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We all like a good gig, and we've probably all had fantasies of perfect shows we'd like to put together. Equally we’ve had experiences of badly-organised gigs, or poorly advertised shows where groups turn up to give their all for two men and a dog. Last year Mudkiss dipped its toe in the water with the Mudfest all-dayer in Camden, and it'd be fair to say that Lorraine experienced both the ups and the downside of the promoter's lot. It's easy to think of promoters as distant figures exploiting musicians and fans alike - or to just assume that gigs put themselves on. So I thought it could be interesting to talk to Helen Martin, who put on her first show in April, about her new venture and the nuts and bolts of putting on a show. Last weekend she presented a great night with Bitter Springs and the Band of Holy Joy. We agreed to hook up in the week and see what's going on.

DEN: That was a really good night on Saturday - was that your first gig promotion?

HELEN: I thoroughly enjoyed Saturday as well - both bands were so great to work with, and really helpful in the build-up to the gig. The performances were amazing!

It wasn't my first promotion though - what happened was that about 18 months ago a friend at church put on an acoustic gig with the duo Megson, with the Talesmen (one of the groups my husband Phil is in) as support. I got quite a few people down there and really enjoyed that aspect of it. Then I organised a gig with Roy Hill, and Phil put together the support act with some local women - a gospel group called the Brentford Belles as our backing group, by then I'd got the bug! I realised I liked working on short-term focused projects with the aim of entertaining people: planning everything in detail from contacting the artist to closing up after the gig.

The next thing was that Nick Lowe lives near us, and I put a letter through his door asking if he'd do a fundraising gig for a couple of projects at our Church (St Paul's). He agreed, and I did a short course to get my license to sell alcohol, built a team of 20+ volunteers (now known as Hel's Angels), organised (and performed in) the support with my husband. We sold about 420 tickets!

DEN: Tell us a bit about yourself - you've had a bit of a career change to do this I think?

HELEN: Well, that was about April this year - I was working as a probation officer with teenagers and I had completely had enough! I thought - you know what - other people make a go of careers like this, why not me? So I gave up my job and set up my company, Helen Martin Productions, and carried on contacting artists/bands I liked to get them to perform at the church. So my first real professional promotion was in November when I asked Dana Gillespie the blues singer to come and perform. Then we had Sean Millar, the singer/songwriter from Ireland - previously he led a band called Sean Millar and the Cute Hoots which Phil was in - come and perform with Phil and another former Cute Hoot, Jim Walker. That was a lovely gig and there were lots of musicians in the audience who'd been in bands with all three performers over the years.

DEN: Do you have a musical background yourself?

HELEN: My background before probation had been in youth and community work, and I was also part of an artist’s co-op/soundsystem called Cane Toad co-op. I've always loved putting on a show and organising party’s right from childhood. I've done all sorts of jobs in between times - catering work, office work - the worst job was my first one after leaving school, in an industrial laundry.

I've always loved live music - not so much the Wembley sized gigs, although I have seen some amazing bands at large venues - but I've always liked gigs at places like the Half Moon, Hammersmith Odeon, Shepherd's Bush Empire, the 100 Club, as I think you get a great rapport between performers and the audience.

DEN: And your own musical taste?

HELEN: Well it's very varied - I think my all-time favourite band is the Grateful Dead - who I saw on their 1990 tour - they were amazing, and in spite of playing Wembley Arena, made it feel very special! They continued to develop and their songs never sounded the same any time they played them, which I liked.

Other genres I like/have liked include the Stones, Little Feat, the Pixies, Leonard Cohen, Psychedelic Furs, the Durutti Column, Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground, Sammy Mitchell (and lots of other RandB), Steely Dan, Prince Buster, the Specials and lots of other ska, the Cure. Pentangle, lots of other bands from the wilder edges of folk-rock, some of Fairport Convention's stuff - so hard to try and think of them all now. I liked some punk and post-punk like the Raincoats. I liked quite a lot of the American stuff like Patti Smith and the New York Dolls. I tended to like other music that had a punky or anarchic edge, so some rockabilly and psychobilly - my brother Barney Koumis owns the record shop Sounds That Swing in Camden that specialises in that type of music.

I met my husband Phil in 1998. He's been the fiddle and guitar player in quite a few bands, and had just split up from the Shanakies when I met him. He got a job as a caretaker in Richmond in 2000 and met Paul Baker (Wiz) from the Springs who was working as a postie. From there he/we met the Bitter Springs, and Jowe (previously of the Swell Maps) - now Jowe Head and the Demi Monde - and began playing fiddle and/or guitar/triangle/tambourine with all of them, and eventually became the newest member of the Springs. So there's my Bitter Springs connection, and that was my introduction to a lot more musicians. I'm encouraging Phil to do some solo work as well, as he’s a talented composer with lots of ideas and he's planning to record an album in 2011.

DEN: What are the practicalities of putting on a gig?

HELEN: The first thing once you know you've got a venue you can use regularly is to contact the musician and say how about a gig - then you liaise with them or their manager/agent about fees, whether they're happy with a door split or they want a fixed fee, ticket price, publicity, rider, including tech rider, and whether they want to work with a particular support act/guests, or whether I should do that.

Then I spend usually over a month - often three, bombarding everyone I think will be interested with info about the gig - largely online, e.g. facebook, but also actual flyers in shops, pubs, libraries etc. Some bands are very helpful with this as well, others maybe less so. I am after all the promoter, but it really helps if the bands take on some of the publicising as they're the ones with contact lists of fans and so on.

Because I'm using the church as a venue, I have to stock the bar and make sure I'm going to have enough volunteers on the night, and also organise some snacks, even if it's just crisps! Usually about a week before the gig I panic a bit - unnecessarily and get butterflies - I make about five lists of things I need to remember on the night! I always want the show to go really well for the bands and for me, and I'm trying to build a good reputation among musicians as well as the paying public, so a lot is riding on it. I'm so lucky with my volunteers; they help just for the love of music and having fun.

Our main sound engineer is Kevin Swain - he picked up my flyer on his only visit to Morrison's in Brentford and contacted me to offer his services - he's got 25 years experience, and he helps Daniel who's doing work experience on the tech and event management side - that's how our sound was so good the other night. It can be expensive - some venues and bands want a lot of money - I'm lucky that I can hire St Paul's at a quite a reasonable rate, and I think you'll agree it's a fantastic place to put on live music. I'll also be using the Waterman's Arms Arts Centre theatre and they've offered me a very fair deal and let me put on two gigs there in 2011 - one of those is a teen battle of the bands and the winning band will get to do support at one of my gigs! I'd like to put on a gig at the Union Chapel which is a really beautiful venue. I also organise regular open mics - usually themed, e.g. Christmas jingle, St Valentine's (Chapel of Love). We are wide open and welcome anyone - all genres and levels of ability. We have a jam session at the end and it's a wonderful evening all round.

DEN: What have you got coming up next?

HELEN: On 9th January we've got our kitchen gig featuring Mark Dignam who I met through Sean Millar on facebook - he's an Irish acoustic muso who lives in the States. He's coming to do some big gigs as well as some house gigs in Dublin and I've invited him over here to do a gig in our kitchen! All original music and he'll be doing the gig with Phil. Shortly after that on January 29th is when the Jetsonics play at the church - they're another all original music rock band with a strong West London following. It's through Adam from the Jetsonics that I've contacted JC Carroll of the Members - JC has started doing a lot of acoustic work and he’s doing a gig with me and Phil on March 4th. John Otway is playing on February 4th, and I've just organised a gig on June 18th with Ian McNabb, another musician whose work I've admired greatly over the years. (Stop Press - just confirmed: the Members on April 1st!)

DEN: Any other West London venues you're looking to work with?

HELEN: I'd really like to get rock/acoustic music back into the main foyer area at the Watermans - I've seen some great bands there - many would play there on the London leg of their world tours. I think there are a few pubs here and there which could do with re-booting as venues with a bar, rather than pubs with a tiny bit of space for a band!

DEN: Finally - not only have you won the lottery but you've got a time machine too: what would be your fantasy gig to put on?!

HELEN: Oh my word - dream gig, well ... if I could have a small one-dayer and in no particular order, maybe Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Bitter Springs, Nina Simone, the Rolling Stones in their "Sticky Fingers" era... Those kind of questions are always tricky - there's just too much choice! And it'd have to be in the walled garden in Boston Manor Park on a balmy late summer afternoon/evening, or else maybe at the 12 Bar - or of course at St Paul's Brentford!

Interview by Den 10/12/10
Photos provided by Helen Martin