INTERVIEW WITH DAVE RITCHIE, FOUNDER OF LES-FEST - PART ONE
Les-Fest is a name that should be familiar to regular readers of MetalTalk since 2012 when their first event was held, and ever since then we've always tried to keep up with what's happening up in the Clyde Valley.
With Christmas approaching and the first ever Les-Festive (did you see what they did there?) also coming up soon, we took the opportunity to sit down with Les-Fest founder, Dave Ritchie, for a chat and in the first instalment of the interview, we discuss how he got into Rock/Metal music, the origins of Les-Fest and what it takes to get a festival up and running.
Firstly, though, I asked Dave where his love of Rock and Metal music comes from?: "I am not too sure I could put my finger on that. As kids we used to go out in the car a lot and my dad always had the radio on or maybe an eight track, and we listened to all sorts of music. I do remember him liking a few tracks by The Who, he was famous for his Roger Daltrey 'I'm Free' (a track from their 1969 album 'Tommy' where Daltrey shows his vocals prowess by holding a single note for an extended period) moments and I know he had Deep Purple's 'In Rock' album too. I grew up through the Glam rock era so I always enjoyed bands like Sweet, Slade, Mud and Mott the Hoople - I guess that you can say I was "rock light!".
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"After that I think it was just my peers and mates because we all liked the same sort of stuff. Whether that was Black Sabbath, UFO, Uriah Heep, Judas Priest or Genesis, y'know. To be honest, though, when I got married and then my son Lewis came along I kind of went off music and gigs. As Lewis has grown up, I've rediscovered rock and metal and now he is introduces me to new music – it's the circle of life, isn't it? (laughs)"
With such a variety of bands that he listens to, I ask Dave what his most memorable gigs/festivals over the years are: "My first ever gig was Judas Priest at the Glasgow Apollo in 1978, on the 'Stained Class' tour - that gig would never leave you. I saw most of the bands that toured back then so yeah, Priest and UFO gigs were standouts for me as were The Scorpions and maybe surprisingly, (London based Punk band) Tubeway Army.
"I went to the "Garden Party with Marillion" at Milton Keynes Bowl (held on Saturday 28th June 1986, and also featured sets from Gary Moore, Jethro Tull, Magnum and the Mama's Boys) – that was my first major outdoor arena gig and still quite vivid. "I really loved seeing (Scottish Prog Rock three piece) Chasar play at the Heathery Bar in Wishaw – that was my favourite haunt on a Saturday night. IQ (a British neo-progressive rock band formed in 1981) also played a stunning show there.
"A real memory though is seeing King's X in Strawberry Fields, Glasgow (now re-named Ivory Blacks) - I loved the band and the gig was really intimate. To be honest, there aren't many bands that I haven't seen, right through the whole Prog and Metal genres over the years. The first Sonisphere Festival (held annually at Knebworth Park from 2009-2011) was brilliant because I went with my son Lewis and his friends - it was just such a great a friendly event but I also love my annual trip to Hammerfest these days and have to say I thoroughly enjoyed my first ever trip to Bloodstock earlier this year."
Bringing the conversation towards Les-Fest, I ask Dave if when attending Hammerfest or Sonisphere if he ever dreamt that one day he would be running his own festival: "Two years ago, absolutely not!. I've dabbled in music - playing, managing artists and I've done a bit of tour work, but that was all years ago. I would never ever have imagined that I would end up here!"
I ask him if it's true, as I've heard, that he had an "I have a dream..." moment about the creation of Les-Fest?: "Absolutely – I'm on record for saying so," he confirms with a grin.
"It was 30th March 2012 and it had just been announced that Sonisphere had been cancelled and I remember that Lewis was pretty gutted, as was I. I'd consumed a couple of bottles of red that night, well it was a Friday night, and I though 'sod it, we will have a festival in the village instead'. I knew a few bands locally, and I thought just go for it!
"That next day I went looking for a domain name for the Lesmahagow Festival and I knew that the name Les-Fest could be slightly controversial, but I did it all the same. Once the name was registered, there was no going back. I think Hammerfest came about in similar circumstances - an alcohol fuelled mad idea!"
I ask Dave how he found the location (Valley International Park) and how the officials reacted to the prospect of a Rock and Metal festival in their locale?: "Well, the initial idea was to put the event on in the local hall with five bands each night and it was originally envisaged that it would be held over the Sonisphere weekend – the start of July 2012. However, the hall keeper said they already had a booking that weekend, so offered me the last weekend in June instead and it was on that basis that I started to discuss the project with some local bands."
"Once I contacted the local council about it, it became very difficult to get all the concessions in place that I was required by law to have, and for a while at least, it was looking like it just wouldn't be possible. It was actually my brother, Craig, who suggested I look at Valley International Park because he was friends with the owners and they had two venues already on site, as well as some licensed bars and restaurants.
"He (Craig) mentioned that they had held some events there in the past, albeit not music ones, but we met with the owners to discuss what was possible and off we went! I have to add that it wasn't all plain sailing – we did have some licensing and policing issues, but once we had the correct security in place and adhered to the health and safety procedures, they allowed us to go ahead. The day before the event, it did get very close to being cancelled but we worked really hard to ensure that it went ahead."
Dave Ritchie, Johnny Main, Fede Valls
I ask if the festival has been easier to arrange in subsequent years to which he replies: "Not particularly, but the second Les-Fest (in 2013) threw up more and slightly different challenges. By them y'see, we'd jumped from two days to three and increased the band count from twenty six to sixty three! To accommodate this, we had the build a bigger stage, arrange for an outdoor bar to be erected as well as extending the camping area, arrange for showers to be installed and improve the infrastructure. It's a very steep learning curve and we are a very small team, but we all pull together and we cope with everything that's thrown at us!."
Les-Fest won the coveted Best Festival Award at the 2012 Scottish New Music Awards, and I ask Dave how it feels to have won an award with the inaugural event?: "That was an extreme honour – first to be nominated and then to go on and win! That was absolutely down to fan support and I will always be indebted to them for voting for us, but it is and always will be 'award winning' and that's a great little tag line that nobody can take away. The actual award sits in my house pride of place next to my Ray Harryhausen autographed picture!"
I ask if the term "award winning" gives Les-Fest an advantage over other music events when they are booking prospective bands or contacting band management teams about specific bands appearing? "It certainly helps when you have to send emails out to bands, managers and agents, but with all respect to the bands we had in the first year, we jumped up a level in the subsequent year, and that was probably down to the fact that we actually pulled it off first time around and people started to believe we could actually do it again.
"To be honest with you, we could fill ten festivals with the number of bands that apply to play every year, but our philosophy has always been that we will see all bands live before we book them. I know there are a lot of unknown acts for many people that attend but I can assure you that all the bands are top quality and it just shows you what the Rock and Metal scene in the UK is like, if you take the time to look.
"The challenge for us, is to grow the event and to do that we need larger better known bands, while at the same time leaning towards the underground scene, and the more established acts will come as the event itself becomes more established. That said, we have some really cool bands coming in 2014, which I believe to be a sign that the industry is starting to take the Les-Fest event more seriously."
Les-Fest is billed as "Scotland's only Rock and Metal festival" but I ask Dave where the musical boundaries lie when it comes to booking acts for the festival?: "Having three days to play with I am trying to cover many bases. If you look at the 2013 bill, we had (Thrash band) Evile playing on the Friday, Metal bands like Monument and Furyon performed on the Saturday, which also has some Rock almost Prog bands playing at times and then on Sunday we had bands like Jettblack and Bonafide, who are much more in the party hard/classic rock mould.
"Believe me when I say that for 2014 we have considered acts as diverse as (French experimental electronic music project) The Algorithm to (Scottish Folk Metal band) Alestorm and we even looked at (Glaswegian Death Metal band) Cerebral Bore - none of whom are actually booked to play incidentally, but it is a broad and diverse mix of bands that we look at.
"I mean, the term 'Rock music' is very subjective, isn't it? Fede (Valls – co-booker at Les-Fest), Lewis and I all have very different tastes, but I suppose what we don't really cater to is the "Kerrang crowd", if you know what I mean. Many of the acts they feature in those kind of magazines are kind of "flavour of the month" if you will - bands who are just fleeting with fame, but won't have a lasting career. For us, the bands have to have energy and intensity and I suppose it is mainly substance over style, but I definitely think you can see passion, determination and belief in all the bands we put on."
Moving on, I approached the subject of the recent additions to the Les-Fest diary – that of Les-Fest North West and Northern Ireland. Does Dave expect a Wales and South of England equivalent to follow next year? "These are all, again, just taking an idea and running with it type things. We have literally hundreds of bands that want to play and, as I said before, we want to see them live before we book them. For me, going to other festivals is great because we can see a lot of bands in a relatively short period of time, so that is why a good number of bands playing in 2014 are bands that we have seen at Bloodstock in 2013.
"Short listing bands that interest us and putting them on at one venue makes sense because we get to meet them, see how they conduct themselves, something which is very important to us, but, and this is the thing, we get to see a live performance - if they tick all the boxes they get a slot. The other thing for us is to look at it from a ticket sales point of view when it comes to the actual festival. Many of our supporters come from the North of England so it makes sense to take good rising bands from those areas, and the same rational applies to Northern Ireland and, of course, we already have Scottish showcase gigs too."
When pressed about future plans, Dave comes across as coy, telling me: "I can't say what to expect in the future, but I have plans and ideas as to where that will go - only time will tell!"
Talking of Les-Fest specifically, I ask Dave (roughly) how many bands send demo material to him and his team every year? "Probably in the region of four or five hundred plus and every single day of the year too! Fede and I could write a book with some of the terrible submissions that have been sent to us over the last couple of years! Half of me would like to write back and give them some constructive criticism or helpful advice, the other half of me thinks that people would just take a "who are you to tell us" kind of attitude. On the other hand, of course, we get some really professional submissions."
Dave goes further saying that any band are welcome to send a submission to the Les-Fest team but "it doesn't need a polished, properly produced demo or CD - or even professional photographs as long as they can see who the band are and what they sound like, they will be considered along with all the other submissions.
"However some applications have literally been an email that starts 'hey Les, check us out we rock' with a link to a YouTube video that was recorded in the local boozer and is nothing but distorted sound." However, he assures me that he would like to "genuinely like to assist people/bands to get onto the Les-Fest bill, and advice is freely given!"
So it's safe to assume that it's a "team decision" about who gets to play at Les-Fest? "There are a few people behind the scenes who are involved, but both Fede and I have ideas about bands we would like to have perform at the festival. I approach the bigger agencies whilst Fede goes out at a few festivals and he basically hits me with names!
"Quite often he (Fede) has them pencilled in before I have even heard of them. I trust his judgement 100% although, honestly, sometimes the music is not for me and vice versa no doubt.
"We're trying to cover many genres so it works on all level. My son, Lewis, is also a good judge and of course being nineteen years old, you could say he is more in touch with some stuff than I am at nearly fifty, but we all play a part. Ultimately it is not about where you fit in within the various genres, it is just the quality of the artists that determines who gets in."
In the second part of the interview, I discuss with Dave about the future of Les-Fest and his upcoming Les-Festive showcase.
Thanks very much to Dave Ritchie.
You can watch Dave and Fade onstage at Les-Fest 2013 here:
Valley International Park
Official Website: www.les-fest.co.uk/