Thanks to classic metal fiesta Brofest, Stu Bartlett has become a pivotal figure in reviving the NWOBHM sound both in the UK and overseas, and is an integral part of North East’s England’s rock landscape. He has also spearheaded Newcastle’s extreme metal festival Byker Grave since 2013 and plays a key role in bringing underground acts to the city through Byker Grave Bookings.
With both Byker Grave and Brofest fast approaching, Rushonrock’s Rich Holmes got the inside track from one of the UK’s most dedicated independent promoters.
Rushonrock: The annual Byker Grave Festival is returning to Tyneside this month with the likes of Solstice, Chapel Of Disease and Hellripper on the bill. How did the festival originally come about?
Stu Bartlett: Byker Grave started when the Northern Darkness festival fell apart in 2013. There was a bunch of bands who had already booked accommodation, travel and that kind of thing. There were a few of us, including Paul Priest who plays in Gets Worse and Hundred Year Old Man, who offered to help out. We put the call out to see if there were any bands who were stuck and needed any help. Three bands who would have been on at Northern Darkness played at the first Byker Grave and we booked the others around them.
Rushonrock: What has been your personal highlight of Byker Grave?
SB: It was nice to bring PLF back last year: they hadn’t been to the UK in around ten years. They are my favourite band who have ever played Byker Grave: I am a massive grindcore fan and I love those two guys. They were really good!
Rushonrock: Bong, Conan, Body Harvest, Wode, Conjurer, Slabdragger, Venom Prison… bands from across the extreme metal spectrum have played at Byker Grave. Why do you cover such a diverse range of music?
SB: The people involved in it all have completely different tastes, so trying to get someone we all agree on is pretty much impossible – that is why it’s such an eclectic line up! If we get two black metal bands we try to get a doom band on to even it out, so it’s not the same style. Otherwise, people get bored. There is nothing worse than going to gigs where every single band is the same.
It also helps bring other people in who wouldn’t normally turn up.
Rushonrock: Brofest is returning to Newcastle for the sixth time in February 2020, with bands such as Quartz, Haunt and Saracen appearing this time around, and much anticipated reunions from Starchild and Hydra Vein. Why did you decide to launch the festival in the first place?
SB: It was mostly because me, Stu and Martin (Stu’s fellow promoters), couldn’t be bothered to travel to gigs all the time, so we said, ‘why don’t we do it in Newcastle?’. There were no big plans or anything.
We were influenced by British Steel at the Underworld in Camden, we went to the last one and it was poorly attended – we saw that it wasn’t the greatest turnout but we wanted to see the bands up here so we thought we’d give it a shot. It worked and people turned up for it, which was a surprise! We took what they were doing and then put our own spin on it, especially with the reunion shows.
We just booked a gig and the gig turned into an all-day thing and then the all-day thing turned into two days and then we had to move the venue because we didn’t have enough space!
Rushonrock: Fans travel from all over the UK, Europe and even from across the Atlantic for Brofest. Has its popularity, both nationally and internationally, taken you by surprise?
SB: Definitely. We didn’t really expect anyone to really give a shit. It was more like booking it for ourselves.
Rushonrock: What is behind Brofest’s success? Why has it become a mainstay in the ‘traditional heavy metal’ calendar for so many fans?
SB: A lot of the bands that people have seen at Brofest are bands that they never thought they’d be able to see – there have been posts from Spanish or Italian fans saying that they were crying during certain songs!
It’s kind of what you do it for – when you realise people give a shit and spend their hard earned money to come over and actually support something you do. It is a big burden if it goes down the shitter, so it gives you a kick up the arse to make it worthwhile and to make it something that people remember.
And Brofest taking place in the North East helps too: a lot of foreigners were interested in coming over because it was the home of Neat Records, Venom and Satan, and all that scene. That has given it a boost.
We have had people from Australia, Peru and Costa Rica coming over – that blows my mind!
Rushonrock: Brofest is known for being a catalyst for the reunions of NWOBHM-era bands – which one really stands out for you?
SB: Mythra is the big one. We tried for a while to get them back on board and since we got them back together they have released two new records, they have played over in the US, they have played Europe… they are going pretty strong.
One of the good things about Mythra is that they are really good songwriters, so even though their sound is ‘up to date’, it still sounds like Mythra – some of those bands don’t sound like they used to, they modernise the sound but they also modernise the songwriting so they sound like everyone else.
Mythra is the biggest success and they are local so it’s nice to see them getting out and about!
Rushonrock: What is your proudest achievement with Brofest?
SB: I think my main thing was getting Satan back to play in Newcastle. That was something I had asked (Satan guitarist) Russ Tippins about before Brofest was even a thing! Russ turned up to most of them and we’d had Blitzkrieg play at Brofest so Brian (Ross) had seen what we were doing. Because of what we had achieved in getting bands back together, I think they finally felt there was a platform and it was worth doing. I think it was five years after they reunited that they actually played Newcastle.
Rushonrock: What has sparked the increased interest in NWOBHM and classic 70s and 80s metal among younger fans and musicians?
SB: Youtube! One of the main reasons that anyone gives a shit anymore is just the fact that the music is widely available. The internet has changed things. When we were younger we were getting tapes of Iron Maiden, now people can download Satan’s Kiss Of Death single. You can go back and research all of the bands of that era.
Plus, a lot of the labels, like High Roller, have been pushing the reissues, which is helpful.
And there will be people who hear the new Seven Sisters record and look at the patches on the band members’ jackets and they will go and find out who those bands are…
Rushonrock: Which bands are on your Brofest wishlist?
SB: Virtue and Mendez Prayer, although that’s blatantly never going to happen! Mendez Prayer’s singer lives in Australia and Matt and Tudor Sheldon from Virtue run a really successful business. They said they’d love to play but don’t have the time.
Rushonrock: You’ve helped a new generation of acts – who draw from classic metal and NWOBHM – to gain a higher profile. Who do you rate from that scene?
SB: Everyone I have worked it with so far. Bands such as Toledo Steel, Amulet, Seven Sisters, Skyryder and Heavy Sentence, they all fit into my kind of outlook. They came across to me as like the bands I got into originally when I started doing shows, with that DIY punk aspect: they are the equivalent in the metal world. They have their heads screwed on properly, they understand what they are trying to do and they do it for the right reasons.
A lot of it is to do with the attitude: the way that they handle themselves is one of the most important things for me. I don’t book bands I don’t want to see, I rate every one of them that I have booked. They understand what that kind of music should sound like and they are all really good songwriters.
Byker Grave 2019 is on November 30 at the Star and Shadow Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne. The line-up includes Solstice, Hellripper, Chapel Of Disease, Endless Swarm, Nuclear Sunset, Opium Lord and Nemerous. For tickets click here.
Brofest #6 takes place on February 28-29, 2020 at Newcastle University Newcastle upon Tyne. The line-up features Quartz, Saracen, Stormchild, Haunt, Traveler, Medusa Touch, Hydra Vein, Overdrive, Sacred Alien, Skyryder, Risen Prophecy and Heavy Sentence. For tickets click here.
Header picture: High Spirits at Brofest in 2017.
With thanks to Mick Burgess of Metal Express Radio for the Stu Bartlett image.