Words by Damien Russell / Pics by Eleanor Sutcliffe
Feeling like a lazy Sunday afternoon despite being a Monday (thank you Bank Holiday), sitting in the shade at Eastside Park has got something of a ‘last day of a festival’ feel.
Convenient really as I’ve braved exhaustion and headed out to into the sun to see a man about a festival. That man is John Fell and the festival is, of course, Beyond The Tracks.
I say ‘of course’ but given that Beyond The Tracks (for those who have missed the promo so far) is the newest addition to the Moseley Folk portfolio, it may not be as clear cut as that. This new city-centre, three day event is nestled comfortably alongside the Moseley Folk Festival itself, the Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival, and the Lunar Festival, all under the Moseley Folk banner.
And John Fell is, “kind of Festival Manager, really, so to be honest I do a lot things from booking the line-up to the marketing, to the press, the finances, I get involved with a little bit of kind of planning the site and things like that. All the staffing. So, it’s a lot there really.” If he does say so himself. And I agree, it is a lot; they’re big events with stellar line-ups and not exactly spread out in either area or through the year.
Curious about this, I ask about the rest of the team. “Well, there’s me, full time, and then there’s two directors (Gerv Havill, Carl Phillips) that are kind of more part time on the festivals. They’ve got their other businesses. And we’ve just taken on a new member of staff as well and she’s become a kind of Festival Assistant, so it’s slowly growing but it’s not a big team for all the things we do really”, Fell explains.
Not a big team at all. And with a variety of other events as well as the festivals, it must be a lot to take on. John Fell is a collected man and while he will admit that focusing on so much is “quite difficult”, he quickly adds, “I’ve always been quite good at that really. I’ve always… I don’t sit still very often”. I’m glad we got him pinned down for half an hour to talk to us.
So how did it all begin? And how did it become Beyond The Tracks? “When I joined we’d just created Goodnight Lenin”, Fell says, taking us back to both the start of his band (recently announced to be on hiatus) and his time with Moseley Folk, “and JJ from the band asked me to go round and come and play music at 3 o’clock in the morning because they’d been up all night drinking. Normally I would never do it, not if I hadn’t been out already, and I thought ‘you know what, fine, I’ll go round’. If he wants to play music, I’ll do it, whatever time of day”. And a 3am video became Goodnight Lenin’s application to play Moseley Folk Festival. “Carl who ran the festival rang us up and said ‘I wanna come and see you play’ and he wanted to manage the band and put us as headlining the second stage, the Lunar stage” Fell expands, describing an opportunity most bands would do something their mothers would disapprove of, to get.
It isn’t surprising but it is good to be reminded that Moseley Folk (both festival and company) have always been committed to local talent. And actively looking for it has “always been an ethos of ours, to support that and provide a platform for that. Which is quite cool”. And not just at the festivals. They “do loads of cool shows throughout the year… and because that’s not really our… job, I guess, our festivals are where we kind of scrape our salaries… we can book who we want. We’re not pressured to book gigs, we don’t just put gigs on for the sake of it; we can book who we want”.
An envious place to be. And a powerful place. Free from the constraints of popularity and to a certain extent cost, Moseley Folk remind me of the record companies of old – able to take risks and trail-blaze if they wish, whilst hosting the type of gigs many bands dream of getting to play at.
With such an open opportunity for booking talent, I wonder how the Beyond The Tracks lineup was approached. The answer lies in being different to the other festivals in the Moseley Folk portfolio, “with Folk and Jazz, Lunar’s a bit more psychedelic… we wanted to essentially make three different gigs. I mean, originally we didn’t put weekend tickets on sale because we didn’t think there would be that much demand. Essentially it was an electronic night, an indie night and, I guess, like a post-punk, shoegaze kind of Sunday, which is cool”.
Planning, then combining, three different gigs sounds like an unusual way to approach a festival, but less so when originally it was “going to be an Ocean Colour Scene gig with, you know, Maximo Park or whoever, and it grew into a festival which is, you know…”, John Fell leaves me to offer the rather clichéd ‘really cool’ but charitably goes with it. “It is really cool. So the whole thing has just been, like, a really natural progression”.
Choosing this site, currently just open grass and quiet couples, was also natural progression; John Fell takes us back to 22nd January 2016, and to the 20th anniversary shows of Ocean Colour Scene’s Moseley Shoals in Moseley Park. “And that was just incredible”, Fell says, and shortly after those shows “we were just sat outside the pub, the Eagle and Tun, and looking at this space and were like ‘why have we not done a festival here?’ Or at least a gig here” so they decide they should and went full on for Beyond The Tracks.
And what a festival it’s pitched to be. “It’s Birmingham’s, you know, I guess biggest inner city, kind of ‘band festival”, in John Fell’s words. “Obviously you’ve got things like MADE which are doing incredibly at The Rainbow and a lot of other events going on” he continues, “I suppose it’s not like a Great Escape but that kind of inner city festival, Tramlines in Sheffield, that kind of thing. And we thought for the first year we should really celebrate Birmingham music. We already had Ocean Colour Scene; Editors have got strong Birmingham links. So then we just go ‘right, okay, we want to support other bands’ so, you know: Superfood, Jaws, Victories at Sea, Dorcha, Table Scraps. We just added Hoopla Blue and Sunshine Frisbee Laserbeam, there’s so many bands… The Leftfield guys are coming to DJ, Magic Door guys coming to DJ… So it’s a bit of a Birmingham love-in really. It’s gonna be really cool.”
And speaking of Hoopla Blue… I ask John about the sad news that Goodnight Lenin wouldn’t be playing and would be replaced by, you guessed it, “Hoopla Blue. Yeah, we wanted it to be a local band and Hoopla – great band – they just jumped on it straight away. It is a shame but it just felt right to end Goodnight Lenin with Liam rather than playing another show, it didn’t quite make sense”. I don’t ask about the conflict of interest in booking a band you play with; if John Fell began working for Moseley Folk through Goodnight Lenin, it stands to reason Goodnight Lenin would still be one of Moseley Folk’s regular artists.
There’s certainly plenty of Birmingham music at Beyond The Tracks, possibly more Birmingham on the stage than in the audience at times, as to my surprise, “Friday night’s about 40 percent people coming from outside the Midlands. Which is pretty incredible. It’s very similar numbers to the Jazz and Folk, to be honest with you, it’s like, high 30’s from outside the Midlands. Saturday here with Ocean Colour Scene and The Twang, is obviously more localised but it’s still a good 25 percent from outside the Midlands and Sunday as well is about 30, high 30’s. So, we are actually bringing people in,” and in saying so Fell sounds proud. And I believe he is, proud of what Birmingham has to offer and proud to be a part of it.
And not without merit either; four major festivals are not organised through hope alone, that kind of work needs vision. The vision that Beyond The Tracks is “what Birmingham needs really just to kind of give it that other, kind of, star next to its name of what we have here to offer”. The drive to “bring people to Birmingham and actually show them what we do”. And the eye on the future looking to “see what else we can do for the city now”.
But with the rise of Beyond The Tracks, we’ve seen the fall of the Lunar Festival; this yearly switch looks set to continue, as the original three year access to the Beyond The Tracks site has been scuppered by the HS2 development. “We are bringing Lunar back next year and then… we don’t have the land for this (Beyond The Tracks) next year”, Fell explains, taking me a little by surprise. “We were told two years, we could have it… three years we could have it and HS2 is being built on this land. So they’re acquiring the land. So it might be the case that we maybe have a year off Beyond The Tracks, bring Lunar back. We’ve been refining that (Lunar Festival) so we’re quite excited to bring that back. Erm, and then, you know, hopefully we can bring Beyond The Tracks back the year after, maybe”.
Maybe, maybe not; there is always the fear that “it’s four festivals. You do start eating into your own audience as well. People only have so much money”. So maybe one on, one off could be on the cards. Or maybe it’s just a one-off.
Either way, when you think that “Friday night’s going to be crazy with Leftfield and Orbital and the light show they’ve got, here, in the city centre on a Friday night”, then the local focus lineup on Saturday and Sunday, with “Fairground Rides in the middle… a Ferris wheel and everything” it’s hard not to get a building sense of excitement.
And as I walk back across the site toward The Woodman pub, thinking to myself ‘stage there, fairground there, bar somewhere here…’ it’s also hard to disagree with John Fell when he shares the sentiment, “It’s gonna be quite cool. I mean it’s gonna be phenomenal, you know. It’s costing the world, really, so it should be…. But yeah, it gonna be cool, man”. Cool indeed. Phenomenal sounds about right too; I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
Beyond The Tracks comes to Eastside Park in Birmingham City Centre, running 15th to 17th September. Tickets for this event are £54.45 for individual day tickets, £145 for a weekend pass, with a host of after parties after each day.
For more on Beyond The Tracks, including full festival details and online ticket sales, visit www.beyondthetracks.org