Retro Trax boss, Ian Kenyon: ‘I want to keep it away from that corporate route’

Ian Kenyon

Ian Kenyon

Retro Trax Festival bills itself as the ‘world’s first ever two day outdoor camping 100% Old Skool event’. It takes place in the early part of the summer festival season and brings party-heads one of the best selections in the old style of Dance music, which wowed a generation in the warehouse and M25 party scene. We took some time to catch up with the man behind the event, Ian Kenyon, to find out more on how he came to be involved in the festival scene, and how he keeps the spirit of those early raves still burning at his events.   

To begin with can you tell us how you got into the rave scene, what’s your personal story of attachment with the music, the people behind the parties and the time you realised that this really was the thing for you?

To be fair I really got into the music in the 1980s. After growing up on a healthy diet of weird, wonderful and inspiration sounds played to me as a child in the 1970s by my mum, dad and Uncle Michael, such as Kraftwerk, Jean Michelle Jarre, Vangelis and everything ranging from Ska through to Pink Floyd, I began buying my own 12” singles. I was always drawn to the electronic bands of the time like OMD, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, and their releases often included remixes and extended Dance versions of different tracks. This naturally led to my interest in House music around the late 1980s – perfect timing for when the Acid House scene really took off in the UK in 1988.

The first night I went to was a night called Daisy funnily enough, which started in ’88 and went through to ’89. It was still that period when they were crossing over – there was everything from New Order – the more mainstream stuff through to the real underground stuff. One minute it would be the Clash – Rock the Kasbah then the next you’d be getting down to Jack Your Body. There was a big influence from the Ibiza Balearic sound. It was fantastic and exciting – a really cool eclectic sound. It was all the music I loved from the 80s mixed with the Acid House sound and all of a sudden you were drawn into it and that’s when I started going out and buying Dance records.

I became a DJ about two years later after spending most of my nights out in a famous club called Quadrant Park – I’ve run a couple of big reunions for this night, the sell-out Club Isis events in 2006 and I’ve been running a website, since 2002. That’s where I went every week from the first events pretty much till the place shut down. It was a legal night and there’s probably got a history all of its own. What was happening in Quadrant Park was happening all over the country – it was just great to have it on your doorstep. That’s when I really started getting into it. I’d take a little betting shop pen with me on nights out and ask DJs to write down the name of the tunes I liked on a piece of Xtra mint gum wrapper. Then once I’d amassed a huge record collection, the next natural step was to get myself a set of decks and teach myself to mix.

How did Retro Trax come about? Do you have a philosophy or ethos behind what you’re doing and what kind of personal satisfaction do you get from putting on the event, and how difficult is it to get the whole show up and running? 

I’ve been putting on events for twenty odd years. Retro Trax came about because I’ve had three record shops, two in Liverpool in the 1990s and then in 2008 I spotted a shop and I decided to have another roll of the dice and I called it Retro Trax. I’d been putting on events like the Quadrant Park reunions. When I opened the shop, everyone who I knew started asking me about another event. I’d been lucky enough to have a good following – people can see that I love what I do. I don’t have a regular job, this is what I do and that passion shines through. My partner Lisa is 100% behind me – she does have a regular job and she makes sure all the bills get paid so that we can make the party happen.

So everyone was on my case to do another event. We decided to go for Back to the Old Pool in the 02 and that’s where it all started again. I just absolutely love it. Although there are many people who were at the top of their game 15 years ago and they’re now trying to jump in on this revival, I’ve always been about the scene. Even in 1993 my record shop sold classics and my DJs have always reflected this. For me I am Old School through and through.

History has a tendency to romanticize events. Did the 1980s events have a certain kind of culture like people were fighting against the prominent greed of the time, or was it a lot less than that – just a bunch of bored kids getting off their faces in clubs and fields? 

For me personally it was all about the music, but the actual movement itself actually had a lot to do with the young people of the time wanting to be a part of something bigger. The dance thing came along and in the beginning people treated it very sceptically and didn’t think it was going to last – like it was just a passing thing. You look back at it now and it has stood the test of time. It’s outlived two generations of people. There’s people coming to my events now whose parents were into it and people in their forties coming to my festival with their kids.

As far as the movement goes, I just think it was something that people really embraced. For me the magical years were the late 1980s and early 90s. That’s the time I’m always trying to recreate.

What’s did you get from clubbing and raves back in the day, that you can’t get from festivals? For you, what is the big difference between these two types of events, if you think there is any difference at all? What aspects of the rave scene are still present in the festival scene today? 

I think with a festival you can pace yourself and really take your time to see everything, whereas with a club event or a rave the whole experience is crammed into seven hours and three rooms. You can only physically be in one place at one time – so when you’ve got forty odd DJs spread over a small number of rooms it can be quite difficult to get to see the ones you want to see and to work out set times and all that kind of thing. You can end up spending hours just trying to get from room to room and thus missing all the main events. With a festival the whole thing is more relaxed and you can go and see this guy for an hour, take a wander and see a live PA for half an hour – it’s much more feasible to actually get a glimpse of everyone on the line up. The festival really gives you the time to do that and with a much more relaxed atmosphere too – once you’re in you can have a sit on the grass, have a smoke take your time. Everything in a club is more rushed – get in, find the cloakroom, go to the bar, get a spot on the dance floor, queue to smoke, wait to get back in. Clubbing has lost its way and the smoking ban definitely affected clubland, so I think the festival environment definitely suits the older raver.

Clubbing now is all about VIP booths, bottles of grey goose and who you are. I don’t know what it’s like round the rest of the UK, but that’s definitely how it’s gone in Liverpool – down a really corporate route that seems to just want to ask what can be squeezed out of people. I wouldn’t blame the clubbers -it’s just what’s been forced on them. We used to go and stand in a warehouse with no bar, nothing to sit on, just some oil barrels and podiums to dance on. It was basic clubbing and the festival scene is taking music back to that. I try to price Retro Trax very competitively. You get charged £25 to go to a half decent event whereas I charge £85 for a weekend that gives people a chance to get a taste of the everything that’s happened in Dance music over the last 25 years.

People keep asking me if I’m going to do a VIP area and I really don’t want to do it. I look back at how things used to be back in the day and I thought to myself “we are all equal – let’s strip it right back to basics and not do any VIP”. I could have sold hundreds of VIP tickets, but I just don’t think it’s right for the whole festival vibe. I want to keep it away from that corporate route.

What do you guys do at Retro Trax to really capture that Old Skool Rave feeling? We’ve heard some really good things about your event – how do you manage to attract the right kind of crowd to catch that all important festival vibe? 

Well I think most importantly we keep it over 21. People might say that’s a little bit controversial, but for me it’s making a statement. We don’t want younger people in here – you want to come out in a relaxed atmosphere with like-minded people of a certain age. The demographic for my event is 30-45 and you’ve got to stay loyal to your crowd. Lisa and I always try to learn from other successful events that we go to, and although other people might say that they’ve had the perfect time we’ve looked at a few things behind the scenes and thought this wasn’t right and that wasn’t quite there. You can never please all the people all the time, but I try to learn from every event I put on and keep on making things better for my audience.

Looking at it from the point of view of the actual event, when it comes to putting the line-up together, I always try to put down the line-up that would make me excited. When I pick up my flyer, it’s the one I wish someone would hand me outside a club so I could say “Jesus – that looks amazing… I have to go to that”. It’s as simple as that really.

After two years of putting on successful Retro Trax festivals you must be feeling like you’re getting to grips with the festival game now. What advice would you give to anyone who’s thinking of setting up their own festival and how hard do you have to work? 

Retro Trax has now been going as an event for five years now. I would say the last event was a lot easier than in previous years. I’ve bought in a proper production crew and an event management team to help sort out different things and the venue helped out. However in hindsight when I started out I wish I’d have had a little bit more money behind me, left it a little bit longer and done more homework. There’s so much you take for granted. You imagine you’re just going to find a field somewhere, book a few DJs and people will come. There’s health and safety issues, licensing restrictions, council issues, there’s just a mountain of stuff to deal with before you’ve even got to things like traders, drinks an concessions. Now doing a third and fourth one seems like a whole lot easier.

Finally what can we expect from the Retro Trax festival in 2014. We know you’ve bought in some really educational DJs, such as the legendary Ibiza trend-setter Alfredo – any hints to your line-ups and party selections? 

Well next year we’ve got the World Cup and we know it’s difficult for people with families to just drop everything and come to our party. You have to be respectful of other stuff that’s going on, so at the moment we’re thinking of doing a couple of rave-style events between now and next spring. I’d be lying if I didn’t have an idea of what I’d like to do in the back of my mind – who we’d have back and who would have on. It’s hard to get people tied down so far in advance however. Also I don’t really want to say who we’d like as they might pump up their price. I have got two or three quality headliners in mind from different spheres of the scene that could really help make the party.

Although one of the newer festivals in the UK, Retro Trax has received some very favourable reviews and last year it was shortlisted for the Best New Festival Prize at the prestigious UK Festival awards and has received a further nomination for their 2013 event. You can catch the Retro Trax team at the O2 Liverpool on Saturday 12th October – celebrating the fifth birthday of their party brand, with legends such as Awesome 3, Trevor Rockliffe and Human Resource giving it the 91-93 early years trip.

For tickets and all the latest, see our Retro Trax Guide.