Handmade Festival is back from 1 to 3 May 2015 at its new home, Leicester’s O2 Academy. With a fantastic lineup already taking shape, including Future of the Left, Eagulls, Slaves and so much more, we caught up with the man responsible for pulling it together.
He’s an events organiser, tour manager, 1/5th of renowned intrumental band Maybeshewill and he’s even launched a new merchandise company. Yes, Handmade Festival Director, John Helps, is a busy man, but we caught up with him for 10 minutes to find out a bit more about his passions behind the event.
What first gave you the idea to put on Handmade Festival?
I’d been running a small scale local music festival with some friends called White Noise Christmas for about five years prior to Handmade, but it was beginning to feel like it had run its course. We’d just learnt that there wouldn’t be a Summer Sundae event in Leicester in 2013 so it felt like there was a bit of a musical void approaching and we thought it would be a nice idea to take some of the bits of live music that we really loved and put something together – not to replace it, but just so there was some kind of event which brought the local music community together for a weekend. We’d seen similar ideas like Off The Cuff in Birmingham, which were small scale events with a really nice atmosphere, and bigger things taking place across whole cities like Tramlines, The Great Escape and Live at Leeds – so we aimed for somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum to make something that fitted with our idea of what a ‘boutique, city centre arts festival’ should be.
Has the festival progressed how you envisaged it would when starting it?
I suppose so – i don’t think we really had any aspirations to grow it from the start. We just wanted to see if it was possible to create something that would work in Leicester, and I think we managed it from the start. It’s grown out of necessity really – to make it sustainable and to serve the demand we’ve seen for it.
What sparked the move over to the O2 Academy this year?
Supporting Leicester’s independent music community is immensely important to me – It’s part of why the festival exists in the first place – so it was a big decision to make the move up New Walk and out of the city a bit. One of the downsides of having stuff spread all over the city centre is that you don’t really perceive the scale of the event – it’s hard to feel like you’re part of this wider spread of people moving from place to place to watch music. I think the atmosphere once we bring everything under one roof will be incredible. It’s also been increasingly hard to create spaces with enough capacity and production standards within the city centre to bring in the slightly bigger names that we’ve been aiming for, so that was a factor. This year the festival is booked by myself and Matt Kirk from Firebug, Nik from The Cookie and Andy Wright, who used to own The Charlotte and who has been responsible for so much of what Leicester’s music scene is today, so all of us are invested in making the city a better place for music, and that’s totally at the heart of the decision to move to the O2 Academy. I think it’s important that we support them so they can work to put the city on the map a bit more, which in turn trickles down to the smaller venues – that’s a very important ecosystem to have work well.
How do you feel the move is going to change the festival from previous years?
I hope it will be entirely positive. I know people will miss those unusual spaces, and that’s something we’re really hoping to bring back in future years, but i think we’ll have an all-round more impressive event, and one that really starts to make a mark nationally – not just in the city. That’s the aim i suppose.
Do you only programme acts that you would personally want to watch?
Between the group of us, yes, absolutely. I think it’s what makes the festival’s bills interesting. You do have to think about selling tickets, but i think if the music is good and interesting people recognise that.
You, yourself, are in a band that’s enjoyed success and festival appearances. Which is more fun; organising or performing?
Ha! Performing is infinitely less stressful i suppose. I tend to be a pathological organiser and i think the satisfaction comes from getting the festival done and breathing a sigh of relief on the Sunday, or getting to the end of a tour and feeling like it was a success… I don’t know why i like that, but i do.
If money was no object who would be your dream headliner?
We talk about this a lot… Battles, Trail of Dead, Refused, American Football, Shellac, The National… A lot of American or international bands that at the moment it would be very difficult for us to get over to this country.
What’s been your proudest moment since you first came up with the idea to begin Handmade?
The last two years the festival has always culminated with a band closing in Firebug and it’s been absolutely full to capacity. That is very satisfying, not least because it’s nearly over and i can contemplate sleeping again, but because it’s been apparent by that point that people have had a good time.
Which festivals do you look to for inspiration in terms of lineup and atmosphere?
Two of our curators – Two Thousand Trees and ArcTanGent have always been a big inspiration and a big help to us. They’re incredible events run by really good people. I used to love the All Tomorrows Parties festivals held in Butlins holiday camps, which is part of the inspiration for bringing everything under one roof i suppose. Truck Festival in Oxfordshire, which was the first smaller festival i went to, and of course Summer Sundae have both provided little bits of ideas and the seeds for creating something i guess.
Would you consider taking Handmade further afield to other cities, or do you feel it works well as it is as a Leicester city festival?
We know and love Leicester. Having two sites would be interesting, but being in the Midlands that perhaps doesn’t make sense. Maybe one day… I think growing the festival and contributing to the city’s musical ecosystem is more important at the moment.
Other Leicester and midlands festivals have suffered cancellations and poor attendances in recent years, why do you think Handmade has succeeded in growing whilst others have fallen by the wayside?
We don’t actually think too hard about that. We concentrate on making something that we would like to go to, and that other ‘music’ fans would enjoy – making the bill as interesting as possible and keeping the quality high. We don’t necessairily pick acts because we think it will sell a lot of tickets – I think people know when they’re being patronised and they react against it. I’m really proud of the fact that we get people travelling *really* far to come to Handmade – i think that’s testament to the line-ups so far.
How do you feel the state of the Leicester music scene is now compared to 5 years ago?
We have so many great venues and promoters and some awesome acts making waves nationally, but in general i think the grass roots community aspect of the music scene has faded in recent years. There certainly aren’t as many really good bands about, or so many people making really interesting music. Five years ago it felt like there was a ‘scene’ and i’m not sure that’s as much the case. Maybe i’m just getting old.
Who are your bands to watch for this year?
It’s tough to pick highlights… I love a lot of the headliners – particularly Future of the Left and Bo Ningen, but it’s the smaller bands that get me really excited. Leicester’s Buenos Aires are reforming for a one-off show, which is incredible, Tall Ships, Tellison, Woahnows, Theo, Katie Malco…. I could probably just list the whole line-up really.
Who are the best and worst bands you’ve seen live?
The best festival set i’ve seen was Portishead at Pukkelpop festival in Belgium this year. They were really intense and a band i’ve wanted to see for a really long time. Worst bands? I made it in to ‘Don Broco read mean tweets’ earlier in the year, so i can’t have enjoyed them that much… There is a Leicester band who i won’t name who when i saw them the singer looked like he was going to be sick in to a pint glass the whole set… he had to keep sitting down and spitting in to it. That’s perhaps the worst thing i’ve ever seen.
You’ve got 10 words to tell readers why they should spend £35 on a weekend Handmade ticket. Go.
It’s really good and please don’t bankrupt us thank you.
Handmade Festival is at O2 Academy, Leicester from 1 to 3 May 2015. More info and tickets can be found on the Handmade Festival website.