Ten years of Supersonic.
At the turn of the century, Birmingham was not the place to go for the more experimental and exciting areas of music. Although considered the ‘home of metal’, it was a city blessed with excellent record shops and a willing audience, but a bare and unfocussed live scene.
Determined to change this Lisa Meyer and Jenny Moore created Capsule, which has since gone on to become an integral part of Birmingham’s music and arts scene. But perhaps their most high profile success is the annual Supersonic festival, which first took place in 2002.
Now in it’s tenth year, every October it turns Birmingham into the UK’s focal point for the more obscure underground, and as they put it themselves, ‘adventurous’ music and arts. Based in the city’s noted Custard Factory, it’s become a constantly evolving and vibrant fixture.
We spoke to Lisa Meyer about how and why Supersonic began, how it’s changed in the last decade, and where it’s headed next.
Lisa: We started Capsule in 1999. We were living in Birmingham but having to going to go all around the country to see bands we liked…the 1 in 12 in Bradford, all-dayers in Nottingham. I’d grown up in London and there was an expectation with Birmingham being Britain’s second largest city that there would be a lot going on, but in reality there wasn’t. There was also a quite bad reputation in terms of artists not getting paid and being ripped-off by promoters who didn’t really care about what you did, so I guess we came at it from a fans perspective – thinking ‘instead of travelling around the country, why don’t we make this happen here’. In 2000 we went to Sonar in Barcelona for the first time. They had a line up of Coil, V/VM, and Merzbow. We were absolutely blown away by it. It was a festival that wasn’t happening in a muddy field, rather it used cultural buildings where you could move from stage to stage. Also, it incorporated a really great exhibition of Berlin designers mixed with noise artists and performers – it really captured our imaginations. That’s really how it started.
Looking at that first line-up, there are some big names. How did you pull it off?
It was naive fluke to begin with. Because we were fans, we just wrote off to people. For instance we had LCD Soundsystem play at the first festival, just because we’d heard that first 12”, thought it was great, and sent an email to James Murphy saying ‘you’ve got to come and play Birmingham, it’s the home of Black Sabbath!’. And he came… I don’t think we realised the mechanics of what the industry had become and we approached it from a more naïve fan-base perspective.
…side-stepping people’s managers and that sort of thing?
Yeah, and appealing to what we hoped the artists were into in terms of their influences and what we were trying to pull together as an event. This isn’t the festival to come and get your massive payout. The artists come because they like the other people playing, or the setting, or because they get a chance to play a slightly different set or be more experimental.
Do you think if you’d tried to do this ten years earlier, before artists were so easily accessible through the Internet, that you’d have had the same success?
I’m not sure, I guess that people would write off to bands for fanzines and there’s always been tape swapping and finding out about music through word-of mouth. It would have been more difficult, but not impossible. These things have been happening for a long time, but the Internet has been amazing for us. When we first started Capsule, we emailed Don Caballero to try to put them on. I remember we used to go to this arts centre called Vivid, where if you volunteered you could use their Internet for free for an hour. So we’d write an email, come back a week later and be absolutely amazed that someone had replied to us. It wasn’t that instant gratification you get now where everything happens within seconds; at that point we were really excited that just a week later there was a response.
Did the fact that a number of people from bands that came out of Birmingham in the 80s, like Napalm Death and Godflesh, would later go on to develop more experimental side-projects influence the focus of the acts that play Supersonic?
Nik Bullen, Justin Broadrick and Mick Harris have all played in the past, and a couple of them are returning this year. Growing up in London I could clearly see the differences in how things worked in Birmingham. People didn’t necessarily wear what they were into on their sleeves so much; their tastes were more eclectic. Because there was such a small scene here people moved from genre to genre more and were constantly evolving ideas. In London I could go to the Camden Palace every week and see an amazing band, but in Birmingham we’ve had to build a scene, it takes more effort but there’s more capacity to be creative in how you make something happen.
How has it evolved now? The lineups are bigger, and it seems like there’s more room for even more avant-garde acts.
It feels completely different now to when we started. In 2002 it was a one-day event and it was pretty much just Jenny and myself. We did everything from cooking veggie chilli, to programming, to stage-managing. Now we have an enormous team with 90+ volunteers. There are so many people who buy into what we’re doing and they put a lot of love and energy into it. Also, we made the really clear decision to distinguish ourselves from other festivals happening in the UK and abroad. It was about giving a space to those more obscure acts, because being year-round programmers we know that putting them on at Supersonic will have more impact than a Tuesday night gig in May.
How do you decide on who’s playing – and how much does audience input affect that?
We aim for an open dialogue with our audience through Twitter, Facebook and our website; we ask what they want to see. We do a questionnaire after the festival too, so we listen to what they have to say and try to improve on elements every year. There’s so much stuff out there, our job as programmers is very much about going out and listening to things and seeing how they might fit.
How many people come these days?
About 1,500-2,000 per day over the weekend. People come from all over the world, and we pretty much close down the venue. It becomes very much like an urban village with people moving between stages, visiting the marketplace where there’s a number of record stalls set up, then maybe seeing a film or talk in the theatre space. For the artists and the audience it feels like a community over the weekend. It’s about exploring the lineup and what we’ve put together. Jenny and I both come from visual arts, rather than musical, backgrounds. As so many musicians have at least some involvement in the visual arts too, we incorporate that into the programme. The visual side of things is just as important as the music, and it’s yet another way for the audience to get involved. The Vinyl Rally we have this year is a perfect example of that. It combines sound, vision and technology. The audience members, and how they participate, determine what comes out of it.
Supersonic is something of an institution now, but unlike many festivals you take some risks and appear not to rest on your laurels. Do you ever worry that the next year could be the last?
The landscape changes all the time. We’ve never felt we can just book stuff and the people will come. It’s a constant push in terms of press and marketing. You’ve got to evolve all the time and listen to what your audience wants. You’ve got to develop that audience as well to keep the festival fresh. A lot of festivals can’t get by without major sponsorship from a drink company or mobile phone network.
Would corporate sponsorship be the death knell for Supersonic?
We do get sponsorship from The Kraken and Purity, but they’re companies that make sense for our audience, they’re often ale drinkers and they want good quality ale for example. To be able to put on this sort of line-up, it does need to be subsidized – and that has to come from sponsorship and the funding we receive from the Arts Council etc. It can’t be a McDonalds type sponsor, because our audience is very sassy, it has to be the right fit.
So you’d say you consider what people will actually enjoy first, over which company is offering the most sponsorship money?
Absolutely. Supersonic is about the attention to detail. It’s not just about the line up of live music, we think about what people will want to eat and drink. We have really good food stalls. It comes back to us as fans, we think about what we’d want to experience on a weekend like this. A couple of years ago we noticed many of our peers were starting to have children and bring them along, so we started doing kids shows. The kids loved things like Fuck Buttons and other acts that are very rhythmic. If you think about the mainstream media there’s no way for young people to find out about this sort of music. By the time you’re a teenager you think you know what’s cool and what’s not. So we decided to start putting on gigs for under-sevens and their families. Last year we had Lucky Dragons and The Berg Sans Nipple, this year we’ve got Islaja and Flower/Corsano Duo playing.
So do you think Supersonic has helped more people access ‘adventurous music’ as whole? It can be an insular world that doesn’t go out of its way to involve the wider public.
All our marketing material is quite playful, we never want to make people feel that if they don’t have prior knowledge or the whole back-catalogue of the artists involved that they somehow aren’t good enough to join in. It’s really important that we make everyone feel welcome. It’s very much at the core of what we do. Ultimately, people are giving up a weekend to come to this, so it shouldn’t feel like a hard slog. They should leave elated that they had a good time and listened to some interesting music. We’ve certainly been able to appeal to a wider section of the press and reach more mainstream publications. It’s an important platform for certain artists. Normally they might play to 50-60 people in a pub, but at Supersonic they could be playing to 1,000.
So what’s next? Does hitting the ten-year mark make you feel the need to change things?
I think it gives us an opportunity to consider what the next ten years might look like. Many festivals have become very focused on headline acts, but because we’ve chosen not to go down that route, we have to assess whether the festival grows in size or ambition. Is it about commissioning more interesting collaborations, rather than trying to go for bigger names? It’s those sorts of things that need to be weighed up for the future. How do we maintain our own identity in a music industry that becoming harder and harder to survive within?
Supersonic takes place between 19th-21st of October at the Custard Factory, Birmingham, England.
Words by James Barry