You know that we’re teetering on the edge of summer when the City Sound Project weekend gets the festival season rolling.
#CSP18 this year is divided into two events: City Sound Project in the Park, a free event in the Dane John gardens on the 5th & 6th May, and the main event with 16 stages and 16 headliners on Sunday 27th May (Bank Holiday Sunday).
CSP in the Park will have an emphasis on established local acts, showcasing Coco & the Butterfields, High Tide, Old Dirty Brasstards and plenty more renowned local musicians on the Victorian bandstand and on stages dotted all across the gardens.
At the end of May, the City Sound boys will be welcoming the likes of Wretch 32, Artful Dodger, Twin Wild and Kele Okereke (formerly of Bloc Party) to play in venues across Canterbury, including a 600-year-old medieval gatehouse, a WW1 drill hall, a 12th-century Franciscan chapel, and yet more secret venues. We caught up with two of the main organisers Blake McCaskill and Stuart O’Leary to chat about how the festival has grown and developed over the years, and what we can expect from this year’s City Sound Project.
This year you’re running two events – would you say City Sound Project in the Park is a warm-up for the main festival?
Blake: We’re definitely hoping so. It’s a free event, so you can come and literally spend no money and just enjoy the whole day – it’s all put on for you. We really want to impress a lot of people and establish it for years to come as Canterbury’s new music and arts festival, basically. It’s the biggest thing that’s happened inside the city walls in terms of music. So we’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to get everything right – making sure that there are enough toilets in there, making sure that all the signage is right, making sure that the food vendors are right and that there’s a decent offer for everyone who wants to come.
Stuart: We’ve got a really high-quality entertainment lineup. We have spoken word artists and kids workshops all the way through to bands and the big, high-end DJs. We’re really pitching across the board.
Blake: That’s where it contrasts from last year – because we did it as a bit of a punt, really, last year, with no funding. We had to do that independently ourselves in order to trial the area and to see if it worked. This time we’ve been a lot more connected and we’ve had tangible proof that it works, and so we’ve been able to go to funders and sponsors and say this is what we’ve got, and it works.
Stuart: We’ve done quite well with private sponsorship – much better than we thought we would do. We have also had Arts Council back it too.
It’s crazy to think of some of the bands you’ve had in previous years and where they are now – like Wolf Alice performing in 2013.
Blake: We’ve had some really wicked stories really. Bastille in the very first one…we put them in The Penny Theatre and next thing we knew they had a no.1 album. When George Ezra was in the lounge at Canterbury Christ Church Student Union – he was doing people’s teas behind the bar and then suddenly, boom, he had a No.1 album that summer.
Wolf Alice performing at Brown’s coffee house in 2013
What made you want to start a festival, and specifically in Canterbury?
Blake: We were student club night promoters and we were basically getting a bit frustrated because we wanted to put some stuff on that was more music-led and a bit more interesting and a bit more artist-led than just student weekly club nights. But obviously Canterbury is difficult because there’s no purpose-built space for music, there’s no O2 arena or O2 academy, so you’ve got this group of really tiny venues. We looked at events like Great Escape, and we realised that by grouping venues together, we would have the ability to book bigger stuff than we would book as a stand-alone show.
It probably wouldn’t make any sense for us to book Bastille at The Penny Theatre as stand-alone performance, but as part of a broader event, it worked. It was kind of out of frustration that we wanted to do a festival.
Stuart: We really wanted to put on something that we would want to go and see.
Was it difficult getting the venues on board with the festival?
Stuart: Initially we definitely had to earn our stripes – we had to do a rainy Sunday on the 21st of October. Not a bank holiday Sunday either! Just a normal Sunday in October, with work the next day. But that went really well, and then we booked for the following May and we were given the bank holiday Sunday. Then it moved to the Saturday and we had the whole weekend.
Blake: Most venues will sling their doors open on a Saturday night and be full. So why would they change things up?
Nowadays, people are more aware of multi-venue inner-city festivals, but back then it wasn’t so widespread and well known – and certainly not in Canterbury. A lot of the venues didn’t really grasp it until they saw it – and then they were involved and invested.
What’s your favourite venue to host gigs?
Blake: In terms of a vibe, probably Westgate Towers because its so unusual – in terms of a show, the Westgate Hall. The show that we do in the Westgate Hall, you can get elsewhere, but you can’t get in Canterbury. The show that we do in the Westgate Towers, you can’t get anywhere else.
Are you still collaborating with Wise Words this year?
We’re really good friends with Wise Words – there will be a Wise Words presence at CSP in the Park, but not the collaboration in Greyfriars gardens as we usually do. There will be local spoken word poets and also a ‘Little Words’ (kids workshops) presence. It’s more locally based – if anything, we’re trying to make CSP in the Park as local as we can. In terms of the main stage, we do have some internationally recognised stuff, just because we wanted to, but in terms of the food vendors, I think that all of them are from within the city walls. Everything is really Canterbury-centric, and that’s what we want the festival to be.
Stuart: ‘Little Words’ will be running some boat-making workshops, and we’ll have a buskers stage as well. Some students from Canterbury College will also have their first gig as well.
Blake: We’re hoping for nice weather – it’s all so weather dependent. It is what it is, I mean, we’re in England aren’t we? The weather can change it into a completely different event!
How do you think that the music scene in Canterbury has changed and evolved since you’ve been putting on gigs in Canterbury?
Blake: If I were to be brutally honest, I would say that, in some ways, I don’t think that the music scene has evolved…or at least, not enough. It’s something that frustrates us all the time. What we do every year is we create this event and this event is basically the biggest music event that goes on.
There’s no other platform for local artists or DJs or producers to be able to play – the problem is we drop it and pick it up again a year later, we kind of resurrect it. We always have a plan to try and keep something going in between, but it never comes off, and I think that the difficulty is that there are no venues that appear to support a scene like that.
That’s the biggest drawback. Until Canterbury can break through that and get a venue that’s purpose-built, it’s not going to develop enough. And it really frustrates us that there’s wicked musicians and wicked bands in Canterbury, but they have to go elsewhere to get good gigs.
Stuart: There’s a little undercurrent of a scene – but it always just seems to hover at that level.
Blake: It’s got so much more potential than what’s going on. There’s so many talented artists here.
If somebody had never heard of City Sound Project before, how would you describe it to them and why should they go?
In a nutshell, it’s a music and arts festival crossing genres in spaces that are completely unique to Canterbury.
Here’s a showcase of some artists that will be performing at #CSP18
Hip-hop and rap full of pathos and humour, with biting commentaries offset by moments of levity.
The former lead-singer of indie rock band, Bloc Party, Kele is back solo with a fresh and folksy pop-sound.
2018’s answer to Taking Back Sunday (we’re into it).