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Interviews : “It’s all about the journey” – An interview with Thomas Jensen (Wacken Open Air)

By on August 8, 2018

Photo credit: ICS Festival GmbH www.wacken.com

Wacken Open Air is commonly understood to be the world’s biggest and arguably most prestigious Heavy Metal Festival. Last Saturday, on the festivals penultimate day, I was honoured to be able to catch up with the festival’s founder Thomas Jensen, who gave me some really thoughtful and profound insights into he believes has led to the success of Wacken Open Air over the last 29 years.

‘When we started in the 90’s heavy metal wasn’t at the peak. So we never started with a grand plan. In Germany, there is an old saying that translates roughly to ‘the way is the target’; it’s all about the journey. We just wanted to have a party for all of our mates with the music we love and that’s still what we’re doing today. Actually Angry Anderson described it best on our first DVD in 2001; something like ‘a good event is like making a bomb, you need the right mix of chemical components. If one thing is missing the thing will not ‘go off’’. We’re really lucky that the bomb went off the first time, and hopefully, it has ‘gone off’ once again this year’

For the record the bomb definitely went off again this year – Wacken Open Air sold out yet again, the line-up was immense, and the organisers were blessed with stunning summer weather. I made a note of the summer weather and the lack of the notorious mud, but Thomas was keen to make sure Wacken’s reputation for mud doesn’t put off any future travellers;  That’s not actually 100% true if you really dig into the statistics we usually have good weather. In 2013 it was really hot. There have been some wet ones, so you’re half right, and yes  I think this one is the hottest yet.

Photo credit: ICS Festival GmbH www.wacken.com

Putting the weather aside, I was keen to understand how Thomas and the others involved with Wacken have been able to get the community engaged in a festival which essentially transforms their small, rural village, into a heavy metal paradise. “It’s the organic thing. We grew up here so we have a different relationship and different responsibilities than they do in other places. If my dad was still alive and I f*cked up something around here he would have beaten me bigtime in the ass! People here still know me from when I was a schoolboy”.

I was keen to dive deeper into the unique spirit I’d observed in the village and Thomas was happy to elaborate some more; “I guess everybody has a responsibility (every festival has a responsibility to the community in which they hold their event), but we live here, we know we can’t get away from it, we can’t leave them (locals) in the sh*t, so we gotta make it cool. We have been very open to the community; We still have some people who give us sh*t though, and a lot of people say it’s not their music; can’t we do something else. But we just tell them that this is what we love, and you’re welcome to come and have a listen. We actually give them (the residents) a free ticket to one of the show days so they can come and try to understand it – believe me,  if you stand in front of the stage and see, for example, Lemmy come out and say ‘We’re Motörhead and we play Rock n’ Roll’… man, if that does not touch you then I don’t know! And the energy and production –  I think that metal for me is about live music, and it always has been live music. There are other styles that I like to listen to on a stereo on headphones – take blues rock – for me, this isn’t about a big stage, it’s about the small club vibe, you have to be able to see the whites in the eyes of the guitarist. So yeah, That’s how we expose the local public”.

When I made the observation that Wacken Open Air reflects the global metal scene particularly well (given the well-balanced line-up, and global representation thanks to initiatives like the Metal Battle) Thomas was humble yet appreciative “Thank you, that’s amazing. We try to cover it all, but its impossible. Somewhere on the planet, there is some kid in his garage doing something we don’t know about”

We were discussing how great this year’s festival had been already, and the array of big-name bands still to come. Whilst exploring this I was keen to see whether there was a particular moment or act which he took particular pride in over the 29 festivals held to date.  ‘There are so many, in 2000 we expanded to the  Thursday and we got Rose Tattoo. It’s so many things though, Wacken is like the family gathering, the family bbq of the metal scene, so I can’t really pinpoint one moment, every year has its moments. If I had to name one thing, its hard to touch Motörhead – in 2013 Lemmy had to stop the show because it was so hot. We said to the band only do 2 or 3 songs because it was so hot but Lemmy said ‘no, if I’m headlining, I’m doing a full set’. After what happened I remember sitting in the dressing room with Lemmy and the guys listening to Aftershock while they were recovering  – those sort of moments are very memorable too’.

Photo credit: ICS Festival GmbH www.wacken.com

On the day of the interview Wacken Open Air had just announced some of the acts that will be playing next year,  the 30th anniversary of the event. Thomas was keen to point out how Australian heavy the line-up was shaping up to be already. “I love Australia and I love Australian music, I’m managing Rose Tattoo in Europe, and next year we have Rose Tattoo, Parkway Drive and Airbourne playing Wacken! I love Australian beer too, drink it so cold it’s almost frozen”.

Given his obvious interest in the Australian metal scene I couldn’t help but ask if he had any future plans to become involved in event promotion down under; “I love Australia but I’m not going down there enough for my liking. I have little children now, but once they’re older who knows. It’s such a great country with such great artists. I’m an all-time AC/DC fan. But the thing is, don’t try and copy other festivals. Maybe we need to dig deeper into it though, I have a lot of friends down there”.

It was interesting to hear Thomas labour the point regarding the importance of avoiding the urge to copy other festivals. I was keen to understand exactly what he was getting at with that comment, and  I pondered whether it was perhaps a desire to compete with the huge European events that ultimately saw the demise of Soundwave and The Big Day Out; “My advice is don’t try to copy others. I spoke to a lot of people in Australia in the past, but the thing is, it has to be organic. In some aspect of life-size does matter, but in this case, size doesn’t matter, believe me. It’s not about that, but I guess it helps if you want the big names”.

I was honoured to get the opportunity to sit down and chat with Thomas Jensen on what must have been a busy day for him. Despite the range of engagements he was due to attend/host, he was generous with both his time and the free Beer!

Photo credit: ICS Festival GmbH www.wacken.com

Reflecting on our brief chat it dawned on me that Thomas’ insight about the success of Wacken and his advice for future success for Australian festivals are intrinsically linked.  Moreover, the fundamentals can be applied far beyond the application we discussed. Good, successful, sustainable outcomes are generally achieved when someone embarks on something organically, from a place of passion, and with genuine care for the community in which they operate.

Perhaps the vast size of Australia and spread-out population simply means that the formula for success of European music festivals like Wacken can’t be applied successfully down under? If a promoter isn’t interested in starting small and growing events from the ground up how can they hope to get the sort of community buy-in that is required to create a sustainable outcome? If this is true, then perhaps we consider supporting the promoters in our states who go out on a limb to create festivals for our enjoyment. Rather than lament the demise of Soundwave and the limited geographical coverage of Download, perhaps we are better served by supporting the promoters who bring international bands to our country for headline club shows, and support the smaller scale festivals which do take place in our states –  Steel Assassins (NSW), Blacken (NT), Stormrider (WA), and The New Dead (SA) are good examples. Conversely, If you are lucky enough to be able to afford to head to Europe for a festival I can sincerely recommend Waken Open Air –  30 years strong and counting.

As it stands, over 60,000 tickets have sold out to next year’s Wacken Open Air, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary. The current line-up for Wacken 2019 features Sabaton (who will be performing a special 20th Anniversary show), Parkway Drive, Meshuggah, Demons & Wizards (performing their only festival show in Germany), Powerwolf, Airbourne, Rose Tattoo, Within Temptation, Meshuggah, Krokus, Dark Funeral, Avatar and many more acts to come!

Click here to secure your tickets to Wacken Open Air 2019.

About

Chris is a long time metal enthusiast and advocate for Australian heavy music scene. Chris grew up in Perth, Western Australia and is a past member of modern melodeath act Let's Kill Uncle. Currently residing in London, UK.