x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Not your average music festival: Bowlie Weekender

The festival started by the indie band Belle and Sebastian is set to return after a four-year hiatus.

The Flaming Lips perform at All Tomorrow's Parties in Los Angeles in 2004.
The Flaming Lips perform at All Tomorrow's Parties in Los Angeles in 2004.

Eleven years ago, the Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian - who spawned a thousand imitators of their gentle, literate guitar pop - decided to put on a festival that wasn't like other festivals. While Glastonbury, Reading and V had punters sleeping in sweaty tents and partying all night, the Bowlie Weekender took place in a British seaside holiday camp where audience members could see art, go on water slides, play arcade games or visit the beach in between watching experimental bands such as Sleater-Kinney.

Belle and Sebastian have been in hiatus for the past four years, but this week they announced they'll be returning to the stage later this year, when they put on Bowlie 2, the successor to the original legendary weekender. In the intervening decade, Bowlie's impact on music festivals around the world surpassed its status as a niche event with a capacity of only a few thousand. The year after the first Bowlie, the promoter and music fan Barry Hogan was inspired to make the festival an annual affair at Butlins in Minehead, calling it All Tomorrow's Parties (after the Velvet Underground song) and choosing a different band or artist to pick the bands and other entertainment each year.

Curators through the years have included the Scottish noise makers My Bloody Valentine, the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, the filmmaker Vincent Gallo and the post-rockers Mogwai, with events such as poetry readings, knitting sessions and music quizzes breaking up the intense live performances. In 2002, the festival went trans-Atlantic, with the New York art punks Sonic Youth curating a four-day event at the University of California, Los Angeles campus. There have since been All Tomorrow's Parties festivals in New York, Brisbane, Sydney and Victoria. The format remains the same: a meticulously picked line-up of under-the-radar innovators, an intimate atmosphere and no advertising, sponsorship or other corporate promotions. As well as Belle and Sebastian, this year's curators include Matt Groening and a newly reunited Pavement in the UK, and the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch in New York.

The organisers' attention to detail - added to the fact that performers and organisers stay in the same cutesy chalets as punters and proximity to arcade games and water slides tends to bring out the wide-eyed child in everyone - means that ATP festivals tend to have a unique atmosphere. This is captured in All Tomorrow's Parties, a documentary by Warp films released last year that charts the highlights of the last decade: it captures unplanned moments such as the Brooklyn dream-pop band Grizzly Bear playing on a nearby beach as the sun rises, and Kurt Cobain's one-time hero Daniel Johnston playing in his cabin as rapt fans listen at the open window. It's the sort of thing you wouldn't see at somewhere like Hard Rock Calling or V.

The Bowlie Weekender was born out of an idea Belle and Sebastian's songwriter, Stuart Murdoch, had in 1999 to do a tour of British ports, travelling among them by boat. When the plan turned out to be too expensive, he decided to put on an event in the vein of the Soul Weekenders that were held in holiday camps in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, "boutique" festivals, focusing on the whole experience of being at a festival rather than solely the line-up, had yet to become a trend. The Big Chill put on its first outdoors gathering for 500 people in 1994, but festivals such as Secret Garden Party and Latitude, which encourage fun, games, art and poetry, are an invention of the Noughties.

Now there are several music festivals that have jumped on Bowlie's bandwagon, as promoters realised that sleeping in a bed and having access to a stove and a bathroom are attractive prospects for twenty- and thirty-something music fans who are sick of being drowned in mud every year at Glastonbury. The Bloc Weekend (an annual hip-hop event that's been running since 2007) and the Bang Face Weekender took place at the same seaside holiday camps as ATP and Bowlie, although they didn't share their precursors' unfashionably gentle atmosphere.

Julian Cope, The Vaselines and lesser known bands such as Frightened Rabbit have already been signed up to play at Bowlie 2, although the majority of the line-up is still to be announced. With some luck, it will be as memorable as the first one.