The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Bush Doof

A comprehensive look at the history, and current state, of the great Australian tradition.

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Jun 24 2015, 6:05am

Losing your mind to psytrance in a forest isn't a uniquely Australian concept, but it doesn't really get more Australian than the two words "bush doof". While the evolution of the phenomenon is a little broad and open to interpretation, we can certainly look at some steps in its evolution.

For any form of rave party across the planet, Woodstock is often the common ancestor, with the primordial festival behemoth of 400,000 people marking a turning point for hippie culture. Burning Man and the psychedelic trance parties in Goa followed, both festivals beginning in the mid-1980s, inspiring smaller, DIY soundsystems in Australia. The early 1990s saw the rise of terra-ists: a general term for anyone involved in Antipodean techno were labelled, including Sydney-based crew Circus Vibe Tribe, as well as the Nimbin-based music and arts collective Electric Tipi. Starting in 1992, Electric Tipi held arts events and live music in tipis around Lismore and Byron Bay. They're still around today, and put on the Tipi Forest every year at Splendour in the Grass.

It was also around 1992 that the term "doof' appeared. Legend has it that a Sydney raver was hosting a party when someone banged on the front door. "What is this doof doof doof I hear?" Asked a neighbor who was apparently new to adult sentence structure. And no one seems to know anything more of the story, but the word stuck.

The next step came in the form of a guy named Spiro Boursine. Spiro (as he'll gladly tell you) developed the modern doof from an idea he saw in the UK. And while this is true to some extent, Spiro is divisive character with more than a few who resent his shrewd business sense. But either way Spiro's festival, Earthcore, was undeniably one of our first.

Spiro was travelling the UK in 1992 where he attended a free warehouse rave hosted by the UK sound system Spiral Tribe. The British were experimenting with grass-roots electronica following the explosion of acid house in 1988, in similar ways to Australia, but with eight members and a recognisably modern sound, Spiral Tribe was one of their most influential players. And according to Spiro, their early form of techno was a sign from god.

Back in Australia in 1993, Spiro put on a Spiral Tribe-style party in a quarry outside the Toolangi State Forest. As he was still studying business and marketing at university, Spiro put the party on as a university assignment and called it called Mystic Madness. As he explains, "I took the warehouse rave scene from the UK and incorporated it with the Australian bush land as a backdrop." Sadly he failed the assignment as his lecturer deemed the event "unsustainable".

An early Earthcore gathering // Photo credit: Spiro Boursnine

Six weeks later Spiro put on another event at Toolangi, this time among the trees, and called it Earthcore. While this wasn't the only doof at the time, it added critical mass and the scene took off. Earthdream, Dragonflight, Earthstomp and Technofest all began in these years along with Rainbow Serpent in 1997. Through this period Spiro tells me Earthcore was attracting annual numbers of around 12,000.

The mid 1990s were a very special time for doofs, as anyone who was there will explain. Kristian Hatton is a Melbourne based DJ and editor of EDM publication, Harp Media. He describes early doofs as "amazing mind bending experiments in lighting, sound and social perception distortion...They weren't always comfortable, but all the participants were amazingly switched on individuals who actually did dwell on the fringes of society and live their own way."

A friend of a friend of mine, Rachel, was also around at that time. She describes seeing a doof poster, in around 1994, advertising a stream that ran through the dancefloor. She went with her sister, and as she says, it was an experience she's never managed to repeat. "There were three to four thousand people and it was so nice. There was nothing I could compare it with. To this day I still think that is the best doof I have ever attended."

Rainbow Serpent, 2011 // Photo credit: Francesco Vicenzi

But as word went around, numbers grew, and Rachel also remembers the next phase. "I went to a lot of dodgy doofs towards the end of the 1990s," she says. "Some were in the middle of winter with only 200 people. These were the first ones that brought a broader range of drugs." According to her, this was around this time ravers began swapping hallucinogens for stimulants. "And not that I condemn any drugs, I just get a sense that these drugs are responsible for tents getting robbed, people leaving litter, and violence."

Until 2000, Earthcore had been growing every year and over the new millennium, Spiro anticipated his largest crowd yet. In reality, the seven-day event failed to sell and Earthcore lost around $5 million. As Spiro looks at it now, "We tried to follow the trends and it fucked us. We lost because people didn't want to party on new years any more. They wanted to party on January first."

True to his evaluation, the next couple of years saw the rise of one-day festivals such as Summerdayz and Field Day. The years 2001 and 2002 marked a downturn for doofs while there was a resurgence in hip hop, punk and the rise of nu metal.

Doofs slowly returned though, and in 2006 Earthcore had their biggest period yet, followed by the establishment of Maitreya and Dragon Dreaming in 2007. That was until the Global Financial Crisis crunched all of them in 2008. Nearly bankrupt, Spiro put Earthcore on hiatus until 2013.

According to many though, the recent years have been some of the best. Since 2008 the scene has experienced something of a boutique renaissance. Woodstock-style events have moved over for unofficial set-ups on family owned properties.

Spiro agrees that there's a current disconnect between media attention and doof ticket sales. "People don't realise it but doofs in Australia are actually at a low point to what they once were," he says, somewhat sadly. "It's a life cycle, like anything. It will pick up and it will die down again. It's just the nature of the industry."

According to Rachel, this is a good thing. She lists smaller festivals, such as Yemaya and Maitreya, as more ideologically in tune. But when asked "in tune with what?" she hesitates. "I think there's just something beautiful about partying outdoors on psychedelics and having a spiritual connection," she says. "It's definitely an Australian thing, and there's something more special and meaningful about partying outdoors rather than in a club".

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