Interview: Gavin McInally Festival Director at Damnation Festival.
Interviewed by Tim Finch
Damnation Festival, for many, is the highlight of the gig going year. And for us here at The Razor's Edge its a chance to catch up with so many bands that potentially we wouldn't get the chance to see live otherwise. Damnation festival is unique, it brings together line ups that no other festival would dare to touch and it sells out year on year, proving they have the established product that people want.
With 2020 decimated for all of us, especially in terms of live music, we took the opportunity to chat with festival director Gavin McInally about the festival and the all new 'Damnation Vs' podcast.
The Razor's Edge: Hey Gav, welcome to The Razors Edge!
Gav: Happy to be here, thanks for having me!
The Razor's Edge: It must feel different being the interviewee for a change instead of the interviewer!
Gav: It is honestly, this is so much more pleasant. [Laughs]
I’ve been a journalist for twenty years, but I’m a print journalist, so I can ask a question as many times as it needs asked.
I get to form my questions as many times as I need, I can stumble as long as I get the answer back I need, I can write it up afterwards. But when I am doing the Damnation Versus podcasts everything needs to be right first time. I have never trained for that and it can be difficult - that’s why sometimes my questions last eight minutes! [Laughs].
The Razor's Edge: Let’s start with the podcast obviously coming off the back this year’s restrictions instead of planning a festival you’ve been having a chat with a whole array of industry insiders. Obviously COVID gave you the time to do it, but what steered you down the podcast route over anything else?
Gav: I’m not quite sure what was the initial reason behind it. Definitely the festival being cancelled and then, as I said, I am in print journalism and that industry is really suffering at the moment too. With my job and then the festival being cancelled and I felt like it was just a year of pure misery; everything I was involved in was going in the wrong direction.
It’s an unusual combination of skills being a festival promoter and a journalist and I thought people might like to hear what questions I wanted to ask bands and agents. I know it’s a niche audience, but I was never trying to be Joe Rogan.
I’ve kind of committed to season two now, I couldn’t say no.
I don’t know what the catalyst was other than the festival being cancelled to answer your question. If Damnation was happening this year I would not have started a podcast.
The Razor's Edge: For us as fans it’s been good to see, or at least hear, about what goes on behind the scenes in the industry. Certainly better than the run of the mill band member gets the same old questions style interviews.
Gav: There was absolutely no point getting Anaal Nathrakh on and saying “so tell me about the meaning behind your new album? What’s the recording process? Tell me about your guitar pedals and what does this album sound like?” Because I don’t really give a shit.
I know there are music fans out there who like that depth about what inspires the music and so on. I hear people say, “you can’t like Napalm Death unless you are absolutely devoted to those politics” and by pure coincidence myself and Barney probably share quite a lot politically and lean left quite heavily, but I don’t care what Napalm Death think or write about.
I hate when people pretend - even with some of my favourite bands like Amenra and Cult of Luna - ‘oh this is the concept for this album’ like it makes any difference to the listener.
Who are you pretending to? No one knows what any of these guys are singing unless they go buy an album sleeve and read the lyrics.
Some of my other favourite bands, like Manchester Orchestra or Frightened Rabbit and the guy is singing about chucking himself off a bridge and then doing it ten years later? That hits you in the chest, it means a lot. But to pretend I’m sitting there listening to extreme metal saying, ‘oh that’ll be Anaal Nathrakh singing about the fucking First World War?’ I’ve got no idea, I just like the carnage.
So that’s the reason why I couldn’t have that kind of interview with bands or anyone that was doing the podcast, because I don’t know enough about the recording process or what these guys are writing about in their music... and I don’t care.
The Razor's Edge: Personally I’ve loved every episode, but apart from me, how do you feel the podcast has been received?
Gav: Well, very well. I thought a Damnation fan is likely going to be interested in what the organiser of Damnation and the singer of Anaal Nathrakh has to say and I thought there would be a small audience for that which was great, and the reason I was doing it.
But I also knew that once I exposed myself to Youtube that I was probably going to get quite a bit of shit on there.
There is no place worse for hate than Twitter and Youtube’s comments section. It’s where you are going to get all the trolls and they are all going to come out with their knives ready to pick up on every mistake you make. And I am the guy who is going to make a dozen mistakes over the course of an interview!
So that was a surprise, the fact that it was so universally positive the feedback that I got was odd.
I think I mentioned it in one of the podcasts, I was kind of waiting for some criticism to make it feel a bit more real. No one does anything in the world that everyone likes so it’s either completely ignored or you’re going to some sort of flack for it. We got our first thumbs down in the Tom Begley interview and I thought ‘good, someone dislikes it, it must be genuine’.
As it grew, a lot of the feedback came from complete strangers. Some folk came on and never knew much about Damnation either and certainly didn’t know anything about me and they were really into it. People outside of the industry like the idea of pulling back that curtain and getting a wee look at what goes on.
I was blown away really by how great the feedback was. It got to the point when people said “do more”, so not to do an episode eleven or season two would be pure arrogance at this point. I said if nobody tuned in I was going to do ten episodes because I felt like I had to commit to something but if people did tune in I was going to do more than ten and people clearly did. Between the podcast and the viewing figures there are thousands of people getting involved.
The Razor's Edge: So last question on the podcast before we talk about the festival, you mention season two. Have you got any plans of what areas you’ll delve into for the next season or indeed who you’ll have on and where you are going to go with it?
Gav: There is no grand plan! Genuinely. I think I mentioned it on the last podcast, all the things you are supposed to do right when you start a podcast and I did none of them, none of them at all. Some weeks I was interviewing, like Serena for example, I was interviewing her on Tuesday at five o’clock and it was going live on Tuesday at half past seven. And that was me getting it to the graphics guy and packaged up. I don’t want to say it was amateur as it still takes a bit of skill to turn that around so quickly, but it took one missed interview and the whole thing was waiting two weeks without an episode.
It’s garnered some interest now and I have labels contacting me asking ‘would you speak to this band?’ and agents asking ‘would you speak to that band?’ I fancy having a conversation with somebody about racism in metal, I fancy a conversation with somebody from Kerrang!, I fancy a conversation with a manager of a band. I would like to speak to Carcass. The problem is with some of them, even my favourite bands like Amenra and Cult of Luna, are just too serious for me. I don’t want forty minutes of me trying to crowbar some joy out of those guys. They make great music but they aren’t really guys I want to sit in a pub with. But Jeff Walker strikes me as a guy who could go either way so maybe I’ll try him and maybe the rest will fall into place.
I think of the first ten episodes I had four or five guest ideas at the start and four or five came as a complete surprise, so we’ll see.
The Razor's Edge: Ok, so let's talk about the festival. How early on in the pandemic did you start to think it may impact yourselves and at what point did the inevitable realisation kick in that the only option was cancellation?
Gav: Well from the very start, maybe April, at that point. It’s not the fact that I thought things wouldn’t get better, some of the interviews with the experts were saying things would get better but what will happen is a second wave will happen in flu season.
So from the very start we had it at the back of our minds, and I think the agents were switched on too. We were quite far ahead with organisation and the line up had been put up January/February and we stopped booking bands almost as soon as lockdown started, sort of end of Feb/March. I remember I paid a deposit on a package that was going to happen and I was a wee bit hesitant as I was paying it, I was like ‘I better get this back, COVID-19’s not my fault’.
At the same time I was quite optimistic about some sort of smaller event happening. I did think there would be an opportunity to do something. We pulled tickets quite quickly, we stopped chasing bands quite quickly, we hit the pause button quite early. And once we knew that no one else was paying money in and no one was buying tickets there was no rush the pull the plug as it wasn’t harming anyone financially.
We just wanted to get to the stage that we weren’t going to have egg on our face but if things did get better we could have a thousand capacity event. So we held on until August and then we pulled the plug, it was starting to get worse and there was no chance of getting any sort of gig come November.
The Razor's Edge: You mention pulling tickets very early on and I think it was a classy move. Not naming any names, but I’ve seen other festivals and venues selling tickets for events right up to the point of cancellation and I personally have thought, come on we know this is getting cancelled, that’s a bit of a rip off right now.
Gav: We got a good reaction from it. I could give you the whole sales pitch but there’s nothing about the festival that’s got a glossy PR finish. It just is what it is. That’s how I felt and that’s how Paul felt. I felt there is nothing to gain from keeping people’s money.
The people who matter to me are the people who buy the tickets, if you buy a ticket and you don’t like the line up and you want to tell me the festival is shite I will listen to you. I will definitely listen to a fan who has paid their money and doesn’t believe they are getting their money’s worth. What I don’t want to listen to is somebody who has no intention of coming to Damnation and has never been, telling me why my festival is shit.
Those people who bought them, they are the ones I wanted to protect the most and any one of them who wanted their money back they could have it. Thankfully there has only been a handful of people who have asked for refund - maybe they can’t come next year or maybe they are broke and have lost their job - but they can have their money back, it’s their money.
I was delighted to get the feedback we got when we did it, but there was nothing about that announcement that was ‘this is us showing how it should be done’, it’s just the way we operate and the way we felt would be the most honest way to do it.
The Razor's Edge: I know Vicky from Bloodstock talked about cancelling at the point they were going to have to start paying out for a lot of services they ultimately wouldn’t use. I guess it must have had a financial impact for you as well, but is there much you’ve paid out for that you either won’t get back or won’t be able to roll over to next year?
Gav: Yeah, for us there were financial implications, there’s non refundable hotel rooms, there’s web hosting fees, advertising that we’ve done on Facebook for this year that we won’t get back. Ultimately it’s only going to be a few grand, and I’m not saying ‘only a few grand’ like that’s nothing, but a few grand we can come back from - 30 or 40 grand for Damnation, we can’t.
So yes, we have lost money, I’m hoping we are going to do a t-shirt. I want something to mark 2020, so we’re going to do a shirt like Hellfest or Download with every band that has ever played Damnation on the back. If that generates some cash to cover the losses great, if it doesn’t we’ll be fine for next year. We have enough in the pot to swallow those losses, as much as no one likes to lose a few grand.
The Razor's Edge: As a festival you’ve been through three venues over the years, it’s well documented why you don’t run the festival in Scotland so I won’t go over old ground, but how did you go about seeking out suitable venues for the festival?
Gav: The first one was strange and when Damnation started there were ten of us and it was a message board idea. All I knew is that I wanted it to be in the centre of the country, I wanted it to be somewhere that folk from London, Glasgow, Birmingham would go. I didn’t want to go to London and I didn’t believe that if I’d done it in Glasgow, which would have been my preference, that enough people would come up to it. I’ve seen events collapse in Scotland before.
There was a guy called Mike Hislop who was involved way back in the day and he was from Manchester and quite heavily involved in the music scene as a fan and he knew about Jilly’s Rock World. I’d have been open to Sheffield, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, wherever but Jilly’s Rock World for what it was at the time was absolutely perfect. We sold it out the first couple of years but we had to do a Sunday as the club night on the Saturday made too much money for them.
Come the third year I looked in Manchester but there was nowhere to go on a Saturday, the Academy would only let us start at 5/6 o’clock at night and Jillys wanted us on a Sunday. We tried Leeds Met and that just wasn’t fit for purpose. It had two stages, one was perfectly good that Kreator played and Amen and Orange Goblin and the other one was a fucking cupboard that had Kataklysm, 1349, Aborted and Nathrakh. Damnation was never set up like that, it wasn’t set up to be a main stage event and the rest of the stages would be shit with unsigned bands, so Leeds Met didn’t work.
Then we moved to Leeds Uni and I love the Uni, I know some people don’t like it but I think all four venues are fucking excellent.
The Razor's Edge: Leeds Uni now has been host for 12 years, as a punter I consider it Damnations home, I guess you guys see it the same way?
Gav: It’s strange as a Glaswegian, I like to promote here as it’s my city. But even if a venue opened up in Glasgow that could host it, I wouldn’t move Damnation. I can’t see us moving it out of Leeds, I feel it is the home.
I love the venue team there, I love those stages. It takes a bit of time to get your head round that venue, I mean it’s a fucking maze and I still get lost in it but there is something about it that is very Damnation.
It’s set up very well, the stages have become their own thing, you know what you are getting at each stage. Stylus is one of the best venues in the UK. We have the Barrowlands in Glasgow which is very well thought of and King Tuts, but the Stylus the way it’s set up with those levels, it’s fucking brilliant.
The Razor's Edge: And the view from the stage, when you look back and it's full in the Stylus is amazing.
Gav: Yes, absolutely packed. Bands have come and played Stylus and been blown away, we've had some quality, quality bands in there.
The Razor's Edge: How do you go about putting the bill together each year? Where do you start when trying to pull together a 26 band bill?
Gav:It’s a template now, we know exactly who we are looking for. We make no secrets whether it’s a Neurosis, Emperor, At The Gates, Carcass, Electric Wizard we know those bands, the bands that are going to sell the tickets and what they cost in terms of budget.
From there, because of the reputation that Damnation has got now, before you’ve even finished the year before you probably have two, three, four packages being lined up for you by agents. They’ll say “oh Pig Destroyer are going to come across” or “would you take Pallbearer and Pallbearer will be coming with two bands”. After that there’s chasing bands to headline and there’s a wee bit of luck you get with agents offering you stuff and then there’s just a bit of perseverance where you, Bolt Throwing being the best example, just keep going for some bands.
You just make it work. I hate the word ‘curate’, I think sometimes people think they are brain surgeons because they put together some bands on a stage but we do organise stages to those genres so if a clash is going to happen it’s because you’ve got a great taste in music as you like post-rock and death metal, it’s not because two death metal bands are on at the same time.
The Razor's Edge: On your podcast a couple of times you’ve mentioned 2008 and how it put a lot of people off ever coming back. That surprised me as 2008 was my first Damnation and the year I fell in love with the festival. What about that year do you think put some people off?
Gav:There were a few things. Damnation’s got a very particular crowd, a very demanding crowd. Guys and women who have been to gigs for twenty years, they’ve been to the big festivals, they’ve been to the small festivals, they are fucking married, they’ve got kids, they have mortgages, they expect more from Damnation than the punters who go to Slam Dunk expect from Slam Dunk.
So when we moved from 2007 to 2008 we got Carcass, My Dying Bride, Napalm Death, Cathedral, Pitchshifter - the line up was insane - and it sold 4000 tickets. We went into that year and the venue put the fear of God into us. They said ‘you can’t have any overlaps, we’ve got a small stage that does 550 people and if you have 4000 people and Cathedral are not clashing with any other bands then you are going to have a health and safety issue with people getting crushed’.
Naively we clashed Carcass, Pitchshifter and Cathedral at the same time. I think that - well maybe Opeth aside - would have been the most expensive hour in Damnation’s history, booking those three bands and letting them play at the same time.
That was the first problem. Now we put the biggest bands on the main stage, bill it properly and you could put Carcass against Conan and still get 500 people watching Conan and everything will be fine, but we didn’t know that then.
The second problem was a wee bit of inexperience. We didn’t know that venue which is a complete maze, we’ve got big bands clashing and we’ve got that discernible punter who isn’t a teenager who will put up with queuing outside for a beer or getting crushed a bit going down the stairs. Teenagers don’t care, Damnation punters care and they are vocal about it.
We did 4000 tickets and came back the next with one of my favourite line ups ever - Electric Wizard, Life of Agony, Destruction, Therapy? - but sold half the tickets. So 2008 was clearly a damaging year, and I know Carcass played a big part in the sales, but I never expected to lose half the turnout in a year. There’s one guy who is our resident troll and he still talks about 2008 and he’s never come back.
We’ve now limited our capacity to 3000, then give or take the guest and press list. We could probably still sell 4000 tickets and tickets are now £50. So that’s £50,000 that I don’t make because we have reduced the capacity. You find a promoter that’s willing to say ‘I’m not going to take £50,000 because some people were uncomfortable that year’ and I’ll show you a liar. [laughs]
It stings a bit because I know what we’ve done to address those problems, and some people will not come back because they are still holding that shit against us. I say ‘you sacrifice that £50,000’ and then talk to me.
The Razor's Edge: For me the weekend is the highlight of the year, and I’m not saying that just to blow smoke up your arse. Since 2008 whether I am there as a punter or there working the show as a photographer, I thoroughly enjoy it. So what have been the highlights for you over the years?
Gav: A good year for me is it just happening properly, you get to the end of it and everyone enjoyed it. But I’ve also been stung a wee bit when I thought everything went well. I thought 2014 was a good year, I thought with Bolt Thrower, Saint Vitus and Speedhorn and Stampin’ Ground it was great but we had some of 2008 thrown at us again.
That’s when we officially cut the capacity by 1000. It’s odd, I can leave a year and think ‘oh my God that was fucking spot on and people are going to be delighted with it’ and then walk into a wall of shit afterwards. But since then, from 2015 onwards, it’s gradually got better.
I always felt that Damnation, for whatever reason, never really got the respect it deserved for so long. I knew we were at the wrong end of the calendar for any of the festival trophies and whatever. But I felt other events were coming up and getting widely praised - ‘they are booking Conan and Anaal Nathrakh!’ and I was thinking, Damnation has been doing that for ten years now.
Something changed around 2015, 16 and 17 even though we never did anything different, but this sort of weird cult status happened, where people were feeling more like we were about the festival. People were posting ‘I am definitely going to Damnation, those guys are going to book a fucking line up that's brilliant and it’s still only £43 when festivals in London are charging £70 for a day of small death metal bands’. Then we get the situation we had this year before the shit hit the fan where we sold 700 tickets with just a few bands announced. That’s incredible.
I also can’t remember what your question was... [laughs]
The Razor's Edge: You've mentioned the Life of Agony year had fairly poor sales by the festivals standards. Obviously the festival is strong and stable now, but has there ever been a point where you had to consider whether it continued or not?
Gav: Yes 2012. So 2008 was really successful, 2009 I lost £13,000. So I’d done a full year and lost £13,000, but I thought I could build back from that that.
In 2010 we reduced in size to try to build the festival back up. 2011 did ok, but it was a slog and that was with Devin Townsend and Ulver and Godflesh! You look back and see some of those fucking line ups and we were getting 2000 fans? That was insane. 2012 was Electric Wizard, My Dying Bride, Pig Destroyer and I think it got to maybe August/October and ticket sales were still around 1000 or 1500 - still quite far from break even.
I wanted to be honest at the time and say ‘listen guys this is it, I’m not doing this again’, I’m not having a year scratch out enough sales just to not lose money. I couldn’t go into 2013 with that feeling. The profit doesn’t matter, it’s good when it happens, but it doesn’t matter. But losses do matter. I’m not working for a year and then you have to pay to do it, it just makes you feel cheap. If that happened in 2012 I think it would have been ‘I don’t know if this is for me’. By 2012 I had two kids, my career was doing well, I think at that point I’d maybe not thrown in the towel but it would have been reduced in size, it would have been that 1000 capacity event where you can catch a couple of cool bands and have some fun and not what we’ve built it to be since. But then in the last months it rallied and we made the ticket sales we needed and we’ve never looked back.
The Razor's Edge: My wife has bumped into you at gigs and festivals over the years and always asks you the same question and gets generally the same answer. So to get this on the record now… will you ever book Suicidal Tendencies?
Gav:[laughs] I don’t know what I answered for that question before. I absolutely would, of course I would book Suicidal Tendencies. But they are that type of band where there are a group of fans who would go to that gig wherever it was, but they are not going to sell us 2000 tickets. But they are going to be the same price as the band that does sell you those 2000 tickets for sure. They are absolutely the same cost as the big headliners.
I have never approached them they have never approached me, if they were touring and it was a reasonable fee then I would rip their arm off to come and play. I do have a wee bit of fear though, I have done bands like Life of Agony and Lock Up and you have people are very vocal about how good they are going to be, but then there are only six of them!
I’m not saying that about Suicidal Tendencies, they are a big band, but are they that band who are going to fill 2500 people at Damnation?
It’s easy to say they filled a tent at Hellfest, or Download, or Bloodstock, I’ve seen Sikth, Raging Speedhorn, and all those bands play to audiences that are much bigger than Damnation but that doesn’t make them able to headline Damnation.
The Razor's Edge: So final question… if you had the chance to go back and start it all again… would you do anything differently?
Gav: Yes, everything. [laughs]
You wonder sometimes when you make mistakes, if you didn’t have that mistake, if you didn’t learn from the Carcass year, if you didn’t have the venue moves, I could say it’s cliched, but would you ever learn from them? Is Damnation what it is now because we went through that shit? I’ve said before we had the opportunity to book Bring Me The Horizon and Architects and bands like that. Now I look and say ‘oh god, for the sake of a couple of hundred quid I wish I’d booked Bring Me The Horizon in 2005 and 2006 when they were just starting up’. Then I’d have a poster behind me that has bands who could go on to headline Download now, playing Damnation. But would that have changed the course of what Damnation is? Would we have become a deathcore festival or would it have collapsed?
Obviously I’d never have clashed Cathedral, Pitchshifter and Carcass in the same god damn hour. If I’d known I could have all three on the main stage and put small bands on the small stage and just learn from that experience. The small bands are always going to attract what they attract. There’s not going to be 4000 people going into the small stage for a band who wouldn’t draw that number.
There’s also been fees I’ve paid. I’ve got a reputation for being quite tight when it comes to fees. Agents know that when I say what I’ll pay that for a fee that’s all they are going to get for it so I’ve maybe missed a lot of good bands for it but I think that's good business sense as a promoter. There’s also been a couple in hindsight that I think ‘fuck I’ve paid over the odds’. Not because the agent thinks it’s over the odds, but when the show happened the fans weren’t there to see it.
Then you get another band who play for a packet of crisps and the stage is packed.
There’s plenty of things that in hindsight I would change. I would have gone much more professional much quicker.
A lot of it was coming into one career from another without any background in it. It’s the school of hard knocks isn’t it? You only learn from it when you trip up and fuck up, so then you learn and say I’m not going to let that happen again.
So there’s plenty if I went back to the 2005 Damnation that I would definitely change. But at the same time I wonder if the exact same mistakes made Damnation what it is today?
The Razor's Edge: Thanks for your time today Gav!
Gav: That was a lot of talking from me. I realise when I'm on this side I also do all the fucking talking! [Laughs]