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If You Know, You Know: ArcTanGent Festival Proves Bigger Isn't Always Better

Thursday, 22 August 2019 Written by Laura Johnson

Photo: Coheed and Cambria by Sam Lees

We’ve all had one of those chats over a beer, where we put the world to rights and share plans for our latest pipe dream. The difference between us and Goc O’Callaghan? She actually went out and did it, creating one of the world’s best small festivals for fans of math-rock, post-rock, noise-rock, and all you find in between. 

Welcome to ArcTanGent, the event co-founded by O’Callaghan that this year hosted headliners Coheed and Cambria, Battles and Meshuggah. And it all began over a pint in Camden with fellow founder James Scarlett nearly a decade ago. Both had been contemplating starting something new, following a long history with ArcTanGent’s sister festival 2000trees—Scarlett also co-founded that event and O’Callaghan’s worked 12 of its 13 years—which is also where they met ArcTanGent's other co-founder Simon Maltas. 

The festival's first official meeting took place in May 2011 and the inaugural edition followed in summer 2013, with an impressive debut line up including 65daysofstatic, the Physics House Band, Bossk, Nordic Giants, the St Pierre Snake Invasion, Oxygen Thief, Three Trapped Tigers, And So I Watch You From Afar, and TTNG, who all returned to Fernhill Farm last weekend.

“The independent festival sector in the UK is heavily saturated with so many indie rock festivals that are basically a copy and paste version of each other, and that’s when you see them go bust,” O’Callaghan explains. “So actually finding a niche genre of music that hadn’t yet been catered for in the festival world seemed like the obvious place to start.

“Combining that with our musical tastes anyway, it was the obvious place to go. Because it is so niche it does mean that we are catering for a certain type of clientele. We have a sort of slogan: ‘If you know, you know.’ If you know about this type of music and you know about ArcTanGent you’re gonna love it, and if you don’t, you won’t and you’ll probably never come.”

It may sound like an exclusive club, and it kind of is, but not in a Mean Girls “you can’t sit with us” kind of way. It’s more like nerd camaraderie. “Everybody in the audience here are massive music fans, whether it’s because they’re musicians or because they have a deep rooted passion for this type of music,” O’Callaghan continues. “They’re not interested in just getting trashed in a field or causing trouble. They’re here for the music.”

Photo: Meshuggah by Jonathan Dadds

It’s because the trio of organisers cater for these people, and not the festival equivalent of the wretch who talks loudly at an acoustic gig, that they won Best Small Festival at the UK Festival Awards last year, which has been a dream of O’Callaghan’s for close to 15 years. And (relatively) small is how they intend to keep it. They’ve grown from an initial 5,000 capacity to this year hosting close to 8,000, with over 100 acts playing across three days and five stages. There’s potential to grow to 20,000 but they’re certain they’ll hit the brakes when they reach the 10,000 mark.

“To go any bigger than 10 I think you’d start to lose that intimacy,” O’Callaghan says. “Because of the type of music we book, if we go too big in what we expect in terms of numbers it’s going to change the vibe and that’s not what we’re interested in.”

The inclusive and upbeat feel of the festival is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the artists. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs guitarist Adam Sykes particularly remembers a detail from 2018’s event: “Steve Albini [headlining with Shellac] talked about how he just usually hides backstage until he’s ready to go on, and for some reason he found himself walking around ArcTanGent, chatting to people and absolutely loved it. I think that’s quite telling.”

Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan agrees. “The positivity is contagious,” he says, while sitting in a very damp barn-turned-press area. He’d slipped on a black bin bag as his only defence against Friday’s biblically bad downpour. “Everyone’s smiling,” he continues. “They greet you with a smile. It’s nice to see. In the US this would be a cancelled event. But rain or shine things happen here. It’s a very pleasant experience. People on and off the stage, everyone’s very cool.”

And word is spreading. ArcTanGent now draws attendees from around the world—two Swedish men we met take a bus, boat, plane and taxi to attend each year. “It blows my mind that people are travelling halfway around the world sometimes to come and stand in a field in Bristol and listen to some music at this little party that I’ve decided to put on,” O’Callaghan says. “It’s kind of mind-blowing if you actually extrapolate how big that is.”

The positive tone is one that also extends to the festival’s vendors, who cover all bases: food, drink, garb and, in some cases even mental health — you’re always welcome at the Heads Above The Waves or Samaritans tent. All of them are independent businesses, prioritising high quality and fair prices. You won’t be robbed of a fiver for a greasy burger in a stale bun at ATG.

Photo: Russian Cirlces by Carl Battams

“Since it's a relatively small festival, there's always been a strong sense of community, among traders, among fans and between us all, “ says Becky Meehan, owner of Becky’s Bhajis and a stalwart ArcTanGent vendor since 2014. “We see many of the same faces year after year. There's Josh who always has a Mighty Swoosh, the guy from Luxembourg who has a single mirchi every day and many, many more whose names we don't know, but who we recognise and have a chat with every year. It's like catching up with old friends. ATG folk really are among the loveliest I know.”

Hannah Morgan, director of not-for-profit organisation Heads Above The Waves, concurs: “We absolutely love ATG. The atmosphere is so chilled out and positive, and there's such a strong community feel.”

The glue that holds that ArcTanGent community together, though, is the music. Year on year the organisers up the ante with the acts on offer. “I genuinely don’t think there is another festival in the world that has a line up like we do,” O’Callaghan proudly states. 

“It’s a very well curated fest,” Russican Circles bassist Brian Cook says. “The line up’s always really interesting. I think it is very niche, but at the same time I think the fact that you have Meshuggah and Battles on the same festival is super cool. It’s the kind of diversity that I find really interesting. Especially in a day and age where more festivals seem geared towards dance music or pre-programmed stuff. It’s nice to have a cool, underground, diverse, musician friendly festival that happens.”

We’ve got Scarlett to thank for the booking. He constantly has his ear to the ground, working with a ‘three recommendations or more’ method, and is already making offers for 2020. According to O’Callaghan, being ahead of the game with other festivals who might book some of the similar sort of acts is key. 

Timing is also everything when scheduling performances. ArcTanGent have what O’Callaghan refers to as “a herding mentality”. As soon as one band finishes another will begin in a nearby tent only five minutes later, and that way people can flock en masse without the guilt of leaving another set early.

Photo: Daughters by Jonathan Dadds

A discussion about festival line ups would not be complete, though, without raising the issue of gender balance. It’s something O’Callaghan admits they keep in mind, but not in terms of the 50/50 approach some musicians and industry members have previously called for.

“I understand the lean with people wanting to book 50/50 lines ups, but I don’t agree with that either,” she states. “A 50/50 gender balanced line up doesn’t show a true representation of the music industry, because the team of people behind a band could quite often, and is quite often, more heavily weighted towards females. It just so happens it’s not the females on the stages. 

“So by forcing a 50/50 gender equality on the stage you’re potentially compromising your line up. You’re skewing the perspective of what the music industry is like, it’s not a true representation of the bigger picture.

I try very hard not to talk too much about gender balance. I just want to get on, put on the best festival I possibly can. I want to listen to my audience, I want people to come back, and I like to think that that can be done by other people regardless of whether you’re male, female or however you choose to identify.”

Along with handling ArcTanGent, O’Callaghan is Vice Chair of The Association of Independent festivals, runs music event management and consultancy company Ubiqu Live, is currently completing a PhD in Event Concept Design For Memory Creation, and occasionally guest lectures at universities, including at branches of the British & Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM)—the festival is safe in highly qualified hands. 

ATG previously partnered with BIMM for industry placements giving students hands-on experience on site, but that relationship has now moved to WaterBear | The College of Music, Brighton. This year they sponsored the festival’s new stage, The Bar Room, hosting a blinding set from No Violet on the second day.

Photo: The Beft by Jonathan Dadds

The Bristol band managed to silence a gaggle of mardy attendees seeking shelter from the torrential rain, which did not relent all day and caused the generator to pack in part way through Russian Circles’ set on the Arc Stage. It didn’t dampen headliners Battles’ buzz, though, or that of Palm Reader and Cattle, who both delivered punishing sets over at the PX3 stage.

Opening day was a bit kinder weather wise, with Big Lad kicking things off to a packed crowd spilling out of PX3 and into the sunshine. Cultdreams followed with an intense set on the Bixler Stage, and then came a rousing performance from Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs at Yohkai. Festivities were in full swing after that, with Raketkanon, Daughters and headliners Coheed and Cambria all delivering career-defining sets. 

The final day, for some, was all about Meshuggah, who melted many a smiling face at the Arc Stage as the sun went down on Saturday, but gums were also flapping about special guests And So I Watch You From Afar, who played their self-titled debut album in full in honour of its 10 year anniversary, as well as Employed To Serve, Gender Roles, and Cult Of Luna.

“This year’s line up, is without a shadow of a doubt, the best line up,” O’Callaghan gushes. “We probably say that every year but it keeps getting better. A combination of that is longevity, awareness of the festival and bands hearing from other bands the experience they have.”

The love that bands have for the festival and their fellow musicians was shown with The Beft tribute to late Cleft guitarist Dan Wild-Beesley on the Arc Stage early on Thursday. It featured Cleft drummer John Simm, Mike Vennart and Alpha Male Tea Party, who were later joined by enough guitarists and bassists to comfortably span the main stage. 

“You can’t describe that atmosphere,” O’Callaghan says. “Ugh, it makes my blood fizzy, the feeling in my stomach is overwhelming and I want to cry and sing from the rooftops at the same time. I don’t really know what to do with myself, but I love it so much.” That’s ArcTanGent. If you know, you know.

ArcTanGent Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows

Thu August 20 2020 - COMPTON MARTIN Fernhill Farm
Fri August 21 2020 - COMPTON MARTIN Fernhill Farm
Sat August 22 2020 - COMPTON MARTIN Fernhill Farm

Click here to compare & buy ArcTanGent Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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