Two decades on Tunbridge Wells’ first music extravaganza, which happens over the final May Bank Holiday weekend, is still going strong despite others being scaled back or cancelled. Eileen Leahy talks to two of Unfest’s organisers Jason Dormon and Carolyn Gray about how it has survived
Why was Unfest launched in the first place?
The Forum came up with the idea of putting on a number of gigs under the umbrella ‘Three Days in May’ in 1996 which coincided with the release of a multitrack compilation CD of regional bands. The name of the album was called un02 and as a result Unfest, as it is now known, was born.
How has it evolved over the years?
We’ve tried a different number of things from a one-seat cinema to a gig in the middle of Tunbridge Wells Common, and a renaissance-style picnic in The Pantiles. In 2012 we put more of an emphasis on films, but then 2014 saw bigger bands like Ultrasound and Empire getting involved from outside Tunbridge Wells. Each year is different.
How many months of the year does it take to organise?
It’s like painting the Forth Bridge: We haven’t stopped organising it yet and we won’t until the last band plays and then it starts all over again! It’s an ongoing organisation as we run music events all year, both at The Forum and The Sussex Arms. But the four months before the main festival are very concentrated in terms of scheduling and designing merchandise and publicity. We also organise additional street food outlets and book security.
Is there a big team involved in pulling it all together?
We work with a core of volunteers and then we reach out to the other venues involved. For example The Royal Oak, Cassidy’s and The Bedford all have their own regular artists, so they are responsible for booking those. Paul Dunton has a Local & Live acoustic stage by Sussex Mews so it’s very much helping others showcase their own stables of artists.
How do the acts get chosen?
At The Forum it’s done by our regular bookers. They concentrate on musicians who are innovative and have played during the previous year. Others are members of our newly formed Musicians Club. The Unfest programme at The Sussex Arms has been curated by volunteers connected to the pub but we also have different promoters selecting their favourite bands.
Who will be good to catch live?
Paul Cheese, who has cycled all around the UK and Europe recording his albums, will be one to look out for as he will be wheeling around the town with his amp on his bike and performing at a number of different venues. And for the first time the Museum will be hosting various gigs, including Ryan Weeks and The Ackerleys.
Apart from music, what can visitors expect to experience?
This year we have an art fair on the veranda at The Forum and we’ve also been running an interactive postcard writing and drawing project, via the Tunbridge Wells Writers collective. There is also an exhibition and literary project called Fest Fiction happening at Perk & Pearl in the week leading up to Unfest.
What plans are in the pipeline for the future?
Unfest is always evolving and its success is based on the volunteers involved. At the moment we’re hoping to run some Unfest Sunday Sessions. These will be at The Forum with food, live music, DJs, spoken word, table tennis, and art workshops.
For more information on Unfest visit their official website at: www.unfest.org or www.facebook.com/unfesttwfringe