Mud, Sweat And Queer: Block9 Talk Ahead Of Glastonbury
As Glastonbury continues to grow in its gargantuan scope, there is a sense that the more obscure and unique aspects of counter-culture may have drowned out.
But there’s a sanctuary for the subversive. We chatted to Gideon Berger and Steve Gallagher of Block9 to find out about how their involvement in the festival provides an elaborate and alternate reality that pundits lose themselves in. For those that are uninformed, Block9 is an independent field at Glastonbury that offers revellers a late-night haven after much of the other music switches off.
A lot of things go; there is a sense of liberalism, and the space has garnered a lot of praise for being home for a lot of very strange, very wild early morning sessions. This year, as well as expanding the staging, they’re pulling an impressive musical line-up Black Madonna, Prosumer, Midland, Tama Sumo and Craig Richards to name a few. They gave us some insight into the process of orchestrating such elaborate debauchery.
Block9 has been running for nearly 6 years now. How has the project changed from the first year?
Steve: Yes, but actually this is the ninth year of the NYC Downlow at Glastonbury and our whole operation has developed so much since then! The first year everyone worked for free. We begged, borrowed (and stole) all of the materials we needed to build the set. Everyone mucked in together – DJ's set build crew, performers, bar staff – to get the job done. Because of the sheer scale of everything we’re doing now – including this year a brand new chapter in the story of The Downlow – everything has to be a lot more organised. Plus we’ve got a decades more experience in designing and creating these fantastical temporary sets and environments.
Everything in the field has evolved over the years – adding the London Underground in 2010 was a huge undertaking for us – a massive risk in every way – but we had faith in our belief that Glastonbury really needed a six story London tower block with a derailed tube train smashed through it! Then Genosys in 2013… and then of course there’s the NYC Downlow. Creatively the set has changed and evolved with the story of the Downlow: from early seventies to late seventies and now we’re bang up to date in 1982! Over the years we’ve added all sorts of twists – we exploded the tenement building revealing the squalid interior – the home of our trans performers, we crashed an NYC taxi into the 3rd floor…one year we even ripped off part of the building and had it floating away into the night sky with a ‘xxx’ sign still attached and working…
Gideon: It’s become a hell of a lot gayer… The first night we opened the for of the fledgling NYC Downlow, there were only a few homo’s who rocked up as punters. These days the Downlow is like a Mecca for super-sound, switched-on homos from across the globe.
Is transformation and progression essential to the project?
Steve: I think so. As the world changes, so we react to it. It certainly helps to keep everyone interested and motivated. The Block9 field is our primary focus for a significant chunk of our year, and so many people work on it and put so much energy and love into it. We are heavily invested in making it the most amazing party on the planet for the last weekend in June: a fleeting moment, a shooting star created by the passion of all those people that burns brightly and is then gone forever…
Gideon: The fun bit for us is rocking up at Worthy Farm in a fleet of trucks, buses and caravans and making the beautiful Somerset countryside look like a post-Hiroshima, rat-infested red light district.
The field is undeniably political. The NYC Downlow started from a recognition that one of the biggest festivals in the world had no representation of the LGBTQ community, right? Can you talk to us about what kind of message you’re building through these installations? Is the political aspect important to the experience?
Steve: I think the most important message is that it's OK to be yourself. Our world is fucking obsessed with pigeon holing people which I find infuriating and lazy. I think we are all more complex than that. We wear different hats at different times according to the situation. With the NYC Downlow and with Block9 we are creating environments and situations where you can throw your 9-5, best-behaviour, aren't-I-sensible hat in the bin and be whoever you fucking want.
Gideon (Berger) my creative partner in Block9 came back from Burning Man in 2006 having seen and heard the amazing homo shit they were doing out there, I had a massive creative itch that needed scratching, we met, the rest is history…
Gideon: Luckily we have no brand partnerships or corporate sponsorship deals so we do not need to pretend to be happy with the state of the planet for fear of pissing anyone off. Yes, we are 100% political. We have the balls to say we stand for liberal inclusive left-leaning chaos and that we hate Tory fuckwits… LOVE is the answer! The NYC Downlow is saying a lot this year. The new Meatpackers concept is shouting about gentrification, homogenisation, ghettoisation and also laughing about how retarded our gay world has become. It’s both a serious comment and a bit of a piss take really…
And in case you haven’t noticed, there ain’t no VIP areas in Block9… that’s real politics right there!
The whole field itself is a late night haven for the weird, wild and sleepless. On a purely sensory level – politics aside – what sets Block9 aside to the rest of Glastonbury?
Steve: We have become known for our attention to detail, whether that is in the programming of music – talking to artists about the different venues and stages we create so that they understand the vision of what we are trying to achieve – or in the creation of the physical environment you find yourself in, like recreating an exact replica of a menacing London tower block for The London Underground. We're trying to create a space that brings together music, art, audio, visual and people, in a way that creates magical temporary moments in their lives. It's brilliant, entertaining, amazing fun but it also has nuance and meaning and depth. We want the time spent with us at Block9 to have a positive lasting impact on people's lives. Does that set us apart? I don't know, just ask someone who's been…
Gideon: I think the scale and ambition of our creations are pretty unique at the festival and I think our approach to programming music is different to other spots, too. I give a very tight and specific brief to people bringing their music to our venues. I am not scared to tell people what we do and don’t want to hear from their repertoire…..hehehe!
The bookings this year include a phenomenal line up of artists. What’s your involvement in selecting acts? Do they impact your set design, or is it the design that makes you choose specific artists?
Steve: The music leads and then the set or environment is built around that specific genre of music – but sometimes the two kind of merge and appear together. That's how Genosys, the huge concrete and glass main stage in our field came into being – an imaginary, fantasy, dark, brutalist giant and everything that that conjures up, with a soundtrack celebrating the rumbling, squelching, groaning birth of electronic music…
It's like each venue has its own personality. I think DJs and performers like that – it gives a sense of focus and an incredible opportunity to really explore a musical genre.
Gideon: Well thanks…"phenomenal" is a nice word 🙂 I programme the field musically and yes I think 100% all the sets take their cue from music. That’s why we created them in the first place: as the perfect environment to experience and explore a certain genre of music.
How long does it take to construct and take down the whole set up? Do you make any changes over the weekend?
Steve: A month on site all together, with months of planning beforehand. We mark out the site in early June and then logistics kick in. We have three cranes, four telehandlers, and around 100 crew operating in and around the field during the build weeks moving tonnes of containers and scaffolding, staging and set. The organising and scheduling of everything through the build and then running the live show is epic. And yes, we have to be nimble as stuff changes all the time. We are normally off site around a week after the festival. Everyone looks about five years older and two stone lighter! When we get back to London afterwards, we have all the bills to pay! It never really stops!
Gideon: Me and Steve can’t fucking stop tweaking…so yeah…we tweak all the way through the event.
How many people are involved in the behind-the-scenes work throughout the weekend? It’s often forgotten how many hands make for an effortless party vibe.
Steve: It's a massive effort. Our teams swells to over 700 people – an AMAZING production and PR team, build and site crew, riggers, bar crew, some of the best lighting and sound guys operating in the uk, artists and performers, venue staff, the best crew catering on the whole festival site (seriously) – All NAILED in the most relaxed, professional and polite manner you could ever hope for! Mostly.
Gideon: Even the DJ’s get involved… A bunch of our acts this year are flying in early to chip into the build effort too… that’s half the fun!
The weekend is known for its surprises, whether that be Mick Jagger coming by for tea or Florence Welch doing a secret cabaret number in the NYC Downlow. Are these orchestrated or accidental? They certainly seem to add to the magic of the weekend.
Steve: It's simply the Stars aligning, with a little help…
Gideon: Jesus helps us all
Where should punters direct their eyes this year if they want to catch something magical?
Steve: The new NYC Downlow is going to be KILLER. Roger Sanchez on the decks on Friday night – in a space which was conceived to celebrate the music he is such a huge part of – is surreal! Hot Chip are also playing a tribute to Prince on Genosys on Friday. Joey Beltram is playing Genosys on Saturday, and we’ve got some acid house on Sunday (always an amazing end to the weekend) with Mike Dunn. Not to forget the Rinse FM night on Friday at London Underground…there’s too much to choose from!
Gideon: The Black Madonna in NYC Downlow…missing that would be a bad move! Oh and we have a special guest doing an unannounced number in the NYC Downlow on Friday too… someone you might have heard of before…
Glastonbury takes place this weekend. Look out for Block9.