A brief history of Primavera Sound, as told by one of its founders.



Pablo Soler is one of three founding directors of Primavera Sound. I find him sat at the bar of The Hotel Princess, Barcelona, on the second day of this year’s festival. It’s an exciting place to be, and a convenient one for anyone wishing to chat with some of the world’s best alternative bands – almost all of the 200 acts billed currently occupy the twenty-five floors above us; most of them are sat outside in the sun. When I ask Pablo how he is he puffs out his cheeks. “Well, there were those problems with the cards,” he says. “That’s all totally sorted now, but it still hurts, y’know?” He’s referring to an idea brilliant in theory, but spectacularly flawed in the real world, as it proved to be last night. It involved 30,000 people charging their plastic festival passes with drinks tokens, only for a vast majority of the card scanners to die, leaving us broke, thirsty and in a massive queue. Cash bars were opened, but it was no use – all of our Euros where trapped in these plastic rectangles. But that was yesterday, and it’s surprising how quickly a Flaming Lips live show can make you feel drunk and cry.

A rare blemish on the festival’s eleven-year history, it makes it all the more frustrating for Pablo, who has worked on Primavera since he conceived the idea with Alberto Guijarro and Gabi Ruiz in 2001.

“Gabi had been working on Benicassim,” he explains, “and in 2000, after working on that for a few years, he wasn’t happy with what was going on, so we sat down and said: ‘Let’s try and do something in Barcelona. We are not going to have camping, and that’s going to be a handicap for us.’ That was what was against us at the start, but you can get a cheap hotel room in Barcelona, and slowly it worked.”

It’s turned out to be one of Primavera’s key selling points. Your average tent at Glastonbury reaches 200 degrees by 6am; in Barcelona, campers would be boiled by breakfast.

“I can still remember the first one,” Pablo continues. “It was one day and it was small – like 3,000 people – and that made sense. We were looking for somewhere to do a bigger thing, but while we were waiting we thought we’d do a smaller event, and that was good for us. It allowed us to realise that we shouldn’t focus so much on DJs.”

In 2001 Primavera’s big names were UNKLE and Armand Van Helden. Pablo now laughs at the latter. They were followed in ’02 by Pulp and Spiritualized.

“2004 was the first real success,” says Pablo, citing the first appearance of Pixies as a turning point that saw the festival sell out and suddenly be in need of a bigger site.  Across town by Barcelona’s port, Parc del Forum had been built for an event called “Cultural Forum of The World, or something like that”, in a hope to recapture the excitement created by the 1992 Olympic Games. After six months, the site – which resembles a series of futuristic, distopian, slanted car parks – lay baron. “We realised that no one was going to use this space, because it’s too big. Now, what they do here is a south of Spain regional festival, which is recreated here in Barcelona, and us – we’re the only two who use it all year.”

Primavera’s closest rival is Benicassim, although that’s a bit like saying that Bestival goes tooth and nail with V every year. Benicassim is close enough to the city to be considered a Barcelona festival by us Brits, yet far enough inland for it to be uncomfortably hot, with or without a tent. Its lineup veers more towards radio-friendly unit-shifters, and Anglo-centric ones at that. There’s the electro-heavy Sonar too, also in Barcelona, although Pablo seems less concerned by them.

“Sonar and us, we’re ok,” he says. “We share Barcelona and we’re pretty close in the schedule, and they really have a professional team that do something really different. I don’t believe we have a clash with them at all. Benicassim… I’m glad you’ve asked. There’s more of a clash there, but, for instance, PiL played Benicassim last year and there was 200 people watching the show. PiL played here yesterday and there was 20,000 people watching the show. In ’96/’97/’98 they focussed on indie bands, but they’ve stayed with that, and it’s become a very British festival now – at least some of the lineup is aimed at the British consumer. And for that reason, we’re not fighting with them, because Primavera isn’t anti-British or for British. We all have really different approaches and we have good relations because we almost don’t have any relations.”

Last year Pixies returned to Primavera, and Pulp were back this time to play their first show in nine years. It’s become a musician’s festival as much as it has one for ‘serious music fans’ who fancy a grander ATP in the sun. Shortly after Primavera 2010, I interviewed Tim Burgess. We spoke more about the festival than we did The Charlatans. “It’s just the best one out there,” he said. “It was them that gave us the idea of performing the whole of ‘Some Friendly’. It doesn’t matter that they can’t pay you as much as other festivals – bands just want to play there, with that lineup, by the sea, and with that weather. I mean, this year Michael Rother was first on, and BEAK> – what a nice way to start off a festival!” An hour after speaking with Pablo, Merrill Garbus – aka tUnE-yArDs – simply says: “It’s not every show you get put up like this,” while gazing around the hotel’s lobby.

“That’s the most important thing that we’ve learned in ten years,” says Pablo, “the bands you’re working with have to be happy. If they have a good time they’ll want to come back, and they’ll tell their friends to come and play Primavera. We just need to learn that we’re no longer making a festival for, like, 7,000 people. We’ve always tried to do everything ourselves, and sometimes we need to realise we need some help. Take those cards for instance…”

Pablo puffs out his cheeks.

By Stuart Stubbs

Originally published in issue 29 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. June 2011

« Previous Article
Next Article »