Interview: Dietmar Leibecke of The Static Roots Festival

At AUK we’ve mentioned before a couple of the newer and smaller festivals which have been popping up in recent years. Dietmar Leibecke from Germany, a towering figure on the European Americana circuit (in all senses of the term), is getting increasing recognition for the popularity of the music festival he started in 2016 – Static Roots. A nicer and more self-effacing individual you’d probably also be harder pushed to find. Ahead of the Static Roots Festival which takes place in Oberhausen on the 12th and 13th of July, Dietmar spoke to Mark Underwood of AUK about the joys of house concerts, his abiding passion for music and his love for the Americana community.

Hi Dietmar, Germany isn’t a place particularly renowned for its love of Americana music. How did your involvement in music promotion start?
To answer that question, I must first tell you about my musical background. Back in 1983 when I was 16, I read a rave review of The Dream Syndicate’s album ‘The Days Of Wine And Roses’ in a (printed) catalogue from a record shop in Hamburg and instantly ordered it. Well, in the 1980s “instantly” meant, filling out an order form, putting it in an envelope, going to the post office for a stamp, sending the letter, and waiting two weeks for delivery. It’s almost unbelievable what “instantly” means today when you can listen to new music the minute you read about it. Anyway, I still remember the moment I put on the record and heard the first few beats of the song ‘Tell Me When It’s Over’ – it was a revelation! The garage sound, the jangling guitars, the driving bass, the dry sound of the drums, the voice, the energy… this felt like it was music made for me. It opened up a completely new world to me: the Paisley Underground. Every band on the scene mentioned influences like The Velvet Underground, Big Star, Neil Young, Bob Dylan so I had a lot to dive into and all this laid out the foundations for my musical taste.

The first gig I put on was for my 40th birthday party in 2006. I never really celebrated any of my birthdays but I thought, 40 years is something special, let’s have a party and do something different. So I’ve been working for about 18 months to win over the man who had the biggest impact on the development of my musical taste, Steve Wynn from The Dream Syndicate. He finally confirmed he’d play my birthday party with his band The Miracle 3. During the party Steve asked me if I’d ever heard about the concept of house concerts. It was a completely new idea to me and Steve said “You seem to be the right guy for putting on house concerts”. The idea grew on me and about a year later, I fell in love with another life changing album: Leeroy Stagger’s ‘Depression River’, in particular the song ‘Carol’ touched me so deeply I wanted this young Canadian fellow to play the first house concert in our house. Via MySpace I got in touch with Leeroy and he asked me if I could book a couple of shows for him in Germany, then he’d make it over and play. So I started booking shows and planning the first house concert which then went down a storm in November 2007.

In the past 12 years we’ve promoted about 75 shows in our living room with such amazing acts as Danny And The Champions Of The World, Courtney Marie Andrews, Bennett Wilson Poole, Andrew Combs, Fred Eaglesmith & The Travelling Steam Show. Steve Wynn played our house, Leeroy Stagger played about six times. It’s absolutely mind blowing to bring your favourite musicians into your home; they are playing your favourite songs to your favourite people in an intimate setting. It’s absolutely priceless.

Tell us a bit about the origins of Static Roots Dietmar. It sounds like the Kilkenny Roots festival was a real inspiration.
In 2016 there were a couple of anniversaries that once again asked for some special celebrations: our silver wedding, my 50th birthday, our daughter’s 20th birthday, the fifth anniversary of my wife donating a kidney to me, ten years of promoting shows. And as I am always looking out for the next step, the next challenge, we thought, a little festival might just be the exact right thing to do. Actually it’s also been a test run: can we manage to run a festival? Will people be coming over and enjoying it? Is there a chance to establish a festival while Americana music is a total niche genre in Germany? No risk, no fun. So we did it and the festival was a great success. Everybody asked us to keep the festival running. In early 2017 the readers of the online music magazine voted Static Roots Festival as one of the three best Americana festivals of 2016 – next to AmericanaFest in Nashville, and the Kilkenny Roots Festival in Ireland! It was unbelievable and at the same time a massive motivation to keep it going. Kilkenny Roots has been a major influence in setting up the Static Roots Festival. From our first visit to the Kilkenny Roots Festival in 2013, we felt like being part of the family. The community and the love were just incredible and we instantly made friends. It wasn’t just like consuming great music – you were instantly part of the festival. One of the friends we made was Willie Meighan, owner of Rollercoaster Records in Kilkenny and one of the organizers of the Kilkenny Roots Festival. Where the Static Roots Festival is concerned, Willie has been very supportive and always had some advice. Sadly enough, in November 2017 Willie died after a long illness. That’s why we decided to dedicate a slot at the festival to Willie. Last year we had the amazing Midnight Union Band from Kilkenny playing in remembrance of Willie Meighan; this year it is John Blek from Cork, Ireland. We try to keep Willie’s light shining brightly.

What was the very first festival you ever went to?
I’ve been to plenty of festivals all over the place but never really found satisfaction as most festivals offer a mix of music from pop to blues, electro to folk, country to reggae to world music. To my software engineer’s logical (nerdy) thinking, it doesn’t make too much sense to visit a festival with 15 acts while there are only two acts you actually want to see. But then, my family and I attended the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 2008. As far as I remember this festival was my first ever theme oriented festival. Whichever stage you went to, there was great music and an amazing audience. That same year I went to the Blue Highways Festival in Utrecht in the Netherlands, and a few years later to the mazing SummerTyne Americana Festival in Gateshead, and I absolutely enjoyed all of them.

Kilkenny Roots Festival in 2013 was a whole new level from the community, and the love and passion for music. And that’s what we wanted to transport over to our festival – luckily it somehow worked out. There is some truth in Brandi Carlile’s words, right after she won three Grammys this year: “Americana music is the island of the misfit toys [and] I am such a misfit. I came out of the closet at 15 years old, when I was in high school, and I can assure you that I was never invited to any parties. I never got to attend a dance. To be embraced by this enduring and loving community has been the dance of a lifetime. Thank you for being my island.”

The “enduring and loving community” – this is exactly what I experienced over the course of the years. No one in this community is pretentious, everybody is accepted and welcome, there simply are no misfits. It’s what we experienced at the Kilkenny Roots Festival, it’s what we live in our house concert series, it’s how we run the Static Roots Festival. Keep in mind, everyone has a story to tell, everyone is carrying a burden. Everyone who is a guest at the festival or at one of our house concerts is a friend. And that is the way how this community works and spreads their love.

And the Altenberg Zentrum, a former zinc factory now turned cultural centre, which hosts Static Roots. How did your involvement with them start?
As I live in Mülheim a. d. Ruhr, I tried to find a fitting venue here. My favourite place back then, the Ringlokschuppen, was interested and available and I’ve been dealing with the technical people for almost three months until their general manager decided to not host the festival due to some absurd arguments. Anyway, I was running out of time and got under pressure because I already contracted the bands for a particular weekend. It was pure coincidence that I ended up at the Zentrum Altenberg in Oberhausen.

From the first contact, the people at the venue were just phenomenal: helpful, friendly, professional, supportive and funny characters, too. And the place is just amazing – the old zinc factory in a red brick building from 1904 is utterly beautiful. It makes a perfect venue with fantastic sound and lights; the outdoors has a wonderful tree-lined beer garden. I’m happy as a pig in mud about running the festival at the Zentrum Altenberg.

This year looks like a suitably interesting and eclectic choice of acts. Tell us a bit about some of the acts on the bill and how they came to your attention.
Joe Nolan is one of the artists I am really looking forward to. He came to my attention with his album ‘Tornado’ back in 2013. My friend Jeff Robson from Winnipeg, Canada, (who by the way is also the MC at the Static Roots Festival) runs a great radio show called ‘Tell The Band To Go Home’. Jeff has been playing Joe Nolan quite constantly and I think he is a terrific songwriter and performer. Joe has been off the radar for a few years but when he released his latest, phenomenal album ‘Cry Baby’ last year, I know I had to book him for the festival.

Luke Tuchscherer has been on the wishlist for last year’s festival but it didn’t work out. I got to see Luke in different incarnations – solo at the Ramblin’ Roots Revue in High Wycombe, at the Nashville in London, and with a band in Cambridge. It’s great to have him over with his band, The Penny Dreadfuls, for his first ever appearance in Germany this year. The Brother Brothers were just being recommended by two friends when all of a sudden their booking agency offered them for the Static Roots Festival. Their soulful harmonies are just unbelievably touching. Sarah Jarosz called their harmonies “tight enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine”. One of my personal highlights will be The Hanging Stars. I’m really happy to have them over. Their excellent steel guitar player, Joe Harvey-Whyte, will also be joining Ags Connolly and Don Gallardo. It’s going to be a busy day for him.

One of the bands already signed for the Static Roots Festival 2019 had to cancel their European summer tour just a few weeks ago. Luckily we got to sign the Dutch band, Dawn Brothers. Two years ago I saw them playing to 30 people in a small punk rock bar in Dortmund, and all of a sudden last year they broke through when they played a show for the well-known German Rockpalast series. And then I saw them rocking out at the Once In A Blue Moon Festival in Amsterdam, where they instantly had a crowd of 4,000 people singing and dancing along to their blend of soul, funk and Americana.

You’ve got the ‘Static Ruhr Tour’ on the Friday of the festival. What does that entail?
Early last year, a good friend, Robert Gerlings, came up with the idea of presenting some local iconic places to all those people travelling to the Static Roots Festival from all over Europe. He thought it would be a great opportunity to introduce our guests to the special charm of the area. And he was so right! At the festival, we want people to have the greatest possible experience. The Static Ruhr Tour is one of those elements that make it such an experience. We live in one of the most populated areas in Europe. Within a two hours ride there are about 20 million people. The Ruhr valley was the most industrialized area in the world back in the days of coal mining and steel milling. Lots of these old industrial places have been turned into parks or cultural venues (just like the Zentrum Altenberg). Last year we took our guests to a slag heap in Gelsenkirchen and the world heritage site, Zeche Zollverein in Essen. Everybody seemed to love it. This year we’ll head over to the Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord. The Guardian declared it as one of the ten best urban parks in the world and the park is also home to one of the biggest music festivals in the area, the Traumzeit-Festival (which by the way is hosting Frank Turner, Wayne Graham, Teenage Fanclub, and Stephen Malkmus this year).

The Static Roots website looks very professional and is a great advert for the festival. Is that largely down to you?
Thank you – I’m glad you like the website. I put lots of work into it while its structure and layout is mostly provided by the underlying theme – and the fabulous pictures taken by our festival photographers Klaas Jan Guchelaar from Assen, The Netherlands, and Anthony Griffin from Dublin, Ireland. Being a software engineer was certainly an advantage when setting up the website because I had no trouble at all understanding the technical issues and could do some programming as well.

What’s the hardest thing about putting a festival like Static Roots together?
There is nothing in particular which is hard about running the festival. There is a lot of work and especially the last two months before the festival are fairly busy: when the artists flesh out their tour logistics and then change their band line up, need an extra bed, don’t need an already booked room, arrive a day early, leave a day late, need a shuttle from an airport, change their destination airport, cancel their flights and arrive by car, change their tech rider, ask to provide particular backline elements, want to play on their own backline… which then leads to a change in running orders, in change over times, in hotel room bookings and cancellations … Rock’n’roll, Baby 😉 It is work to be done but nothing really complicated. I like challenges. In my day job I work as a software engineer and on various projects I’ve been the project manager. Managing an IT project is more complex than organizing a festival. But keep in mind, we are still a small festival with 13 acts over two days.

Who really stood out for you at the festival last year?
When booking bands I am acting as a fan. Each and every act is being booked because of love for their music, the emotions their music triggers in me. So I sure had the time of my life at the festival last year.

What’s most important is, that the audience enjoys the acts as well. And every act of last year’s lineup has been named “favourite act” by at least a few members of the audience. Some were blown away by Anthony da Costa, some said Justin Osborne’s SUSTO (solo) performance on Saturday at noonwas the highlight of their weekend, others enjoyed Cordovas most, then again Hadley McCall Thackston (who only got in to the lineup four days prior to the festival) or Stephen Stanley got mentioned quite a few times.

Is there anyone you’d particularly like to see at Static Roots in future. I know you’ve mentioned Aaron Lee Tasjan as someone you’d love to get involved.
Since Aaron Lee Tasjan released his debut album ‘’ in 2008, I am a big, big fan. In my musical universe he is the real deal, a genius. Various attempts at bringing him over for the Static Roots Festival or a house concert didn’t work out. Yet. At some point in time Aaron Lee Tasjan will make it; I’m not giving up and I can be persistent. Of course, I want to see Steve Wynn with The Dream Syndicate at the Static Roots Festival. A circle would certainly come to a close, I suppose.

What advice would you give anyone who was starting out and wanted to put on a festival for the first time?
Don’t let the naysayers get in the way. Follow your passion, your enthusiasm, your instinct, your vision. Don’t worry about making mistakes. They happen. And you will learn from them. Luckily, I am full of energy and optimism, and I have an easy time turning bad news into a challenge and making the best out of it. Ten years of promoting shows, and travelling to shows and festivals has proven a great base for creating a musical network. As mentioned before we are a small festival. You sure need patience and persistence, deep pockets would come in handy. If you aim for a big outdoor festival with plenty of stages, and an audience in their thousands, you’d sure need some funding, a big team of like minded, enthusiastic folks and a lot of investors.

I don’t know where the Static Roots Festival will be in ten years time. For me, there is no need to grow. But then again there is e. g. the Green Man Festival which started in 2003 with 300 people and made it into a massive, world-class festival.

Does preparation for the following year’s festival almost start on conclusion of the previous one?
It’s actually a permanent process, I’m already negotiating with acts for next year’s festival. Bringing over acts from another continent requires lots of preparation.

Do you see Static Roots as a long term project or is it really a case of taking it one year at a time?
Being in the fourth year of the festival’s existence, I can definitely say it has become a long term project. As long as I stay healthy, there will be the Static Roots Festival taking place on the second weekend of July. I love the music, I love the people who travel from all over Europe to attend the Static Roots Festival, I love the happy smiles on the people’s faces, and I can’t wait to see them all in just a few weeks.

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Ken Beveridge

Excellent interview, Mark. Dietmar’s enthusiasm shines through. I can’t recommend Static Roots highly enough. I have been to all three so far and they are without doubtone of the two highlights of my music calendar along with Kilkenny Roots.

The camaraderie of both audience and performers is an absolute joy