When it comes to great pubs, great football teams, and great underground electronic music, Londoners tend to forget how much they’re spoilt for choice. For all the talk about how Lisbon, Marseille, Berlin or Miami is really where it’s all going down right now; none of these cities really go toe-to-toe with London in terms of variety and quality of the line-ups on offer, week in, week out. Waterworks festival, which for many London ravers is now considered the final entry in a long season of outdoor day festivals before a return to clubland, aims to highlight that scene.
The festival emerged two years ago out of a fruitful partnership between London’s Percolate (who are known for their work behind GALA and Body Movements) and Bristol based Team Love (who run the Croatian festival Love International and Bristol’s own Love Saves the Day); both some of the most respected full time independent promoting companies on the scene. Simon Denby, the co-founder of Percolate, also enlisted the help of Sandy Marris, a former agent and current artist manager who had reams of experience and connections with the types of artists that Waterworks was particularly interested in highlighting.
Marris explains, “we had known each other for years, but it came together over two particular lunches once Simon had heard that I was stopping my agency work. We were really trying to think about how we could do something different and specific to London.” The team weren’t really trying to make the next Field Day, but instead took inspiration from smaller city festivals in Europe like a festival in The Hague called The Crave that manages to pack major production quality into a small urban park space while also highlighting mostly local, smaller name artists.
With that partnership in place, that left the crucial task of finding a workable open air venue within the relative boundaries of the capital. Although London is known for its vast expanses of green space (and many of its parks are in common use for music events, ranging from Sam Fender’s recent outing in Finsbury Park to the mighty All Points East in Victoria park at the end of August), finding the right untapped site that was large enough for the Waterworks’ needs while simultaneously fulfilling the requirements of legitimate sound quality (which tends to be crucial for the mix of electronic music the crew aimed to offer) proved to be a long term challenge. “That was our requirement – basically, if you’re going to do a festival like this and you can’t have good sound, then why even bother” Marris explains.
After one East London site fell through due to neighborhood complaints over sound and disruption, the organisers landed at the festival’s current home, in Gunnersbury park, a leafy enclave in West London and, paradoxically, an area not particularly known for its nightlife. Key to Waterworks’ ability to put together high quality sound systems there was the choice of sacrificing a legitimate main stage (and true-blue headliners) in favor of several smaller, similarly sized stages with greater parity across the line-up in terms of volume and draw to punters.
As Denby explains, that decision stems from a simple numbers game – “if you have one massive stage with a big headliner and big sound, you’re much more likely to get complaints from the local residents because that stage has to project to many more individual punters at once, and so the sound spreads further. With big acts as well, you can often have requirements from big acts or their management that want to be a certain degree louder than the act before them.” By splitting things up into smaller pieces, and dividing the crowd up more evenly, each stage needs to project less but is much more enjoyable to the actual punters standing next to it.
That attention to detail attracted thousands of ravers to the event’s first edition last year, which sold tickets like hotcakes as people were crying out for a good party after the pandemic related lockdowns and hype had built up around the new, untapped event. This year, sales were a bit slower, in line with much of the industry’s ongoing challenges, especially as expenses have increased and attendees have less money in their pocket to spend on going out.
Another spanner in the works this year was the unexpected death of the Queen and the ensuing ten days of national mourning. Many, many cultural and sporting events around London were forced to cancel their proceedings, such as the Hackney carnival and the Mercury Prizes, and Waterworks’ organisers made the difficult decision to go ahead despite some outside objections because cancellation merely days before the event’s intended date (with a build already underway and dozens of artists booked) would have meant complete loss of wages for hundreds of industry workers and staff during a cost of living crisis, which didn’t seem like a feasible option.
With the cautious go-ahead, and buoyed by a bright and crisp morning, many attendees turned up nice and early for this year’s edition, which kicked off proceedings with great DJs like the residents behind one of London’s best queer parties, Big Dyke Energy, as well as party-starting sets from key local talents like Hyperdub’s Shannen SP, Radio 1 Host Ahadadream and the NTS resident Shy One. Little had changed in terms of the stage design and feel of the festival; Marris explains that this year’s edition saw some specific improvements to things like artist monitoring and stage tweaks that may not have been immediately apparent to return attendees but would allow artists to perform at their best.
You could accuse the stages at Waterworks, though not distinctly billed as such, as pulling at a particular through-line in terms of music fan – Cedar might be for the minimal, vinyl fetishising, Fabric at 8AM types, hosting Berlin’s The Ghost and Craig Richards; the Water Tower is good for come-one-come-all rave accessibility (this year featuring Moxie, Bradley Zero, and Scottish party vets Optimo); Hi-Hat might be for people who like their music fast and hard (Yazzus, SPFDJ, Batu); Siren, co-hosted by Resident Advisor, is for drum and bass and soundsystem culture and this year hosted, naturally, Digital Mystikz.
Those through lines could be seen as limiting, but Waterworks cleverly bills those artists in a way to make the seams of their genres not as distinct as they might have been – for example, Orbit this year hosted many different styles of music but championed queer DJs throughout who represent the strength, diversity, and importance of the queer london scene on the rest of club culture. Calibre, the cult drum and bass producer, happens to be a good friend of Craig Richard’s, and followed the Fabric resident’s killer electro set on the Cedar stage this year. The festival even features several different types of speaker manufacturers and sound systems between stages so as to better represent slight variations in style and feel of the music.
That said, a few of the newest sounds on the block did feel a bit underrepresented given their current popularity, like the recent explosion of South African amapiano, but it’s a small gripe given the quality and quantity of the rest of the bookings; from the screaming rhythms from first lady of drum and bass (DJ Storm) to the heady emotional house of Schatrax’s live set and the obscure wormhole trance of Spekki Webbu and Jane Fitz.
Giving themselves the vast, not-so-easy task of “celebrating electronic music culture in London”, you have to admire the effort the Waterworks team has put together; despite all the on-going venue challenges, the rise in expenses, and an almost once-in-a-century monarchal event. Closing the proceedings at the Pressure stage this year, South London’s Ben UFO dropped a lethal recent tune from North London’s own Halogenix; the sort of sizzling modern drum and bass where every frequency from bottom to top was surely fussed over in a studio for maximum impact and would have been completely lost on a lesser rig at a different festival. In direct sightline of the capital’s buildings and in the open air, a joyous local crowd could enjoy every inch of it – and that’s something certainly worth celebrating.
Words: Louis Torracinta
Photography: Sienna Lorraine Gray / Khroma Collective