One of the country’s hidden festival gems, Open Ear Festival is set to return to Sherkin Island in West Cork from May 31 to June 2, 2024. This intimate event, now in its sixth edition, is known for its focus on experimental electronica and unconventional sounds. 

This year’s lineup includes a diverse range of artists such as 7of9, Ali Morris, Brian Not Brian, Caskré, Crispy Jason, Dublin, Gnod R&D, Hilary Woods, Lesko, Moundabout, Noisy Chilli, Offtrack, Ossia, Pesci Tooth, Polyp, Rustal, Sam De La Rosa, Saturn Returns, Vacant Heads, Wisecrack, and more.

909originals’ Emer O’Connor talked to Open Ear co-organiser Dion Doherty about the festival’s origins, and what attendees can expect this year. 

Open Ear began back in 2016 as a festival for underrepresented artists. Have there been many changes over the years to the ethos of this remote island gathering?

When we first started out, we called it a festival of experimental music more in hope than expectation, because with the festival being on a remote island and outdoors, that’s quite unusual for experimental music festivals. A lot of them take place in cities, with the multi-venue city model, like Unsound and CTN. 

In 2016, it was mostly people I knew personally from the Irish electronic music scene. Then, as the festival developed and we realised we could do it, we started to book more and more experimental and out-there stuff, and more people we didn’t know personally. 

We had a run until 2019 where we did the festival every year for four years. From Year 1 with 250 people, to Year 4 with 650, and that’s where our limit is. 

So each of those years, we expanded our remit in terms of programming. Then after 2019, we were all a bit burnt out, and we said we’d take a year off. Thank God we did, because we all know what happened in 2020. So we were all sitting at home isolating, saying, ‘I’m so glad we don’t have to be having debates about whether or not the festival’s gonna go ahead’, or emailing artists to cancel and losing money. That was a relief!

Then of course, those questions started to arise in 2021, and we were lucky to be able to get a grant from the Recovery Fund to do a one-night event on Sherkin, which worked amazingly well. Then the lockdowns happened again. 

We only decided to go ahead with the festival of 2022 that February, and we had to have the lineup ready by April, so it was very rushed. I think we did a pretty good job in the circumstances. So, if you think of 2019, 2021, and 2022, they were all radically different festivals, and then we took another year off. 

Now, this is the first one since 2019 that feels like full force, we’re back to normality. We’ve had a relatively good lead-in time and, touch wood, we’re well on track. We’re all feeling pretty good about it.

Since the festival started, we’ve noticed that the Irish experimental ecosystem has vastly expanded. What was quite rare in 2016 is now everywhere. There’s Féile na Gréine in Limerick, Haunted Dancehall and Musictown in Dublin, Dublin Digital Radio’s Alternating Current – so the space for Irish experimental musicians to have that mainstage, headliner experience is a lot more common now. 

This year, for the first time, we decided to book some international artists and asked a friend of ours, Clíona Ní Laoi, who makes music as Mama Matrix, to curate a small program of international artists. We didn’t want to go down the usual route of what happens when international artists get involved, such as having Irish people on the bill from midnight to 8pm then it being a string of big names. 

We wanted those international artists to almost blend into the bill seamlessly and for people to not even realise that they’re there, until they’re either notified about it in our messaging system or they see them on the island. So that’s one of the main changes we’ve instituted this year.

And you’ve presided over all of the Open Ears since the beginning, Dion?

Yeah. Myself and Chris Chapman set it up. Chris is kind of the boss, he’s the main organiser, but myself and himself are friends for twenty years, so he brought me on board to do the programming. Also, our friend Mick, who makes music as T-Wok, is on board as stage manager. There’s also Kenny, who DJed the first year and then got involved as our press and marketing guy in Year 2, and also Sarah Murphy, a really talented builder and maker, who’s head of our build crew. They’re our key personnel, I guess.

So there is just a team of four or five of you developing this 650-person strong festival?

Yeah, essentially. We have a crew of 50 or so, when you bring volunteers into the mix, but certainly for the majority of the year, it’s myself, the three lads and Sarah working behind the scenes.

And the music curation – is that all down to you, or is it a team effort?

Well, Sarah doesn’t really get involved in the lineup, but myself, Chris, Kenny, and Mick would get a consensus on what it is we want to book. I’m the booker – I handle the bookings, and I’m obsessed with it. At house parties, at gigs, chatting to friends, and asking ‘who’s good to play at the festival?’ 

Also, I know a lot of people in the music scene as well, so people come up to me giving me tips or advice. All four of us are in discussions all year round.

So you’re constantly clawing for new sounds, new vibes throughout the year?

My whole thing is that I love to get people just when they’re breaking through and other people don’t know about them, and you can get them before they hit the stage where they’re playing all the festivals. Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t make it work and a year or two later, that gap of opportunity is gone. 

Not all the artists we book are like that – there are some artists that are more established that you need on the bill as well. You can book those anytime, but there are artists that you gotta book when the going is good or the iron’s hot, so to speak.

What would be your fondest memory of the last eight years?

Well, the best thing we ever put on, or the thing the team was proudest of, was this sound artist called Áine O’Dwyer, in 2019. Áine actually came over first in 2018, but a dense fog came in, and she wasn’t able to complete the project. However, she improvised an amazing performance that night with only a couple of hours’ notice. 

Then the next year, she came back and completed the more ambitious work. She developed a project on Sherkin, located in Horseshoe Bay – it’s literally a perfect circle of a bay that has a little mouth to it where boats can come in. There was a speaker located on one side of the bay, projecting bird songs. Then she had speakers down amongst these rushes, where she was hiding, and she had some music coming from there, and she sang while two boats appeared from the mouth of the bay and did this incredible choreographed movement, and the boats let off their foghorns. 

A huge amount of work went into that, but everyone who experienced it had a lump in their throat. We were all really blown away by it. I think for the team, it was really special, because we put 18 months’ work into it.

A similar site-specific piece from 2022 was this artist called Frog of Earth – his real name is Mel Keane. His album is an electronic interpretation of what it’s like to be a frog. So we said, ‘right we’re going to have him play a set at dawn, in an outdoor area of the island’. There was a grassy area just by the water, just down past the festival site, and when he was about to play at sunrise, he went off to make himself a sandwich and fell asleep, and nobody knew where he was. 

The music was finished, we gave everyone an hour to collect themselves, and we had this bunch of madsers called Acid Granny lead a procession through the site, everyone following along, Pied Piper style. They get to the end of their procession and Mel was nowhere to be seen. 

So like heroes, they played for another hour, hour and a half, and I was freaking out thinking ‘where could he be, why isn’t he here’, because there are cliffs all around the island. So I was just thinking the worst, and then he ran right past me. Now, it was way after dawn, but it was still early morning, and he played that set, and it was unbelievably magical.

So I guess they’re my two standout memories – but I also just love six hours of savage dance music to rave to up until three or four in the morning. 

I recently read about Stephen Stapleton’s Sleep Concert, which came to an abrupt end when the artist became agitated. Do you have any other micro-tonal or music to sleep to events planned this year?

No, we don’t. Steve Stapleton does those sleep concers; they’re kind of his baby. I guess we wouldn’t really do a sleep concert unless it’s an artist who does them regularly, and they are few and far between. That was on the Thursday night before the festival started, and I dragged my air mattress from my room and went down and thought ‘ok I’m gonna get some sleep’. But the music was so amazing, and there were visuals and stuff, I stayed up all night listening to it. I was absolutely exhausted when the festival started on the Friday.

We do have a lot of special projects for this year. 2022 was essentially a reset because it was such a short lead-in time. 2019 was not nearly as ambitious as we could go. Since 2022, we felt we could build back up to more ambitious offerings, and we’re doing that this year. 

We’ve got some exciting off-site projects lined up. The Arts Council was very generous this year, giving us a budget specifically for commissioning work, and it’s the first time we’ve done a call out for work, including one called the Debut Performance Initiative, and the other was a Collaborative Call Out, where we wanted two artists who hadn’t worked together to make a piece of work. 

One hassle with the debutantes was that a third of the entries were ineligible because they thought it meant a debut at Open Ear festival as a debut performance full stop from somebody who had never played live before, a slight glitch with the wording there.

I spotted several techno acts that I’m au fait with from Dublin and London, such as Rustal, Noisy Chilli, and Oliver Ho, so as regards electronic music, would you be quite techno-heavy, all very hard techno, or different variations?

Well obviously, you can categorise or sub-categorise to the end, but we have three main categories – weirdo-experimental music, music for dancing, and then weird music for dancing. 

So, we go for the weirder end of dance music. That’s what I love, that’s what I make myself, weird music for dancing. We have a good bit of techno, but the main focus of the festival is on live performance. 

We want a lot of dance music so we book a lot of that, whatever good dance music is about – we would always try to have a bit of bass music, be it drum and bass or electro, we’ve done a good bit of electro and Sweeney (Rustal) is, in fact, playing an electro set. 

I’d say Offtrak is probably the most straight-up banging techno DJ we have playing at the festival. I can’t wait for his set; he runs the Circuit Structure Records label, and I was at his label showcase he put on in Berlin at the start of February. He absolutely killed it, he played from 5-8 am, it was the best techno set I’ve heard in years. So I was like, ‘yeah, we need somebody to land the airplane there on the Saturday night; he’s our man!’

You mentioned Oliver Ho there, and yeah, he’s playing in a duo – it’s a live duo with this chap from Derry called Autumns, who we’ve had play before. Theirs is a music which is kind of EBM, industrial, and dub music. I’m not sure what to expect from that, but it should be good.

By all accounts, music curation is key for you guys at Open Ear, which seems to be the most esoteric festival of the season, poised on the fringes of experimental and electronic, musically. But how is it structured by way of logistics? Do certain tents/areas feature specific genres, are there food vans, other necessary amenities, other ad hoc amusements, or is it completely stripped back, and first-timers should simply bring all necessary festival essentials?

In 2022, because we had such a short lead-in time, our vendor situation wasn’t ideal, so there were quite long queues, and we got a lot of feedback about that. It’s something we’ve worked really hard on for this year. We’re gonna up the food game in a big way. There is no shop on the island, so you definitely need to bring all your essentials, and a suitcase full of booze or whatever. 

It’s funny – I think the island thing maybe puts people off a bit, but it’s such a chill festival. The drive down is quite long, but then the ferry across is only 10 minutes, and we have vans on standby bringing people’s gear across. It’s only a 20-minute walk to the site across the island, it’s a beautiful walk. You get to the site, and it’s very small, you could be in the big tent raving, and you realise you have to get back to your tent and get something, and even if your tent was the last tent on the site, it would still only take you 90 seconds to get there. It’s very compact.

Say people do want to get the head down, at 4am or 5am – is there no hope of sleep because the music is still banging?

Oh no, the latest we’ve ever gone is around 4am, but we generally finish up around 3am. This year we’ve also got a quiet campsite which is a field a 3-minute walk away from the site, so you’ll be guaranteed a night’s sleep there.

I heard another rumour that this will also be the first year that people can bring campervans to the festival?

Yes, that’s true because of this new campsite so we’ll be announcing that shortly. You also asked will there be different areas dedicated to different kinds of music; we operate a one audience, one stage policy, so for the most part, there’s only ever one tent and one stage, everyone plays at that.

Ok, so you never split the crowd?

No, so everyone has to be subjected to every minute of whatever we choose to put on. We used to do an offsite project in the church or community center – we ran an amazingly enjoyable party every Sunday of the festival up until 2019, but the festival just became too big, and it wasn’t feasible for us to do that anymore. 

I think people actually really enjoy it for a number of reasons – it means that everyone has seen the same things, so even if you don’t like it, you can still talk about the same music, you’re having enjoyable debates with your friends on the merits of various acts. Also for me, personally, the absolute worst noise humanity has ever invented is the noise that you hear, equidistant between two competing sound systems. I can’t stand it, it’s real noise that pollutes your brain. So that’s something nice about Open Ear, there’s only the one kick drum booming out at you.

It’s a great mindset actually, to have such focus, and it sounds like a very mindful festival…

Two of the biggest things we’re known for are the ‘one audience, one stage’ approach, and the focus on Irish acts. They were both happy accidents of circumstance, because when we started the festival, I spent the previous 10 years booking gigs in Galway. 

I noticed international artists were looking for more and more money and agents were becoming bigger pains in the hole, and we knew there was more than enough talent here. So we said, let’s not bother with any of that. Part of it was definitely just being sick of having to deal with the bullshit of agents. 

The ‘one audience, one stage’ thing was kind of due to the fact that we had no money when we started, so that was the size of the site. Then the first year we were like, ‘this is great’, and people really appreciated it. But I don’t think we had any great plan when we started.

I don’t think many people do when they start, I think they have the passion, and they go for it, and then it’s a learning curve after that, isn’t it?

Yeah, exactly.

So, for music-loving festival-goers who are intrigued but unsure of going to such lengths to get to Sherkin Island, what would you say to entice them – or should only the sure-footed venture forth?

Oh, I think that Open Ear has something for everybody; there’s such a breadth of music.There’s chilled out ambient, there’s raging techno, there’s really weird stuff, there are bands who are super talented musicians, and people on laptops and machines making crazy electronic music. 

Also, it’s the nicest crowd you’ll ever meet – in the eight years, we’ve had just one issue with a punter not being cool, and everyone is so sound. They’re all best friends by the end of the weekend. I guess the biggest thing is that the island is absolutely beautiful, so you wake up, you get your coffee and your breakfast, and you’re swimming on one of the nicest beaches you’ve ever seen in your life. 

It’s beautiful to walk around, and the Jolly Roger pub is great, it’s 20 minutes there, you can get a pint on a Saturday afternoon if the weird music isn’t your bag. I don’t think it’s just for music nerds by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s well worth coming down. Also, if you’ve come from Dublin, you’ll be driving for 4.5 hours.

It’ll be about seven hours if I come in my 1971 VW camper, haha!

I’d say so, yeah! Let me tell you, that road from Cork to Baltimore is a real bitch, it’s winding and crap. I always feel nauseous getting out of the car, but when you step onto the ferry, you get the ocean breeze in your face, and your problems just melt away. You know you’re gonna be in for a really good weekend. I know I’m biased but I absolutely can’t wait for it this year. This is definitely the most ambitious programme we’ve put on as well, so we’re going to be unbelievably hyped for every artist. 

Before we wrap here, can you give us the low down of what you think is unmissable from this year’s line-up?

Oh, that’s a tough question; but for me this year I guess the Vacant Heads, the Oliver Ho, Broken English Club project.

Maybe someone people haven’t heard of, a massive surprise? Maybe Sam de la Rossa, Saturn Returns, or Wisecrack?

Wisecrack are one of the international artists that we’ve booked, two kind of anarchist breakcore chaps from Bologna. I love all that mad gabber and breakcore – really insane music. I go to the Bangface Weekender every year. There’s actually not a huge culture of that in Ireland, there are a few people, but it’s just so off the wall and extreme. 

I mean, you can put on some weirdo experimental music, but you can’t do 200 bpm bonkers crazy beats stuff. So Wisecrack is a bit of a nod towards that that we’ve managed to sneak in. Our buddy Clíona Mama Matrix, who curated the international line-up suggested these guys and we all agreed, they’re class. 

Sam De la Rosa is really great too, he was in the band Led Er Rest, he makes cool EBM. He has released on Mannequin Records, and he’s been living in Ireland for years. Nobody, I guess, has realised it, because he never plays out. I think I know of him playing one gig for Forza Italo upstairs in Odessa about 10 years ago. My friend Liz Rooney who DJs as Eliza, reminded me that he lives in Ireland. 

That happens a lot, people say, ‘have you thought about this person’. I was like ‘Oh brilliant!’, because he’s sort of an international artist, but he’s lived in Ireland for years, so we got in there. 

Sam’s putting together an entirely new live set for us. He’s also coming down to work on the build, because he’s meant to be the nicest guy on the face of the planet, and he does woodworking, he even did the fit out for The Magnet and Lucky’s.

Dion Doherty, thank you so much for taking the time to chat to 909originals and ádh mór le Open Ear 2024! 

Words by Emer O’Connor. More information on Open Ear Festival can be found at www.openear.ie. Main photo from Open Ear Festival Facebook page. 

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