Festivals are back and that’s important. Every festival, from gargantuan to the esoteric, has a community around it, they have become part of our folklore, part of our cultural clock, a marker in the year, a celebration of a certain thing that happens over and over. Relationships build between a festival and its people, the longer the event sustains itself, the deeper those bonds become. No wonder that without them for the past couple of years so many of us have been floundering but now, in 2022, our touchstones and anchors have returned.
Supersonic is one of those much vaunted, much loved gatherings making a comeback from July 8th to July 10th in Birmingham. A staple on the city’s arts and cultural calendar since its beginnings as a one-dayer in 2003, the festival has steadily built a hefty reputation for being one of the leading platforms for experimental music and performance in the UK and way beyond. Over the years a roll call of significance that reads like The Wire magazine dream bill have pitched up at Supersonic, from Sunn O))) to Shit and Shine, Matmos to Melt Banana.
So you get the picture, Supersonic is out-there, outlandish and outrageously enticing. Plus, as is so often the case with such carefully curated events, it’s the stuff that goes on at the fringes, the currently ‘lesser known’ musicians, the workshops, the talks, the films, the installations that gives it that throb. There’s always a buzz of anticipation around the event which the 2022 line up inevitably looks set to raise yet again. A.A. Williams, Follakzoid, June of ’44, Old Man Gloom, Richard Dawson & Circle, The Bug & Flowdan, Jerusalem In My Heart and Big Brave are just a few of the sonic expressionists descending on Supersonic’s Digbeth site.
Ahead of the festival Backseat Mafia grabbed some of Artistic Director Lisa Meyer’s precious time to delve deeper into the what The Quietus maintains is “the mother of British underground festivals”.
For people who don’t know about Supersonic, what would you say gives the festival its identity?
First and foremost, it was created by Jenny (Moore) and I – as music fans with pretty eclectic taste – for other fans of music, and fundamentally I am programming the festival with that in mind. I am always thinking about the entire festival experience. It’s about bringing a global community together and considering how a fan would have the best experience possible from a line-up that is full of new discoveries, with great production, and being able to let loose and party in an atmosphere which is open and inclusive and where you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy what’s on offer. Also Supersonic was founded by women and the core team behind it are all women. We pride ourselves on our careful attention to detail, collaborative spirit, and there is a warmth and friendliness at the festival’s core, which creates a positive atmosphere both for the audience and backstage also.
Supersonic started in Birmingham and we have been very mindful to acknowledge a sense of place. Based in a post-industrial area of the city and with a heritage of bands like Black Sabbath, Napalm Death and Godflesh, we explore this heaviness, not just in terms of volume and amplification but we also explore ideas of great force, intensity and turbulence within music, and through a contemporary lens with artists like Divide & Dissolve and The Bug etc.
It’s the first time back since the Covid shutdown- how does it feel to be back up and running?
It’s both incredibly exciting, the idea of reconnecting with our audience, artists, and wider team but equally it’s pretty terrifying, let’s just hope the muscle memory kicks in!
You’ve been instrumental in delivering the festival since it began in 2003 – what changes have you seen over the years?
When we first started it was just an enormous endeavour to make the thing happen, we were so young and had no resources just youthful optimism, the very first Supersonic in 2003 had a line that included Coil, The Bug and LCD Sound System and we had no idea about things like health & safety. This all changed when a member of the audience dived into the pool that used to be at the Custard Factory, swam to the stage that was built over said pool and climbed on stage, dripping wet while Coil were performing. It was at that point that a friend turned to us and said that had the audience member electrocuted himself or the band then we would have ended up in prison. From then we had to start taking risk assessments and so on seriously.
Also in those days Digbeth was a bit like the Wild West and we could inhabit all manner of spaces to make creative stuff happen, this is not the case anymore with gentrification of the area. In fact we are no longer welcome to use the Custard Factory which was home to Supersonic for 10+ years as the whole complex doesn’t cater for culture and especially not live music anymore.
Another thing is the sheer saturation of festivals, when we started back in 2003 there really wasn’t anything like us, we set the blueprint for this type of festival, so now we have to work really hard to keep evolving and re-imagining the festival format so that we stay relevant.
Supersonic is very much a pan-arts festival – why do you think that is important?
I did a Fine Art degree, in fact that’s why I moved to Birmingham to go to art school and so the visual aesthetic has always been super important. I think what we’re trying to capture and showcase within the programme is the ecosystem that sits around alt/DIY/experimental music. So many of the musicians are also artists or graphic designers and so it’s important to share that creativity.
How significant is it for you that the festival has Birmingham as its home?
I think in the early days it felt really important that we had a very strong sense of place and made reference to the musical and industrial heritage of the city but post-pandemic I’m not sure this will be the case in the future. Our audiences travel from all over the country and further afield, our artists are national and international. Birmingham has not been a city that supports culture and nor does it embrace and celebrate Supersonic, in fact I often joke that if we can make it work here we could make it work anywhere, because we’ve worked against all odds in Birmingham. From very strict licensing laws that now prevent live music past 11pm, the warehouse spaces we once inhabited have been turned into novelty themed bars. The value of having some grit within the city that ultimately becomes a pearl is just not possible anymore. I’m excited about what the future might hold for us and where we could be working.
You have bands and artists who often return to perform at Supersonic year on year-what do you think is behind that loyalty?
I think that artists’ work evolves and so being on that journey with them and allowing them the space and platform within the festival to try out new collaborations or projects is a real privilege. We work hard to support artists in their vision, and provide great production values and an audience who is open minded and curious. We also have had a good track record of giving artists a platform early in their careers.
What for you does having guest-curators bring to the festival?
The beauty of working with guest curators is that they are bringing their expertise, their network and sharing that with us, exposing us to artists that might not be on our radar. It keeps the festival full of discovery, relevant and authentic. I love discovering new artists and that is such an asset that our guest curators bring, but also helps address wider socio-political issues and brings those discussions to the fore because of their experiences and backgrounds.
From all the years that Supersonic has been going, any particular moments or memories which stand out for you?
Oh gosh, running a festival is like a roller-coaster ride, so many amazing memories as well as nail biting moments. What I value the most though are the people. Supersonic is the greater sum of its parts, from incredible artists, to audiences that are not passive consumers but rather an integral part of the atmosphere and that sense of community and belonging. Then there’s our team, who really are like a big family, and of course not forgetting the cake, we consume a lot of cake…
To join in with the Supersonic experience (cake and all), you can get your weekend and day tickets now at: https://supersonicfestival.com/product-category/tickets/