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

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Image: Gaelyn Lea by Bartek Buczkowski

For those of us with a taste for the experimental, the radical and the unknown, the loss of festivals like TUSK, Supernormal, Supersonic and the rest due to The Awfulness is keenly felt. Luckily for us, the TUSK crew aren’t easily kept down and the usual three day festival has now morphed into a huge two week online event with a truly killer bill. But it’s been a tough journey.

When lockdown first started, we decided to just sit on it and do nothing for a few weeks – we stopped promoting the festival as it seemed odd to urge people to buy tickets for something we suddenly couldn’t guarantee would happen,” explains Lee Etherington. “I think we started the month of April thinking October was miles away and we’d be fine and back to normal by then, but as that month went on that confidence waned and we had to have a serious think about what the best way forward was. We didn’t want to pump lots of our limited resources into setting up a live festival we weren’t sure would happen, but also didn’t want to take the plunge and cancel until it definitely looked like the best way to proceed.”

Obviously when the cancellation happened, all ticket revenue was lost along with money already spent on flights, hotels and crew fees. So it’s one of the remarkable aspects of this virtual TUSK – the tenth – that the whole thing is entirely free. Concerned about the pandemic’s likely status in October and its impact on people’s income, and in collaboration with key partners like Sage Gateshead and the Arts Council, the funding was re-purposed and virtual TUSK was born. “We’ve been streaming since 2014 but have never managed to work hard enough on maximising the international stream audience. TUSK is all about spreading the word about artists we love – and suddenly all those artists have lost all their work and need our support more than ever.” Like-minded concerns like WFMU and venues and organisations all over were enlisted, and independent venues were approached regarding using virtual TUSK as a base for their own fundraising events.

Etherington ensured that the acts already confirmed for the live event were taken care of, as well as the new additions. “In order to support the confirmed acts as much as we could, we guaranteed the terms we’d agreed with them provided they could give us a set for the stream, which they were all into aside from Whistling Arrow, who are too spread out geographically to make it feasible. Everyone involved is getting paid though, again to support the artists – fees for providing a streamed set are lower than for a live appearance, and that helped too as our programme is so much bigger like this. But as always, we are striving to pay fair fees to all.” On top of this, a TUSK auction and a forthcoming benefit album will raise funds for the Newcastle East foodbank.

Like anyone planning on attending this year, the loss of live experiences with Horse Lords, Death Prod et al is keenly felt. But with the move online, amazing new opportunities were available and long-yearned for performances were realised. “I’d been harassing Michael Morley to bring The Dead C here for years but we could never make it work – largely because he and Bruce [Russell] both work in academia and it’s term-time for them. And likewise Roscoe Mitchell – we’d been after him and/or Art Ensemble Of Chicago for years too, but could never meet their fee demands. But then, as I mentioned, fees for streams/pre-records are very different – so all parameters suddenly took a shift.”

TUSK is all about spreading the word about artists we love – and suddenly all those artists have lost all their work and need our support more than ever

The decision to run the festival across two weeks (“crazy/ambitious – delete as appropriate”) came about because the TUSK team were worried people would miss things and generally feel disconnected during a three day virtual festival. “Spreading it across two weeks gives more jumping-in points and you can dip in and out as you please.” Etherington explains, “so now we have two weeks of programming rather than three days – more live acts, twice as many films, 12 talks, 14 guest mixes, Malcy Duff’s animated series etc.” The scheduling will involve live performances every day, with a focus on Saturdays, and the rest of the aforementioned content – alongside extensive archive films and the rest. “I quickly realised that suddenly my job had morphed to become more like running a TV station for two weeks, and that’s been helpful in drawing up the schedule – we’ll have a downloadable pdf brochure available soon with all the listings on it. And thinking like an old-fashioned TV station, we’ll have idents where the artwork is animated and with music added (Sun City Girls for the opener, Tom Recchion for the closer and shorter ones popping up through the night) and the amazing voice of Peter Conheim (Negativland/Porest) as our announcer. We’ll also have a different host for each day/night – these include David Liebe Hart (Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job!), Rock N Roll Jackie Stewart (Smegma, The Tenses), Dale Cornish, Newcastle-based TUSK lover and music obsessive Sean Thomas, Irish artist friend of the festival Vicky Langan, and various others.”

It’s remarkable that this whole event is essentially still being run by the regular TUSK crew, with streaming ninja Shaun Blezard taking a bigger role than usual, mixing everything from his house in Cumbria with an iMac and a pile of tech, and Etherington monitoring and ‘stage managing’ from Newcastle. “So basically, two blokes in the North of England, a million WhatsApp messages and some nervous musicians in various international locations getting texts from me about when to press go…”

It’s traditional to ask Etherington about the bookings he’s most excited about and the hidden gems we need to look out for, and although the festival might be online, that tradition holds. “The Dead C and Roscoe Mitchell – we’ve wanted them both for so long. Has [Gaylani] and I were actually all set to go to The Dead C residency at Cafe Oto in May but of course that went by the wayside. Horse Lords and Deathprod were bound to be mind-bending in the flesh – very chuffed to have managed to keep them involved. And Jim O’Rourke of course – I’ve been in touch with him for the last few years and tried to drag him over here every year. He lives in Japan and has done for a decade or so now, and he tells me he feels he spent the first half of his life on tour so has completely lost the urge to travel, so we grabbed this chance to involve him.

One thing we decided early on was to use this change of format to allow our schedule to include many more regional and UK acts – we’d usually have three or four in the central programme but that’s multiplied this year, again because right now artists need our support more than ever. There’s loads of stuff we’re very excited about – this is always a tricky question because we’re not one of those festivals that chooses acts because they’ll sell tickets – our line-ups are about an experience, about discovering new music and getting a deeper understanding of the music/artists you love. So we’re excited about everyone on the bill but I guess that’s not a useful answer for an interview! But blimey – MC Yallah X Debmaster, Senyawa, OOIOO, Gaelynn Lea, Nour Mobarak, Moulay Ahmed Elhassani, Triple Negative, Nihiloxica…”

One of the most alarming and wearying aspects of The Awfulness is that it mitigates against any long-term planning, something Etherington obviously feels keenly when thinking about the likelihood of TUSK 2021 taking place live or online. “I’m trying not to think about it right now, to be honest!” he admits. “Like this year, there may come a point where we have to take that decision – I can’t offer any predictions on that, and that is largely down to the appalling way the whole thing has been ‘handled’ by our government: there is no advice coming from them that is in any way reliable or that gives you confidence in their judgement, so prediction is very difficult. All I can say is we fully intend to do TUSK again in 2021 – how we’ll do that right now I do not know, but we intend to be around for a few years to come yet. This is our 10th year, of course – not quite how we envisaged marking that landmark but despite everything, from a purely selfish point of view, I’m actually really enjoying this new way of working.”

TUSK Festival takes place via their website from Monday 28th September-Sunday 11th October. For the full line-up, including archives and fringe activities, visit their website


Five Performances Not To Miss

Any attempt to cherry pick from a bill this strong is a foolhardy venture, but here’s a very subjective take on five of the acts who I think are going to impress us most this year.

Horse Lords (Batimore, USA)

Horse Lords have been gaining momentum and fans for a decade with their deeply hypnotic blend of desert blues guitar, avant garde rhythms and tunings and a totally encompassing sound. Their performance – originally planned for the live line-up – is bound to be something special.

Angel Bat Dawid (Chicago, USA)

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the spiritual jazz of artists like Alice Coltrane of late, and Dawid is the perfect torch-bearer for new music in that vein, with a variety of releases and collaborations that led TUSK to describe her as ‘Sun Ra meets Funkadelic’.

Gaelynn Lea (Duluth, USA)

Lea came to my attention – and I’m sure many others – through the championing of Alan Sparkhawk and through an NPR Tiny Desk Concert that genuinely reduced me to tears; her voice and treated violin sound is rich and powerful, sounding not unlike Joanna Newsom’s debut, and her TUSK performance is going to break your heart.

Mariam Rezaei X Stephen Bishop (Newcastle, England)

Rezaei and Bishop are the twin colossi of the Tyneside underground scene through their music and so much more (The Old Police House! Opal Tapes!) so this collaboration – surprisingly their first – is going to remind people that Newcastle is home to so much innovation and the natural base for TUSK.

Eiko Ishibashi & Jim O’Rourke (Mobara, Japan & Chicago, USA)

As Etherington says above, it looked like O’Rourke would never make it to TUSK, but its virtual incarnation finally brings us this storied titan of the underground alongside his partner and collaborator Ishibashi in a very rare live collaboration from their home in Japan.

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