Interview | Strange Victory Presents
By Cara Gibney • Photography: Tremaine Gregg
What’s it like inside the head of Frank Sidebottom?
Darren Smyth could tell you. He’s the man behind Strange Victory, the independent music promoter responsible for gifting Belfast with acts like Mudhoney, Sleaford Mods and Grandmaster Flash. Indeed, he could potentially be the only person in Belfast who has worn the giant head of Frank Sidebottom.
He remembers it well. It was 2007. He’d been a fan since he was 14. “He was just the nicest man in the world,” Smyth told me “and a total lunatic. We ended up back in the Europa where I was putting him up. He wouldn’t let us buy a drink … he sat on his bed playing Beatle songs on his Bontempi organ. One by one everybody fell asleep until it was just me. He had the head in a drum case. So I took it into the bathroom and I got to try it on, only for about 10 seconds, but yeah. It’s not much of a rock and roll story, but I got to wear the head.”
Strange Victory started seven years ago; the first gig being either Billy Childish or Lisa Hannigan. It’s hard to remember, there have been so many. Before that he worked under the moniker of Fortune Cookie, putting on 100 shows, ranging from Cat Power to Biffy Clyro to Richard Hawley. For the first few years of Fortune Cookie, he worked with good friend Pete O’Neill, and after that he worked solo. After 90+ gigs, plenty of which didn’t cover costs, he could feel his enthusiasm for the ongoing struggle starting to diminish.
Then one day he received a phone call. It was Gary Lightbody, with whom he had worked a number of years earlier on the two Reindeer Section albums. Basically, Lightbody saw what Smyth had been trying to do through Fortune Cookie. He understood why it’s important that Belfast is introduced to non-commercial, independent, over-looked artists who aren’t mainstream enough to draw big audiences. He got why, after being starved of culture for so many years, Northern Ireland needs to be given access to genuinely talented, original, innovative and pioneering acts. So he gave Fortune Cookie a hand that would keep it afloat, allow it to continue the cause. “He did it purely because he kind of understands what I do” Smyth explained; “It spurred me on.”
Smyth started booking for what was to become Strange Victory, and Lightbody’s donation covered costs for around 80 shows. Now, so many years later, the money is long spent, the shows are long over, but Strange Victory is established and Smyth has self-funded the further 60 acts that have performed since.
Despite the impressive amount of acts that Strange Victory has brought to Belfast over the years, he’s still a one man band. “All the shows come out of my own pocket. I take all the risk; do all the work. Pretty much everything apart from getting up on stage and playing the tunes or doing the sound.”
“Thee Oh Sees is possibly the best show I’ve ever been at, never mind promoted,” he reflected. “In 20 odd years of putting on shows, it’s just sometimes you get the timing right with things, and you can see something. There are hundreds if not thousands of things I’d want to bring over to Belfast. There are acts that are household names – in my mind – but 70 people have heard of them in Belfast. That doesn’t make the figures add up. Not that it ever stops me.”
The future indicates no shortage of variety in the acts Strange Victory is bringing to Belfast. Upcoming shows include American experimental rock group Battles, Welsh singer songwriter Cate Le Bon, Plaid, the electronic music duo from London, and American country blues musician Charlie Parr. With more to be announced before the end of the year, keep an eye on www.strangevictory.co.uk to stay up to date.