The sixth annual Le Guess Who? Festival takes place November 29th-December 2nd in Utretcht, a city 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam, NL. Originally a festival highlighting Canadian-bred artists, it has since doubled in length and exponentially increased its program lineup to become one of the premiere destinations in Europe to favor independent music and culture.
Destroyer, Ty Segall Band, Sharon Van Etten, Fuck Buttons, Colin Stetson, Hundred Waters, Grimes, Juliana Barwick, Deerhoof, and Lower Dens top this year’s lineup, which also sees performances by Matthew Dear, The Allah-Las, Cate le Bon, FIDLAR, Dam Mantle, and many more.
Recently, Consequence of Sound spoke with Bob van Heur, one of the two co-founders of Le Guess Who? to discuss the festival’s growth, curating its unique, diverse lineups, and what he digs most about the festival circuit.
This is the festival’s fifth year. Aside from expanding from two days to four days, how has the festival grown and changed over the years?
We started in 2007. It was just a wild idea of me and Johan [Gijsen], my partner in the festival, to invite Canadian bands because there were so many Canadian bands happening at that point and we sort of fell in love with that kind of sound. So we started as an all-Canadian festival — that’s the reason the name of the festival is called Le Guess Who and the Le is like the French part of Canada. [Laughs.] And the band Guess Who, of course. They made a song called “American Woman” but they are from Canada and I think a lot of people think they are an American band.
So it was sort of a thing to promote Canadian music. So we did that the first year. The second year it was still sort of focused on Canadian bands but we cheated a little bit inviting Beach House and Jana Hunter, now of Lower Dens, because we just wanted them to play the festival. And since then it’s been growing and growing every year. Like crazy actually. We just keep booking bands. I think this year is the biggest lineup we’ve ever had so far.
I’m pretty happy with it. I think this is the best, by far, the best programmed edition we’ve had. It’s dark; it’s still very intense. It’s still urgent. There are still people like Dirty Three, Fuck Buttons, and Deerhoof, who are just all-time favorites of mine, playing the events. Yeah, I think it’s going be a very good one actually.
Many of the artists on the lineup tend to be artists that don’t seem to play the Netherlands all that often or artists that are kind of underground and unknown to general audiences. How do you go about deciding who you want to perform?
Mainly just by listening to the music. That’s the only thing. We don’t really do any business or agent pleasers. The way we start working is we book one band and then the second band follows after that. We just try to create a context where we invite the bands that we think we’ll feel comfortable with. Like Fuck Buttons are playing with Deerhoof and Clinic in one room because we just think that could create a good backstage vibe. I think that’s a very important thing for our festival. The vibe in the venue is not just a list of bands playing who are good to promote the festival; but we as the festival want to promote the bands, the other way around.
Of course we are depending on availabilities of bands as always, back and forth emailing with all the agents. It sort of just naturally grows. We never know where it’s going to go to and I think that’s sort of the strength of the way of booking the festival. We just let it happen and try to feel okay. This feels good, yes let’s do it. If it doesn’t sound good, let’s not book it. I don’t think there’s much more of a decision to be made in that, actually.
Do you have a personal relationship with many of these bands or is it purely a promoter/performer relationship?
This is actually, for me, just a small side job which became a little bit bigger than a small side job. My main job is being a booking agent and I promote shows here in the Netherlands and in Europe. So some bands I’ve known for years, some of them I don’t know. I always try to make a personal connection. If I am able to I will at least try to say “Hi” to every band playing at the festival. It’s always my goal to keep it personal and not just make it one of the festivals that they come in and go out. I like to hear the ideas of the bands as well, because that might give me another idea for the next year — like how we can improve the festival to facilitate the needs of the artist.
Where do you see the future of Le Guess Who? and where do you want to take it? Do you think you could ever bring a version of it to America?
I haven’t been thinking about that, to be honest. I think in America there are a lot of bands, a lot of festivals which are programming sort of in the same vein — like a festival with the lineups I love is FYF Fest. That lineup always blows my mind. I’m not sure if it would be an addition to the American market to do something there. I think we need a couple years to perfect this festival and focus on Utrecht.
The city of Utrecht has developments, as well. In the next two years, there will be a new music center available to use, so there’s a lot of opportunities to have in Utrecht I think we might prefer focusing on. I can see us doing one night here or there just to promote the festival but it would be just one night.
I don’t think we have time and energy to put on another festival of this size somewhere else. The team is very small. It’s two programmers and a small team of five people around us who help make the festival possible. So, I think it’s just good to focus on what we’re doing now and make it more perfect.
The festival, as you said, is held throughout the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands and it’s kind of like South by Southwest or CMJ, where it’s among many venues. Why did you choose to do it that way rather than like Glastonbury or Bonnaroo, where everyone is corralled in one location?
That is sort of how it has naturally grown because the festival is organized by my own organization, Distorted Channel, and Tivoli, which is the main venue in Utrecht, so we just started there. And everyone who works for the festival lives in Utrecht. Utrecht is like Amsterdam without the bullshit of Amsterdam. No tourists; it’s much smaller; it’s much more mellow. And the festival grounds are really small, so you can walk to everything.
I see Utrecht as the festival grounds, but the good thing about that is that we have all the facilitation there. We have all the venues, we have the coffee bars, we have everything there so you don’t have to deal with that. And you just keep it local and help the local communities to build up something, as well.
It’s naturally grown. We never ever thought about doing it on a big field or something like that. I think the city of Utrecht just gives a better vibe to what we want to do. It’s also in the winter and it might be snowing this year — we don’t know — and you don’t want to be on a festival site when it’s snowing.
After five years it’s probably safe to call the festival a success; however, how did you get it started? Did you have to out seek investors and how did you convince the city officials?
No, we haven’t been funded or sponsored or anything like that for all those years. We just started and while we have lost money over the last couple of years, we see it as a long term investment because we feel people like what we’re doing and the interest for the festival is growing nationally and internationally. I think eventually we’ll make the loss of the last couple years back.
I prefer to not have too many sponsors or anything like that; it’s about the music and it’s about the bands. I just want to see the gig and have a beer at the bar and enjoy that part. I don’t want all the bullshit of all the sponsors around it because then I think the program will look differently because you’ll have to make different decisions.
Are you the principle curator of the festival or do you involve guest curators as All Tomorrow’s Parties does?
We mainly decide everything ourselves, but that’s also just to keep the whole order of the festival and the lineups a cohesive thing. We have invited a DJ who runs a podcast which we are in love with called “The Dudecast”. It’s a psychedelic music podcast from England. So for this year, he’s curating a venue on Thursday night, the opening night. That’s mainly psychedelic music from all over the world. It’s Tropa Macaca and Black Bombaim, both from Portugal, Thulebasen from Copenhagen, and Naytronix from the US, which is Nate [Brenner] from tUnE-yArDs.
The festival circuit in both America and Europe has grown tremendously over the past few decades. Are there any current trends that you dig and see as an example of people doing things correctly?
I think there are a lot of festivals being added every year. There a couple steady ones like ATP or Primavera, who just always have a good lineup and people will go there. The thing you see is that people don’t really need the big headliners anymore to come to a gig. Because of the internet and everything, people are much faster at finding their own bands, so you can get more extreme with your program and be more diverse with everything.
The trend I see is that everyone wants to put up a festival nowadays. It seems like there is a festival added every week or something like that. But you also see a lot of festivals go away and come back again. I think the main thing is a good program. That’s what a festival should be and for the rest, I don’t really give a damn about it. [Laughs.]
Tickets for the four-day festival and Fuzzbox are currently available at the Le Guess Who?’s official site. For those stateside, organizers have set up a special couchsurfing page, where prospective festivalgoers may arrange affordable lodging accomodations. Click here to learn more.
Consequence of Sound is a media partner of Le Guess Who? Festival.