INTERVIEW: BEN ROBINSON (KENDAL CALLING CO-DIRECTOR)
Ben Robinson lives the dream. The 31 year old co-director of niche Cumbrian music festival KENDAL CALLING not only gets to pick the headliners and hang out with the stars, but also performs there with his band, SLAMBOREE. So how difficult is it to set up and run your own festival? We chatted to Ben to find out more…
Why did you decide to start KENDAL CALLING?
After University I moved back to Cumbria and there wasn’t a lot going on. I had a huge appetite for music and I found that many of my friends had started bands that were genuinely quite good, and so exploring the local scenes and playing in bands myself I felt someone needed to put on a night for them… and a few years down the line this developed into a festival called “Nine Standards” which ran for 3 years. It was after that I hooked up with Andy Smith (also co-director) who works in Kendal – I got used to the Kendal scene and as the two promoters we decided to do something bigger in Kendal with headline acts. In 2006 we put on BRITISH SEA POWER because they’re from Kendal, and we were really lucky to get PENDULUM, so after that it just snowballed… In the early years of the festival we had some really great party acts and bands but since then it’s developed into its own little world, each time we’ve added a stage, one year we brought in the Kaylied stage with folk and roots and that became really popular. Then we did the comedy/soapbox stage with a guy called Mick Fraser a few years ago and that’s got cabaret and stuff as well.
How do you decide on the line-up? Do you pick bands for yourself or for the audience?
We do the festival for the love of it, I wouldn’t enjoy putting on someone like MAROON 5 because I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed for it – it’s that passion that drives you to take such massive risks and put in so much energy to get the finished results. But at the same time, we quickly realised that if you put on only what you want to see, you’re only catering to a small number of people and it quickly falls flat on its face. I’m a huge MAXIMO PARK and JAMES fan though, I’ve loved James since I was 17 and so we put things we buzz off on because we’ve seen them play and we want to bring that buzz to Kendal Calling – so there’s not too much on that we wouldn’t listen to ourselves. We’d like to get JACK WHITE, THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS and the FLAMING LIPS here, that would be ace, but to be honest I’ve loved a lot of the acts we’ve worked with – we had DOVES on a few years ago – I couldn’t believe that – last thing I remembered I was at my Mum’s house, running a club night, listening to Doves and thinking they were great, and there they were a few years later playing in a field for us down the road.
I grew up going to Leeds and Reading which are very formulaic festivals – “Here’s some big bands, here’s a big stage, have some fun, get drunk and hang out with your mates on the campsite.” I mean, I had some amazing times at Leeds, and the influence of Leeds is there in that we still want to have big bands like FEEDER on the bill, but outside of that I think people are much more demanding of something nice to do, having something to explore and finding out things you didn’t know before. I play in a band myself and we go to a lot of small festivals where there are some great small areas and places in the woods, stuff like that, but there again what you find is they don’t have something on the main stage that unifies the crowd. I went to see the STONE ROSES at Heaton Park and I’d forgotten how amazing it is to be in a crowd that big, with so many people singing every word to every song the energy was just fantastic. So with Kendal we’ve decided another 2000 people would be just enough to get that atmosphere, but above that you lose the intimacy of a little festival village. What I love about Kendal Calling is that we’ve just had DIZZEE RASCAL -who’s just performed to a billion people at the Olympics – play to our tiny crowd in a nice little deer park. That’s what keeps it nice.
What do you like least about organising the festival?
One of the things that nearly made me walk away from festivals in the early years was seeing the mess people leave afterwards. I just used to think, I don’t even know if you people deserve this, if that’s the way you’re going to treat it. It was embarrassing one year when it was close to the road, and people were driving past thinking, “what on earth happened here?!” People should remember that every time they throw something on the ground, it’s someone physically picking it up after. You have to leave the fields completely clean because it’s a deer park… so about 40 people will pick up litter from when the gates open until about a week and a half after the festival ends. We now hand out bin bags when people come in and a cup refund scheme which made the arena look a lot tidier, even on the Sunday.
How is it to be not only an organiser, but a performer as well?
I’ve not got my head around it – it’s really weird! A lot of the crew and my family were watching, and the weirdest thing was between the songs, we were shouting “Come on Kendal Calling!” and I was looking up from my bass, having forgotten we were playing, thinking, this is really weird… But playing at a festival at that level is all I’ve ever wanted to do.
The best moments for me are always when it all comes together – seeing all the smiling faces at Dizzee Rascal was amazing, and just going into the crowd myself at James and standing shoulder to shoulder with people who’ve paid for a ticket was great. Sometimes it’s the little things – in 2008 it rained loads and it was one of the worst conditions we’d ever had to work in. We were still a young festival at the time so we were still getting major things wrong, and when the rain hit everything took five times as long and we were all stressed out. But on Sunday afternoon the sun came out and somebody said to me, “You’ve got to come out of the office and see this.” So we went and we saw these kids in the children’s area who were making these amazing mud sculptures – one had even made a whale! It was horrible mud but they’d made it into something beautiful. That was a real highlight. The fancy dress as well adds so much colour – this year it was comic books and fairy tales which was really nice. I saw someone dressed as Hellboy – that was really good, scared me actually!
To all those people out there now, thinking, “Hey, I think I could run my own festival!” what advice would you give?
Have a lot of passion, a lot of enthusiasm, and calculate your risks. Do it because you love it but be sensible and realistic, you’re not going to get 10,000 people and Dizzee Rascal straight away. Kendal Calling happens with a lot of planning and hard work! I had no background in promoting, I just got into it because I liked it, and built it up bit by bit. But it is great – Andy turned round to me the other week and shook my hand and said, “Thank you.” And I was like, “What for?” And he said, “If it wasn’t for meeting you, I’d be a real geek computer programmer!” So I shook his hand and went, “Well if it wasn’t for you, I’d still be working in a bank!”