We asked our writer Aisling Donohoe to speak to Sounds directors Mark & Riv about their history with the festival, this year’s special edition, and what the future holds
Bookended by not one, but two bank holidays, May is the month where Summer well and try begins. And if you’re Mancunian, and in any way a part of our vibrant underground community, chances are you’ve welcomed the warmer months at least once with Sounds From the Other City (SFTOC).
A genuine DIY success story, and a community festival in its truest form, every year SFTOC brings Manchester and its oft-overlooked ‘other city’ of Salford together to create something downright magical – a meeting of our most creative minds, bodies and spirit’s that champions local promoters and celebrates the off-kilter beauty of this unique urban landscape.
A firm favourite since 2004, this year sees SFTOC celebrate their 15th anniversary in distinctively idiosyncratic fashion – with a one-off Quindecennial event that condenses everything you love about Sounds into one super-concentrated party. Packing all the chaotic beauty of previous editions into one site, SFTOC will take over Regent Trading Estate on May 5th for an extra-special day of music, art and discovery – ahead of that, I sat down with directors Mark and Riv to talk over a decade and a half of Sounds memories, and what the future holds.
Let’s start by going back to the very beginning – Mark, what inspired you to start SFTOC?
Myself and my brother Morry had set up a little record label based at Islington Mill, and through that met lots of interesting people, and started putting on small events, which led to the club and events space being created at the Mill. Those earlier, ramshackle parties stood out as something really quite different, and we began to recognise the potential of the area – so close to everything, but seemingly a million miles away.
At the time, there were four pubs on the corner of Chapel Street – the Salford Arms, the Kings Arms, Copperheads and the Albert Vaults – we thought it would be fun to do a day event based around that hub. And because we weren’t programmers ourselves, we invited promoters who were doing interesting things in the city to come and do a stage each… It didn’t quite work but we knew there was something in the idea, so we tried it again the next year, and it just started to grow organically into a festival over time.
I guess you could say from day one Sounds chose its own format, and still continues to do so. It’s the nature of the beast – it guides us and tells us what to do.
So this year, we know things are going to be a little bit different from the usual sprawl of venues along Chapel Street, with the festival instead being concentrated into the warehouses at Regent Trading Estate – can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to shake things up?
Riv – The festivals’ always seemed to develop in chapters, taking us in different directions. But over the past three years, it’s grown rapidly – last year it grew by 110%, not just the audience, but the amount of people getting involved with programming and activities – and because we’re so passionate about what we do, we have a tendency to say ‘yes’ to great ideas! It’s caused a kind of snowball effect, whereby each year we’ve ended up doing a bigger version than what we did last time, but the team has stayed pretty much the same size and this is taking its toll.
So this year we’ve decided to do Sounds a little differently, to give ourselves time to reassess what the festival is, what we want it to be… where it will go next – but without hitting pause on the party! Essentially, the plan is to take stock, but keep the momentum going – and at the same time, we hope this condensed version allows people to maximise their experience. The impact that has on the audience experience will inform how we move forward, too.
Mark – As the area grows there’s also the potential to have the Regents Trading Estate as a permanent base, so it was a good opportunity to boil all those disparate elements that make up Sounds down to one site, while we find a more sustainable way to keep saying ‘yes’ as much as we can.
Riv, you came on-board in 2010, and you’ve also had your hand in a bunch of other Manchester-based festivals. In your opinion, what about SFTOC makes it so different and so special?
The fact it doesn’t have a plan or an idea about itself as such – it is what it is, crossing over so many genres, involving so many different people… There’s something in the energy of that many people coming together to make something that creates a particular type of magic. We specialise in atmosphere, that’s what sets it apart.
Mark – It’s not a passive audience – it’s an open offer to get involved, to engage… do whatever you want and make it your own. The audience brings so much that they might be not even aware of – their energy makes it what it is.
What impact do you think the new developments and changes to the Chapel Street area have had on the festivals growth in the last decade and a half?
Riv – A big positive is that there are more people in the area supporting and encouraging us – the community has grown, there are so many cafes, restaurants and studios popping up, there are just a lot more people moving into the area, and a sense that things are happening. Just having more people walking up and down Chapel Street and seeing our flyers and posters has helped us grow.
On top of that, we’ve developed important ties with the council, and a lot of developers who are really passionate and proactive about solidifying Salford as a place of making, a cultural hub where ideas grow. We’ve always been very well supported in that sense – but at the same time, whilst the increased footfall and buzz has helped us grow, it means there’s less physical space for us to do that.
Mark – For the first ten years there was always talk of re-development and growth, wheels in motion – but its only recently it’s actually started happening – and in the past 18 months, that’s gone into overdrive. So really, time will tell how much of an impact it will have going forward.
Going forward will the festival continue to have such a broad focus, or do you think with growth you’ll naturally have to start streamlining your vision?
Riv – There are certain elements that will always be there – and keeping that key value of community at the core is crucial. Those elements of magic, fun, the unexpected and discovery – all of our decisions revolve around maintaining that.
We know our values, our ethos – we work with promoters, collaborations are encouraged, it’s DIY, it has a core, a community… that’s it in a nutshell. So it’s the format we’re looking at – we want to prise open the box and see what else it can hold. We’re allowing ourselves to go off-piste and come up with as many ideas as possible.
Mark – It might get even bigger – we might start collaborating on a larger scale, but we need a format that allows for that. People believe we do what we do for good reasons. And that trust is something we never want to jeopardise.
On that note… As you’ve been working towards this different format have you had time yet to start thinking about what the future looks like?
Mark – I actually don’t know – that’s the honest answer! But I like the idea that Sounds has the ability to respond to change, it could be anything – that’s what’s always been exciting. You never know, and that’s the joy of it.
One of the exciting things about having the space to think longer-term, is the chance to revisit old ideas that still have legs, and think about approaching them differently – we have permission from our audience to do things differently, and I’m not sure if we’ve been using it!
You’ve had 15 years of making fantastic memories with SFTOC – I imagine it’s a bit like a wedding day in the sense that you put in so much work before, that often the event itself is a bit of a whirlwind. But what memories – good, bad or otherwise – have stuck with you?
Riv – I remember Mark having an interview with Hazel Sheffield from the Independent at 3am, in the middle of the dance floor, at an afterparty – which kind of epitomises the madness and chaos of Sounds. It was a turning point for me – she understood the festival and what we do, and I think that was when we and the audience started to understand it properly too – and we got a five star review!
Mark – Most memories are behind the scenes ones – so in this format, it’s a bonus that we might actually get to see some music! The shows in St. Philips Church have always been very special – in fact we once found someone tattooing someone else in one of the vestibules – it’s those culture clashes that create the best memories.
Riv – It’s facilitating a blend of experiences for the festival-goers that makes it all worth it – this will be my tenth festival and I’ve probably seen a total one hour of music in that time, but every year, after we’ve got the afterparties going, the core team gathers at our production office at the Mill, and we get to sit in silence in the dark, crying a little bit inside while listening to the thump of the club going, and people having an amazing time.
Lastly – what are you both looking forward to the most for the 2019 edition – any particular performance, or just embracing the vibes and getting to do it all over again?
Mark – I’m looking forward to feeling it from the front-end instead of the back-end, be a reveller for a change!
Riv – Personally I can’t wait to people watch, see how they approach the day, without the blinkers of constant firefighting and problem solving! Maybe take advantage of Magic Rock Beers’ 3 for £10 deal, and just find a space to sit and watch how people interact with the incidental performers… really just follow the crowd and discover the festival as an audience member.
I’m also really excited for all the previous art directors’ return and to see how their ideas and practices have expanded since their first edition at the festival. Having them all in one spot is going to be absolutely amazing! I also can’t wait for the arrival of LAL as they do an immersive ‘installation’ in the Festival toilets, and that’s without even mentioning some of the bands performing; Black Midi, Gabe Guernsey, The Orielles, Trikilatops, Menage a Trois and Speakman Sound will all be highlights and classic SFTOC moments.
You can see the full Sounds from the Other City 2019 line-up here: https://www.soundsfromtheothercity.com/the-sftoc-quindecennial-line-up/
SFTOC Quindecennial has almost sold out – get your ticket exclusively through Skiddle here: https://www.skiddle.com/festivals/sounds-from-the-other-city/
We’re still on the look-out for SFTOC Volunteers – get involved here: https://www.soundsfromtheothercity.com/2019/03/28/volunteer-at-sounds-from-the-other-city-quindecennial-sftoc-2019/