Front of House: Bettine McMahon & Graham Sharpe of KnockanStockan

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Very few Irish music festivals are imbued with the sheer independent spirit and passion for homegrown sounds that continues to set Co. Wicklow’s KnockanStockan Festival apart. Set to return to Blessington Lakes this weekend with a host of the country’s very finest artists in tow (full line-up below), Mike McGrath Bryan chats to Bettine McMahon and Graham Sharpe, festival director and music director of KnockanStockan, about their humble beginnings, the festival’s annual schedule, only booking Irish acts and what the future holds.

Photos by Moira Reilly.

Hi guys. Give us some insight to the beginnings and roots of Knockanstockan.

Bettine: KnockanStockan began when a bunch of musicians in 2006 decided that in order to get a festival slot, they needed to create a festival! There were not any small festivals around at the time that were booking independent Irish acts so KnockanStockan was born as a festival by musicians, for musicians. As the festival was created by a bunch of friends aiming to support their fellow musicians, an ethos was fostered from the very beginning and still is our core passion today.

What were the challenges in organising and promoting the first edition of the festival? Any rookie mistakes, etc?

Bettine: Oh, that was a long time ago! I think the first one was quite easy to promote in that the size was very small and we had a theory that if we booked 40 acts, each of them would bring 10 mates and they did. What was difficult about the first festival was that none of us had ever put on a festival before. Running a gig in a Dublin venue was about the height of our experience so there were a lot of organisational vertical learning curves in what I like to call our “teething years”.

Graham…? Any rookie mistakes you would like to reminisce on?

Ha, where to start? Ah no, well I didn’t have anything to do with organising the first festival. I was just down there playing with my band and didn’t really know a soul. We could tell as soon as we arrived that something sweet was brewing, a feeling that was confirmed the next day as I got to wander the small campsite and meet all the amazing people who were there. The large majority are still some of my best friends today.

As for rookie mistakes, well there were loads in the next few years. Every year you learn a lot and hopefully try and remedy that the next year. Time management is a big one, and then I suppose there’d be a lot of the same problems all festivals run into – over or under estimating the amount of people you’re expecting down, site lay-out, programming, etc. If there’s a mistake to be made I’m sure we’ve made it at some stage along the way but we’re getting better!

Give us a breakdown of the annual schedule of the festival, from committee to festival weekend.

Bettine: The new festival planning year usually starts two to three months after the previous one. It starts with committee of 4 of us and then expands up to 12. The website and submissions are usually first on the agenda. Top of the list is a provisional budget to determine ticket price and release date. It all just starts to roll through Christmas like a snowball and suddenly when January hits it’s all systems go from site planning to programming. The whole festival planning seems to have a life of it’s own then.

Graham: You nailed it.

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In creating a festival dedicated entirely to Irish acts, you’ve guaranteed yourself a bottom line of dedicated support, but one imagines you’d have set off a few begrudgers too?

Bettine: I will let Graham answer this as he is the one who get’s nightmares about it…

Graham: Yeah, the level of support and community that’s built up around the festival is unreal. As I say, at this stage it’s taken on a life of its own and it’s the bands and artists who truly make it what it is. There’s a lot of people out there who think of KnockanStockan as their festival and they’re dead right: everyone’s involved, everyone plays their part. It’s a beautiful thing.

As for begrudgers, yeah there’s always a few. I do get a couple of horrible emails every year calling us this and that and accusing us of all sorts but you can’t let it get to you. it’s almost always from the kind of people who assume festival organisers, touring bands or bands with a track on the radio are making a mint and it’s just not the case. Most people are in the know and if you are you get the buzz.

I do remember one particularly awkward situation a few years ago. I was in a taxi with a few guys from a couple of different bands on the way to a session after a night in Sweeney’s. All was well until the taxi driver asked if we were going to KnockanStockan and it dawned on me that I’d said no to both the bands I was with. We had a good laugh about it but you can’t help but feel rotten when something like that happens.

Can you pick a favourite set or band you’ve ever witnessed at the fest?

Bettine: This is always a really tough question but I think And So I Watch You From Afar in 2010 was and still is one of my top 5 gigs at KnockanStockan. They came with extra PA and we had never experienced such sound before then. I think they set a production benchmark for us after that.

Graham: We don’t get out to see as much music as we’d like these days. It’s a much tighter ship and we’re all pretty much on for the whole weekend but you do get to slip out now and then to catch someone you’ve really been dying for. Last year I played myself and then headed to the faerie field to catch Land Of The Giants, who are one of my favourite live bands in the world. One of the crew who was working with me came up and pulled me to the back of the stage, pretended there was a serious problem, but just wanted to let me know he had things covered and I should take the rest of the night off. So I did! The lads were unreal and I think I lasted about an hour before I fell asleep slow dancing to ‘Lady In Red’ with Shelly who runs the family camping!

Another one that always sticks out in my mind is New Secret Weapon on the Fish Stage in 2008. Not only one of the best gigs I’ve seen at KnockanStockan but one of the best sets I’ve ever seen by any band anywhere.

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With the recent proliferation of festivals around the country happening, what are the upsides and downsides of planning around each?

Bettine: Yes, festivals are packed into the Summer these last few years. We have always stayed on the second last weekend of July and have a very loyal fanbase so we don’t feel massive affect on our numbers from other festivals. Some of the smaller festivals support each other with crew and cross promotion such as us and Vantastival, Spirit Of Folk and even Life Festival in years gone by. We now have Longitude, Castlepalooza and Indiependence flank us either side in July, which has had an effect on our ability to book certain Irish acts that we have been working with for years as those festivals issue exclusivity contracts. We don’t let this get to us though, we take it as a good sign that acts who have come from “Knockan’Stock” so to speak, are growing into the next stage of their career and are in demand. That’s our main aim at the end of the day, to support these acts.

Graham: Ah yeah, there’ll always be more festivals, big ones, small ones, old ones and new ones. We’re all pretty much in the same boat and I think everyone has their own buzz and their own take on it, their own way of making their festival unique. It’s not easy out there so working together is always the way to go.

Tell us something you’ve never told anyone before about the festival.

Bettine:  So we genuinely do have Faeries on our festival site. The farmers who own the land will tell you. There are a huge amount of Hawthorn Trees on the site and in 2012 one of them was accidentally damaged during the festival build. Our landowner and farmer turned off all machines and left the site and would not return. The next day he lost a calf and told us that it was because we had upset the Faeries and that they were angry. We managed to repair the tree and it is still growing strong today. As a consequence we are extremely protective of our Hawthorns and often talk to the Faeries.  Go on… you may say we are away with the Faeries!

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Contributor, distributor & occasional Cork correspondent for The Thin Air, as well as Broadsheet.ie, Cork's Evening Echo and others. Likes some things, dislikes other things. Tweets, Instagrams and Snapchats at @mike_mcgb.