Earning a sterling reputation over the years for its stand out collection of bands, beautiful surroundings and inclusive atmosphere. Limivady’s Stendhal Festival has firmly cemented itself as a cornerstone of the Northern Irish festival season. Back again this year and truly bigger than ever, the Ballymully Cottage Farm weekender has turn heads with its ambitious bookings and ever expanding site. With all that buzz ahead of the this event this weaken we caught up with organisers John, Ross and Colm to find out what actually goes into making the festival happen.
► Stendhal Festival, how and where did it all begin?
John Cartwright: When Ross and I were younger up we would often spend time up in the farm, driving the cars and tractors and generally making nuisances of ourselves and we always had a bit of a running joke that the farm would be an awesome place to put on a gig.
Ross Parkhill: The idea first came about in 2008 but sadly didn’t happen. It was then reborn after 3 years and the eureka moment was when I was writing a poem called Qualitative Easing – having spent amonth or two dandering around St Pauls protest camp.
► In what ways do you think the festival has grown since the original in 2011?
Ross: I believe the festival has grown in every way possible and within our capabilities. We do not receive a massive amount of funding compared with other events but we strive to be innovative and resourceful in refining all aspects of the event, programme, marketing, event planning and the overall experience for our festival goers.
John: It’s come on massively. Not just in terms of growth on site and having more areas, bands, stages, artwork, and different facets of the arts each year, but in terms of budgets, advertising, popularity, name acts that we are trying to attract, press interest, people wanting to be involved and I guess just a growth in the general vibe about the event, Stendhal has grown in every era imaginable since year one.
► Do you believe it was hard to distinguish yourself in the beginning?
Colm O’Donnell: We always had a mission plan, to expose as many people to the arts within a single weekend! Help people build an appreciation for different facets of the arts, and try to involve them in any of our workshops so they may take something away from the weekend other than just having an awesome time.
John: We always set our stall out to be an Arts Festival, of course we realise that the drivers for festivals will be bands but we were always determined to be a showcase for as many creative outlets as possible. It was these areas that we felt weren’t being pushed as hard as they could be at Festivals here in Northern Ireland when we came up with the idea for Stendhal in 2008, and the desire to push all aspects of the arts continues at the festival today and always will.
❝There are cases where it’s just the enthusiasm and sheer drive of artists which gets them a slot.❞
► When does the work of a festival like Stendhal begin?
Ross: We started onsite work this early May. The planning for the festival really is a 12 month process by the time you tail off the last event it’s really time to get the engines started for the next one.
► Booking Frightened Rabbit as a headliner this year has been seen as both a bold and ambitious move. What was the thought process behind booking them for a festival which has been heavily local music focused over the years?
Ross: Frightened Rabbit are a band we have followed closely over the past few years and we can’t wait for them to blow the socks off new fans at Stendhal.
Colm: We always like to try a different approach in everything we do, and booking Frightened Rabbit just seemed to be one of those. Booking a non-Irish band means that we can attract festival goers that may not have experienced a lot of bands from the local music scene, and show them the tremendous amount of talent we have on our little island.
► What’s new for the festival in 2014?
Ross: Where to start?
I guess the most prominent mention should be Woodtown. This is a new wooded area which has taken exceptional work from the team over the past 2-3 months. Conor Mailey has headed up this project and in all the festivals we have been to it has the potential to be one of the most special spaces – very exciting. But there are so much, so many new arts/artists, other areas within the site etc. A special mention should also go to Annan’s Arch our new art area, that is going to be amazing too.
John: We have a new poetry stage, a new kids art tent and performance tent, a fantastic new art area, a new Air Stage, a new family camping area and a few more new things that we don’t want to give away.
► When it comes to selecting the bands to play what influences you as a booker/the team in booking acts?
Ross: We listen intently to all acts who apply to play at the festival and we go to a lot of gigs to get the feel of bands live. There are an awful lot of submissions to play the festival and I guess it just comes down to the tastes and live experiences of team who arrange the programme.
There are cases where it’s just the enthusiasm and sheer drive of artists which gets them a slot, not constant e-mails etc but the attitude they personify over social media etc is without an important aspect of the characters we wish to promote.
John: For me it’s lots of things. Originality would be my first consideration. Then it would be overall talent, song-writing, vocals, ability to play live. Then it would be things like profile, who has gigged the most over the last year, who is most pro-active on social media, who shows the best hustle I guess. But then, as we are a growing festival, we have to take stock of who has impressed at the event before and who we know will pull a crowd based on previous years and bring them back.
Colm: Booking bands is really enjoyable but can also be quite stressful when you have to finally narrow it down. We like to cater for every taste in music so there’s something for everyone but also allow people have the chance to hear something they may have not before, which helps break down barriers and preconceptions of any one style or genre.
► The dreaded clashes in a festival schedule are hard to avoid. However are you able to pull the curtain back on the process of scheduling the acts? Is there a certain method to what some might call madness?
Ross: We work very hard on this, we are aware that our programme is quite varied musically and that our crowd is all ages and tastes. We try to map out potential journeys for different visitors but this year we feel there are so many great bands on the music bill that the dreaded clashes will only get harder each year.
The exciting part of Stendhal is the more arty stuff that people come across in between stages as they meander around the site – pop up arts everywhere.
John: It’s tough because everyone wants ‘a good slot’ meaning later on but you can sometimes find that the best slots are earlier in the day at Stendhal based on the family friendly aspect of the event. We do try and Schedule it so that you can see the majority of the bigger name acts without many clashes but at the same time we want to be in a position where people say, “There’s so much on, I don’t know who to watch,” when that happens that is a complement to the quality of the bands we have on show.
Colm: It involves a whiteboard, a lot of coffee (tea for Ross) and a few sleepless nights playing out the experience in our heads.
► Outside of music what else does Stendhal offer this year?
John: We have Stand up comedy with Arthur Smith, Shane Todd and Ruaidhri Ward, improv comedy from Wonderfrog, theatre performances from The Big Telly Theatre Company, Shot Glass Theatre and Limavady Drama Club, an Art gallery, a new art explosion area, a full family programme with performances and workshops specifically for kids and families, sculpture, a craft market, film with screen in the trees, beautiful garden areas, a fun fair, dance performances, circus skills performances, poetry and spoken word and a few other wee surprises too. And all at great value for money.
► Where did the idea of working with local comedian Colin Geddis to help promote the festival come about?
John: We always try to do up original web videos every year and try so this year we thought that since the Gedzilla team have a massive following online that we could both benefit from working together to create the festival tips video series – if you haven’t seen them yet take a wee look on youtube.
►At the size it currently has grown to, what is the biggest challenge of putting on a festival like Stendhal?
Ross: Financial capacity, haha. There is a tendency in Northern Ireland for people not to buy tickets until the last minute (unless you are Garth Brooks) so that is always something we battle with right up to the last weeks and something that puts pressure on the management team. I think with regard to the site and festival itself we learn every year and refine all aspects of the operational side of things.
► Do you have a favourite moment from over the years?
Ross: Turin Brakes, the last gig I seen at Stendhal. Booking my best mates band to play in his back garden after convincing him and failing first time that we could do this festival.
John: We don’t get to see much of the acts over the weekend but a couple spring to mind. Year two when Furlo were playing the main stage I popped my head in and had a wee moment to myself.
Second was last year during the performance from the Plantin. The Plantin are a band comprised of youngsters with learning disabilities and I caught the end of their set last year. I’ll never, ever forget the look of sheer excitement and joy on the face of one of the wee girls who was performing when they finished up their last tune and the crowd let out a massive roar of approval. That look of happiness on that one wee lassies face, for me, made every single thing we put ourselves our friends and our families through to put this festival on, so totally worth it. When we have a rough day or something doesn’t go to plan in the build up to the festival and I wonder if it is all worth it, all I have to do is think about that and know that it really, really is.
Colm: During Turin Breaks the last night of the first year Ross, John and I all bumped into each other. For 5 minutes we stopped looked around at how much everyone was enjoying themselves and I think it was then that the realisation that we just organised a successful arts festival set in and we were hooked.
► Ok we’re sold. What are the vital pieces of info we need to know before we have a mighty weekend at the festival?
- Bring water proof clothes (It’s Northern Ireland after all)
- Leave any worries at the gate
- Spend as little time in the campsite as possible – there is so much to see and in only a day and a half – many fail to even discover little pockets of the festival.
- No ATM or Cigarettes for sale onsite
- Experience the syndrome!!
- There may or may not be tickets left to sell on the day, so to avoid disappointment get them before hand.
- Go see someone you have never heard of before.
- We can’t allow any caravans or large motor homes on site this year.
- Bring sun cream (I have faith).
- Bring a hat (I recommend a sun hat as the weather’s always great, I swear).
- Purposely see something you normally wouldn’t.
- Drink lots of water.
- Have a chat with someone you don’t know and see if they have any Stendhal experiences they want to share. ◼
Stendhal Music and Arts Festival taskes place this weekend on Ballymully Cottage Farm, Limavady. For more info and tickets click HERE.