Houghton: Ivan Smagghe in conversation with Craig Richards


Foreword by Craig Richards: When this interview was conducted in June of last year, I had already known Ivan for over twenty years. We first met in Paris and grew up in the same scene, with the same contemporaries and the same deep rooted love of music and parties. I am cautious of who I speak to about the past and the future. We have an almost parallel understanding of the development, and lack of development, within the scene which became an industry. For sure, there are times we get together specifically to moan like a pair of old men about the aspects of dance music we disagree with or feel let down by, so when it was suggested we spoke on record I wasn’t quite sure what we'd talk about and how much of it would be printable. But I was in such positive spirits about Houghton, I knew the conversation would only take an optimistic trajectory. Little did I know what lay ahead……

At this point I should say that this is take two since we bungled the first recording. Neither of us are great lovers of the mobile phone and have never used the recording device on the phone. So the first take was recorded in its entirety without the correct button pressed. For the second attempt we recorded into the computer. One would hope that by saying everything twice we got near to the truth and created a more interesting read. The reader decides.

The reason for printing it post-apocalypse is to re-engage with the belief, certainty and passion that lies in the engine room of this festival. As heartbreaking as last year's cancellation was, I wouldn’t change any part of what happened. It was a harsh learning curve for all of us behind the project but one that was highly illuminating. This is a long-term proposal and for that reason alone we can only file it under what happened in year three. It was to be a big year for us with many new features to its presentation. For this reason what lies ahead is now even bigger and more important than ever with the amalgamated energies of year three and year four forming a greater force. The love and support generated from the Houghton community after the cancellation has made us stronger and more determined in our quest to make this a unique festival and the party of all parties.

I am not an unconditional fan of festivals anymore. This may be counterproductive as a touring DJ but the price to their hyper-popularity seems sometimes too high. Over the last few years, they’ve appeared to me as switching from “special event” (as a performing artist or as a punter) to a capitalist form of domination (success), a shambolic mess (failure) or a cancellation (also failure). They are a new conformism and generate a new conformism themselves.

There are exceptions… but I guess you saw that coming. And pessimism should not stop one asking oneself questions or rather put them to Craig – an informal conversation between old friends on what it takes, the whys and the hows to make Houghton what it is.

The first part of the interview pre-questioning should be our acknowledgement that this is the second recording because we fucked up the first recording as neither of us could work the mobile phone recorder…

How did the festival really come about? It’s not natural, or maybe it is. My friendship with you does not suggest that running a festival or being an entrepreneur would be a natural progression for you.

I may be an entrepreneur but I’m certainly not a businessman. At art school I learnt how to have ideas, most are driven by creativity not successful business. I had never contemplated starting a festival. However, with the personal audit which naturally accompanies being 50, my thinking leant towards freedom abandoning the past. Making an album, fucking off becoming a painter, minimising my work as DJ. Engaging with the concept of time running out rather than believing I had all the time in the world. Fabric had closed creating necessary disruption. This was a time to jump out rather than jump in.

Regarding Fabric I realised how institutionalised I was and how my performances had been limited to one building. The luxury of playing every week in the same room in a booth and on the soundsystem that I helped design. I travelled as much as was necessary to gigs worth the journey but fabric represented an anchor point. I was devastated and extremely shocked when the police suddenly closed the club. Ripping it from underneath us and depriving London of one of its most important nightclubs. It's still to my utter amazement that it reopened. The power of social media and the voice of the people forced its reopening. The positive energy of the people. It’s strange that our scene was spawned form the disillusionment of life under Thatcher. Now this wretched conservative government attempts to normalise society by depriving thousands of humans who consider dance music to be an important cultural force.

Anyway, during this period of decision making and emptiness Tom Carpenter offered me the chance to create a new festival. It was an opportunity that I didn't feel I could pass on. As predicted it represents a lot of work. My dithering was over, questions answered. Houghton was my future.

My main ambition was to combine my night life experiences with my knowledge in visual art and music.

Did you have an idea of how much work it was going to be?

I’ve always struggled with commitment, consistency and planning so let’s say that in those three areas alone, changes have been made. I am involved in every aspect of the festival, co-production, programming, aesthetics, and the imposition of my very high standards across the festival. I have been heavily involved with music and visual art for a 35 year research period. The idea is to make sense of this knowledge. I have no real vision as such, only that something significant is created. Regarding the workload itself, I am self-employed and a hustler at heart so I am more than used to the graft. However, over time habits form and as a music lover, the luxury of spare time allows self-indulgence during the week. After a crazy weekend I love to spend time pottering about and generally recouperating. This has changed, in that my random existence now has structure. The festival has reduced this luxury of time. Planning has never been my strong point partially because I don’t like plans. Aside from my gigs I am not used to communicating with large groups. The level collaboration in order to make this a success is relatively new to me. Creating something big and great often involves many people. So whilst organised chaos is a wonderful concept, organisation is a far better one. Age has taught me to recognise it rather than resist it.

I can almost feel like you had a therapeutic kind of thing…

Therapy comes in many forms, I suppose.

Maybe a bit of a strong word 

Perhaps it is. Therapy itself has come from the enormity and seriousness of the task in hand. Wearing old suits helps. When I’m really tired I feel like the suit is the only thing holding me together. I’ve been selling and collecting vintage clothing for most of my life. 40s and 50s era. Now I’ve got a proper job, wearing a suit feels appropriate. Maybe its using costume to enhance one’s experience. Creating the theme of industry by wearing old clobber. There lies the therapy. Probably that I guess.

I don’t know what you mean

Yes you do, as one of my closest friends I know how you operate. You’re French so self-indulgence comes naturally. Let's just say you know how to ride alone. (Pause then agreement). In short I hate café and coffee meetings. In the very early stages of this wonderful magic carpet ride I had a meeting in an office full of bored humans tapping away at computers. The meeting itself was conducted in a glass office within the office, being in there made my fur stand on end like a cat. Those environments don’t encourage my creative self. Great ideas start with a pencil not a computer. I’m very happy that my art school education happened in pre-computer times. I prefer my meetings to be conducted in pubs. Large offies are the enemy of creativity. I’m organising a party not running a hedgefund. I like to work in my studios whether painting or making music. Everyone has their own way of working.

Probably the main asset from my point of view would be the programming, it is entirely down to you?

Of course. It’s a strange game of chess and a jigsaw. There is no way to get it completely right. I’m looking to create a coherent flow and excitement through contrast within the running order of five stages. In most cases the artists performing are friends, or at very least contemporaries, so negotiations are smooth and straightforward, dealing with DJ's egos and the often crazy demands of agents, managers and artists that don’t need managers. I don’t need to go too far on this but let's just say that whilst the happiness of the performers is very important, without promoters there is no party to play at. It’s very short sighted; no promoter, no gig. Let's say that curating a festival line up with love and subtlety ain’t easy.

So what are the ideas?

Under the now overused banner of curation, I'm piecing together the programme with care and attention. Juxtaposition is the dominant force. It’s the only way I can do it. After years of musical direction at Fabric this is not something I find difficult but it does take a level of concentration I am not commonly engaged with. I seek equality across stages. Every artist is a headliner and is treated with the same love and respect.

The headliners are not always the ones people think. Which I think is really interesting in a time when festivals can be a bit conformist, sticking to their own ground, or entirely relying on the hype and who’s new. You haven’t got this at all. It probably comes from your vision of DJing as well?

There is no right or wrong formula the key is to be non-formulaic. I like to see it as a celebration of all things wonderful. I’m lucky enough to have seen a lot of people play at Fabric over the years this has been a grounds for inspiration. Juxtaposition is the dominant force, this is what creates a common thread running through the music; the soundtrack. An instinctively presented interpretation.

Within my DJ sets I am obsessed with the relationship between old and new music. For the same reason, old and new performers performing side by side. A relatively unknown DJ performing next to already established names. I’m naturally drawn to DJs or musicians with their own flavour. The only way for any DJ, young or old, to succeed and survive with relevance is to have their own thing going on. Houghton can provide talent with a platform.

Or forgotten… 

Yes forgotten DJs are of great interest to me. DJs who still have a story to tell or who have perfected the telling of the story. As we said in our earlier interview which was scrapped – talent doesn’t sell tickets right now. To some extent the idiots are winning. In a world where social activity alone secures the gig. This disappoints me and whilst I don't deny the value of communication on a big scale or am trying to dam the water, there is something inherently wrong with a world that celebrates only the popular. Some of my contemporaries who’s diaries have diminished still have a big story to tell. Anything I can do to halt this daft trend I will.

Are the young DJs with lots of Facebook likes any good?

In Japan age is respected and cherished but in our confused western world this notion appears to have been discarded in place of progress. Anyway, as a knackered old 52 year old I'm at risk of sounding like one so I’ll stop here and count myself lucky to still be working. As an example of potential discovery, Jerome Hill is playing this year. He is an amazing DJ and certainly not unknown. He plays hip-hop, he also plays techno, and runs a phenomenal label called Super Rhythm Tracks. This guy to me is a star and if presented correctly will shine. The idea that people are unaware of his ability will leave the festival blown away – this is exciting to me. Biosphere, an important name from the past who is absolutely incredible. Not everyone will be aware of his work. Discovery is a powerful aspect of any music lovers journey.

How about the immensity of the programme this year because it’s kind of crazy what you've achieved. 

There will be people like yourself, Ricardo and Andrew, who will hopefully play every year. It is important to note that music is pretty fast moving and they will not be playing the same records every year. There’s plenty of inspiration to follow in future years.

In terms of structuring the stages, I try to create a little bit of an argument in the programming. The aim is to distribute the audience evenly around the festival. The irritating part is that you might want to see both DJs or live acts that are playing at the same time. Sadly that is part of the plan so that the attendance of each stage is reasonable and traffic is fluid.

It’s quite easy to be non-formulaic, I don’t think I’m doing anything that abstract. I try to avoid the obvious in most areas of my life. Nothing I’m doing with Houghton is that visionary. I’m just just telling the truth as I see it through experience. My truth if you like based on the journey so far.

You’re also dealing with the fact that people know a lot more about music these days, but you still want them either to be surprised or to lose themselves? I remember the first year didn’t have a programme, that was an accident…

That was an accident! We were literally fiddling with the programming until the last minute and so we didn’t have time to print one. The outcome created a level of neutrality between the stages. Often some of the best ideas are not premeditated, they come to you after the event.

It’s a nice idea. 

It is nice idea but one I can't actually take credit for. It came from a lack of organisation. A fuck up that worked in our favour. It accidentally helped in the demystication of the role of the DJ within the party. It places more importance on the listener. The idea that ‘music heard at Houghton’ is more important than who played, regardless of who played it. Anyway I’m clutching at straws here. Suffice to say it was a happy accident that sat rather well with mobile phones not working. Yes there were constant changes being made to the programme until the very last minute. In the first year fear of the unknown was the reason for my fiddling around until the last minute.

From a technical point of view, how does it all work and where does your roll lie? Your job is not only to program it – it’s much more than that…

As an artist one never stops thinking about aesthetics and narratives. Too many parties have left my memory in a scatter. As a result my thinking is random and I’m not a great multitasker. Thinking about one thing at a time does not come easy. It’s great to impose creative thinking to a festival format.

It’s a fantastic challenge challenge, some things I do know from playing at festivals, events and nightclubs. I am obsessed with presentation and use of space.

I have become particularly interested in lighting, as an operation it's a skill. Too much is overkill and creates confusion. Restraint and certainty is necessary to create subtle and believable themes.

Compared to somewhere like Glastonbury… you’re very lucky with the site.

Yes the site is incredible – the lake, the woods, the height and the age of the trees. This alongside the flat land and the natural light in Norfolk make this a charming part of the British countryside. Simply uplighting those grand old trees is enough. Enhancing what is already there.

It’s big enough to potter about and feel like you’ve had a walk but it’s not enormous. It’s not a walking holiday like Glastonbury. There are certain areas, such as the quarry, which were already there. The warehouse is a barn where they breed and keep animals. Our job is to transform its usage from agricultural to cultural. Basic enhancement.

It doesn’t look basic. 

Restraint is applied evenly. A gentle hand is all that's needed. Perhaps that's what makes Houghton stand out, restraint. The lack of confetti cannons, branding and logos, items for sale. The design is in the detail but in order for this to be apparent the festival must be easy on the eye.

Sponsorship is approached with great restraint. Allowing the wrong brands in could be the end of it. The general lack of corporate involvement is a breath fresh air. Four days and four nights without marketing and the inability beyond that to make a single phone call. The general aesthetic at Houghton is peaceful, ungarnished and to some extent basic in approach.

I quite like this idea of restraint, I can think of other areas where that applies… Security? That really impressed me – the lack of overt security made people behave a way which allowed them to take care of themselves and eachother…

We have a bright, informed and friendly crowd. They can co-exist peacefully with other humans and conduct their behaviour accordingly. I think people respond to the environment they’re in. So even a less polite and well mannered individual at a festival will be inspired by good behaviour. It doesn’t need to be heavy handed. The security, staff and the crowd themselves are monitoring general well being. It’s really, really important that humans look after each other.

You won’t get a flashlight in your face…

There’s no need to have visible security presence. At least not everywhere. It can be subtle. Security presence should be comforting not alarming. It’s perfectly possible for security guards to be pleasant. The friendlier they are the better it is – everyone loves a friendly security guard. After all it’s easier to be nice than to be horrible and once again I reiterate… It’s a party.

Restraint also comes as a result of geography – there's no phone reception…

Both of us are old enough to remember life before phones. I’m always over the moon when mine runs out of battery, it signifies freedom but then again we might be returning to the topic of commitment issues again?

We are working with what’s there, enforcing the accidental. However it’s an enormous blessing for the festival. It promotes freedom. Phones left in tents can only be a good thing. There are no groups of people frantically texting each other and Ricardo can start his set without without thousands of phones in his face. Ok you might lose your friends but that can be perfectly liberating.

That’s fine though…

It's great, time on your own is a lovely thing. I don’t know many other festivals that have that. Fortunately that little part of Norfolk is not up to date with modern communication.

Tell me a little bit more about the site itself, especially the relationship it holds with art. People might have missed that bit. Art is a big part of the festival.

It’s not about raising the cultural value of the site. I couldn’t give a fuck about that. Lord Cholmondlley, his family, the staff, the estate manager, the farmers and everyone we have had the pleasure of working with are utterly supportive and happy that the festival is held on the land.

They have allowed us to us build stages on the land and leave them in situ. This is another blessing. They’re permanent and we don’t have to deconstruct and store. On every level they’re wonderful landlords, but on top of that Lord Cholmondley perpetuates the legacy of the Hall through the sculpture garden and the art galleries. Houghton Hall is highly thought of and visited by a considerable amount of people every summer. The collection includes James Tyrell and Rachel Whiteread. There was a Richard Long show running during the first year, last year a Damien Hirst exhibition and this year a Henry Moore show.

We run noddy train tours at dusk and in the morning. Dusk is the time specified by Turrell to witness the skyspace in all its majesty as the light changes. The change in the light and how the eye responds is the thematic. One becomes instantly aware of how many colours are contained in a sky: reds, purples all made more vivid by creating a frame. It's as psychedelic as you can imagine.

A kind of psychedelic….

Yes I’m sure people have had very psychedelic experiences at the sculpture garden.

Further blessings…

We’re doing as much as we can afford to within my vision. We’re doing as much as we can whilst not losing money. Production is incredibly expensive. We’ve commissioned a few pieces and will continue to do so. This year we've fabricated three head sculptures: my drawings made into welded metal heads that’ll be about seven metres tall. Larger sponsorship deals would clearly accelerate this process but I’m determined to allow the festival to breathe. Burning man gave me an indication of what can be built with benevolence.

You don’t do fundraisers

No but maybe the right person is around the corner. This is the most immediate way of creating larger pieces of work, but we’re trying to do it ourselves at the moment, planning more video art and visual art, projections and such. We are somewhat restricted by our purse. I’m happy for the festival to define itself gradually.

Maybe from the outside point of view, if you look at the line up, it looks like an absolutely huge festival. It’s not.

No it’s almost quaint. I naturally approach projects with modesty. I believe it’s important to start ideas in a modest place then allow them to flourish if they prove themselves to be good ideas. Sophisticated and complicated ideas are most energetic in modesty. You know, Glastonbury is a great big thing, Burning man too. Boomtown I’ve never been to but I’m sure there’s loads to look at. Big presentations of ideas, colour and sound and light. We’re not doing that, we’re trying to do it in a refined way. But both small and big are statements in themselves.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe I’ve done anything amazing yet. Houghton is a great festival delivered with high standards of excellence, executed very well but it has a lot to do over these coming years for it to be considered special in my eyes. But then I am a human who is never truly creatively satisfied.

The art of presenting life as the best it can be is an unquantifiable skill I learnt from my parents. I was trained in the laws of creation without money at art school in the late 80s. We were taught how to pull the best out of an idea without relying on finance. We were also told that our studies may not be a career. Which was fine as the last thing I wanted was a career. My understanding of money is that if you create a worthwhile project money will follow. Setting your sites on money in the original stages of an idea stifles creativity.

There are two ways to run a festival. The first involves the relationship between every decision made and the money it brings. The second, which is my preferred route, is to create with no boundaries or financial constraints in the hope that the work is gratefully received. My decision making would be very different were my sole aim the making of money. If the ethos behind what you do is to make money this defines the work itself. Certainly I don’t want to lose any money, for sure it would be very easy to do so, five or six wrong decisions in a row could be catastrophic.

Running a festival in these strange times of poverty and plagiarism is a precarious business. As I said in the beginning of this protracted little chat we’ve had twice today, I’m just trying to put an umbrella over my 35 year participation in the worlds of music and art. Playing at the festival and playing with the festival. I’m over the moon that so far it's been a glowing success. It’s impossible to really define its success. Sometimes I think my dear friend Derren is watching over us from above. Knowing him he probably is.

Really Houghton is just a fantasy. A world imagined and never imagined. Ivan it’s been a pleasure to converse with you as always my friend.

Tickets for Houghton are on sale now