Melvin Benn has spent a career organising and managing festivals. Ever since hitchhiking down to Reading as a teenager back in 1971, music festivals have been his unerring passion. In his time working as Director of Festivals at Mean Fiddler, he has steered Reading towards being renowned as the best loved rock festival in the world, given it a sister in Leeds, and almost single-handedly saved Glastonbury from total anarchy with the introduction of the infamous 'superfence'. But for years he has been planning something new, something more laid back and intimate, a festival oozing as much in art as it is in quality live music, one set in idylic surrounds. This vision is Latitude and it takes place for the first time ever next weekend from 14-16 July, headlined by Antony and the Johnsons, Snow Patrol and Mogwai. (Click here for info and tickets.) Here he tells VF about his hopes for the festival and why YOU need to be there...
Virtual Festivals: Where did the idea for Latitude come from?
Melvin Benn: "It was born out of the desire to do something different to what I usually produce. I wanted to create a festival that had a much broader aspect. Reading, Leeds, and Hi:Fi are overwhelmingly music festivals, and Glastonbury is like several festivals in one. So I wanted to do something that was smaller, more intimate and something that had a common thread throughout it with poetry, literature, and theatre all at the fore."
VF: You've made no secret of the fact that it's inspired by some European festivals. What do they do differently?
MB: "The main influence was from Lowlands Festival due to their use of art. There's a different perspective, a more laid back feel, so Latitude will have a more gentle feel; the artists tend to be not so urban. I’ve also been very inspired by the Hay-On-Wye festival. It’s become a very cool festival and one all centred around literature. We’re a very articulate country, a pretty well read country and the majority of people who come to my festivals fit that mould. They are well read. They don’t get it (literature) at Reading or Glastonbury or Leeds or anywhere, but that isn’t to say that they have no interest in it, so I wanted to include literature as it’s one of the strongest art forms we have."
VF: You've also said that diversity is key. Why?
MB: "Diversity is key because diversity is key to my life, so I wanted it to be key to this festival. My favourite festival will always be Reading festival, but it doesn’t encompass all my interests I have in life and I imagine that’s the case with many people. I wanted to create that feeling of being able to pick up a quality newspaper on a Sunday and listen to good music while reading about art shows and comedians, reviews of films, that sort of thing. That’s a big part of life and it’s something I wanted the festival to reflect."
VF: Is it geared towards the over-30s?
MB: "No, not as all, that would be wholly wrong. If that was the case then it would suggest that the under 30s have no interests beyond music. The reality is that the music at Latitude is for everyone. Maybe some of the art forms will be but I think everyone who comes, no matter what age, will enjoy all aspects of it. I mean I’m putting in a kid’s area so I do expect parents to be there, but last time I checked there were parents under 30!"
VF: How did you stumble across the site?
MB: "The show that is Latitude is developing as Latitude. It’s been in my mind for some years but I’ve never found the right place to put it. You go and look at fields but most of the time one field is the same as another field. So I had this place in my imagination that nowhere lived up to. I came across this site (Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk) through a woman who used to work for me and grew up in Southwold. She emailed me a couple of years ago to say there was this really lovely site and I should have a look at it. It took me ages to get up there but eventually I made it and it was perfect. There’s a lake in the middle, which is beautiful, and we’re going to get a gondola so that people can get out on the water. There’s a wooded area where I can put a nice little stage that’ll operate late at night. There’s another wooded area where I can put in a small arts trail and some sort of mystery tour. So there were lots of elements that were needed and it had to be the right site. We’ve finally found it."
VF: We hear it's haunted. Something about a headless horseman?
MB: "There is, but he hasn’t bumped into me yet! He’s not mentioned anything about not wanting the festival there so I don’t think we have to be too afraid!"
VF: Can you sum up what you expect the Latitude experience to be in a few words?
MB: "All encompassing and hugely enjoyable."
VF: There's a strong emphasis on interaction between artists and festival goers. Do you think the blurring of that line is the future of festivals?
MB: "No not at all. The reality is that festival have become part of our culture and they were barely around 20 years ago. Before it was just Reading and Glastonbury and now there are loads. There's only been this proliferation because festivals have become part of our culture. But they can’t stand still and organisers have to be constantly thinking of new things to have at a festival when looking for new experiences. Will it mean that people are suddenly not interested in Reading and Leeds? No, I don’t think so. It’s an addition to the festival scene rather than competing against the festivals that are already there."
VF: What are you most looking forward to at Latitude?
MB: "All sorts of things really. Musically a huge amount. You know, Antony and the Johnsons, Stephen Fretwell, the return of Gomez. I think Latitude will be an absolutely perfect setting for Mogwai. But I’m also keen to see a lot of the stuff that Huw Stephens is putting on at the Lake Stage. He’s got a great style and presentation and a great ear for music and he really fits with where we want to be with Latitude. Comedy wise I’m really looking forward to seeing Marcus Bridgestock. A lot of the cabaret is not really stuff I know but I’m looking forward to seeing it and understanding it for the first time. I’m very keen to see Patti Smith in the Poetry Tent, I think that’ll be pretty huge. What else? John Cooper Clark in the poetry tent is still a huge voice. Someone’s coming down to do a brand new musical score of the film Bladerunner. I mean this is stunning. You know, young, British composers being given the opportunity to do something like that. It’s a first. It’s unbelievable. There’s an awful lot there."
VF: It's a huge programme, you're right. How long did it take to put together?
MB: "It's still going. We've just added Scritti Politi to headline the second stage on the Friday. We’re now pretty much there but it has been a big effort. We started putting it together in February. It’s been pretty quick actually and we targeted the headliners specifically and got exactly the ones we wanted, which is quite rare. Antony was hugely important because it set a tone for the festival. That tone was equally set by Snow Patrol and The Zutons because we didn’t want it to be too intellectual. We wanted it to be great fun. Equally we didn’t want it to be just singer/songwriter, we wanted the likes of Mogwai and plenty of guitars there. But the musical headliners we’ve got say a great deal about what the festival is."
VF: Why did you decide to make the festival a very late night affair?
MB: "We wanted to give the non-music stuff a really strong profile and of course the best time to do that is outside the music hours. We wanted to create a nice little buzzy area where there was plenty going on that didn’t involve drums and bass. Traditionally what goes on late at night is electronic music and I wanted something different to that."
VF: Has the fact you book bands for Reading and Leeds given you extra clout with securing acts?
MB: "No, it doesn’t give you extra clout as such. It does give bands the reassurance they need though. We're a new festival but an experienced company, so when a band is approached they know they’ll be looked after. They know the sound will be fine, they know the lights will be fine, they’ll get paid. So all that helps, of course, but actually what really counts is whether they want to do the festival or not. Antony wanted to do something that said something about him, about his perceptions of life, rather than just getting on the festival circuit for the sake of getting on the festival circuit. It took a long time to persuade Antony to do it, to the point that if Antony had said no, we’d have questioned whether or not we still wanted to put on the festival. It was important for us, in terms of where we wanted the festival to be, that people like Antony understood it and believed in it. If we couldn’t make Antony believe, then we wouldn’t have felt we really knew where we wanted to be."
VF: When you're driving home from Latitude, what will have needed to have been achieved for you to be a happy man?
MB: "Just the fulfilment of what the offering is. If 70 per cent say they’ve had a great time I’ll be happy. If it’s more than that I’ll be absolutely over the moon. This is the inaugural event, this is the beginning of something special, this isn’t a filler while Glastonbury isn’t on, this is a long term project and passion."
Latitude takes place at Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk, from 14-16 July. Click here for more and to buy tickets.