Massive Attack, Portishead, George Ezra and the IDLES are but a few examples of bands and artists that have risen from the West and become household names — touring the world and topping global charts. BBC Music Introducing in the West presenter, James Threlfall, knows all too well about the region’s thriving music scene. Every week, the presenter from Melksham plays a key role in showcasing unsigned, undiscovered, and under-the-radar artists from across the West region.
In our latest YTL Arena Bristol Q&A, we go #BackstageWith James to find out about his illustrious career in pro-skateboarding and presenting, meeting the Queen, what the BBC Introducing team look for when deciding which emerging bands and artists to share on the radio (does social media followers and streaming numbers really matter?!) , and so much more!
We simply cannot start this Q&A without first addressing the fact you’re the first skateboarder to ever receive an MBE. A huge congratulations! How did it feel when you found out you would be getting recognition in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list 2019? Did you share any skateboarding tips with the Queen?
Yeah that was pretty wild to be honest and fully unexpected! Haha. It's quite funny because the first I'd known of it was a letter arriving at our house, but I hadn't really clocked what it was. My girlfriend picked it up later on and saw it was from the Cabinet Office, and it basically explained they wanted to give me an MBE but that I couldn't tell anyone, so we had to keep it quiet for a few months.
I honestly never thought I'd be chatting to the Queen about skateboarding so that was really trippy. She didn't ask for any tips on how to perfect her skating sadly but we did have a good chat about the positive impact it can have and stuff like that, which was really cool.
Following from this, how did you go from the world of professional skateboarding to presenting BBC Introducing? And does skateboarding still play a big role in your life?
Skateboarding's still a huge part of my life. When the pandemic isn't a thing, I still travel to skate contests and film abroad every year, as well as continuing to represent some great brands like Element (who I dreamed of skating for as a kid) and British store, Rollersnakes.
I stepped into presenting through skating really, because I was running skate contests from the age of 15. There was no one else to host the events on the mic, so I basically stepped up to that and it grew from there. I started skating for British clothing brand, Animal at the age of 18 and started hosting some content and event coverage for them, then from there I started doing bits with NASS Festival, adverts for Sky and Coca-Cola, and then pitched and got the green light to host a show around Europe for the Extreme Sports Channel, then under AMC Networks.
Alongside all of that though I've always been massively into music of all kinds of genres. I used to borrow my dad's boombox when I was a kid which had a terrible mic on the front, and I'd record links onto cassette and then record tracks from the radio into it - so basically piecing together terrible radio shows. Fast forward to about 2016, I began hosting an electronic music show for Bristol speaker brand, Minirigs, on London's Pyro Radio, and then ended up getting a slot of a similar vibe on Soho Radio in London.
I had an idea that I'd like to get into radio with the BBC and having been on multiple times for their sport shows to discuss skating, BBC Radio Wiltshire let me come in and shadow the Breakfast Show for a morning (shout out to the legend Marie Indge!) and a few days later I was offered a cover show. I did that, then picked up Friday nights regularly and from there was offered to take on BBC Introducing in the West, which has been amazing.
That's a fairly long-winded story, but I always find it funny that my interest in presenting sort of came before skating, and then skating was actually what opened the door to me making it my profession.
Credit: Dan Pettit - Ottr Works
Where did your love for music and presenting come from?
I guess I kind of delved into that in the last question, but I've always had a thing for "performing" I think. When I was younger, I loved the idea of being an actor or whatever, but I never really pursued it. I think I started putting together those radio shows just because I had the stuff to do it with at home at the time and didn't really think about the fact that I was actually practicing how to present at that point, so I'm stoked I ended up finding that path through skating.
I can't really pinpoint when I started loving music, it feels like something I've always been into really. I'm a real lover of electronic music though and I fully remember the moment my older brother showed me The Prodigy's album, The Fat Of The Land. That totally blew my mind and it was my first time dipping my toe into that kind of music. From there Pendulum opened the door to Drum and Bass, then my friend started hooking me up with Logistics and Calibre CDs, and the rest is history really. I found House at some point along the way which I probably listen to most nowadays, but I'm a huge fan of so many different genres. Outside of electronic music, Foals and Arcade Fire are two of my all-time favourites.
Being featured on BBC Introducing is obviously a very big deal to up-and-coming artists and can act as a huge stepping stone in their music careers, with George Ezra being just one example of a global star who came through this way. Can you describe to us the process of how the show works in selecting which under-the-radar artists to showcase?
Yeah, it's understandably a huge deal. I think we try not to overthink selecting tunes too much, if that makes sense. There's three of us that listen to all of the music and we're always sharing people we've found. There's basically daily discussion in our WhatsApp group nowadays which seems to work well for us as a team.
When I say we try not to overthink it though, I basically just approach it with a mindset of "do I like this song, and does it deserve to be on the radio?" Equally though there's definitely stuff we play that isn't necessarily the genre I listen to all the time, but the talent is undeniable and you can hear it just needs to have the light shone on it, so I'm really proud that because we take that approach, we have a really eclectic show.
At the time of writing this for example, we have a track with lots of Latin guitar that I'm really excited to play this week. Little gems like that excite me because they aren't tunes that I'd typically listen to, but I love them.
The thing we get asked lots though is whether social media followers and streaming numbers matter in terms of getting BBC Introducing play... and the answer is a firm no. Of course, those things are great and we're really excited for you if you have an audience already, but it's genuinely not something that I take into consideration when I'm deciding whether to play a tune or not. In fact, I get quite excited if someone's creating amazing music but their streaming figures and following are really small, because who doesn't want to be the person to discover the next big thing? Sure, it's something that if you're getting regular play and looking to step up to the next level you might want to consider putting some time into, as social following is the kind of thing labels and bigger networks might look at, but it's absolutely not a barrier to getting played on BBC Introducing.
What would be your top advice to unsigned artists in their journey to being more widely discovered in the music industry?
This is the million-dollar question really isn't it! There isn't a hard and fast rule or formula for this really, but I think just being true to yourself, taking your time and just constantly putting yourself out there is a really good way to grow. A lot of successes we've seen haven't been overnight. The likes of IDLES for example grafted for years to get to where they are now, but in a way that's great because they've had time to hone their sound, figure out who they are and how they do things, and now that they're smashing it on the biggest stages, to me they look totally comfortable and like they're so ready to be where they are now.
Basically, I guess don't feel like you need to rush and just think about how you're doing things. How can your social media content reflect and represent your music in the right ways, are your lyrics authentically yours, and things like that. Equally, what opportunities can you take to collaborate and where can you be popping up to be in front of the right people?
It's stuff that definitely comes with time, but it's good to assess your work as you go. I know I constantly do that as a presenter, too.
Are there any particular bands or artists from the West that you feel are going to be the next big thing?
There's so many artists from the West that I genuinely think have got what it takes to be big, and I'm nervous to list names here because I'll definitely miss some. To name a few though (and this definitely isn't an exclusive list), I'm really excited about the likes of George Glew, Make Friends, Junodream, Grove, Devon and Ishmael Ensemble right now. There's many more I could include too, we're genuinely really blessed in the West. It's also great to see the likes of Elder Island, Squid and Bad Sounds just going from strength to strength at a high level at the moment as well.
Aside from being a BBC presenter, you also have a pretty impressive background in presenting across a variety of fields, from live sports broadcasting for Red Bull, to fronting a BBC Three mental health film. What skills do you believe are key to being a successful presenter?
I guess it's kind of like music, in that one presenter to the next is very different. For example if you listen to Grimmy and then listen to Shaun Keaveny, both are very different but amazing in their own rights. I think it's definitely about authenticity, though. Don't try to be someone you're not. When I started out I tried to be on some kind of Zane Lowe vibe and I can't stress how terrible it was. There's only one Zane Lowe, and I'm not him. Just figure out who you are, and don't try to change your voice drastically to be on air as that's when a lot of people come undone. I'll bring a lot of energy when I lift the mic fader, but it's always still my voice and my personality.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a breakthrough in the presenting industry?
I think basically the same as above. Be yourself and get as much experience as you can. If you're looking to present on radio, community radio is an amazing place to start. It'll most likely be unpaid, but it's a brilliant place to cut your teeth with (usually) quite a bit of freedom.
What does it mean to you for Bristol to finally be getting an arena of its own?
It's just super exciting hey?! Bristol's home to (and has been home to) so many legendary venues, but to add an arena of this size into the mix is amazing. I really can't wait to see which big names come to the city first. Here's hoping there's some great opportunities for rising West Country artists to get their moments on the stage too.
The community stage at YTL Arena Bristol will showcase emerging talent from the region
What are your favourite things about the city/ South West region?
I love that one minute you can be in the city, the next right out in the countryside with no one around. The creativity in the West is just infectious though isn't it, and it really feels like musically things are really exciting right now. That might be me being biased because I'm more immersed in it now than ever before through BBC Introducing, but getting to listen to incredible music day in, day out from West Country artists just doesn't get old.
And lastly, can you share an all-time favourite song/ a song that means a lot to you so we can add it to our YTL Arena “Backstage with” playlist?
Go for Devon - Warning Signs. He's an artist from just outside of Gloucester who's just ace, I'm a big fan.
Join James Threlfall every Saturday Night from 8pm as he showcases the region’s emerging talent on BBC Introducing in the West. Follow @jamesthrelfall on Instagram.