Wide Awake: the tale of the acclaimed, punk-inspired festival that bucked the COVID trend

 

The London shindig, named Best Small Festival at the BandLab NME Awards 2022, is back with Bicep and Amyl and the Sniffers on the bill. It reflects our “post-everything era”, hears Ali Shutler

 

Last year’s inaugural Wide Awake Festival was, according to Charlie Steen, frontman of its headliners Shame, “a celebration of independent bands who’d come up through independent venues and worked really fucking hard.” Also featuring sets from Yard Act, IDLES, Black Midi, Goat Girl and Self Esteem, the 25,000-capacity one-day event, held at south London’s Brockwell Park, was a monumental victory for the DIY community and was fittingly awarded Best Small Festival at the BandLab NME Awards 2022 in March.

“There was such an exciting British music scene – why wouldn’t we embrace it, do as much as we can to help it and celebrate it?” booker Keith Miller says of Wide Awake’s vision.

A few months after the September event, once the dust had settled, two things happened: the organisers were told that deep house duo Bicepwould be up for playing in 2022, and an opportunity arose to grow the festival to two days. Miller knew that expanding Wide Awake, as well as broadening the festival’s sonic identity, was “high risk” but, he says, “I’m a promoter. I’m used to gambling.”

When Bicep headline the Friday of Wide Awake 2022, which will be held next month, they will top a bill of exciting experimental electronic acts including Working Men’s Club, Fat Dog, PVA and Regressive Left. The Saturday will see rock legends Primal Scream perform ‘Screamadelica’ in full alongside appearances from Amyl And The Sniffers, Dream Wife, Sorry and Fat White Family.

It’s an eclectic bill but all the bands carry themselves with the same punk attitude and progressive vision. “There’s a DIY aesthetic running through the line-up. They’re all acts that just follow their gut and do what they love,” says Miller. “Look at Primal Scream. Look at Yard Act. Members of those bands were making music for years before they found any sort of success. They’re a testament to younger bands to keep going, to keep chasing your dreams.”

Launching a brand new festival in 2021 was a ballsy move, especially when you consider the years of COVID-enforced postponements, cancellations and financial woes that had impacted every corner of the events industry. The festival was rescheduled multiple times and the line-up was constantly shifting. “It was very tense,” admits Miller. “But it’s been a tense few years. We, like a lot of people from the grassroots scene, just had to get on with it.”

That tension didn’t go away with the easing of restrictions, either. “It’s always scary until the last minute. IDLES had a COVID scare the night before, and we scrambled to get Sleaford Mods on standby (though fortunately it was a false alarm),” says Miller. “There was a degree of dipping our toes into the water, to see how that first year went. If it was a total disaster, we wouldn’t be back this year.”

What, then, makes Wide Awake such an award-winning outlier? “The festival offers something a bit different,” he says. “It’s an independent event and there was a real gap for a band-led discovery day in London. It’s about giving new acts a chance and a platform to go on and do as well as they can.”

Wide Awake came about after Miller, who runs the music promotion company Bad Vibrations, was approached by festival director Marcus Weedon. The pair had previously worked together on the London festival Field Day and Whedon suggested putting on another at Brockwell Park, sharing production costs with pop knees-up Mighty Hoopla and the soul, funk and jazz party Across The Tracks, one-day events that already took place on the site. The brief was loose: “Just do whatever you want”. So Miller decided to celebrate the grassroots music scene they’d been championing for years at London venues like The Moth Club, Shacklewell Arms and The Windmill.

Shame came up through Brixton’s 150-capacity Windmill, and Charlie Steen explains that “venues like [that] are a core artery to the UK scene, adding: “So much creativity goes on there. Their importance can’t be matched.” Shame, who spearheaded the late 2010s South London post-punk scene, which in turn opened the door for post-punk groups such asFontaines DC to storm the charts, wouldn’t exist without The Windmill. Earlier this year, they returned to that venue to test out new material for album three. Wide Awake takes that nurturing community spirit and puts it in front of 25,000 people.

 

Yard Act perform at London's Village Underground
James Smith of Yard Act performs at London’s Village Underground. Credit: Burak Cingi/RedfernsLast year’s festival saw London dance-punk trio PVA smash the mainstage with the biggest show they’d ever played. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Ella Harris describes it as “really fun, quite intense but such a nice atmosphere”. In the time since, a lot of people have approached them at other gigs, saying they discovered the band at the festival.“It was such a beneficial experience,” she says. “We’d always dreamt of playing on an outdoor stage like that and we’ve changed how we perform because of it. The more opportunities you get to play your music in different settings, the more it’s going to expand and grow. Any festival that gives such a big platform to new bands is so important.”Amy Taylor of scrappy Aussie punks Amyl And The Sniffers, who will perform on the Saturday at this year’s event, explains that “playing festivals has expanded our reach because it puts you in front of a different audience. She enthuses that “Keith Miller is a fucking legend”, this year’s line-up is “sick” and adds: “There are people that are going to see Bicep but will stumble upon us and realise, ‘Fuck, yeah – I resonate with this too’.”

Wide Awake 2021 saw a lot of post-punk on the line-up, says Miller, because “that scene was at its zenith – we really were in the right place at the right time.” After Shame played their headline set, Steen went home and felt nothing but peace. “That show felt like proof of durability,” he says. “This scene isn’t just a fad. The community has a future.”

However, Wide Awake isn’t a pure post-punk event. “We’re a new music festival,” says Miller. “We try to celebrate what’s going on now, alongside one inspirational heritage act.” This year has a focus on electronic music and in future years, he wants to bring in pop and grime. “We pay a lot of attention to what under-25s are listening to,” he says. The key, Miller explains, is curation.

“Growing up I didn’t see many females onstage. It makes such a difference to be represented up there” – Amy And The Sniffers’ Amy Taylor

“It makes such a difference when you can tell there’s a lot of care and thought put into a line-up, rather than putting together a list of bands solely to sell tickets,” adds Yard Act’s James Smith. “It doesn’t always mean that the bands have to sound the same or be in the same genre, either.”

A line-up featuring electronic and punk music (along with jazz, indie and techno) might sound like a risk after the runaway success of year one but, Taylor says: “Look at a band like Sleaford Mods. It’s punk even though it’s not guitar music. It has that same spirit.” The same can be said of all the electronic acts on the Wide Awake bill. “PVA are very inspired by that post-punk scene. We just use sampling and electronics as our bass and drums,” adds Harris.

That desire to evolve is also what’s keeping that wave of guitar bands coming out of Britain and Ireland so interesting. “There’s more pressure to do something original because of how good other bands are at the moment. Everyone’s wanting to outdo each other,” says Steen.

“We’re in a post-everything era now,” adds Smith. “People’s love of music transcends genre. We certainly have no desire to stick to the stylistic bracket that Yard Act currently sits in. Audiences are a lot more embracing of that nowadays, which encourages bands to push the bar even further. Change is welcomed.”

Wide Awake
IDLES performing at Wide Awake 2021. Credit: Press.As a brand new festival, Wide Awake also has the freedom to dictate how it operates and positive changes are very much the order of business. From eco-toilets and a ban on single-use plastics to working with local traders to provide ethically sourced food, Miller wants to create events that don’t harm the planet. Their pledges are listed publicly via their “Positive Policy” and will evolve as technology and awareness develops. “I’m watching my kids play football right now and if the planet is absolutely fucked in 30 years and I’ve been putting on events that have contributed to that – well, it’s not very cool, is it?” asks Miller. “We’ve all got a responsibility to pull our finger out.”“We’re at this point in history where we need to be doing everything,” explains Smith. “But individuals can only do so much. The more that large scale events do and the more pressure we put on governments, the less damage we’re going to cause and the more catastrophes we can prevent.”He continues: “A lot of people will say the answer is to just not put on festivals but that’s not how it works, is it? We want to live our lives because we’re constantly told that they’re so fucked. We want to make the most of the short time we have here, so to be able to combine fun and hedonism in the most progressive and substantial way possible is only a good thing. Wide Awake are leading by example, and that’s all anyone should be doing in 2022.”

“People’s love of music transcends genre. We have no desire to stick to the stylistic bracket. Change is welcome” – Yard Act’s James Smith

The team behind Wide Awake also want to make it as inclusive an event as possible. Tickets start at £25 to encourage younger people to attend. “We know kids from London are struggling with extortionate rent and stuff like that”, Miller says, adding that he wants to “give back to the local community” with charity initiatives. Last year, the company donated over £20,000 to the Summer Events Community Fund, a program that benefits residents around Brockwell Park. Wide Awake has also made every effort it can to make sure the line-up is fair and balanced in terms of gender. “It’s just the right thing to do,” says Miller. “Hearing nothing but all all-male bands is a pretty boring way to spend a day.”

“That’s so important,” says Taylor. “Growing up I didn’t see many females onstage and it makes such a difference to be represented up there, to see that we’re given the same chances and are taken as seriously as everyone else.”

“It’s really great to see more women on line-ups but also in behind-the-scenes roles as well (the nine-person team behind Wide Awake is made up of three men and six women),” says Harris. “So often on tour, I’ll be the only woman in the venue until the doors open. It’s quite a vulnerable thing to get on stage and perform music so having more women involved in that process makes it feel less like you’re this weird exception to this male-dominated space.”

Why do so few festivals have a balanced line-up, then? “From the grass-roots level up, there’s just not enough gateways in for female acts,” explains Miller. “That’s promoters at my level maybe not giving enough time and space to female acts, record labels paying women less, large festivals paying male acts more. It’s a whole structural issue.” Miller started began managing psych instrumentalists Los Bitchos three years ago, which “really opened my eyes to how tough things are for a lot of these acts. Since then, I’ve been trying to make positive changes.”

Wide Awake
Porridge Radio performing at Wide Awake 2021. Credit: Press.

He’s already started booking acts for 2023, with everyone involved in the festival wanting it to have a long future: “I want the smaller bands we’re booking now to come back and headline Wide Awake in a few years. We worked so hard to set Wide Awake up and have taken so many risks along the way, for it to not get to year five would be pretty sad.”

And what might Miller’s wishlist be for those future festivals? He’s a big fan of psychedelic rockers King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard and their ability to reinvent themselves and would love to do something in the alt-pop vein, perhaps with Caroline Polachek or Ashnikko. “In terms of trying to get massive acts, we probably wouldn’t have the budget for Arcade Fire,” he adds, “but that’s not what the festival is about, really.”

Written by Ali Shutler

Originally featured by NME

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