The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess talks coffee, festival memories and his favourite gig in an exclusive conversation with Access.
It’s not often that Access gets to interview a bonafide rock star, but then, it’s rare that such a figure makes the move from festival headliner to festival venue operator.
Tim Burgess – The Charlatans front man, Britpop icon, solo star and two-time author – is one such figure.
His venue Tim Peaks, started in 2012 in a log cabin at Kendal Calling, is now a regular feature on the festival circuit. Burgess curates the artists who play there, opening up his little black book to invite superstars to perform surprise sets.
While he may not yet think of himself as an event prof, his informed views on festival gentrification and the difficulties associated with organising greenfield events certainly qualify him as one.
In this candid chat with Access, Burgess reminisces about his own festival history – sitting at his first festival in 1987 dreaming of playing on the main stage – and how Twitter helped lead him to starting Tim Peaks.
Hey Tim, tell us how Tim Peaks evolved.
It started on Twitter – it was metaphorical and metaphysical. It slowly became real; we got a name for the place, a logo and our own coffee. Then the Kendal Calling gang sent us a photo of the log cabin by the lake on their site and it looked like the perfect place to make Tim Peaks a reality. That was in 2012 and among our first guests were Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame – I joined them on a version of ‘A Girl Like You’.
It’s a real word of mouth thing, so it’s not hard to get the vibe going. Unannounced special guests have included Pete Doherty, Suzanne Vega and Blossoms, and I’ve played a few times too. The Vaccines and
Kaiser Chiefs have DJ’d and we have Northern Soul Dance Classes and scale models of the solar system made by Professor Tim O’Brien – there’s always something going on from 10am to 3am.
What motivates you every year to keep Tim Peaks going?
I’ve always loved festivals and it’s often away from the main stage where the crazier stuff happens – where you can find your new favourite band or learn to speak Welsh.
It’s maybe hard for a festival organiser to have the resources or even know of enough performers to put together all the smaller stages. So they give me a shout and we bring the Tim Peaks travelling circus to town.
John Giddings from Isle of Wight Festival is The Charlatans’ agent, so he was the first outside of Kendal Calling to ask us – it’s been great to go back there each year. I’d heard a brilliant new band called Sleaford Mods a couple of years ago and got in touch to ask them to play at Isle of Wight for us. In the time between asking them and the performance, they really blew up so it was a memorable show at two in the afternoon with lots of the bands from the other stages coming in to see what all the fuss was about. They totally lived up to the hype and went way beyond it.
Liverpool Sound City gave us a call a couple of years ago and we’ve been doing Festival No. 6 for four years. It takes quite a lot of work so we’d never spread ourselves too thinly, but we headed up to Scotland this year for Electric Fields and had a brilliant couple of days. I’ve also just sent Emily Eavis a direct message on Twitter to say that I think we’re ready for Glastonbury.
Is bringing Tim Peaks to festivals a better experience than playing at them?
Both are fantastic. Often I play and bring Tim Peaks at the same festivals, so it’s the best of both worlds. Playing at a festival is a couple of hours, but three days of watching some of my favourite bands in the venue is a real thrill.
What’s the biggest thing that’s changed in festivals through your years?
The first festival I went to was Glastonbury in 1987 and as far as enjoying festivals goes, they haven’t changed too much for me, as long as the spirit is the same.
Technology means that sound systems, lights, screens and all of those emblems have changed but they don’t change the experience too much. New Order had a laser in 1987 and that blew me away as much as anything I’ve seen since.
I think the biggest change is in the locations. I was at Blue Dot at Jodrell Bank this year and that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. But now the people who look after Jodrell Bank, or Portmeirion where Festival No. 6 takes place, they are music fans who want to share their amazing venues with as many people as possible. Lots of castles and places like The Eden Project are happy to host festivals. Maybe the change in the audiences means that the wider world now knows about festivals. Glastonbury 1987 wasn’t mentioned on TV or in gossip columns, but when the audiences became more than some musos eating a tin of beans in a field, that’s when people realised their potential.
Have festivals become more civilised since you first started going to them?
Yeah, there are lots of tepees and Hunter wellies. To be fair, those elements mean that it’s a wider audience that goes to festivals. There are Champagne bars and Michelin-starred chefs, but I wouldn’t say it was a bad thing – just as long as it isn’t the same at all festivals.
It’s whatever appeals to you. Lots of people have kids and maybe want a higher degree of luxury. If VIP ticket sales mean that regular tickets can be good value for kids to get tickets and watch bands, then that’s a good thing. There’s such a range of festivals, it’s about finding the one that appeals most to you.
The Charlatans broke through in a time when music venues were thriving. As an artist, how do you feel about venues around the UK closing?
Music venues are the lifeblood for bands to survive, not just as a place to play but music venues often have rehearsal rooms too. Fabric has just closed, which means there’s one less place for kids to be inspired to become DJs or to set up a club night. I was working with the Independent Venue Week gang this year and I’ll be working again with them in 2017 – it’s about getting along to support gigs and maybe even see future festival headliners before they’ve made it.
To what degree does the closure of venues affect the future of festival headliners and acts?
Blossoms are a band that cut their teeth in small venues and built grassroots support that helped them play bigger shows and then get themselves a number one album. We saw them in a small venue and asked them to support The Charlatans – without small venues, it’s much more difficult to get off the ground. There’s a real hope, though, when you go to places like The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge.
Do you have advice for people starting up new festivals?
I’d recommend anyone starting up a new festival to be very careful and to work with other people who already run festivals. Something small with 500-capacity might be possible to get off the ground but otherwise it’s crazy out there.
With Tim Peaks, we work with some of the most experienced festival folks around and it would be impossible without them. There are so many things that can go wrong; you have to have a big team behind you. I don’t want to sound like a doom merchant but anyone starting a festival has to be massively realistic and it can be quite a thankless task. I’d suggest finding a festival that needs more help and get stuck in there.
What are your fondest festival memories?
Maybe way back to my first, watching New Order headline Glastonbury in 1987. I was probably dreaming I’d get to play on that stage one day, not realising it would come true.
Best gig you’ve ever played?
The Charlatans at Castlefield Bowl last year. 8,000 people, a sunny day with lots of our friends and Stephen and Gillian from New Order joined us for ‘Sproston Green’. It was a really magical day.
What’s the craziest rider you’ve heard of?
There’s a DJ, Steve Aoki, and he has a rubber dinghy on his rider. Rather than crowdsurfing, he rows out over the audience – he also has a cake that he launches into the crowd. My DJ rider is two cans of Diet Coke, but I might just add a rubber dinghy next time!
What makes for a good backstage experience?
Backstage can be a bit of a myth – it’s good to catch up with people you might not have seen in a while, but out front is where it all happens. It’s good to head out and have a walk round.
Who is the most fun band or musician to be at a festival with?
New Order, The Libertines, R Stevie Moore, Tear, Beds in Parks and The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Any new bands to keep an eye out for?
Tear, Blueprint Blue, Beds In Parks – they played at Tim Peaks for us over the summer. Go see them if you get the chance.
You’ve just put out your second book. Was it difficult convincing your peers and heroes to contribute?
I think they all liked the idea of the book. They only had to choose one album and send a few notes if they wanted to, so it wasn’t too big an ask. With people it was a case of waiting for a text. With Bill Drummond I went to his art exhibition; he turned up on a raft and he gave me some marmalade. I pushed a note under Iggy Pop’s dressing room door at a festival as he doesn’t speak to anyone before he plays. I really couldn’t cover up the excitement when I saw the message from David Lynch.
Tim Burgess will be taking part in a panel at the Event Production Show on 1 March 2017. His book, Tim Book Two, is out now.