[Interview] Level Up Festival: Ska-punk is Alive and Skanking in South London

We had an in-depth chat with the collective of promoters working on the UK’s best ska-punk festival.

Interview by Sarah Williams.

Now in its second year, London’s Level Up Festival is proof that ska-punk certainly ain’t dead. Last year was a sold out skankstravanganza, but 2018’s line-up is even more exceptional, featuring the likes of Random Hand and Lightyear as headliners. In terms of DIY-level festivals, this by far the biggest and best ska-oriented event, taking place at New Cross Inn on July 20th – 22nd.

The event is an unusual collaboration between three promoters, bringing three distinct tastes to their bookings. Paul and Mike Smith who run Be Sharp are London based, with Paul spending his days as the Events Manager at the up-and-coming New Cross Inn. Chris Fishlock runs Bristol-based Fishlock Promotions, known for booking DIY all-dayers, including the well-known Fishstock event. Finally, Jason Berden brings his influence all the way from Belgium, where he also books the incredible El Topo Goes Loco Festival. We spoke to all of them, to get an in-depth insight into Level Up Festival.

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L-R: Paul Smith, Jason Berden, Chris Fishlock, Mike Smith

Level Up festival is looking incredible this year! Tell us what we can expect.

  • Paul: Some of the best bands in the world and happy faces. Last year was one of the most positive events I’ve been involved with, and that’s mostly down to everyone that travels from all over, purely to have a great time. The floor will be fine too.
  • Jason: Some old legends, such as Lightyear or Random Hand, making their return, as well as some of the best upcoming bands of the UK ska scene. I also added my fellow Belgians in Koala Commission to the Saturday bill, to show our island friends that the mainland scene is as strong as ever before!

Level Up festival is now in its second year. What’s the main lesson you learned from year one, and what’s different this year?

  • Fishlock: The main lesson we learnt was that we can actually pull off something this massive and do it our own way, it’s great to put on a larger event and keep it DIY!
  • Mike: BeSharp, Fishlock Promotions and El Topo are 3 examples of how the the DIY scene doesn’t need to limit itself. This year’s Level Up isn’t going to be that different to last year, it doesn’t need to be, but all of us involved with have one eye on next year to see what we can do to improve.
  • Paul: My job is to be stressed. And last year I excelled at that. So this year my aim is to be even more prepared so it runs as smoothly as last year did, but hopefully ensuring I can also eat at some point and watch bands with my pals.

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It’s the best ska-punk festival line-up in the country. How did you all first discover the genre, and who are your favourite all time acts?

  • Paul: Top Of The Pops. 1997. Bosstone’s doing Impression That I Get. I was aware of Madness, but that was the first time I heard ska with a punk rock chorus and it blew my mind. As cliche as it is, THPS came out when I was 15 and was the first time I heard Goldfinger and Suicide Machines. The clincher was an ex making me a mixtape around the summer of 2000, using her older brother’s CD collection. Very Asian Man Records heavy. Around that time I also discovered all the Household Name Records shows in London and fell in love with Lightyear, King Prawn, Five Knuckle, and all that gang. All time faves… Goldfinger, Mad Caddies, Lightyear, Buck-O-Nine, Slow Gherkin, 3 dBs Down.
  • Fishlock: I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but I think it was mostly through seeing bands on P-rock TV, and Sell Out by Reel Big Fish still getting the occasional Kerrang TV play in the early 00’s. Discovering The Specials when I started raiding my parents’ CD collection. When RBF played in Reading when I was 13 and I convinced my mum to let me go was when I first properly fell in love with the genre and started buying most new albums and, to an extent, having part of my identity around it. Only a tiny handful of people at school knew what ska was and I liked having my own thing while they were all listening to who knows what Radio 1 shite. All time favourite acts have to be Streetlight Manifesto, The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, The JB Conspiracy, Beat The Red Light and Operation Ivy.
  • Mike: Growing up with Paul as a (much) older brother made it inevitable that I’d get in to punk and ska, listening to the CDs that were just left around. Discovering the likes of Streetlight Manifesto via MySpace had a lot to do with me getting into other bands that I wouldn’t have heard elsewhere. Being in a ska-punk band from 16 years old meant that a lot of my favourite bands as I was really getting into the scene were ones that I was lucky enough to share stages with. Captain Accident, Detached, Claypigeon, etc.
  • Jason: I used to be a new wave kid, until listening to Take On Me on YouTube made me click a “related” link which turned out to be a cover in quite a different style. Never looked back. With the help of YouTube and sites such as Sputnik Music, I quickly learnt that there were so many other bands in the genre. Reel Big Fish gets a lot of flak nowadays, but for me they will always be the band who changed my life.

Which bands are you personally most excited to see?

  • Paul: Everyone. But, I’m especially excited to see all the Be Sharp bands stepping up. I’m convinced Codename Colin are going to crack the mainstream, so they’ll own the opening slot on the Saturday. Call Me Malcolm, obviously released the album of the decade this year, so their set will be special. The Pisdicables, played their comeback show at Level Up 2017, after we lost Crampton, and that was the set of the weekend. This year is their last London show before they go on indefinite hiatus (Random Hand style), so it’s a nice way to end the last 12 months, and they’ll play like it’s their last show on earth.
  • Fishlock: Very hyped for Random Hand, their explosive set at MPF quenched my thirst for a while but having so many years without them I’m so stoked to see them again. Lightyear are up there for me too as one of the funnest live bands going. I always love Faintest Idea live even though I’ve probably seen them more than every band on the line up. I’ll be down the front for them having a big dance for sure.
  • Mike: One thing we don’t struggle with is finding quality bands. Every band sets an incredible standard, both in terms of ability and professionalism. It’s always nice to see the out of town bands play to an excited ‘festival’ crowd that you won’t always get in London and I think Last Edition and The Hostiles, both playing on Sunday, are going to smash it.
  • Jason: There are quite a few bands on the bill I’ll be seeing for the first time, as they haven’t crossed the channel yet, so I’m eager to make a few discoveries. Last year The Dancing Morons represented Belgium and they went down really well, so I’m hoping to see Koala Commission continue that winning streak. Random Hand has always been very special to me, so they are probably up on top of my list.

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When did you first decide to collaborate on an event together?

  • Paul: I think it was mentioned at the Random Hand Mid-Summer Skank in Bristol a few years back. All of us were in the same place for the first time so we mainly just moaned about promoting despite loving it deep down. When I started working at New Cross Inn full time, I had the time, resources and contacts to up my game, and seeing as El Topo, Fishlock and Be Sharp all book the same touring bands, it made sense for us to do it together
  • Fishlock: Paul got his job and NXI and messaged us all saying he was bagsying us a weekend. He forces us all into it.. That and we had vaguely talked about collaborating for a while, it was naturally going to happen at some point.
  • Mike: BeSharp have worked with a few promoters in the past, with mixed results. I think it’s fair to say that Fishlock and Jason are both the best in their respective regions and working with them to create something bigger than what we can do on our own is great. Putting on bands we may not have considered and working in a way which is different from how Paul and myself have been doing things for the last decade.
  • Jason: I don’t actually recall that conversation Paul mentioned, but then again, I did have cider for lunch and dinner that day. That being said, it was pretty much a natural progression as we each sort of did the same thing but in a different location – I had even taken to calling them ‘Bristol Jason’ and ‘London Jason’. Nowadays Paul tends to call me ‘Belgium Paul’ but I don’t think it has the same ring to it.

It’s unusual (and brilliant) to see three promoters from different cities and countries working on the same event. How do you overcome the problems caused by the distance?

  • Fishlock: There’s this cool thing invented sometime called the internet. It’s great it means I can tease Paul all the time and he’s too far away to do anything to me.
  • Paul: Facebook Messenger and our private FB group where we definitely don’t moan about bands or agents at all. Honest. But it’s mostly Fishlock trying to wind me up, in between booking bands.
  • Mike: The “L-Up Fest Gossip Page” does not exist, honest. Shout out to the Whatsapp “mute” option too.
  • Jason: All of the above. I have to say it’s more difficult than I thought because whereas the Belgium and UK scenes are both very strong, individual bands sometimes have a completely different fanbase. Luckily there’s Paul who can predict a turnout with 99% accuracy.

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What’s the most rewarding aspect of putting on a festival?

  • Paul: Getting away with it. I’m less concerned with my personal rewards, more so with the likes of King Prawn and Big D & The Kids Table playing sold out shows in 2017.
  • Fishlock: Seeing lots of your friends and people you love having a great time, both those on and those off stage.
  • Mike: Doing the unexpected. Putting on bands which are too big for the room, questioning if the floor is going to hold up and watching hundreds of people having the time of their lives.
  • Jason: Going to a gigantic metropole in a different country and getting a pat on the back from people I have never met before.

Are there any other events that have inspired you, or which you aspire to be?

  • Fishlock: We all went to MPF this year and there’s nothing else I find more inspiring. I think a lot of the classic ska punk all dayers you used to get at the Underworld where every band was incredible is definitely an inspiration too. For me personally whenever I’ve been to Jason’s festival El Topo Goes Loco in Belgium is quite inspiring also! I don’t think there’s any festivals we’d aspire to be like but doing something bigger outside with multiple stages would definitely be cool.
  • Jason: I would love for either of my fests to continue to grow towards something like Manchester Punk Festival. I absolutely love all that fest stands for. I do have some other aspirations genre-wise, but as far as spirit and atmosphere go, MPF is absolutely perfect.
  • Paul: I love an all dayer, there’s nothing I’d rather do on a Saturday. So every all dayer or weekender I’ve ever been too is an inspiration of sorts. MPF and El Topo Goes Loco are the main ones, but I love ‘em all.
  • Mike: There are so many quality promoters all over the country and on the mainland. You can’t help but pay attention to the way they do things and see if you can improve to get on their level. The small festivals that are now huge festivals are always a source of inspiration too, Boomtown for example. And you can’t help but wonder just how big MPF is going to get…

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What do you each think is the key to a great music festival?

  • Fishlock: An interesting and exciting line up.
  • Mike: The community. It can be a showcase of the best bands in the world, but if the people around you aren’t into it, no one will have a good time. L-up Fest 95% in one room, across the 3 days last year you could see people get to know each other and that’s the key.
  • Paul: Great bands, to suck me in, and the general atmosphere and attitude of punters to make me go back. Reasonable drink and food prices and non-aggro security are also plus points. But ultimately, ska-punk bands are all I need.
  • Jason: As a Belgian I have to say that, apart from all of the above, a good beer selection is also key for me. Luckily Signature Brew has been putting out some great brews – can I add ‘having our own beer’ to my aspirations for the fest?

Is there anything you’ve learned from putting on events, that’s changed the way you attend events as a punter?

  • Jason: It’s made me appreciate even more all the efforts that people put into shows!
  • Paul: I’m unable to switch off, so that’s a factor. Always tapping up bands to play my gigs, making contacts, stuff like that.
  • Fishlock: Yeah! Every time I go to a show of bands I’m used to putting on, I accidentally go into promoter mode and start stressing about the timings and where bands are, etc., before remembering I don’t have any responsibility.
  • Mike: Like the others have said, you can always learn from others and I always question how and why things were done the way they were. Not just in terms of bands, but in terms of venues and logistics and marketing, everyday is a school day. When you’re getting worried that a band who are playing a gig you’re not involved in are overrunning by a few minutes, that’s when you know you’re in too deep.

What are your future plans for Level Up Festival? What’s your dream line-up?

  • Fishlock: After Level Up last year we all wrote down our dream line up for the next one. I think with the future it would be cool to expand one day, if we outgrow the New Cross Inn, but I think it’s best for these things to build up naturally and to not overthink it. My absolute dream is to have Streetlight Manifesto to headline, Chewing on Tinfoil as main support and Beat The Red Light in there somewhere too, otherwise I just care to have bands I care about and am friends with and that make interesting music.
  • Mike: The bands that are playing lower down on the bill on the first few Level Ups are going to be the ones headlining in 5 years time, to bigger crowds in bigger venues. Saying that, we’re not going to be turning down Less Than Jake, Streetlight Manifesto and Reel Big Fish as headliners across the three days…
  • Jason: Streetlight is pretty much a given. If I ever get the chance… Apart from that, I would love for the fest to grow to a multiple-stage, outdoor fest, with different genres as well. Paul is involved with Polite Riot Fest nowadays too and it would be amazing if those two could become one massive party!
  • Paul: At the moment I think we’ll continue as we are, a lot of it is down to headliner availability. We did really well to get the same weekend as 2017 this year, so we’ll know where we are in the autumn, for 2019. My dream line-up would be huge 90s American ska-punk bands, with main supports being bands that haven’t been over for years. Something like Goldfinger with Buck-0-Nine, Less Than Jake with Mustard Plug, Mad Caddies with Slow Gherkin. Chuck in a cheeky reunion from Farse or Mouthwash, and fill the rest with the best of the UK/EU underground. Easy.

 

You all promote your own individual events. What else have you got going on this year?

  • Paul: After Level Up I have a load of bands at NXI playing shows around festivals, Mute, Straightline, This Is A Standoff for the punx, Captain Accident for the reggae fans, The Penske File coming over from Canada, and an exclusive reunion from Fandangle for the ska kids (and adults).  Plenty more being worked on too, so keep an eye on the Be Sharp Promotions Facebook page to be the first to know.
  • Mike: It’s coming up to the 10 year anniversary of when we founded BeSharp, so that’s definitely something that’s on our radar. We’re not too sure what it will consist of at this point but there’s rumours of the long awaited sequel to our first compilation and I’m sure there’ll be some other treats too.
  • Fishlock: I’m trying to take it somewhat easy for the rest of the year so I don’t completely lose my mind (or did that already happen?), however as always I’ll be doing cheap DIY shows in Bristol, helping out independent bands from around the world and supporting bands I love. My only currently planned big show is my all dayer I’m doing at Exchange in Bristol on 13th October with Revenge of the Psychotronic Man, Pizzatramp, Grand Collapse and tons more. People can find out about all the shows I get involved with via my Facebook page, Fishlock Promotions.
  • Jason: I stopped promoting shows a while ago, focussing on El Topo Goes Loco and Level Up. As I noticed something was missing when I wasn’t stressing out about selling tickets, I decided to put on a winter edition of ETGL again this year; El Topo Goes Frigo. So far we have announced The Toasters, The Human Project and Popes Of Chillitown, with 13 more to come. When that is over (Nov 17 – write it down!) I will already have started working on the lineup for El Topo Goes Loco so that’s a nice little two-piece I have built to keep myself busy I think!

Interview by Sarah Williams.

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