Music Features

Bestival 2012: Rob da Bank (Interview)

In its nine-year history, Bestival has grown from moderately humble beginnings to become one of the most applauded festivals of fans and critics alike.  Taking place annually on the Isle of Wight, it regularly attracts high-profile and sought-after artists, both as headliners and further down the bill.  This year's line-up for example, includes Stevie Wonder, The xx, New Order, Florence + the Machine and Sigur Rós, amongst hundreds of other acts.  Previous artists to have performed include Björk, The Flaming Lips, The Beastie Boys and Kraftwerk.

As well as winning numerous awards, Bestival's also spawned a family-orientated spin-off festival on the mainland (Camp Bestival).  And, to top it all off, it's just sold out for the eighth year in a row (congratulations, guys!).  Although it isn't surprising really, when your line-up is this good.

Both in terms of music and more generally, this year's festival is looking to be better than ever.  And it's all been carefully constructed under the watchful eyes of one very passionate, dedicated couple; late-night/early-morning BBC Radio 1 DJ Rob da Bank, and his wife Josie.

As we at No Ripcord HQ begin counting down the days (and hours and minutes) to the start of the festival, Rob da Bank took a few minutes to talk to Craig Stevens on a range of topics including this year's festival, artists to watch out for and his views towards a potential resurgence of the chill-out movement.

So how are you feeling at the moment? Is everything starting to come together? Is the site starting to take shape?

Yeah, yeah, slightly panicky! I'm out here at the moment with a girl who works on the talent with me trying to squeeze everyone in and sort out the last bits and pieces. The site on the Isle of Wight is under way, it's more stuff in my brain that needs sorting! I always book a lot of acts, but this has been a record year – I haven't totted them up yet but there's probably 400, 500, so there's a lot of juggling really.

So it doesn't get any easier? Is it the same kind of stress every year at this point?

Yeah. I don't want to labour on the stress side of thing, because it's not actually that stressful. It's my own fault – I book a lot of acts and I tend to chop and change them right up to the last minute because I want to make sure everyone has the best set they can. It's not like I box it off in June and leave it, I'm always tweaking. But it's good fun, I like it. I'm always changing things in my head – thinking “okay, I'll switch AlunaGeorge with Clock Opera and this band with that band”. It's a bit like doing a DJ set where I'm piecing it together like a giant jigsaw. But no, it doesn't get any easier, it still causes a lot of headache!

Of course, you're not working on the festival alone, that would be insane. How many other people do you have working on the site and on the festival as a whole?

Well, there are hundreds, possibly over a thousand people when you add everyone up – bar staff, cleaners, everyone who's working over the weekend. And there are probably five- or six-thousand people once you bring in the artists and crew. But of our core unit, there must be fifty. It starts with less and gradually accelerates. There are probably about fifteen people working on site at the moment, plus the twenty or so people in the office. It all accelerates quickly from hereon in.

Bestival's capacity has grown quite a lot since it first started back in 2004, but the fans and critics continue to heap praise on the festival, as is evident from the numerous awards won in recent years. What do you think it is that sets Bestival apart from other festivals?

Yeah, we started at a few thousand people and we're now at 50,000, but we've capped it for the last three years. And I think we're comfortable at the capacity we're now at, so it's not as though we're continuing to get bigger and bigger, we've stopped. It may even go down in capacity – I think if we go any way, it will be down. At 50,000, it really works but I think one thing with festivals is that you can't rest on your laurels, you've got to keep tweaking. But I think Bestival's still got the magic mix of otherworldliness and amazing music. I think a lot of people know that as soon as they get on the ferry or come through the gates, they'll enter into a different world. It's quite an eccentric festival. It's where the whole fancy-dress thing started, in festival land. And I'm really proud of that, and pleased that people make an effort – that people can lose themselves for three or four days and be a bit off-the-wall. It's a chance for people to break out from their normal lives for three or four days, that's the main thing. And with that comes an amazing soundtrack, including all the best new bands (well, hopefully, nearly all of them!) and a lot of classic acts as well.

The music line-up is just staggering. I personally think it's the most exciting music line-up of any festival around this year. Aside from those you've mentioned already, who are you most excited about seeing?

I'm really torn. I book all the acts – well, about 95% of the bill I book. And then anything else that goes on on site I'll get consulted on. I'm a bit of a control freak on that front! My goal is to have as many breaking acts as possible in the genres I support, which is hopefully quite wide. With the exception of chart music and heavy metal, there's a lot of stuff on site, from folk to indie to electro to rock. It's really important to me to cover all those bases. I'm excited about a lot of things, from bigger acts like Sigur Rós, The xx and Stevie Wonder down to artists like Grimes, Michael Kiwanuka and some of the electronic stuff like Pearson Sound and Four Tet versus Caribou. And artists that have broken now but I'm still a huge supporter of, like Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, who's come out with an amazing new live show this summer. You could name any act on the lineup and I would say, “Yeah, I want to be in that tent at that time”!

Of the artists that are perhaps a little lower down the bill, which are potential future headliners, do you think?

Yeah, that's a tricky one! It's a good question. Obviously, artists like Friendly Fires and Florence + the Machine played their first sets at festivals and you'd never really think that that gangly, weird, ginger-haired girl called Florence is going to go on to become a massive hit, and go on to headline a lot of other festivals as well! It's tricky to put my finger on it, I haven't really got an answer!

Since the original music line-up was announced some months ago, it seems as though almost every couple of weeks, there have been more acts added. At what point do you go, “Okay, that's enough, we've got enough now”? Do you have a set number of slots to fill or do you book the artists and work the times around them?

That's a very pertinent question – I'm literally in a meeting now with the talent girl before I have to go into another meeting with the production people, who want a full list of finished times, so they can plan the changeovers onstage. And I've not done it! I've still got at least five or six DJs in hand and other things that I need to sort out. It's an ongoing process. I know that at other festivals, they have a grid where they plot in and say, “Okay, well the main stage is full”. I don't adhere to that, unfortunately! I think that even if the main stage is full, I'll find space. But I nearly always make it work – last year, I didn't really get any complaints from any of the artists. The thing with Bestival is that, even if you have an early slot, it doesn't mean that people aren't going to be there. I get people saying, “No, you've put my band on at 2pm!” but 2pm is a bloody amazing time at Bestival. Even at 11:30 in the morning, that tent will still have people in it.

It's not all about the music, of course, as the website itself says. There's so much else going on at Bestival. What are your favourite elements that are returning this year, and which new attractions would you say absolutely cannot be missed?

The Roller Disco, which we introduced last year, where people can roller skate round whilst listening to music – I think that's the first time that anyone's done that at a festival. The WI Tea tent, in terms of food, is a great place to go for a 50p cup of tea. It's the cheapest place on site and volunteers from the Women's Institute on the Isle of Wight run that. The Arcadia section is really amazing. That's going to have a lot of incredible non-music stuff from a burning man to mad mushroom clouds. It's been there before but there'll be other, new stuff as well. Other new stuff includes the Amphitheatre stage, which is being built in the woods at Robin Hill. That incorporates the Nomad Cinema which is doing a David Lynch night and a Quentin Tarantino night. There's loads of food stuff, including an underground restaurant with Kerstin Rodgers, aka Miss Marmite Lover, who does a brilliant sit-down meal three times a day with silver service and wine – it's not like your standard festival food. There's also the classic albums Sunday, which is musical but it's a bit different. You listen to classic albums in their entirety, often introduced by some of the people playing. So this year, New Order might be introducing a New Order album or (and I don't know if it's going to happen yet) Stevie Wonder might introduce one of his albums. So you've got to get out there and discover all the stuff that's there apart from the music really.

I think it's safe to say that no-one's going to go bored! Aside from Bestival, just a couple of quick questions to finish off with. I know you're a big supporter of new and upcoming music, what new artists are catching your attention at the moment?

There's a whole different list each week. I do support people week-in-week-out but often, there's a whole new playlist full of new acts. There's a guy I really like called Luke Sital-Singh. There's an electronic artist called Lorn – I really like him. JJ DOOM, which is a hiphop collaboration between Jneiro Jarel and DOOM. Purity Ring, I really like what they're doing. John Talabot. L.A. Salami – a folky guy in London. Palma Violets, who a lot of people are talking about. A new band that we're about to sign called Two Jackals, that I'm really excited about.

What sort of music is Two Jackals?

It's kind of like Ride or My Bloody Valentine, but a bit more poppy. So kind of shoegaze-pop. They're only fifteen or sixteen, very young.

Does being part of the Radio 1 family help expose you to music that wouldn't otherwise come within your radar, do you think?

I'm sure, yeah. It's the most important thing that I do really, apart from festivals. Being part of that family and getting sent the records that I probably only get sent because I'm on Radio 1, it's opened me up to a lot of new stuff that I wouldn't have otherwise heard. It's ever-changing, of course - everything's on mp3 or Soundcloud now. You used to have four bags of CDs a week. Now it's two bags of CDs and 500 mp3s a week. So it's always changing. But it's good. I love getting new music. The challenge is trying to get through it all. And I think anyone, even if they're not a DJ, can go online and start trawling through music and make up their own mind about what they like and what they don't like. It's radio DJs that filter that stuff and hopefully pick out the best bits and play it. And that's why the specialist DJs on Radio 1 in particular are still so vital. And guys like you, and bloggers that will filter out all the crap.

Finally, I've always been a huge fan of chill-out music, and I know that Sunday Best (Rob da Bank's record label) was instrumental in putting artists like Lemon Jelly, Bent and Groove Armada on the map. The chill-out genre as a whole perhaps isn't as prevalent as it was in the early noughties. Do you think it's cyclical, and we'll see a resurgence in chill-out at some point or do you think music has moved on, and it's all about shoegaze and chillwave now?

I think about this now and again. I go back and listen to some of the chill-out stuff and think about what a great time it was for music. And I know it all went a bit tits-up at the end; it went a bit commercial and shot itself in the foot. I think the twee sounding stuff maybe won't come back. It's gone a bit deep, it's gone a bit darker. But there's so much more amazing electronic music around nowadays. There was quite a lot of chill-out stuff like Bent and Lemon Jelly that had a real fun element to it and I'm sure that could come back – it just needs a brave artist to do that. I think it's been replaced by a lot of deeper music that is just as good. But yeah, I think some of the fun elements I used to like have gone. I'm sure it'll be back.

Maybe when Lemon Jelly eventually reform as they keep promising to do...I expect to see them first at Bestival by the way!

I hope so, yeah!

Craig Stevens and Joe Rivers will be tweeting for No Ripcord throughout the Bestival weekend (6-9 September). Check back after the festival for reports and plenty of artist interviews.