An introduction to Handmade Festival, a forward-thinking and totally independent music and arts festival in Leicester curated by some of the city’s best loved venues and promoters.
Nicola Greenbrook is in conversation with John Helps – one of the Festival Directors, a member of the band Maybeshewill and part of the music management collective Robot Needs Home.
We hear about how John has worked with his team to grow the project for the last four years and about his exciting plans for the 2016 festival.
For the uninitiated, how would you describe Handmade in your own words?
It’s a carefully curated music and arts festival in Leicester. We programme new, forward thinking and exciting music, comedy, art, film and photography over three days and multiple stages.
You’ve previously run White Noise Festival before turning your hand to Handmade. How do you go from having a lightbulb moment/’bedroom idea’ to actually making a massive 3-day festival happen?
White Noise was kind of the genesis of Handmade – I’d been running it twice a year but kind of came to the limits of what I could do with that model and I felt like it needed a new name and a fresh start in a new form, so Handmade came out of that. I think the transition from crackpot idea to festival actually only happened because I was wildly naïve about the amount of work it would take. If I’d actually known how much we’d need to put in to it I perhaps wouldn’t have started – but thankfully we put together an awesome team of people and now there are four partners in the festival who all put in a huge amount of work to make it happen. It’s a real labour of love.
Handmade has grown hugely over the last 4 years from a small DIY multi-venue event to a large-scale music, art, film and community experience. How do you ensure the Handmade blueprint and original DIY ethos is retained and what makes this so important to you and the team?
I think it would be impossible for the festival to exist without that DIY element to it – particularly in Leicester which isn’t hugely renowned for its music scene. It felt like this little secret which spread by word of mouth and was put together by a team who really love the festival and really loved making it happen – that’s all still there, and it’s still the same group of people learning how to do the jobs that the festival needs as it grows in size.
What’s the secret of your success?
I think just having people who care about it and want to spread the word about the festival working for us is more than money can buy. It’s a total team effort.
Tickets for the whole weekend are an impressive £30. Is an affordable ticket price something you’re keen to sustain for the future?
Yes, we’ll keep the ticket price as low as we can for as long as we can. Hopefully the festival can remain an event which is accessible to as many people as possible – it’s kind of priced for my friends who work part time jobs in bars and use the rest of their time to create music and art – if they’re able to attend then hopefully most other people are too.
The move from using reclaimed, historic spaces in the city centre to holding the festival at the O2 Academy in Leicester may have been seen as contentious by some, but as you still continue to use multiple re-purposed spaces around the building, hold after parties at Firebug etc and with an incredible 2015 lineup that included Slaves and Bo Bingen, do you feel you’ve been vindicated?
Absolutely. I think we could imagine how the festival would work in the new space long before some of our audience could – and when they came and experienced it it was very rewarding to see them reacting to that… kind of “aaaah, I see what you mean now”. Most people were on board from the the start – Leicester doesn’t have a lot of spaces that can be repurposed as larger venues so in order to accommodate the audiences and technical requirements of some of the artists we really wanted to bring in the move to the O2 Academy, it was pretty much a necessity. The experience of building those DIY venues is something we’ve retained in the new venues though.
The driving force behind Handmade seems to be the whole city’s creative community and volunteers, who put a great deal of imagination, ambition and care into delivering something so special. Was this your vision right from the start?
Yes and no. I hoped people would get on board with it and I kind of knew that we’d need them to… but I didn’t imagine quite how much support we’d get. It’s been really mind blowing actually how many people and organisations are prepared to support it. Even up to some of my favourite record labels, my old university and people I never imagined we’d ever get to work with on something.
Is it true you had to beg, steal and borrow to make Handmade what it is now (and who did you steal from?)
Ha! Yes, we’ve probably done all those things… We’ve only stolen in the metaphorical sense… I think…
I read in another interview you aim to seek out the best, forward-thinking artists you can. How do you go about doing this, where do you find your inspiration?
The four of us that contribute to the booking all work for music venues so we see new acts all day every day really. We all care a lot about music and art and comedy and want to translate that passion in to the best possible line-up we can. We value genuinely exciting music over “hype” so we choose the acts and artists that fulfil that criteria first and foremost.
65daysofstatic and We are Scientists are headlining for 2016, which is fantastic. How did this come about?
65daysofstatic were the first band on the first ever wishlist I made for the first festival and I’m excited that we finally managed to get them. We Are Scientists I’d never imagined we’d be a big enough festival to accommodate so they almost came out of the blue, but I’m incredibly proud that they’re gracing our main stage this year.
Tough one to answer but what’s been your most memorable / favourite act or headliner to date?
Christ, yeah that’s a tough one. I really loved watching Future Of The Left last year. Tall Ships have played nearly every year and are always awesome… Having And So I Watch You From Afar headline…
Who features on your dream festival line up?
I’ve actually managed to get most of them! I’d really love And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Refused, At the Drive In (both before they split up), Battles and Mew. Personal preferences all of them.
Robot Needs Home Collective are the creative force behind Handmade and White Noise festivals. Can you tell us a bit more about the collective?
We are a part of the creative force, yeah! These days there are four partners so everyone has input, but I suppose Robot Needs Home set out the template for it. It’s been the name under which I’ve promoted shows and released records for the last ten years and it’s now three or four people who take ownership of little projects – my buddy Cerys runs a lot of the shows for example – But it now also does tour logistics for bands and a bunch of other little bits and pieces to generate income which allows us to do the shows, records and the festival – all of which are essentially loss leaders!
Handmade 2016 takes place not long after the closing date of Maybeshewill’s final tour at KOKO in London (on 15 April). Will the festival feel celebratory or commiseratory for you and the band, or a bit of both?
There was a brief idea for the festival to be the band’s final show, but that proved too complicated to achieve. I have no idea how I’ll feel after that final show right now… It feels very far away and simultaneously scarily close.
How do you juggle being a festival curator/performer/promoter/engineer and a tonne of other stuff (as well as doing DIY).
Badly. I’m really good at working on the road, but I am always told I do too many different things. I often give myself headaches.
In a competitive festival market how do you ensure Handmade Festival’s voice is not only heard but shouts loudly?
By trying to be the best we can be. By serving Leicester and attracting people from further afield ideally!
You’re busy organising the final additions for this year’s festival and it’s set to be the biggest year yet. What can we expect from Handmade 2016? Any big announcements to entice an already interested crowd?
We’re just announcing Los Campesinos, Lonely The Brave and partnerships with Witchita records and BBC Introducing who will be curating stages! This is still incredibly exciting for us.
Tell me in 5 words why I should come to Handmade next year?
It’ll be completely awesome, alright?
Weekend tickets only: £30 // 29th April – 1st May 2016
Handmade Festival will be returning to Leicester’s O2 Academy over May bank holiday weekend (29th April – 1st May 2016) for three days of the finest music, comedy, art, film, performance and photography, hand-picked and carefully curated.
Weekend tickets are on sale now for just £30 from http://www.handmadefestival.co.uk
Interview by Nicola Greenbrook.
Nicola has her own great Blog here called Material Whirl http://www.materialwhirlblog.com/