This month The Big Feastival, as held on Alex James’ farm in the Cotswolds, returns for its eighth year. June saw the launch of a competition inviting children to create a colourful, festival-inspired image, the winning design of which will be produced and used as the backdrop for the Big Top stage in Feastival’s Little Dudes’ Den. Cheesemaker and Blur bassist Alex James launched the competition by visiting Bledington Primary, where the arts and crafts team from Feastival ran an interactive session for the children helping them design their competition entries. We managed to steal Alex for a few minutes to chat a bit more about the culinary musical bash taking place in his back yard over the bank holiday weekend.
The birth and development of Feastival
Claire [Neate, wife] and I bought the farm on our honeymoon at the point when Blur had just kind of had enough of each other. Moving here was the best thing we ever did but I did wonder how I was going to fill the void of playing to thousands of ecstatic people every night. Then eight years ago Jamie Oliver called me and said ‘fancy doing a food and music festival in your garden?’ It seems to have hit the spot. The first year the package was like a sheet of paper, now it’s like a telephone directory – everything from the best street food traders to Michelin-star chefs to millions of things for kids to do. It’s incredible how it all gets built and taken down, miraculous really.
Because I’ve made eight albums, 12 cheeses and five children, it’s all centred on food, music and family. It’s just filling the farm up with everything I really love, so it doesn’t ever feel like work. When Blur first started doing festivals it was all promoters could do to get the PA to work; 20 years ago the food was absolutely disgusting and the toilets were famously biohazard nightmares. But now the fact festivals have proliferated means that the science behind staging them has become a lot better understood and you can add all these extra layers of sophistication. I guess people who came to see Blur smash it at Reading 15-20 years ago still want to jump up and down to Jess Glynne and Lewis Capaldi, but they want nice food, nice toilets and something for the kids to do. It’s a formula that seems to be working. You’ve got to keep evolving and you never really know what’s going to work until you try it, and you just build on what does work and it keeps moving forward. There are so many festivals up and down the UK that you’ve got to keep getting better or you get left behind.
Booking Elbow and Prue Leith for 2019
I’ve known Elbow since before they had a deal – Blur gave them a support slot on a European tour 20 years ago. The trouble is there are a lot of festivals and not many bands that can rock them. I don’t think the Glastonbury line-up’s that strong this year, I love Glastonbury but there’s just not enough bands to go around, which is why it’s good that I can call Elbow and say ‘come on, you owe me one.’ I’ve known Prue Leith for years, from when we used to have the British Cheese Awards at the farm – so I can make a difference I guess. It’s great having those big names and that’s why people put their hand in their pocket for a ticket. But actually when you get to a festival, hopefully the reason it’s brilliant is not the reason you came. This year I’ve got an orchestra together and we’ve got the Royal Ballet dancing to that on the main stage… because it’s a laugh. That’s what you’re trying to create, that sense of really good fun.
Working the Feastival weekend
It’s sort of like getting married on Friday, then you have to get up and get married again on Saturday, and again on Sunday. The family all get involved – having a huge family is an advantage. Everyone gets a job to do; my eldest is a good DJ, one’s a chef, one is quite good on the merch. We tend to start talking in Cornish accents for about a week after. When the thing’s happening it’s a total rollercoaster ride – ‘thunderstorms are coming!’ ‘The Red Arrows are coming!’ ‘We’ve run out of cheese!’ ‘Kate Moss is here!’ It’s triumph, disaster and epic failure. And we’ve established over the years that bad news doesn’t seem quite as bad if it’s delivered in a West Country accent.