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The family vibe of 'Le Guess Who?': As if an older cousin has you in tow

Festival Le Guess Who? in Utrecht is on the eve of its tenth edition. From 10 to 13 November, more than a hundred artists will take possession of every conceivable place in the city of Dom where you can perform with good grace. They come from far and wide, just like the visitors. Expect the unexpected, with the whole family? Is that the distinguishing element behind the enigmatic question mark in the festival name?

Who? What? No idea, but it sounds fantastic. And exactly then getting pretend eyes and wanting to book an act. That moment when the unknown turns out to be incredibly good. Somewhere there lies the spark for Le Guess Who? (hereafter LGW). Johan Gijsen, together with Bob van Heur, programmes, organises and nurtures the festival like a parent nurtures his child: 'We are convinced that people like more music, than they know.'

Capital sums

That statement is also borne out at the 10th edition when even the most plugged-in music lovers have to acknowledge their superiority in the programme. Even if you follow closely what happens in the world of the indie rock, avant-garde and electronica, the festival still hits you with many surprises. These do not only come from continents or genres that are less often in the limelight. You will also find them among acts with legendary status who have not performed for a very long time - artists whose records change hands for huge sums of money at the mega record and CD fair that takes place in the Jaarbeurs during the festival weekend. Gijsen: 'When discovering new music, it doesn't have to be a hip, young band; it can also be a 84-year-old accordionist are."

LGW is not a festival with popular names, some small stuff earlier in the day, a stage and a beer and fries stand. Gijsen: 'The music landscape in the Netherlands is rather uniform. In that, we want to offer inspiration and bring different things.'


Ingmar Griffioen, editor-in-chief of the website Never Mind The Hype, adds: 'LGW is a great festival of discovery, run by fine people with an even finer nose for alternative new music. That olfactory organ is also growing, making them an interesting leap in terms of both artistic content and capacity, without commercial necessity.'

'There is a need among audiences for filtering, for gatekeepers in the form of a festival that does make those choices. It dares to bring this together as well,' Gijsen explains. So against the tide of critics, who cry in chorus that gatekeepers have had their best days, Gijsen and Van Heur take on exactly that role with verve.

Scots gone

LGW does not do pigeonholes. Gijsen: 'For us, everything is Music!' He and Van Heur apply this adage to the fibres of the festival: 'Playlists of people already consist of metal alongside classical, alongside Nigerian rock, alongside drone. LGW therefore shouts: "Scots gone!" We present this line-up saying, "This is all music. Delve into it! Dive in, discover! Go dig into the programme and be surprised.'' Filtered of course, by Gijsen and Van Heur and by curators. This year they are Wilco, Savages, Julia Holter and SUUNS. They each fill parts of the festival programme with their favourites.

LGW brings together, says Gijsen: "Artists draw our attention to relationships in the programme that we had never thought of. Last year, for instance, St Vincent immediately asked us if she could be moved from Saturday to Sunday because she could see Selda. You would never come up with that link yourself, but even without being in the same genre, there are those kinds of links, connections too. LGW is a community: a family.'

Older cousin

Family is also found in a spark that passes between visitors. As if an older cousin takes you in tow. Gijsen: 'We see many international visitors who in their fanaticism get everything out of the festival. That also strikes across the perhaps more casual local visitor.'

What undoubtedly helps with this is that everyone is equal at LGW. Fellow festivals like Roskilde and Primavera arrive in Utrecht scouting, but do not get VIP bands or backstage access. Gijsen: 'And artists are also very happy to stay for more days to see other acts as well. Not as VIP, but together with the visitors, because that is the family vibe of the festival. LGW is a family weekend and when it finishes on Monday, if all goes well, you are already looking forward to the next installment, a year from now.'


SUUNS' Joe Yarmush finds it hard to put LGW into words: 'What can I say that does justice? There is so much to talk about when it comes to a festival like LGW. If you've been there, you know what I mean. It's a maelstrom of fabulous music and things to go see, people to meet and parties to walk off. This can't be reduced to one moment as the defining moment of LGW; it's a culmination of experiences.'

'Going under' in other words. René Passet - music journalist for DJBroadcast magazine - heard and saw that confluence in one concert: 'Of the 2014 edition, the intense performance of Autechre really stuck with me. In a completely dark hall where you were allowed OUT but not back in. 'Going under wrote you with capital letters that night.' The same goes for the crushing show that Sunn o))) supreme dronemassiveness brought. And you found this feeling at the ecstasy in joy that emanated from the faces of the Selda-fans could be read and in the pin you could hear falling during the fragile ambient-set of William Basinksi.

Professional music lover and DJ Hans Vrijmoed agrees with Yarmush that choosing from a year-long programme is already "almost impossible", let alone looking back at the nine previous editions. The concerts Vrijmoed still remembers clearly fan LGW-typically widely: from the neo-classical of Ólafur Arnalds to the tech-indie rock played by The Notwist, past the grittiness of Ty Segall and again the exuberance delivered by Selda.


LGW is a lot, and according to Vrijmoed also coherent, but there is a downside to the immense programme: 'It is striking that over the years more artists have acted as curators, so that there is more coherence in the programme per room, per day. It is cool to see an increasingly diverse audience at LGW, but for a musical all-rounder it has become more frustrating to have to miss out on so much beauty in that enormous programme. That was a bit easier until a few years ago."

Visitors, artists and colleagues tip programmers. LGW has chosen, for several editions now, to make the selective-presentational role manifest and explicit by having bands curate parts of the programme. This approach also strikes Griffioen in a positive sense: 'LGW for me is also: seeing how a band that has just returned to the live stages Swans opening the festival at De Helling in 2010 and how Michael Gira and co put on a full programme four years later, with their own night at the Ronda. Their show and that of Savages vs Bo Ningen will stay with me for a long time."

LGW makes grateful use of Utrecht's many venues. It thus serves a wide audience that will be served heavy guitars in a rock hall, hear acoustic singing bowls in a chamber music hall and find desert blues in Rasa. Passet therefore characterises LGW as: 'Cycling on an adventure along the halls, wherever for in an in dance specialist journalist like me there is plenty to like. Every year there are a few surprises on the electronic front. Like last year's charming Space Lady at Theatre Kikker.'


The concerts that Vrijmoed, Griffin and Passet keep with them, even among non-professional visitors, provide the foundation on which LGW builds. It is a foundation that ensures blind faith in the festival's programming. In a crowded festival landscape, where sameness and overkill threaten and previously invariably sell-out festivals are struggling with declining attendance, that is certainly not a given.

Gijsen: 'We have been fair, gained trust, built on it and - I think - not betrayed it. That goes for the visitors, but equally for the artists and colleagues. That's how you get more and more trust back. That's how you build up and expand LGW as a brand name. I am proud of that, because people trust you.

The Ex world-famous

LGW cherishes confidence, but hugs it anything but to death. Van Heur said at the first edition: 'LGW is a 'ever-changing format'. The programmers therefore like to surprise themselves. This is evident from the tasty anecdote that Gijsen brings out: 'I recently spoke to Ryley Walker. He told me his three favourite bands were Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Ex. I didn't see that coming. Then, looking at this year's programme, Wilco, as curator, invited Tortoise out. They made a record with The Ex. And that band is also at LGW this year. Then in my mind, surprisingly, I am back to that conversation with Ryley after all. In short: so you see how the six or less degrees of separation working in the LGW family."

Therefore, in the context of surprise, LGW does not plan too tightly. However, Gijsen and Van Heur do have a mission: 'We want to bind more and more people to LGW. This year, for instance, we are working with a number of Ethiopian performers, including a circus. With that, we are going to the Wilhelmina Children's Hospital.' A non-ordinary connection, but an important one for LGW. 'Only in this way can the festival and the feeling of it and behind it continue to grow; in a natural, organic way.'

Ahead - The Tips for LGW 2016

Hans Vrijmoed tips:

The programme curated by Wilco is definitely right up my street. Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express seems great to me. Plus: I still have a lot of 'listening in'...

René Passet tips:

I look forward to the festival as a whole because of the many music lovers with broad horizons wandering the halls. If I may offer a few tips: Fennesz, Beak>, Allesandro Cortini, Laurel Halo, RP Boo and Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express.

Ingmar Griffioen tips:

The list is fairly endless, but at least: Swans, Savages, Bo Ningen, Suuns, Wooden Shjips, Black Mountain, Anna von Hauswolff, Ufomammut, The Black Heart Rebellion, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Deerhoof, Oathbreaker, Ortega and Wiegedood.

Good to know

Those who are not yet giddy can start the pre-fun for the family weekend by reading the richly illustrated festival site to visit. And especially tick off Arnold Dreyblatt, Kyoka, Klara Lewis, Pita and Samuel Kerridge.

Le Guess Who? will take place in Utrecht from 10 to 13 November.

Sven Schlijper-Karssenberg

Sets his ear to places he does not yet know in today's sound. Writes the catalogue raisonné of Swedish artist Leif Elggren's oeuvre, is a board member of Unsounds and programmes music at GOGBOT Festival. His essays on sound art have appeared on releases by Pietro Riparbelli, Michael Esposito, Niels Lyhnne Løkkegaard and John Duncan.View Author posts

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