Bellowhead interview with John Spiers, & Paul Sartin

talking festivals exclusively to eFestivals

By Scott Williams | Published: Thu 12th Apr 2012


Friday 8th to Sunday 10th June 2012
Cheltenham Racecourse, Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England MAP
£115 for the weekend, plus £22 for camping
Daily capacity: 7,500
Last updated: Wed 30th May 2012

eFestivals spoke to Bellowhead's John Spiers, & Paul Sartin who are working in the studio finishing off their latest album ahead of a summer appearing at festivals up and down the country including the band's forthcoming headlining shows at this summer's Wychwood Festival and Greenbelt Festival.

How's the album coming along?
Paul: We're in the finishing stages. Today's probably our last day in the studio, we're doing backing vocals and a few bits and pieces here and there just to tidy it all up, and add a few extra bits. It's been really quite nice and relaxed, because we know we've done the main body of work, we're just adding fairy dust on the top. It's also glorious weather and a really nice setting.

Will you be playing any of the new material at festivals this summer?
Paul: Yeah, I think we probably will, we've already started playing some of the new tracks out on our last tour, prior to recording them, so we got used to everything. I think we've played everything at least once on tour. So, yes, we'll be feeding in a few things to our set over the summer.

It's not a departure from what we've done before, it's in the same vein. We've moved on a bit, and there's some quite fascinating new material.

You're appearing at Cheltenham racecourse at two events this summer, Wychwood and Greenbelt, are you looking forward to your festival appearances?
John: Very much so, yes. We've done Wychwood before but we've never had the chance to do Greenbelt yet, which is amazing. I'm looking forward to all the festivals we're doing to be honest with you. It's going to be a full summer of it (Beautiful Days, T in the Park, Camp Bestival, Cropredy, Towersey, and Eden Sessions). It looks even more crazy with Bellowhead stuff than it did last year, and I think we did something like 35 festivals throughout the summer.

Paul: Yes absolutely. They're both at Cheltenham Racecourse and we played there a few years ago, and it was a really fun event. Greenbelt is a new departure for us.

Presumably you're even busier John, with Spiers & Boden, Ceilidh Band, and The Remnant Kings as well as Bellowhead?
John: The Spiers & Boden Ceilidh Band is kind of something we bring out of the cupboard every now and again, as a festival special, and I don't think we have any of those booked in this summer so far. We did do one earlier this year at the Frome Folk Festival at the end of February, we've only done that at three of four festivals so far, and it's something we'd like to get into more, but we're practising on our feet really, but it is fun.

What can you remember about your last visit to Wychwood?
John: It's a great festival, it's a very nice place to have a festival, usually you either have a very bare field that gets made into a festival with all the paraphernalia that's brought along. But there's quite a lot of infrastructure there with it being on the (Cheltenham) racecourse. I like the layout of festivals like that, they're green and lush with lots of shady places.

It's not like the baking heat of Glastonbury when it's sunny, or like the driving rain of Glastonbury (laughs) if it's raining. There are things to do, and places to go into, and having the infrastructure there is great for people. I remember the crowd were brilliant, I remember it well last time, it was a really good dancing crowd.

Paul: I remember it being a lovely summer's day and nice weather for a festival. Beyond that I can't really remember, because we do so many festivals they kind of blur into one a little bit, I don't meant that arrogantly.

You must be very busy on the festival circuit Paul, with Bellowhead, Bellshazzars Feast, and Faustus?
With all my different bands I must have done around 40 festivals last year, maybe more. It's great I'm not complaining, it's great to have the work, and festivals are good fun, but some of the facts get blurred (laughs).

Do you get out and about from backstage and take time to explore the festivals?
John: Yes I do, I generally do, unless the weather is so dreadful that we make a full use of the undercover space we have. I tend to try and get out and see as much of the festival as possible, see some of the other bands, and I like all the little craft places, local stalls, and things that have that kind of market souk feel to it. I feel very happy just strolling up and down those bits of it.

Paul: I think Greenbelt is going to be a bit of a rush for some of us because we're going to be at Shrewsbury Folk Festival earlier in the day. But, I always to try and see other bands whenever it's possible, but it's not always the case.

If the weather is like this we'll be doing some sunbathing. Some festivals have really good food, and we get the chance to have a look around and sample that too. Last year, to be honest, I got a bit festivalled out, and I think some of the others did too. We did so many, and quite a few of them didn't experience the best of the weather. After you've done 30 festivals over a summer, you just want to go home and eat your own food really, and sleep in your own bad?

Do you ever do the camping thing at festivals or are you a day tripper?
Paul: Occasionally, not often, and some members of the band are more keen on it than others. Benji likes to camp. At Glastonbury last year quite a few of our members camped. I ended up sleeping in the car, because I forgot to take a tent, which wasn't very pleasant.

If you've got a give performance and you've got to have your smart clothes and your instruments with you, and then maybe go and do another festival the next day, and you're on a noisy campsite it's not always practical really, or conducive to work.

John: I try and camp when we're there for the whole weekend but a lot of these weekends we will be coming to the festival for one day only, which means there isn't time to camp over, and have a good night out at a festival. As you've got to be there nice and early setting up the stage at the next one you're going to. So, I haven't been doing that much of late. I think the last time I camped was last year where we did Shrewsbury Folk Festival for the whole weekend. That was fun, we haven't done it for a while apart from that one.

Are there any acts you're looking forward to seeing at festivals this summer?
John: I haven't looked at the line-ups, I haven't seen what other acts are booked, and I know some festivals haven't proclaimed their full line-ups yet.

Did you go to many festivals before appearing at them as a performer?
John: Not really. It was part of my learning of the music really to go to folk festivals. I played for a Morris Dance team, and used to get invited to some of the smaller folk festivals. Then I started going to those as a musician. Then I teamed up as a duo and we got booked at several of the folk festivals including Sidmouth, which is one of the biggest week long festivals there is. Soon I became encompasses in that, and I also had a job that meant I used to travel around the folk festivals selling instruments on market stalls, so I've spent plenty of time at them.

Paul: Not much no. I think my first festival was Sidmouth Folk Festival, the first time I went there I may have been performing, but not doing very much. But, I don't tend to go to festivals for fun, I'm not sure that many of us do that, partly because we get to do so many, and because we get to go to them free of charge. If you do have to pay for them they can be quite a bit of money, just for the entry fee, let alone food and drink and everything else.

We're so busy with our bands, not just Bellowhead, that when we get free time, I tend to spend it doing things other than music.

Do you take your kids to festivals?
Paul: I've got three, the eldest one, my 15 year old son tends to go off and do goodness knows what. I went to Shrewsbury with my kids, Bellowhead were playing there, and we ended up staying. My kids and my partner and we stayed for three nights. At Shrewsbury there's a camping area reserved for musicians and we just hung out. My partner and I went to see quite a lot of the music, and my oldest son met up with friends, and came back at midnight/1am and we left him to it, he's in a crowd of likeminded people.

The other two just played with their diabalos all day and hung out with other kids. They were surrounded by the backdrop of live music, but they didn't necessarily go and see other gigs. I thought what a nice atmosphere for them to have a holiday in actually, and just soak up the music and be part of it all without me having to ram it down their throats.

You've mentioned your folk festival background, do you find there's a difference between folk festival crowds and more mainstream festival audiences?
John: Yes, there is a lot of crossover, but it is a bit different for me because I'm a dyed in the wool folkie, and all I knew for many years was folk festivals. I hadn't had the chance to go to any of the more mainstream ones, and I kind of assumed that the family atmosphere you get at folk festivals, and that safe surrounding feeling, was unique to folk festivals, but I've since found that that's not the case.

Many festivals are quite diverse and some of the big ones we did last year like V Festival, and Glastonbury, are so big, and people do tend to go feral for the weekend. They're not the sort of place you want to bring your sun dried tomatoes and lay a chequered picnic cloth out at. But that being said some of the other ones are so civilized it's unbelievable, and Wychwood is one of those. It's not an all out rock fest, there's not just drinking and music and nothing else, there's so much else going on and it's a great chance to meet new people.

The other one that surprised me last year was The Green Man Festival just in Wales, and that was amazing, an amazing site again, really totally diverse stuff there. Every year (at festivals) is a real education to me because I get to see different ones each year, and it will be our first time at the Greenbelt Festival this year. It's always an eye opener to go to a new one.

You've done quite a few festivals over the years now, have you noticed any changes in the festival scene?
John: Well mainly, it seems to have become a more acceptable thing to do, as far as I can telly. It was always the case that the mainstream festivals, apart from things like Glastonbury, were supposed to be just for young people, and there wasn't much crossover if your tastes were slightly more mature. The folk festival scene was always considered to be the "camping and caravanning club" of festivals and not very exciting. Having gone to the folk festivals at a time when there was a growth of young people getting into folk happening, and people had quite easy access to festivals close to them, it wasn't really like the stereotyping, the image wasn't true.

I've seen them merge together a bit more. A lot of the festivals now cater to quite a wide age range and quite a wide group of people, and therefore they're a bit more inclusive, and they seem a bit stronger for that.

The old folk scene depended on which festivals you attended, and some did have an older demographic than others, but the folk scene as a whole ten years ago had a much older demographic of people attending than is the case now. There has been renewed interest in the media that has got young people involved in folk more now. Nowadays you're not so surprised when you turn up at a festival how varied in ages people are.

What I love about the folk gigs is that you will see really small kids jigging around at the front and they're being looked after by their grandparents, who have friends in the audience, and there's everyone in between ages too amongst the music going public. I think it's really good that it's not just ghettoised into age groups.

Paul: The mainstream festival is a slightly different beast really. What's good for us is to go out and hear music that's not just folk music but absolutely all sorts of music. To have traditional English music placed on an equal footing with all sorts of other music, including quite commercial music is something that perhaps we wouldn't have thought would happen a few years ago. It's quite gratifying to see that happening.

In terms of the spirit of it, I think a festival is a festival, and folk festivals tend to have people who are a little bit better behaved at times and they tend to look after the environment more. That's what I don't like about some mainstream festivals, people go along and the whole vibe is meant to be peace and environmental awareness, really good, worthy things, but people leave such a huge amount of mess. I think it's disgraceful, at Glastonbury I was shocked by the amount of waste and litter flying around all over the place.

Other festivals, like Summer Sundae at De Montfort Hall has a whole recycling centre where people are working full time to keep it clean, whereas at Glastonbury you're walking on a carpet of litter. Actually for all the very commendable social and environmental messages that it sends out, the reality is there's a lot of consumerism and a lot of waste that goes along with that. That's something that some festivals need to address.

But it's also the scale of these things, some festivals are absolutely enormous and in order to be able to fund them a certain amount of retail has to go on, but I do think some festivals do need to live up to the message they send out in the first place. It's all very well to preach environmental awareness, but if you're not doing it practically the message is worthless.

Another thing that annoys me is that some festivals are becoming quite generic, particularly in folk festivals, and some mainstream festivals. The folk festivals that I like particularly are the festivals that have a local element to them which differentiates them from the others.

I say that from quite a fortunate position where being with Bellowhead we can be headliners. We're one of a number of bands that could be playing at any festival, and often it's the same names you'll see down the festival rostas every year.

What's actually really good is to encourage local music and music making, local kids, and local traditions whether that's dance, or song, and some festivals make an effort to do that and others don't. WOMAD did something last year where local children took to the main stage as part of a project, they were the first band on, that was really good.

What makes a festival appearance memorable for you?
John: Something going horribly wrong, makes it memorable. Just little things really, if someone is being outrageous at the front of the crowd we'll notice. Anything that makes it stand out from just another performance.

I remember there was a massive climax of a Test Series coming up, and we played our first ever gig at Summer Sundae Weekender in Leicester in the afternoon and we were trying to listen to our radios and hear what was going on in the cricket. All the guys who were running the stage, all the sound engineers and people like that had had exactly the same quandary about working when they really wanted to be watching the cricket. So, they rigged up a whole load of televisions at the side of the stage so we could watch and keep an eye on the score, that was good.

I also remember the two times we managed to break the same dance floor. The first gig, in our first year, that Bellowhead ever played at Sidmouth Folk Festival, and then a couple of years later at Towersey Festival which was run by the same people. They repaired the floor and take the same one to every festival they run, and we broke it again. They have a sprung floor for ceilidh dancing, the ground was only two inches but we still managed to crack it.

Paul: That's a good question, I think it depends, sometimes quite negative things like the rain make it quite memorable. For instance Latitude last year, I enjoyed the festival, but what I will always remember is nearly getting my car stuck in the mud.

It's the festivals with character that stick out, I think some festivals are a little bit generic, there are so many of them. If you've got a nice setting like Cheltenham Racecourse or the grounds at Latitude that makes them more pleasurable to attend. Plus there's the chance to see other quite interesting bands. At Glastonbury last year we saw Raghu Dixit, and we went to a festival in Portugal and got to see a great Japanese band, the music is what it's all about. Sometimes when we're working we don't get to see that much other music because we're doing other things, and sometimes festivals can be just a job of work. Once you've turned up you have to soundcheck, and so on and you don't really get into the festival vibe.

What's been your most memorable festival performance?
Paul: I think, and I can probably speak for the majority of the band with this one. We went to Sines Festival in Portugal, maybe four years ago, and the promoters there were really very generous and said we could come out early because they had already got the accommodation booked for us, so if we wanted to come for a few days off we'd be more than welcome.

We got out there, having had a really horrendous journey with delays of flights etc, and got to this beautiful little town where we had nice apartments. The festival paid for our food, they took us out for meals, some of the band went surfing, we had lots of nice seafood, the weather was perfect, and we were just really well looked after. On the third day we played the festival which is in a castle with the most amazing lighting, a great place to do a gig. Again, the hospitality continued, and we ended up on a beach at about 4 o'clock in the morning dancing to a Japanese band. That I think is the highlight of festivals for all of us. There was loads of international bands there too, the music was folk/roots so there bands from various African countries, India and all over, it was a wonderful experience, and I got a really good suntan too.

Wychwood music Festival returns for the seventh year to Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire from Friday 8th to Sunday 10th June 2012.

The festival is headlined by Bellowhead who top the bill on Friday, and James are Saturday night headliners, and Sunday's headliner has not yet been announced. Also confirmed are The Damned, Duke Special, Mahala Rai Banda, Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party, Gary J Armstrong, Urusen, The Cuban Brothers, Thrill Collins, Doctor and the Medics, JuJu, The Magic Tombolinos, Howard Marks, Dizraeli and The Small Gods, The Fisherman's Friends, Dhol Foundation, Kathryn Roberts And Sean Lakeman, and The Roving Crows. Over the coming months there will be lots more acts announced for Wychwood's four stages including the headliners for Sunday.

For the line-up details, day and stage splits, as available please click here.

An adult weekend ticket is priced at £115, weekend disabled (2 for 1) tickets are priced at £115, youth (aged 16-18)/concession weekend tickets are priced at £95, 10-15 year old weekend tickets are priced at £55 and those under 5 can attend for free but need to be accompanied by a grown up.

General camping passes (charged per person) are priced at £20 for an adult weekend/disabled camping ticket, a weekend youth/concession camping pass is priced at £10, with those aged under 16s able to camp with grown ups for free.

To buy tickets with Seetickets click here.

To buy tickets with Ticketline click here.

To buy tickets with Gigantic click here.

To buy tickets with We Got Tickets click here.

Greenbelt the all-age inclusive friendly arts festival takes place at the same site over the bank holiday weekend from Friday 24th to Monday 27th August.

Nitin Sawhney, The Leisure Society, The Proclaimers, Speech Debelle, Bruce Cockburn, Seth Lakeman, Bellowhead, The Imagined Village, Megson, Thomas Truax, and Franz Nicolay are the first acts to be announced.

As well as music and performing arts, the festival hosts a wide range of talks with Peter Tatchell, Hannah Lownsborough, Tony Campolo are the latest additions. Dr. Andrew Tate, Professor Mary Grey, Caspar Melville, Giles Fraser, Mark Townsend, Rose Hudson Wilkin, Ruth Gledhill, Reverend Richard Coles, Shane Claiborne, Simon Mayo, Lucy Winkett, Gideon Levy, Erwin James, and more still to be announced.

Early bird tickets are on sale. Ticket prices are as follows Adult - £99; Concessions £68; Under 18s Ticket (5-17) £55; family ticket (2 kids/2 adults) £259; and Single Parent Family Ticket (1 Adult, 2 Under 18s) £165. Infants aged 0-4 years can attend for free but still need a ticket. There will also be day ticket options available.

To buy tickets, click here.

interview by: Scott Williams

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