This summer, Fink – as well as releasing a new album, preparing for an American/European tour and generally planning other modest things like global domination – will be spending a sizeable portion of time playing festivals. You know about festivals. There are millions of the things. In England when I was growing up there were basically three: Glastonbury, Reading and WOMAD. These days, it’s estimated there are two festivals for every member of the population, and you can double that if you’re in Stoke Newington. So it’s no particular surprise that, for a band like Fink, playing festivals forms a considerable part of the yearly bread and butter.
What you might not be so aware of is HOW bands play festivals. I didn’t even know myself until relatively recently. I naively thought that all bands rocked up in a van from wherever they’re coming from, set up the gear, played, went home. And indeed, if you’re only playing one festival and it’s a drivable distance away, that might well be how you do it. Play more than one, and in places outside your postal district, that’s when things start to get interesting. A bonkers planes-trains-boats-and-automobiles network of hired gear, soaring excess baggage bills, and hotels you check out of sometimes no more than two hours after you checked in.
Touring, by comparison, is easy. You get in a vehicle… you tour. That’s kind of it. Festivals are different. Messy, unreliable, fantastic, efficient, hot, cold, wet, dry, busy, deserted – they’ve got it all. And no musical engagement tips you headfirst into the workings of a foreign country like a festival. When you tour – as our sound engineer reminds us with almost geriatric frequency – you often just see the back of the venue, the stage, the dressing room, and then the inside of the bus. For two months. You could be anywhere. Gigs in places as different as Warsaw and Barcelona blend into one. With festivals, you’re Out There, mixing with the public, grappling with the lingo, bribing the drivers, negotiating for your soundcheck time, bartering for your dinner, debating with the local crew, sometimes even while you’re onstage.
Festivals fall into roughly three categories. Randoms: festivals that looked confusing enough on the web before you got there, and which you’re still unable to completely figure out even after you’ve played them and returned home (example: a Swiss town festival a few years back when we were sandwiched between a circus troupe and a storyteller). Biggies: established, career-stepping-stone festivals, about which the only unknown factor is what precise level of terrifying they’re going to be (example: Sziget, Lowlands, Pukkelpop, all of which we’re playing this summer on the same weekend). That said, you never really know what you’re going to get. A festival that looks like a plush, well-ordered event from the comfort of your home computer screen can turn out to be a mud-drenched, badly organised glimpse of Hades. Similarly, an affair your instinct tells you will be a dust-blown Mediterranean hotchpotch of lateness, powercuts and abject confusion might, in reality, be an atmospheric and inspiring jaunt with great staff and a decent lineup. Thus, we have the third category: nice surprises.
Take last weekend’s Plisskën, for example: the first festival in our summer diary. Now that it’s over, we can confess: right up until we arrived at Athens airport, we were really thinking of it as a kind of free rehearsal for the rest of the summer’s engagements. Fully expecting to be waiting there a very long time, we stood outside the terminal building with all our gear and lit cigarettes of pessimism. Four minutes later we were halfway down the road, in an air-conditioned minibus, a palette of bottled water at our disposal, our instruments neatly stacked in the back, being hurtled towards Athens Central by a charming Anglophone driver called Alex (first rule of festivals: all drivers are usually called Alex). Partly to make conversation, I gingerly asked Alex whether all our hired gear was in place. “Oh yes,” he said. “There are many drum kits. There are spare guitars, and amplifiers.” Yeah, right, I thought. Thirty minutes later, I was merrily taking my pick between three perfectly good drum kits and about seven amps, while Fuck Buttons (that’s right, Fuck Buttons) soundchecked.
Later, as we reclined into squashy outdoor sofas, munched böreks and took advantage of the excellent wi-fi while the sounds of yet another quality band putting the PA through its paces filtered outwards, the four of us – singer Fin, bassist Guy, guitarist Chris and myself – collectively came to a conclusion.
‘Um… this is gonna be quite a good one, isn’t it?’
‘We’re not really gonna be able to… y’know…’
Get drunk and phone it in?
Over the course of the seamlessly organised next few hours, stopping to take in the delights of Suuns, Wild Beasts, Say Lou Lou and a superb Greek rock duo who I embarrassingly don’t know the name of, the occasion was duly risen to in the Fink camp, and come our stage time, we piled in and ripped it a new one, as the technical expression goes. The crowd were great, the crew did the business, the promoters seemed pleased – we’d love to come back. If I have one complaint, it’s of the strange black cans of beer lurking in the icy bins, one of which I necked as soon as I came offstage: later research revealed it to be the Greek equivalent of Carlsberg Special Brew or Tennent’s Super. I was still feeling that one well into the next day.
That’s the thing with festivals. You never know what you’re going to get. We’re off again this weekend, to Slovakia, for two dates on a rolling festival bill that includes Jamie Cullum, John Newman and James. Guaranteed there will be some shenanigans to report, at the moment of which I know blissfully nothing. How very exciting…