Good Chat: Knee Deep Festival
Something awesome is about to happen in a secret, forgotten corner of the British countryside.
This weekend, Knee Deep Festival returns to a mystery location in Cornwall, breathing energy, art and music into a beautiful but isolated pocket of the UK. Packing artists like Whitney, Mothers, Flamingods and loads more for 2016, it’s clear something special is brewing down in the South West.
We caught up with the folks behind Knee Deep to find out what it takes to create a festival from nothing, in the middle of nowhere, and make it stick.
So! Who are you guys?
We’re Fred, James and Dom. We started Knee Deep about five years ago when we were a lot younger, we were about 18. We were in a band and had nowhere to play, so we decided to start gigging in Cornwall and setting up band nights. They slowly became more and more overrun, so we figured maybe we should move this outside… and that was the first Knee Deep.
Can you paint us a quick picture of the first Knee Deep?
None of us had any experience when we started. We all work in music now – I work for a record label, James works for a radio plugin company & Dom was in post-production – but when we started we really had no clue.
The first one was literally in my back garden. The bands were all local and the whole thing very small scale. It was just a single day, there was one stage which we’d built ourselves, terribly, and the bar was selling cheap, terrible cider.
But then we moved the following year to a bigger site, to Dom’s site, and I guess you’d call that the first official year. There were about 600 people there, and that was the moment we started taking it a bit more seriously.
What was it that got you hooked? What made you want to keep going?
I think just seeing the reaction of everyone who turned up. I mean, not a lot happens in Cornwall. It can be so quiet, and sometimes you can assume that the people don’t actually want to go to festivals, and that they don’t even exist. But then you put on an event like Knee Deep, and suddenly everyone swarms together, and it’s kind of ridiculous – there are so many people down here who want this kind of thing to go on. It was the people.
Also, we were each getting more and more into our music, and being able to actually handpick a lineup of acts that we like – it was a dream really. And we’ve carried that forward, we’ve always done exactly as we’ve wanted.
So how would you describe Knee Deep in 2016? What’s your one-liner?
The tagline we use is an intimate music and arts festival in Cornwall – which sums it up in a pretty matter of fact way!
James: A proper good time?
Fred: Yeah, a proper good time.
So what’ve been your personal highlights over the past five years?
Willy Mason, he played in 2012. I don’t think he’d ever played in Cornwall before, and he probably hasn’t since, but he played on one our smaller stages and had a six song encore. The crowd was huge, the light was just setting, and it just felt ridiculous that he’d travelled all that way – from America, to somehow ending up in Cornwall, staying at one of our friend’s houses and playing Knee Deep.
Ha, yeah, I was gonna ask, do you ever have trouble convincing bands to make the journey?
It’s a blessing and a curse. Some artists just never come to Cornwall and are like wow, I’d love to come and eat pasties and go to the beach. Then they actually realise how far it is, but by that time they’re booked.
For other artists it can be tricky, especially if they’ve got a busy tour schedule and they need to squeeze in a six hour drive each way to get to us. But invariably it helps out, because people love coming to Cornwall and bands never get to play here.
I guess it’s really pretty here too, which helps.
It seems like Knee Deep takes its independence pretty seriously?
We’ve just always done our own thing, and that’s been successful up to now. We like that fact that we’re not dependent on a sponsor, or any brands. It’s literally just the ticket revenue that we work with, and we’re not reliant on anyone else. We only have to answer to ourselves.
There are a lot of carbon copy festivals around, so it’s good to at least try to be different. I’m not saying that we are – it’s very hard when there’s a finite amount of great bands out there, everyone’s going to book some of them. But our team, we’re the sum of different parts, so what we end up is usually pretty unique.
Would you say you’re the exception to the rule, or is Knee Deep part of a wider movement?
We went to a festival called Brainchild recently in Sussex, and I think they’re on a similar page. They’re working at a really grass roots level, and like us want to nurture that small community and not necessarily grow into a 100k event.. Like us, they’re just treating it as a space for collaboration – it’s a coming together of that community. There are also fests like Farm Festival, Gottwood, In The Woods… all ace looking festivals also doing their own thing, really well.
Would you say it’s a reaction to the current state of festivals in the UK?
Yeah absolutely. We usually go to Glastonbury every year, but we even dodged that one this time around. It’s just a bit too much for us. I just prefer small festivals now, we like the simpler vibe, not paying so much money to see a massive headliner and instead seeing a whole load of smaller, exciting bands.
So I think yeah, we’re basically driven by a distaste for Reading and Leeds… we actually clash with them this year! For a minute it felt like we were sticking it to the man, but then we realised pretty quickly that most of the bands we wanted to book were actually playing Reading and Leeds – I think they’ve upped their game quite a lot! We don’t actually hate it. Just a very different world!
Haha. So there must have been some pretty crazy moments over the last five years?
Yeah, my favourite was in 2012, it was like 11.30pm and we had Tourist playing the main stage. We were sitting up at the top of the field behind the marquee, and suddenly everything turned off. The generator had totally failed, and there was no bringing it back. We were out of options – then our chippy ran off and came back minutes later with his pickup truck and a huge PA on the back, and starts crashing out reggae and jungle into the night. We shone a big spotlight into the middle of the field and just raved for a couple more hours.
Amazing! How about any learning curves?
Get a backup generator.
Fred: The first few years we did just wing it, all of the time. It’s got significantly easier. It’s all a learning curve really – a big thing we’ve learnt is it’s worth getting professionals to do certain things, even if it costs a bit.
James: We used to build our own stages, and I’m really glad we don’t do that anymore.
Fred: I think the main thing we’ve learnt, which you don’t really acknowledge at the time, is that if you trust in your ideas enough and persevere, things do tend to work out. Even with stage building, we just went for it and ran with our ideas, and it all works out in the end. So I guess that’s a positive lesson.
James: Use screws and not nails. We’re still pulling nails out of stuff four years later.
Hahah. So what are you guys most psyched for this weekend?
I’m really excited for Whitney. And we always have pasty workshops. Like a pizza workshop, but with Cornish pasties. That’s always super popular.
We actually just started a partnership with Plymouth College of Art. Their pre-degree students’ work’s being displayed on site, and they’re also helping with our build – they’ve made hangings for the tents, they’ve made seating structures, they’ve done a lot of our painting and decor – there are so many talented students there, it’s going to make the site look amazing. It’s a proper grown-up, good partnership we’ve started there.
Very cool. How do you manage to fit this all in amongst your actual jobs?
Fred: Late nights.
James: We spend a lot of time in our jobs making this happen. We’re really good at minimizing.
Hah. How about next steps for the festival?
There’s quite a big leap that we’d have to take to make it sustainable as a full time job. For the time being, we think we’re better off staying this size and doing what we know – trying to perfect it as much as we can rather than over-stretch ourselves.
I think we’d love to grow Knee Deep out to events in the rest of Cornwall, and not just festivals. Cornwall really needs something like that at the moment, and it would fun to be the ones to make it happen.
And what advice would you give someone starting their own event?
Fred: I guess, find an idea that you genuinely believe in, and stick to that. You have to be prepared to take risks – it’s shit and really tough at times. Get a good team around you, and get them involved. Don’t try and do everything yourself!
James: Don’t accept agents’ first offers. Stand your ground as much as you can, and don’t let anyone in the industry make you think that you’re some kind of stupid newcomer – because there’s a lot of people in the industry that also don’t know what the hell they’re doing!
Can you tell us where the secret location is?
Thanks guys! Knee Deep Festival 2016 takes place this weekend, Friday 26th and Saturday 27th August, in a secret Cornwall location. Check out more info about the event, drool over the full lineup, and a grab ticket over this way.