The four-to-the-floor beat has subsided in Belfast’s T13 for now and the Titanic Quarter is once again for regular tourists. However, Sarah McBriar is still working hard, waiting until the dust has truly settled on AVA Festival & Conference 2017 to take a well-deserved break.
Now in its third year, AVA was once again a roaring success, bringing together electronic music fans, industry heads and artists to engage in conversations, lectures and dancing.
I caught up with Sarah, the festival’s engine and ignition, for something of a debrief conversation. We discuss maintaining the event’s community sensibilities and how the conference has become the jewel in AVA’s crown.
So I was at the keynote opening speech by Jeff Mills, which was amazing. 11am on the opening day and one of the biggest names in electronic music was discussing aliens, space and collaborations. Was that a benchmark for how quickly this has grown?
Yeah it was amazing. It was quite a moment when he said yes to being on board, and then agreeing to do the keynote speech was incredible.
Did you give him direction in terms of the keynote, or was it more ‘you’re Jeff Mills, do your thing’?
We just said, we would like you to talk about your work and the collaborative side of your work. So working with Guillaume [Marmin], and all the other projects he’s started across all different genres.
He didn’t touch on it that much, but he’s exploring jazz and I went to see him in Dublin with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, which was unbelievable.
The talk taking a left turn onto aliens and sci-fi was definitely not expected, but amazing!
You also had Neil Barnes from Leftfield and Renaat from R&S, who have also shaped the landscape of electronic music. How do you go about choosing the people you’d like to speak at the conference?
We always start off with wanting a major keynote, and Jeff was that. We really want to touch on different areas with that, like year one was DJ Numark, last year was Juan Atkins.
We then form it around the keynote. We also always want to look at the business side, and industry side, so labels are really important, so that’s where Renaat came in. He was amazing. I’m always really gutted because I’m running the festival so I can’t get to see everybody.
We work with a number of people on the ground too. Timmy Stewart would be one of our key festival partners, and it was actually him who was like, “you have to get Renaat”.
I read AVA wanted to make the conference its own thing, do you think this year has solidified that?
Absolutely. When we started it we wanted the conference to be a really important part. That’s why we really invested in the talent and the speakers this year, and moving the festival to two days meant we could move the conference to Friday and extend the hours.
There are so many different aspects to it too. After Jeff’s talk I went down to the Four/Four Magazine discussion with Timmy Stewart and a few others. They were discussing the differences between Dublin and Belfast. Do you think there’s enough collaboration between the two cities? That’s something that came up.
I’d like more, and I think everyone feels like that which is really good. If you look across at Manchester and London, they do a lot together. There’s a lot of collaboration between the two, and there’s a much bigger distance between them than Dublin and Belfast.
I mentioned Timmy, but I think it’s fair to say that AVA proves to the rest of the world that Belfast is over flowing with local residents that have the capacity to make it on the global stage. Who do you think is next to follow in the footsteps of artists like your brother Matt (Bicep)?
I think Hammer is doing really well, and his release in April was amazing. I think Peter Brien [Brién] is the next Space Dimension Controller and someone who’ll really pop up over the next couple of years. Or:La is already making waves too obviously, and I think Saoirse from Dublin too. She absolutely smashed it… And managed to keep her cool with an annoying kid!
You mentioned in the recent RA podcast that the first year was like a family and nearly everyone was from Northern Ireland. Now that it’s gotten so much bigger, do you think it’s still maintained that community vibe?
Yeah absolutely, the team that works with us has grown over the past couple of years. It started off as a tiny team. But I don’t think it feels corporate now, it’s still very much a family vibe.
To be honest, we want to continue growing, but in terms of numbers and that we’re really happy with where we are.
So we touched on it briefly, but in terms of the Boiler Room, it must be so heartening to see comments like “Belfast Boiler Rooms are on my life long bucket list”…
It’s amazing, we just love working with them and they love working with us. We both get a lot out of it and it’s more like, “so same time next year?”.
Why do you think the mix of AVA and Boiler Room works so well?
They don’t do a lot of festivals really, but number one it’s the crowd. The low ceiling and everyone’s up for it, that’s what the key thing is. The way we set the production up and the venue, plus we really carefully curate the line up. Another thing is it’s still only once a year, so it’s still really unique.
It’s the unpretentiousness of Belfast people. They know how to have fun.
I was talking to a guy from New York outside the festival on the first day who was saying he came just to be in the boiler room beside the ‘oil rigs’. When I explained what they actually were he was even more blown away. Do you think the setting has something to do with the atmosphere?
I think that’s a part of it definitely too, for sure.
There are so many moments that stand out like Space Dimension dropping Ayala, Phil Kieran crowd surfing, what moment stood out this year for you?
There’ll be quite a few bits in Denis Sulta’s session. I really liked when DJ Deece closed with ‘Retro Grade’ by Moda. I thought Saoirse was class, so was Or:la. And annoyingly there’s the moment where the guy stops the music on Saoirse… Kind of wish that wasn’t a moment but it’s already becoming one…