Interview: Walter Allison (Wandering Oak), Alannah Lamb (F54) & DP Phillips (Boiler Shop) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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On Saturday 8th June, three of Tyneside’s live music enablers (Wandering Oak, F54 and Boiler Shop) come together to put on and exciting, talent-packed music extravaganza, Light Years. The event will be held at Boiler Shop, Newcastle and features doom merchants Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, fuzzy post-punks TVAM, art-rockers ĠENN, jazz, fusion, folk and prog melders Plantoid, sax/drum duo O. and alt-soundscapers Pit Pony.

Ahead of Light Years, we caught up with Walter Allison (Wandering Oak), Alannah Lamb (F54) and DP Phillips (Boiler Shop) to find out about promoting gigs, the live music landscape in Newcastle and working together on the event…

How did you get into live music promotion? 

Walter: I started small, helping friends in a band on things they weren’t really tackling: hashing posters together, drafting the artist bio, things like that. Then the curation evolved into booking artists to play with them, and then an in-house booker role. Wandering Oak was my return to staging events in 2014 with old friend John Nellist, and things have just gotten out of hand since then.

Alannah: After years of being involved in the local music scene from the sidelines, it felt right to begin working on something that’s always been my passion. It’s an honour to work amongst a flourishing and exciting scene alongside local artists and promoters.

DP Phillips: I started when I was 19 years old at a venue in London called the Mean Fiddler and went on to book Reading  Festival on behalf of the Mean Fiddler from 1989 to 1994 The year before we took over Bonnie Tyler headlined to an empty-ish field of angry bikers, we swapped her for New Order and the rest is history.

I was also head of music at KOKO for 12 years before it became a private member’s thing.

What have been some of your highlights so far?

Walter: Silver Apples at the Mining Institute, now the Common Room, was special. Turning the same venue into Paddy Steer’s wonky rave cave and getting away with it. Damo Suzuki. L.A. Witch. Slift. Every Dan Underwood poster. Delivering Viagra Boys and Squid on the same bill in 2019, which was the pivot around which everything changed for Wandering Oak. For Bambara to play the Cluny post-pandemic, after something like five reschedules, was hard-won heroism. Finally selling out the Cumberland Arms with Oracle Sisters, after putting shows in there for eighteen years. Working with cast-iron iconoclasts like Shilpa Ray, Ian Svenonius, Alabaster dePlume and Sonic Boom.

There’s definitely one more: the bittersweet moment when seeing a local artist excel, where it’s apparent they’re leaving the nest and I’ll be lucky to work with them again. Having Pit Pony on the Light Years bill feels like a coup in that respect.

Alannah: Working with national and international artists from their first tours, all the way up to selling out larger venues is incredible. Bands like The Mary Wallopers and The Bug Club have been recent examples of that for F54. Also being able to host artists such as Squarepusher, Melvins, Lankum and Kurt Vile at Boiler Shop amongst many others, makes us realise that what we’re doing is worth it, especially in times when the arts is struggling in the nation. 

DP Phillips: Kraftwerk in 1997, Nirvana bottom of the bill at Reading 199, Prince at KOKO Feb 2014 and Einstürzende Neubauten opening Boiler Shop May 2017.

What does having good independent promoters bring to the local music ecosystem?

Walter: I’d have to let the local music ecosystem answer that one! 

Alannah: We’re very lucky to have such a good scene in the North-East, having local independent promoters that work so well together and separately, who are all able to bring exciting, new and well-loved artists to the region is really beautiful. Fans and artists alike recognise that this is an important time to come together to make magic happen, which really is what keeps us going and gives us faith that the scene is still alive, appreciated and booming. 

DP Phillips: Everything!, but most importantly an enthusiastic filter and urge to present culture that is more exciting than the mainstream.

If you had any advice to give to up-and-coming independent promoters, what would it be?

Walter: *cracks knuckles*

Protect your hearing.

If you’re in it to make money, don’t bother. It’s 2024 in the under-funded NE and it’s the most brutal, brutal time to even attempt it.

Strive to be honest, be willing to say no, and do only what you love.
Do right by the artists, venues and crew you work with. Anyone who excels, work with them on the reg.
All of those people have a job to do. Help them do their best.
Don’t drink on the job. People are depending on you.
Don’t overextend: make your mistakes on a small scale instead, before other people’s money is involved.

It’s OK to make fresh mistakes!

Always keep record of how your shows do, how many people came, and how much money everything costs.
And: support your peer promoters where you can.

Alannah: Personally, I’d say that keeping that passion and drive into doing what you love is key. If you really believe in certain events, artists or genres, then keep doing what you love and don’t lose faith. There are people in the region who appreciate what you do, even when it doesn’t seem like it. Communities are our strongest asset, and when we chip in and work together, it’s very powerful, and gives everyone hope.

DP Phillips: Find a small space and make it the best possible place to host some live music. Build a scene with your mates, treat the bands as well as you can, take a D.I.Y. attitude, do everything yourself, work hard and keep at it.

What do you think of the North-East music scene in terms of artists and infrastructure? Which venues do you enjoy putting on/watching a gig?

Walter: As regards local talent, there’s been a wave of rude health in the last couple of years. It’s a real diverse and vibrant cross-section of artists, and it brings me joy to work with them all, making the smaller shows so much more exciting. Sort of feels like a treasure trove of best-kept secrets, and though a lot of our talent may be overlooked nationally, their loss is our wealth.

I don’t so much have any favourite venue to work in, as resonant pairings of venue and performers, ideally both local and international. Wandering Oak is venue- and genre-fluid, to best frame the artists, but any well-run venue has my love and gratitude.
The venues I enjoy watching a gig live or die on two factors in:

  • Can I sit down, and
  • Can I get a cup of tea?

Alannah: Personally, Boiler Shop is my favourite venue in the region, as both someone who puts on gigs and goes to gigs there. We’re very lucky to be working together on Light Years along with Wandering Oak. Since lockdown, it seems as though local venues and promoters wanted to chip in and do their bit to make more happen, so it’s not really seen as a competition, more of an open call to work together and open more opportunities to gig-goers and those who put shows on alike. Zerox is also one of my favourites, as well as The Cumberland Arms and Gosforth Civic Theatre. It’s a shame Bobik’s closed down, as that was a great venue too. But again, one door closes and another opens, creating more opportunity to work together to fill the empty space that the venue’s closure has left us with.

DP Phillips: I think the Northeast has recently recovered from some dark times, and is thriving with some great venues, other than Boiler Shop I enjoy getting out to see stuff at The Lubber Fiend, Cobalt Studios, Cluny 2, and the odd posh night out City Hall and Northern Stage.

In your opinion, what factors make an artist an appealing booking?

Walter: Some genres are beyond my remit, but what I’m drawn to is artists who are;

  • innovative,
  • impassioned,
  • and ideally international

Alannah: I wish I could say it’s as simple as coming down to personal taste, but it isn’t. Personally, it’s always exciting to book bands I’m a fan of anyway, such as Ladyhawke at The Cluny earlier in the year, or Opus Kink at Zerox last year. But really, I believe it’s all about having an open mind and not limiting yourself to genre or popularity. Bands who have a genuine passion, talent and uniqueness always stand out to me. It’s important to keep your ears to the ground when making these decisions, also observing bands who have the potential to make moves in the future is a learned skill. There’s no right or wrong band to book, but it’s important to carefully curate these things in order to produce a rewarding final outcome.

DP Phillips: Timing. When things line up and the act is booked into the right sized place at the right time in their career, it can feel magical.

Currently, what are the challenges you have to face? 

Walter: Countering apathy towards buying tickets. Sitting down. Having a cup of tea.

Alannah: There’s been multiple times in the past, when a show hasn’t sold as well as we’d hoped, where it’s been easy to lose faith. Promotion isn’t an easy game, but the drive and belief in the artists that you’re putting on and the show’s you’re creating is something that is always worth putting the effort in for. Even if a show doesn’t sell as well as you’d hoped, there’s always at least someone with good feedback. We’ve put shows on with artists who haven’t sold well, but then I’ve seen customers who bought tickets then start up similar projects because of that exact show they’d went to, and went on to do great things. It’s inspiring. 

DP Phillips: Cost of living crisis, 14 years of Tory rule, Newcastle getting overlooked.

How has the live music industry changed since you have been involved? How have these changes affected you?

Walter: I’ve kind of grown into my role, but the live music industry is something I’m not 100% compatible with.

Alannah: Personally, I’m a newbie to the promotion scene. I’ve been at it around two and a half years now, but since then I’ve been able to work alongside Joel and learn the ropes, meet some amazing people through work, which I’m super and eternally grateful for. I never knew the promotion side of things before the coronavirus outbreak so I’ve got nothing to compare it to, but the scene always comes with changes, such as venue closures and openings. There’s also the changes in the current economic climate, which unfortunately does impact things across the board, especially in the North East. But that doesn’t mean that the support in the local scene is non-existent, it just means we’ve had to adapt certain things like ticket prices in order to make things as accessible for everyone as possible, which I’m fully confident people are grateful for, as we’re against anyone feeling like they’re left out or unable to enjoy the things they once did due to situations that aren’t in their control. We’ve all been through hard times, but that faith and hope is what keeps us doing what we’re doing. It helps us and customers alike see that there is good people, good times to come and that there is indeed light in times which may seem dark.

DP Phillips: Not sure I have enough time / space to really answer this in detail, it’s completely changed.  It used to be about getting out there with bags of flyers, now it’s more about a database and having a healthy online presence (which is just about a given for an act to be successful) there are now less independent operators in a world where the big corporations are taking over. 

How did this collaboration for Light Years come about?

Walter: Eventually.

Alannah: Chiara from Boiler Shop called us all up to arrange a meeting, as she recognised we all had a similar ethos when it comes to promotion and working collaboratively, so it just seemed to make perfect sense. We’ve worked together with Wandering Oak and Boiler Shop loads, it’s strange how it’s taken this long for us to all bring our heads together, but it’s super exciting that we’re doing it now and I’m incredibly psyched for the festival.

DP Phillips: It was a great idea from Chiara at Boiler Shop that we all should join forces.

Where did the name come from? And what’s the ethos behind the event?

Walter: Pretty much a desire to be light years ahead of crass and hackneyed “Psych Fest” marketing, which is experiencing legitimate criticism from the public. The name ties in with some aesthetic ideas which I hope will be implemented more fully in future, without saying too much as yet.

The experience should serve as a nexus, remaining psych-adjacent without abusing the term: capable of presenting artists like TVAM, who I consider a modern psychedelic concern, alongside exciting new names like O., and local titans Pigsx7 as the maraschino cherry on the cake.

DP Phillips: Numerous brainstorming. The ethos is to provide the good folk of the North East with an ever expanding event curated by some of the sharpest music inclined individuals.

How did you collectively decide on the artists that are performing?

Walter: Painstakingly.

Alannah: It started with conversations of our dream artists and artists who we’ve hosted before and enjoyed working with in the past who would fit the overall idea behind the event in terms of genre and sound. We’re over the moon to have built the lineup that we have, as each of the artists involved are incredibly talented and great to work with.

DP Phillips: We all wrote a wish list and then argued (positively about them).

Will there be any similar collaborations in the near future?

Walter: Wandering Oak and f54 have been intermittent co-promoters for a while and that will happily continue, I’m sure. Keen to do more shows at Boiler Shop, though it has to be the best fit for the artists. I still haven’t sold it out!

Alannah: Watch this space!

DP Phillips: Hopefully yes, this is just Year One.

 

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