Helsinki’s Flow Festival reads like it was ticked against a hipster checklist. Take a gritty, industrial landscape, throw in a line up with both famous acts and obscure musicians, then combine it with art installations and artisan eats.
Like the warehouse party you discovered too late, Flow’s cred is further amplified by the fact that the 12-year-old festival is still gaining traction, particularly among its Scandinavian neighbours.
While our own gritty Roskilde Festival may routinely top the list as a Scandinavian summer must-do, Flow’s urban playground could herald a stylish new way of celebrating music – but what is a music festival without its inebriated punters and soggy hot dogs?
It’s almost a shame that the Helsinki sun sets at 10pm, because the festival is best lit up at night. Set in a disused power plant, old factory structures are strung with fairy lights, while strobe lights bathe the setting in colours and patterns.
Never has an industrial setting looked so beautiful or so strange. The attendees match the festival for style, and fashion is experimental without being obnoxious. One man has light-up sneakers. The ubiquitous festival onesie is noticeably absent.
It’s exactly the kind of audience the organisers had in mind.
“The Flow crowd is urban, intellectual people,” says Artistic Director Tuomas Kallio. “We pay a lot of attention to aesthetics. We want to create a full sensation experience, one which attacks all the senses.”
An urban, intellectual crowd with cash. At 160 euros (1200 DKK) for the three-day event, the hefty ticket price and pricey gourmet offerings mean that while there’s a diverse range of ages in the audience, its full enjoyment is limited to those with a disposable income.
“Posh” is how Scott McGregor describes it. A British sound designer based in Helsinki, 2015 marks his fourth Flow festival. “You’ve got to be able to afford to go all out.”
The trade-off is the unique atmosphere offered by Flow. It takes the second day to realise what feels so unusual: nobody’s wasted. At a music festival.
“People want to actually remember the experience,” says Scott. “Or maybe it’s the concrete. If you pass out, it’s gonna hurt.”
Having successfully outsourced the Flow brand to a sister-festival in Ljubljana, the event is rapidly expanding in size and popularity, all without the big advertising bucks raked in by other major festivals. While the Tuborg logo is plastered all over Roskilde Festival, what’s also unusual is the lack of brand names decorating Flow.
“We’re doing this festival for ourselves,” says Kallio. “We don’t want to overbrand, so we try to find new ways to incorporate business and have more creative collaborations.”
Big Music, New Music
Like any festival, music is at the crux of Flow. This year, big-name acts Beck, The Pet Shop Boys, Belle and Sebastian, Future Islands, Major Lazer and Alt-J took to the festival stages.
However the bookers also dedicate a large portion of their bill to showcasing upcoming and obscure musicians, with a focus on the Finnish scene. Electronic duo Cityman and two-drummer rock band K-X-P were some of the Finnish names cropping up, both delivering powerful shows.
“When booking acts, we don’t think about what is profitable, but what is good music,” says booker Emma Kemppainen, who also sings in Finnish band LCMDF.
“We want people to discover new music. Since we are a big festival, we feel a responsibility to bring small bands into the limelight. When you go to Flow, you might not know who every act is, but you know it’s going to be good.”
For psychedelic French act Forever Pavot, Flow Festival is his only Nordic performance during this summer festival circuit.
At Flow, the band played on the 360° bright balloon stage, a circular platform where bands play inwardly, facing each other. The product of an architecture competition, it offers the audience the chance to get up close to the stage and see the performance from all angles.
“It was a first for us to play on a stage like that”, said Forever Pavot’s Pierre Hammel, who describes the dreamy music as “somewhere between a vintage movie soundtrack and 60s pop.”
“We could watch each other play on the stage, which made the experience really joyful.”
Finnish indie rockers French Films also took to the stage with their simple blend of catchy melodies and jangly guitars. Looking like a couple of lads who stumbled out of the pub with guitars in hand and shaggy hair in their eyes, French Films’ sound has a distinct Brit rock feel.
Which explains why lead singer Johannes Leppänen cites Scottish 1980s bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain as an influence.
“Most Finns don’t even realise we’re Finnish,” he says. “I guess we probably sound a bit different.”
Though the Finns certainly know French Films’ music. Their energetic show pulled a packed, enthusiastic crowd to the second-largest stage, on a 4pm timeslot. The high point was when Leppänen’s other project, rock group Teksti-TV 666, joined the band on stage to thrash out the final hit songs.
Despite the two albums and international tours under his belt by the age of 26, Leppänen is modest about the band’s success.
“Part of our sound is that we’re self-produced with soft edges. Looking back at the beginnings of the band, we actually sucked so bad at production, but we still had a great time when we went out and played.”
With a new album due out in 2016, the band hopes to return to play in Denmark like they did with their first album. For now, Leppänen’s happy about the Flow show, one of their only summer gigs after a post-album hiatus.
“I think it’s cool that Flow exists. It’s what Helsinki is about nowadays and there’s something for everyone,” he says.
“The beer is way too expensive, though.”
So is the food. At Flow, the hot dogs are likely to be vegan and notably lacking in grease. Instead, elegant food trucks are set-up by major players in the Helsinki food scene, like celebrity restauranteur and chef Richard McCormick.
“You could say I kind of got my start at Flow,” says McCormick, who runs several concept restaurants in Finland’s capital. “I started off designing my own food trucks here 9 years ago, which is how I ended up designing restaurants.”
For McCormick, the festival’s atmosphere offers him the freedom to experiment with food.
“The festival inspires me to challenge myself, do random things with food and just see what happens. One year we sold-out on whole lobsters. People here are adventurous, so they’ll try anything. Like vegan ice cream.”
For McCormick, the inviting feel of Flow is also what sets it apart from other events.
“It’s a special place because Helsinki is small and everyone is connected. It’s like hanging out with a big group of friends,” he says.
So the food is obscenely fancy for a festival and nobody’s inebriated enough. Yet Flow’s atmosphere is so charming, the festival so painfully cool; I have to wonder whether any of the major musicians have ever felt tempted to hang back amongst the crowds.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” says booker Kemppainen. “Nick Cave was hanging back here one year.”
If that’s not a major tick of approval on the hipster checklist, I don’t know what is. M