For many (myself included), Manchester Punk Festival has become the official signal for the start of the festival season. From humble beginnings, the event has expanded yearly, and now features a fully international line-up, with home grown UK talent sharing stages with some of the crème of the global punk rock scene. This drive to showcase the best of an often-underappreciated collection of the hardest working bands out there forms the foundation of the MPF mission. It’s refreshing to see a DIY music festival truly thriving whilst obviously favouring people over profits and it’s a proud feeling that it happens in Manchester.
Now in its third year, MPF has successfully established itself in the city’s annual calendar, and represents one of the largest (and certainly most diverse) celebrations of punk rock in the country. Spread out over a massive six venues (all in the immediate vicinity of one another), this year’s festival will be the biggest yet. It’s happening on from the 20th April, to the 22nd, and if you’re quick, you can probably still pick up a ticket from their dwindling stocks.
I met up with Ian “Tree” Robinson of Anarchistic Undertones, Kieran Kelly of Moving North, and Andy Davies of TNS records for a chat about what it takes to start a festival and see it grow. Together (and with the help of their promotion groups and countless volunteers), they’re responsible for making sure the everything runs smoothly over the weekend. To be honest, it’s an achievement I’m in awe of – both because of the enormity of it, and after seeing first-hand the kind of antics the AU lot like to indulge in.
Without further ado, here’s the Manchester Punk Festival pre-show interview special.
MPF: What’s it all about and where did the idea come from?
Andy: We kind of started it after we did the TNS ten-year birthday, we got quite a lot of people into Sound Control for it. Then, a few weeks later, me and Bev (Tim Bevington, TNS Records) went to see Kieran’s all-dayer. That was absolutely rammed as well, and obviously we’d been going to Tree’s stuff loads. We thought, “Why don’t we just get together and do something a bit bigger?” Our crowds didn’t perhaps cross over as much as they might. I thought, “there’s probably a lot of people who would like the bands we were putting on, and vice versa”. So, that was the idea.
Tree: Yeah, people just stuck to a specific type of gig normally, or that’s how it always used to be. I feel like we’ve changed that now. I feel like more people mix it up and go to everything.
When did you start working on this year’s festival?
Tree: The day after last year’s.
Tree: Well, we’re already talking about bands for 2018. We’ve started speaking to some.
Andy: It’s all consuming, isn’t it?
Tree: It’s all year round. I think we had about a month off where we stopped speaking to each other every single day.
Kieran: Yeah, I needed to be alone for a bit. People needed to make sure their girlfriends would still put up with them and stuff.
Tree: Didn’t work out great for me that, did it?
Tree: It’s a good nine or ten months really. It gets hectic after the turn of the year. That’s when it starts getting really busy.
Andy: I think it’s a bit less intense now that we’ve done it a couple of times. The first year I was totally overwhelmed by it.
Tree: Maybe so, but I think because we’ve grown it each year it still feels like there’s a lot more to do. It’s really noticeable this year.
Andy: We’re definitely more efficient now.
Kieran: There’s more responsibility too. As it grows, and gets bigger and better, you feel a lot more responsibility to make it shit hot.
Tree: We tend to do similar things each year so we kind of all know where we are a bit more. The first year it was more about trying to divide everything up, whereas I feel we all just do what we’re we’re best at now.
It’s a lot of people to organise. Do you all work well together?
Tree: I wouldn’t say I like them…
Tree: We do alright.
Andy: I think, as cheesy as it sounds, we’re all quite good friends now through doing this. That’s really nice.
Kieran: It’s definitely a nice by-product. We all knew each other before but we weren’t close.
Tree: It’s led on to us doing other things together, as well. I’ve done a few gigs with Kieron now. It sends the right message, I think. You know, when you team up and help each other out? I think MPF has been responsible for us doing that, to be honest.
With so much to do, do you actually get to enjoy the festival?
Andy: I’m terrible for getting myself stressed out but I’m getting better at it.
Tree: I wouldn’t say I get stressed. For me, there’s no possible way I could watch everyone I want to see, and I think that’s going to hit home more this year. I could happily watch most of the line-up, and obviously I won’t be able to. That’s not that great but I still get to see plenty. It’s just very hectic – a long few days. You know about it on Sunday!
Andy: That’s not just because of the work though is it? Let’s be honest!
Andy: I was wretching at 5am last time. I had to be in Sound Control for ten.
Kieran: It’s a hectic weekend. You’re definitely working almost all the time but you know what you’re working for which makes it easier. You can’t really stand in the same place for more than five minutes though – you’re constantly like, “I need to go and check on…. that room, really quick.”
Tree: It takes you an hour to get from one side of the festival to the other as well. We couldn’t just do it the seven of us. We’ve a lot of people helping on the day. We’ve got a team of volunteers this year – people doing merch, food etc. It gives us a bit of breathing space so we don’t have to do every job but there’s still more than enough to do.
What’s the biggest challenge of putting on an event like MPF?
Andy: There’s a big responsibility because there’s so many people coming. You want them to enjoy it, and it’s got to be worth their money.
Tree: You don’t want it to be uncomfortable, you don’t want to over pack it. It’s got to be safe.
Andy: You’ve got to be careful of the clashes as well, I think. If there’s more people wanting to watch a particular band than there is room at that stage then you’ve got people kicking off that they missed it.
Tree: That actually is the biggest challenge – the running order.
Tree: By a mile.
Andy: I think that it’s gotten worse and worse as we’ve started working together more. People from “our” different crowds have been going to each other’s gigs. It makes for a much bigger problem when it comes to clashes.
Tree: There’ll be a group of clashes that for the style of music and crowds aren’t really clashes but for us, as fans, it’s proper shit. But you have to just ignore that and treat it just from a promotional point of view.
Andy: I think it’s a really positive thing that we manage to do that but it’s just going to get harder every year.
Tree: Doing the running order this year was the hardest running order I’ve ever been a part of. It took us hours and hours. Then, you think you’ve done it, and there’ll be one band you clock, and say “No, they can’t clash with them”.
Kieran: A lot of the bands share members too which is tricky.
Tree: If one of the bands drops out, and we’ve had a few, you’ve got to get someone in who isn’t going to completely mess up the running order. It’s not easy but it’s a nice problem to have, to be honest.
What can people look forward to other than live music at this year’s MPF?
Andy: We’ve got a film festival this year. We’ll be showing a few movies in Font Bar.
Tree: Yeah, we moved the acoustic stage from Thirsty Scholar to Black Dog Ballroom. We’ve got a little beer festival in there (Thirsty Scholar). We’ve got a couple of breweries that are coming up, they’re going to do a few demonstrations, that kind of thing.
Kieran: We’re trying to add a few more things that aren’t bands to it.
Andy: We’ve got “merch city” too. A few more distros etc.
Tree: Yeah, we’ve hired out an area of the Font Bar, and we’re going to put a few films on, a couple of talks with people, we’ve got some zines coming, I think that’s it really. They’re the only extra things we added. We’ve got a Colombian film crew coming over, we’ve got a few distros from around the country, record labels….
Andy: We’re screening some movies like the Fat Wreck Chords film, and Filmage.
Kieran: There’s just shit tons going on at all times essentially!
Tree: You forget that not everyone wants to watch bands for twelve hours a day. We all do, but not everyone else does! Bev’s big on getting feedback off people. Last year, he sent some surveys out to ticket holders asking opinions. We want people to enjoy it and contribute. We asked what we did right, what did people think we could add? People did say that there wasn’t really any chill out areas, it was hammered everywhere – just music and beer. It makes it a bit more of a festival feel, rather than just a few venues too.
Andy: I think we didn’t do it straight away because we didn’t want to take people away from the bands. We wanted the bands to have good crowds. There’s enough people coming now that we can add some events and it’s not going to take away from the audiences.
Are there any plans in place for MPF 2018?
Kieran: We kind of want to keep it at a similar level next year.
Tree: We haven’t really agreed anything yet, to be honest. Me personally, I’d like to keep it how it is for another year. Solidify it a little bit, rather than having to worry about another stage. We talked about maybe just opening the Friday up so it’s not just the evening. That was Kieran’s suggestion. Maybe people would have to book a day off work, or whatever. We’ve not finalised that though. I don’t think we’re going to grow it much next year.
Andy: I’d like to add a few more bands every year. There’s so many wanting to play. We had like 500 bands asking us. I’d always like to add a few.
Kieran: You have to balance it with the venues. Without adding another one, you can still only sell the same amount of tickets. Any extra bands would mean paying them from the same purse.
Tree: We had talked about maybe having Gorilla (venue) on the Friday but you’d have to make sure you had the right bands to add another day in a 500-capacity venue.
Andy: I think it’s easier to make some of those decisions when you see who you’re going to get as well. If you’ve got certain bands, you wouldn’t be opposed to adding 200 tickets, or whatever.
Tree: When we started finalising the “headliners”, for lack of a better word, we knew we’d be alright (this year) with the capacity because they were well known bands. We couldn’t have done this capacity off the last two years’ line-ups really. Although, saying that, we sold out well before it last year. We could have sold a lot more tickets the amount of people who were asking.
Kieran: They’d have had nowhere to go though!
Tree: They could have sat outside.
Who would be your ideal headliners for the festival in the future?
Tree: I’m not going to say.
Andy: [looking at Tree]: It’s Propagandhi, pretty much?
Tree [laughing]: Yeah, it’s all your favourite bands, isn’t it? I mean, I’d love to have Refused. I’d love to have Propagandhi on. Strike Anywhere are one of my favourite bands, so to have them this year is massive for me. Kieran’s a big Against Me! fan, I know that.
Andy: I’d really love Zeke. I think it’s doable.
Tree: Maybe Kid Dynamite.
Kieran: Lawrence Arms would be well good for next year but they don’t do much. It just depends because Paint It Black and Strike Anywhere haven’t been over here for seven years, and we gave them a shout and it came through.
Tree: Literally, it was as easy as, “Fancy playing it?”
Andy: You want headliners that “get” what it’s about too. Both of them (Paint It Black, Strike Anywhere) really did get what we’re doing.
Kieran: They embody everything that we do.
Tree: I think because we’re not sponsored, we don’t have any funding, and we promote vegan catering – that kind of stuff – it makes it very interesting for those kinds of bands – which is what we want really.
Kieron: Until the Monster Energy sponsorship next year!
Tree: I’d rather have a band that maybe aren’t as active, that are fully behind what we’re doing, than one that will definitely shift 2,000 tickets but don’t really give a shit.
What sets MPF apart from other punk festivals?
Tree: I wouldn’t say we’re better than other punk festivals – I’ve been to many better festivals than MPF [laughs]. I think, there’s certain elements of the line-up that we’re putting on big stages, in big venues, with big bands, that might not necessarily get that opportunity elsewhere. From our (AU) point of view, I know a lot of the skate punk bands get overlooked by English festivals. There’s other great UK festivals but they’re very specific types of (punk) music, whereas I think we’re good in the sense that we’re really varied. There’s so much mad shit on there.
Andy: It’s one of the things we do really well at because each different promotion group has always been encouraging people to get out and see smaller bands, it means that smaller bands play to a lot of people.
Kieran: We think that’s to our advantage. The fact that we’ve got three promotor groups, that are three different styles, that kind of span over everything. It’s probably best that it’s in Manchester too. It’s not in London, it’s easy to get to for a lot of people, cheapish, and the fact that the venues are all close together is quite a good advantage.
Tree: We are lucky with that. I was chatting to Tony Vermin (Dead Good promotions/AntiPop records) from Liverpool about it. He said, ‘We haven’t got two venues close to each other, never mind six.” I think Manchester’s been missing it for years. It should have been done ages ago.
Andy: Well we tried it years ago! We tried to put a festival on with like everyone we ever knew who’d put a gig on in Manchester.
Tree: It was hilarious. I got invited to this Facebook group and there was literally eighty people in it. All different promoters, like.
Andy: What about this person? They once put on a gig! Invite them!
Tree: People started inviting other people we didn’t even know and it was just a mess. We couldn’t even get a meeting together. We gave up after that.
Finally, who are you most looking forward to seeing at this year’s MPF?
Tree: Apart from the obvious ones, I’d say….
Kieran: Paint It Black for me!
Tree: … well Strike Anywhere obviously but out of the smaller bands I’m fired up for Clowns, can’t wait to have them over. Edward In Venice, Brutal Youth, there’s just tonnes of bands that I want to watch.
Kieran: On the “clash-finder”, I’ve looked myself for what I’d want to see and it’s just relentless throughout.
Tree: I tried the same and I’d need to be in three places for most of the days. I’m just going to have to cut some bands out.
Kieran: Paint It Black, just the idea of them playing for us….
Tree: It still seems bizarre that we’ve got some of those bands. When you grow up listening to a band for so long. I’ve literally listened to Strike Anywhere for fifteen years. Every time they’ve been over I’ve been to watch them. If you’d have told me fifteen years ago that I’d be doing a festival and they would be headlining, I’d have laughed at you. It’s quite special that. It still doesn’t seem real. It probably won’t until they actually get there.
Kieran: I saw Paint It Black the day I moved to Manchester, seven years ago at the Star and Garter.
Tree: It’s really difficult to say who you’re most looking forward to without feeling like you’re ignoring some of the other bands on the line-up. That’s the best thing about it though. There’s so much choice that there’s something on for you, all day, whatever you’re into.