“We agonised over the name for months,” says James Scarlett, booking agent and one third of the ArcTanGent founders, “one name we had was ‘To The Spiders’, which is the English translation of a Spanish Mars Volta song, but after a while we decided that was a bit shit…”. At one point they were simply calling it ‘BobFest’. In fact, it took almost a year to come with that festival name that is now steadily becoming synonymous with left-of-center music and good times on a farm: ArcTanGent.
My call had caught James in the middle of his preparations for ArcTanGent 2016; the fact he was thinking this far ahead was both surprising and unsurprising. It was Friday morning in the UK, and I was three beers into the evening in Australia, grappling with Windows 8 and its ridiculous built-in version of Skype so that I could record our conversation (in the end I had to use my phone). The last time I spoke to James was far more user-friendly; we were sitting on top of beer kegs behind the bar during 2014’s ArcTanGent festival. After having my money for the Jabberwocky festival temporarily hijacked by the All Tomorrow’s Parties management, I was yearning for the solace I had found coming to ArcTanGent in 2013, a time when my wife and I had only just moved to the UK and we subsequently met many of the Fecking Bahamas staff.
James Scarlett, one third of the ArcTanGent team
For those still a bit perplexed, let us gently guide you out from under the rock. ArcTanGent is the definitive festival for math rock and other niche genres such as post rock, post metal and experimental rock. In 2013, the gates opened at a small farm just out of Bristol and several thousand fans arrived from across the globe. In 2015 the festival returns healthier than ever, with an even bigger lineup including The Dillinger Escape Plan, Joan Of Arc, Deerhoof, Deafheaven and Cult Of Luna. If there was ever to be a festival for left-of-center delights, it couldn’t have been better achieved than ArcTanGent. But what has made this festival so goddamned successful? And where did this all come from?
Prior to ArcTanGent, James was running an even larger festival, 2000 Trees, with fellow ATG crew member Simon Maltas and a handful of others. “We started 2000 Trees because we were pissed off with the big festivals like Reading, they were ripping people off had horrible toilets, shit food, whatever. One drunken night we decided to start a music festival that would eventually become 2000 Trees.” That was eight years ago. James and Si didn’t know anything about putting on events. They had no experience in events or promoting; they hadn’t even put on a pub gig. “The thing about festivals is that anyone could work out what they need,” says James, “it’s just a long list of obvious things like the site, the stage, you need fencing and security and you need the bands. Obviously it’s more complicated than that but we didn’t know what we were doing so we just made a massive list and just went for it“. In 2007, James and Si sent out 180 letters to random farm sites in the Cotswalds, in the hopes of securing a spot for 2000 Trees. In July of that year, ten bands played over two days on a little farm just out of Withington, Gloucestershire. A thousand people showed up. Although at the time James didn’t call the first 2000 Trees his ‘perfect festival’, the strategy they formed from absolutely no foundations had worked.
In 2010, James and Si teamed up with another events guru, Goc O’Callaghan, to discuss the curation of a new festival. “We wanted to make another festival mainly because we didn’t want to make 2000 Trees bigger. I could see at 2000 Trees that there was a big scene centred around bands like And So I Watch You From Afar, Three Trapped Tigers, Tall Ships and Maybeshewill. I live in Bristol and when those bands play here, the gigs can be pretty small so you’re never really sure, if you were to collect them all for a festival, whether they’d attract hundreds or thousands of people at a festival. I had no idea whether people were going to come but now I honestly feel like we tapped into something special and something that people wanted.” The world didn’t need another indie rock festival, especially when many were going bust anyway. This new festival would be inexplicably niche, a platform untouched by other promoters and festival managers. The new festival, the answer to the plethora of generic festivals, was slowly being conceived in the background of 2000 Trees.
The festival was sculpted over a period of 27 months and many of the 2000 Trees facets were incorporated: rural farm site, local and ethically-minded traders, exceptional toilet facilities. But while much of the backbone of the new festival was solidifying, the crew had still not settled on a name. Eventually, it gelled. “There’s a British band called earthtone9, they have an album called ‘arc’tan’gent’. This took literally months because we really wanted something that reflected the type of music in the lineup, and three years down the line I’m still really happy with it.” Even if they had ended up using ‘To The Spiders’, it would be unsurprising; the name, however daft it may be, would become slowly synonymous with the substance of the festival. The guys would make the brand. “If your mate said ‘I’m forming a band called Metallica‘ you’d be like ‘that is the worst name in history’,” (which it is – Ed), “yet twenty years later it just seems like that’s the name. People stop noticing“.
That ArcTanGent appealed to a niche audience was, in itself, its key success when gates opened in August 2013. The festival garnered the attention of obscure genre aficionados quietly nestled across across the globe, and it was their sincerity to the music they loved which ensured the ticket sales. “It definitely opened our eyes because people were travelling from across the world to get there,” says James. People were coming from Sweden, China, Mexico, my wife and I had come from Australia, and our writer Grisha had traveled from Russia. In 2014, Goc told me about a group of guys to arrived at 7:40am in the morning, despite the gates not opening until 1pm; they didn’t want to risk missing the first band. In contrast to the more generic festivals that cage a mass of youth committed to achieving a three-day long alcoholic or drug-induced stupor, ArcTanGent‘s audience was (and is) a down-to-earth community of people simply excited about music. Goc also told me “I happened to walk past the event control tent where our security staff are based, and I saw this guy go to security with a wallet and said ‘I saw this guy drop his wallet and I tried to chase him through the crowd but I lost him, and I don’t where else to put this’“.
Such is the general mind frame of the ArcTanGent enthusiast, and it is the same for its organisers. Every year Si, James and Goc build the festival that they would want to go to, so it is no surprise if one spots them moving from stage to stage, holding clashfinders fervently scribbled with their band viewing preferences. In 2014, sitting atop the beer kegs, I asked the guys a question and James’ response, I feel, encapsulates everything that ArcTanGent is. It reflects ArcTanGent‘s motivation, who its organizers are, and probably the reason why this festival perseveres while others around it fall. James simply said: “My answer to your question is that I couldn’t concentrate on it because I love this band in the background and that riff that just played is just so good.” We finished that interview pretty quickly and went to try and catch HARK in the Yokhai tent before they finished.