Beats 1's Matt Wilkinson on Traveling to Montreal's Osheaga Festival, His Role in Breaking New Acts & Getting Neil Young's DNA on Him

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Courtesy of Apple
Matt Wilkinson

"My thing is I'm obsessed with new music," he says. "I'm obsessed with finding bands first and then bringing them to more people."

For the first time in Apple Music's Beat 1 history, the 24/7 digital radio channel partnered with Montreal's Osheaga Music and Arts Festival last weekend to conduct interviews on site at Parc Jean-Drapeau. The channel had only been to Canada once before when Zane Lowe interviewed Drake in Toronto for the launch of his Views album.

Beats 1 host Matt Wilkinson, the "there first" guy for new bands and former new music editor of NME, chatted at Osheaga with more than a dozen acts, including Arctic Monkeys, Yeah Yeah Years, Lykke Li, Khalid to Canada's Chromeo, Milk & Bone, DVSN and Alvvays and relative newcomers KILLY, Calpurnia, Essaie Pas, Billie Eilish, Dizzy and Cuco. The conversations have been sprinkled throughout his daily show all week.

Wilkinson spoke with Billboard about the importance of Beats 1 traveling the world, how Osheaga compares to other music festivals, his role in breaking acts, how he got Neil Young's DNA on him, his love of poutine and more. 

How does this Beats 1 coverage help with the profile of Osheaga?

On a simple, obvious level, we're a worldwide station in over 100 countries so it's easy for people listening in other countries to get the idea of what we're doing out here and why we're out here. My experience of going to other places around the world -- South by Southwest in Texas, Primavera in Barcelona, even The Great Escape in Brighton in the U.K. -- is that people around the world are genuinely interested in these places and they're very easy to describe to people and bring to life. So even if you can't go, and you have no interest in going, people want to hear about what's going on somewhere else. 

How do you describe Osheaga to people?

I've been to a lot of festivals around the world and not many have been as beautiful as this site. It's very lush and green. A lot of festivals seem to be set in car parks. That, compared to something where there's water, trees, wildlife, a beach, It's just great and all the bands I've spoken to seem to be in agreement.

From what I understand, you're the "there first" guy for bands to break out of the U.K. or even in the U.K. and the rest of Europe. What does coming to Osheaga do for your career and profile? 

My thing is I'm obsessed with new music. I'm obsessed with finding bands first and then bringing them to more people, and breaking them, and trying to break them. That's the aim. Weirdly, since I've started this Beats 1 thing in 2015, the areas where I'm seeing really strong bands and artists coming through tend to be places like Australia and Canada. There's a lot in the U.K. that I can see firsthand. There's a lot in the U.S. that gets pushed over to the U.K. because we have that relationship, but for some reason there seems to be a lot of really good stuff coming out of [Canada]. It goes back to, I guess, Arcade Fire and Grimes in the past decade or 15 years. They probably opened that door a little bit. And in their wake, you have so many great bands coming out of this country, so it's very easy for me to play those acts on my show and shout about them. But there's nothing quite like going to the country where these artists come from. I've been walking in Montreal a little bit and going to a couple of venues and trying to get a feel for the city as well. You can't beat that.

The position that you have is unique today. When I was in my teens, I would listen to certain radio DJs and trust what they said and played and that's where I would discover new music. But we all know what playlists are like on terrestrial radio these days and DJs don't serve the role of breaking acts. Is that the same in the U.K.?

Yeah. I grew up listening to and devouring not only radio people, but print as well. I used to work at NME magazine and I really respect the human interaction element of it and that's what we do, every single show on Beats 1, not just the anchored shows. .wav radio, Travis's [Scott's] show, the new episode just went hand in hand with the new record. It's a companion piece. If you're a super fan of his, it's essential that you listen to that and it's same with Frank Ocean's stuff on his show [blonded RADIO], which he does for us. He really takes the time to curate that playlist and show. That's what we do. Music is so exciting and you need people like that to kind of bring it to life a little bit.

Who did you interview and discover at Osheaga?

We've had a whole range of artists. Arctic Monkeys dropped by. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I hadn't met them before so that was very exciting. In terms of new stuff in Canada, it was great to hook up with Essaie Pas because I'm aware of them from underground scenes that I've heard about in Canada. I'm a big fan of Arbutus records and everything Seb [Cowan] does and they were vaguely involved in that scene a few years ago and they'd been bubbling up. They dropped by. KILLY as well, who I saw his show and it was just off the scale; I mean that's going somewhere isn't it? Calpurnia, who I'm very interested in because I'm a big fan of Cadien [Lake James] from [Chicago band] Twin Peaks. He's a friend of mine and he was telling me about how he produced their EP and he said, "Everybody knows this band because of Finn [Wolfhand] and his Stranger Things connection, but it's pretty good." When they dropped by, they're so young, like 15, 16 years old I think. It was just hilarious to see them at the festival knocking on people's doors backstage, like on Blondie's door and just introduced themselves. People don't normally do that at festivals. Funny enough in our interview, Tyler [The Creator] walked past, saw Finn and just shouted him out and came over and shook his hand. Just seeing those kids' reactions to that.

Is the focus of your interviews Osheaga and Montreal or more generic?

All of the interviews, we talk about Canada, Montreal, Osheaga and the fans here. Also, how this festival's changed over the years. Quite a lot of people have played it before; Arctic Monkeys have done it about four or five times now. If it's a British artist, I'm interested in how they go down over here, what they think of Canadian fans. If they come from Montreal, it's the same as anyone I interview who has their own scene, I want to know about that scene, what the vibe is in this place, how they came to be and what their musical DNA is.

Montreal has a long history of music from Leonard Cohen and Andy Kim to the Doughboys and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and you mentioned Arcade Fire. What were you been able to see when you walked around and did you try poutine [fries, gravy and cheese curds] or Montreal smoked meat or a Montreal bagel?

Poutine, I have had a lot of. Poutine is probably what we have at 1 a.m., when you need to line your stomach right? In the U.K., our equivalent is a street kebab. You wake up in the morning and you really feel it. I don't really understand why poutine hasn't travelled more because I think it would go down well in the U.K.. 

You might have found your side business. I mean, you have fish & chips there. You just add some curds and gravy. 

We like all of those things. And the other stuff I did: I went to an amazing record shop [Cheap Thrills]. They had a couple of bargains there. The first night I walked around the city a little bit. I think it was the old quarter [Old Montreal], the architecture is so brilliant. I presumed it was going to be 50 percent French, 50 percent Canadian, but it's a real melting pot society. There's a big Italian contingent; the Chinatown area was great. I went to a bar on Bleury Street, where there's an open mic night and loads of people jumping up on stage. Big fondness for Montreal from what I've seen of it. 

Canada and Britain have a special bond musically. A lot of the U.K. acts, we embrace, or they break here first, before the U.S. Why Is that and is that still the case or is it easier for U.K. acts to break in the States now?

We can see this side of service via Apple Music and Beats 1, the world it is getting smaller in terms of music. It's easy for us to play tracks, which could be on the breaking playlist in Canada or in Israel, or France, or Germany, wherever. We have teams all around the world, so we know what's going on. What I'm finding is in the U.K., when we play foreign stuff -- which maybe previously we would have never had the chance to even hear, let alone play and promote -- U.K. audiences take international music in way that I haven't seen before. It's the same in Canada. All over the world people are more open to not sticking to a certain trend and a certain scene. Kids that I speak to now are way more open and they might listen to a rapper or music from the '50s. 

In terms of breaking an act, the same structure still applies. If you're a new artist, you still need to have a game plan. You still need to be very astute in who you work with, your management team, your press team and plugging team. You still need to know and navigate the industry a little bit. As long as you do that, I don't really see why you can't break anywhere in the world. That's the weird thing. What streaming has done is it's really opened up music a lot more. What I find actually, when I talk to bands about this sort of thing, a lot of them say, "We had no idea that we were big in Montreal," for example, "until we came here, and we noticed that the crowds go wild." And like I said, the world is getting smaller. Bands have the ability to do that now, to travel more and to get the music out to places it wouldn't have been before and it's being received well because music generally is good and fans are receptive to good music. The great thing about music is that there aren't any borders.

What are your all-time favorite Canadian artists?

That's very tough. Arcade Fire was very special to me growing up. The first two albums in particular just really resonated with me. I was at an important age where I was just getting more independent and in that junction where you stop being a child and you become an adolescent. For me, the first two records that dropped, and some of the gigs that I saw as well, were so euphoric.

So it wouldn't be like a Rush or a Neil Young or Guess Who?

Neil Young, I think he's God.

He is. 

He is God and at South by Southwest this year I went and saw the film [Paradox] with my friend Meg [Williams from Australian label Inertia] and we didn't know it was a premier. We were in baggy SXSW day-five clothes. There's two seats right at the back and as we're approaching, we see that they're right in front of Neil Young in a cowboy hat in the full Neil Young regalia. We just look at each other. "Let's definitely get those seats." This is going to sound weird, but when we got up at the end, and his jacket rubbed on the back of my head...

You've never washed your head since?

I have Neil Young's DNA on me. Like from Neil Young's '60s jacket. So it's tough -- it would be between Neil and Arcade Fire. 

What are your careers goals? Will you be like James Corden, Jim Jefferies and Zane Lowe and end up in the States? 

In the States, I don't know? I don't really think about it that much to be honest. There's always something very exciting going on in my job. There's always interesting people to meet and talk to. I just want it to keep growing and keep getting bigger.

And you want to stay in the U.K.?

No, I'm pretty open to going anywhere. Like I said, we're a worldwide station. I don't see why we shouldn't do more of this stuff and highlight music from around the world. That's one of the most exhilarating things that I do at my job so I'm quite excited by the prospect of discovering new cities and new places.

Maybe you can broadcast live from your poutine shop in Montreal.

Exactly.