“iwas 16 when I went to my first festival,” Louis Tomlinson recalls towards the end of his headlining set in Málaga on Saturday night (August 28). Beneath his usual stage swagger, there’s a healthy dose of awe coursing through his voice as he looks out over the 15,500 people gathered at Marenostrum Music Castle Park, the beach-side venue that is playing host to this year’s edition of Away From Home Festival. “Never did I think I’d be involved in something like this.”
Tonight, Tomlinson isn’t just headlining a festival on the Costa del Sol – he’s put the whole party together. It’s the second run of the event, which he founded in 2021, and this year has moved to a location far more exotic than its original base of Crystal Palace Bowl in south London.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to create something like this,” the star explains to NME backstage hours earlier. “But it’s always been exactly that – a dream.” As was the case for many people over the last couple of years, the forced halt of normal life in lockdown gave him an opportunity to start thinking about how to turn his festival organiser fantasies into reality. “Around that time, it came back to my mind and I thought it might be a nice thing to do.” The first Away From Home took the form of a free one-dayer intended to “celebrate live music being back” after the pandemic ripped away opportunities for bands to perform.
Think of Tomlinson and your brain probably doesn’t immediately jump to indie music. The 30-year-old solo artist famously got his start after auditioning for The X Factor in 2010 and being put into world-conquering boyband One Direction. Tell anyone outside of his fandom you’re going to a Louis-curated festival that features the likes of The Vaccines, Hinds and – until a scheduling conflict scuppers his appearance – a DJ set by The Libertines’ Carl Barat, and you’ll be met with reactions of complete bewilderment.
For The Vaccines’ Justin Young, that element of the unexpected was part of the appeal of accepting the invitation to perform. “I was so up for it when I first heard Louis wanted us to play,” he says. “Probably 90 per cent of festivals are all the exact same line-up these days and I think one of the reasons we really wanted to do this was because it’s really fun playing to audiences that you would never normally play to and, they in turn, will never hear you. You’re sort of this blank canvas and you’re reminded of just how many people are out there that love music, but aren’t necessarily exposed to different corners of the scene.”
23-year-old punter Adriana, who bought her ticket to Away From Home just to see Tomlinson, backs this up: “I hadn’t heard any of the other bands before today.” Like most of the crowd today, she came to the festival early and watched every act. “It’s like getting recommendations from Louis, so I wanted to see what he likes. I really liked all of the artists – I’d probably go see them again at their own shows.”
Speak to Tomlinson and you can easily see his passion for the bands on the bill and beyond. As a kid growing up in Doncaster, the first band he fell in love with was Oasis (you can feel the Gallagher influence in his show, sound and style), while’s quietly been building a reputation as someone willing to give new bands a leg-up.
He describes himself as someone who is, when he has the time, “actively trying to look for new things” to excite him and gushes about Liverpool’s Stone, whom he’s particularly excited to see play at Away From Home today. “My best mate showed me them about four or five months ago and from the first time listening to them, it’s just really, really interesting,” he says. “Watching the live show – which I’ve only seen on YouTube – it looks like fucking chaos. Their lead singer’s an amazing performer. I’m honoured that they agreed to do it.”
Last year, it was reported that Tomlinson made another show of support to Manchester band Muraja, donating £4000 to the group after they had their gear stolen. For Away From Home 2022, he started a competition to find a new act to open the festival. “I’ve always been really interested in the development stage of band’s careers – I think they’re some of the most exciting times,” he explains. “So, you know, any way where I can help benefit [new bands] like that has always been really important to me.”
The festival is, he says, a chance for him to not only showcase rising acts, but also – as Adriana noted – to show his fans the bands that he loves and spends his time listening to. The latest band to be added to that list are Glaswegian four-piece Voodoos, who entered the contest to perform but had no expectations that they would be chosen. After whittling down all the entries, Tomlinson decided they would be the best fit. “We got some great entries, to be fair, but Voodoos just felt the most appropriate with the line-up and again, going off what I love listening to,” he explains.
After the band have performed, singer Piero Marcuccilli tells NME: “It was only one or two days ago that we got an email saying, ‘Do you still want to do this?’” He’s clearly still somewhat surprised to be there. The crowd – as is the case for every band on the day – greet them warmly and wildly, despite their late addition to the line-up. “I wasn’t sure it was going to be Louis’ fans’ style of music, but they were screaming when we came on stage.”
Voodoos are no strangers to big support slots – they joined DMA’S on their Scottish dates last night and opened for Stereophonics in Dundee this summer – but a slot at Away From Home has given them a valuable opportunity that is getting harder to come by for new bands. “This is the first time we’ve played outside of the UK,” notes drummer Marco Conte. “Louis’s giving bands a leg up and that’s amazing that he can do that.”
The Scots aren’t the only less familiar band on the line-up today. San Diego surf-rockers Sunroom – who previously joined Tomlinson for the North and South American legs of his world tour earlier this year – have made the trip over from the US. “This is definitely the biggest crowd we’ve played to in our whole lives,” frontman Luke Asgian marvels during their set. Moments later, a group of girls at the back of the crowd scream along to every word of the band’s final song.
“It’s been monumentally valuable,” Asgian later tells NME backstage. “It’s definitely put us in front of a ton of people that we never would have been put in front of. It’s super-cool that he’s taken us under his wing.”
Guitarist Ashton Minnich adds: “I think it’s really cool how Louis uses his influence in music to help support smaller bands that he’s interested in.”
21-year-old festival-goer Jess agrees, telling us: “It’s really cool that Louis chooses to support new artists – he doesn’t have to. It’s really inspiring to see how much he loves music and I think it makes the fans more passionate as well.”
Tomlinson is far from the only artist to hold their own festival. There’s been a big rise in events curated by musicians themselves in recent years in all genres, be that Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw, Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s Eaux Claires or Courtney Barnett’s touring festival Here Or There. The fact that more and more artists are taking control over their own events, says Young, could be down to them “having more control than they’ve ever had before”.
The Vaccines frontman continues: “I think social media has created this kind of democratised way that we consume. All of sudden, you’ve cut out press or labels or management – whatever it may be – and people can speak directly to the artists they love and the fans that follow them. So I think there’s this empowerment of fandom and artists that comes with that.”
For much of the day at Away From Home 2022, the focus might be on other artists, but when it comes to the headline set, all eyes are on Tomlinson. He delivers a performance that wouldn’t feel out of place on the main stages of Reading & Leeds Festival, the guitar-driven sounds of his debut album ‘Walls’ mixing with amped-up versions of One Direction tracks ‘Drag Me Down’ and ‘Little Black Dress’. He throws in a handful of covers into the setlist that share another glimpse into his playlists too – first, a rendition of Catfish And The Bottlemen’s ‘7’, followed later by his take on Kings Of Leon’s ‘Beautiful War’.
In between it all, he airs two new songs – ‘Changes’, which sets lyrical reflection to a sweeping, slow indie sound in the same vein as one of Oasis’ softer moments, and ‘Copy Of A Copy Of A Copy’, on which he ramps up from plaintive verses to a stomping chorus. They’re two hints at where his imminent second album will take him. Although Tomlinson is far from a new artist, he sees his solo journey so far as not too dissimilar to the early days of some of the smaller acts on the festival’s line-up, saying the period around his first album had “an element of me going through my own development stage, but doing it in the public eye”. What’s about to come next will, he adds, “define me better as an artist”.
He grins: “I’m really excited about this next chapter. My first record, I’m immensely proud of it, but it was hard to work out where I stood in the industry coming out of a band the size of One Direction and exactly what One Direction were. Where I’ve got to on this record, I feel really, really proud of.”
“Any way I can help benefit new bands has always been really important to me” – Louis Tomlinson
For this next album, Tomlinson has looked to DMA’S’ last album ‘The Glow’, emboldened by the Australian trio’s open-minded approach to their songwriting. “With my first record, I think I’d been a bit close-minded in the sounds that I wanted to produce,” he says. “There’s a lot of interesting, dance-y elements that they brought into that record with [famed producer] Stuart Price and it just showed me that you can bring in these trendier sounds, but do them in a really authentic way.”
As Tomlinson promises to “follow my heart musically” in the future, he also has grand designs for the future of Away From Home. The plan is for the festival to move to a different location each year, while he says his “biggest dream” for 2023 is to expand the event to two days. Suggest stretching it to something even bigger – three days, multiple stages – and he can’t keep a broad grin from spreading across his face.
“Three days, camping… Yeah, that’d be good,” he beams. “I see it as a long-term thing. We’ve already doubled in size from the first year, so I’m just gonna keep chipping away at it. As long as I can do it, I’ll do it.”