Challenging Is For Everyone: 20 Years Of Supersonic Festival

A month out from the 20th anniversary edition of Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival, Kez Whelan reflects on how two decades of eclectic programming, a staunch DIY ethos and forward-thinking and inclusive politics have made it the British underground’s best-loved annual event

Aja perform at Supersonic 2019, photo by Joe Singh

Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, and looking back over the last two decades of its existence, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that organisers Capsule have laid down the groundwork for all the specialised, boutique UK festivals that have sprung up in its wake. It’s easy to take such events for granted these days, but it’s worth remembering just how ground-breaking Supersonic has been, and what an anomaly it was when it first appeared. A staunchly DIY, female-founded festival in an extremely corporate, male dominated industry, Supersonic revolutionised the idea of a music festival in the early 2000s and has been going strong ever since.

After forming Capsule in 1999 to bring some of their favourite artists to the city, Lisa Meyer and Jenny Moore decided to take the leap from gig promotion to festival organisation in 2003. Inspired by both hardcore punk all-dayers at Bradford’s 1 In 12 Club and Barcelona’s electronic festival Sónar, the pair sought to combine their eclectic musical tastes under one roof, with a festival that could house everything from extreme metal to industrial hip hop, avant-folk to harsh noise, and electronica to psychedelic rock.

I’ll never forget my first Supersonic – after being impressed by their lineups from afar, the unholy trinity of Sunn O))), Thorr’s Hammer and Corrupted in 2009 finally convinced me to make the pilgrimage and would wind up being one of the most pivotal musical events of my formative years. Two things struck me immediately; firstly, the overwhelming volume of course (Supersonic was the festival that galvanised me into buying my first pair of ear plugs, so in a strange way, you could argue they’ve actually saved my hearing over the years), but also the sheer vibrancy of the festival’s atmosphere and line-up.

All three of the aforementioned drone-doom legends were as skull-crushingly great as I’d hoped, but it was the festival’s eclecticism that really stuck with me. Being flattened by Corrupted’s huge waves of jet-black doom before stumbling into a gigantic, room-wide mosh pit as Tel Aviv punks Monotonix turned the Custard Factory into a sprawling sea of bodies that looked more like a Hieronymus Bosch painting than a concert is one of those glorious moments of musical whiplash that has remained seared into my brain ever since.

Monotonix perform at Supersonic 2009, photo by Mark Rhodes

It’s impressive how Supersonic has managed to retain such a distinct musical identity whilst taking a far more adventurous approach to booking than other similarly sized festivals. All these wild tonal shifts seem to make sense though, exploring links and drawing comparisons between different artists or sounds you may never have consciously considered – placing the furious breakcore of Aaron Spectre’s Drumcorps directly before Napalm Death’s blistering grindcore was genius Friday night programming, for example, as was the decision to let Deafheaven’s swift yet atmospheric blasting lead straight into the boisterous Afrofuturist electronica of Shangaan Electro, or Prison Religion’s harsh industrial hip-hop set the tone for The Body’s minimalist sludge metal.

Whilst issues of representation are still a hot topic for some of the UK’s biggest festivals, Supersonic’s approach to booking has always favoured diversity and provided a platform for some of the most provocative and exciting contemporary female artists, be it Moor Mother’s pounding industrial hip hop, Gazelle Twin’s nightmarish art pop or Bismuth’s crushing drone doom, to name but a few. Holly Herndon’s 2015 set is another that remains branded into my memory – with her laptop projected behind the stage, the US born sound manipulator brought up the Supersonic Facebook event page and proceeded to mine data from the audience by taking their profile pictures and mapping them on to 3D figures, all to a soundtrack of vibrant, glitchy electronica. The crowd reaction was one of the most bizarre I’ve ever seen at a festival – once the initial baffled amusement waned, there was a sense of invasive terror as Herndon skimmed her cursor over your own name and photos. Pre-dating many modern concerns over cyber security and privacy in the digital world, it was the kind of surreal, boundary pushing performance I can’t imagine witnessing at any other UK festival.

After my initial taste of Supersonic, I was hooked. I went again as a punter in 2010, and after being blown away once again bv the festival’s sheer sonic force (I have a very distinct memory of Bong’s bone-shaking soundcheck rumbling me out of the hostel bed I was staying in next to the venue), I knew I had to get even more involved. Volunteering at the festival in 2012 was an eye-opening and incredibly rewarding experience, as I saw firsthand the amount of work, passion and attention to detail that goes into organising a festival like this – at one point, for instance, the team were tasked with finding a motorbike and supermodel after a typically bizarre set of stage directions from hypnogogic provocateurs Hype Williams. Once again the festival left me with loads of deeply cherished memories, from getting front-row seats during Bohren & Der Club Of Gore’s soundcheck to enthusing over that Corrupted set with iconic free improv percussionist Chris Corsano – but the standout had to be helping to construct Justice Yeldham’s vinyl rally. A week prior to the festival, Supersonic’s volunteers helped the Australian noise artist build a huge race track out of old, damaged vinyl records, from sourcing discarded LPs from local record stores to drilling them into a hefty fibreboard frame; during the festival itself, the crowd were encouraged to pilot RC cars around the track, each with a stylus equipped to the bottom to create an overwhelming din as they did so. It was an absolute blast to see the joy people shared whilst tearing it around on this bizarre contraption we’d just been sweating over for days on end, feeling like a microcosm of the festival itself in some ways – albeit with nowhere near the amount of preparation needed for the fest proper, of course.

Although Meyer and Moore somehow managed to pull off the first edition by themselves (with a strong line-up including dance-punk heroes LCD Soundsystem, industrial legends Coil and a collaboration between The Bug and Warrior Queen), it wasn’t long until they realised they’d need some extra help to grow the festival. Meyer mentions Coil’s set as a turning point – as the duo took the stage above the pond in the Custard Factory, an audience member leapt into the water before getting dangerously close to the host of wires, pedals and other electronic equipment the band had on stage, revealing a hitherto unconsidered health and safety risk. After again doing everything themselves in 2004 (right down to making the food and sewing tote bags), later editions would be backed by a diverse team of volunteers (not to mention a drained pond).

Coil perform at Supersonic 2003, photo by Jenny Moore

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call this network of volunteers that’s sprung up alongside the festival a family, providing a real sense of community and fostering numerous friendships in the process. This inclusive ethos is something the festival still admirably adheres to, even in the face of rising costs across the board in the live music industry. This year, for example, the festival is offering a solidarity ticket, an initiative where more well-off customers can pay extra for a ticket, effectively subsidising a free ticket for less advantaged festival-goers, in addition to teaming up with London’s non-profit DIY punk festival Decolonise Fest to give away tickets to punks of colour from low income backgrounds.

Whilst the lack of a dedicated, reliable site would be unimaginable for many festivals, it’s just another challenge that Capsule have taken in their stride – in fact, it actually adds to the festival’s unpredictable atmosphere, with each edition reimagining the streets of Digbeth with a slightly different feel and flavour.

You can really feel the amount of thought and effort that goes into designing the festival space each year, whether it’s enhancing and highlighting the area’s existing aesthetic (seeing industrial metal pioneers Godflesh perform in a dingy Brimingham warehouse is probably the perfect location for them, for example) or bringing a sense of magic, ritual and whimsy to otherwise barren and run-down locales. When Glaswegian sludge metallers Black Sun played in 2010, for instance, they became the Black Sun Drum Corp, mixing Scottish highland pipe band imagery with an evocative post-apocalyptic vibe as they lead a rhythmic procession around Digbeth – and when noise artist Aja performed at the Eastside Projects in 2019, she transformed the unassuming gallery into a vibrant dreamscape, belting out pounding deconstructed club music from a stage created by the artist Monster Chetwynd to look like it was emerging from a giant papier-mâché goblin’s mouth. This mixture of harsh, industrial reality and magical, surreal otherness sits at the heart of the festival’s sonic identity, so it makes sense to reflect this in its visual identity too.

This combination of inclusive politics, diverse representation, experimental art and unpredictable atmosphere is what has kept Supersonic so fresh, unique and resilient for the last twenty years. This year is no exception, with a line-up boasting old favourites like Godflesh, Deerhoof and Oxbow alongside a host of exciting new acts from across the world, such as Zambian-Canadian rapper Backxwash, Irish avant-folk collective Lankum, Moroccan feminist punk band Taqbir and anti-colonial drone-doom duo Divide And Dissolve. Whilst other festivals may come and go, Supersonic’s continued existence stands in defiance of industry norms and proves that so called “challenging” music can be for everyone.

This year’s edition of Supersonic takes place from 1 to 3 September in Digbeth, Birmingham. For tickets, the full lineup and further information, click here

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