At the sheer utterance of the name Terrascope in front of the hardened psych fan, you will very likely get gushing praise and half-remembered memories of the legendary festivals held across the USA in the 90s. That was in the past though, and now, in present day, we get the much smaller, but no less exciting Woolf II – A Terrascope Celebration. Taking place in the glorious surroundings of Cleeve House, it sees an esoteric line-up of artists from Bevis Frond, Alex Rex (Trembling Bells), Dead Sea Apes, Sharron Kraus and many more. To find out more about this festival, E&D;s resident psychonaut sent some questions over to founder Phil McMullen, and Ian Fraser for further investigations into the Terrascopic zone…
(((o))): What is Woolf? Tell me a bit about the history etc of the festival.
(PM) It all started out as a benefit gig for the magazine the Ptolemaic Terrascope. We got shafted by Tower Records during 1996. They took a whole load of magazines and either wouldn’t or couldn’t pay for them. Faced with either ceasing publishing altogether or undertaking a bit of self-help, we decided to write to all the bands we’d featured down the years to see if they’d give us a song for a compilation album. The album came out (Succour, released as a double CD in USA and Europe and as a single CD in Japan) and was enough of a success to put us back on our feet for a while. Entirely by coincidence, several of the bands featured on Succour were based in and around Massachusetts, and one of them (Medicine Ball) approached me with the idea of them doing a benefit gig in a warehouse in Providence, RI that one of them rented.
As ever it seems with the Terrascope, I only had to blink and take my eyes off the road for one second for the whole thing to escalate exponentially. I swear it was never planned, but within literally hours, two or three bands playing one night in their own rehearsal space had become an all-weekender happening in a 10,000 square foot warehouse with bands flying in from all across the world to play – and all at their own expense. Nick Saloman decided it was a great opportunity to take the Bevis Frond across to America for the first time, and I think that was probably what opened the floodgates. It was also a debut overseas gig for Flying Saucer Attack, and a really early gig for Neutral Milk Hotel. Suddenly we had over 35 bands from at least three different continents lined up to play. We ironically named the event “Terrastock”, forgetting of course that irony doesn’t travel that well. Nevertheless, the name stuck.
Terrastock 1 was deemed to be such an amazing time by all who attended that it happened again the following year in San Francisco, and several times again in different part of America for the next ten years or so. I only ever tried it once in England, and it was an utter and complete disaster. Terrastock London took place in 1999 and featured the British debut for a whole load of bands which had become part of our “family” of acts in America – Bardo Pond, Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine, Green Pajamas, Spacious Mind, Silver Apples. But nobody came. Actually, that’s not quite true. An awful lot of loyal fans flew over from America to be there and a few travelled from Europe; but you’d have been hard pressed to hear a British accent inside the venue. It’s since become one of those legendary festivals about which if even a tenth of the number of people who claimed to have been there had actually been there it would have been a success, but it left me broken in every regard. I remember Tom Rapp even arranged a whip-round amongst the other performers to help pay for the PA hire.
As a consequence of this I swore I would never, ever organise another festival in Britain, and took Terrastock back to America where it seems we only had to whisper an event was happening to have people drive for literally hundreds of miles just to be there. I overheard someone one time discussing with their friend whether to go and find something to eat after an eight-hour drive or to go and see the next band due on Sstage 2, who were a completely unknown act playing their first gig outside of their home town and who had yet to release a record. His friend said, “I’ve never heard of them, but Phil’s not usually wrong – we should at least check them out” What they (and I) witnessed was an absolutely astonishing, mind-blowing set by a nascent Six Organs of Admittance, which left everyone in the room, not least the band, both physically and spiritually drained. I saw one of the two guys I’d earlier overheard at the end of the set and he was openly weeping. Hungry, probably.
I think it was eight years before I was talked into trying to stage another gig here in England. Charlie Romijn from Thought Forms persuaded me that there was a whole new generation of fans out there who were far more open minded and supportive of “underground” music. Nevertheless it was to be a further five or six years before anything resembling a festival took place, and when it did, I decided to stage it on my own doorstep here in Wiltshire rather than in a city. I’d got to know this quirky little venue called Cleeve House, a vaguely Gothic mansion set in its own parkland, which also holds a secret (you’ll have to attend to find out). The Library in particular has this beautiful view over the meadows out towards Stonehenge, and I envisaged watching eerie folk singers and tinkling temple bells there as the sun set. It was pointless asking people to travel all that way just for a one-night gig so the obvious thing to do was make a weekend of it. The venue has some limited accommodation for the bands, and there’s plenty of room for camping or glamping if people want to as well.
I didn’t want to call it “Terrastock” because I’d said I’d never do another one in England. So, because the house had associations with Virginia Woolf (the aforementioned Library had been built in 1907 by Clive and Vanessa Bell, Vanessa being Virginia Woolf’s sister, who often stayed there) I named the event Woolf Music; and in 2013 the first Woolf Music festival was staged, with invaluable help from Charlie Romijn and the chatelaine of Cleeve House, Miriam Zaccarelli.
The principle behind Terrastock remains and has been carried forward into Woolf. It’s an intimate event which a great deal of love and care goes into curating. Bands and artists are there not only because we happen to like their music, but because they are nice people. There’s very little separation between audience and musicians; in fact, I’d say most of the audience are musicians themselves. You’ll often find yourself sitting next to someone watching a band, and at the end of the set they’ll get up and take to the stage themselves. There’s a definite community feel to the event, which a lot of people who attended Woolf Music commented on, and that’s very much something which Ian and I have tried to ensure lives on in Woolf II.
(((o))): How did you go about choosing the acts for this year’s festival? Was there a specific artist you really wanted? Was there anyone you didn’t get who you would have liked to get?
(IF) Phil’s original brief was to go for “a few semi-acoustic acts”, which we’ll freely admit has been subject to some imaginative interpretation. Granted most of the acts might be just about described as “lightly amped” but I’m not sure 27 performers count as a few. The line-up includes a handful of cherished survivors from Woolf Music back in 2013, such as Sharron Kraus, The Left Outsides and Stereocilia while Byron Coley, wordsmith nonpareil, makes another trip over from the US. Otherwise we started with pretty much a clean slate.
Where we’ve gone for full bands it’s generally been because no Terrascope event of this stamp would be complete without inviting the likes of Bevis Frond or Thought Forms. Although they’d be horrified by the very thought, we consider them both to be house bands (Bevis’ Nick Saloman published the old Ptolemaic Terrascope while an early incarnation of Thought Forms would rehearse in Phil’s spare room). We’ve enthused about Dead Sea Apes, too, since pretty much day one, and Brett their guitarist has been very supportive in terms of his poster work both for Woolf and several other of our recent events.
Our one so-called “red line” when choosing acts, I suppose, was that we must have at least given them coverage and preferably have banged a big fanboy tambourine on their behalf, which luckily ruled out having to re-mortgage the house to book Coldplay or taking a punt on any Ed Sheeran tribute acts. What we have got as a result is a load of our favourite acts, some of whom we’ve championed for years but also a lot of exciting new talent, including the darkly invigorating Mésange, and guitarists Jim Ghedi and Toby Hay.
Are there any who got away? Well yes, we’ve a lot of very good friends over in the States who we’re sure would have loved to come over but then that’s all down to logistics. It also beggars belief that we have no Rocket Recording acts playing. That’s mostly because they don’t much go in for semi-acoustic although the one act of theirs we did approach wasn’t able to make it, sadly. Still, we’re pretty thrilled with who we’ve got.
(((o))): “Psych” festivals are ten a penny these days. Obviously there is some supreme Terrascopic weight behind this one, but did you ever look at the others and think…”how do we do this?”
(PM) Well, it’s good to know that others have followed our lead. I can assure you they were pretty much extinct as a species when we staged Terrastock 1 in 1997. I have to admit, I haven’t really taken a lot of notice of anyone else since. The only festivals I’ve personally attended in the last ten years have been a couple of the All Tomorrows Parties events, mainly at the invitation of the curators, who were past Terrastock performers. ATP isn’t exactly a great example of a business model to follow, obviously, but the concept of having multiple stages and accommodation all on one site was a good one, and the idea of bands and artists taking the lead in choosing who is invited to play is something that generates a sense of community which is obviously close to my heart.
(((o))): As well as possible over-saturation of a market, there are also the obvious perils of putting on a festival. What are your experiences with Woolf, and do they ring true with what you hear about other festivals? One thing I have noticed is a lot of good will and a big community aspect within the psych arena. Is this something that plays into your hands, so to speak?
(IF) Fixture congestion was always going to be a factor and so we were determined to go live with news of Woolf as soon as we could. In the event we were slightly delayed in doing so by a pitch inspection of Cleeve House, which is a grand old building but was in need of some investment here and there.
Unsurprisingly whichever date you’re going to come up will inevitably clash with any number of other commitments. There’s also the risk that a small, “family” event such as ours will be crowded out on social media by some of the bigger budget sponsorship posts and elsewhere by those events backed by large organisation, deep pockets and slick PR. Glastonbury we ain’t, and to a great extent we are at the mercy of market forces the same as everyone else. A 200 capacity means that no one’s going to get rich on the proceeds and our break-even threshold is quite high. There again our destination has always been the sunlit uplands of solvency and not the land of milk and honey – we’re definitely not that kind of event.
One of the things that sets Woolf apart from a lot of festivals is that not too many of our acts are likely to be part of the festival circuit although you can’t avoid that entirely without becoming unsustainably niche. Plus it’s unrealistic, not to mention a bit conceited, to expect anyone to just play your event. However we did ask acts not to play in the vicinity of Cleeve within twenty four hours either side of Woolf, which still leaves them plenty of scope for warm-up events or simply getting a few more pay days to justify the cost of travel, van hire etc.
Beyond the Terrascope, which does have a distinct community feel, then I suppose there is a certain camaraderie in what you termed the “psych arena”. That only works so far, though. It’s become commonplace to refer to one political party or other as a “broad church” in reference to massive differences between people of approximately similar persuasion and that’s probably true of psych and other musical genres. We tend, on the whole, to be at the gentler, folksy and more esoteric end of the spectrum so have been quite used to putting posts out on some of the psych forums, then counting to five and listening to the thud as they make an uncomfortably hard and unresponsive landing. Elsewhere we’ve had a fair bit of support, mind. Not that we’ve been keeping tabs but I’ve lost count of the number of messages from people saying what a fantastic line-up we’ve put together – and not all of those people are playing either!
Mind you if it all goes pear shaped we’ll blame Brexit.
(((o))): How do you go about making your festival that little bit more different to other festivals? I hear Phil has something special up his sleeve with the printing press thing?
(PM) I’d need to be comparing Woolf to others to know if we’re doing anything different which as I’ve already said I don’t tend to do, so I can’t really comment on that. We just try hard to take care of all the little details that make for the kind of experience we ourselves would want to enjoy – comfortable accommodation, nice surroundings, no overlapping set times, great music and good people.
The printing press side of this particular event came about more by accident than design. A few people were kind enough to ask me if I could demonstrate the letterpress craft and equipment that I use to create the Terrascopædia magazine, which I started back in 2012. I’m going to do a brief talk, but it would be difficult to demonstrate while the festival itself is running – I can’t be in two places at once and since a lot of the bands are there at my own invitation, I wouldn’t want to miss seeing them play. So, I asked around some friends and colleagues in the print community if they’d be interested in helping out, and I was absolutely blown away by the response.
You’ll remember me saying earlier I only have to blink for anything Terrascopic to take on a life of its own, so I shouldn’t really be surprised; nevertheless the level of support I’ve received for this idea has been quite remarkable. It’s almost like there’s a second festival happening alongside the main festival itself. I’ve got some of my absolute favourite printers of all kinds coming along to give free demonstrations and workshops in not only letterpress printing but also linocuts, screen-printing and block printing. We’ve got a printer’s supply store on hand and we’ve got Pressing Matters magazine attending, a publication which specialises in the people, process and passion behind printmaking.
(((o))): Do you have any special surprises in mind for the festival?
(IF) Well if we told you they wouldn’t really be surprises. Expect the unexpected, that’s what we’re doing.
(((o))): Woolf is certainly a labour of love, where do you see (or hope) its future will be?
(PM) I’m not planning anything further. Then again I didn’t foresee this one taking place – Woolf Music in August 2013 was only ever intended to be a one-off. So, who knows? In 2022 it’ll be 25 years since the first Terrastock in America, and it would be good if someone, somewhere, were to mark that in some way.
(((o))): Who should we watch out for on the day?
(IF) Because we’re drawing up the schedule with the intention of avoiding any direct clashes (although it’s doubtful we’ll be able to completely rule out overlaps) it’s tempting to say “everybody”. We’d urge anyone not to miss Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus, sightings of whom are usually as rare as the proverbial rocking horse droppings and Trappist Afterland who are over from Oz. That pretty much takes care of your spiritual welfare, otherwise the mere thought of the Caledonian folk invasion on Sunday – Alasdair Roberts and band, Alex Rex, Sound Of Yell etc – is getting us pretty wet already as is the prospect of Jesse Poe/Makoto Kawabata seeing in Saturday into Sunday in the Main Hall. And of course there’s Bevis. It always comes back to Bevis.