Al though only founded in 2014, Be Prog! My Friend has become one of the most unique entries in Europe’s already-crammed festival calendar. Situated in the lush confines of Barcelona’s architectural museum, Poble Espanyol, it’s a two-day celebration of progressive rock old and new and one of the few places where you can find bands like Meshuggah and Camel being given equal billing. This year promises to offer something exceptional, featuring hefty slots for Jethro Tull, Marillion, Anathema, Ulver, Animals As Leaders, Caligula’s Horse and Jardin De La Croix, as well as special sets from Devin Townsend Project, Mike Portnoy and Leprous, so with such magnificence going down, we felt it only right to pin down festival creator Juan Antonio Muñoz to discuss how the festival started and where it’s going.
How are preparations going for the festival? All sorted or are you still ironing some things out?
We are working 365 days a year, but it’s been okay. It’s well-organised and it’s less than two months to go now so we are preparing all the details now
How did Be Prog! My Friend begin? What gave you the idea to not just create a festival but to create a prog rock one?
It’s a different kind of festival. We are promoters in Spain and my company, Madness Live, is organising rock, metal and progressive events through the whole year and; I am involved in big aspects of the prog scene, and so from that I realised that there are many people interested in it yet there are not many festivals related to prog. For example, Night Of The Prog festival in Germany is fantastic but it’s quite different – it’s more oriented to newer prog than the classical bands. Our intention was to combine both waves of prog and include classic bands wherever possible, as well as the newer kind of progressive, more geared towards experimental and avant-garde; or djent, modern metal combined with technical aspects. That’s an important thing for us, so the intention was to create something a bit different from the massive festivals that are happening everywhere, and to offer something special in a great location, as Poble Espanyol is. We are trying to offer something different and the response has been very good so we are happy.
How have you found the process of building up a festival, particularly in the beginning
It was an idea in my mind many years ago. The first edition was in 2014 and I think I started thinking of it 4-5 years before – thinking of the idea and that it might be possible and could be affordable. To do a festival is never easy but as we are promoters working all over Spain the whole year, we know the audience, we know the managers so we have contacts and we also know about production. It was not as difficult as when I started as a promoter, in 2004, when I had no idea about anything – no contacts, no information about production – so that was difficult. This time was not easy but different. We were ready, we had the contacts and the idea and everything clear. We worked hard on it and everything went well from the beginning. We got the artists we wanted, the audience enjoyed it a lot, so not easy but not complicated. The complicated thing is to bring the people and to convince them to see this different kind of festival!
Poble Espanyol is such a unique environment for a festival. Was it always in your head that you wanted the festival to be set here?
Definitely! One of the things that took the most time was to find the right place. As a rock person, I am very open-minded about the music but I know that for a prog fan, someone who enjoys music like Marillion, Opeth and Steven Wilson, it needs to be special. You can’t put them in a normal festival so from the beginning, one of the first things I thought was that the festival needs to be special. It needs to be in a special place and a great environment in a good city. That much was clear to me from the beginning so I didn’t start from before with the festival as I didn’t have the place, but when I realised that Poble Espanyol were doing concerts – in effect, festivals – and these kinds of events, I contacted them. I have to say, it’s a very expensive place to rent. You go to another city, maybe not as important as Barcelona, you can get big places – an empty area, build up a stage, you have a festival – but Poble Espanyol is an architectural museum and it’s so different. It’s perfect. We started with a clear idea of the kind of artists and that the place had to be an important part of the festival. I can’t see it being in any other place. Maybe if we can get bigger artists, as the capacity is quite limited, but apart from that I don’t think we’ll ever change.
When the line-up was finalised, I spoke to someone online about it and he said that it was the kind of festival that he and his wife could go to with their parents, which I loved. Is this idea of different generations of prog fans attending something that you see happening at the festival?
I have my doubts sometimes as we always expect more people coming. It’s one of the important things that I hope are changing as we need more people to make this festival profitable someday, as at the moment it is not happening. Honestly, I expected more interested more interest from the old proggy audience, especially from Spain. We see the age and where the people are coming from, and I think that more of the older people are coming from outside of Spain. I don’t know the reason that the older prog audiences from Spain aren’t coming; maybe they prefer to see the bands in a theatre. We had Camel a few years ago, so maybe they prefer to see Camel in an amphitheatre as it’s more comfortable. I would like to say that we have all generations coming but it’s barely happening. We have people of all ages but it’s more the younger audience that are interested. They are enjoying the new – well, not new as Opeth and Anathema are hardly that – but they are not the classics, but it’s these people who are coming. Maybe over time people will realise that this is the right event and they can be comfortable also, and that the bands have a great sound in a great environment, so I hope these generations will finally come.
The UK, as well as Scandinavia and the US and even France, have quite a rich history in terms of progressive rock. Is Spain similar, or is it more of a recent thing?
Historically, we have had a few but not so many, and not quite as important. For example, Mikael Akerfeldt mentioned one that was quite important in Spain but not especially related to prog, and that was Triana. There are a few others but ones with international impact, no. We have new rock and metal bands but not prog-oriented ones. They are great bands but historically, I don’t think we are not a country so involved in the prog scene. Maybe that’s why about 45% of the people coming to the festival are not Spanish – I think this year we reached 50%. Of course, we have a great esteem and an audience very interested in these events. As a promoter, I’m not as involved as I’d like to be, I’m not organising all the other prog shows in Spain but when they come, they are generally very successful. Tomorrow, we are announcing Steven Wilson who normally does well in Spain, so there is a scene but historically it’s not on par with the UK or Scandinavia. Musically, I think Spain’s musical culture is not poor but they’re not selling many fucking albums here! I’m in touch with some of the labels and unfortunately, for having such a big population, we are not buying much but I think it’s good enough, and it’s growing.
Are there any performances at this year’s festival that you’re particularly looking forward to, as there are some interesting exclusives there, like Leprous’ fan-selected best-of, and Devin Townsend performing Ocean Machine?
A prog festival is a bit limited. There are, of course, a lot of bands and a lot of possibilities but it always depends on the availability. This is a festival with only ten bands and some of them are repeating, have already played, which is not the best thing but sometimes you need to do that because of the interest of the festival, so one of the things we feel we have to do often is having special events – for example, Leprous is one of our favourite bands and they’re touring a lot, which is great, but it means that we have to offer people something special that they can’t see anywhere, and this Leprous show is one of those things, and then Devin Townsend’s Ocean Machine show is not so common either. Then, Mike Portnoy’s show is not exclusive as he announced European dates and the original intention was for this to be one of the three festivals that he was going to do in Europe, but then he decided to do more. That’s great but we try to get something exclusive, not common. Also, Ulver have only played in Spain once and I was the promoter, but for a Spanish audience that’s quite exclusive. The other thing we do, which you’ll have realised from the running order, is that the shows are quite long. What we try to offer to the audience is, “You’re coming to a festival that looks expensive but you won’t see short sets for bands – you’ll see the full event.” Animals As Leaders had headlining shows in Spain last year and they played about 70 minutes, and that’s what they’ll get here. I hope the audience realise our intentions – to have not so many bands but the bands we have are great, to have full shows where we can and also, where it’s possible, to provide something special that nowhere else can offer.
Do you see a connection in the spirits of the old and new bands on offer, and even with your own way of thinking with regards to the festival?
My way of thinking is that it’s quite complicated, especially for the Spanish audience! <laughs> You need to be open-minded. A few years ago, we had Camel and Meshuggah headlining the same festival. I like both! I thought more people think like me but I don’t think so many of those people exist – many people are open-minded to seeing new bands, but a Camel fan seeing Meshuggah is a bit weird. You don’t have to like it but at least try. If you are a Meshuggah fan and you listen to Camel, or Marillion or Jethro Tull, there are a lot of things to discover and the same goes the other way. I believe this is appreciated by many people – I expected more, especially from the older proggy audience, but it is happening. I think this is definitely happening with Leprous – they are young, not as extreme as Meshuggah, but I feel they’re one of the bands the older fans will be more open to being involved in.
Speaking to Emil Amos recently, we discussed the idea that prog came from a very anti-commercial scene where technicality and ambition were celebrated. What about prog attracted you to it?
I’m very open-minded, very eclectic when it comes to music. I started many years ago with my sister, listening to metal, mainly black and death, but I was always open to new things. I think the bands that were the key to me discovering new music were Opeth and Anathema because they started as more extreme bands but were the best possible examples of this combination of musical ideas, trying to do something different. When I started listening to them, it was a natural progression to listening to other bands – new ones at first, then onto classic bands. I got to discover these amazing bands and it’s great as now I am working with them. I just need the music to make me feel – whether it’s death metal or avant-garde, it just needs to mean something to me. I need it to be good, to be played well and to offer something special.