Marianne Holt chats Beat-Herder, festival culture and the evolution of DJ’ing with electronic pioneer Greg Wilson

Images by Ian Tilton

Whilst backstage at Lancashire’s Beat-Herder Festival, Marianne Holt got the chance to chat with the legendary electronic front-runner Greg Wilson about the festival’s impressive, self-built history and how the DJ makes his sets so unique.

You keep coming back to Beat-Herder Festival time and time again, so I guess my first question is why?

We’ll play a fantastic slot at the end of the night on a wonderful stage for wonderful people

Well, it’s just a really good festival. I’ve got a fantastic slot that I’ve done for the last few years, it’s the closing slot at Trash Manor. I’ve played before on the Toil Trees stage which is fantastic but the last three years I’ve done the closing slot here. I really love the festival because it’s a festival that’s grown organically- it’s come out of a necessity for people to come together and to play music and its growing year on year so it’s wonderful to see. I mean it’s one of the first times that I’ve had a proper chance to walk round- there’s so much going on, so many really, really great areas and stuff. You know it’s a proper festival coming from the original ethos of what it was all about with a great crowd. We’ll play a fantastic slot at the end of the night on a wonderful stage for wonderful people.

Did you have the chance to see any performances when you were walking about?

Do you know what, I get asked this a lot but I don’t get much chance generally. I’m literally in and out. The reason I was here earlier today is my son’s band was playing in one of the areas so I got to see them. It was good! I saw [David] Rodigan on the main stage and got an idea of what was happening DJ wise but, because of the kind of life I live, going in and out of festivals all of the time- I’m in and when I’ve finished I’m back out again. I get a little chance here and there to spend a few hours but very rarely.

Do you think part of the appeal of Beat-Herder is that it’s one of the only independent festivals in the UK? It’s not sponsored and because of that it’s far removed from capitalist festivals like Reading and Leeds. Do you think that part of the appeal is because it’s so organic?

Well, it’s part of the way things are, you know. A lot of festivals can’t really pay their way properly without sponsorship and stuff like that. It’s great if somebody can do it totally independently, and you know, I take my hat off to that, but we do live in a world where it is increasingly difficult for people to do that. That’s all the more reason to look at something like this and the people that manage to bring it all together bit by bit because these things don’t happen overnight. A lot of people might think this is a new festival that’s sprung up and it’s great, maybe they imagine that the people behind this are moneyed or whatever, whereas this has, as I say, grown very gradually and they’ve managed to keep a hold of that. There has been other festivals in the past; I remember the Big Chill that was a real favourite for a lot of people and it grew year on year, but then eventually it grew just a little bit too big for itself. The original crowd weren’t happy with the newer crowd that were coming in and thought maybe it was a bit too young or whatever and it caused that kind of conflict. Then a big company took it over and it only lasted a year after that.

Yeah, it’s quite hard to get it right because I remember seeing you at Beacons in 2014 and that festival no longer runs. I think they do like club nights in Cities but they don’t actually have a festival. 

When you have something organic like this, it promotes music in an organic sense

If you’re really serious about doing festivals, it’s almost a 3 to 5 year plan financially. You’ve got to build it gradually and you’ve got to bring in the right kind of acts and entertainment to set the tone of what you are trying to do. Now you get the bigger companies buying out festivals, trying to buy into that, but the festivals that people go for are the ones that maintain the initial reason why they started, it’s almost the old school mentality of what festivals were. Now, there are so many festivals, running almost every week everywhere, and it’s fantastic. A lot of people make comparisons between what happened in the past and now; we used to have these amazing scenes back then, like the rave scene or northern soul scene or the jazz and funk specialist scene and black music scene. We don’t have that now but we also didn’t have festivals back then. This is an incredible thing, that people can come away for a weekend, lose a little bit of inhibition, be in a safe environment in terms of experimenting with whatever way they want and that’s a wonderful thing.

I think that, when it all comes together and when you have something organic like this, it promotes music in an organic sense. The type of acts that Beat-Herder goes for are from a more rootsy based side of things and they may be popular now but they come from a certain place where they are not a manufactured pop act; there are festivals for that. This has its own identity and that’s why it continues to go from strength to strength, because it’s built on the right foundations.

Do you find that you tailor your sets to each festival that you go to?

I am quite fortunate to be drawing on the history of music as well as contemporary things that all fit well into what I do

Well, not specifically. In the old days, you would go with a few boxes of records and, with those boxes of records, you could go a few different ways with it, but nevertheless it has to be from that same box. There’s a certain thing I do but, within that, things might gradually shift one way or the other depending on the vibe of the audience and what’s going on. I don’t like to lock it down. I might have an idea of what I’m doing when I’m going into it but I might go off on a slight tangent depending on what I am feeling coming back from the crowd. That’s the way DJ’ing always used to be, it only became later where DJ’s started talking about sets in terms of a specific order of tracks that they’re playing. To me, that was crazy because you can’t have any spontaneity if you are locked into what you are doing. It never made proper sense but it’s within a different context now, different altogether.

Mainly, the DJ’s that were from that aspect played everything at one tempo and one style, whereas I can vary from a down tempo groove to quite an up tempo and go through that, so that might be something that is different. I might look at a crowd and go, I’ll go in just slightly faster or I’m gonna go in really slow. Often that depends on how long I am on for, so little decisions that are made will change the directions of where I am going. But, as I say, I have the tracks that I play and it’s a wide berth of stuff and I am quite fortunate to be drawing on the history of music as well as contemporary things that all fit well into what I do as well.

That’s great! Thank you and nice to meet you.

Thanks! Enjoy the rest of the festival.