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Organizers of the fast-growing Dutch festival Le Guess Who? inspired by Canadian sound

By in Culture
Braids wander through some sort of post-apocalyptic urban wasteland.

UTRECHT, Netherlands — Six years before #whothefuckisarcadefire trended on Twitter, music fans in the Netherlands were asking an equally pressing question: Le Guess Who? The answer has nothing to do with Bachman, Cummings and crew. It’s the name of a fresh and dynamic music festival, held annually in the city of Utrecht.

Music lovers have a wide range of choices when it comes to festivals, but Le Guess Who? is a unique event. Of particular note is that in its early years, it focused on Canadian artists. It’s undeniable: “Canadian Indie” has come into its own over the past decade. But it has not just been a national phenomenon.

In the Netherlands, Canada’s auditory exports caught the attention of two music aficionados working in the industry — Bob van Heur and Johan Gijsen. They heard what Gijsen calls a “big sound” coming from the Great White North and wanted to share it with a wider audience.

In 2007, Le Guess Who? was born. The line-up read like a who’s who of CBC Radio 3: MSTRKRFT, Caribou, Black Mountain and Hot Hot Heat were among the 11 acts brought over for the inaugural festival.

It was a resounding success. Le Guess Who? nearly doubled in size by 2008, trebled in 2009, and continues to grow at a steady clip. This year’s festival will see more than 80 bands performing over four days, from Nov. 24 to 27.

Naturally, the festival has had to undergo some changes. Importing 80 Canadian bands to the Netherlands each year is simply unfeasible, and thus the geographic theme has been dropped. But Le Guess Who? has not foregone its original ethos. Organizers still seek out avant garde and intriguing bands, now with a world-wide scope. The Canadian contingent is still strong — Braids, Pink Mountaintops, Snailhouse and Socalled are all on the 2011 roster — but the shift in focus might give some of the more patriotic music fans cause for concern.

Canada’s independent music has been in top form for the past decade, but is its heyday (or rather “eh-day”) over? Have Harper’s arts funding cuts quashed that token Canuck creativity? Not at all. Anyone attuned to pop culture knows who the fuck Arcade Fire is; local Saskatoon boys, The Sheepdogs, just made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine; heck, the “Montreal Music Scene” even has its own Wikipedia page.

Canadian music is clearly still growing. And van Heur, having just returned from a quick stint in La Belle Province, can vouch.

“There’s music going on on every corner,” he says of Montreal.

According to van Heur, there is more collaboration than competition among artists. It creates more of a community feeling that is, in turn, more conducive to experimentation.

This atmosphere was what originally attracted him and Gijsen, and it’s what they try to emulate with Le Guess Who? The resulting camaraderie is what makes it stand out among the many music festivals held across Europe. As a festival-going nation, the Netherlands is on par with the U.K., and the Dutch, dare I say, are a discerning bunch. Despite competing against countless other festivals, Le Guess Who? continues to grow precisely because it offers attendees an alternative experience. It is not the sort of weekend when one wears rubber boots and watches big-name pop acts projected on a big screen. It’s indoors and intimate, and intentionally so.

The aim is to “try to create this family base,” van Heur explained, “because [if] backstage the vibe is good, the show will be better, the audience will enjoy it more.”

When booking bands, he and Gijsen don’t simply seek out bands based on popularity. Van Heur describes the process as a sort of curation; they try to cater to what other artists might respond to, so as to capture “that family kind of feeling.” They look for artists who would complement each other musically, as well as personally.

This matchmaking shows in the 2011 line-up. Bill Callahan, Low and Pinback will headline for a night of classic lo-fi; and another, featuring Panda Bear, Akron/Family and Gang Gang Dance will be frenetic and energetic. The evening featuring The Besnard Lakes, Suuns, Forest Fire and Okkervil River has an obvious but entirely unintentional theme: the great outdoors.

Those who can’t zip across the ocean on such short notice can rest assured, as Le Guess Who? is an annual event. And its growth seems inevitable. With more than 50 per cent of ticket-buyers coming from outside of the host city, Le Guess Who? is quickly becoming a destination festival. It’s the place to be to see both established and up-and-coming artists — artists hand-picked for having that engaging je nes sais quoi, which Canadian concert-goers should recognize.

Organizers will keep the festival’s format open, hoping that it evolves, as it has, in an organic way. Regardless of the shape it takes, its essence will remain the same. Van Heur wants Le Guess Who? to be “a creative space for artists with a like-minded vision to come to Utrecht to make music, play music for the audience and make art.”

It looks to be the freshest, most sonically stimulating festival in the Netherlands — and even non-nationalists should feel a pinch of pride that it has a Canadian connection. As per the name, that won’t change. Question mark and all, Le Guess Who? will continue to pay homage to the festival’s roots.

“It’s not just the title,” van Heur says. “It’s a question we ask.”

And of course, ever considerate of Canada’s language laws, they do so in both French and English.

Photo: Vincent Moon/Flickr

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