Grassroots and the dugnad spirt: Chris and Kaya Herstad Carney talk about the can-do togetherness at the heart of the Threshold family, which culminates with their festival’s final outing in April.
There’s a quote inscribed on a cor-ten wall at the end of Old Hall Street, which you probably glance at when you’re driving along the Dock Road and sweep up to Leeds Street. The sculpture sits at the point where the city’s old dock wall would have run, looking out to the sea and the New World beyond, as well as presiding over the starting point of one of the busy ship canals that was key to Liverpool’s maritime trading status. The quote, attributed to a writer for the Liverpool Daily Post, Michael O’Mahoney, reads “Liverpool – threshold to the ends of the Earth”.
While its symbolism is fairly easy to decipher, the link with this quote and the naming of the grassroots music and arts festival, THRESHOLD, is slightly less tangible. O’Mahoney’s quote is one of a few things that Chris Herstad Carney, festival producer, mentions when I ask him about the event’s origins. He and artistic director Kaya Herstad Carney also mention the lowest hearing threshold for human hearing as a possible source of inspiration for the name; but I prefer to settle on the first answer they give, that their event represents a threshold for artists making their way in the industry, the first rung on the ladder. It fits.
For the past 10 years, this husband and wife team have been at the heart of a wide group of volunteers, promoters, artists and fellow music obsessives who have brought together Threshold Festival Of Music And Arts. The Threshold Family have worked together tirelessly to put on events that have embraced a spirit of togetherness that is best summed up by the Norwegian word, dugnad. Mucking in, helping out, getting things done; it is a term that is rooted in a very civic act of unpaid, voluntary, orchestrated community work.
“It’s the work, it’s not the pride,” explains Kaya, smiling as my eyes light up at a term that seems a perfect fit for Threshold’s ethos, but one that now seems thoroughly baked in to everything they do. “It’s like, you have sports teams doing up their clubhouse and stuff like that. That’s dugnad. That’s how Norway was built.”
“Threshold is a little bit dugnad,” agrees Chris. “It’s basically everyone working together to get the job done. We have had so many friends, every year, just coming down and going, ‘I’ve got a few hours free, what do you need doing?’ Then just coming and mucking in. You’re more likely to see it at the festival as, like, the drummer walking in with his kick drum rather than standing there watching the technicians setting it up. Because they care. They give a shit about what we do.”
The strength of the team is a huge part of what has kept Threshold going for the past decade, and helped them all get over them many hurdles that have presented themselves. As an entry-level, grassroots event, Threshold has always relied on the local gig-going public turning out and taking a chance on some new talent, often artists who are performing for the first time. As such, ticket sales don’t cover the full running costs, so they’re reliant on other forms of support.
“The Arts Council have been great with us,” says Chris. “We’ve not always been successful, but we’ve always had a good relationship with them. They recognise what we do. But they are almost unique in recognising that.” In 2017, Threshold didn’t secure any funding, so the festival looked like it wouldn’t be able to go ahead at all. But thanks to the generosity of the local community, and the sterling work of a key member of the Threshold Family, Kate Stewart, a successful crowdfunder campaign was set up, which secured them the funds to make sure the festival could happen as planned.
“I was panicking, but it was Kate who said, ‘You guys have got the clout, the energy, the fun, the love [to pull this off],’ and she put this plan together,” Chris says about the campaign. “We smashed the target. It was an amazing show of love.”
“We really needed that,” continues Kaya, of what felt like a vindicating moment for them. “The passion that has been given to us, for doing something great, the time and effort, and the ideas, is just priceless, continues Chris. “It’s unbelievable.”
“It’s a bit mushy, but I do feel that it’s like, ‘Hate divides and love multiplies’,” Kaya adds. “Volunteering and sharing projects has a ripple effect. It inspires you to go and do other things. By inspiring someone to do what they wanted to do, but didn’t dare to do, they will definitely inspire you. It becomes this kind of positive monster.”
There’s an element of dugnad to this reaction of Threshold’s audience, which event stretches to the artists performing, many of whom will take the chance to do something a little bit more risky at Threshold than they would a normal show. It’s a chance to be creative, as they know the crowds aren’t going to be vast – but they know they have the backing of Chris, Kaya and the team.
This came to the fore in 2019, when the BBC Radio 6 Music festival landed in Liverpool, slap bang over the same period that Threshold was taking place. This was another hurdle to overcome, the annual problem that threatened to derail plans. But you’d have been hard-pressed to notice if you were at the festival last year, as the whole event played out as usual, and the fans, artists and musicians went about their business as they always do: with open minds and generous hearts.
“We say we try and put on the festival we’d love to see,” Kaya says. “If you’re excited about it, and truly want to tell people this is going on, other people will be excited about it too.”
Threshold X, the tenth edition, takes place in the festival’s playground of the Baltic Triangle on 3rd and 4th April. But this year will be the last time Threshold appears as a festival, and Chris, Kaya and their volunteer army have vowed that this year will be their swansong.
“It’s not the end of Threshold,” Chris clarifies. “I think we’re going to keep it going, but for less regular things, like guest stages. We want to maintain the community that’s there. But the annual events we both think has served its time.”
“Ten years is a good run,” continues Kaya. “It’s about creating something together, and yes, it’s going to be an anti-climax on 5th April, going, ‘Oh that’s that’.”
Chris Herstad Carney: “I don’t feel any regret. I feel like it’s the right decision.”
Kaya Herstad Carney: “The Baltic isn’t what the Baltic was when we started. If we wanted to continue, we would have to go to the North Docks, but then we would have to start over again and it would be a different beast. So, yes, ten years feels like a really good round number.”
So, six weeks out until your last festival, how are you feeling? Are you happy, excited, sad, relieved?
KHC: All of the above.
CHC: We all had to come together as a team, to all feel like that was the moment. We haven’t always been 100 per cent on the same page about where we’re going. It was when we both thought ‘Yes, this is it, we’re ready’. It’s been a successful festival, but we’ve had hurdles that have prevented it from being more. We don’t want to be the people that say there’s always something, but every year there’s been a hurdle. So, there are mixed feelings in that way.
KHC: The area’s changed so much, and what we were passionate about was to create that platform for the people who weren’t the buzz bands or the next big thing. The ones who could be the next big thing, if they were allowed to grow. That’s always been our passion. The people who want to do collaborations and test performances. A bit more avant garde, a bit more quirky.
CHC: There’s so often a band that blows up that we couldn’t get 50 people in front of!
KHC: Like Louisa [Roach] coming and giving me a massive hug the other day, saying we’d given her her first solo gig, when it wasn’t even She Drew The Gun then. We’ve always championed the underdog. It’s definitely a passion, finding the ones who don’t have all the support.
CHC: We see potential. We’ll put you on, and we take away that pressure of saying you need to have this many people in front of you otherwise you’re not getting a gig again. The artists we’re pushing might not have the best profile in the world, but we think they could actually go somewhere. It could be an Eleanor Nelly, who could end up on Decca, you know.
KHC: There is literally no money in putting on somebody’s first gig, and we can only cover, like, expenses and festival ticket and food for those artists. But that could literally get them their next gig, that might be a payer, eventually. But if you don’t get that first chance, you don’t get the second one.
You guys were one of the first people to the Baltic, and now there are lots of events: Sound City, Baltic Weekender, Positive Vibration…
CHC: It’s a perfect fit for them, certainly for Pos Vibes. It was always a perfect fit for the Baltic. We did our first Threshold in the CUC, we just filled the building with music and art. Then Mike [Deane] put on the Liverpool Music Week closing party there. It was always supposed to be a great fit for us. We knew that Ropewalks’ days were numbered. The docks was never the best fit, even though Bramley-Moore was good. This is where it was always going to be, so it’s almost like it’s fulfilling its destiny. A lot of organisers came to Threshold and were like, ‘Oh, this works’.
Do you feel a bit pissed off that people have come in since and the area has changed so much?
KHC: We weren’t the only ones here. Phil Hayes and Jayne Casey had The Picket already, they’ve been here for much longer.
CHC: The big respect needs to go to both the creative team and the board of the Baltic Triangle CIC, and the likes of Jayne Casey and A Foundation, and some people from the council as well. The people who had that vision, to make it what it was. We were kind of like guinea pigs for it, but we didn’t start to be that. If we hadn’t put on those first events, if Jayne and Phil weren’t doing those first things, and A Foundation, then it’d still be a wasteland.
You have mentioned passing the baton on to the community. Would you care to elaborate on that?
CHC: The intention is for Threshold to remain, as a CIC. We’re going to shift its focus, as a resource. All the communities we’ve built, of artists, promoters, venues, we’re able to connect, and continue to connect – but we won’t be producing the festival itself. If we can see the potential in something, then if someone wants to run with it, it should go on.
We’ve known for at least five or six years that Threshold’s bigger than us. It’s an important thing for a lot of people, and those people tend to be the creatives. It’s important for them that it still goes on. Our road with this goes to here, but Threshold should, and will, carry on. It almost feels like throwing down the gauntlet!
KHC: There are two ways for that to happen. One is that we are happy to mentor somebody who wants to start up something, as we have done. If somebody actually wants to continue with Threshold, we’ll have to create a board. It might just be a production company, or a bit like an agency. If that pot of money comes in, we’ll put that towards a project that will be going towards the community.
CHC: The team all have their own careers, they’re all moving in different directions. We haven’t found the new people yet, or they haven’t found us, but the message is out there. Hopefully somebody will pick up that gauntlet.
Threshold Festival takes place across multiple venues in the Baltic Triangle on 3rd and 4th April.
We asked members of the Threshold Family, who have produced, promoted and performed at the festival down the years, for one memory that sums up the essence of Threshold…
“The secret stage we did for Drop The Dime.”
“Well, of course, Mark Monkwaa Ross laying on the floor at the front of the stage holding a mic in the air as we’d run out of mic stands on that first crazy year at the CUC!”
“The cheeky Creaky Bones crowdsurfing caper that resulted in one of our best ever photos.”
James Kirkham and Andrew AB
“Teamwork. No other event seems to bring the Liverpool arts community together quite like it.”
Simon Hewitt (Silicon Dreams)
“When I couldn’t make it to the Black Mountain Lights set so they came and played for me in the box office. Most special moment ever.”
“Threshbees (the knitted bees that were everywhere in 2013).”
“One of the things that really sums it up is being in the crowd with the guy who just played on the other stage, with the guy who’s about to play on the other stage, watching the guy who’s on the stage. That doesn’t really happen at a lot of events.”
Chris Herstad Carney