For the second episode of our Q&A-series dedicated to world-music festivals and their protagonists, we did things in grand-style, with possibly the most gargantuan one happening in the UK; a good-and proper cultural experience.
Boomtown Fair goes far and beyond the usual idea of a music festival. It is indeed a town dedicated to music in all its forms and shapes, and little matters if it’s a makeshift one with a lifespan of five days; it’s something you can only live there and once.
Each edition presents a unique theme and an overwhelming line-up, but also features a firm social and even political commitment to make the world a better place. From inclusivity to a green mission, and from diversity to a community spirit, Boomtown Fair boosts purposes transcending the music sphere.
To have a clearer idea about the festival, its aims and musical offerings, we reached its “mythological” main music programmer, Kaptin Barrett.
Can you give us a brief history of Boomtown Fair?
Would you like the version which includes aliens, time travel, revolutions and corporate takeovers?!!
In all seriousness, Boomtown is an independent festival with roots in many underground scenes. It first started a decade ago when a small group set out to create their vision of how a festival should be; a creative combination of music, and theatre which pushed the traditional festival boundaries in all directions. Over the years it has grown immeasurably and eventually we were building a whole city each year with multiple districts which were home to over 1,000 acts across dozens of stages and genres. The festival is underpinned by a narrative that evolves year on year. As we have grown the story has become more integral to the event and now with over 1000 performers bringing it to life, it pretty much leads the festival.
How did you first become involved with Boomtown and what is it like to be a music programmer of such a large-scale event?
I started in Chapter 2 as a Town Crier, then I was Mayor in Chapter 3 before being voted out and becoming Sheriff. These days I’m just plain old Head Of Music, which is actually a lot more work but probably better suited to my experience. I’d love to throw you a load of rock n’ roll stories about the life of a festival music programmer but mostly it’s spreadsheets and a never-ending stream of emails. I do get access to a ridiculous amount of music, however.
What really sets Boomtown apart from the UK’s other festivals?
The theatrical element is definitely unique, at least on the scale we do it. As well as the main storyline and the way that comes to life throughout the festival. There’s a massive interactive game, an app, and dozens and dozens of little venues that have different ways of becoming a character in our story. Also, the scale of our production is pretty ridiculous for a festival our size, for those who don’t know, we basically build a whole city from scratch.
Can you describe the process of curating each district, the annual theme and the immersive theatrical element that goes along with it all?
Basically, it’s split into 12 different districts, all with a unique character. Both the music and the theatrical elements are relative to each area; so in Diss-Order Alley you get a lot of punk, ska and metal whilst up in Oldtown it’s more folk, Balkan and roots music. Each year is a different chapter though so the stages and even the districts are ever changing. This year we have a new district called AREA 404 with a massive techno line up featuring the likes of Carl Cox, Four Tet and Amelie Lens, as well as acid techno legends and rave pioneers such as SP23 (aka free party legends Spiral Tribe).
This year’s theme is called A Radical City; Can you give us a little hint of what’s in store or what inspired it?
Making the festival less wasteful and more sustainable is our priority. To do that we need a radical shift in how we approach things and this year you will find many new measures in place to help that along. Chapter 11 is the start of a new narrative and you’ll see that radical mindset brought to life within the storyline.
Which acts have you been eager to book in the past and would like to see turn up in the future?
Oh so many! I was really happy to have Gorillaz last year and they put on a fantastic show but we’ve never had Damon Albarn’s African Express project, despite having a number of the featured artists. We’ve also been chatting to Manu Chao for years but we’ve not managed to lock him down for a show yet.
What is your favourite district within the Fair and why?
That’s a tricky one as they’re all so different! I love escaping to Whistlers Green which is where we have our workshops, talks tents and healing fields. It’s also a great place to watch some jazz or soul at the Lighthouse stage. When I’ve been running around for hours I tend to go up there and recharge. As a DJ (AAA Badboy) though you’ll generally find me playing at Paradise Heights, where this year I’m on the Tropical Tea Party line up with Ghanaian reggae star Stonebwoy, Daniel Haaksman, Nickodemus, Emily Dust, Jus Now and the Beating Heart boys amongst others and I’ll also be part of the soca takeover at Hotel Paradiso.
Boomtown has recently announced its Green Mission in its bid to minimise its impact on the environment. Can you give us more information and how can visitors get involved?
Our planet is precious and Boomtown isn’t prepared to put on an event that damages it. We’ve radically overhauled our approach operationally, banned the sale of single-use plastic, and brought in compostable cups to all bars, plus all serveware is compostable. We’ve added a load of initiatives on the ground to make it as easy as possible for the public to reduce, recycle, and reuse! plus we have our public transport saver ticket offering, pre-pitched camping options so people don’t have to bring tents. Top tips are: only bring what you need, take your tent home and use the recycling bins. You can also volunteer and become a Boomtown Eco-Warrior. The list is endless.
What are the common misconceptions about Boomtown that you’d like to erase?
There are so many because nobody can really describe it succinctly enough and everybody’s experience can be so vastly different. There are many who spend their time down at Dstrkt 5 who couldn’t imagine Boomtown as a family-friendly festival but they hardly ever make it to the main body of the festival, let alone up to our amazing kids field and forest school. I also don’t think people quite realise the amount of different music we have but it’s one of the most diverse line-ups you’ll find in the UK.
And finally on a wider issue, one of the biggest festival myths that we are trying to bust is that tents are recyclable and leaving your tent behind is a charitable move! No!! Tents aren’t single-use plastic items, they are multi-material and can’t be recycled and by the end of the festival most cheap tents are not reusable. We have salvage teams but only a very small percentage are able to be saved and put to good use! Invest in your tent and take it home!
What have been your Boomtown highlights over the years?
Again so many! I’ve seen many bands play some of their best sets at Boomtown from Cat Empire to Fat Freddy’s Drop but I think the reggae artists have given us some of the most memorable performances. Anthony B, Jimmy Cliff, Toots & The Maytals, Johnny Osbourne are just a few that spring to mind. Kabaka Pyramid is another one, very happy to have him back this year.
Taking place in August should be a safe bet, but British weather can still be unpredictable. Is this a concern or is the Fair too hot to allow wet spells to dampen spirits?
We’re not completely impervious to it but it’s mostly during the build that it causes the real problems. One of my all-time favourite sets was The Skints in the pouring rain. There were thousands of people having the time of their lives and the band just seemed to play even harder despite having their equipment soaked. We also have incredibly good site drainage and plenty of indoor venues if people really aren’t keen.
Brexit is influencing so many industries across the board that it’d be hard not to discuss it in relation to the music sector. How might this uncertainty impact on your festival in the next few years?
I think the main issue is just making the UK a less desirable place to tour, both financially and culturally but hopefully, the many bands we bring in from Europe and all over the world will still want to come and play for us. I think it will be tougher for UK bands wanting to tour in Europe though. Most of the younger up and coming bands aren’t used to things like visas and carnets and the extra costs could hit them pretty hard. That said if the Pound crashes even harder against the Euro as it’s likely to, maybe the European budgets will be worth it still.
Although festivals each try to carve out their own niche, there are also overlapping themes, genres and artists. How competitive are festivals over the same resources and is collaboration encouraged to ensure a more level playing field?
My experience is festival folk tend to look out for each other regardless but that’s not to say there isn’t the occasional conflict of interest. I’ve always had a good relationship with other festivals though and I think the UK has grown an incredible scene over the past decade or so.
Outside of or including Boomtown, what has been the best performance you have ever witnessed as a festival goer?
Much as I’d love to pick something from Boomtown and there have indeed been some of the best performances ever there, I think in all honesty it would be Prince at Hop Farm festival a few years back.
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