Rock the South (RTS) holds a very special place in the hearts of Maltese indie music lovers. As its name implies, it consolidated Zion as a regular performance space for local and international musicians, at a time when the south wasn’t really featured for such performances.
This year marks a special milestone – the tenth anniversary. I’ve seen RTS grow from a one day event to the fully fledged festival that it is today, with the number of bands and ancillery activities consistently growing. Last year’s return was a massive success, with what was probably the biggest crowd ever turning up to celebrate the end of pandemic restrictions with three days of music.
This year things look set to be even better with alternative pioneers Shostakovich’s Nightmare making a temporary return to perform on the RTS Stage, alongside local stalwarts The Areola Treat, Bila, Massacre House Party and relative newcomers Edgar Allan Paul among others. The Silent Disco area is also making a comeback with Radju Haj, and set by the iconic Spots & Stripes and DJ Hades of Dark Malta fame are also on the lineup. I caught up with founder and organiser Nick Morales and co-organiser Samwel Mallia (of Eyes to Argus, Massacre House Party and Bila) to find out more about what’s in store.
Can you share with us how Rock The South has grown and evolved over the past decade?
Nick: The festival has grown a lot since the first edition. The first one was just a gig I organised to accommodate my Italian friends’ band, AIM. It was over one day and the lineup included a small handful of bands. The second edition grew to two days with more bands playing, and by the third edition we added a third day. The fourth edition took place over four days but it was too crazy and so we decided to stick to the three day formula that we believe works best to this day. The festival grew not just in size and area, but also in quality. Last year we had the privilege of having Iggor Cavallera, better known as the original drummer of Sepultura, come to perform an exclusive electronic set at RTS.
Sam: There is more focus on hybridisation of crowds and sounds, echoing the zeitgeist and the state of alternative culture throughout the years in all its many evolving forms. More renowned international acts are excited to come down to play as part of a lineup of the local scene’s hardest hitters and newcomers alike (with the help of our UK partner James Vella from Phantom Limb Records), further melding international voices with our own and vice versa.
One of the unique aspects of your festival is its open-air setting at Zion. What challenges does it present in terms of organisation and logistics?
Nick: Well, mainly there’s the possibility of rain and, of course, the heat during soundchecks. Luckily RTS happens right before summer kicks in so everyone is hungry for those summer vibes and the festival undoubtedly delivers on that. In 10 years it has only rained once during the actual performances, so let’s hope the trend continues.
Sam: The space needs to be catered to as well, seeing as the back area of the venue is transformed into an exclusive festival ground for that whole weekend. Normal restaurant operations still go on in the front, but everything else in the open area has to be all out RTS. With every new spot cleared up and re-organised in the back area with every passing year, we have a challenge and opportunity to rework the space for optimum patron, organiser and artist flow from one stage to the other.
The festival has become a significant cultural event on the island of Malta. How do you think this has impacted the local music scene and the perception of indie/underground music among the Maltese population?
Nick: For most bands, having a new space to perform is all they need really and that’s what we strive to do. Throughout the years people have been appreciating local talent more, and it shows. Events like ours are a big reason for that, as most know it’s not easy to make a festival like this happen and it’s financially risky. But thanks to the amazing crowd we have every year, along with the sponsors, we are managing to make it happen year after year.
Sam: Rock the South always was a haven for anyone wanting to experience’s Malta’s alternative scene in a live setting on and off the stage, and the festival kept offering a space for this overlap and crossover at the heart of everything to flourish. It feeds the desire for this synthesis of subcultures, and in turn creating the opportunity and more demand for being at a live show of this unique kind.
Are there any unique aspects of Maltese music culture or traditions that you have incorporated into the festival experience over the years?
Nick: Yes, last year we had a band from Crete called Balothizer who play traditional Cretan music mixed with punk and rock and we had the opportunity to have Francesco play the Maltese flute (flejguta or fifra) with them live.
Sam: The Maltese langauge has spread its use more naturally to a myriad of alternative sounds more rampantly in recent years, and artists of this canon such as Brodu and Ultralow’s Michael Azzopardi, Cher Camilleri and Kym Pepe to name a few, keep gracing our stages prominently every year.
Controversial question incoming – the festival has grown immensely since its inception. Is it time to find a bigger venue?
Nick: No, i don’t think we will move from Zion. This year we are working to make the area a bit bigger.
Sam: There’s a charm to the venue and the fact it’s been a part of the festival’s growth throughout the years. Even though it is important to consider the need to accommodate growing crowds, the venue still allows us to rework the space as necessary with every passing year’s anticipated turnout, so this feels manageable to mitigate from our end.
With this being the tenth edition of the festival, can you share any special plans, collaborations that are in store for this year’s event?
Nick: This year we have AIM back and for us it is a special moment since they were the first international act to perform on the RTS stage, and also the reason this festival started. We are also gonna have Pulled Apart by Horses who were meant to come in 2020 but unfortunately that year COVID19 hit and we had to cancel the event, but thankfully we managed to make it happen this year. We also have Bo Ningen coming back after their great performance during RTS 2019.
Sam: It feels like a full circle moment; as Nick is saying a lot of international acts are coming back to celebrate our milestone year with us. Even local acts such as alt legends Shoshtakovich’s Nightmare are coming back to the live stage, for instance. We wanted to pull out all the stops with the festival’s mainstays just the same, where there’s a sample of most faces you’d have seen at some point during one of the festival’s editions – all while allowing new blood to shine through just the same.
How do you go about curating the lineup for the festival, taking into account the diverse range of indie and underground music genres and the local talent pool?
Nick: We spend months thinking about the line up. For us it is very important that the flow of the acts works together.
Sam: It’s exciting to find ways of complementing vastly different sounds between all stages. How one band feeds into the other from stage to stage, and how artists with totally different vibes can offer an alternative to the alternative in the silent disco stage occurring at the same time. This is what we break the ice with every year and keep refining throughout the organisation process. This also need to factor in contained performance and setup times, to keep the crossover of sounds natural and consistent.
Sustainability is an increasingly important topic in the event industry. What measures has the festival taken to reduce its environmental impact and promote eco-friendly practices?
Sam: Sustainability should absolutely be a core practice for such events to keep happening more holistically. The festival has collaborated with cab companies to make it easier for people to carpool and reduce emissions going and coming from the festival, with eCabs being our partner for this year. In spite of many moving parts and budget plus time constraints that can get in the way of being more sustainable, every year we want to keep striving to find more creative ways of being sustainable at every part of the process.
As you celebrate the tenth edition of the festival, what are your plans for the future? How do you see the festival continuing to support and promote the indie and underground music scenes in Malta?
Nick: The Festival is getting bigger every year
Sam: Alternative cultural activity is the strongest it’s ever been, with anyone able to muster compelling projects up with dedicated audiences consuming them. Rock the South festival strives to be that space where this spark can keep thriving and flowing – acknowledging its festival and scene mainstays whilst embracing newer voices alike, all alongside culturally impactful international artists that would have in turn influenced such local artists playing on the same stages in the first place. It really feels like every year we’re on the cusp of something more and more exciting emerging from the cracks, Rock the South will be here to keep giving that a home and space to groove.
Rock The South takes place at Zion, Marsascala between May 5 and 7. For more Sunday Cirlce magazine features check out this interview with poker queen Ivonne Montealegre, or 4 ways to integrate ChatGPT in daily life.