This weekend, Camden has the privilege of playing host to 6 Music Festival across four of its most revered venues: The Roundhouse, Dingwalls, The Electric Ballroom and Fest. Hosting the daytime stage at Fest over the weekend will be one of the staples of BBC Radio 6 Music, and long standing supporter of new music, presenter Chris Hawkins.
Good Morning Chris. I guess you’ve already had an early start this morning, right?
Yeah, but it’s Friday, so it always feels better on a Friday.
Your playlists are always particularly eclectic, covering everything from Mogwai to The Roots. Do you think that early slot gives you a lot of freedom to showcase such a wide variety of music?
Yeah, for sure. It’s about mixing up the music that people might want to break into the day with, in a kind of a heavy-headed way to make the start to the day that little bit easier. But also about big wake-up tunes. It’s a mix that tries to accommodate both ends of that spectrum. (People are going about their business pretty quickly of a morning, schedules are often tight, and people try to get up as late as possible so I try and provide something that they will love for the amount of time that they’ll be able to listen.)
How do your own tastes fit into that?
It’s all my taste. One of the great things about 6 Music which is quite unusual, particularly these days, is that we are able to play the music that we love. So whether it be old, or brand new, a huge amount of work and a lot of love goes into to choosing the right music each day.
You personally champion a lot of new music, having have given some artists their very first national radio plays, including acts such as Didi, Dreams of Empire and Sylvette. How does it feel to give new artists their first slice of airtime?
It’s always a great thrill. I think that’s something special about 6 Music and about the opportunities as DJs that we have to break new artists and bring them to the attention of listeners.
It’s one of the great thrills, playing an artist for the first time and seeing the instant reaction to them on social media. For example, there’s an artist I’m loving at the moment, a new band called The Lathums, they’ve been getting a huge amount of love every single time I played them.
I played Black Pumas recently, a Grammy nominated band who are pretty big in the States already. They got the most enormous amount of love. So yes, it’s exciting playing new bands for the first time, but equally, it is great when you can play something by an older artists that a listener has never heard before. That can be just as exciting when you get messages from listeners saying. “Well, in all my years, I’ve never heard of this band before and it turns out they’ve been around for 30 years and released 10 albums”!
Do you enjoying seeing the reactions from the artists themselves?
Yeah, I mean, 6 Music is well loved by the music industry. Bands often get in touch, even during the show.
In fact, James Righton from Klaxon’s just got a new solo album and just this morning I played a new song about his daughter called ‘Edie‘ on the show. By the time that the song had finished playing, James had tweeted me to say “Thanks so much for playing my new song on 6 Music”. So clearly, yes, we have a strong relationship with artists, I try to go to as many gigs as I can and it’s great to have those relationships.
Aside from the exposure you’ve given artists on the radio, you’ve also hosted your own nights, you regularly shout out new artists on your social media feeds and you were even a curator for Off the Record festival last year, which was specifically geared at new music. Who would you say is the artist you are most proud of having given exposure to, that has gone on to do great things?
I hosted a night at the Queen’s Head in Islington. where for example Catfish and the Bottlemen played upstairs. They came and played to a pretty small audience … in the tens and have now gone on to be virtually a stadium band, you know? They’ve become huge! That for me is the absolute standout example.
But there are lots of bands that I played early on and it’s been amazing to see how they’ve grown. I’m excited by young, new bands. The Lathums, I’ve mentioned. There’s a young band called Weird Milk, Porridge Radio, they all have great potential. I think for me and more broadly, for 6 Music, having seen Amy Winehouse, Adele. Keane, even Coldplay go from relatively new bands to the big acts that they are now, it’s gratifying. It’s amazing to see them grow.
I actually spoke to Charlie from Weird Milk a couple of months ago. Lovely chap…
I did their first play of the new single yesterday on 6 Music. I think that they could be really big.
You’ve been with BBC 6 Music since the station first started, right?
Yeah, I have. The majority of my adult life in fact.
Was there anything that drew you to the station in particular?
As a kid I was fascinated by radio. I used to simply love listening to the radio and grew up loving music.
The job that I have now combines those two great passions and I still manage to slip in plenty of mentions for Shrewsbury Town FC! I feel really, truly everyday like I have my dream job.
What music did you listen to when you were growing up?
Well, of course, like everyone I was listening to pop music on the radio as a kid. As I got a little bit older, again as with all of us, my tastes became more defined. I’m still a huge fan of pop music, but I remember hearing for example, Talking Heads for the first time and thinking just how complex, how clever, how interesting what David Byrne and Talking Heads were doing was. That’s a distinct memory for me, thinking of how different the pop music that I was used to was from that.
I used to love Double Art lessons in school because the teachers would let us have the radio on or play music. So my Art A level was soundtracked by REM. I also grew up listening to a lot of dance music as a teen, and then I guess was a bit of a Brit Pop kid. That music was the soundtrack to my latter years as a student and an amazing time in the 90s.
Would you say there’s a bit of that nineties influence coming back at the moment?
You know what? Yeah … I think I played a new act called Julia Bardot this week; she was in Working Men’s club before and I said on the show that she is sort of ‘sixties meets nineties’. I wouldn’t have said it if you didn’t think so I guess, but yeah I think that there probably is. And you know, you read headlines in the music press saying, “Guitar music is dead”. Well, I can give you plenty of examples of new guitar bands who are sounding as amazing as they ever have.
Can you tell us a little about BBC Radio 6 Music Festival this coming weekend and your involvement with that?
I’m hosting the daytime stages at Fest on both days, on the Saturday and Sunday afternoon. I’m really excited about what we’ve got going on there. What the daytimes involved at the festival to me is really kind of cool and have proven to be very popular. The line-up this year is fantastic, with people like Murray Lachlan Young, who’s going to be doing a punk poetry thing, the Roundhouse Choir are performing, we’ve got Jenny Beth in conversation and of course Paul Weller who I can’t say I’m not excited to be introducing. So that daytime schedule I think is really very impressive, as well as the nighttime gigs of course. I’m very proud and chuffed to be hosting those daytime stages.
I’m also a huge fan of Michael Kiwanuka. I can’t wait to see him live for the first time at the festival on Friday night. I think he has the potential to be a huge British star. That most recent album is maybe one of the best of the last decade.
And on Saturday night I get to introduce Ed O’Brien on stage at The Roundhouse. As a huge Radiohead fan, that’s massive for me. I’m made up to have been asked to do that and yeah, I’ll be very nervous about going on before Ed O’Brien from actual Radiohead, from one of my favourite bands in the world ever. That’s going to be massive!
So you lived in London for around 15 years. What’s your experience of the live scene in the capital and in Camden in particular?
Not many weeks would pass without going to see a band somewhere. I probably spent more time in Camden seeing live bands than anywhere else in London. I remember very fondly, Arctic Monkeys at the Roundhouse being probably one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. Then in terms of smaller bands, I remember seeing Reverend and the Makers do a real standout show where, as is standard with them, the gig finished and carried on outside on the street.
Drinking in bars around Camden, live music nights were pretty much a regular fixture. You know, in Camden, there’s this great ability to go from bar to bar, venue to venue. Everywhere is in close proximity and there’ll be a real buzz, a real community, that you sense when you’re there. You’re pretty much always going to be in a pub or bar with a musician. That conversation is always taking place and you’re always only a stone’s throw away from live music.
Music aside, what are some of your other passions in life?
I’m a huge Coronation Street fan! I’ve absolutely love Coronation Street since I was a kid.
I’m also a big Shrewsbury Town fan and have followed them through thick and thin! As a kid, I was a mascot for them and as a 10 year old I ran out onto the pitch with our then captain Nigel Pearson. (We had a good FA cup run, drawing with Liverpool at home and going to see them in Anfield this year was a pretty great experience!)
Do you remember the first words you ever said on the radio?
They were, “That was Uptown Girl by Billy Joel” on my first ever show on BBC Radio, Nottingham. I’d had inserts on other shows prior to that, but that was my first words on my own show.
What would you like your last words on the radio to be?
Wow … “Thanks for listening.” It’s not words that I’ve ever thought about choosing before as I hope that day’s a long way off!
Who’s been your favourite person to interview?
Loads! Dave Grohl would be one. He’s just as charming and as lovely as everybody always says he is. Also, Jack White. He’s always fascinating and quite a hero of mine. He’s always very open, interesting and his creativity, I think, is always evident when you talk to him.
In more recent times, Sam Fender. I’ve always enjoyed talking to Sam. He’s always a real open book. You know, the guy is so modest and destined to be a huge star. I’ve known him and played his music on the radio since before he was the name that he is now and he talks very openly about his mental health issues, which is important. It’s a subject that I find fascinating. I did a three part series for radio for at the end of last year on the reasons why musicians are so prone to suffering from mental health issues and spent some time with Frightened Rabbit. The first part of that series was all about the effects of fame and what it can do and particularly, in the case of Frightened Rabbit the tragic circumstances around Scott’s disappearance.
There seems to be quite a lot of discussion around the issue of mental health within the performance industry at the moment…
And so there should be. It’s great that the subject is gaining more awareness but there should be even more attention drawn to it. It needs to be addressed. What we discovered during that series, through scientific tests that we did with musicians, is that a stage performance gives a singer the same rush and the same pump of adrenaline that you get from jumping out of a plane. That really puts into perspective the extreme highs and lows of performance. Those moments in the spotlight are actually just a very small percentage of their time. Knowing a lot of musicians over the years and being witness to their behaviour and reactions to the extreme highs of being on stage and the crushing lows that follow when they return to the dressing room have made me very aware of the importance of trying to understand the mental toll that goes into being a professional musician.
What do you think are the best tools for new artists to reach new audiences these days?
Getting on playlists or streaming services is really important but ultimately I still think radio is king. You know, I think the algorithms are amazing and they’re more sophisticated than ever, but what algorithms don’t have, is love. Radio has love. Every single song I play, I play with conviction and because I want to share that piece of music with the audience who are listening. So I think striving to be on the radio is still an important goal for any artist or band.
But of course, social media still has an important role to play and playlists which come with curation in particular. I do think that as an artist these days, whereas… yeah absolutely do the sex, drugs and rock n roll, but it’s also important to spare moments to remember that it’s your living, it’s your business and you need to represent yourself to your best on social media.
What do you personally listen for in new music?
Something catchy. Something hooky. Something different, something creative. So for example, an artist like Anna Meredith is a creative powerhouse. She’s doing something different. She’s one on her own. She’s really forthright in what she’s, she’s trying to create, pushing boundaries. Also, Michael Kiwanuka who I mentioned earlier. They’re very different artists that stand out in different ways and encompass all that I love about music. You know, great songwriting, a passion, soul and something different that catches your ear that you’ve never heard before. It’s hard to achieve that. You know, everyone makes comparisons. A new band always gets compared to an old band. When a band are hard to define, I think that’s pretty exciting.
BBC 6 Music Festival runs 6th to 8th of March, across four venues in Camden. Tickets for all stages are currently showing as Sold Out, but if you already have yours or are fortunate enough to still pick some up, then you can catch Chris Hawkins hosting the Daytime stage at Fest on Saturday and Sunday. Otherwise, 6 Music will be broadcasting from the Festival across the weekend and you can listen online at bbc.co.uk/6music.
The BBC Radio 6 Music Festival takes place in Camden from the 6th-8th March and will be broadcast on 6 Music and BBC Sounds across the weekend. Performances will also be available to watch on BBC iPlayer and bbc.co.uk/6music, with highlights on BBC Four and BBC Red Button.