17 May 2017

Interview: Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson, curators of Where Are We Now?

Meet the Scottish rabble-rousers bringing Charlotte Church, Akala, Young Fathers, Jamie Reid and Bill Drummond together for a world-first festival in Hull.

Some of the audio / video content in this article contains strong language.

Seditious, subversive and full of surprises … it could only be Where Are We Now?, a three-day festival of counter-culture, in Hull from Friday 2 to Sunday 4 June.

Where Are We Now? is a fertile breeding ground of new names and established acts,” says Kevin Williamson, one half of the anarchic cultural collective Neu! Reekie!. Fellow poet and writer Michael Pedersen makes up the other half.

Together, they’re curating jam-packed Where Are We Now? festival nights at Hull City Hall and The Welly Club, plus an eclectic mixture of individual festival events aimed firmly at rebels, thinkers and party people. The timing couldn’t be better.

“Remember,” Kevin adds, “when we agreed to do this first Neu! Reekie! Where Are We Now? festival, there was no Brexit, no President Trump, no general election. Now, we’ll be in Hull the weekend before the general election.”

Whatever your politics, with a festival line-up that brings together some of the UK’s most influential and controversial voices in pop, hip-hop, grime, dub poetry, spoken word, film and punk art, we’re in for one heck of a party weekend.

Punk artist Jamie Reid, who famously created the iconic Sex Pistols artwork for Anarchy in the UK and God Save the Queen, was drafted in to design the festival’s artwork. All are welcome to see an installation of his bespoke Where Are We Now? wall collage at Humber Street Gallery on Friday 2 June. The involvement of Reid alongside other time-served anti-establishment artists such as Bill Drummond, sets out the stall for an anarchic weekend of music, poetry, installation and discussion.

“We want people to ask questions,” Kevin adds. “We want people to think about where they are now, how we’ve got in this position. We want to provoke a reaction.”

That shouldn’t be too difficult.

Back in the early 1990s, Kevin founded legendary underground Scottish publishing house Rebel Inc. He promptly launched Irvine Welsh’s era-defining novel Trainspotting with the fabulously understated line, “The best book ever to be written by a man or a woman, it deserves to sell more copies than the Bible”. Not only did Rebel Inc. go on to revive cult novels such as Helen And Desire by Alexander Trocchi, it became the most successful underground publishing house in UK history.

As Neu! Reekie!, Kevin and Michael have established a cult following for their nights of music, mayhem, poetry, film and animation, which reach from their base in Scotland to New York, Indonesia and Tokyo. For Hull 2017, they stage their first full festival, drawing acts from all four nations of the UK, including a strong Hull hip-hop and grime contingent.

At Where Are We Now?, we’re promised a world-exclusive show of fantastically camp covers from Charlotte Church, who’s tailoring her much-loved Late Night Pop Dungeon tour to include one-off performances of “Hull” music as we speak.

She’s an interesting person, challenging what people think about her and putting out performances that are a whole lot of fun.

Michael explains: “I caught Charlotte doing a performance of The Last Mermaid in Cardiff – she turned The Little Mermaid story into a bloodier, gorier and more positive influence for young women. We could see she was working on really interesting projects – engaging with [Nigel] Farage in confrontational ways online, and she fantastically turned down the offer of performing at Trump’s inauguration. She’s an interesting person, challenging what people think about her and putting out performances that are a whole lot of fun.”

Charlotte will be joined on the Hull City Hall stage on Friday 2 June by Mercury Prize winning Scottish hip-hopsters Young Fathers. They’re long-time collaborators with Neu! Reekie!, and were all over the acclaimed soundtrack to recent Trainspotting sequel T2.

With Young Fathers alongside them from the beginning, Michael explains how Neu! Reekie! grew, and what people might be able to expect at Where Are We Now? Hull. “We started off in these amazing intimate venues in Edinburgh and Leith,” says Michael, adding that the collective’s success was down to the artists who started coming to their nights, members of Belle And Sebastian and Teenage Fan Club, to namedrop a few.

There was this experimental carrot being dangled in front of them. Our nights became no holds barred, anything goes.

“Part of our raison d’être is to make sure that things happen on the night that react to time and place and what’s going on around us,” Michael adds. “As the Neu! Reekie! mixing pot grew, the audience grew with us. All of a sudden, people attracted by one artist were turning up to see other events we were putting on.

“There was this experimental carrot being dangled in front of them. Our nights became no holds barred, with an ‘anything goes’ sort of policy. We have shows with surprise, unannounced guests. And we don’t have a ‘headline’ act, the person who goes on at the end of the nights tends to be the artist with the loudest music, or the fastest tempo.”

Some artists, Young Fathers for example, have “grown alongside” Neu! Reekie! In Edinburgh since 2013, sharing exclusive tracks with the Neu! Reekie! Collective, even writing poems for them.

Spoken-word highlights of the Friday night of the festival include writers such as Hollie McNish, who recently picked up a Ted Hughes prize for her poetry collection (told “from the frontline of motherhood”) Nobody Told Me. Poems like Embarrassed challenge the hypocrisy and double standards surrounding subjects such as breastfeeding in public, and body image.

Dub poetry legend Linton Kwesi Johnson will be stepping up to the mic to perform poems that pack just as much of a political punch today as they did when he started out in the 1970s. Today, his work is a firm fixture on reading lists in schools and he is one of only a handful of poets to have been included in the Penguin Classics series while still alive.

“In Hull, it’s not programmed according to who’s the most famous,” says Michael. “It’s programmed to take people on a journey – visually, musically and aurally. We’ve booked performers that we think will feed into other performers, tied together by the film elements of the festival. It’s a completely integrated artistic experience from start to finish.”

Day two of the festival is “hip-hop Saturday”, curated by Dave Hook – a bona fide hip-hop academic and member of respected hip-hop outfit Stanley Odd.

So we’ve got Akala, one of the most influential voices in UK hip-hop, alongside  Stanley Odd, The Four Owls, Eva Lazarus and emerging talent from Hull’s own thriving hip-hop  and grime scenes, such as Chiedu Oraka and Deezkid, Play One and Redeye.

Michael says: “Film, music and hip-hop are integral to the counter-culture, and the storytelling of any city.”

And as Dave Hook, who has curated the hip-hop and grime elements of the programme, concludes: “Counter-culture and things outside of the mainstream are often where the most exciting ideas come from. It’s really exciting to look at some of the most important voices from hip-hop around the UK, regionally and locally, and bring them all together.”

And they’re all in Hull from Friday 2 June to Sunday 4 June, along with a few very special surprise guests. Check out the full line-up of events and book tickets for individual shows at hull2017.co.uk/wherearewenow

Prices range from free to £20.

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