Since August last year, bookers Joseff Harris and Huw Thomas- along with photographer Chelsey Cliff, have been running Sofar Sounds events here in Bristol at a rate of roughly two shows a month. Sofar Sounds is a global community of musicians, performers, and curators who are putting on nights all over the world, from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur. To attend an event, all people have to do is sign up to the Sofar Sounds website, enter the name of the city they’re in, and wait for an invitation.
Places are limited for each performance, but you don’t pay anything unless you get a ticket, and the curators do all they can to ensure everyone gets a chance to attend. I met up with Joseff to discuss how him and Huw go about curating a Sofar Sounds night- specifically what makes them such unique occasions, and where they fit within Bristol’s well-established live music scene.
Could you, in the simplest possible way, explain what Sofar Sounds is?
Essentially, it’s intimate gigs, in intimate venues- unique venues- all over Bristol. The premise of it is that you sign up to a show, without knowing where you’re going or who you’re seeing, and we will give you the address of the venue 48 hours before the show. You get given the address but you still might not know what that place is. Then when you arrive it’s only as the night unfolds that you’ll understand who you’re seeing.
And how does a typical Bristol Sofar Sounds event play out then? Are there certain elements of a Sofar in Bristol that might be different to one from another city?
In Bristol, we try and give you unique venues- places where either people can’t usually get into, or certainly wouldn’t usually be listening to live music in. In terms of venues it’s very much like the way we curate the lineup- we just try and make sure that the venues can feel intimate, and uniquely intimate, like the church we used in Easton. It’s a very grand beautiful building that people would associate with hymns or carols, and we used it to host a night of electronic music.
Another thing we’ve recently done is strip back the lineup from four to three artists- it just makes it a lot more relaxed. We have three artists doing 25 to 30 minutes each, starting at about half seven or eight, so you’re finished at the very latest at half ten. The thing is, you have to give your full attention, so any longer than that and it becomes more difficult to do that. We have about a 20-minute break between acts as well, so people can chat to each other, and the artists too.
It sounds very distinct from what most people would consider as a traditional concert or performance.
Yeah, they’ll always bring albums for people to buy too. It’s refreshing for the artists to meet people like that I think- acts like The National, Leon Bridges, Lucy Rose, they’ve all played Sofar Sounds around the world and even when it’s those bigger artists, everyone’s still on the same level. The audience wouldn’t know they were going to perform before they got there, so they’re not facing a crowd baying for autographs- just people who love music.
There have been huge international acts that have played Sofar Sounds around the world, but would you say that these nights are predominantly a showcase for local talent?
On the whole, we want to get Bristol based people in, but having said that, there’s a real nice community with Sofar. The last event had a guy who came up from London to perform. People are always trying to do Sofar tours as well, so we do all we can to accommodate them- and that can be people in the UK, but we’ve also had messages from a band in Bogota in Columbia asking if there are any Bristol dates they’d be able to make. For me I always want to have Bristol as the foundation- showcasing the music and the artists of the city, but then also host touring performers.
How do you choose which three artists will play each event?
Between myself and Huw, we try and make it as collaborative and cohesive as possible- so one thing we’ve done before with a few people is headhunt artists who we’ve listened to and really liked their music, and we’ll try and contact them and try and get them to play. Aside from seeking people out, we get daily emails from people asking to play, as well as there being an online platform that you can submit your work to, and we’ll go through that.
So the infrastructure for that is taken care of by Sofar Sounds then- it’s not a case of knowing you guys personally.
Yeah, if you have music, you can upload it to the website, where it’ll be added to a database that myself, Huw, and people running Sofar events in cities all over the world will be able to listen to.
I was going to ask, how do you tailor the performers to the venue? Is there one element you try to finalise first? Or do they go hand in hand?
On the whole, we prefer to find a venue first, and then think about what kind of artists would make an interesting and unexpected juxtaposition with that space.
You’ve talked about what is it that makes the nights you run unique to Bristol, but how do you make your events feel quintessentially Sofar?
What’s important is that every show we do we try and have a balance to every show we do in terms of music. For example, the last show we did (which was in a living room) opened with a very slow, soulful female duo, followed by a spoken word artist with a guitar- he was very comical, and there was a lot of audience interaction, and then after him we had a girl who played the Lithuanian Harp. She got everyone to close their eyes as she performed. It’s all about giving the audience that variety of music without compromising on the intimacy, which is great.
It seems fitting that the event Joseff uses to illustrate the philosophy behind curating a Sofar Sounds gig was one held in a front room, as this was precisely how the community began. While attending a Friendly Fires gig in London, the founders were disheartened at how withdrawn the audience and performers seemed to be from one another. Not just physically, but mentally as well.
Joseff mentions how by and large, if you’ve been looking forward to properly watching the support band, the majority of those around you probably won’t feel the same way. The disposable fashion with which a ‘warm-up’ act often gets treated can create a very distracting environment to listen to music in- spilt drinks, conversations, and phones all throwing up obstacles to people trying to engage with a performance.
It was after that Friendly Fires concert that the founders decided to try and cultivate their own community of artists and audiences who wanted to listen to music with as few distractions and obstructions as possible- starting out by hosting events in their own living rooms.
Can you sum up what makes a Sofar Sounds uniquely special?
I think that it’s the atmosphere of a Sofar Sounds show that allows special moments to happen- the artists are totally accessible, and people feel very comfortable in a room like that. Everyone’s around to talk about the show after all the music’s finished. We make a point of emphasising that although there is a running order, it’s entirely arbitrary- there are no headliners. Everything is geared towards establishing a free, creative environment. We’re all here for the same reason, that’s important thing- it sounds like a catchphrase, but it’s for the love of music, and playing music for people that want to listen. It’s odd for me now, because when I go to a ‘normal’ gig, it’s hard to adapt back to that environment where everyone’s chatting. Even before I started doing Sofar, I don’t think I can recall a single gig where for even just one song, the whole audience was silent. That’s why it feels great to be able to provide that experience for people to come to in Bristol.
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If you’re interested in hosting, attending, or performing at a Sofar Sounds in Bristol or anywhere else, head to the Sofar Sounds website to sign up and find out more at: https://www.sofarsounds.com
All photos are by the amazing Chelsey Cliff- she’s just finished her new website! Pay her a visit at: www.chelseycliff.co.uk