FEATURE: TUSK Festival | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Hans Grusel’s Krankenkabinet

This month brings the seventh TUSK Festival to Tyneside, and the line-up suggests it has the potential to be the best yet. It’s being held at Sage Gateshead again after a debut there last year, so I kicked off my chat with TUSK’s Lee Etherington by asking how he felt the move went last year and what they have planned for 2017.

“It’ll be largely on the same programme model we did last year”, Etherington explains.  “We were really pleased how smoothly it went last year and more importantly how we managed to make TUSK and Sage fit together – we did spend a lot of time worrying and thinking about that, put some plans into action and it worked. We also gave the festival the best production values it’s had so far – I really feel we are presenting the artists in the best possible circumstances now, and that’s a major detail for us: we work with artists that often no one in the audience has heard of so we want to give them the best presentation we can. Circumstances have dictated that we had to look elsewhere and as a result this surprising new situation of us working with Sage and finding a way to make it work as TUSK’s venue has arisen. I’m still surprised but it can’t be denied that it does work. We are again taking measures like making sure there is food and drink on offer that suits and is affordable to our audience – plus we got our largest physical audience to date last year, which I think we might exceed again this year.”

Maybe we take the ‘challenging’ element for granted, though to us it’s just music we love…

Etherington acknowledges that while the bill doesn’t appear in any way challenging to him and the team, that may be deceptive. “I think we just try to create a bill that hangs together well, can jump from one stylistic approach to another, has a bunch of surprises, etc. Maybe we take the ‘challenging’ element for granted, though to us it’s just music we love… my Mum is coming this year for the first time and I suspect she may feel challenged.”

For many, perhaps the biggest draw on the bill is Sweden’s Brainbombs, making their UK debut thirty years into their ‘career’. The band have a reputation for extreme lyrics that could be open to accusations of misogyny and racism, and I was keen to get Etherington’s take on that in the context of a festival with a tremendous track record for diversity.

“It’s something we’re conscious of and something we’ve talked about. Personally, I think there is a space in music appreciation where you have to assume the situation to be that the lyrics sung are not glorification or advocacy but the relaying of a story, like a novel or a film. That seems a simple leap but it seems a lot of people can’t see it like that. To take an obvious example, no one believes Johnny Cash really shot a man in Reno for fun or Tom Jones stabbed Delilah to death – they’re stories and, like a lot of rap records too, that’s how I take the darkest of the Brainbombs songs, like musical horror stories. Our audience is sensible enough to understand that and know that racism and misogyny have no place at TUSK. This festival is all about inclusivity and exploring a wide range of cultures (we’ve presented artists from nearly 30 different countries over the years)… they’re very nice people, by the way, say hello if you get the chance!”

Klein Wire

The fringe programme is always a big part of the festival and it seems this year’s will be the biggest yet. “This year we begin a new relationship with Workplace Gallery, just round the corner from The Old Police House. At Workplace we’ve got a great exhibition featuring work by Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound), Kate Widdows, Juneau Projects, Graham Dunning and more and there’ll be a live show there on the Sunday of TUSK with Archipelago and BRB>Culver. We’re also working with CIRCA Projects at Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead where they’ll be presenting an exhibition by Giles Bailey and also Festival Is Sudden, which takes place on the Saturday afternoon of TUSK and is basically an instant festival in one hour with Culver and others appearing.”

This will be the last TUSK to use the wonderful Old Police House before it’s redeveloped, and I wondered how Etherington felt about that and about the state of the Tyneside experimental / independent scene generally. “We’re lucky to live in a region with a lot of very proactive independent artists. Part of that is down to geography, of course – [Fugazi’s] Ian Mackaye famously said it reminded him of DC because it’s so far from everywhere else that if you don’t get up and do it yourself, it won’t happen. So yes, there’s as much a wealth of great music locally as ever and part of our role is to document that. A lot of that in recent years has had The Old Police House as its platform and losing that space will be a great loss – it will be part of TUSK and its last night in operation will be the Sunday of TUSK so I think Mariam [Rezaei] wants it to be a proper blowout. Mariam’s a dynamo, she’ll find a new space and come back bigger and better and we’ll all be the better for it.”

Etherington’s enthusiasm for the TUSK programme when I ask him about what’s in store is always sincere and infectious  (“I like this question every year because I spend the summer worrying we’ve got the right line-up then I do this and think yes, actually, it’s bloody great!”). Special mention though for Nurse With Wound (“It can’t be overstated how influential NWW are, the NWW List shows they were ahead of the game decades ago…”) and Hans Grusel’s Krankekabinet (“this may actually cause some genuine psychological disturbance… it really does feel like a glimpse of a state of mind that is best avoided”).

Etherington sums up TUSK’s ethos perfectly thus: “We’ve always tried to use TUSK to present artists that we love but that maybe don’t quite have a significant audience yet and we’ve been lucky to have an audience that are broadminded and want to go on that journey with us. I guess we have managed to show them things they like along the way or they’d have got off the bus by now.”

TUSK Festival takes place Friday 13th – Sunday 15th October at Sage Gateshead and other venues.

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