Interview // John Helps

by AdamTait
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on 17 February 2016 in Features


Festival season is upon us! Well, not quite, but nearly. Most of us might still be cursing the February chill, but news of summer festival lineups is already offering some distant warmth.

And with Leicester's Handmade Festival having just announce a magnificent lineup including We Are Scientists, Deaf Havana, Swim Deep and 65daysofstatic to name just a few, we put some questions to festival boss (and Maybeshewill guitarist) John Helps.

What was the impetus for setting up a new festival - was there not enough on the circuit for you?

Who doesn’t want to run their own festival? I think that’s pretty much what it came down to. There are loads of festivals I love, and I have always been infinitely jealous of their organisers and the people who get to put together their bills. I’m less jealous now I actually know how much work it takes, but it’s still the best thing I get to do during the course of a year. What was the first year like?

Was it how you expected it would be?

Ermm… I think if I’d been less naïve I might have thought twice about taking on that much work, but I’m glad I didn’t. It was hugely rewarding once the festival opened. The reaction from day one has been hugely gratifying.

There must be quite a difference between the conventional tents-in-a-field style festival and a multi-venue event in a city centre. Why did you opt for the city option?

All of the festival directors are connected to various venues around the city in some way or another, and that small venue vibe was something that was very easy for us to set up from the get go. We’ve moved in to much bigger venues now, but still.. It’s dry – May is an unpredictable time weather wise – we can be all ages, and there is a lot less infrastructure to set up… It’s ideal really. Leicester used to have an incredibly well loved city centre outdoor festival called Summer Sundae, so we kind of get to step in to part of the void they left without trying to replicate it.

What do you know about festivals now that you didn't know about them before you started Handmade?

I’m no sure really! I think I went in with a degree of knowledge and other people have come along to help out and filled the rest of the gaps. I think the biggest step forwards has been learning to step back and relax and not get too caught up in the details, which it is very easy to do.

What are the five, unbreakable rules you'd give for setting up a festival?

- Don’t book bullshit. People know when you’re sacrificing your ethos to sell tickets.
- Do more than 'just music'. We’re a multi-arts festival, and although we’re guilty of shouting about the music side of things the most we also have art, film, comedy and photography.
- Let the scene dictate the festival. If the hardcore of local people are in to what you’re doing you’ll have their support in more than just ticket sales.
- Don’t do it unless you really fucking love it.
- Never give away all your secret unbreakable rules in interviews ...

Being part of a band that had played festivals before launching your own, how do you think that altered your approach to that of others?

Well, I guess because I’ve seen both sides of the booking process I like to think I know how both bands and promoters think and hopefully that means we can make the best festival for both sides of the coin… It’s actually quite hard to know whether it’s affected any of the decisions we’ve made… Good question.

Other than a killer line-up, what one thing must a festival have for you personally to have a great time?

Somewhere comfortable to sit and good food. I am feeling very old very young and I need a little sit down every so often! That’s such a lame answer. I wish I could muster something a bit more rock and roll. It seems like Handmade has grown each and every year since its inception.

What will be new for the 2016 edition?

It has. It’s amazing to see how far it’s come really. This year we’re keeping the same model we’ve had for the last year and just building on that and trying to perfect it. I imagine we’ll be doing that for a few years yet. Bigger names on the bill is the biggest change this year! We’re pulling out all the stops for 2016.

What's been your proudest achievement with Handmade (other than setting it up in the first place)?

I’m proud of the little things. When I can put a virtually unknown name on the bill and have a full room for them – particularly with people like Theo who is really an incredible unique talent. Watching ASIWYFA play in year 2 was big for me – they were top of my wish list from the start... and Future of the Left in year 2015. Same thing with them.

What's been the biggest challenge?

Saying no when a band you’d love to headline eventually shows interest after you’ve committed all your budget elsewhere. That is heartbreaking.

Which festival at the moment (other than Handmade) do you think is getting it most right?

2000 Trees and ArcTanGent. I can talk about how perfect those two festivals are for hours.

What's your favourite festival memory?

Playing 2000 Trees with Maybeshewill a few years ago in a tent with the most phenomenal atmosphere.

Get tickets and find more details now over at


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