We preview Manchester Psych Fest 2023

Portrait of Snail Mail who will be playing this year's Manchester Psych Fest

Thousands of music fans will descend on Oxford Road in the first weekend of September as Manchester Psych Fest returns to stages around the Corridor to celebrate its 10th edition. We sat down with Gareth Butterworth, the festival’s director, to talk all things Psych Fest.

Art pop innovator Ezra Furman headlines this year’s festival alongside psych heroes The Brian Jonestown Massacre in a packed line-up of indie favourites, including Irish post-punks The Murder Capital, The Mysterines, Hamish Hawk, KOKOKO!, Snail Mail and Jeffrey Lewis. Manchester Psych Fest is now one of the biggest city-based music festivals in the UK. It began life in 2014 as an all-dayer at the Night & Day Cafe, growing each year and adding Soup Kitchen, Peer Hat and Band on the Wall to its venues. In 2019 the festival moved to Oxford Road, where it could play to bigger audiences at larger venues.

“We wanted to move the festival to Oxford Road where there’s a high concentration of bigger, walkable venues. It was, and still is, the place to be for most music fans’ says Butterworth. This year’s festival takes place at The Ritz, Yes, Canvas, Deaf Institute and The Albert Hall. ‘There’s healthy competition amongst the venues across Manchester, they’re always pushing each other, and it stops the city from getting left behind. Manchester arguably has more gigs per square foot than any other city in Europe”.

The area has played its part in the history of Manchester’s music scene. Sir Charles Hallé formed Manchester’s symphony orchestra at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, in the same venue Bob Dylan was famously heckled for going electric and its where the Sex Pistols played the “gig that changed the world”. Most of Manchester’s most famous bands started here, The Smiths name-check The Holy Name Church in Vicar in a Tutu and The Temple bar is ‘the hole’ in Guy Garvey’s neighbourhood.

How difficult is it to be a forward-thinking festival in a city that still proudly celebrates its past? “You can’t ignore Manchester’s musical history, it’s probably attracted a lot of people here, but there is a massive student population alongside a thriving young music and artist community. We might not tap directly into that heritage music, but you can’t negate its influence. Genre is getting more mixed. There’s a big grime, hip-hop and electronic scene in Manchester… there’s lots of bits and bobs going on.”

While the festival is unashamedly indie-tinged, they actively try to mix it up where some festivals fail. “We aim for at least 50% of the line-up to be non-male. It’s something we’ve been working on since 2017. The industry has to do better”. Is that difficult? “It’s difficult booking a festival full stop! But we’re proactive, and we can give smaller artists bigger slots if that’s what it needs. So it can be done. If we can do it, so can those with more resources.”

“We’re already working on 2024. We have 50 or 60 artists playing each year, but we make enquiries with more than 200. It comes down to finances and logistics, but as the festival’s reputation grows, more acts want to play.”

What’s helped the festival grow is a knack for lining up the next big thing. “You have an idea of which artists might go on to do well. Ideally, they all would, but you never know. Yard Act and Dry Cleaning were ‘small-fonted’ bands in 2020/21 when we announced, but they’d exploded by the time of the festival”.

Who are the ones to watch this year? “The bottom end is really strong, probably the highest calibre yet, so I’d look out for a lot of them. There’s a good thirst for people to watch bdrmm who sit a little further up. I’m really happy with the line-up. A real mix, something for everyone. The issue for me will be watching as many acts as possible on the day!” 

Some other tips from Gareth include Los Bitchos, ‘a show no-one leaves without a smile’, Heartworms, Allah-Las and Italian psychedelic pop project Dumbo Gets Mad. He will also be cheering on Manchester’s very own Nightbus, who, in just one recent review, drew comparisons with Joy Division, the XX, The Cure, Massive Attack and Fontaines DC… no pressure.

How easy is it to make it all fit into one day? “It’s tough. We do 200 shows a year in the city with Now Wave, so we have a good idea of where the audience will go, so we try and split them accordingly.”

Last year the festival made Circle Square its hub with market stalls, food and drink, DJs and visual art all on display. Expect more to be announced over the summer. “We want to promote (none music) artists from the city and beyond. It gives it more of a feel of a festival. It’s not just about individual bands but making sure it’s a great day out, and we want that festival vibe to run throughout.”

“Last year was really special. Having Circle Square as the festival hub was incredible. Since we moved to Oxford Road and Courtney Barnett headlined in 2019, we’ve not looked back. We get emails every day from bands who want to play.” Such is the success of Manchester Psych Fest that they’re expanding to run a sister event, Edinburgh Psych Fest, which will see much of the line-up travel to
the Scottish capital over the same weekend.

What’s next for the festival team, world domination? “We’re open to ideas”.

With over 60 acts Manchester Psych Fest’s 10th birthday is shaping up to be the best edition yet, as it takes over Manchester’s Albert Hall, O2 Ritz, Canvas, Gorilla, Deaf Institute and YES for an action-packed day of extraordinary live music, DJs, workshops, arts, food and drink

View of Circle Square from the pavilion at Symphony Park
Circle Square

Circle Square is an exciting multi-million pound, mixed-use neighbourhood, created on the site of the former BBC building on Oxford Road.

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An image of an empty O2 Ritz Manchester with an impressive lighting one of the live music venues on the Oxford Road Corridor
Live Music

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