Jon Perks speaks to Katrina Larkin, co-founder of The Big Chill festival, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.
On the main stage is that guy who used to be in Talking Heads; over there’s the cool one from The Mighty Boosh; at the rum bar is a cardigan-wearing pensioner playing reggae... in another field, someone’s giving beginner’s trapeze lessons; award-winning photographer Rankin is taking portraits of festival-goers for £50 a go... and did we mention the field full of marauding zombies?
Welcome to The Big Chill, the summer festival for which the word ‘eclectic’ doesn’t seem to quite cover it.
Fifteen years after its humble beginnings as an oversized birthday party for 500 at London’s Union Chapel, The Big Chill is bigger and as fresh as ever, with David Byrne, Noel Fielding and DJ Derek a mere scratch on the surface of the harlequin line-up.
When I speak to Katrina Larkin, who co-founded the event with Pete Lawrence, she’s just returned from Glastonbury – where, she laughs, she was spotted a few times by Big Chill regulars, or ‘Chillers’ as she likes to call them.
“These strangers walked up to me on top a hill, it was three, four am in the morning, you’re standing there a bit tipsy with all your mates and they walk by going ‘hi Katrina!‘ and you go ‘er, hi...’” she laughs.
Any suggestions the weekend on Worthy Farm threw up ideas for her own festival, however, are quickly quashed:
“No, I don’t do that really,” says Katrina. “When we started The Big Chill I hadn’t been to a festival as such; I’d been to Reading for the day, but that’s very different.
"The whole thing about The Big Chill starting a festival was literally we were in a campsite in the Black Mountains and we went ‘god, wouldn’t it be great to bring all those people who come to the Sunday afternoon event and all go on a camping weekend?’ – so we came and we had a circus tent, a cafe; Nightmares On Wax DJ’d and the Coldcut boys played... that actually was a festival, but we were doing our own thing.”
That’s been very much the philosophy ever since – no set rules and no rigid music policy; “In the beginning it was one stage and it was a policy of no beats,” says Katrina. “Now it is everything – if you want to dance your socks off all night you will, if you want to go lie in a field you can do.”
With summer festivals popping up all over the country, competition for punters’ hard-earned money is fiercer than ever.
The variety of acts and a refusal to stand still – every year fresh ideas appear, such as this year’s Art Car Boot Fair – have meant The Big Chill is still in a field of its own. In every sense.
“I think one [reason] is it’s a beautiful location – you’d want to be there even if we didn’t put anything into that valley,” says Katrina.
“Then there’s the fact we’re always trying to do new things every year, always putting in new elements like this year the Art Car Boot Sale and making a [zombie] film with Film4 – so if you’ve been coming every year, we’re just trying to keep it really, really fresh... 80 per cent of the bill are new artists, that’s really important too.
“It’s four days in a valley where you can’t see any of your neighbours; a magical town we build, without queues, something for everyone,” is how Katrina describes their creation, which has been staged in the idyllic surroundings of Eastnor Castle Deer Park for the last seven years of its existence.
“If you want to go and chill you can go and chill; if you want to dress up and be completely zany you can... it’s just somewhere you can let you hair down and be yourself; what is it they say? ‘we’re all unique but there’s lots of us’; you’ll find something for yourself.”
While staff numbers grow to a peak of 2,000 staff for the weekend itself – security, litter pickers, bar staff et al – it’s the core team of six or seven who are there, in the office in midwinter, planning the next ‘Chill.
“You kind of roll over from one year to the next; even before this one will finish, we’ll already be talking about 2010,” says Katrina. “It’s kind of like there’s no start or stop any more, its an umbilical cord between the office and that valley.”
The variety of artists comes largely from the tastes of that core of seven: “Festivals are an extension of the personalities behind it anyway, aren’t they?” says Katrina. “I have got a wishlist [for next year], yes – I am seriously going out for some [artists], you do when you’ve absolutely got a vision of who you want next; you’re almost one step away from being a stalker!”
The Big Chill runs from August 6-9 at Eastnor Castle Deer Park, Malvern Hills, Herefordshire
Adult weekend tickets are £145, students £110, teens £60 and kids £4