“We Started with a Dream….”
With left of field rockfest, ArcTanGent, in the middle of August, lead booker James Scarlett chats about its first five years, headline acts, girls in rock and (given its in Somerset too) Glastonbury crops up too…
Article by Andrew Steel
If you travel down the M5 in late June, between the stretches of asphalt that connect the estuary town of Portishead and the county seat of Taunton, there is a relatively strong chance that one will be caught up in the pilgrimage of festivalgoers either descending on or departing Worthy Farm, the site of Glastonbury. Some quarter of a million people are involved with the event, making it one of the more immense festivals held across the continent; certainly, the biggest in Britain.
But further north, another farm only 10 miles away from Bristol plays host to an entirely different sort of musical event. ArcTanGent, from the creators of 2000Trees, is entering its fifth year in Compton Martin, a 5,000 capacity event over three days that skews its roster and line-up away from the sanitised edges of radio-friendly guitar music in favour of something a little more out there, in the form of brooding post-rock and visceral math-rock. It’s as far away from the chart-friendly big names who litter Glastonbury as it can get.
“We’ve always called ArcTanGent the ugly little brother of 2000Trees,” lead booker James Scarlett divulges, in a phone call with Riddle on a warm June evening. “It’s like the younger sibling who shuns the mainstream cool for something a bit more out there.” James is gearing up for the latter event, headlined by punk duo Slaves and slick pop-rock combo Nothing But Thieves, taking place in Gloucestershire – but it is clear that he is equally enthused by the line-up assembled for the former later this summer, celebrating its fifth iteration.
“It definitely feels like the best one we’ve ever had,” he states plainly. “We’ve built the lineup every year with bigger bands as the event has grown, and with the artists we’ve booked this year, it feels like a peak. We started off so small, I could never have dreamt that we’d get to where we are now in half a decade. We’re very happy with it.”
This year, ArcTanGent has pulled out all the stops in the leftfield musical rock canon; Texas outfit Explosions in the Sky – one of the few post-rock bands to garner significant mainstream popularity – lead the programme, whilst metal/mathcore pioneers Converge share top billing. Both artists are amongst the biggest James and his co-founders – Goc O’Callaghan and Simon Maltas – have ever secured for the event, and both have the added boon of being exclusive UK performances for the year. It is, to understate it, a rather big rock deal.
“They’re both legends of the scene,” he observes. “It’s hard not to be a fanboy when you have acts like that gracing your stage. But we’ve got great bands like Heck and Bossk further down, and that’s part of what makes it special. You come to ArcTanGent and you can discover your new favourite artist here. We’re fairly different from other post-rock festivals in that we’re an outdoor camping event as opposed to an indoor all-dayer. We get fans coming from Japan, South America, every country in Europe, and that’s because we can get these acts. It’s a bit mad, when I think about it…”
ArcTanGent’s roots lied in 2000Trees, after James noticed that there was a strong audience for acts such as Maybeshewill and 65daysofstatic. Unwilling to expand their main event into a larger-scale event, the team opted to curate a new festival focused on post-and-math rock, close to James’s residence of Bristol. The location of Glastonbury within the same county was not a factor in the choice of location, he stresses, though he admits that he feels Glastonbury could do more for the burgeoning left-field rock scene.
“Typically, they’ll go and book the artists who are at the top of the tree, such as Metallica, but they don’t really support the up and coming metal scene or post-rock scene for me,” he notes. “They made steps this year by booking Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror but the fact that it has taken this long to get here is somewhat of a problem for me. They don’t seem to really support the underground musical scenes, at least on the major stages and through broadcast. They could do more there.”
James also feels that growing criticism of gender imbalances on festival bills – where male-fronted acts or artists typically dominate over female performers – is more a by-product of societal issues in music rather than to be blamed on the bookers. “The question really should be why are there not as many girls in math-rock or post-rock bands as there are boys? There’s still encouragement at a young age to follow typical gender roles unfortunately; parents give a guitar to their son and a doll to the daughters, on the whole. It reinforces these architypes. If the bands are available, we’ll book them – but they aren’t always there for us to book, unfortunately.”
For now though, the team’s priority is this summer’s edition of the festival – though Scarlett has an eye on the future, admitting that he is already making deals for 2018. Is there anyone he sees making the step-up to headliner status from the current crop who isn’t an established name? He has one in mind. “It feels like And So I Watch You From Afar are ripe for that. People love them, they’re incredible live and they’re gradually getting bigger and bigger. It’s so difficult to grow in this genre; there’s a glass ceiling owing to its niche. But that’s one who we’d hope could make the leap to the top of the bill.”
As discussion wraps up, James moots his dream headliner – experimental prog quintet The Mars Volta, former side-project of At The Drive-In, who broke up in 2012 – and ponders on the future of the festival. What is it, for him, that truly sets ArcTanGent apart from the rest of the festival scene? There is little hesitation in response. “Every time people come here, even if they known barely any of the artists, they leave having fallen in love a little bit. This is a unique rock festival, and a unique experience in the post-rock and math-rock scenes. That’s something that we’re incredibly proud of. We started here with a dream – and five years later, that dream is still alive.”