Folk interviews Rob da Bank
Rob da Bank - radio personality, Bestival co-founder, record company owner and dad of three boys - has been a friend of Folk for many years now. We caught up with the self-proclaimed sonic navigator (real name Robert John Gorham) in his London office and spoke to him about his love for music, Folk cardigans and all-time favourite artist Prince.
Hi Rob. Tell us a bit about your background. Do you come from a musical family?
‘I do but it was quite a traditional upbringing. My dad had a brass band in our local village and so my brother, my sister and me were sort of forced to do music lessons from an early age. I learned to play the piano and the trombone. So it wasn’t like a rock ‘n’ roll upbringing; I wasn’t taken to festivals from an early age or anything.’
Did you enjoy it though?
‘I sort of did by default. I’ll probably sound like an old man but in that time - the late 1970s, early 1980s - you didn’t really question your parents, you just did what you were told. So you’re going to do piano lessons, learn the trombone, be in dad’s brass band. Everything was very ordered in my childhood. But it was great, because what I did learn was to read and write music, which I think is one of the greatest things you can do if you’re creative and you love music.’
What was the first album you ever bought?
‘Oh, crikey! It was the Stone Roses’ debut album. Before that I’d been buying 7 inch singles in the 1980s - pop like Culture Club, ABC and things like that -and I probably didn’t really buy albums until I was 15. I think the Stone Roses released their debut album in 1989. I remember someone in the playground had a big chunky Walkman and played me the album over the headphones and I was completely in trance, fell in love with it.’
Is that when you really got into music?
‘When I was a kid I was a sailor. I was in the UK team so my whole life revolved around boats and sailing. But I suppose when I got to around 15 or 16, I was discovering a lot more music, nightclubs and I bought my first set of turntables with a friend. We said we were going to be DJ’s as a joke.’
What was the music scene like where you grew up?
‘Southampton and Portsmouth didn’t really have great music scenes but you could see live bands. I saw some of my favourite bands there like the Pixies and stuff and I started DJ’ing in a club in Southampton. So there was definitely a little scene. I didn’t even know London existed then. It was when I was 18 and got into Goldsmiths that I realised: “O my god, there is another world out here!” It is also where I met my wife Josie in the first term. We teamed up straight away, so that’s where the whole Sunday Best and Bestival adventure started.’
You ended up doing Sunday Best for about eight years. What was that like?
At the time London was very tribal. You had trance, rave, drum & bass and house but there was no real intermingling between those scenes. A lot of the clubs had chill out rooms and I always loved going there. So I thought why don’t I set up a kind of chill out room but on a Sunday afternoon, a club where you could sit down and chat to your friends and listen to music. It was a simple concept and it sounds kind of stupid now but at the time no one had really done it. It got quite well known quite quickly and we had some amazing DJ’s through the doors: from Andrew Weatherall to Fatboy Slim, Basement Jaxx and Groove Armada. A lot of those guys were just starting out as well. That whole ethos of fun, good music and a family vibe with a hippy edge eventually became the blueprint for Bestival.’
How did you come up with the festival?
‘Sunday Best got really well known. Then Radio 1 asked us to host their stage at Glastonbury, so we did a Sunday Best takeover with people like Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx. Suddenly we were at a festival hosting our own little party which gave us the idea to actually do our own festival. At that time - 11 years ago - there weren’t that many festivals out there, so we thought let’s give it a try. Six months later we were opening the gates to the first Bestival and welcoming people in. I always say about a lot of stuff in my life that it has been a happy accident and it was the same with Bestival; it wasn’t like a big plan, it was a 6 months rushed job and luckily it worked.’
What is it with Bestival and dressing up?
‘We started it as a bit of fun but now when you say Bestival, it’s probably the second or third thing people think of. We’re really proud of that heritage, so we always try and come up with a good theme and encourage as many people as possible to get into it. And it works. I mean, it’s not like every person on site is dressed up and that’s cool; there are no rules.
What’s the thought behind it?
The whole ethos of Bestival is about magical escapism. I want people to feel that they can come to Bestival and escape their daily lives. You might have a really crap job, or a really bad time with your girlfriend or your boyfriend, or you might have just finished your exams and be really happy. Whatever state of mind you’re in, just come to Bestival and leave everything else behind to enter this crazy world for 2 or 3 days. Dressing up is a part of that I think, because it makes people really forget who they are.’
What was the first year of the festival like?
‘It was a total whirlwind! I remember opening the gates, shaking hands with the first people in the queue and giving them a little rosette to thank them for coming to Bestival. I was just totally amazed that all of these people had come over all the way to the Isle of Wight to our festival. I still feel like that every time the gates open. I feel so proud that people come down for our festival. But that first year was crazy. We hadn’t really done enough planning. Me, my wife and our partners were making cocktails for people in the bar, we were running between stages to put the next band on, trying to look after the toilets, it was just totally non-stop and very hands-on.’
‘Obviously we’re not making cocktails or cleaning toilets anymore, but we’re still there 24 hours making sure everything is running smoothly. If you’re running a festival and not doing that, you’re not doing your job. I see it as hosting a bigger version of a house party and you have to make sure people are happy and the party is happening, otherwise people don’t feel welcome. That’s what Bestival is every year; it’s just a big house party in a field.
There was one really tough year with lots of rain. Ever thought of cancelling?
‘No, because the rain didn’t arrive until the Thursday. It’s not like it had been muddy for days or weeks. I don’t think we were even insured to cancel it at the time, so the party just had to go on. We were all out there in wet weather gear, shovelling wood chips to try and stop the mud. There were fields of mud slowly taking people’s tents down; it was absolute Armageddon. We didn’t feel great during the weekend but weirdly a lot of people had an amazing time. Obviously some people left because they couldn’t deal with it, I think I might have left if I hadn’t been running it! But we still get people who say it was their favourite year, because there was a real British spirit of “we’re going to get through this soldiering on”.’
How has the festival grown compared to those early days?
‘We started with 4000 and have now capped it at 50.000 to not let it grow too big. Some people probably liked it more when it was 20.000 but we just had to stop at where we felt comfortable. We couldn’t have got bands like The Cure or Kraftwerk, Stevie Wonder and Elton John if we didn’t sell 50.000 tickets, so I’m glad we got to that point. You need the budget. I have always wanted to have world class acts. Huge iconic acts. I know it’s not the most important thing but I look at Glastonbury and see that as my ideal festival, so I want to have some of the acts that you could get at Glastonbury on our stage.’
Do you feel competitive with Glastonbury?
‘Unfortunately not. It feels more like a big brother or something. Glastonbury lives in its own little bubble where they get most people they want for a much cheaper price than the rest of us. There’re a lot of people that really want to play Glastonbury. People like Stevie Wonder or Dolly Parton; they know what Glastonbury is but they probably haven’t heard of Bestival. But we compete with every other festival. Each year we come up with a line-up that we hope is going to do better than theirs and we have to try and keep ahead of the competition. It’s a massive thing for us to keep coming up with fresh ideas: new acts, interesting things to do – like the giant mirror ball that we did or the giant inflatable Lionel Ritchie head – slightly off the wall ideas that make us stand out from the competition.’
A giant mirror ball?
‘It was one of the best things about the last Bestival. We broke the world record for the largest mirror ball. It was just this fun little idea that we thought of and then it snowballed into this great idea. It got everyone talking about it months before the show, which was exactly what we needed it to do. People said it was like the fourth headliner and it became one of the highlights of the festival. But then Outkast were of course also amazing, Nile Rodgers and Chic were really incredible, there were lots of amazing bands and the sun was out for four days, so it was about as close to a perfect show as we’ve got.’
Who is still on your wish list?
‘It is well-known that I have always wanted to get Prince. I try every year! I offer a lot of money every time to try and lure Prince to come to Bestival. Every year I feel I’m getting a little closer. But then there is Glastonbury who really want him to play there as well, so I think next year could be the year for one of us. He doesn’t need the money or the gig, so he just needs to want to be there. Since we’ve started he has always been our most requested artist, so he would have a great show. So if you’re listening Prince…’
You and your wife Josie have 3 young kids now. Did this inspire you to start Camp Bestival?
‘Yes, totally. As soon as we had kids, we started to realise that Besival was a very cool show but also quite racy and hedonistic. We didn’t really think it was somewhere where the kids were going to go anytime soon so we thought we’d set up a more family friendly show. That’s how Camp Bestival was born. It’s a much more relaxed family show so it feels really safe and mellow and even though we’ve got to do some work, we get to spend most of the weekend with our kids camping together. Bestival is the opposite, we don’t have any time and it’s very noisy.’
How did you get to know Cathal, the founder of Folk?
‘We’ve got mutual friends in Zero 7, Sam and Henry. Probably about ten years ago I was DJ’ing at a Sunday Best party in Ibiza and I invited Zero 7 to come and play and they brought Cathal with them as their friend. So I met him for the first time at this crazy villa party and we just hit it off immediately. Folk was in its early days just like Bestival was, so we have kind of grown up together. Right from the start he would bring a Folk tent to Bestival and I’d be buying his clothes and talking about his clothes to people. We love to support each other that way. It’s just a really cool sort of friendship and partnership; Cathal has always made these special cardigans for the Bestival crew and that has become a whole sort of moment when the boxes with the cardigans arrive. It has become part of the fabric of Bestival.’ Thanks so much for the lovely chat Rob.