All posts tagged feature journalism

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Player: John Collins and The Triffid’, November 2014

    A story for the November 1-2 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    The Player

    Making it as a muso is a hard act to follow, but ex-Powderfinger bassist John Collins is rolling the dice with his new gig in venue management.

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    by Andrew McMillen / Photography by David Kelly


    For now, the only music heard in this room comes from a dust-coated radio audible in intermittent bursts between a dissonant symphony of hammering, grinding and sawing. Shortly, though, this formerly vacant hangar in Newstead, in Brisbane’s inner-north, will come alive with the sounds of live music. On this midweek morning in early October, John “JC” Collins wears a blue hard hat and bright yellow high-visibility vest atop a black dress shirt and blue jeans. Transforming this building from a forgotten shell into what Collins hopes will become a shining light in Brisbane’s sparkling live music scene has occupied much of the past two years of his life.

    Thick, black electrical cables snake down from the curved ceiling. At the far end of the hangar, a hip-high raised stage sits at the foot of a brick wall painted bright green. Its sizeable main hall and mezzanine will accommodate up to 800 guests. It will be the first significant venue to open in the inner city since West End’s 1200 capacity Hi-Fi debuted in 2009.

    Outside, in the beer garden, a temporary worksite office is stacked atop shipping containers that will function as bars and a kitchen. In the adjacent “band garden”, green astroturf leads through to a stage door being painted grey. As Collins tours the construction site while consulting with a squad of architects, acoustic engineers and insulation specialists, The Triffid’s distinctive look and feel is slowly taking shape all around him. What began as an aspiration is very nearly a live, loud reality.

    From the mezzanine vantage point, the team of hard-hats inspects the original rainwater-tank roof. It’s been kept intact, but perforated with thousands of finger-sized holes and stacked with several layers of insulation in order to absorb the venue’s maximum volume of 110 decibels – and, hopefully, to stop future nearby residents from complaining about the noise. The former industrial hub of Newstead is on the cusp of a property boom set to rival neighbouring Teneriffe and New Farm; across from the venue, five residential towers comprising 900 apartments will soon sprout.

    Tapping the 60-year-old ribbed roof, lead architect Mick Hellen says with a smile: “This was JC’s bright idea, but it’s the worst possible shape for a music venue.” Collins laughs, and shoots back: “It’s still better than a square box, though. Hey, it worked for The Beatles at the Cavern Club,” he says, referring to the Liverpool venue where Beatlemania was born. Who knows what The Triffid will mean in time to emerging Brisbane acts?

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly


    When The Triffid opens its steel doors next Saturday, it will be almost four years to the day since the former Powderfinger bassist joined his bandmates for their final public performance at Brisbane Riverstage. The intervening years have not been particularly relaxing for Collins, 44, a restless soul who searched high and low for a project in which to invest his energy. After a two-decade career in which his identity was synonymous with four fellow musicians united under what became a household name, Collins initially struggled to find his own way.

    In the two years following the band’s November 2010 finale, Collins hired a desk at a friend’s business in inner-north Bowen Hills with the intention of giving his days structure and purpose, and separating his work aspirations from his home life at Morningside, in the city’s east. There were protracted investigations into business ventures in race cars and printing companies, as well as extended travels with his wife of 14 years, Tara, and their children, 10-year-old twins Grace and Rosie and Scarlett, 7.

    Eventually, he threw his weight behind the idea of a live music venue and after months of location scouting in the surrounding suburbs, he found the empty hangar on Stratton Street. Collins met with its owner in February 2013 and spent almost a year working through proposals, budgets and designs. “It was a tough year, because I felt like we had a good idea between us,” he says now. “I felt really strongly about it; I hadn’t felt this strongly since the ‘Fingers started. It was a gut feeling.”

    Born in Murgon, 250km north-west of Brisbane, on April 27, 1970, Collins grew up in the town of Kerry near Beaudesert, 85km south of the capital. While attending boarding school at Brisbane Grammar in inner-city Spring Hill, he met fellow boarder Steven Bishop, with whom he shared a love for music. The pair began playing with another student, Ian Haug, after the budding guitarist noticed Collins wearing a handmade shirt that advertised Sydney band Sunnyboys. The trio formed the first iteration of Powderfinger in late 1988, and while Bishop vacated the drum kit in 1991, the three men occasionally play together in a band called the Predators, whose debut EP, Pick Up The Pace, was released in 2006.

    “Powderfinger was an awesome thing. I loved it,” says Collins. “I don’t expect it to ever happen again with music, but I’ve always wanted to do something else. That was part of the decision to stop [in 2010], because if we’d stopped in our fifties, things would have been tougher; we worked through half our working lives.” In the intervening four years, singer Bernard Fanning and guitarist Darren Middleton have proceeded with solo careers, drummer Jon Coghill has pursued a career in journalism, and Haug has been recording at his home studio and joined Australian rock institution The Church. “It’s taken me three years to get that next act going,” says Collins.


    Its name is rooted in both literary and musical references; not just John Wyndham’s 1951 science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, but more appropriately, the Triffids were a seminal Australian band based in Perth during the 1980s. “A few people have said to me, ‘Why didn’t you call it The Hangar?’” says Collins, who is one of several partners in the venture. “But that sounds more like a beer barn to me. I wanted to make sure people understood it’s a creative space, not just a place to come and skol piss. If you’re in a band, and you ask ‘Where are we playing?’ and the manager says ‘There’s this new venue in Brisbane called ‘The Triffid’, automatically you’re more inclined to think, well, okay, they must be at least a bit creative…”

    Beside the bar on the mezzanine level is an office that overlooks the lobby through glass salvaged from Powderfinger’s rehearsal space in Albion, in the city’s inner north, which was flooded a few years ago. To complete the fit-out, Collins is in the process of sourcing historic gig posters that will illustrate Brisbane’s rich musical heritage. The venue will fill a gap between The Zoo (capacity 500) and The Tivoli (1500) in Fortitude Valley, as well as The Hi-Fi on the other side of the river. “We definitely didn’t want to come in and tread on anyone’s toes,” says Collins. “Places like The Zoo, The Hi-Fi and The Tivoli are really important. We want to make the pie bigger, not take somebody’s slice.”

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David KellyAs we walk downstairs, I ask Collins what’s at stake here. “My reputation,” he replies. “And a bit of money. I’ve willingly put my name and my hand up to back this project. If it doesn’t work, my partners can walk and do another one, whereas I’ll go down with the ship. Obviously I’ve put a lot of time, energy and passion in, and I’d like it to work financially, too.”

    Haug is confident his friend and bandmate has bet on the right horse, as it were. “We’ve played so many venues around the world; he knows how to do it, so the musicians will be happy with how it’s all set out,” says Haug of Collins. “He’s surrounded himself with the best people to do sound and lighting. He didn’t think it was going to be easy, but he probably didn’t realise it would be this hard to build it from the ground up.”

    With a laugh, Haug adds: “He’ll be glad when it’s open, that’s for sure.”

    The Triffid opens on Saturday, 8 November with a line-up that includes Saskwatch, The Creases and MT Warning.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Think Inside The Box: Float therapy’, October 2014

    A story for the October 19-20 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    Think Inside The Box

    Solo enclosure in a dark tank of salty water isn’t everyone’s cup of calm, but converts to this niche form of stress management say there’s peace – and space for deep thought – to be found in the 60-year-old practice.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014

    by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare


    I’m floating naked with my hands behind my back in a warm, shallow pool. Calming music plays quietly. My ears are plugged and submerged. It’s so dark that I can’t see my feet; the only light comes from a lamp outside, which filters through tiny slivers in the sliding door on the ceiling. I close my eyes, and from time to time, feel the currents of this private ocean causing my relaxed body to gently bump the sides. With the merest flex of a toe, elbow or finger, I push myself back toward the centre. Outside of my mother’s womb and my eventual coffin, I’m unlikely to encounter such a closed, sense-deprived environment – which, plainly, is a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

    After ten minutes, the music fades out, and I’m left alone with the sound of my breathing and my thoughts. I’m in a flotation tank: a vehicle for introspection slightly bigger than a dodgem car, containing 350kg of Epsom salts – hence the ability to float, as this water has the same density as the Dead Sea. It sits inside a storefront called Brisbane Float & Massage in the south-western suburb of Sherwood, yet for the duration of my disconnected hour inside, I could be anywhere in the world.

    I’m here because of Joe Rogan. Sometimes alternative therapies need celebrity advocates to shift public opinion from a fruity-sounding way to spend one’s time to an attractive prospect. For many float converts, Rogan – popular American stand-up comedian, podcast host and television presenter – has been the canary in this particular coal mine. “The sensory deprivation chamber has been the most important tool I’ve ever used for developing my mind – for thinking, for evolving,” he says in a YouTube clip that’s had more than 750,000 views. “Everybody should do the tank. You will learn more about yourself than any other way.”

    My first session reveals the truly abstract notion of time, as in the silence, I quickly lose all sense of the clock. For someone who has zero experience with meditation and a similarly low desire to spend time alone without some sort of stimulus – music, book, notepad, video game, smartphone – I wasn’t sure how I’d handle this dark, quiet vacation from reality. After I got comfortable in the water – whose warmth mimics my body temperature – time seemed to stand still.

    Before long, though, I was so deep in thought that I was surprised to hear the music return, signalling that five minutes remained in the hour. In the tank, a wide range of topics crossed my mind – partner, family, health, work, music, self – and I was able to carefully grasp each of these and examine it with newfound clarity.

    British-born John Battersby, 56, is the owner of Brisbane Float & Massage, one of only a handful of tank operators in Queensland. He shows me around his simple premises. “I built this myself,” he says, gesturing at the surrounding walls. “It’s not high-quality, but it’s functional.” A qualified sports therapist and local soccer coach, he leads me into one of his two float rooms, which both contain showers to be used before and after each session. Battersby explains that he found this therapy after a car accident in Sydney in 1989 left him with whiplash, a neck brace and limited mobility. He was sceptical of this alternative therapy at first: “A Pom, lying in a big bath of water?” he jokes with a smile. During his first 90 minute float, he experienced extraordinary pain relief. After that, he floated every day for six months.

    The sensory deprivation tank was first explored in 1954 by American physician John C. Lilly, who sought to isolate the human mind from external stimulation. Flotation therapy has since become a niche form of stress management. After its initial popularisation in the 1980s, public interest in floating dried up following health concerns about AIDS and the transfer of bodily fluids. “Now we know that’s not possible,” says Battersby, “as the water is so sterile that you can’t grow bacteria in it.”

    Battersby, who lives with his wife Kerry in the Lockyer Valley town of Laidley, 85km west of Brisbane, has used the tank at least once a week over the past 25 years. “It’s such a simple process that anyone can do it,” he says. Anyone, that is, except most children, whose short attention spans tend to limit the appeal of sliding the lid closed on a small space for an hour or more.

    When I mention Joe Rogan, Battersby describes him as “a breath of fresh air”. “I don’t believe in his use of drugs, though,” he clarifies. “We don’t allow people to use drugs here. But he’s an experienced floater, and he does good things. We need more of him.” For Battersby, the tank represents “one of the most creative spaces I’ve ever found. There are no distractions – only what’s going on between your ears.”

    For some, that same space between the ears can be the source of seemingly endless darkness and despair. Michael Harding knows a bit about this. A former army infantryman, Harding was medically discharged from service in 2011 after developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) born out of an intense, prolonged firefight in Afghanistan during which he witnessed a fellow soldier shot and killed. He developed full-body twitches, was diagnosed with conversion disorder and sent home early. The two years that followed were a mess of prescription medications and alcohol abuse. He’d drink a bottle of spirits every day, while his partner was at work, and his junk-food diet saw his weight top out at 110kg.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014. Michael Harding and Rebecca Houghton photographed by Russell ShakespeareHarding discovered floating in March and in his first week completed three sessions. “The changes I’ve seen in him after floating are incredible,” says his partner, Rebecca Houghton, who left her office job to care for Harding full-time. Having since lost dozens of kilos, Harding now wears his brown hair in thick, curly locks that belie his military history. He’s sitting in shorts, thongs and a black cap in an armchair outside the two float rooms in Sherwood, with Houghton at his side. The pair [pictured right] met at primary school in Bracken Ridge, in Brisbane’s north-east, and reconnected just before Harding joined the army.

    As the Department of Veterans’ Affairs does not view flotation therapy as a valid form of rehabilitation for Harding’s PTSD, their visits to Battersby’s Sherwood premises were paid for out of their own pocket. Both 27, they live in Lawnton, on Brisbane’s northside, and found that the 100-minute round trip was adding to Harding’s stress, eroding some of the benefits gained by floating. The solution? Battersby recently installed a reconditioned tank in their home basement. “I was in the tank by 3.20am this morning, for a four-hour session,” Harding beams. “It’s been great for my positivity, and my motivation. It allows me to de-stress, and get out of my head. A lot of my mates prefer to drink, take meds and try to forget about it all.”

    It’s a little early in my own floating career to expect to see the remarkable improvement in mental health and clarity that Harding reports. “When you first start doing the isolation tank, it’s hard to completely let go who you are,” Joe Rogan cautions in that popular YouTube clip. “But as you get more and more comfortable with the experience, you get better at actually letting go.”

    Once the music stops in the tank, I slide back the door on its ceiling, stand up and allow the salty water to run off. I shower, dress, hand over my $50 and bid Battersby a fond, grateful farewell. I look forward to my next session, and the one after that, as I float in the quiet dark and allow my mind to venture deeper and deeper inward.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees’, July 2014

    A feature for Good Weekend, the colour magazine published with the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age each Saturday. This is my first story for the magazine. Excerpt below.

    The Whistleblowers

    Good Weekend story: 'The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees', by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    Who’d want to be a referee – the man everybody loves to hate? Andrew McMillen talks to those prepared to make the tough calls.


    North Queensland Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston has had enough. It’s an hour into a rugby league game at Sydney’s Parramatta Stadium one Friday evening in June and Thurston’s team is menacing Parramatta’s defensive line when they make a mistake, which prompts tall, muscular referee Ben Cummins to blow his whistle in favour of the home side. Thurston explodes. His team is down six points to 18 before a stridently partisan crowd of 10,142 seething Eels supporters. Beneath his trademark white headgear, the Cowboys captain is viciously mouthing off at the official. He, too, has had enough, and raises both hands skyward as a signal to stop the clock.

    “Okay, Johnathan,” begins Cummins, in a measured tone not dissimilar to a headmaster disciplining an unruly pupil. He states his reason for the stoppage: “It’s the way you’re talking.” Thurston is furious. He’s not listening. His ears are shut but his mouth continues firing. The crowd responds to this conflict between match official and enemy captain by jeering enthusiastically; their team is winning and Thurston is losing his head. The ref has heard enough.

    “Johnathan, I’m talking here,” Cummins says. “It’s the way you’re talking to me. Talk like that again and I’ll penalise you.” Having poured cold water on Thurston’s fire, Cummins blows his whistle and the game continues.

    In the tunnel between team dressing rooms prior to kick-off, it was a different story. Cummins met Thurston and Eels captain Jarryd Hayne for the ritual coin toss. The trio traded easy smiles and handshakes. After the referee introduced me to Thurston, I asked the Cowboys captain whether he’s a Ben Cummins fan. His reply came with a laugh: “I’m a referee fan, mate!”

    Prior to the Parramatta game, I meet former NRL official Tim Mander at his office in Everton Park, in Brisbane’s inner-north. Mander, 52, called time on his on-field role in 2005, then worked part-time as a video referee for another six years. He is now the Member for Everton and Queensland’s Minister for Housing and Public Works. A framed photograph of a referee sin-binning Queensland league legend Wally Lewis is mounted on his wall.

    “I was involved with first-grade football for more than 20 years,” says Mander. “Every year, the same story would break, that the referees were ‘in crisis’. [The National Rugby League] has done everything you could possibly do to improve refereeing standards.” He counts them off on his fingers: they became full-time professionals, they adopted two referees per match, and they introduced the video replay system, among other changes. “What else can they possibly do?” he asks. “They can’t do anything else. The issue is that, unfortunately, the selection of referees is contained to people of the human race.”

    Few of us hold jobs in which our momentary lapses in concentration take place before televised audiences numbering into the millions. A mistake made by a referee can shift a sporting world on its axis; a decision to award a penalty or not in the final moments of a tight contest can end careers – of players, coaches and staff. It takes a certain kind of mind to embrace this role with confidence.

    As kick-off approaches at Parramatta Stadium, Cummins – a primary school physical education teacher who enjoys any chance to return to the classroom should his schedule permit – changes into his pink uniform and weighs himself. He’s 89 kilograms, but will drop two kilos in the ensuing 80 minutes. Every top-level sports official is a picture of health; NRL referees run nine kilometres each match, on average, while their AFL counterparts run 12.

    At the age of 40, Cummins looks strong and fit enough to be running with either team tonight, as does his slightly shorter assistant, Gavin Reynolds. The referees’ dressing room is a cosy four-by-five-metre box that contains an adjoining room with showers and a massage table. The jocular mood in the room belies the seriousness of the role; after all, there is security posted outside the door, and they’ll be accompanied to their cars at night’s end.

    “It’s a requirement that we’re escorted back to our cars,” says Cummins. “Generally, nothing happens. There are some games where the crowd gets quite heated, and you make sure you have security. If you give the game 30 to 60 minutes, most people have headed off by then. Most people take out their frustrations on forums or social media these days.”

    To read the full story, visit the Sydney Morning Herald.

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco’, July 2014

    A story for the July 19 issue of Qweekend magazine; a profile of Australian music entrepreneur Paul Piticco. The full story appears below.

    The Grass Is Greener

    Paul Piticco struck success while managing Powderfinger and now oversees an empire that stretches beyond music into events and hospitality

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    by Andrew McMillen / Portrait photograph by Russell Shakespeare


    Five of the men who walk out onto Brisbane Riverstage on this warm Saturday night are well-known to the 10,000 fans in attendance, as together they have written some of Australia’s most popular songs. Between encores, though, another bloke in a grey suit with short black hair makes an appearance. Drummer Jon Coghill playfully wipes a towel across the stranger’s forehead. The band’s frontman approaches the microphone. “Ladies and gents, we have to introduce the virtual sixth member of Powderfinger: this is our manager,” says Bernard Fanning, gesturing to the man who is now copping a good-natured head-rub from guitarist Ian Haug. “He’s been our manager for the whole time. His name’s Paul Piticco. Put your hands together.”

    The crowd obliges. After he gives a few quick bows to the hill and to each of the bandmembers, Piticco waves and jogs back to the side of stage, seemingly embarrassed at such public attention.

    It’s 13 November, 2010, the night of Powderfinger’s final performance, a hometown send-off for the Brisbane quintet crowning a 34-date national tour that sold more than 300,000 tickets and grossed $30 million. After a final encore performance of ‘These Days’ and a group bow, Powderfinger ends its career on a high.

    The band’s achievements are remarkable. Among them, more than 2.5 million albums sold in Australia alone, 18 ARIA awards, five consecutive ARIA No 1 album debuts, and twice topping Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 music poll. Behind their artistry was the business brain of Paul “Teaks” Piticco, a self-taught entrepreneur whose beginning as the wet-behind-the-ears manager of a little-known Brisbane rock band expanded into successful stakes in music festivals, touring and publicity, two independent record labels and a recent foray into the restaurant business.

    As he tells it, Piticco’s achievements can be attributed to persistence, enthusiasm and a willingness to have a go. “That philosophy that you’re only as good as the last thing you do is something that I’ve always subscribed to,” he says. “That’s how you do great work: by being really interested, and by giving a shit about the outcome. I certainly don’t want to die wondering.”

    It wasn’t always thus, according to Coghill, the last member to join Powderfinger, completing the quintet’s line-up in late 1991. In the 2011 band biography, Footprints, the drummer recalled his first impressions of the men with whom he’d spend the next two decades: “They were just these potheads who used to sit around the lounge smoking,” he said. “And Teaks was the ringleader … I remember that night [we met] he showed me this massive marijuana plant he had in the back yard. It was four metres high and two metres wide. I think before Teaks was the manager of the band, he was the manager of the lounge room and the bong.”


    An only child born to Sernando and Carmel at the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital on March 7, 1969, Paul Anthony Piticco grew up in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Paddington and attended Petrie Terrace State School. He loved school because it was his first chance to measure himself against others. “Maybe that was the germination of my competitive streak,” he says with a smile.

    His father had emigrated to Australia from Italy at age 19, carrying only a suitcase and $10. He cut cane in North Queensland, bought a house in Brisbane and started a construction business. Piticco says Sernando advised his son to “figure your own shit out” and learn from his mistakes. Carmel – who worked part-time jobs in nursing and education – encouraged Paul to spring out of bed in the morning, follow his dreams and do what makes him smile.

    His parents’ record collection was “diabolical”, so it wasn’t until he started at Kelvin Grove State High in Brisbane’s inner north-west that Piticco’s musical horizons expanded. When KISS played at Lang Park (now Suncorp Stadium) in 1980, he snuck down Ranley Grove onto Given Terrace and watched them through the fence. It was the first time Piticco made a connection between hearing a song on the radio and tens of thousands of fans going to see a band play live in a stadium. He was enthralled, and started buying cassettes and vinyl – David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits – while learning guitar and saxophone, both of which he failed to practise. At 15, he’d take a square of cardboard to Queen Street Mall and attempt to breakdance while dressed in baggy pants. This phase soon passed – as Piticco puts it, “The world moved on, and I moved with it.”

    It was during his first job, as a paperboy selling the Telegraph, that Piticco established his work ethic. He determined how to achieve the maximum return with the smallest effort by catching customers at the former Arnott’s biscuit factory on Coronation Drive when shifts were crossing over. A regular clientele earned the ten-year-old hefty tips for his value-adding personal touches, such as handing over the paper with the sports page or the horoscopes facing up, ready to read.

    In his mid-teens, Piticco worked weekend nights at the 24-hour Windmill Cafe on Petrie Terrace, where he learned how to be patient with intoxicated people, which he notes has “come in handy working in bars, venues and festivals in the years to come”. He completed Year 10 at Kelvin Grove High but dropped out part way into the following year. “My passion for study declined rapidly,” he says, after he discovered smoking and drinking.

    In his late teens, Piticco tried working part-time for his father and uncle’s construction business. It didn’t take. “I didn’t want to work a manual job, grinding it out in the sun like my dad. I knew that I wanted something different; I just didn’t know what it was yet.” It was around this time that he discovered cannabis. “There was a fair degree of overlap between my pot-smoking days and my lost years,” he says. “It just heightened all my senses in terms of listening to music and having a good time. In a stereotypical way, it was a countercultural way to rebel as a late teen.”

    At the time, Piticco worked as a steel sales representative for Boral and lived in a share house in the western suburb of Indooroopilly. One night, he and housemate Ian Haug went for a drive, and the guitarist asked his friend whether he’d be interested in managing Powderfinger as Haug had grown tired of juggling his band’s business interests and writing music.

    “He knew nothing about the music industry; we gave him an opportunity because we could see something in him,” says Haug. “We needed a ‘bad cop’, and he was a good bad cop. We didn’t want to be the ones ringing up bikers saying ‘pay us our money’. He had to be the tough guy. And Piticco’s a pretty tough name.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph of Powderfinger in 1991; Piticco is third from left.Bassist John Collins saw it another way: “We thought, if he could sell steel, he could sell rock.” With the assistance of a lawyer, the band drew up a management contract which determined that everything outside of the actual music-making would be split six ways. “After that contract lapsed, we worked with him without a contract for most of our career,” says Haug. “Probably in retrospect it wasn’t a wise business decision for the band, but he did a good job for us.”

    It took years before the band started seeing any real money for their efforts. “As a manager, you’re only ever as good as your band,” Piticco says. “Your fates are hitched in a fiscal sense.” As Powderfinger’s star ascended, the six men named on the contract came into good money following years of low-income toil. “Money was always much more important to Paul than the rest of us,” says singer Bernard Fanning. “We were always surprised by the fact that we actually earned a living and made money out of being musicians. Paul has always liked the idea of money, and the potential of it, rather than the actual act of splashing out and buying a fancy bottle of champagne.”

    Haug suggests Piticco didn’t change much throughout the band’s two-decade career. “He’s just loaded now, whereas he used to be flat broke,” he laughs. The entrepreneur reinvested his earnings into the industry, forming an artist management company, Secret Service. His independent record label, Dew Process, was established in 2002 and has released popular albums by international acts such as Mumford & Sons, The Hives and London Grammar as well as Australian artists The Living End, Sarah Blasko and, of course, Bernard Fanning. Album sales still account for the majority of the label’s income. In 2012, Piticco established another record label, Create/Control, which in effect turns the old business model on its head by partnering with acts to distribute and market music they’ve funded and recorded themselves.

    In conjunction with Powderfinger’s longtime booking agent, Jessica Ducrou, he established Splendour In The Grass, an annual multi-day music festival – being staged at North Byron Parklands next weekend – sidestepping the competitive summer circuit. All 27,500 tickets to this year’s event, headlined by Outkast, Lily Allen and Two Door Cinema Club, were sold within hours of going on sale. “Paul and I have done all sorts of glamorous jobs – directing traffic, picking up garbage,” says Ducrou, 44. “He’s really positive, he mucks in. He has no airs and graces. He’ll do whatever is required.” The pair’s Secret Sounds touring company has also invested in The Falls Festival, traditionally a southern (Tasmania and Victoria) camping event which debuted in Byron Bay in late 2013.

    Critics point out that a handful of Piticco’s acts inevitably appear on Splendour’s bill each year, a tradition that stretches back to the first event in 2001, headlined by Powderfinger. “Why wouldn’t you book yourself?” asks Patience Hodgson, singer of Piticco-managed Brisbane pop band The Grates. “Paul doesn’t take any commission when we play Splendour, and that’s to lower his invested interest.”

    If such criticisms are laid at Piticco’s feet, so be it. He’s happy to wear the tar and feathers if it means his artists stay squeaky clean. “If people hate him, but love the band, he totally understands that’s fine,” says Hodgson. “He’s not trying to protect himself; the band always comes first. If he’s offered a gig and thinks we should be paid more money, he asks. I really appreciate that, because I could never do that for myself; I wouldn’t want to seem like a dick or be rude. Paul is happy to ask, and if people say no, he doesn’t feel shame.”


    Piticco has one favourite album – DeadSexy by little-known Rhode Island (US) alternative rock band Scarce – and two favourite songs: ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie and ‘The Funeral’ by Seattle rock act Band of Horses, who he has booked to play Splendour twice. His favourite Powderfinger album is 1998’s Internationalist. When asked to name a favourite song, he deliberates for two minutes. “The one that makes me feel and think most positively about the band is ‘Sunsets’,” he replies, referring to a single from 2003’s Vulture Street album. “Amongst all those anthems that they wrote, that one, to me, sounds and feels like Australian music at that time. It definitely pulls at my heartstrings.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell ShakespeareAt 45, Piticco is showing no signs of slowing down. In 2014, he seems to have his fingers in more pies than ever before. “There’s a good balance between Paul being a serious, effective entrepreneur and knowing how to switch off and have fun, and not take things too seriously,” says Ducrou. For his 40th birthday, Piticco booked an AC/DC tribute band to play at the property near Mount Warning in northern NSW where he lives with his partner of 15 years, Lisa Wickbold, and their children Phoebe, 7, Ivy, 5, and Darby, 3.

    It takes considerable drive and intensity to create record labels, music festivals, national tours and artistic careers out of thin air, especially when based outside of the traditional Australian music business seats of power in Sydney and Melbourne. For Piticco and Powderfinger, moving south never appealed. “We were regularly encouraged to leave by labels, agents, promoters and other bands; ‘Come down here, it’ll be better, there are more opportunities!’” he says. “Brisbane had value to us. It wasn’t just more affordable, it provided a framework and an emotional base. Our social networks were here. It’s something we’ve always been proud of, this city. There was never any doubt. I’m glad we stayed.”

    The sun sets over the Brisbane skyline on a recent cool evening as we sit at a table in South Bank restaurant Popolo, which Piticco co-founded in late 2011 with restaurateur Andrew Baturo and Denis Sheahan, Powderfinger’s former tour manager. Its name is Italian for people, in reference to the menu’s inclination towards shared dishes. While we talk, plates are laid out in quick succession. It’s far too much food for two men; Piticco jokes that his children will have some interesting leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.

    In addition to Popolo, Piticco co-owns a stake in CBD venue The Gresham Bar, which opened late last year. This left turn into the hospitality industry has been on the cards for years. “The chef is the artist, the restaurateur is the producer,” Piticco says. “The chef serves up his works; the producer critiques them, works out which ones are going to be the hits, which ones will pad out the menu. Instead of listening, you taste. The ambience is the marketing and packaging – the visual representation – but the real thing that makes a successful restaurant is the food. It’s just as it is in the music industry: a lot of bad bands have an image, but the songs are really the meat of the proposition.”

    Observing the detritus of a fine meal, Piticco sums up his life so far in simple terms. “I’ve always had this theory that stems from my mum,” he says. “Whether you’re a chimney sweep, a brain surgeon or a band manager, if you’re good at what you do, the rest takes care of itself. I just like having the opportunity to make a living out of music, for myself and others, and along the way make a whole bunch of people happy by enriching their lives in some way. And to get paid for it? That’s fucking awesome!

    Splendour In The Grass, July 25-27, North Byron Parklands, Byron Bay. 

  • Qweekend story: ‘Game Plan: Midnight Basketball’, June 2014

    A story for the June 14 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears underneath; click the below image to view as a PDF.

    Game Plan

    A weekly basketball tournament for Toowoomba teenagers provides much more than sport participation – life-changing inspiration, for starters.

    Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: Russell Shakespeare

    'Game Plan: Midnight Basketball' story by Andrew McMillen in Qweekend, June 2014. Photograph by Russell Shakespeare


    The 198cm giant towers over the dozens of teenagers seated at his feet on a chilly Friday evening at Harristown State High School, south Toowoomba. “Some of us in this group are less fortunate,” he says, stern-faced. “Some in this group know what it feels like to have a really rough day.”

    The giant knows all about rough days. Growing up on in Chicago, Illinois, Willie Farley remembers “a lot of dark clouds in our house” when his grandmother, a nurse, left to work the late shift. He speaks of his early experiences of abuse in veiled language while clasping his hands behind his back. “The only thing that kept me going was that thing in your hands right now,” he says, pointing at a boy holding a basketball.

    His audience is sitting on a court purpose-built for that very activity. They listen to his ten-minute talk in respectful silence. “Make sure you understand why you’re here. You’re not here to cough all night,” the 38 year-old says, glaring at a girl at his feet who can’t control a tickle in her throat; his remonstration draws a murmur of laughter from her peers. “Make sure you’re not afraid to ask questions. And listen. You’ll be surprised what you learn. I know some of y’all have cousins and brothers who need to be here; make sure they’re here, too.”

    Farley is the player-coach of Queensland Basketball League team Toowoomba Mountaineers. Previously, a career in the National Basketball League saw him play for the West Sydney Razorbacks and the Adelaide 36ers in the early 2000s. His formidable presence here at Harristown High on the first night of the 2014 Midnight Basketball tournament lends the affair legitimacy. He’s someone for the teenagers to look up to; someone who overcame his early struggles to become a professional athlete and a responsible, intelligent adult.

    Earlier, tournament night manager Shane Adshead had addressed the motley, noisy group for the first time, while a dozen adult volunteers looked on. “Who can guess which town or city in Queensland is the first place to run Midnight Basketball?” he asked. The answer came quickly. “That’s right, Toowoomba. We’re still the only place in Queensland that runs it.”

    The inner-city Sydney suburb of Redfern hosted Australia’s first such event in 2007, and this evening’s program began with Adshead introducing some of the imported rules. Among them: all players must take the bus home unless a parent has provided written instructions to the contrary; foul play will result in yellow and red cards; if you miss two weeks in a row, you can’t come back; and, most importantly: “no workshop, no jumpshot”. These Friday night events are a package deal – in order to play each week, the teens must sit through mandatory “life skills” classes led by guests from fields such as employment, financial management and mental health.

    'Game Plan: Midnight Basketball' story by Andrew McMillen in Qweekend, June 2014. Photograph by Russell ShakespeareAdshead then asked the crowd to suggest their own rules by raising their hands. He wrote their responses in thick block letters on a large sheet of paper stuck to the wall. No swearing. Play fair. Don’t leave the building. Keep your hands and feet to yourself. Respect. This last word was underlined at the bottom of the page and prompted a discussion about its definition, which included “no racism”. Satisfied with their additions, Adshead concluded: “If we can live up to these rules, we’re going to have a really enjoyable eight weeks. We’re going to get to meet new friends, and have some really healthy competition as well. Is there anyone here who cannot live up to these rules?” No hands went up.


    Having already been split into six teams differentiated by coloured singlets, the 54 teens leave to begin shooting hoops. The sound of bouncing balls fills the hall while Darren Mentor, 41, tall, bespectacled and dressed in a grey tracksuit, looks on. Mentor’s surname is apt, as he was the founding director of Midnight Basketball in Redfern. He is president of the Toowoomba Basketball Association committee in addition to his role as patron of this tournament, which debuted in October 2013.

    “About ten years ago, I was doing research about different basketball programs in the United States,” he says. The original Midnight Basketball was established in the state of Maryland, Mentor says, “to combat gangs and gun crime for 18 to 29-year-olds. Here, we specifically target 12 to 18-year-olds. We’re not a youth organisation, as such; we’re just another part of the puzzle. We come in twice a year to help get kids off the street; to try and teach them some life skills.”

    With assistance from many departments within the federal government and sponsorship from the Commonwealth Bank, 28 Midnight Basketball tournaments now take place nationwide in locations including Alice Springs, Geelong and Geraldton. Of its 60,000 participants over the past seven years, 65 per cent have been indigenous Australians.

    While Mentor stands on the sidelines, the six team coaches wrangle their energetic charges into groups of nine. Across two adjacent courts at Harristown High, the rest of the night follows a structured round robin tournament with four teams playing at a time, while the two remaining groups cheer and restlessly wait their turn. The standard of play is high, if a little scrappy at times. All of the players seem to understand the fundamentals of the game, and ball-hogging is kept to a minimum so everyone gets a turn to shoot, pass, dribble and defend. As this is the first night of an eight-week tournament, there are no workshops; instead, three-and-a-half hours of competitive basketball punctuated by some high-energy ball-skill drills as midnight draws nearer.

    Adshead, a 35 year-old youth worker with a friendly manner, is overjoyed to see that, from the beginning, the teams end each game by shaking hands without being prompted by an adult. “How many places do you see African, Asian, indigenous and white kids playing together?” the tournament manager asks.

    Harry Spencer, 65, is the tournament’s committee chair and a recent retiree from the University of Southern Queensland. This year he is celebrating his 50th anniversary of basketball coaching by spending his Friday nights here at Harristown High. Decades ago, he coached Darren Mentor in the QBL; when his former pupil called and mentioned this idea, Spencer signed up on the spot. He points out that many of the children here tonight have backgrounds of limited means. These kids couldn’t afford to pay the registration fees set by competitive leagues. Midnight Basketball is free, and its significant running costs remain entirely hidden to the players.

    Some of the players are clad in bright branded basketball attire, but many are in the same functional footwear and clothing that they wear each day. Some come from broken homes, live with single parents, have experienced abuse, or fit into none of the above categories. Some attend private schools and have had comfortable, privileged upbringings. The program does not discriminate: if the kids want to be here and their parents give consent, they’re welcomed with open arms.

    At a quarter to midnight, it’s 11 degrees and the kids are sitting comfortably on a bus supplied by local business Stonestreet’s. Some of them have a long journey ahead of them. Since it’s the first night of the year, the bus route will be improvised by a driver studying printed maps of the surrounding suburbs.

    Marshalling the teenagers and keeping spirits high is silver-haired, mustachioed tournament security officer Wayne Clarke, 48, a well-known local identity who has his own Facebook page and more than 6000 followers. Clarke will learn tonight that some of these kids live down streets too narrow for the bus, so he’ll walk them a couple of hundred metres to their front door. He’ll wait to sight their thumbs-up from inside before continuing the process until all of his charges are delivered home. It’ll be two in the morning before he’s in bed.


    The teenagers think they’re here to play basketball. The adults know that what happens on the court is only part of the whole. In the same way that a crafty parent might introduce cauliflower to a fussy eater by masking its taste with mashed potato, these Friday night meetings contain a raft of implicit benefits that begin with the hot, nutritious meal dished up by Rotary Club. Tonight, three weeks after the first games of the 2014 tournament, a barbecue buffet of steak, sausages, rissoles and salad is on offer.

    “There’s a couple of good carrots for them here,” Adshead notes. “Years ago, when I started a sports program, an indigenous worker told me, ‘if you can feed them, they will come’. I always put ‘free food’ on the posters, in writing just as big as what sport we were playing.” After this evening’s cohort of 57 – up three from the first week’s attendance – have had their fill, two big boxes of fresh fruit supplied by local grocer Bou-Samra’s are set out between the two courts. By night’s end, they’re empty.

    Upstairs, in a classroom with the furniture stacked to one side, Midnight Basketball’s motto of “no workshop, no jumpshot” is in full effect. Phil Renata, a stocky 57 year-old who owns the nearby Team Ngapuhi kickboxing gym, stands while addressing the 20 members of the green and white teams between games. “No one can change who you are; you’ve got to develop who you are, and that’s what we’re here for,” says Renata, gesturing at the four imposing men seated behind him. “It’s all about making yourself better. Maybe you’d like to be like…” Renata pauses. “Who’s a famous sportsman?” A tall girl suggests LeBron James, the 29 year-old Miami Heat basketball. “You might think, ‘I want to be like LeBron James. Nah, I want to be better than him!’ Don’t just be like him; give it 100 per cent. Don’t go in 50 per cent, because you’ll end up hurt.”

    'Game Plan: Midnight Basketball' story by Andrew McMillen in Qweekend, June 2014. Photograph by Russell ShakespeareTalk turns to respect. Renata asks his four kickboxers, three of whom are brothers, what it means to them. Junior Milo, 17, is the shyest of the bunch. “When I was growing up in New Zealand, I lived across from a gang area,” he says. “I saw a lot of fights and stuff…” He pauses. “So I made sure I respected them.” The adults and children explode with laughter. His brother Justin, 20, was training with NRL club Melbourne Storm a couple of years ago before a back injury ended his league career, and he turned to Muay Thai kickboxing instead. “When you respect people, you learn from them,” he says quietly. “I trained with Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk; I respected them because they’re successful, and that’s what I aspired to be. But by respecting everyone, you can learn off other people, and it kind of makes you a better person at the end of the day.”

    Renata acknowledges that the teenagers won’t remember everything said in this room, but they’ll take away the parts that resonate. The four fighters sitting before the teenagers are evidence of how discipline, direction and education can orient lives in a positive direction.

    Gerard, the eldest Milo brother at 22, tells the room he’s one year away from completing a Bachelor of Science degree. “What got me there was hard work. Talent can only get you so far. I was really dumb when I was little,” he says, prompting more laughter. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it,” he adds. “I wasn’t that smart, but the brain is like a muscle. You can train it. You’re not born smart. Hard work gets you what you want.”

    These words might resonate, or they might be forgotten as soon as the teenagers head off to the next game. They might have detected the cauliflower within the mash but decided it didn’t taste so bad after all.

    As the night winds down, the weekly best and fairest awards are handed out. In turn, each team’s coach announces a winner; players rise to their feet to accept the awards and shake the adult’s hand, while the crowd applauds their efforts. “Thanks for another great night,” says Adshead. “We’ll see you next week.”


    The Toowoomba Midnight Basketball grand final is on Friday, June 20.

  • The Monthly story: ‘Queen’s Man: Jarrod Bleijie’, March 2014

    A story for the March 2014 issue of The Monthly, and my first essay for the magazine: a profile of Queensland’s attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie. Excerpt below.

    Queen’s Man

    The crazy brave populism of Jarrod Bleijie

    The Monthly story: 'Queen's Man: The crazy brave populism of Jarrod Bleijie', March 2014, by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen

    One Friday evening last September, some 60 members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang descended on a busy restaurant in the Gold Coast suburb of Broadbeach to confront a man associated with the Finks, a rival gang. In the ensuing melee, four police officers were injured. Later, a smaller group of Bandidos assembled outside the nearby Southport police watch house in an apparent show of support for their 18 arrested peers.

    For Queensland’s attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie, that evening was a “line in the sand”. Three weeks later, just before 3 am on 16 October, the Liberal National Party–dominated state parliament passed three pieces of bikie-related legislation, including the bill that would become the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) Act. “Recent events have proved that certain groups have no regard for the Queensland public,” Bleijie said. “Enough is enough. By restricting their movements and operations, the community is protected and it prevents these groups from running their criminal enterprises.”

    Under the VLAD Act, a “vicious lawless associate” found guilty of any criminal offence listed in the legislation, from the smallest drug possession charge up, would serve a mandatory prison term of up to 25 years on top of their sentence. The Tattoo Parlours Act bans members of criminal associations and their associates from operating, working in or owning tattoo parlours. The Criminal Law (Criminal Organisations Disruption) Amendment Act amends various pieces of legislation to label 26 motorcycle clubs as criminal organisations and ban their members from congregating in groups of more than three or meeting at their clubhouses. The Queensland government would go on to establish a “bikies only” prison, where inmates may be dressed in fluoro pink overalls.

    Police have arrested dozens of people under the new laws, including a group of five men drinking beer at the Yandina Hotel on the Sunshine Coast and a group of five Victorian men buying ice-creams on the Gold Coast. Clubhouses were closed; interstate bikies called off their trips north. The United Motorcycle Council Queensland hired a PR firm. Tearful family members hit the airwaves. A High Court challenge was touted (and is in train). Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets, on motorcycles and on foot. The tabloid press, normally so keen to demand a crackdown, any crackdown, on crime, no longer knew which way to turn. Even the Queensland premier, Campbell Newman, appeared to waver for a moment, hinting that the laws might be a temporary measure.

    But Bleijie remained steadfast. As he put it in a radio interview at the time: “These laws are targeting these particular types of grub and thug to make people in Queensland safe in their homes at night. They don’t have to worry about these types of thugs on our streets any more … We’re dealing with a different type of criminal: the toughest of the toughest and the worst of the worst.”

    The VLAD Act, with its broad definition of “vicious lawless associate”, would target not only criminal motorcycle gangs but also organised crime gangs that are not “patched” – “akin to the Mafia in the States”, Bleijie said in the same interview – and paedophile rings “that are grooming and doing all sorts of terrible things to our young kids”.

    In Bleijie (whose Dutch surname rhymes with “play”), Queenslanders suddenly had a tireless warrior for law and order: a former lawyer who could debate the finer points of complicated legislation through the dead of night, then front up to a morning media conference looking no worse for wear. The Courier-Mail dubbed him “boy wonder”, Robin to Newman’s Batman.

    The night after the passing of the anti-bikie legislation, another populist bill was sped through parliament. This one was a response to the case of Robert John Fardon, a 65-year-old who had served time for a number of violent sexual offences against girls and women, including acts committed while on parole. In 2003, Fardon became the first prisoner to be detained indefinitely under Queensland’s Dangerous Prisoners (Sexual Offenders) Act, legislation introduced by Peter Beattie’s Labor government. Last year, a review by the Supreme Court of Queensland ordered that Fardon be released on strict conditions. In response, Bleijie introduced an amendment to the legislation that would allow him to ask the governor to make a “public interest declaration” to keep offenders like Fardon behind bars.

    In legal circles, the amendment was branded a publicity stunt, and Bleijie was ridiculed for not understanding the separation of powers – the courts, not politicians, send people to prison. Tony Fitzgerald, the man who’d led the inquiry that had exposed corruption and political interference at the highest level in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government 25 years earlier, was prompted to write in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail: “It is incomprehensible that any rational Queenslander who is even remotely aware of the state’s recent history could for a moment consider reintroducing political interference into the administration of criminal justice, even to the point of making decisions about incarceration.”

    Weeks later, Queensland’s Court of Appeal struck down the new laws, agreeing that they would have required the Supreme Court to “exercise powers repugnant to or incompatible with [its] institutional integrity”.

    “To have any politician alone decide who’s going to be in jail or not is scary,” says Dan O’Gorman, a prominent Brisbane barrister. “I’ve acted for Fardon for seven years. He’s had a terrible life himself, which doesn’t justify his behaviour, of course. But Fardon is not the issue; the issue is the process. [Bleijie] just doesn’t seem to understand the role of an A-G. Unfortunately, not only has this fellow not defended the institutional integrity of the judicial process, he’s the leader of the cheer squad that’s attacking the courts. It’s an unbelievable situation.”

    To read the full 3,000 word story, visit The Monthly’s website.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Muscle Memory’, December 2013

    A story for the final issue of Qweekend for 2013. Click the below image to view the PDF, or read the story text underneath.

    Muscle Memory

    Mates on a mission to nail the essence of manliness find that the Aussie bloke’s a hard character to pin down.

    Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: David Kelly


    A dozen men stand quietly, with crossed arms and firm expressions, surveying the martial arts demonstration. There is silence as two men dressed in white robes grapple with each other on the floor of the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. After several thoroughly awkward minutes of grunting, throwing and painful-looking choke holds, the two men bow to one another and head backstage, seemingly dispirited. I clap my hands out of respect for my fellow man. I am one of few to do so.

    There aren’t many people at this Man Expo but I’ve come along to try to find out what it is that makes an Aussie bloke. I don’t consider myself to be particularly masculine, so I’ve brought my manliest mate with me on this fine Saturday morning in mid-October to see whether two heads are better than one.

    Craig Johnson is a strongly-built engineering student with a beard and a fondness for barbecuing, bourbon and thrash metal. He is mechanically minded and fond of fixing things; he spent a year working as a truck driver in an underground mine. We share a birth year and an enthusiasm for soccer and playing guitar, but otherwise we’re completely different men. My writer’s hands are soft, my facial hair negligible at best; my home improvement skills are limited to changing lightbulbs, and my brain is more suited to asking questions than knowing answers.

    Two halls down, past the Craft & Quilt Fair – very few men there, too – is a doorway flanked by smiling models distributing showbags, blinding strobe lights and a billowing smoke machine. It’s a fitting hero’s welcome to an event billed as “the ultimate man-cave experience”, but one at odds with the rest of the brightly lit space, which is filled with stalls marketing products – beef jerky, hunting knives, bar fridges, fitness equipment, rum – and experiences with names like “Blokes Weekend Off”. The entry fee is $17 for men and $3 for women.

    Sports cars and fishing boats are positioned on the outer rim of the room. Tabletop arcade-style video game consoles occupy the centre. Golf, cricket and beer pong are the sporting activities on offer. A barbecue demonstration proffers steak and brisket samples. Many manly eyes follow the four slim women in red bikinis and high heels as they slowly walk laps around the stalls, posing for photographs and flashing megawatt smiles at the mostly middle-aged crowd in attendance, some of whom have brought their young sons along.

    “Sometimes I still feel like a boy in comparison to my Dad,” Craig tells me while we sit on couches within a cordoned-off space dedicated to matchmaking. We are the only ones here, besides a bored-looking young bloke guarding a beer-filled fridge. “I look up to him because whenever he’s faced with a tough situation, he just hits a six and gets on with it. I try to do the same, but I haven’t got all my ducks in a row just yet. I feel that when I finally do, I’m then a man.”

    I’m struck by the realisation that I feel much the same way. Both of us were raised in loving homes by parents who married decades ago. Our fathers – mine a primary school teacher, his an electrician – remain positive influences in our lives, to the point where establishing our own identities is still something of a work-in-progress. Perhaps this is how it has always been for young men raised in the shadow of strong fathers.

    Both of us are unmarried and childless; I am in a long-term relationship, Craig is not. We are 25 year-old men who rent our homes rather than owning them. Neither of us has any significant personal assets. Earlier, an interaction with a financial planner had left a sour taste. “Money can’t buy you happiness, boys,” he told us while grinning like the Cheshire cat. “But it can buy you a bloody big boat to take you to the place where it is!”

    One of the bikini models sidles up to us, proffering back issues of the men’s magazine she was hired to promote today. “What do you think makes a man?” Craig asks her.

    “I like a good, old fashioned, manly man who works on the house, and in the backyard,” she replies. “He drinks beer, knows how to cook on a barbecue, lift weights – and has to know how to make a girl laugh, too.” Tara Mills, 23, tells us that she only landed this promo job a few hours earlier, after seeing a call-out for models on Facebook.

    “I can’t get over how different this atmosphere is to [annual adult entertainment exhibition] Sexpo,” she says. “I was a body paint model. I did it for free for a friend; I got painted and walked around. Five years later, I still do it. It’s so much fun there; you can talk to everyone. Here, I’m really struggling to mingle with the crowd, because there’s not much of one.” It’s true; for most of the day, it has seemed as though there are more salesmen here than paying men.

    I ask Mills – a recent graduate in the health services field, who is here today simply to earn some extra cash – how she feels about being objectified by the men in attendance. “I don’t have an issue with it, because I’ve put myself in this position,” she says. “I don’t think it’s sexual. It’s fun. Guys like girls in bikinis; I have no issues with being in a bikini.” She gives a coy smile. “I look good, so why not?”

    As the thin crowd of men disperses and stallholders begin packing up, I spy one of the wrestlers who entertained a crowd of dozens earlier in the afternoon. “Hey, Wolverine!” I yell. “Can I talk to you?” A stocky bloke in unremarkable clothing and a green-and-gold full-face mask strides over. As we shake hands, I introduce myself by my first name. “Luke,” he replies. “Oh, that’s my real name.” He pauses, then laughs. “I shouldn’t have told you that!”

    A few hours ago, Australian Wolverine did battle with Rufio, a lithe, shirtless young man in red-and-black trackpants. Though the wrestlers weren’t making full contact, their sheer physicality was among the manliest displays of the day. I ask the 30 year-old OfficeWorks night manager what a manly man looks like. He jerks his thumb at a nearby strongman, a strapping specimen of masculinity who stands posing for a photo with the petite frame of Mills sitting atop his outrageous biceps. With a cheeky grin visible beneath the white fangs that hang from his mask, the wrestler says, “Maybe that guy, with a couple more scars from knife fights – or from breaking his arm in the middle of a match.” He rotates his inner left forearm to show off a gigantic scar.

    I’m impressed. Clearly, this is a man willing to put his body on the line for entertainment’s sake. What other traits define a man? “His determination and dedication to whatever passion or work he does,” replies the Wolverine. “And just being a very genuine person, too. I find that’s a good manly trait, because I find being fake or lying to be very catty,” he says with a laugh.

    So where does wearing a mask fit into that ideal? He’s momentarily lost for words. “You’ve got me there!”