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

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It takes someone with boundless optimism and vision to put on a deeply underground music festival in the middle of Sunderland. Luckily, the city gave us such a someone in Graeme Hopper, (Grassi to some) who has been a fixture across art and music in the North East for years as a musician (predominantly as Chlorine) and as an artist and designer (his work gracing album covers by everyone from Moor Mother to Field Music). Throughout it all – since he was 18 – he’s wanted to put on a festival, but practicalities overtook romantic ideas. “I’m not a wide-eyed teenager running around aimlessly any more,” he explains, “and I fully believe it’s a great thing not just for Sunderland but the North of Britain, the potential is huge. There are a lot more options and ideas to get stuck into than there have been in the City for decades.” And with this energy and the help of a grant from the Sound & Music Composer-Curator programme and Sunderland Culture, Boundaries became a reality.

Like most people, Hopper has a complicated relationship with his hometown. “I genuinely love the place, but I just felt that there hadn’t been any gigs, never mind festivals, of any note in the City for many, many years. It’s a great spot to put on a show: all the infrastructure is there now: venues, bars, cafes, hotels all located next to one another… There’s an audience now and a willingness from the artists to turn up and get involved. It’s super exciting! Newcastle, Gateshead, Leeds, Glasgow etc, I love those places but why can’t Sunderland put on few days of weirdness and wonder too?

Taking festivals like TUSK, Supernormal, Counterflows, Rewire in Holland and ATP as examples of how to do festivals right (“Those first five or six ATP festivals in Camber Sands were mind blowing for me, the line-ups felt so special, you could feel the energy in the air and that you were a part of something, very unique.”), Hopper started forming a line-up that is primarily solo acts or duos, to keep things simple. “I went through my iPod, keeping in mind who would definitely be up for it and who could be a sneaky possibility. I was very keen not to use all the same names and rely heavily on local people (who I do admire a lot, just not for this debut edition), I wanted new names coming to the area who haven’t played in years or even at all! This will sound daft to some, but I often see music as colours; I get a really deep yellow feel from this line-up, that’s how it started coming together, so I went full-on mustard vibes!” He laughs.

Booking The Rebel (legendary former Country Teasers frontman and all-round cult hero Ben Waller) was the point at which things felt real for Hopper. “He was so easy to talk to, he agreed straight away, that felt like ‘right, this isn’t just local acts or mates etc. IT’S ON!’” As bands like Still House Plants agreed to play for a reduced fee just to be involved, then the likes of Guttersnipe, Territorial Gobbing, The Unit Ama and Summer among others agreed to play, the line-up really took shape.

why can’t Sunderland put on few days of weirdness and wonder too?

I’ve just finished programming the day line-ups and both days are crazy.” Hopper enthuses. “Everyone playing could headline a show and blow the audience’s minds, it’s truly inspiring and very thrilling. Guttersnipe were the first band on my wish list so to have them play is going to melt faces inside out, Sunderland musician Alison Cotton is playing a super-rare hometown show, then there’s the live debut of Bulbils (Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington from Hen Ogledd’s lockdown project), Karen Constance has made a film and will perform a specially written score to accompany it live. There’s so much going on. I think the audience are going to remember this line-up for a long, long time!”

While few (none?) of the acts are exactly household names, they’re mostly well-known and highly regarded in certain circles (many often tagged as part of the doubly-appropriate ‘no audience underground’), but Boundaries also has a couple of new names. “I’m dead excited for London-based musician Malvern Brume, I’m a huge fan and feel he should be as well-known as Tim Hecker, Fennesz etc. A real special talent. Basic Switches I think will impress a few folk, using old keyboards and loops she makes this wonderful, spacey pop dance stuff. Then there’s an arty punk group called SUMMER who are making their live debut, think Lungfish but with accordions and repetitive relentless fun rock! YES!”

Such is Hopper’s irrepressible excitement about all this that, with the debut festival only weeks away, he’s deep into planning an even bigger event for 2022. Taking place on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st May, he’s planning four stages including Sunderland’s new 800-capacity venue Fire Station Auditorium, the local Minster Church and The Peacock (which is the venue for this year’s event).

Bands have already been contacted and been booked in, I want to focus on rhythm for next year, so textural electronics alongside great abstract acoustic ideas and more jazz and metal! Proper ripper.” Synaesthetic to the last, Hopper reveals: “I’m getting strong deep red colours! I can’t wait!”

Boundaries Festival takes place at The Peacock in Sunderland on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th November. Tickets are available from Dice

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