Interview: Henry Carden (Twisterella) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Middlesbrough’s award-winning multi-venue music festival, Twisterella, is set to take place on Saturday 14th October. This year’s event is headlined by indie-pop favourites Dutch Uncles as well as the cream of local and national musical talent, including Prima Queen, The Joy Hotel, Opus Kink, Avalanche Party, Venus Grrrls, Eyeconic and a whole load more.

In addition to the live acts, Twisterella features the (Un)Conference, which has a focus on bringing key music industry figures to the town to share their expertise and offer advice to new and developing Teesside musicians.

The festival is organised by Henry Carden (Quiet Crown) and Andy Carr (The Kids Are Solid Gold). We caught up with Henry to chat about music, gigs and the Twisterella itself…

How did you get into promoting gigs?
I started putting on gigs in Guisborough while I was at college. Initially it was a way to get my own band gigs when nobody else would book us, and then it turned into quite a wholesome little scene. We did gig swaps with bands from Leeds, Newcastle, Sunderland etc and started bringing some great bands to the upstairs room of a pub in the town. It then became an opportunity to bring bands I loved to Middlesbrough and Stockton, bands who I would’ve otherwise travelled to Leeds or Newcastle etc to see. I was quite pragmatic that even if I lost £100 putting on a gig, it would’ve still cost me more to go see them in another part of the country! The tiny upstairs at Doctor Browns in Boro became my spiritual home for gigs for a few years, it sounded so good in there even with a little vocal PA and you only needed about 40 people in there for it to have a great atmosphere. Had some really memorable nights in there with bands like Meet Me In St. Louis, Mutiny On The Bounty, Hot Club De Paris, TTNG, The Chapman Family, Werewolves, Kubichek, Beezewax and lots more. After Doc Browns turned the upstairs room into an office for [redacted], I mainly put stuff on at The Westgarth Social Club (RIP) and I think it’s fair to say, that’s where I really found my feet with gig promo.

What’s the most inspirational show you’ve seen?
I think I’d have to say the legendary Open Season ‘emo’ all-dayer at The Arena in Middlesbrough in… 2001!? It featured a load of bands who inspired me both musically and in terms of their ethos – people like Appleseed Cast, Cursive, Stapleton and many more. DIY gig collective Open Season really opened my eyes to music and introduced me to some incredible bands from all over the world, many of whom are still among my favourite bands 20 years+ later. I don’t think enough people talk about Open Season these days, but they were well ahead of the curve and put on some incredible gigs in Boro in the 2000s.

What are some of your favourite shows that you’ve put on?
I loved putting Wolf Alice on at The Westgarth. They sold out the downstairs room on their first headline tour and although they’d picked up some Radio 1 airplay and some nice press coverage, it was still early days. They were so grateful to be there and genuinely loved the gig – so much so that they came back to play the Westgarth a few years later once they were far too ‘big’ to playing a venue that size! The 1975 at Mixtape (The Townhouse) was also a good one – Chocolate was getting loads of exposure for them and here they were, playing a free gig to a room full of students in Boro. A lesser-known one which was pretty special was when To Kill A King came to play The Olde Young Tea House. We did those gigs totally acoustic and unplugged. No PA. Just their voices and their guitar. They had absolutely incredible harmonies that stunned the room – don’t think there was anybody there not absolutely covered in goosebumps! 

What are the main challenges of life as a promoter?
I could do a big rant about a number of the challenges, and in doing so, it would explain why I promote far fewer gigs than I used to! But I’ll keep it brief: venue closures and Tories are probably the biggest challenges. 

Middlesbrough has had some high-profile venue closures this past year or so. How do you think that has impacted on the local scene and how do you adapt?
It’s been a challenge, to say the least. The Westgarth in particular hit me pretty hard. It was more than just a venue. At a grassroots level, it’s been fantastic to see places like Cafe Etch pick up the mantle for new bands, and then as quite often happens in times of adversity, it’s the underground and counter-culture that really thrive – you just need to look at the gigs put on by Industrial Coast at venues like The Auxiliary to see that in full-swing. I’ve also been working closely with Middlesbrough Town Hall and BBC Introducing on Tees to ensure local bands still have somewhere for those statement headline dates. I know there’s been lots of work going on behind the scenes too which will hopefully see more exciting developments next year… we’ve got to try and stay positive, right?

How did Twisterella come about?
Andy Carr from The Kids Are Solid Gold (Twisterella co-promoter) and I got together around ten years ago to see about joining forces on a showcase festival. Middlesbrough had lost Middlesbrough Music Live/Intro Festival and while over the river in Stockton, things were going from strength to strength, we didn’t want our town to get left behind. Rather than focus on heritage acts or bigger names, we decided the focus for Twisterella would be new and emerging artists. We’d both had a good few years putting on breaking bands so we wanted to build on that with a multi-venue event.

Who came up with the festival name and where did it come from?
Andy came up with the name; it’s a song by one of his favourite bands, Ride. We wanted a name that would stand out on posters and gig listings and wanted to move away from Middlesbrough’s history of festivals that had the town’s name in the festival’s name.

What it is like working together on the festival? What have you learned from one another?
Andy would probably agree that I’ve learnt to delegate and to be less of a megalomanic! We work well together and although we have a fair bit of overlap in our tastes, I think we both bring different things to the table with our bookings. Each year, people who know us well can probably pick out a couple of “Henry bands” and a couple of “Andy bands”… his are usually Scottish, so that makes it easier. Phil from The Kids Are Solid Gold is an absolutely integral part of the festival too. The work he does behind the scenes, particularly sourcing sponsors and funding, is greatly appreciated.

Tell us a bit about this year’s event? Who are you looking forward to seeing?
We’ve got two new venues this year with Off The Ground and Cafe Etch, and an extra stage in the Uni SU where we’re running both The Hub and The Terrace stages all day for the first time. OTG and Etch expand the footprint a little bit, so the time to walk between venues has slightly increased but we’ve tested it out, and it’s still fairly compact as a festival site! In terms of who I’m looking forward to seeing – my top tip is Melin Melyn. I saw them back in May at The Great Escape in Brighton and they were the highlight of the festival for me! So much fun. Musically they share a fair bit with other Welsh bands like Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, but there’s also elements of almost cabaret in there – it’s an extremely fun live show! I also can’t wait for Prima Queen. Their debut EP is one of my most listened to releases of the year so far. It’s going to be great to welcome Venus Grrrls back to Twisterella too – their last couple of singles are so good!

Why should local artists attend the Unconference event before the festival begins?
It’s free, so there’s nothing to lose! But more than that, it’s a really friendly, relaxed and informal way to hear ideas, advice and guidance from some brilliant people involved in the music industry. We’ve tried not to make it stuffy or like a lecture, it’s all about conversation and getting information that’s tailored to where you are in your career. Some artists who’ve attended in previous years have picked up national radio play, festival booking and even management deals as a direct result of the people they met at the (un)conference, but alongside that, I think people have found it really useful to spend time with other emerging artists and to chat about the challenges they face. 

What are your ambitions for the festival in the near future?
Survival! We’ve lost half of our venues from last year due to permanent closures and with many other costs continuing to spiral, it’s important to manage our expectations and our ambitions. This year is probably our most important Twisterella to-date. It’ll have a very different feel without the Westgarth but we’ve put a lot of time and effort into putting together a brilliant line-up that we’re confident will make it an amazing day for everyone.

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