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Meet Dylan Harris, the Promoter Trying to Throw Parties in North Korea

As a music promoter and a travel operator, Harris is adept at finding music in "difficult places."

Francisco Garcia

It's that time of year when your inbox grows more clogged, your brain more weary, your body more battered, and your batteries ground down to an-even-finer-than-usual dust. So you sit, barely even concealing your petty irritation and inertia, scrolling through the litany of Ryanair flights to nowhere that you've scrolled through time and again and again. You didn't want that ten quid flight to Cork six months ago, and frankly, you don't want it now. What a sniveling piece of work you are.

Wouldn't it be nice to be jumpstarted out of your stupor, though? Wouldn't it be nice to go somewhere new, fresh and exciting? But, you wouldn't even know where to begin.

And it's precisely because you're a sniveling piece of work that men like Dylan Harris make you feel so woefully inadequate and ill equipped. He's the brain behind Lupine Travel, a specialist travel agency that put on tours to some of the world's most fascinating, far flung, "difficult" places in the world at actually affordable prices. He's got a considerable pedigree at putting on events, parties, club nights and gigs, everywhere from West Africa to North Korea. His Twitter is a thing of quiet beauty, casual documentation of a life spent dotting around some of the world's furthest corners with all the insouciance of your nan's Grimbsy 92 album on Facebook.

Harris is, as you'd imagine, a busy bloke, so it was with a sense of trepidation that I gave him a call during a brief foray back to his hometown of Wigan. We discussed music, the eternal wonder of travel, and Bez having a big one in in Pyongyang.

THUMP: I'd be fascinated to know the story behind Lupine Travel. Where did it all begin?
Dylan Harris: Well, basically, I set up Lupine Travel in 2008. Before that I ran a music business which involved putting on club nights and managing a small record label. It started with the indie scene back in the early 2000s, putting on gigs in Wigan—bands like Arctic Monkeys, Foals, Pete Doherty. The club nights were just in Wigan to start with, then moved onto Manchester and Liverpool as well.

I was pulling in over £1000 a night for one of the clubs, so the cash from that is what led to me traveling a lot and building up my contacts around the world. That was doing pretty well in the mid-2000s. I had quite a bit of spare time around then, so I did a lot of traveling and started going to increasingly unusual places. I think it was around 2007, on a trip to China, when I got managed to get into North Korea for the first time.

After coming back I thought, there must be more people that would be interested in it. And I started to collate all the contacts I had around the world. The first trips were North Korea, The Trans-Siberian Railway and a few others. It's all built from that start really. We've been adding more and more destinations since. Trying to uncover interesting stuff in "difficult" places. It's all about building trust and connections with people in the countries we go to.

So where do the two worlds collide, your life in music and as a travel operator?
I'm constantly trying to tie them together. We're always looking to delve into the local music scenes of the countries we visit. This is going to be my third trip to Sierra Leone and I think I'm finally going to be able to track down some local musicians, which is obviously great.

I'm working on trying to take a few musicians over to North Korea at the moment. We're also trying to bring some North Korean musicians over here, which is obviously a very sensitive process. It's a long-term project, for sure. About six months ago there was a point where I thought I'd made a breakthrough, but my contact at the embassy over there defected to the South. I've known him for years, but he just disappeared one day. So it's a matter of starting from scratch again. Though they are surprisingly supportive of the idea though.

The travel stuff doesn't always mix with the music but as they're my two big passions I try to get projects where they're both crossing over as much as I can. I've done some stuff with Bez from the Happy Mondays, taking him out on tour DJing all over the place, from Scunthorpe to Estonia. I was looking to see if I could set something up in North Korea for him just to see how far I could push things—until I realized there was no other other possible outcome to Bez in North Korea than a long hard jail sentence for us both.

Which destination's music scene has surprised you the most?
Iran is one of the big ones. There's a really thriving party scene there, despite the obvious challenges and risks. As well as Iran, Ethiopia is another place. It's probably the highlight music wise of all the places I take people. In contrast to Iran, things aren't hidden away, it's all out in the open. You've got clubs that vary from traditional music and Ethio-Jazz all the way to brand new Ethiopian techno. It's mainly based in the capital Addis Ababa but even out east in predominantly Muslim areas such as Harar you can find small underground clubs playing a huge variety of stuff.

Where has proven the most difficult country in terms of access or sheer cultural difference?
It's definitely North Korea. Evenings there for tourists are generally made up of visits to the hotel bars. There are karaoke venues as well but it's all tightly controlled. It's only tourists taking part, strictly no locals other than the hostesses. On private trips there I've had a lot more access to places away from the tourist path and after seeing more than most I'm pretty certain there is nothing even like a scene that is hidden away from view. There are dingy backstreet boozers that tourists aren't allowed in—they're packed full of locals but there's never any music played in them. The only thing you can hear is the clinking of glasses and loud drunken voices, which promptly stop as soon as they spot a foreign face walking in. The guys I work with over there that I have a close relationship with—I've spoken before about the nightlife in the UK and they find it hard to comprehend. It's a completely foreign concept to them and the fact they have no cultural reference points to relate it to, they just find it impossible to comprehend. Even explaining to them about my work DJing, they can't grasp why people would pay to stand in a club listening to someone playing pre-recorded music. Clearly ecstasy hasn't hit Pyongyang yet.

I was on a long bus trip one day and gave my government appointed guide my iPod to listen to. I looked over at one point and he had a look of horror and disgust on his face. I looked down to see what track he had on and it was "Totally Wired" by The Fall. Before I left the country he gave me it back and told me that he'd listened to pretty much all 80GB on there in snippets and the only artist he liked was Michael Jackson.

Francisco is on Twitter.