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Interview: Pirate Technics

24 May 12 interview: Tom Norton

Mike De Butts and Stephen Smith: they went from chucking burning torches about on the Forest to forming the Pirate Technics collective, constructing massive erections across the international festival circuit. And then setting fire to them...

So how do you get into this sort of thing?
Mike: There was a collective of people who went on the Forest to practice fire poi. We started off doing fire performance at a few student balls, then we moved on to festivals, and then we moved on to burning things. From that we worked for a festival performing at the Secret Garden Party five or six years ago andthey asked us to build a big backdrop for our show…
Stephen: ...which was a two-metre tall burning man, and then a four-metre tall burning man, and then not a man at all.Mike: It went down really well. We had about a hundred performers around a lake with our burning thing in the middle.Now we spend so much time building things we don’t have the time to put on performances.

Were you in demand in Notts?
Stephen: We did pretty much everywhere - the opening of the Market Square, Blotts Country Club, the Ice Arena, and Hockley Hustle a few times as well. When the old Muse bar opened, we performed outside – we discovered the council were digging up the gas mains. Not the ideal performance area…
Mike: At the same time we were doing all this, fire poi was taking off across the country - Burnt Toast down in Brighton, the Bristol Gallery, Spitalfields market jugglers in London – so we started to get to know each other and made contacts. It was rather basic back then; the way that things have moved on technically is ludicrous.

Where did you get the idea to start building?
Stephen: The Secret Garden Party organisers had been out to the Burning Man Festival in America, and were always talking about it.
Mike: We’re the only UK fire troupe that have been invited to Burning Man. Now we’ve pretty
much started a scene where a festival has to have a centrepiece that burns.

What was your first burn-up like?
Stephen: It was sixty hours, working three days flat, followed by two fire performances over the next few days on a very minimal budget. We built a five-foot psychedelic hand on a pyramid to float on a lake. We had almost no power and we built it out of scrap and favours.
Mike: On the Thursday when the festival opened, we were pretty much finished and we just had to float it out. Then, during lunch, the wind and the rain kicked in together and it got soggy and wet and blown. I was on top of a ladder with a hand around a piece of scaffolding while the ladder was sinking into the mud. I was gaffer taping this poor thing that was getting less and less beautiful. It was still one of the highlights of my life; everyone at the festival was talking about it.

How did you actually set it on fire?
Mike: From a fire breath. We had a fire fuse rigged to a bucket of petrol surrounded by gunpowder. We didn’t really know what was going to happen then, whether it was going to explode or leak or burn. We had to run away really quickly. We often have to run away very fast from what we’ve built! 

How do you go from concept to creation?
Mike: Sometimes people come to us and know what they want. Other times, they ask you to come up with something. We spend a long time collaborating with the client to make sure that everyone’s happy - we need to be excited about the project, but they have to stay happy too.

How would you describe a typical Pirate Technics display?
Stephen: It’s spectacular, really. You can’t say what a typical Pirate Technics project is. We tend to do a lot more Wicker Men and goddesses than anything else, but that’s only because of what people have asked for and where it fits in. However, with something like Secret Garden Party they have a different theme every year, so we have to fit with the vibes of the festival. Take something like Artimice, a small, Pagan festival; we’ve done a wicker goddess, a hawk god, a troll, a massive woman in a 16th Century skirt, and we’re planning on doing a massive hare.

Who have you enjoyed working with the most?
Stephen: Green Man - they are just so on it. It really shows with their festival as well, with the sheer amount of green ethics and the amount of recycling there is and the fact that there’s no crap all over the floor and all over every flat surface.
Mike: But we’re fond of every festival we work with - Shambala, Secret Garden because without it we wouldn’t be where we are, and Artimice because it’s small and simple.

Is there anything you’d like to do in Notts soon?
Mike: We’re going to try to move towards having festivals as showcases and then through the other months do lots of smaller projects. We’re actually in conversation with the Council about what we can do with Nottingham. We’d love to build something massive for Bonfire Night on the Forest. Our group brings together people from all sorts of places – chefs, teachers, therapists, sound engineers – people who make Nottingham the place it is.

Is there any group or event that you’d outright refuse to work for?
Mike: If you spend ages putting together a design and planning and then the client pulls out that can be quite galling. I don’t think there’s anyone we would not work for but gigs come down to love or money. We’d never work for the BNP. Actually, no - we’d subvert it! We’d do it, but our build would burn really quickly on the outside and reveal a big middle finger on the inside.

Is there anyone you’d really like to work with in the future?
Mike: We’re trying to get in touch with Bearded Theory – they’re more local and they’ve got some good acts on. 
Stephen: I’d really like to do something with age fire where you keep fire that’s been created by one of our structures, keep it lit, into a paraffin lamp and then take that home and then use it to start a boiler and then use that fire for here and then continue it here so that you have year-old fire! It’d have a great vintage. Utterly ridiculous but it would be nice...

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