There are just two weeks left until Clockenflap, but if Justin Sweeting is stressed, he sure isn’t showing it. Sweeting is the 38-year-old music director of Hong Kong’s largest music and arts festival. On a recent sunny morning, he is sitting on a yoga ball in front of his desk in Clockenflap’s Sheung Wan headquarters, an open plan office packed with workers. The meeting room is full, so Sweeting strolls down to the Sheung Wan waterfront for a chat.
“When we started doing Clockenflap it was as close to being as impossible as it could be,” says Sweeting, pausing as a helicopter roars past on its way to Macau. That was in 2008, when he joined up with friends Mike Hill and Joy Forster to launch an art, film and music festival unlike anything Hong Kong had seen. The nonsense name proved surprisingly catchy, and its inaugural edition drew 1,500 people to the lawn at Cyberport. Unfortunately, the festival was plagued by noise complaints and logistical challenges, and two years after its launch, it appeared to founder.
Then, after a one-year hiatus, Clockenflap moved to West Kowloon, where it finally found its footing. The 2011 edition drew 18,000 people, which grew to 45,000 last year. The crowd is growing more diverse: while many of the early festival-goers were expats, Sweeting says last year’s festival was half local Chinese, with another eight percent of attendees coming from overseas. The music bill continues to expand, too. This year’s festival, which runs from November 27 to 29, is the biggest yet, with dozens of musicians from around the world, including big names like New York rapper A$AP Rocky, local Cantopop star-turned-activist HoCC, pop legend Nile Rodgers and dance-rock pioneers New Order.
“It was a massive coup getting them,” says Sweeting. New Order recently released Music Complete, their tenth album in 35 years, which has received widespread acclaim from critics. “Everything is based on relationships in this industry, so ultimately it comes down to dealing with people,” says Sweeting.
That’s something Sweeting has been doing here for years. Born and raised near the University of Hong Kong, where his dad was a professor, Sweeting trained as a classical violinist before he switched to the guitar as a teenager. He and his friends started a band and played open mic nights at the Fringe Club, but they didn’t have many opportunities to see live music. Sweeting went to his first rock concert when he was 16 years old. “It was The Wedding Present at the Ko Shan Theatre,” he says. “It completely blew our minds.”
When he moved to the United Kingdom for university, Sweeting got involved in the music scene there, too, and by the early 2000s he was working at a record label. But he eventually grew weary of constantly evaluating bands from a business standpoint. “You forget why you’re doing it in the first place,” he says. In 2003, he was invited to help organise Rockit, a music festival held in Victoria Park, and he jumped at the chance to return home to Hong Kong.
“When I was a kid growing up here, there wasn’t anything to do and everyone complained,” says Sweeting. The situation wasn’t much better in 2003. “A light came on and I said, ‘Why don’t we do something about it?’” After Rockit folded in 2006, Sweeting decided to start promoting indie music concerts. He launched The Peoples’ Party in 2009, bringing in a steady stream of overseas music, from the trippy guitar rock of Ratatat to the baroque pop of Andrew Bird. Combined with the efforts of other promoters, not to mention the launch of music venues like Hidden Agenda, Sweeting’s project helped usher in a very good few years for music lovers in Hong Kong. “At times it felt like we were hitting a wall, but then four or five years ago, there was just this shift,” he says.
Hong Kong has a way of undermining even the best cultural projects, though, and the soaring rents of the past few years have been rough on live music venues. Sweeting and his Clockenflap partners hope to improve the situation by opening their own venue in Central. It was ready to launch last year, but the landlord withdrew the space at the last minute. “It would have changed the game,” says Sweeting.
That’s not empty talk, given Clockenflap’s track record. When they thought Hong Kong needed a music festival, they launched one. When they became frustrated with local ticketing agencies, they started their own company, Ticketflap.“We’re the kind of guys who get on with it,” says Sweeting. He hopes that when the venue finally opens, it will give Hong Kong the much-needed medium-sized concert hall it needs, bridging the gap between small spaces like Hidden Agenda and enormous venues like KITEC and AsiaWorld Expo.
Despite his career in music, Sweeting lives with his wife, Megan — the founder of Handmade Hong Kong — and their three kids in perhaps the most un-rock-and-roll place in Hong Kong: Discovery Bay. “Discovery Bay was the last place in the world I wanted to go,” says Sweeting, but when he and Megan ended up staying there several years ago, he found it unexpectedly charming. Being close to nature reminded him of his childhood on the lush hillside above HKU. He likes the ferry commute, too. “It’s 30 minutes where you can switch off,” he says.
Sweeting’s children are young — the oldest, Iowa, is four and the younger pair, Cai and Rhiannon, are two-year-old twins — but they are already passionate about music, though not necessarily the kind Sweeting enjoys. “People at work often ask me what I’m listening to and the only songs stuck in my head are songs off Frozen or the Muppets and Sesame Street,” he says. His kids love going to Clockenflap. “It’s a big time family thing,” he says. “We want it to be a place where a parent and a child can go together and enjoy their own things. Giving them some space to run around and dance and be silly makes a difference.”
It’s not clear whether he’s talking about kids or adults, because both groups seem struck by a giddy exuberance at the festival. Sweeting says his job isn’t just to build a music programme but to “create magic moments, what is right for the time and space.” When peppy London band Bombay Bicycle Club played in 2011, it was during a lunar eclipse. Sweeting still remembers Nile Rodgers’ captivating 2013 performance as the sun set over Victoria Harbour. “It was such an iconic set,” he says. It wasn’t just the crowd that loved it: Rodgers had such a good time, he and his band, Chic, are coming back for a second time this year.
Sweeting might even make the show. Though he seems preternaturally relaxed, he is in fact busy – very busy. “I don’t actually get to see most of Clockenflap,” he says. “I keep saying this year is the year I can afford to be more footloose.”
More information at clockenflap.com
When: November 27 to 29, 2015
Where: West Kowloon waterfront park
How to get there: By MTR – take the Tung Chung Line to Kowloon Station. By bus – take any 900-series route to the Western Harbour Crossing Toll Plaza. By car – pay parking is available nearby in Elements mall.