singapore in years past.

“(Bass player) Ted lived here as a kid. He’s been begging us for 12 years to come here and now I see why,” he told the heaving crowd, as his group launched into their 2009 breakthrough hit “Little Man Lion.”

If a festival was a sporting contest, then Neon Lights was a game of two halves. On day two, the heavens opened early to create a sleepy Sunday feel. The vibe on site was chill as a succession of mellow, electronic practitioners worked the main stage.

Clean Bandit ratcheted up the energy levels with a DJ and MC afternoon set on the second stage. “We’ve been to Singapore a few times and we always have a sick time,” Yasmin Green told the eager audience.

Neon Lights will return in November 2020, though a date has yet to be announced. Billboard caught up with Neon Lights' promoter Declan Forde, a live events veteran who has staged festivals in Europe, Australia and UAE.

Billboard: Why Singapore? What are the audiences hungry for?

Silent Disco at Neon Lights 2019.Bryan Woo

What's the ethos behind Neon Lights?

High quality, diversity, sense of aesthetic and visual and aural beauty, family-friendly during daytime, raucous party after dark.  Re-entry is allowed to facilitate these two elements. It's a city-center festival, 

It's often said Singapore is "Asia for beginners." Are you keen to use Singapore as your first step into something bigger?

That's a catchy one. Hadn't heard it. I'm still a beginner for sure, but I've no headspace for expanding beyond Singapore as it stands.  

What have you been up to since you left Australia?

HQ is now my native Dublin. Mercifully, my little boy has shaken off the Australian accent he had picked up. I started a new promoter brand Selective Memory for touring in over Ireland - Bon Iver, xx and Groove Armada amongst the highlights so far.  I'm still making it back to Singapore and Asia for a few days every month or two. We've a great team based there now. Also, we started the Zenith project in Dubai last year which dovetails nicely with Neon Lights. Lots more thing cooking too.

Harvest Festival was a much loved event. And gone too soon. And your last role in Australia before you moved back home was as programme director (booker) for Falls Festivals.  Do you still keep a close eye on the Aussie festivals scene and what do you/other Europeans make of it?

I have heard that quite nicely from a few experienced Australian over the years -- that many festivals have come and gone -- including many long-standing ones -- but Harvest is well-remembered and missed.

I guess we made a decent impact during the two years I was involved. It's been an incredibly turbulent half-decade or so for Australian festivals. The 'touring festival' concept was hugely successful for the guts of two decades, and quite unique to Australia, then suddenly the biggest four finished up within less than two years of each other.

A lot more smaller festivals spring up in place, and many of them in sites that embrace the natural rural beauty of Australia. The year I was involved with Falls saw us moving from three to four legs so that was an exciting time, with logistical and programming challenges that are alien to people back in Europe. It's hard to articulate that to people back home where touring festivals don't really exist.

It feels like the turbulence and constant evolution for Australian isn't going to stop any time soon. The numbers of Australian bands making an impact overseas is just growing and growing -- a relentless conveyor belt of all types of talented music acts. 

It's incredibly productive for a nation of just 25 million people. I think Triple J -- and specifically its ear-to-the-ground scouting system -- is integral to this, and they probably don't get the credit they deserve within Australia. Every country should have an equivalent.


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