Interview #751: Huw Stephens
Everybody’s favourite champion of new music, Huw Stephens is teaming up with Topman once more this spring to broaden your musical horizons. He will be taking the reins of the Topman CTRL feed, a new website that will be filled with choice tidbits from his musical meanderings, as well as those of a series of guest controllers. Sharing tracks, videos, mixes and more, it will be a prime place to go for a dose of fresh sounds.
I Like Music caught up with Huw to find out what’s new with Topman CTRL and to get his take on hyping bands, radio’s continued growth despite the advance of the internet, and this summer’s festivals.
ILM: What’s new in the world of Topman CTRL?
Huw: This year it’s busier and even more exciting. It’s about the world of music and the world of social media and technology, and bringing it all together to do what we love doing: sharing music. We’ve got this brilliant new website, which is the Topman CTRL feed. Myself and a different controller each month will be bringing and sharing the music that we love. It’s The 2 Bears in the first month. It’s about videos, mixes, photos, blogs... There’s so much out there on different sites – Mixcloud, YouTube, Twitter – this’ll be a home for all of the stuff that we’re digging. And it’s also about listening to what the people that use the website want to listen to as well. So it’s a big project, but it’s a really, really exciting one, and very creative.
ILM: So it’s definitely grown in stature this year.
Huw: I think so... Last year we had the TV show, but we felt that seven 25 minute chunks of music wasn’t enough to reflect what was going on and what was exciting. So, although there was lots of brilliant stuff on that show, and lots of great controllers – like Annie Mac, Mark Ronson, Jessie J – it’s nice to be able to vary it more, and get even more eclectic and even deeper with the music.
ILM: As someone to whom people turn when looking to discover new music, are you ever wary of being a part of ‘the hype machine’? It often has the power to impact as negatively as it does positively on new artists’ careers...
Huw: I am wary of hype; I wish I knew what the formula for success was, but I don’t! What I’ve found in championing new music for the best part of ten years is that you’ve got to go with the stuff that you truly believe in. If that artist makes it big, then so be it, if they don’t then so be it as well. As long as you love them and think they’re amazing...
What I’ve also discovered is that there are so many levels of making it big. Some artists go on to sell out stadiums, and some don’t, but they make a living by making and playing music. Everyone’s got different levels of what’s big. It’s the same with new music as well: there are different levels of newness. You might never have heard of a band who have released four albums, but at the same time you know about a band who’ve done their first gig up the road. There’s so much out there! And that’s what’s nice about Topman CTRL feed this year: it’s not just about new new new, it’s also about discovering older music that’s influencing the music we’re listening to now... It’s a hype-free zone if you like.
Don’t get me wrong, hype is justified sometimes. I went to see Alabama Shakes on Wednesday, and they’re getting hype and I don’t think that it’s a bad thing. The fact that we know a band that most people haven’t heard of means that we’ve got to push them out there. That’s what it’s all about: getting more people into the music.
ILM: Speaking of new music in general, there has been a lot of talk about ‘revivalism’ recently: new bands being content to revisit genres from the past rather than explore new territory. Early nineties rock was a big one last year with bands like Yuck... What are your thoughts on that trend?
Huw: Music always borrows from the past to some degree. I love a lot of artists who aren’t doing anything new, but they do what they do really, really well. You mentioned Yuck, also Benjamin Francis Leftwich, or Ben Howard... They’re not doing anything new, but they’ve got their own little personal take on it, their own little spark. Theme Park aren’t the most original-sounding band in the world, but they’re so good at what they do. So I don’t think it matters. Not everyone remembers it the first time around, so a lot of people don’t mind that it sounds like a band who existed twenty or thirty years ago.
Having said that, I think that there are a lot of really great musicians on the underground who are pushing things forward. Producers, bands and artists who just by their very nature are so experimental and leftfield that they won’t cross over. But it’s happened with dubstep. If you wanted to listen to dubstep three or four years ago you’d have to listen to radio at the dead of night to hear it, now it’s at number one in the album charts or whatever. So if there are enough leftfield, underground musicians doing something experimental that scene will bubble up to the surface.
ILM: With more and more music discovery and sharing happening online nowadays, radio figures continue to soar. What do you think makes radio so enduringly popular?
Huw: Well I think it’s the same idea as the Topman CTRL feed: people need guides. We all need somewhere to go to find out what’s happening. There’s so much out there. The music explosion online is huge. I think that’s why radio is still hugely important and popular: people have got a place where they can regularly tune in and trust somebody to help them discover music that they will hopefully like. So although we’ve got all of these resources at our fingertips, most of my friends wouldn’t know where to start in trying to find new music online. If you put ‘new music’ into a search engine you’re going to end up with a billion blogs! Radio shows bring a lot of music together, and I think that’s what this site is going to do as well. It’s about video, photos, blogs, links to mixes... That’s why I’m excited about it. I don’t know how many pieces of music I come across every day, but it’s a lot. So to have somewhere to be able to share that, as well as having the controllers share whatever they want to tell us about, is really exciting.
ILM: Apart from The 2 Bears, can you tell us who the other controllers are this time around, or is that still classified information?
Huw: It is at the moment, but we’ve got some really exciting ones lined up.
ILM: Festivals have just begun to announce their line-ups, and it feels like there are more than ever this year. Apart from your own Swn Festival, are there any that you’ve got your eye on?
Huw: I’m going to be curating my stage at Latitude again this summer, which I’m excited about. Green Man is a regular one for me. I love the vibe and the music that they put together for that. I’d love to go to Secret Garden Party, have you been?
ILM: I went last year, it was amazing!
Huw: Yeah, I’d love to go to that! And the Bestival line-up is incredible this year as well. Those are the ones so far that I’ve seen... There’s one called Eye O’ The Dug that The Fence Collective are putting on soon, which I want to try to go to.
ILM: On the topic of festivals, a lot of headline slots this summer seem to be going to old bands that have recently reunited. Obviously it’s brilliant to see them back together, but are they nabbing those slots off younger bands who now might not get the chance?
Huw: It’s brilliant that bands can find it in themselves to reunite. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t see it as nabbing festival headline slots. I think it is worrying that not that many bands can headline festivals these days. They get to a certain level, and then there are only a few who get to the top. But that’s what I like about Reading festival: they’ve done a good job over the years of booking bands to headline just because it felt right at the time. I’m thinking of The Darkness; if you said to me now that they headlined Reading I’d find it hard to believe, but they did, and it was cool. But I don’t see a problem with it really. If they’re good quality bands that have stood the test of time then they’re there for a reason. I never really go to festivals for the headliners anyway. I mean, it helps! Stevie Wonder at Glastonbury, or Jay-Z, for example.
ILM: Well on that subject, are there any names we should be keeping an eye out for on the smaller stages this summer?
Huw: Have a look for Toy and Alabama Shakes. Gang Colours, Lucy Rose and Vadoinmessico should be great as well.
Topman CTRL has now launched at www.topman.com/ctrl, and March’s guest controllers The 2 Bears are celebrating by offering a free download of Grovesner’s remix of their track Heart Of The Congo.