King Of Strings Joe Duddell on why festivals are embracing orchestral music

The kids love strings, apparently. Over the last two summers, music festivals have been embracing new shows that reinvent classic hits and give them a classy, orchestral sheen. Peter Hook and his Hacienda Classical opened Glastonbury last summer and Pete Tong is doing the same with some rave bangers too.

King of the strings is Festival No.6’s ‘composer-in-residence’ Joe Duddell, who is continuing their Town Hall Sessions, which offer a chance to see some of your favourite bands giving their old material a classical overhaul. This year, The Charlatans, Everything Everything, Haelos, Shadow Party and Fenne Lily will all take part, so we spoke to Duddell about the sessions.

How did the idea for the Town Hall Sessions come about?

“It started on the first year they had the festival on. Tim Burgess was doing an interview/book launch and Luke Bainbridge, one of the creative directors, had this idea that we might do a few songs with Tim and Mark from The Charlatans with a string quartet. And then it turned out that Rae Morris was at the festival as well, who I’d just worked with, so we did the same with her. We just do very short, exclusive gigs, only half an hour and there’s only 120 people can get in.”

So it feels like a real one-off moment?

“You have to queue up for a really long time to get in. The first year, it was like, “What the hell’s this?” and then word got around that it’s worth going to. I’ve made it a rule that we don’t do the obvious songs. You’ve got a festival gig, you’ve got an hour, you’re just going to go for the big bangers aren’t you? You don’t really have that time for the reflective moments. And they really like the songs, they’re album tracks, but they don’t often get chance to put them in a set because they don’t really work in a live environment on a big stage. But they can work in an environment when it’s very intimate and you’ve only got 120 people there.”

Are any of the artists nervous about making over their tracks in this way?

“They have to put a lot of trust in me, I suppose, and the ensemble. But I’ve always got great players, normally from the Northern College of Music in Manchester. They just turn up, we have a two-hour rehearsal, then we go on stage, and they don’t know what it’s going to sound like at all until they get there. Sometimes I do something radically different with arrangements, sometimes I don’t. It just depends on the song I suppose.”

Why do you think Festival No. 6 is the perfect place for it?

“I think they take risks at No.6 and it’s a small-ish festival. The most people they’ve had there is 15,000 so it’s like what Latitude used to be at the beginning. But given that, it’s not just a music festival, it’s not like going to Reading or V or whatever, they’ve got all sorts of things. So it’s like a mini Glastonbury. I wouldn’t want to use the word ‘high-brow’ but it’s not just music, it’s got something else about it.

I can’t really think of any other festival that could do it, really, because it has to be totally sealed in in tents and you can’t build a tent that’s going to knock out all the other sound so you can play really quietly and almost acoustically.”

Why have orchestral shows begun dominating festival main stages, then?

“I think people enjoy seeing orchestras and listening to what sounds they can make, but maybe don’t want to go to a classical concert. They like the sound of it, but not necessarily the music they play all the time and sometimes going to a hall or going to South Bank or whatever can be a bit intimidating, you don’t really know what to do. This is a way of presenting it in an environment where people are relaxed and don’t have to think about what they have to wear.

It first happened a long time ago at Glastonbury where they put on a whole concert of Wagner. I think it was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was mad, but it kind of worked because it was just something different, instead of seeing bald guys with guitars. I’ve been involved in these orchestral gigs with bands for about 10 years now and it’s just a way of presenting the music, I suppose.”

Do you think it’s breaking down the barriers for people?

“Exactly, and it’s presented to them in a way they’re comfortable with. There’s a lot of these shows going around, and some of them better than others, and it matters. You’ll enjoy it when you’ve done a good job and the music’s good.”

You’re doing an orchestral northern soul show, too. Why northern soul?

“The music’s got to be good originally, that’s the key point. And I really believe that – we’ve only scratched the surface of the Northern Soul stuff, but I really believe in the music, it’s just fantastic, it’s got such good energy and I think I felt almost obliged to get it out there.

And we’re mixing it with Motown because nobody wants to go to a gig where they only know two songs in half an hour. It just doesn’t work for any band, no matter how big you are, you present new material or really obscure tracks, you can’t do it, you’ve got to have a balance of familiar and unfamiliar. And the Motown gives it that opportunity so every three songs you’re going to hear something you know, and everyone knows the Motown songs because they’re so ubiquitous, so it’s a good chance to mix and match those kinds of things.”

Festival No.6 takes place from September 6-9 in Portmeirion, Wales