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Wigflex City Festival: celebrating 15 years of rave rebelliousness

Lukas Wigflex and the team behind his eponymous party brand have offered the people of Nottingham countless opportunities to let loose over the past decade and a half. Though they have brought their unique energy to destinations throughout the UK, it is a commitment to the Midlands city that Wigflex calls home that endures. DJ Mag went to the second edition of the Wigflex City Festival to find out more

“The first few events were all just a bit of fun. We just wanted to hear the music we liked that wasn’t being played in the local clubs,” Lukas Wigflex tells DJ Mag. Just a few days prior, Nottingham’s Old Market Square is flowing with bodies eager to make the most of their Saturday. Only particularly eagle-eyed individuals will spot a burgeoning number of people clad in bright green wristbands. Some are relaxing, some are doubled over small pamphlets assessing their contents. Little do the general public know that more than 60 acts from all over the UK and across the globe are about to descend on various locations around this historic city. 

It is here that the Wigflex events brand was born, and so it follows that this is where its 15th birthday takes place — the second instalment of Wigflex City Festival. Fringed by fields and hugging the River Trent, Nottingham sits just above the centre of England. A punk rock city throughout the ‘70s, things have turned a little more towards dance music recently. This is owed to the impact of acid house and hardcore in the late ‘80s and ‘90s (the 28,000-strong Fantazia rave One Step Beyond took place only half an hour down the road), and has been spurred on by a growing student population. 

Wigflex has played a leading role in delivering exciting events in Nottingham for the past 15 years, offering experiences with a rave-inspired rebelliousness that bring opportunities to see popular acts from around the world. Wigflex started as a 99p-on-the-door event, a 1p chew exchanged for a quid. It had visuals, N64s, and a few simple installations. Lukas fondly remembers these first events. “No one takes themselves too seriously,” he tells us of the Notts scene. A far cry from the Wigflex of today, however, you can sense the desire for a multifaceted clubbing experience even in descriptions of those first ventures. It was after these became popular that Lukas began to think bigger.

 

Nottingham boasts a healthy mix of venues, from intimidating locations that hum with the residual energy of big acts, to more personable DIY spaces that give lifeblood to the strong undercurrent of electronic dance music. It is the latter that Wigflex has utilised throughout its 15-year history, as well as a selection of other locations such as London and Manchester to name a few. Even with the club spaces Nottingham offers, to throw a proper party often requires improvisation. Luckily, Lukas and the Wigflex crew are more than happy to set up in an odd space now and again. Previous events have had ticket holders dancing underneath cars in a repair garage, through crucifix-shaped caves below a microbrewery, and even in an old laboratory that happened to be the birthplace of Ibuprofen, an invention that ravers can definitely be thankful for.

Wigflex City Festival 2021 begins with Lukas himself firing the starting gun with a set on the outer rim of the festival. Near the city centre, a dive down into the bowels of recently opened club, UNIT 13, gifts festival-goers a huge performance from local producer, Lone. His eclectic style of clattering breakbeats and melodious jungle blasts out unrestrained, threatening to cave in the ground beneath the shoppers on the streets above. The set feels criminally early, but gives the crowds spilling out from the dark space a taste of what is to come.

Throbs of bass and beats soon spread across the city. Though most of the main venues are in full swing by the late afternoon, it is the unassuming, tucked-away spaces that are the most engaging. Lukas tells us he adores creating transient little pockets of music and art, and the crowds certainly seem to appreciate it. Gaggles of vibrantly dressed Wigflexers walk back and forth round the same corner, frantically following the sound of music, exiting doorways and alleys in a jovial confusion as they attempt to gain entrance to some secluded rip in the fabric of the Nottingham streets.

The most striking of these secret venues is St Mary’s Church, the oldest religious foundation in the city, dating back to the 14th century. Within its historic structure Tom Ravenscroft entertains a fleet-footed congregation. To the north-east of the church, Octo Octa fills Sneinton Market Square with infectious, upbeat house. An amorphous sea of contented faces hover around the decks as night falls, hands pushed up toward the Nottingham aether.

The liminal space between two towering BioCity labs provides the location for a performance from a UK legend. Wookie splices together pristine garage tracks with a surgical intricacy comparable to that of the biologists that populate the two buildings by day. We ask a local resident whether it is odd seeing such an act a few metres away from where he works and he answers our question with an impassioned non-sequitur: “Wigflex is legendary.”

 

Craig Richards pulls a fantastic electro set out at Metronome, standing in for Skee Mask. To perform at short notice is one thing, but add to this his four-hour set with Nicolas Lutz an hour afterwards and one may understand Craig’s unfaltering dedication to those that love to dance.

As we exit, someone pulls us aside with a warning. The remaining venues are fit to burst. The suggestion is clear: stay where you are. But the allure of the fully Wigflex-ed Nottingham is too much, and we venture excitedly toward the very heart of Lukas’ creation.

“He just gets a party going out of nowhere,” a man tells us as we sit on the gravel outside what could arguably be referred to as the home of Wigflex. Him and others we sit with are friends of Lukas. There is an outpouring of stories from over the years, and Wigflex begins to exist simultaneously in both that moment and as something past; as cherished memories now reported to us. It is this multifarious sense of Lukas’ creation that permeates through The Brickworks venue as it is bathed in blue light, with GiGi FM and Goldie bringing Nottingham floating back toward the light of a new day.

The way in which Lukas and the Wigflex team weave their festival into the fabric of the city is hugely impressive. It was not long ago these venues and spaces were silent. Nottingham was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, The Robin Hood Fund serving as a shining example of how residents rallied round the less fortunate. Wigflex was knocked back by the shutdown and the constantly shifting policy on events that ensued afterward. This is not the Nottingham we recognise now, as the city buzzes with music and conversation. There is a resounding hopefulness that celebrations like this will continue into the looming winter, but Covid-19 isn’t the only issue.

Lukas speaks to us of his fears for the future, of promoters with “pockets deeper than their creative integrity”, who exploit artists. He voices frustration over the government’s treatment of culturally valuable events that it does not only refuse to understand, but actively disenfranchises. “It’s harder to experiment and push boundaries, and that risks putting amazing people off from trying to do the kind of stuff that we’ve been doing,” he says.

A disappointing reality. But did the boy booting up Nintendos and handing out 1p chews for change ever dream he would submerge the city of Nottingham in such an incredible array of music and art? The local residents speak of Wigflex like a revered old friend, and it is in that adoration where the moral lies. Though there are obstacles and structural change is definitely needed, Wigflex’s story will go down in Nottingham’s music history. Its existence as a haven for underground artists, as well as the fondly recalled memories it has created, will serve as inspiration for anyone looking to play great music to an excited crowd. It invites others to do things differently and most importantly, to have fun.

Want more? Read our festival reviews of Body Movements, GALA and AVA

Liam Murphy is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @limbamurphy

Photos: Frankie Casillo