Interview with Clockenflap co-founders Justin Sweeting and Mike Hill

Co-founder and Music Director, Justin Sweeting
Co-founder and Festival Director, Mike Hill

Clockenflap returns for its 10th run this month. We catch up with co-founders Justin Sweeting and Mike Hill who share the story behind the festival’s unconventional name, standout eureka moments and their future plans.

What’s the story behind Clockenflap and its unconventional name?

Mike: One day, Jay (the third co-founder) called me up at 4 am when I was in Norway and said, “I have this brilliant name for our new party, let’s call it ‘Clockenflap’”. To which I said,“Brilliant, nice one Jay, well done, good night…”

Then we started doing parties and DJ nights called Clockenflap. When we had our first festival, we couldn’t think of a name. We kept trying and eventually, we thought ‘what the hell, let’s call it “Clockenflap”’. Everybody, including Tom Hilditch (publisher of Southside Magazine), told us not to use this name.

It may be meaningless and ridiculous, but in hindsight, it was a good decision as it’s a unique name.

It’s the 10th year for Clockenflap, did you imagine it reaching the scale it is now? 

Mike: We’ve always wanted Clockenflap to be as accessible as possible and we pride ourselves in offering an engaging experience for everyone. In the beginning, especially in the first two years, we didn’t see it becoming as big as it has today.

Things started to change when we moved and held our first festival at the West Kowloon Cultural District in 2011. We had all the magic – a great venue, a great team and the audience were hungry for this! And from that point onward, we certainly had the vision that it would become one of Asia’s best festivals.

One of the many things that make Clockenflap stand out is the great balance of established big names with up-and-coming acts. How important is it to maintain this balance?

Justin: This balance is one of the key characteristics of our programme. Having the larger profile names provides the scope to invest in both the local and emerging international acts, to help continue their future development. It really is one of the joys of festival booking.

One of our greatest aims is for festival-goers to discover something yet unknown and fall in love with their new favourite bands at the festival, who will hopefully then seek them out at their own show afterwards. This cross-pollination helps create more of a sustainable live music ecosystem, much needed in Hong Kong.

What prompted you and your team to book more acts from Asian countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Korea this year?

Justin: This is another component which has always been part of the original vision for Clockenflap. It’s really a no-brainer honestly. To draw the incredible talent in and around our geographic doorstep only makes logical sense, both culturally and economically.

What is it like to be one of the pioneering figures of the city’s festival culture?

Mike: We didn’t set out to be pioneers when we started, we were just doing what we love. It’s great to be behind Hong Kong’s first true music and arts festival and exceed everyone’s expectations.

But the truth is, being a pioneer is very challenging and expensive. We had to start everything from scratch and build an all-rounded in-house team to take care of every aspect of the festival. For example, when building our own ticketing platform, we insourced an awful lot of expertise whilst in other markets that would be outsourced.

But this also means that over the years, we have developed a team of genuine experts in the field. It’s great to be part of something that allows us to learn and develop, and be a huge music festival.

What is the biggest challenge you face from running Clockenflap?

Mike: Similar to the hardest part of being a pioneer, the biggest challenges we face are developing the market and building elements of the industry. In other markets where the festival industry is mature, we can tap into a large pool of existing knowledge. But given that the festival culture was pretty much non-existent in Hong Kong, our solution was to attend festivals overseas, get educated and bring experts to Hong Kong to assist with operations.

Our focus is always on delivering the best possible experience each year and then look at how we can do it better the following year. I can’t see this changing as it’s what we enjoy.

What are you most looking forward to personally?

Justin: I was born and raised in Hong Kong and like the rest of the team, I call this home. So simply the context of the festival happening here is a cause of immense pride and reward for me personally. To have something so creatively giving and gloriously silly taking place in the middle of the city is just fantastic, and not many cities in the world have this.

My kids are also growing up as the festival does, so I’m very much hoping to spend some time over the weekend with them in our family area.

Can you tell us a little about your musical journey? Any life-changing eureka moments?

Justin: My parents have always been my major influence, and music has always been around since a very early age, both listening as well as playing.

A couple standout eureka moments would be when I was 16 and The Wedding Present played at the Ko Shan theatre who were supported by local band …Huh?!. It was the first time I experienced this incredibly raw, real and visceral live energy and I’ve been hooked since. Likewise, my first Glastonbury experience in 1995 was memorably magical. Stepping into this new world which was just ‘better’, and wondering why life can’t be like this more often.

What’s currently on your Spotify playlist?

Justin: It changes so often, there’s so much access to music available more than ever these days. On my own current playlist at the moment, I’ve been listening to the latest albums by The National and King Krule a lot, and similarly new music by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, Sufjan Stevens, Middle Kids, The Barr Brothers, Pixx and many others!

Are there any personal heroes that you’ve always wanted to invite?

Justin: Sadly in recent times, many on my personal hero list are recently deceased. What I’d say overall though is that one of the themes which run through the very best festivals and certainly true of Clockenflap, it’s never about one specific act.

It’s really about the collection and experience. And more so, it tends to be the names you don’t yet know which, typically, are the ones who stand out the most when looking back.

Finally, where do you see Clockenflap going in the next 10 years?

Mike: We are really proud that, again and again, people would come to us and tell us the Clockenflap brand is synonymous with quality and attention to detail. We want Clockenflap to be recognised globally as being one of the top festivals in not just Asia but the world. We are confident that this can happen because we enjoy unique assets in Hong Kong – the cultural mix, the venue, the setting, all of these things, are what make Clockenflap unique.

We believe that there is so much more that we can do and we are always exploring possibilities. Thus, a little snippet of what to expect next year: we are planning to turn and expand Clockenflap into camping festival in 2018, stay tuned.

Clockenflap is running from November 17-19 at the Central Harbourfront. This year’s star-studded lineup includes Stormzy, Massive Attack, The Prodigy, Feist and many more. For more information, visit Clockenflap’s official website.