If Tilley has grown up in that time, so has the station. What started as a Sydney-based oddity of the Whitlam government has become a national cultural icon, host of the world-renowned Hottest 100 countdown and a make-or-break platform for the country’s emerging artists.
The station’s veteran broadcasters “just love telling you stories about how wild they were in the 70s and the 80s, thereby inferring how lame and well-behaved we are [now]”, Tilley says.
“I’m constantly hearing stories from Simon Marnie, all those old legends. Keith Richards was in the studio smoking a joint and all that stuff. It often involves references to marijuana.”
These days Triple J blends the underground and the mainstream. “It always treads a fine line between being alternative enough to be cool but accessible enough that it provides value for money for the taxpayer and lots of people can enjoy it,” Tilley says.
He’s leaving Hack in the capable hands of Avani Dias, who has risen up the ABC’s reporting ranks through stints in Sydney and Darwin. Tilley says it was time for him to go.
“You know at Triple J you’ve got to leave at some point because you’re serving a young audience,” he says. “The target demographic is 18 to 24. Almost all of us are [older] – it’s just a question of when is the right time to hand it over.”
Tilley is going to step up his contributions to Network Ten’s The Project, fill in on ABC radio occasionally and finish a book he has been working on about his “fairly unusual” upbringing in the Pentecostal Revival Centres Church, whose adherents speak in tongues.
He had wrestled with doubts since he was 10. “But my whole family was in it, my dad was the local leader of the church,” Tilley says. “It took me until the age of 21 to finally break out of it. Through that process I really worked out who I was.”
Tilley says he spent his 20s “working and partying”, including a long apprenticeship in the country’s live music scene as the live bassist for indie pop act Client Liaison. In his 30s he rekindled his love of outdoor recreation, becoming “addicted to skiing” and suffering a bad motocross accident in 2017 while racing at Mudgee, where he grew up.
He also hits the waves at Tamarama with his girlfriend, interior architect Amanda Griffith. “She is schooling me in the surf and I’m schooling her on the slopes.”
Tilley may have matured but he reckons society has too. Young people are drinking less and eschewing nightclubs. Sydney has its own problems with nightlife but the whole industry is reckoning with how “the culture is changing around the way people go out”, he believes.
“Cafes have become the new nightclubs,” Tilley says. “That’s where you’re seeing the [music] line-ups, very popular ones. Which is healthy but sad.”
Somehow it feels unlikely that Triple J’s next big thing is currently doing the after-dinner set at some red sauce joint in the suburbs. But Tilley is adamant.
“There’s a vegan pasta restaurant in Bondi called Peppe’s that constantly has a line-up,” he says. “It is going off.”
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.