Lifetime Achievement Award 2019: Pukkelpop

Pictures by Michiel Jaspers, Dave Dinneweth, Jokko, Jens Baert, Robin De Raedt

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Every year, the Red Bull Elektropedia Lifetime Achievement Award is awarded to people who have made an enormous contribution to Belgian electronic music. This year, we’re handing out two of them. Both to festivals that have shaped the national festival landscape for good: Pukkelpop and Dour Festival. The former’s role in the upbringing of many Belgian music fans is something worth applauding for. For its remarkably large size, Pukkelpop never fails to deliver a well-balanced lineup of established and upcoming acts, educating young and old visitors in the process. The festival’s strength is found in its embrace of diversity and its constant drive for innovation. Maybe that’s why it has been growing and expanding, even after 34 impressive years. To celebrate this remarkable achievement, we drove to Leopoldsburg for an interview with Pukkelpop’s main man Chokri Mahassine, who was joined by the festival’s long-time advisor and host Luc Janssen and his son, Eppo Janssen, the festival's leading booker. 

What does the core team of Pukkelpop look like?

Chokri: Pukkelpop’s origins can be found in the Humanitische Jongeren (Dutch for Humanist Youth, ed.) organisation in Leopoldsburg, who are still intrinsically tied to the festival to this day. The actual management of the event has been in the same pairs of hands since the very first edition: Patrick Breugelmans, Christiane Sluyter, Marie Peremans and myself. Each of us leads a particular branch of the organisation. Then there's a large number of people – our core – who take on all the different aspects of practical management.

Does Pukkelpop have a mission statement and if so, has it changed over the years?

Chokri: I think our mission is always evolving, just like our team. What we do depends on the decisions of dozens of people within our organisation. That's why it's constantly changing. We always try to keep on top of what the current generation of young music fans are into, while remaining true to the fans who have supported us from day one. I don't know where this will take us, but at the very least we try to be aware of what's happening right now.

Having young people discover new things remains one of our most important roles as the organisation of this festival. Then it's up to them to decide if they like it or not.

The experience of going to a music festival has changed considerably in the last three decades. How have you witnessed this evolution unfold?

Chokri: I believe we're in part responsible, as far as Belgium goes. The festival experience is essential, but the music itself remains the basis. It's music that defines the festival experience for every visitor – and that can change depending on who you are. The experience of an indie rock fan doesn't necessarily resemble the experience of an electronic music fan. From metal to hip-hop to techno, etc. we have always aimed to give a place to every kind of identity our patrons may have. That's something we have doubled down on in the past few editions. That said, we have definitely given a lot of attention to the common denominator. 

That common denominator in festivals seems to evolve rapidly. Nowadays, people are expecting more luxury at their festivals, like camping upgrades, alternative food options, etc. What's your position on this trend?

Chokri: As you can imagine, it wasn’t always like that. You had a field, a bar, toilets and that was pretty much it. Pukkelpop is part of our ever-changing society – and people look for what works best for them. For many, food is important, so that’s why we have never had more food options than today. Some just need a place to set up their tent, while others want comfortable glamping. How will this trend evolve? That's a question for sociologists. As far as our festival goes, we try to be a mirror of our young-at-heart society. If people want more options – whether it's camping options or other services – we'll check the possibilities and try to offer that. If you want your loyal visitors from the beginning to keep coming every year, you’re going to have to keep up with the times and offer more comfort. Most of them are willing to pay the extra money, so why not? This is all part of Pukkelpop’s diversity.

Luc: This diversity can be traced back to the Humanistische Jongeren roots. Maybe the diverse Limburg province has something to do with it, but there's a lot of colour in front and behind the scenes. Among our staff, you can find people with roots in Greece, Italy, Morocco, Belgium, etc. You can see the result in the programming, the management and the identity of Pukkelpop. From the very start, diversity has been running through the festival's veins.

What is on your to-do list during the festival itself? Are you the kind of guys who run around with a walkie-talkie? Or are you able to enjoy a concert from time to time?

Chokri: Each of us has a different role at the festival. All in all, 8000 people are working on the terrain, so that requires some serious coordination. There's a great team around me that takes the lead, while I manage some of the ad-hoc problems that arise during the day. If there's no immediate emergency, I'll try to spend as much time in the crowd as possible. I'm kind of a sponge that absorbs the atmosphere. That's the only way to verify if you're doing a good job or not.

Innovation is not only achieved in the lineup. Innovation should be considered in everything we do: technology, ecology, stage design, food, art, culture, and so much more.

Eppo: I see my job as ‘quality control’. Do the ideas we had in mind actually work when they’re finally put into practice? Which of the acts work well? Which people go to which kind of shows? Those are the kind of things you can only verify when you’re actually there. For example, it was the first time in a long while we had some rain on Saturday – and we assumed people wouldn’t come to the shows – but then you see that people didn’t care at all. That’s the kind of stuff I want to see with my own eyes. So I try to be in the field as much as possible. I'm blessed to have a great team behind me who do a lot of work backstage. If there are no cancellations, I usually have a relatively peaceful Pukkelpop weekend. That being said, I've never been able to watch a full show from start to finish.

How do you maintain the balance between acts that speak to older and younger generations? How do you make sure you have enough niche acts that are credible in a particular scene, while also booking acts that are big enough to sell tickets? Is that something that you keep in the back of your mind?

Eppo: Maintaining balance is essential. We looked back by booking some established acts like The Streets or Eels. But those artists still need to resonate with the new generation. You can hear the influence of The Streets in acts like slowthai, and young guitar bands still look to Eels for inspiration. If we can find a connection between the old and the new, we should go for it. Of course, we need some acts that bring in the larger crowds. In the end, we hope that those people will be surprised by the diversity of our lineup. I feel like we have succeeded in maintaining that balance without booking extraordinarily big names this year. Disclaimer: Billie Eilish was definitely not a headliner when we booked her – she just became one in that short amount of time (laughs).

Chokri: We also put in extra effort this year to plan the timetable so that a lot of people actually come to watch the shows. This was something we had been struggling with in the past, as the more significant acts were booked in the evening, slowly moving the focus of the festival away from the daytime. But this year we wanted to make sure that the lineup was strong from the moment the doors opened. By doing this, you also stimulate a more diverse crowd for each of the shows. Some younger fans would usually only come down to the festival later in the day for a particular artist, but now they often discover new things. Having young people discover new things remains one of our most important roles as the organisation of this festival. Then it's up to them to decide if they like it or not.

Luc: When I prepare my on-stage presentations before the shows, I don't recognise 60 or 70 per cent of the lineup. That's partly because of my age. But when I see something I haven't heard of before; I'm rarely disappointed. That's the power of Pukkelpop. Even if you don't know that many artists on the bill, you'll discover new things, and you'll likely enjoy them.

If there's one thing I hope for, it's that Pukkelpop won't look the same five years from now.

Every year, a lot of things change on site: new stages, new designs, new initiatives, new little tucked-away corners. How important is innovation to you?

Chokri: Innovation is not only achieved in the lineup. Innovation should be considered in everything we do: technology, ecology, stage design, food, art, culture, and so much more. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But that's what we've stood for throughout our history: trying out new things. This year's most significant innovation was The VALL-EY (a small forested area focusing on experimental music, theatre and art in a relaxed atmosphere, ed.). Lucky for us, this experiment passed the test.

Eppo: To give you an earlier example: in 1994, the team decided to create the Dancehall stage (a stage with mostly electronic music, ed.). At the time, people felt like Pukkelpop had installed a discotheque at their rock festival. We took a leap of faith. Some people got it, and some didn't. Two years later, the Boiler Room was born, proving there was a place for electronic music at our festival.

Belgians like to boast that we have the best music festivals in the world. Do you agree?

Chokri: I haven’t been everywhere, so I wouldn’t know if we are the best. You have to keep in mind that the overall level of festival production has been improved all over the world. But as far as Belgium goes, I must say we are amongst the best, especially when it comes to organisation, bookings, mobility and safety. We're a tiny country, and we have organisations like Rock Werchter, Dour, Tomorrowland, Graspop and dozens of others that put on fantastic events of all shapes and sizes. That's something we can be proud of.

What will Pukkelpop look like in 10 years?

Eppo: Well, ten years ago, Chokri told me that festivals wouldn't exist anymore in 5 years. He was joking, of course, but it illustrates how difficult it is to predict the future when things move fast. Sometimes I think I've heard it all, but then I get goosebumps with some new artists. As long as we get the support from our fans, we'll be there, even though we may look completely different in 5 years.

Chokri: If there's one thing I hope for, it's that Pukkelpop won't look the same five years from now (laughs).