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Interview: Talking 6Music Festival with Steve Lamacq

6 Music Festival begins today in the heart of Camden Town, the bustling nature of one of the capitals most beloved parts meets eclectic curation, insightful discussion and above all, humble connection between fan and band, presenter and listener.

As a staple of the 6 Music team, Steve Lamacq has been at the forefront of 6 Music’s community voice, the man who can be credited for backing Idles and Fontaines D.C. as they both found their voices and their place within the world of popular music. We sat down with Steve to discuss the festival, its thriving community and his unwavering desire and passion for new music.

Afternoon Steve, good day so far? 

Yeah we’ve got a lot on, what with the festival and then we’re off to SXSW, I’m nearly at the end of listening to about a thousand bands that are playing in America.

Have you gone through pretty much all of them? 

Yeah apart from some of the more hairier ones, some of the things that clearly aren’t going to work on our show. Some of the more metal orientated bands from Austin, one or two clearly esoteric electronic acts that have overblown moustaches or what looks like fancy dress, so I’ve left a few out. It’s challenging, I haven’t quite worked out where we are with it yet, but found a couple of good things.

Any that are particularly standing out to right now?

Kenny Hoopla, have you heard of him? He’s from Cleveland, Ohio. An American who must have had some sort of Anglophile record collection at some point, he sounds a bit British but in an American way. If Bloc Party formed in the states now, it would sound like a couple of his tracks, but he’s quite eclectic – he moves around in terms of music, genres within what he does. That sounds quite interesting, I think that’s the best thing we’ve found so far, I think that could translate over here definitely. We’ll see, you never know, you get over and go and see them and you are proved horribly wrong, you never know.

That’s it because sometimes it can be so different between live and recording can’t it? 

Oh yeah, particularly these days, also in a lot of cases there’s only one track on the SXSW website, and you’ll get very excited by that track and it turns out that’s the only good song they have and that’s why it’s the only one on there. We found Bodega out there a couple years ago, Bambara out there last year who were my saviours of SXSW. You never know, I went through the entire list of the SXSW bloggers tips, the 100, last night and I was a little underwhelmed. But you never know, might yet be surprised.

What is important and significant to me about the 6 music festival and where it stands in the plethora of festivals on offer is it’s desire to be multi-faceted and broad in its curation while still offering something exciting and accessible. For you, and as a team, what are you wanting to achieve from putting on such an event?

Variety really I suppose, giving as 6Music does an opportunity to get inside the music and the people who make it. I think it’s really important that we’re a part of the process of just making music available – that’s what 6Music is about really, putting things in front of people that they might like and some of which that they might of thought they weren’t going to like but they end up liking, it’s the broad range of music. But then with the things By Day – just being able to think and talk about music in a slightly different way, the difference in our day line-up compared to other festivals is that I think you get much closer to the artist and you get more of an informed opinion form the experts and from 6 music. It’s as much about the presenters, take Gilles Peterson in conversation with Robert Glasper will be interesting – ’cause you’ll learn about Robert Glasper but you’ll also learn a lot about Gilles Peterson at the same time, who’s the master of his scene. But it’s quite hard to work out until you really see him in the flesh and you think “ah, now I get it”, when you actually hear him talking about music. So I think things like this are really important. It’s really about opening up the music and how it’s made, sharing the joy of finding a record or a band and to do it in the company of the listeners given pretty much the whole of the 6 music team will be there. It’s a shared experience between a radio station and it’s listeners that I don’t think many other radio stations could do really. It’s very precious.

I think what I find from listening to 6 Music, whether from listening to yourself, or Marc Riley or Lauren Laverne, there’s always the personality there – whereas I do think that gets lost across some radio stations and that’s what makes 6Music so special is that it’s personal?

Yeah it is, and I think all the individuals are slightly different. Although I don’t think any of us put ourselves ahead of the music but when we talk about it we are probably now confident enough to explain why we like things, contextualise music in a way that other presenters on other pop stations maybe can’t or don’t have the opportunity to do. But we’re not unique, cause you’ve got good presenters at Radio X, Absolute and Radio 1, there’s good people over there like Phil Taggart, and Jack and Annie. A lot of us have been around long enough now to be confident enough to express an opinion, rather than just following a trend. My bandwagon jumping days are over, cause I haven’t got the legs or ears for it now, can’t jump on someone else’s train.

It’s that thing of you’re going to back it if you like it but if you don’t you’re not going to want to?

Yeah I suppose it comes back again to the mix of the music that’s at the festival is representative of the mix of DJs and presenters that we have at 6 Music. That certainly is unique in it’s own way, so I think that speaks volumes about the festival. There isn’t another gang like us, another team of people like us.

I think it’s also very welcoming, you are always finding personalities that can come in and make a home at 6 Music and then express themselves in different ways, through Guest Selections and so on and so forth. It’s definitely got that community aspect, which for a national radio station is an impressive feat to pull off?

Well I think all these years later we’re still indebted to the listeners for helping to save the network in the first place, not a day goes by where I don’t think about how important the listeners are as a part of the network, I don’t think I’ve ever worked at a station where I’ve felt as close to the listeners as at 6 Music. That’s why it’s so important to me that you retain a level of trust – well in whatever I’ve done, from the Radio 1 days onwards, I’ve been very conscious that you can’t sell the listeners a dud without them going “really? Well you said this is good” when it clearly isn’t. I know some people will adapt their musical taste to look hipper or smarter, but for us lot our reputations are built on doing the best we can and not flogging something to people that we’re not really sure of, so if you build that level of trust then people will come with you and go away and explore the music you’ve put before them. Again, it’s a very precious thing that takes a while to build and you don’t want to blow it. Our bar is raised quite high I think. They are prepared to put up with things that they may not like as much to listen to the things that they know they will like and in-between they’ll find things they didn’t know they were going to like. It’s a rollercoaster ride but if you can make all that sound like a decent compilation tape and say something vaguely entertaining in between then you’ve got a shout for a reasonably good radio show, that’s how we look at it.

Your own personal passion and desire for new music has never seemed to really have been dampened at any point through your career. What is it about finding new music and being able to share it with people that has always been so gratifying for you?

I don’t know really, I mean it started in double History at school when I used to listen to John Peel and then talk to the one kid in class who liked similar music and say “Did you hear this? It’s really good” then I suppose in working at the NME, just being lucky enough to be able to see bands early and getting to go to gigs for free, that was the amazing thing. Not only were they paying you to write about music and you got to go to gigs for free? This was the greatest life ever. So I took advantage of this by going to lots of gigs for free and seeing lots of bands who I thought were really quite good. Some of it is just instinct really, thinking “I think other people will like this?”, I particularly thrive on bands who are the underdogs in some way or slightly unfashionable, which is what I’ve been doing ever since my fanzine days right up to something like Idles who’ve been together for four, five years and steadily, from not very good to pretty good,  being able to see somebody like that having an amazing time at a gig and thinking “I think other people might feel like this.” This is the sort of band where I thought I would just love it if this sort of band were seen and embraced by more people.

Selfishly as well there’s an element of excitement about a band being at pub / backroom level that you just don’t get when it gets to Brixton Academy. It’s a different type of excitement then, it’s a more of a communal thing, but down on the bottom rung you see bands at their hungriest and their rawest, at the stage where they are evolving from gig to gig. There’s something about those little gigs which still give me a thrill that I can’t repeat anywhere else, on a night where you find a band that are really good, getting back on air, playing the record, and wondering where it might go next. Seeing Fontaines DC for the first time at The Victoria in Dalston, having dragged Felix White from The Maccabees along going “no come on you’ll like this” and them coming on and they were good. Sometimes you’re going to turn up having found something that could be potentially good,  and it’s not exactly what you wanted. There has been times in my career where I’ve thought about packing it in, but if I’d packed it in in 2009 when I lost thought about it then I wouldn’t of seen Idles, or Fontaines DC. There’s just too much insecurity in what I might miss out on in not doing it.

6 Music as a whole has obviously been one of the catalysts for acts such as Idles, Fontaines DC, Nadine Shah and for me, The Murder Capital in particular, finding success – Now those acts can speak to so many different people across all walks of life, where do you feel they go next? Do they continue to embrace what it is that makes them?

I mean they’ll all find a way won’t they, they’ll all go off on their own different tangents. The challenge for Idles is speaking to as many people as possible without losing the connection with the people. The challenge for Fontaines DC is for a band who could become hugely popular is playing to and getting to as many people as possible without going mad in the process and without compromising where they want to go musically, cause I think they’ll become more challenging musically, that’ll be interesting. It’s about getting people to go in a different direction musically. The Murder Capital is an interesting one because for a band that don’t really play by the rules of pop music, even when they play live, their sets are incredibly moving, they’ve learnt and become a band who cast a spell with their songs, so that’ll be interesting to see what they do next. Carrying on from that there’s a band from Ireland called Odd Morris, who to me, I’ve seen them twice, and I said to my mate during the second time of seeing them “it’s not just me is it, we’re five songs in and they’ve not played a single chorus yet?”. So it’s another new challenging way of working with sounds and taking the old rock and roll formula and moulding it into something new or working out a way that you can effect people with a slightly different take on pop music, and I think that’s what all those bands have done really.

Also as well, even with the blunter lyricism of Idles, they are all new poets. Nadine is, they’ve taken away that you can write and create images in people heads and done something new and rather beautiful. As long as they’ve still got new and interesting things to write about then they’ve all got a pretty good future . The Murder Capital in particular, I’m looking forward to their second album a lot.

The last couple years in particular seem to have really been another high in terms of the new artists that are making a name for themselves and their music is being met with such adoration. How do you think that compares with the actual state of the industry and the arts funding that new artists receive as a whole? Do you think both can reach a fruitful state again, because for me there is certainly room for improvement on the industry side?

It’s hard isn’t it, because a lot of the bands that are doing a lot of these interesting things are going to, by necessity, be outside the mainstream, I don’t think the mainstream will embrace a form of guitar music again like it did with Britpop. For Britpop, although there was canniness and cheekiness and again the lyricism was part of it, It still had to compromise slightly into the chart. One of the things we value particularly about the music we like is that it won’t sell itself short – it won’t compromise, not enough to be able to sign a big major label record deal or convince the heads of big streaming companies that you should be on the front page every week. I’m not against that, people like Idles will probably prove that you can make a reasonable living out of it and at the same time if it means they aren’t playing enormous stadiums and they aren’t completely out of reach that would be great. It’s all about creating a space somewhere just outside the mainstream before reach the far periphery of pop music for people to be able to do something that is creative and popular. That scene is reasonably strong at the moment, it’ll always be nice to get more listeners and more people involved, but you have to do it in a way that isn’t compromising your art or selling yourself short.

That’s the same thing with 6Music, we’ve never wanted to stand still, we’ve never said we’ve got enough listeners now, the challenge is always trying to get new listeners without commercialising what we do or dumbing it down just to get more people involved, and I think that’s the same challenge for bands.

The BBC Radio 6 Music Festival takes place in Camden from the 6th-8th March and will be broadcast on 6 Music and BBC Sounds across the weekend. Performances will also be available to watch on BBC iPlayer and bbc.co.uk/6music, with highlights on BBC Four and BBC Red Button.