A month ago Rob McCulloch and Merla had never been to a festival. Now both bands have been to, and played at, four. In July they were crowned winners of the first ever Local Heroes competition, VF's own nationwide search to find the best two festival bands in the country. Following a live final after months of online fervour, the two bands emerged victorious - and they've proven worthy winners. Having already performed at Summer Sundae, Beautiful Days and Secret Garden, the boys played a fitting finale at Get Loaded In The Park, attracting huge crowds despite their early stage times. VF's editor Ross Purdie (pictured centre) caught up with Rob McCulloch (right) and David Zincke (left) from Merla afterwards to hear about their month-long adventure...
VF: Take us to the beginning. How did it all begin?!
David: "Well, it started with entering the Local Heroes competition, we won our regional final and then we got to play in London. That was cool because it was a massive stage and usually we get to play on tiny little stages so that was cool in itself. And then we won with Rob [McCullouch] and found ourselves going around the festivals in a bus with a couple of dogs! Although Rob's been in the bus more than I have, as I drove down to a couple of the festivals. But it has been really good, apart from the weather was a bit crap on some of the days but playing wise it was absolutely brilliant."
VF: Which festival was your favourite?
David: "I think either this one [Get Loaded in the Park] or Beautiful Days. Due to timings this one we only played three songs, but the crowd was really good, the stage was great and the venue was cool. I liked the atmosphere. Beautiful Days was good as well. We saw Gomez playing and they're our favourite band at the moment, well mine anyway. So those too were probably neck and neck."
VF: Rob how about you?
Rob: "Probably the first one, Summer Sundae. It was a nice crowd and that, I'd been around the night before, just talking to people and, just generally, everyone was really nice and they all came the next day so, yeah, that was really good."
VF: What's been the most amusing festival, the one with the most tales?
David: "The funniest thing would be Summer Sundae. We started at four and the festival opened at four so we got on stage and there was no one there! Which was quite funny. It did fill up towards the end of the first song and in the end there were quite a few people, a few hundred which was quite nice. So going on stage with the guy going "don't panic, there's no one there" was actually quite funny."
VF: What's been the biggest crowd you've played to so far?
David: "Beautiful Days probably. There seemed to be quite a lot of people there. Whether they were listening or not I don't know but there were a few hundred people sitting out and bobbing along."
VF: How do you think the whole Local Heroes thing has helped you? What have you learnt or gained from it?
Rob: "I learnt a lot because I've never been to a festival before. The first gig I went to was like a breaking me in for what it's supposed to be like and it was like a condensed version of the one we're sat here at right now, I suppose. It's just got a really nice feel to it, a good way to start it. I enjoyed it. We did the first one and it went really well and we expected that to happen for our next one, but we bombed it. That were the Beautiful Days one but I don't know if the people there got what I was on about. I don't think it was the same sort of mentality. Saying that, though, I could be completely wrong. I enjoyed doing it and that, it was good to play to different people and see how they take it and each one has been like that."
VF: At festivals do you alter what you do? Do you feel more at home at some than you do at others?
Rob: "It kept changing as to what we were doing, from an acoustic set to a full band set; I did a solo gig in the middle of them. It was alright, it was in a VIP tent bit at Beautiful Days. So it was just a case of we didn't really know what we were playing until we got there really, or the day before. And then we just got there and did it, it made us used to be being more versatile rather than having weeks of preparation and then doing it, we had to fucking pull it together on the day you know?"
VF: Do you think you've made some fans since you've been on the road?
Rob: "Yeah, I think we have. I mean there's a lot of people on MySpace and all that, where they leave messages and send e-mails and all that business, they've come on that and they were really nice."
VF: How's it been with the big gaps between the dates you get being on a festival tour, is it different to being on a normal tour?
David: "Yeah absolutely. The first one, Summer Sundae, that was the first festival I ever went to so I didn't know what to expect so that was really cool, just from the start. Getting wristbands and little things like that it was like, 'look at this, this is cool I like it!' The novelty factor indeed. There have been some depressing times when you just can't sleep in a tent or for Rob in the van. I drove to a couple so sometimes I'd be driving at two in the morning and playing at 12 the next day. Like nine hours, or something like that, to get from Bolton to Devon, to get on stage absolutely knackered. There's certainly an art to it that I've not quite mastered yet, but it's always interesting looking forward to what's going to happen at the next one, what it's going to be like. The Secret Garden was a bit of a shocker when we got there, we weren't even on the list when we got there. We were like "oh, we're Merla," and they were like "Oh, sorry you're not on the list, have a wristband anyway." So it was like "yeah?!" and then trying to pitch a tent in foot deep mud and stuff like that."
VF: Has there been any glamour?
David: "Absolutely no glamour whatsoever."
(Nick from Merla sits down)
Nick: "You get some nice photos at the end of it. A really nice backdrop, all that kind of stuff. In between though it's not so glamorous. It's probably the same for most people though and that's probably the biggest lesson, looking at most of the bands, bands you respect, bands you've heard of, bands you really like, and you sort of always expect there's a gulf between yourselves and those guys and that kind of thing so there's a kind of like "yeah, are we good enough?" And you definitely find that you are, because you see the guys and you see what they go through and it's all the same stuff, it doesn't really change. The stage gets bigger but the actual process of getting yourselves ready, getting on stage and playing is just the same wherever you go. That's what I felt anyway."
VF: So it's not that different to playing normal gigs apart from the scale?
Nick: "Not at all, as David's probably said we do play very small gigs, but the whole process is the same. You even go to the lengths of telling the mixing guy "this what you have to," so it's the same process."
VF: Do you think you've grown in confidence doing all this?
Rob: "I think in itself you get more comfortable with an audience, I don't know if my confidence has grown any. The problem I have is that nine times out ten I go on stage and talk shit anyway, I just ramble on a load of bollocks and whether they go with it is down to me being at ease with the people who are there, do you know what I mean? So if I make them feel welcome they're going to make me feel welcome and then you sit and have a fucking laugh really. And it's good, so I think it's less about confidence and more to do with comfort with the audience you're playing to and all the different ones and trying to tap into what they're all about."
VF: Would you say the festivals you've most enjoyed being a punter are the ones you've most enjoyed playing at as well?
David: "I don't know. The Secret Garden one I didn't like the vibe at all, I felt entirely alien, but when we played I felt really welcome; like Rob was saying it felt nice and people were listening. I don't know what they were on but they were smiling a lot."
Nick: "It's different when you can go backstage and meet these bands whose music you really love. That makes it. And then the next day you get up and play on a big stage so it rounds off nicely."
VF: How's it been touring together? Have you become mates?
Rob: "They're alright, yeah. They're [Merla] good lads, we just talk about the usual stuff and have a laugh and get on with the job."
David: "It wasn't how I expected because I was looking forward to hanging out on the tour bus and being on tour..."wahey! Let's meet the lads and have fun and get pissed." But we brought our birds so I drove quite a bit, in my mum's car. But it's been cool. For me I always struggle with what I'm going to say, I'm always like "oh well, I'll just say whatever comes out" but Rob is really good, like you're part of it, he tells a story about where the story comes from and then you listen to the lyrics more and, yeah, I love Rob McCulloch's stuff. It's brilliant."
VF: So you've come to your last gig now, do you think it has helped you build your careers?
David: "Yeah absolutely, just playing on bigger stages for one helps even if there's no one there. If there's been no one there I've been like "well, at least look at the stage!" You at least rehearse in a bigger space and just present yourself bigger so that's pretty cool."
VF: Do you think the experience will hold you in good stead for next year?
David: "I hope so. It depends on the press as it always does. We need to continue what we're doing, build it up from here. Hopefully if we get good press that'd be nice. But you know, keep recording, keep playing and hopefully it'll be alright."
VF: What about you, Rob, do you think the Local Heroes thing has helped you?
Rob: "Yeah definitely, it was like David were saying, it's like a big rehearsal if no one turns up."
VF: Where would you like to play next summer ideally?
Rob: "Glastonbury? That weren't on this year were it? I'd like to play here again to be fair, after the doors open next time. And I'm going to return a compliment though because they [Merla] are the perfect festival band to be fair, if you come to a festival fucking Merla is the band that you'd expect to see on the bill, do you know what I mean? Absolutely spot on."
Click here to see our Local Heroes Gallery.
For more info on the winners, check out their official sites: