This time next week, thousands of music aficionados will descend upon North Wales. With an emphasis on emerging Welsh talent, FOCUS Wales 2015 will showcase over 150 bands across 15 stages, as well as hosting three nights of stand-up and 20 interactive sessions. We let Jo Southerd pick the brains of Andy Jones, co-founder of and music booker for FOCUS Wales festival.
Hi, Andy! Congratulations on hitting the festival’s 5th birthday this year! When did you first decide that the music industry spotlight needing firmly planting on Wrexham?
Thanks. Well, we first began discussing the idea of the festival in early 2010. We felt that Wales really needed an event like this, and Wrexham was a great location to host it. There’s a great scene up here, great venues, and it’s such an easy place to get to for people flying in, or coming from places such as Manchester or Liverpool that are just over an hour away. So, placing the spotlight on Welsh talent has always been the point, it just so happens that we’ve chosen to host the event in Wrexham. We knew it would be a challenge to get the thing off of the ground, but while it would have been easy to sit around complaining about such an event not existing, we thought that it was about time someone had a go at making it work!
If you go back in time to 2011, Focus took place over two days, in one venue. Are you pleased how it’s grown from strength to strength?
Yeah, it’s been fun to see the festival grow each year, and we’re proud of the way the festival has been embraced by new music fans. At the same time, we’ve been really careful to build the event up gradually and to not risk the event by overstretching ourselves, as we’ve seen other festivals fail that way. So we wanted to retain the bits that make the festival fun, and each year we build in one or two new aspects to excite people.
Back in 2011, Funeral For A Friend were headlining with other now-household Welsh names scattered across the line-up: Race Horses, Masters In France, Gallops, The Gentle Good, We Are Animal and Paper Aeroplanes to name a few. Who’s representing Wales this year?
Of the 170 acts performing at the festival, over 130 of the acts are from Wales, so there’s lots to choose from. Welsh highlights this year include Future Of The Left, Zefur Wolves, Sweet Baboo, The Pale Blue Dots, Houdini Dax, Cut Ribbons, Seazoo, the list goes on.
In the five years since you started Focus, how has the music scene in Wales changed?
In my view, the Welsh music scene is going from strength to strength on various levels. With the impact of the internet, bands no longer have to relocate to major cities to make a career for themselves in the industry. This is great for Wales because so often the talent can be hidden away in small villages and towns. There are now self-releasing artists in the most rural areas of Wales, developing audiences worldwide. So the internet has given a platform for a new generation of Welsh creators, and it’s giving us an increasing number of exciting new releases each year. Another positive development in the Welsh scene in recent years is that bands across Wales are working together more so than any time I can remember before. Frequently bands from North and South Wales are arranging gig swaps, and arranging tours together, and it feels like this new movement of artists are really embracing DIY, cutting out the middleman and taking control of their careers. I could go on all day, but you get the idea… I think it’s a great time for Welsh music!
Focus champions a lot of unsigned, developing artists. Of all the young bands you’ve booked over the years, is there anyone whose progress you’re particularly proud of?
There’s been a number of success stories. We gave an early showcase to Catfish & The Bottlemen when they were just starting out, and it’s been nice to see them, after spending years gigging around Wales in their old van, to go on and achieve the success they have, and we hope the festival goes on to prove to be in important stepping stone for other emerging Welsh bands in the years ahead.
Wales has a super, vibrant, cultural presence, and it’s great to see Welsh bands share a stage with their musical peers from across the world. At what point did you start adding international bands to the line-up?
From the very beginning. We’ve had international bands play every year, and this year we have bands from Australia, Japan, Canada, Germany, Ireland and France. We’ve always wanted Focus to be an international event, which will enable emerging acts here to interact with acts from overseas. And it brings such an exciting dimension to the festival, so we’re always excited to welcome the world to Wales.
Future of the Left is your only Welsh headline band this year. Do you think it’s at all contradictory for a festival named Focus Wales to have headliners from Leeds, Japan and the south of England? How would you respond to someone who argued this?
We would start by pointing out that in addition Future Of The Left, we have a long list of Welsh headliners at the festival this year, including headline shows from Little Arrow, Sweet Baboo, Yucatan, Falls, Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog, Y Ffug, Yr Eira, Y Bandana, Andy Hickie, Cy Humphreys, and the list keeps going. We have more Welsh headliners than any other festival; it’s what we do. At the same time, some of the big names on the festival poster that may stand out for people are acts from outside of Wales. Bringing big names from outside of Wales has always been something we’ve done, and something we feel is very important for the event as a whole. As I said earlier, we’ve always wanted Focus Wales to be an international event, in the same way that Great Escape or Liverpool Sound City are international events, with headliners from all over. We want emerging Welsh bands to have the opportunity to showcase alongside exciting international touring acts. Building in international acts as part of our live programme helps to widen the festival audience, which in turn helps the emerging Welsh acts involved to grow their own audiences for the music they’re making, so it’s a strategy that works for us, and it’s something which has really helped the festival to grow.
Your Interactive programme is full to bursting with experts from all corners of the music industry. Why are these panels and discussions such an important aspect of the festival? Does having so many influential faces around affect the dynamic of the weekend?
Yeah, it’s great to have the music industry come to Wales for the week. For bands coming through from places such as Bala or Prestatyn, the chance to give your demo to the likes of Huw Stephens from Radio 1 or Mike Williams, the editor of the NME doesn’t come along too often. It’s also a good way for bands to connect with other bands, managers, promoters and labels, and learn from each others experiences. And of course, we hope that everyone leaves the talks having learnt something new, that will help them going forward.
Who’s responsible for bringing the comedy element to the festival?
It’s something that we do in collaboration with a number of promoters. We’re really happy with the way that people have taken to the comedy aspect of our live programme, and it’s something we’re looking to build on going forward.
2015’s schedule sees an exclusive film screening and even free children’s workshops. Would you like to add even more Fringe-type events and activities to Focus?
Yeah, definitely. It’s something that adds a new point of interest for people and widens the festival audience again, so we’re always exploring fun new activities we can add in.
What are the pros and cons of running a metropolitan festival set in concrete streets rather than traditional grassy fields?
No mud is definitely a plus point! But one of the things I love about metropolitan festivals, is that you get to explore so many interesting venues and spaces in the host towns and cities. One of our venues, for example, is a jaw-droppingly beautiful 400-year-old church, which is the sort of unique experience you just don’t get with your standard tent in a field event.
I see you’re taking the festival on tour with a Summer BBQ all-dayer in Wrexham this July, can you tell me a bit more about that?
We’ve delivered a Winter Mixer event for the past two years, which are fun one-day micro-festivals. So this year, we’re doing our first Summer Mixer, which will be a one day event that we’re hosting up at the lovely STIWT Theatre in Rhos, Wrexham. We’ll be announcing the line-up for that after the festival, so it’s all strictly under wraps for now!
Can you imagine Focus branching out into even more events across the calendar? Are you involved in any projects outside of North Wales?
Well, we’ve started doing this with our Winter and Summer Mixer events. But as far as events go outside of North Wales, it’s definitely of interest, and we have a few ideas we’re currently developing, so we’ll see what the future holds on that.
And lastly, why do you think it’s so important to celebrate Welsh music; and what do you think the future might hold for music in Wales?
It’s important that with so many ace new bands and artists coming through in Wales, that these acts have a platform to showcase what they do. Of course, great artists should be celebrated wherever they come from, but, being Welsh, we feel duty bound to support and celebrate the exciting new acts we have coming through right now. As far as the future of music in Wales is concerned, it’s looking pretty good from here. For me, it’s not about having one or two stadium fillers come along every 10 years, as nice as that is, it’s more so about having lots of really great and interesting Welsh acts being sustainable in their work, which for me, is a marker of success in these times. There are so many awesome Welsh acts flying the flag right now, and looking at some of the new acts that have emerged in the last year alone, the future is looking really good.
FOCUS Wales 2015 takes place 22-25 April in various venues across Wrexham.
For tickets and more information go to http://www.focuswales.com/
FOCUS is one of our Favourite Metropolitan Festivals. Read about the others here!