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Circulus - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 24 / 9 / 2009

Circulus - Interview


Ben Howarth speaks to Barry Hogan, the promoter of All Tomorrow's Parties, about the evolution and some of the challenges of his alternative rock festival over the last decade

In 1999, Stuart Murdoch, lead singer of Belle and Sebastian, dreamed up the idea of an alternative to the typical British music festival, hosted at a holiday camp (Butlin’s - more usually host to cabaret acts aimed at families with young children) and modelled on the Soul Weekenders of previous decades. Having been enlisted to promote the event which was entitled the Bowlie Weekender, and help Belle and Sebastian put together their dream line up, Barry Hogan was smitten. When Belle and Sebastian decided not to make it an annual event, he took over, enlisting Mogwai as the first curators of All Tomorrow’s Parties. The festival, about to celebrate its tenth anniversary, has now been commemorated in a documentary film, which flips between footage taken in the Butlin’s chalets by fans attending the events, and clips of the many artists that have played - climaxing in a staggering performance by the great Patti Smith. All Tomorrow's Parties (ATP) really isn’t anything like any other festival. I have fond memories of 2p slot machines, watching Arsenal play a midday Premiership fixture in an extremely ‘local’ pub, a diet of chips and fried egg sandwiches cooked on the mini-stove in the chalet and of the rickety train that took us to Camber Sands holiday park from the nearby village of Rye. In amongst watching some staggering music (post-rock forefathers Slint, reforming especially, headlined the year I went in 2005), we waded through snow and tried desperately to get maximum benefit from the heaters in the Chalets. None of these experiences made it into the documentary, but then I didn’t film them. And yet, the film allows the fans - rather than Barry Hogan or his curators - to show what ATP meant to them. Barry Hogan does appear in the film, but only fairly briefly. Pennyblackmusic took it upon ourselves to imagine what a less egalitarian filmmaker might have asked. As he prepared for the release of the film, the ATP head honcho sat down and answered our questions. PB: The documentary film seemed less to be the story of the festival and more a presentation of what it would be like to anyone thinking of coming in the future. Given that, I’ll start by asking what you see as the main qualities that have made the ATP festival popular and successful? BH: When ATP started there weren’t any other alternative festivals. We were pioneers of bringing together decent music and presenting in a fashion that wasn’t dictated by cheap nasty lager companies or what was trendy in magazines. All you had then, were big festivals like Reading, V, and Glastonbury, so we started ATP to offer an alternative. I think the reason it has remained successful is the fact that it's remained true to the concept of presenting a curator's wish list on a live stage so that each line up is still exciting fans and bands who play at it. Nowadays, anyone who has been to a gig at their local pub thinks they are a festival promoter and there are hundreds of events every year and most have one motive and that is to make money, which is pretty sad really. PB: What ambitions you have for All Tomorrow’s Parties that you have yet to achieve? BH: I’d love to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse play for us or Kraftwerk. Both are artists we adore at ATP but have never had the chance to present. PB: All Tomorrow’s Parties grew out of the Bowlie Weekender. How involved were you in the Bowlie Weekender, and how did that one-off event expand into a long running event? BH: I helped develop the Bowlie event with Neil Robertson, the then-manager of Belle and Sebastian and Stuart Murdoch. They approached me as I was their London promoter and came to me and said they’d like to an event in a holiday camp. The initial idea was to present bands that the Belles liked and I promoted the Bowlie event and thought it was going to be an annual affair with the Belles at the helm but they decided after one attempt to keep it unique. So, with their blessing I asked could I continue the event and renamed it All Tomorrow’s Parties and wanted to focus on the curator aspect. I also wanted the artwork to stand out and be exciting as well as the line ups. A complete opposite to what other festivals were trying to flog. PB: Over time, it seems that the tone of the music at ATP has changed, quite significantly, with an ever greater emphasis on broadly experimental music. Do you agree with that assessment, and if so, why do you think that has happened? BH: Yes, and I am glad. If we did ten years or just guitar orientated indie music it would be so boring. The idea of a different curator each time meant it was a different interpretation each time. And it would mean you would get so many varied line ups that were experimental and bringing together so many great acts on one weekend. PB: Do you select curators with an idea of the sort of bands they would bring with them in mind? Have any curators particularly surprised you with their choice of music? BH: Yeah, I always try and research what curators are into. I remember when we asked Tortoise – I had been to John McEntire’s house and saw his great record collection, so much stuff from Autechre and Stasis to Fela Kuti to Television and thought their eclectic approach would make for a good mix tape. Its all about what kind of mix tape they’d have. Some take to it like ducks to water. Thurston Moore is a great curator, as he has endless knowledge and lists of bands no one else on this earth would present. Same for Mike Patton - he tested me with so much stuff. He has outlandish taste but his record collection must be some next level shit. What’s so exciting doing this is sometimes I get presented with names of acts I have never heard of and after sourcing them, I stumble upon secret hidden treasures. PB: The film relied a lot on the experiences of the festival audience rather than the bands – somewhat surprising given that it is the festival that gives the bands far more space and time than any other. Have you ever been surprised by the response of the audiences and has the kind of people who come to ATP changed the way you run it? BH: No, we just design the festival to be something we would like to attend. It's always been like that. We pick curators who we think are going to have interesting and diverse music and film choices. We always want the audiences to appreciate what is being offered but if they don’t like it, there’s plenty more things on offer now since we started. PB: What have been your favourite memories from the first decade of ATP, and which performances have especially stood out? BH: It’s hard to say any one thing, but I was blown away watching Sleep in May. It was like Black Sabbath had babies and they formed a band performing the heaviest shit I have seen in years. I like seeing bands wander round the site checking out new music and I remember Nick Cave saying that ATP reaffirmed his faith in music, both him and Warren Ellis were running around from one act to the next and it was exciting to see people get that psyched about music - that’s why we got into this business in the first place, because we were moved by records or bands that changed our life. I don’t know if ATP will ever change people’s lives but its definitely influenced a lot of events that take place now and opened new parameters about what can be presented. PB: I would say that the development and obvious popularity of the ATP festival has given a lot of confidence to and even artistic legitimacy to experimental and independent music – giving it a separate identity rather than leaving it to scrap for a place on the margins of mainstream popular music. Do you sense that the way people approach music from bands like Sonic Youth or Nick Cave has changed in the decade you’ve been running the festival? BH: Yes definitely – I think people have started to experiment and it's been healthy. I like it when artists like Radiohead decided to listen to Autechre and Aphex Twin and re-think how they presented their music. I think the albums past 'OK Computer' were the best ones they did, to be honest. PB: Another development which, again, I would argue has come straight from ATP is that other promoters have developed festivals on similar terms – such as the Green Man festival, Field Day and the End of the Road especially. Has the existence of this ‘competition’ altered your approach to ATP in any way? BH: I don’t see those or any festivals as competition. Some of them have merit, some don’t. Will they all still exist in ten years? I am sure one of them might get tempted by money and sell their soul to a bigger company and the ethos they started with will change as new people will be in charge. I like what Green Man are about, but I don’t think the line ups of those events can be compared to ours as they are chosen by the same people every year. What keeps ATP alive is the guest curator having a different take on what will make up the bill. PB: You’ve hosted the events at holiday parks in Camber Sands and Minehead, which became famous in the 1950s and 1960s as budget holiday destinations, open to all of society. In the film, there are clear attempts to tie ATP together with that legacy, but many would argue that – in reality – ATP is rather an elitist event. Does that bother you, do you think it is fair and would you do anything specifically to counter that view? BH: It does bother me, because I don’t think it is true. ATP is not elitist at all. Bloc Party said that in NME that we were elitist. But I think they are upset because no one has picked them and they would like to play. ATP simply, has a concept that invites a curator to select the line up. If someone isn’t picked for that particular line up, it is because the curator was looking at different things or maybe hasn’t heard of them. If people make great music, then they will be selected eventually. We respect our curator's choices and unless they are on the wish list they cant play. ATP is like a wedding. You get invited and don’t ask to perform. PB: Finally, how are the forthcoming ATP festivals shaping up… are there any potential surprises and which bands are you most excited about? BH: I am excited by the two Xmas ATPs. Both are killer line ups, but I am most happy to say we reached the 10 year milestone. Because a lot of people doubted the success of 3000 like minded individuals coming to a holiday camp out of season and, God forbid, enjoying good music. Well as you can see, we are still going and waiting for that call to get a real job. PB: Thank you.

Visitor Comments:-
239 Posted By: Andrew McMillen, Brisbane, Australia on 09 Dec 2009
This was a great interview, thanks.

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