Rob da Bank is a man of many talents, and many ventures. He and his wife Josie are probably best known as the creative masterminds behind the highly acclaimed festivals Bestival, and Camp Bestival. Rob has always been a champion of left field music, promoting artists throughout his career as a DJ, and with his Sunday Best brand. Under the umbrella of Sunday Best, now in its twentieth year, Rob has cultivated bar culture with the brand’s London club night, and given numerous talents a platform on Sunday Best’s diverse record label. His continual support for the growth of the festival industry and the welfare of newcomer artists saw him receive The Outstanding Contribution Award at the first ever Association of Independent Festivals’ Festival Congress Awards last year. I sat down with the man himself to talk about his experiences on the South-coast, along with his portfolio of festivals, from his earliest experiences hosting stages with Radio 1 at Glastonbury, right up to his latest pursuits, the creation of Common People and Bestival’s overseas debut in Toronto.
Earlier this year Rob, you launched your new two day festival in Southampton, Common People. What initially sparked the idea behind the festival and how long has it been in the making?
We do two great shows, Bestival and Camp Bestival, both different markets, but both the same ethos, great music and great fun. We thought it’d be good to do a show for people who maybe don’t want to do the whole camping experience, and just want to come to a day show instead. I think it’s a great place for a festival, Common People, for people that have never tried a festival before, or just want to dip in and out for the day.
At Common People you have offered artists the chance to submit tracks as well as hosting ‘I want to play at Common People’ at The Joiners in Southampton, for bands to battle it out for a place on the lineup. What is it that drives you to champion undiscovered music?
That’s the exciting thing for me really, the new acts. It’s great to have Grace Jones, and Fatboy, and all the other brilliant acts on the bill, but for me at Bestival, Camp Bestival, and now Common People, the breaking bands, they’re the future stars of tomorrow. Obviously they’re not all going to be mega stars overnight, or even at all, but I think it’s just great the excitement that people get to play on a live stage. Sadly there’s still not enough opportunities on the south-coast for that and I think we’re lagging behind and I say that as a person that was born and raised here. I think festivals like Bestival, the Isle of White Festival, Victorious are crucial to give new bands that opportunity. The Uncommon Stage is dedicated to that very idea. There are about 20 acts playing on that stage, all of which you may not know and hopefully people will discover and fall in love with them.
Recently festivals like Manchester’s Park Life, and Bristol’s Love Saves the Day have proved the popularity of metropolitan city based festivals. Has this trend been an influential factor in you deciding upon Southampton as the site for Common People?
Yeah, I won’t lie, we’ve seen those shows growing in popularity so we need to be in that market. We’ve pioneered the way that festivals have gone in the last decade with the whole boutique atmosphere creating a bit more soul and fun to it, and I think that we need to stay ahead of the game. So yes, we’ve seen a lot of great day shows being launched, and Southampton has some cool little day shows, but nothing quite like Common People, so we felt there was a gap in the market really.
With Glastonbury, Bestival, and Reading + Leeds, and so many other big name UK festivals on offer over the summer, do you think that the weekend camping festival format has reached saturation point in the UK?
I think it did really a few years ago. That’s where you get this kind of natural selection evolution where each year some drop by the wayside and more start up. It’s like any business. I’d say high street banks are at saturation point, or high street coffee shops, but you still see new ones springing up and some will die off. I think it’s the healthiest scene in the world, the UK market. So I wouldn’t say, they’re a whole lot of people, the majority of people that go to festivals still would rather do the full camping experience, they want to get stuck in for three or four days and have that escape, One day festivals offer a little glimpse into that, so that’s great, and I think it’s maybe for the non-campers among us that just go for the day, but personally I love the whole experience of going to Glastonbury or Bestival and everyone camping in a field, you can’t beat that. But if that’s not your bag, or you can’t wait until September then you know that in May there is a place you can go to and you don’t have to camp and you can sleep in your own bed at night.
Your longest running festival, Bestival has become renowned for your attention to detail in production design, and offering a variety of entertainment alongside the music, which your wife Josie plays an integral role in. What are you doing to give Common People its own identity? Will there be any noticeable stylistic differences to your previous festivals?
Yeah, I think you can see from the artwork the kind of vibe of it is quite fun, it’s quite eccentric. There’s going to be a lot of stuff on site like Yardbombing and Marching Bands, you know some of that fun, leftfield stuff that we do at Bestival and Camp Bestival, lots of unusual things that you won’t see at other festivals. It’s not just going to be a stage on The Common with some bands and a bar, it will have all of the Bestival production value, and it will look fantastic with the Day of the Dead Margarita Lounge, lots of cool structures, and great stuff going on all day.
At Bestival the theme has become just as integral to the experience as the acts themselves. How to you manage to create such a cohesive vibe across the entirety of the site?
Practice, probably. We’re into our twentieth year of Bestival and we started the whole dressing up, fancy dress theme the second year in. We’ve done a good decade of that, and people understand that we kind of expect them to get involved as much as us putting on the show for them. I think that’s how it turned into a sort of magical escape from reality with everyone getting dressed up. The whole site that Josie’s created brings it all together really.
You’ve also recently taken the Bestival brand across the pond by launching a sister festival this year in the form of Bestival Toronto. How has organizing Bestival abroad differed from the process here in the UK?
Luckily we’ve got some great partners over there, so we’re working with partners in North America and Canada to bring Bestival out there. Josie’s been over, she’s designed new stages and we’re shipping out container loads of Bestival props and artwork. I booked the lineup with the guys out there as they obviously know the market better than us, but obviously we’re hands on with every element. Ultimately they’re delivering it for us on the ground, which I don’t think we’d be able to do without them, so it’s a good partnership, a good marriage.
What do you actually tend to get up to during the festivals themselves? Is it a case of just relaxing and watching everything fall into place, or are you rushing about holding everything together?
We’re very hands on, we like to keep on top of every aspect of it. Personally I’ve booked 300 – 400 acts for Bestival, so I need to be out there checking they’re all having a good time, checking that they’re going down well. We learn so much from doing the show for the next year, we sort of tweak things all the time. We’re up and about from early doors, checking toilets are clean, all normal stuff. We do try and put our feet up a bit in the evening and relax you know, because otherwise there’s no point in doing it all. It’s only recently that we’ve learnt to do that a bit more. It’s an amazing job. My favorite bit is working up to the weekend. Before we open the gates we’ve created this whole wonderland and it’s all green and beautiful and untouched. Then we open the gates and everyone comes in and rampages across it.
Only just two weekends ago, was the second ever London Electronic Arts Festival (or LEAF), which of course you’re instrumental in organizing, alongside Ben Turner (of the association for Electronic Music). Among the combination of talks, workshops and parties that make up the event, what were your personal highlights of the weekend?
Nile Rodgers did a three hour talk with no interviewer. That was pretty amazing seeing him do 180 minutes just chatting, playing his guitar. It was really inspirational. People were laughing, and in tears. It was really great. I did an interview with DJ Harvey who is a legendary DJ, back in the day and still going strong now and plays at my Sunday Best club. That was really funny and hilarious hearing stories from him. Also just seeing everyone get stuck into the technology rooms. We had a little kids underage rave, there was so much to do and everything was really busy so it was a great second outing and gives us good hope for next year.
This year you’re also celebrating the twentieth Birthday of Sunday Best. What would you regard as the label’s greatest achievement, and what plans have you got for its future?
The label started out, like so much of this stuff, as a hobby, and that little sideline hobby has turned into a serious business for the last five years. We went from selling a few hundred of each release through to some of our artists selling tens of thousands of records, so I’m really proud of the roster with David Lynch, Kitty Daisy & Lewis, Valerie June. It’s brilliant, we’ve just signed six new acts, bands and producers so lots of new stuff coming through to get excited about. We’re selling lots of records all round the world, it’s really fantastic. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the festival world that I kind of forget about the label, but all the gang down there run an amazing office and keep it all on the straight and narrow. I just roam around looking for new bands. Exciting times for the label for sure.
Picking up on new signings, your label is frequently praised for its open-minded output, but when you’ve got a label with an anything goes music policy surely that opens you up to the possibility of taking on such a huge range of new talents. What criteria do you use to select new artists for the label whilst maintaining consistency with the quality of acquisitions at Sunday Best?
It really is just whatever we like, whatever comes across our path. With Valerie June, Sarah who runs the label, she got sent a demo CD of Valerie’s stuff. We put it on and thought it sounded perfect. Kitty Daisy & Lewis, we’d seen them playing live and pursued them for a number of years before they agreed to sign. Sometimes it’s really easy and all just falls into place, but at other times it’s a bit more of a fight to sign people. I think it’s just good music at the end of the day. We’ve put out everything from dubstep and grime, through to techno, through to folk, through to reggae, soul, there are no barriers. It’s a little bit like Bestival itself, anything goes …as long as it’s good.
You’ve also spoken in the past about your teenager years being spent on the South-coast and landing your first DJ gigs actually in Southampton in Bedford Place at Rhino (now closed). How have you experienced change in Southampton’s music scene since your younger years?
I did my first ever DJ set at The Rhino Club, as it was called then, when I was 16 or 17. I used to go to the Frog & Frigate and The Joiners to see indie bands there and the Southampton Guildhall, a lot of the same venues that are still, brilliantly, going now. I think it definitely wasn’t as vibrant, the student’s union wasn’t good, the bar scene in Southampton has got a lot better. I still think that there’s loads more that can be done. There are some amazing local promoters, and the uni’s really good, but I think we just need more people to put stuff on. I still think that the South-coast falls behind where it should be, but Portsmouth, Southampton, and the Isle of White are all working hard to create something special for music. We need to stand up and shout about how good our venues are and make sure we’re getting the bands to come down because we don’t want to get left out really.
Your career in many ways is incredibly varied, what made you suddenly want to take on the enormous responsibility of organizing your first festival?
Like everything that seems to have happened to me it was just a happy accident. We’d been hosting the Radio One stage at Glastonbury for a couple of years with Sunday Best, sort of as our club brand, and then we just thought, why don’t we step it up a bit and do our own festival? And so, Bestival happened really quickly. I don’t think that I ever thought, oh crikey this might be a lot of work, I’ll be doing this in twelve years time, it was much more simple than that. It was just like, ok lets throw a big party in a field …which is still kind of the ethos behind Bestival. It was never really planned, we can’t really stop it now. It has grown into a beast of its own. It’s just one of those things that came along. It sounds a bit weird and casual, but it really was a quick process from talking about it in the pub to opening the gates six months later.
Last year, Bestival was renowned for breaking the world record for the world’s most enormous disco ball. Have you got any plans to break any more world records again this year at any of your festivals?
There have been some discussions. I sort of said that I don’t want to go down the route of trying to do something huge every year, because eventually you’re just going to end up doing something kind of crap because you’re worried about what you should do. But, we have got an idea for Bestival, and we might do it, but I don’t want it to become contrived. So watch this space and see what we come up with, and if anyone’s got any ideas for Common People, get in touch and we’ll try and make it happen.
Common People will be launched at Southampton’s Common on Saturday 22nd and 23rd of May. Camp Bestival returns to Lulworth Castle from the 30th July through to the 2nd August. Bestival will bookend the summers’ festival season with a suitable finale on the Isle of White at Robin Hill from the 10th – 13th September. Tickets and further information can be found on each festival’s respective website.