“Helping the audience take a risk is what Supersonic Festival is all about”

Every year, Birmingham’s Supersonic puts together the most eclectic and unconventional festival bill in Britain. As it prepares to celebrate 20 years, organiser Lisa Meyer talks us through two decades of musical madness, and helping to put the city’s musical legacy on the map…

“Helping the audience take a risk is what Supersonic Festival is all about”
Nick Ruskell
AJA photo:
Joe Singh

“It’s great isn’t it! A massive bull named Ozzy, right in the middle of the station!”

On the day that Kerrang! speaks to Lisa Meyer, city official types her adopted home of Birmingham are busy unveiling a huge mechanical bull on the concourse of New Street railway station. Saved from the scrapyard following last year’s Commonwealth Games, at which the Double-O performed during the closing ceremony, a recent vote to name the enormous beast (the bull, not Ozzy) once it was put in its permanent home, predictably, turned up the only reasonable answer. A fine tribute to Brum's heavy heritage if ever there was one…

“I've been championing Black Sabbath in Birmingham for such a long time,” she says. “So it's good that it's starting to seep into the mainstream now. People went absolutely ballistic when Ozzy got up and performed. It's great that it's slowly but surely getting recognised by the city council.”

Lisa has been banging the drum for music in Birmingham, both historical and current, for over 20 years. Home Of Metal, the project in which she’s heavily involved, works hard to (brilliantly) celebrate the music that’s come from the city. Even if the powers that be don’t necessarily share her enthusiasm. “In Manchester or Liverpool, they would absolutely celebrate innovators like Sabbath or Napalm Death or Godflesh," she says. "But somehow, because metal’s never been in fashion, and it's esoteric and on the outskirts, it’s not really valued, and it’s hard to get arts funding."

Nevertheless, in 2011 they hosted an enormous exhibition looking at Birmingham's musical legacy, looking at Sabbath, Judas Priest and Napalm Death among the ordinary fans who lived here, and in 2019, they put together a huge gallery of photos of metal fans, alongside an exhibition on the music.

More recently, this year they’ve documented much-missed pub The Mermaid, where the likes of Napalm, Carcass, Amebix, Bolt Thrower and other hugely important underground luminaries of the ’80s would play, unaware that what they would doing would go on to shape heavy music for a generation and more to come.

The other very big thing Lisa does in Birmingham is Supersonic Festival. The work of promotions collective Capsule, the DIY punk and peculiar music and art promoters she and a friend started to bring bands to Birmingham in the ’90s, in September this unique, unconventional, ear-to-the-ground celebration of stuff you can’t find anywhere else marks its 20th birthday.

At its inaugural edition, it was headlined by a then-underground LCD Soundsystem, while over the years it's hosted a vast array of artists including Sunn O))), Isis, OM, Gazelle Twin, AJA (pictured above), Anna Von Hausswolf, Modified Toy Orchestra and countless other sonic explorers. This time, they’ve got Birmingham industrial heroes Godflesh, Irish folk outfit Lankum, rising hip-hop genre-smasher Backxwash and many more.

That such a festival exists at all is brilliant. That it has thrived for so long while being the sort of mainstream-swerving idea that would give a business manager a cold sweat is testament to a pure vision and the enthusiasm of truly passionate individuals. We caught up with Lisa to chat about the history of Supersonic, keeping Birmingham on the musical map, and why having a pond in your venue might not be such a great idea…

Pictured above: Oxbow. Photo: Joe Singh

How did Capsule and Supersonic get started?
“I moved to Birmingham as an art student in the mid-’90s. I shared a massive student house, which had a big basement where we used to put on lots of punk and DIY bands. I was doing a fine art degree, but my real passion was music. Me and my friend Jenny would travel around the country to go to gigs, places like Nottingham and to Bradford to the One in 12 [club]. The bands that we were interested in weren't really coming to Birmingham, because it had quite a bad reputation at that time for paying artists. So we started Capsule to put on gigs at the Medicine Bar, which was at The Custard Factory [former home of Bird's custard, turned into an arts space], where Supersonic first started.

“In about 2001, we went to Sonar Festival in Spain. They had artists like V/VM and Coil and Merzbow playing in this incredible Gothic church, and then the rest of the festival was happening at the MACBA, which is the contemporary art gallery in Barcelona. We were blown away by the fact that you could put on a festival in a different kind of space, rather than just a field. Because our office was at The Custard Factory, and we were already putting on gigs there, we thought that would be a really interesting space to put on the festival.”

Right from the start, the line-ups weren’t like anything else in the UK. Were you trying to make a statement by having such an eclectic bill?
“We were quite unusual in that we were really into all this DIY punk stuff, but equally into electronica. The very first Supersonic had LCD Soundsystem, Coil, V/VM, DJ Food, The Bug, Deadsunrising. People like Nick Bullen, the originator of Napalm Death, was doing heavy electronics as well. So it was kind of pulling together all of our interests in music, and it kind of created that blueprint for that more eclectic line-up, because there really wasn't anything like that at the time.”

It's quite the jump, going from doing DIY shows in basements and bars, to hosting a whole fest...
“I suppose we were quite naive at the time. There was a pond at The Custard Factory that looked a bit like a pool. We built a stage over that. While Coil were playing, one of the audience jumped in and swam across, and then climbed up onstage, dripping wet over all of their electronics. My friends said to us, ‘Girls, if someone had been electrocuted, you'd go to prison, or get a massive fine!’ At that moment, it went from this DIY thing that we were trying to do without really thinking about it, where we were doing all the stage management and catering ourselves, even sewing tote bags ourselves, to then being like, ‘Oh God, we've got to really think about this!’”

Pictured above: Sunn O))). Photo: Katja Ogrin

Supersonic has earned itself a name for being a festival championing unconventional music and less mainstream artists. Does having that license make it easier to programme the fest?
“In some ways it’s almost made things harder! It's always been music that I that I've been listening to, and that I'm excited by. That's ever evolving as a music fan. In a way, it'd be really easy to put on some of those bigger acts that we've had in the early days, and we would sell out immediately. But part of our mission now that we've become more established is to be able to create a platform for those lesser known acts. Lots of the bigger artists we’ve had, especially early on, they were still relatively unknown. Even when we’ve had bands like Isis or High On Fire or Sunn O))), it was at a point when they were still pretty underground. Each year, I'm trying to find those new acts. This year we've got Backxwash, for example, and she's massively influenced by Godflesh. I always try and have some of the early influences, and then acts that are influenced by them, so that the line-up is all making sense of one another.

“I feel like now, I have a duty or a mission to really try and champion female artists as well. We've always been a female-led organisation, and I feel like the line-ups need to be reflective of that, and how diverse modern Britain is. It would be really easy to do Bloke Fest, and make absolutely tons of money, but actually, making it a bit harder, but helping your audience take a risk is part of what I think Supersonic should be about.”

What’s the best thing you’ve managed to pull off as part of Supersonic?
“There have been a few, but one of my favourites was Harvey Milk. I went to South By Southwest and saw them playing in this tiny converted Fire Department building. It was maybe 300 kids, but in this tiny space, because unlike the UK there's no health and safety whatsoever over there. Kids were jumping off the PA and it was just a pure sweatbox – it was one of the best things I've ever seen. They didn't even have passports when I got in touch with them to try and get them to the UK. So there was loads of work behind the scenes to help them get passports and persuade them to come to the UK. And then they were like, ‘Well, no-one knows us, will there even be an audience?’ But it was great. When it's like a little bit difficult behind the scenes to make it happen, and then you're able to pull it off, and then the audience are as excited to see that band as you are, you know you've achieved something.”

Pictured above: Anna Von Hausswolf. Photo: Joe Singh

As well as Supersonic, you’re involved in Home Of Metal. How did that all start?
“We started the project with Jenny in 2007. Where it came from was two things in parallel. One, we were putting on a lot of bands in Birmingham in the early days, Like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and they'd be like, ‘Wow, this is the the home of Black Sabbath. What can you take us to see?’ ‘Well, there's an empty car park that used to be a really thriving venue in the ’60s…’ We kind of realised that although Birmingham wasn't celebrating this itself, within the global music scene, people absolutely recognise Birmingham and recognise the bands that had come from here.

“At the same time, I was friends, and still am friends with like Justin Broderick [Godflesh, ex-Napalm Death] and Nick Bullen. We'd have bands play, and then we'd all go back to our house and have a bit of a party afterwards. Nick and Justin would be telling these amazing stories of how they were 13, or 14, and in bands and writing fanzines. I thought they were such exciting stories, and felt we've got to capture them in some way. It’s my friends telling me these stories, but actually, these guys started a genre, they've innovated all this amazing music.

“It wasn't just that they were a band like UB-40, who fly the flag of being a good band from Birmingham, but that they innovated a whole genre. And whether it's grindcore like Napalm Death, or metal like Sabbath, there’s probably now, in any city or any town anywhere in the world, a young band that have taken the roots from those bands and are making their own version of that music. It just felt really important that we tried to recognise that.”

Finally, who would be the ultimate artist to have come and be part of Supersonic?
Mike Patton would be my dream. I'd really like to do something with Chelsea Wolfe as well. I think that she'd be an amazing guest curator, not only because of her music, but her visual aesthetic as well. I think would be very interesting. So yeah, I think those are the sorts of artists going forward. We have been in contact a lot with Mike Patton over the years, and we've had a lot of the artists from his label, Ipecac, at Supersonic. I think he’d be amazing. It's always been a bit of a joke, but I would love a Lionel Richie and Mike Patton duo, doing Easy together. That would be magical.”

Supersonic takes place at The Mill, Birmingham, September 1 – 3

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