It begins with an email: ‘Congratulations. You have made it on to the guestlist for next week’s London show.’ A few days later we’re in a flat in Stoke Newington with 60 strangers, watching one very unusual gig. The keyboard player is jammed against a cocktail cabinet. The instrument cases have been stashed under a rack of drying socks. The audience are seated on sofas, perched on the kitchen table or grooving gently over by the Jamie Oliver cookbooks. And, despite the fact that the four acts playing tonight are virtual unknowns, the room is so quiet you could hear a BYOB cork pop.
A cross between a guerilla performance, an arty house party and the bit in ‘Come Dine with Me’ when everyone drops the pretence of being foodies and has a good old nose around, this intensely intimate experience is the creation of Sofar Sounds, a secret gig movement that puts on anonymous new bands – and the occasional random A-list celebrity – in ordinary people’s sitting rooms. The aim is to change the way we consume live music, and the format is simple. The guestlist is selected by email ballot, the residential address is released a few hours beforehand, and the line-up remains a secret until the bands take to the stage (or, in most cases, rug). In exchange, the audience agree to abide by three fundamental rules: you arrive for the start, you stay till the end, and you shut the fuck up and listen.
What started four years ago at a flat in Kensal Rise has now spread globally to 35 cities – first New York and Paris, most recently Leeds and Singapore – while remaining steadfastly under the popular radar. That will change on May 26, when Sofar London hosts its first festival. The venue is a converted Victorian dairy warehouse in Battersea and, for the first time, tickets are on sale – for a nifty £12.50.
‘Something is rotten with live music,’ says Rafe Offer, the Chicagoan Londoner who co-founded Sofar after a teeth-gritting experience at a Friendly Fires gig where he could hardly hear the band above the audience, and now comperes the London shows with an enthusiasm that borders on the cultish and a trilby that comes in handy for collecting donations. ‘What are your choices? A dingy bar where you can’t hear the musicians because everyone’s chatting drunkenly, or an arena where you can’t see them? We felt there’d got to be a better way, so we started putting on gigs in music lovers’ homes.’
The new festival is intended to preserve Sofar’s ethos of intimacy and musical discovery while at the same time making it accessible to more people. ‘The venue will have lots of nooks and crannies,’ says Offer, ‘and there’ll be living room furniture and possibly not even a PA.’ As to the 12-act line-up – you’ll have to wait and see. London alumni include Bastille, The Magic Numbers – who used Sofar to premiere their album ‘The Runaway’ – Lucy Rose, The Staves, and rapper-cum-Ted-Hughes-poetry-prize-winner Kate Tempest, who first experimented off-mic at an incongruously posh house in Hampstead.
Sometimes the acts are even a surprise to the Sofar organisers. One of Offer’s most memorable nights (and not just because someone’s pet cat threw up on the guitarist) was at a converted warehouse in Seven Sisters which happened to be the residence of twice UK beatbox champion Reeps One (he had the German beatbox champion staying on his sofa). Offer wasn’t too pleased when singer Marcus Foster, who was playing a Sofar show in East Finchley, asked if his scruffy mate could do a spot. ‘At first I said no, because it’s a carefully curated evening,’ he says, ‘but we agreed he could do one song.’ It turned out to be ‘Twilight’ megastar Robert Pattinson whose, er, heartfelt performance you can watch below. It may not have been the last of Sofar’s celebrity spots. ‘No one knows this, but Scarlett Johansson came to one night,’ says Offer. ‘She’s been checking us out as a possible safe place to play.’
The word ‘safe’ crops up several times during our conversation at Offer’s own pad in Belsize Park – where he, his family and his appreciatively howling dogs host the Sofar Christmas specials – and it's not just in connection with Hollywood A-listers with tender musical aspirations to explore. It’s fair to say the Sofar experience, for all its automatic underground kudos, isn’t exactly edgy. At a regular Sofar gig you can expect a hug hello and earnest chat with the young filmmakers and bloggers who post-publicise each event via Sofar’s global social media network. Meanwhile a 10.30pm curfew and a bias towards acoustica keep the neighbours politely in mind. Offer is as passionate about encouraging people to talk to each other between the performances as to keep quiet during them, and there are, you notice, more women here than at a normal gig – two or three tell us they’ve come on their own.
There’s also something about Sofar that’s bringing out an un-stereotypical streak of hospitality in Londoners. Hesitant at first, people are now queuing up to host gigs. They respond to the privilege by stringing fairy lights, cooking cupcakes and, in the case of one set designer from Hackney, building a miniature proscenium arch stage. Your host for the evening could turn out to be the singer from Mercury Prize nominees Django Django (as ours did), or a nervous Hampstead family recruited over playground chit-chat.
But Offer insists that Sofar isn’t as cosy as it sounds. ‘Bands are never more nervous than when they appear at our nights,’ he says. ‘Kill It Kid had just played to 2,000 people before they visited us, but they were terrified. When you can hear every note and they can see every expression, it leaves the bands nowhere to hide.’
If they can preserve that intimate tension, Sofar should thrive in temporary festival form – even if we will miss those drying socks and puking cats.The Sofar Festival is at Testbed 1 in Battersea on May 26. It’s sold out, but Sofar is releasing 15 tickets costing £12.50 exclusively to Time Out readers via www.sofarfestivaltimeout.eventbrite.co.uk. More info at www.sofarsounds.com.