After last year’s geographical relocation, you might assume that the Sound City organisers would play it safe and simply bed in at their new home. Far from it: not only have they streamlined the event down to two days of performances but they’ve also decided to embrace dance culture by turning over the vast Baltic Warehouse to local promoters FREEZE and letting them get on with the job of drawing in the North’s dance music connoisseurs – potentially quite a different crowd from your average festivalgoers.
When Freeze founder Rob Casson fancied having a go at a bit of DJing back in the early noughties, he certainly didn’t have this in mind. He’d been a regular at Cream and thought he’d try his hand on the other side of the decks. After picking up some cheap turntables he started playing at Bar Zero. “I’d spend all my money in HMV on a Saturday morning so I had something different to play that night,” he laughs, “and then I moved on to the Lemon Lounge, which was really busy, and I thought, ‘I quite like this!’” That last statement is somewhat typical of Casson’s understated, laid-back style and he admits to being a reluctant interviewee: “In 10 years of Freeze, I’ve only done two interviews; I’m a bit uncomfortable with them.”
How does an organisation that seemingly shuns pushy self-promotion end up being, in the words of dance magazine Mixmag, such “an important dance music institution”? The answer seems to lie in their ability to attract top-quality artists to an increasingly off-kilter set of locations and in the sheer dedication of the Freeze team. The team currently consists of Adam Penney, Naomi Hesketh and Sam Newsham, who look after the bar, logistics and production respectively, and Jemmy, their resident DJ, who, according to Casson, “has no ego, so he’s always happy to provide fantastic warm-up sets for the headline acts.”
In 2010, having already decided it would be interesting to work outside the usual inner-city haunts, they found themselves sharing a Williamson Tunnels gig with promoters Harvest Sun, whose Tom Lynch informed Casson that they were putting on Edwyn Collins at the Anglican Cathedral. “Well, if they could do that,” reminisces Casson, “I thought ‘I want Freeze to do it.’ And we did!”
Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. When asked how receptive the Cathedral authorities and congregation were to his proposal, he admits that “there were certainly mixed feelings. But really it was Justin Welby [then Dean of Liverpool, now Archbishop of Canterbury]; he managed to convince the doubters.” So, dance culture benefitting from ‘trendy vicar syndrome’? Again, not quite that simple. “We had meetings virtually every week for eight months, and he could see the benefits of bringing so many young people into the Cathedral who maybe would never ordinarily be there. And we managed to convince them that we would totally respect the space, and we did. The crowd were fantastic. Justin Welby came to the gig and loved it. We did workshops for local schoolkids and the unemployed and made it a community event.”
The dance world took note, with Ibiza Spotlight declaring that “dance music simply doesn’t happen in anywhere as magnificent as this”, and Freeze took another step on a journey which has seen them put on events at the equally unlikely locations of Lancaster Prison, St. George’s Hall, Newsham Asylum and Manchester Cathedral, and almost taking up residence in what Casson describes as “our home”, the Bombed Out Church. In doing so, they have attracted an increasingly stellar band of globetrotting DJs (Todd Terje, Dixon, John Digweed, Luciano, Jamie xx, to name but a few) and a loyal band of supporters who are all too willing to embrace the shock of new and unconventional locations.
What makes this success yet more impressive is that all the members of Freeze are involved because they love it. “We’ve all got good jobs,” Casson says, “which is just as well really ‘cos some of the gigs we put on make a loss! It’s funny really.” I put it to him that this is a very light-hearted approach to take but he laughs it off. “We see someone we want to put on and just go for it. We always sell out but sometimes that’s not enough to cover it, but the gigs are fantastic. It’s the combination of amazing, different locations and top artists that people love.”
I ask him how the Sound City connection came about. “We did the Bombed Out Church on the same weekend as Sound City last year with Jamie xx. We sold it out, so I think they were impressed and approached us with the idea of doing the festival. It’s the first festival we’ve done and to be part of a home-town festival is great.” So this appears to be a symbiotic arrangement which sees Sound City embracing a different musical culture and which gives Freeze the opportunity to play another unique location in the wider context of an established festival. Looking at the line-up they’ve secured, this seems an opportunity they’ve grasped with both hands.
Headliners and sonic powerhouses LEFTFIELD should test the structural integrity of the warehouse, while it will be interesting to see how FLOATING POINTS translates the fragility of debut album Elaenia to the live arena. Thrown into the mix are DJ sets from some true heavyweights: GREG WILSON brings his legendarily weird mixing skills; MANO LE TOUGH his eclectic mix of house, techno and disco (“I’ve been chasing him for 18 months,” admits Casson); Stuttgart’s Motor City Drum Ensemble brings much-lauded deep house invention (the ensemble being Danilo Plessow’s collection of drum machines); and ROMAN FLUGEL his chameleonic techno ambience. Add in DJ sets from HOT CHIP, 2MANYDJS and MOUNT KIMBE, and the overall impression is that the Freeze guys have quietly dropped one of the early summer’s hottest tickets right onto our doorsteps.
Freeze take over the Baltic Warehouse Stage during this year’s Sound City. Keep your eyes open for news of Freeze’s after parties each night at their Greenland Street venue The Garage.