Words by Emily Carson
Northern Ireland’s electronic music scene is in rude health and as AVA Festival and Conference comes back for a third year, never has this been more apparent.
At Belfast’s T13, barbed wire fences, shipping containers and giant cranes soar into the white sky, forming a backdrop to several hundred people who cluster around a pair of decks. They bob and whoop in unison. Bicep are closing the Boiler Room x AVA 2016 in their hometown and it’s a Boiler Room like no other.
Something incredible is happening in Northern Irish electronic music. Over the past few decades a strong, local dance scene has been bubbling away and is now taking to an international stage.
Boiler Room at AVA Festival
While often hyper-local and underground affairs, it’s the energy that has long been associated with Northern Irish crowds – Orbital once named a track ‘Belfast’ in an ode to one particularly mad weekend there – that has kept DJs coming back.
The last five years have seen a huge surge in electronic and dance music, with new club nights, festivals and collectives rising through the ranks and putting their stamps on the burgeoning scene.
‘One thing I find most interesting about Belfast is, because of the unique political and social climate here for the past 30-40 years, we’ve gone through this period of arrested development in comparison to other major cities in Ireland and the UK.’– Emmett Costello, Inside Moves
The recent arrival of AVA – an electronic music festival and conference on par with its international counterparts and now in its third year – has solidified a movement that has been building with excitement and potential. While the Troubles left cities like Derry and Belfast in relative lockdown for a long time, a wave of young emigrés are returning from the likes of Berlin and London, bringing with them a new wave of inspiration.
Now that the tide has turned, and Northern Ireland is waking up to the cultural and economic potential of electronic music, there are several groups already leaving a mark on their native soil.
Creative Director for Northern Ireland’s premier electronic music festival, AVA, Sarah McBriar took all the tricks of the trade she’d learnt from working on events like Warehouse Project and Glastonbury and channeled them into her own creative vision. A Belfast-native who grew up listening to her brother (Matt McBriar, one half of Bicep) through the floorboards, Sarah was indoctrinated into the world of dance music early on.
Having spent most of her early clubbing experiences attending Belfast’s iconic Shine parties, Stiff Kitten and countless house parties – she headed off to Manchester for university and soon found a more vibrant scene. Having cut her teeth in the industry working as an artist liaison for Warehouse Project Sarah moved into other creative ventures as a freelance producer and project manager. When it came to going it alone, it was wanting to see the essence of her favourite club nights that led Sarah to bite the bullet and undertake a Creative Production Masters:
‘For me, I love going to Berghain and Panorama Bar and clubs like Plastic People and obviously Warehouse Project and Sankeys Soap, so I didn’t feel that Belfast had that,’ says Sarah.
Translating that vibe into a festival and conference in a city with a different understanding of nighttime culture was still a massive challenge. While AVA has grown year on year, evolving ever more rapidly into a serious international contender it wasn’t always an easy sell.
‘I’ve had to prove my stripes and my spots for two years,’ she says. ‘It’s making sure that they know that you’re trying to put on a really strong event, and making sure people are obviously safe and that there’s a good representation of what we do.’
Part and parcel of this is the cavernous venue that is T13, a warehouse in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. While it’s always possible to envision an incredible festival in your mind’s eye, it took finding T13 to make Sarah realise that AVA was actually a possibility: ‘The second I went to it I knew that was where I wanted it to be. It’s quite unbelievable when you walk in, it’s got this instant “wow”’.
The festival now calls Tourism Ireland, Ableton and Bullitt Hotels amongst its partners, but getting that recognition and buy in from the powers that be has been one of Sarah’s most consistent challenges.
‘It’s not really straightforward to be honest,’ says Sarah. ‘Putting on something like AVA is a year long job and there’s a lot of time and energy from my end to support and demonstrate and continue to prove the vision.’
‘There’s been some amazing talent in Belfast for a considerable amount of time.’– Sarah McBriar
‘There’s been some amazing talent in Belfast for a considerable amount of time.’– Sarah McBriar
One of Sarah’s close collaborators is Oisín O’Brien, a founder of visual company Guerilla Shout, local night Lumen and label DSNT. He had a pretty advanced understanding of what he wanted these ventures to grow into once they were founded – ‘a sustainable ecosystem of events, record releases and experiences that allows our core crew to make art they are passionate about, without the constraints that exist in that world (e.g. poncey art galleries, promoters that don’t want to spend money on production and corporate clients that want you to make something crap)’ – and it has been this understanding of the bigger picture that has allowed Lumen and DSNT to flourish but Oisín says this is in spite of the draconian legislation that still governs the city.
Having fallen in love with early hardcore and gabba during raves at the age of 16, it was events like the Bangface Weekender – the ‘neo-rave utopia’ that has operated across the UK since 2003 – that gave Oisín the drive to start something up himself. Describing the nights as ‘banging techno, intense visuals and people shouting “yeooooooo”’ Lumen and DSNT celebrated five years in January with a sold out party.
Another party present at the Lumen celebration was Belfast collective Inside Moves, run by Emmett Costello (who also makes up part of the AVA team). After spending a few years frequenting and running soul, funk, house and italo nights in the likes of World Headquarters, Digital and Cosmic Ballroom in his adopted home of Newcastle, Costello returned to Belfast pining for a club with the same vibes.
Originally conceived as a party that ‘transformed boats, bars, galleries, music halls and warehouses,’ Inside Moves’ first outing saw the crew work their way onto the SS Nomadic – the boat originally used to transfer 1st class passengers to the Titanic – for an all-day party, while at their first birthday party Maurice Fulton played to a music hall dressed to transport dancers back to the 1970s.
Setting is incredibly important to Emmett, but he admits that sticking to their ethos of creating unique environments has made it difficult to pop up with regularity: ‘Even though we’ve found a few unique spaces, we find it really difficult to find appropriate venues. Our licensing laws are archaic and don’t really make it easy on venues or promoters, so often it means we’ve got to wait about until we find the right venue.’
But despite these obvious frustrations there seems to be something alchemical about the vibe in Belfast that keeps promoters like Emmett slugging away to find alternatives to the norm. The collaborative nature of the scene – with AVA funnelling a lot of this energy into one event – is what keeps things interesting and engaging for all these new promoters:
‘There is so much potential here now to create something new as well as a massive crew of people working with a similar mindset that really does make it such an exciting place to live.’
‘Northern Ireland’s music scene is developing at a great speed, it’s only the beginning for us which is really exciting.’ – OR:LA
James Crossan is one of the minds behind Derry-based collective Jika Jika, a series of club nights and parties that have invited the likes of John Digweed, Denis Sulta and Ben Klock to play at venues around Northern Ireland from 50 capacity bars to 5,000 person outdoor extravaganzas. James is now based in Manchester working with clubbing behemoth Warehouse Project (like Sarah McBriar before him) and says he is consistently impressed with the number of Northern Irish clubbers making the pilgrimage to attend their large-scale events.
An avid clubber from a young age – James was attending nights like Deep Fried Funk and Celtronic from the age of 15 and running his own nights from 16 – Jika Jika was very much informed by James’ partners Debbie and Stephen’s work with underground night Inertia and has always featured great local acts combined with the collective’s ‘Hit List’ of international favourites.
We book DJs that play everything, we don’t pigeonhole ourselves to any one genre,’ says James. ‘We love to mix it up but Derry is a rowdy crowd so they love a bit of techno!’
Pointing to the likes of Celtronic Studio, Bekuz, inFlux and Or:la (who will play at this year’s AVA festival) as the Derry natives pushing the agenda forward, James believes that the local scene will only continue to flourish and Jika Jika have plenty of plans up their sleeve to stay at the heart of it.
James’ top pick for up and coming producer is Or:la. She moved to Liverpool for university and soon found herself immersed in the city’s vibrant nightlife scene. From humble beginnings as part of her uni’s dance music society nights, Or:la was soon playing around the city and founding her own night, Meine Nacht, a no-fixed-abode club that took inspiration from some of her favourite international parties.
‘I went to as many electronic music nights as I could,’ she says. ‘Even if I went on my own or attended to write a review on the night. I wanted to immerse myself in it as much as I could.’
Or:la’s diligence to the scene has given her a broad and comprehensive musical knowledge and Thump have described her as ‘one of the most underrated DJs on the UK circuit at the moment, and one of those selectors blessed with the ability to really tell a story’. Despite being firmly rooted in the Liverpudlian dance scene, Or:la’s connections to Northern Ireland remain strong and she often returns to her hometown to play for Jika Jika.
She has described the guys from Jika Jika as having been instrumental in turning the tide of perception in Derry where the population was ‘practically alien to that kind of culture,’ as well as Sarah’s work with AVA as putting Belfast ‘at the forefront of the Irish electronic music scene… on a regular basis I see forward thinking lineups and creative locations used to host parties, which is really putting Belfast on the map.’
‘Everybody always goes on about the energy from the Belfast crowd and it really is noticeable what you can feel in clubs here versus some other cities.’
– Emmett Costello, Inside Moves
With such a hub of interconnected collectives joining forces it seems like Northern Ireland’s creative power is reaching somewhat of a zenith. The zeal of the punters has driven what were once-off events to monthly parties, annual festivals and international entities that can trade off their beginnings in the likes of Belfast or Derry.
While many Irish clubbers still make it their business to head to the likes of WHP, Creamfields or Junction 2 to chase electronic excellence it might be time to book a seat on the Enterprise and find out what’s going on right on our doorstep.
AVA Festival takes place in T13, Belfast on June 2 & 3. Tickets are available at avafestival.com. Catch This Greedy Pig’s talk on the relationship between music makers and directors on June 2.