Music: Interview with Dour programmer Alex Stevens

Many a band dreams of making it to the stage at Dour each year, and Alex Stevens is the one who decides who gets a spot on the programme – and who not. He’s worked for the legendary festival for more than a decade, first as webmaster, then assistant and now programmer. We sat down with the music nerd – a guy who had his own radio show at 14 – as he spills all on the secrets of programming one of Belgium’s best homegrown festivals, and what it does to your brain.

Photography David Widart

So how does one become a festival programmer?

In my case it really happened step by step. I’ve always been passionate about helping others discover music. At 14 years old I had a radio show called ‘Nameless’ and when I was 16 I launched my own online magazine. When I was a bit older I met the programmer of Dour, and he asked me for suggestions regarding which bands to programme. Step by step, I became his assistant and now I’m responsible for the whole lineup. It took me 15 years to get to where I am now.

Not many people know what they want to do with their life when they’re 14.

I wanted to share my musical tastes at a very young age. Of course I wasn’t very good when I did this rock show at 14 years old. When I bump into people from that time, I see that not much has changed. I kind of do the same as what I did back then, just on a different scale, for an international music festival. The idea is the same.

Do you remember the first record you bought?

I think it was something from Nirvana, either Unplugged or Nevermind.

You’ve been involved with Dour for so long – as a webmaster, assistant, and now programmer. How has it changed over the years?

The festival is evolving because musical styles are evolving. In the beginning, in 1991, Carlo wanted a hip hop group to play. That was really something extraordinary for a rock festival to do at the time. 1997 Dour started collaborating with Brussels club Fuse and added a stage focussing on dance music, something that was also unusual at the time. Nowadays it’s normal to see electronic music at festivals, but Dour was innovative in that respect and that’s something we try to continue doing. We try to do things other festivals won’t do. Naturally Dour has grown a lot over the years but it’s managed to keep the original spirit, something which is very rare, in my opinion. I think it’s due to the fact that we have many stages which makes it possible to enjoy gigs in smaller places without too many people, so you feel like you’re at a small festival. The location is very big and there is lots of space to relax.

What’s innovative this year?

This year we created a new stage called Dub Corner, which will feature everything that’s part of dub culture and specially-made sound systems. We also have a big hip hop lineup for the Boombox, and there’ll be quite a few surprises in terms of decoration etc.

Many festivals pay attention to whether or not there’s a label behind the band, or if they’ve had a hit single…  But I think this kind of procedure is antiquated.

How does programming actually work, what’s the process like?

I check social networking sites to see what people are saying about the lineup, which names leave a mark and which ones don’t. I also pay attention to what might be missing: at the moment, for example, we’re getting a lot of comments saying that the line-up is great but that there’s not enough for metal fans. We’ll have to pay attention to that next year. It’ll also be important to do a debriefing during the festival to see what’s successful and what’s not. Is the right band programmed at the right time, on the right stage, not too early and not too late..? Then in September I’ll travel around and meet with all the booking agencies, managers, bands… and I’ll start to work on the list of bands that will play at Dour in 2014.

How do you decide who makes it on this list and who doesn’t?

First I divide the whole lineup into different atmospheres. I want Thursday afternoon at the main stage to have a rather cool, festive atmosphere. People are just arriving, they might want to just lay down and hang out in the grass and have a beer. So I choose bands that fit this spirit. But at midnight people will be a bit drunk so I’ll put on something more dancy. When I have the big names for all the different atmospheres together, I start adding all my coups de coeur in a coherent manner.

The selection is actually quite personal then, no? What’s the criteria? Do you check how the bands are live, whether they’ve had a hit single etc.? 

Many festivals pay attention to whether or not there’s a label behind the band, or if they’ve had a hit single…  But I think this kind of procedure is antiquated. With the internet today, a band can rise really quickly. Last September I saw a band called Half Moon Run in Canada in a church and it was just fantastic. Straight away I booked them for Dour. And now they’re sold-out in Botanique and signed to Universal. I had a feeling that they’d become something and it was right. My job is a lot about this personal feeling. You need to listen to yourself. In the beginning you look at  how other people are programming and you try to use certain criteria, but with time you develop this feeling which tells you if it’s going to work out at the festival or not. And you don’t have to explain that feeling to anyone. You just follow it. I had the same with the French group Fauve. We booked them a long time ago and now they’re getting bigger and bigger.

In the beginning you look at  how other people are programming and you try to use certain criteria, but with time you develop this feeling which tells you if it’s going to work out at the festival or not.

How important is the fact that Dour is in Belgium?

About 20% of the lineup is Belgian artists, ranging from newcomers to more well-known ones from all genres. It’s important for a festival like Dour to support its local scene. We really have some good stuff here in Belgium. I go to a lot of young talent festivals throughout Europe and I have to say that the quality here is quite good. Belgians are never really proud of themselves, but I think they should be.

Which bands are you really excited about at this year’s festival?

I’m pretty proud of the balance I was able to create. There are a lot of discoveries which will become very successful bands, I think. There are quite a few classics we’re happy to see again such as Amon TobinThe Smashing Pumpkins, Jurassic 5, … And there are so many young bands to discover in all genres. For dub fans, reggae fans, hip hop fans, electro… there’s really something for everyone. It’s a good mix.

I don’t watch the gig, I watch the public, how they react, if they dance…

There’s so much going on at the same time thought – how do you manage to check out all the bands for your debriefing?

Haha yes, I have to run a lot! And most of the time I just get to see five minutes of a concert. Plus, I don’t watch the gig, I watch the public, how they react, if they dance…

What’s your favorite concert of all time at Dour?

Hard to say. So many good memories. Last year I loved Tnght, a duo which just exploded after Dour. Dour had been one of their first dates in Europe. Another special moment for me was Selah Sue’s first concert. She was 19 and came alone with her guitar, asked the audience to sit down, which they did. It was really a goosebumps moment. In the ’90s there was this French band called Sloy who played at Dour and I don’t think I pogoed ever again like this in my life. A great band which unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore.

If you could guest-programme any festival in the world, which one would you choose?

I’m actually very lucky with Dour. I get a budget and can do whatever I want and not many festivals can compete with that. And the audience is very receptive. I really think there are no other places in the world where I’d be this free. But sometimes I’d like to programme something on a smaller scale, in smaller clubs. The smallest stage at Dour is twice the size of the Ancienne Belgique and the main stage is made for 20, 000 people. Many people just come for the big headliners, so it’s difficult to build a festival around smaller stages. But if I can dream a bit… if the sheik of Quatar wanted his own festival and gave me €100 million to organise it in the desert… I’d like to try that!

What’s on your iPod at the moment?

Right now I’m only listening to my really old records because since September I’ve had to listen to newbies for the programming. I received 1,000 suggestions, so I had to listen to 1,000 new bands. I felt like I had to clean up my brain a bit after that and listen to my old Queens of the Stone Age records, Sloy and The Pixies. But I’m also hooked on the new Disclosure album. I’ll enjoy that for a while and then in September I have to start checking all the new stuff again.

Dour Festival
From 18 to 21 July
www.dourfestival.be