Hugh Phillimore Interview
We sometimes go to festivals. We sometimes wonder how they come together. We’d rather know who’s going to appear before we cough up lots of money. Here our intrepid newshound Glenn Sargeant manages to speak in depth to the organiser of the wonderful Cornbury Festival and here is that very conversation…
JLTT: Hello Hugh nice to speak with you.
Hugh: Nice to meet you.
Thank you very much for agreeing to do this. It’s really kind of you.
It’s my pleasure.
So in terms of yourself, what was the first festival you attended?
I went to Reading Festival probably in 76’ or 77’ I think. I went twice, the first time it was The Tourists and Thin Lizzy I think and the second time it was Motorhead and The Police. It was quite a while ago obviously.
Ok. So for people who are unfamiliar with Cornbury Festival would you be able to tell me a bit about its conception?
Yeah I mean it’s quite a gentle festival. The idea is it’s for families in their thirty-somethings and forty-somethings with children. The age group is zero to sixteen and then late twenties all the way up to seventies and eighties. The idea is, it’s a smallish festival between ten and fifteen thousand all averaging about twelve and thirteen. The idea is great artists but you can make your way down to the front of the stage fairly easily. Great food, local acts and just a really great range of music essentially.
Great. That sounds fantastic. With regards to music line ups (when you’re deciding who you’d like to play each year) do your family and friends influence your approach?
No not really. I’ve booked festivals for about twenty five years. You set off with various objectives in mind, you also have to see the act live and I’m actually on my way to see Larkin Poe at Dingwalls in Camden, London. So I think last year we went to see gigs in London just to see new acts, older acts and all those kinds of things. Then I’ll start a bit of a wish list and I’ll talk to the agency that’s around. The bill probably goes through about a dozen variations before it settles down. We tend to get about seventy five per cent of what we’re looking for and some acts take us longer and five years to get whilst others we are lucky and get them first time around. It’s very much stuff I know and love. I feel that for the bill to start to make sense, it needs to get together so it’s not some random selection. There’s a good reason for every act to be on the bill.
Yeah you’ve got a lot of my friends on the bill this year actually.
Well it does lead towards country, blues rootsy stuff because that’s really where my heart is. The key is the act needs to be able to be good live and if they’re not it’s not an act really.
So looking at the artists, what three things would you like each act to bring to their Cornbury performance this year?
Honesty, energy and good with the audience. I can’t think of the word for that. There’s nothing worse than an artist who doesn’t want to engage. I don’t think we’ve had that situation except once when we had Paul Simon. It wasn’t particularly good but everyone else has been amazing actually.
I think the word you’re looking for is rapport.
Rapport is the word exactly.
Have you ever been tempted to play a musical instrument?
I was a drummer. Like a lot of people in the music business I’m a failed drummer. Interestingly enough a lot of the music industry is run by failed drummers.
You’ll find the heads of most of the record companies are failed drummers. The reason is, we have a theory on this and the theory is this: when you start off as a teenager and you’re interested in music you join a band. If you ever book an amateur band, the only member of the band who really calls you is the drummer. The reason he calls you is cause’ he’s got more kit than anybody else. I mean the lead singer is too busy with his girlfriend or whatever but the drummer has the mess and the van and they always wanna know where they can park the car and all that practical stuff. The practical people are the drummers and therefore they become the organisers. I worked on and off at record companies during my school holidays but when I came back from that I decided all I ever wanted to be was a drummer. I did a couple of auditions, one of which I literally fell off the drum stool! It’s a drummer who becomes the organiser as my talents didn’t necessarily lie being a drummer in a band and that’s where it all started at age nineteen I suppose.
That’s fantastic. You started by saying that the festival was family-friendly. How do you make it so family-friendly exactly?
Well there’s a couple of things that are important; I think your venue and it’s atmosphere but I don’t know if it’s anything in the ground or whatever. It’s to do with the acts you book and the atmosphere you create I mean when we started Cornbury we knew how to organise an event. We didn’t know how to promote an event but we knew how to organise one. We put a very good team of people together ninety eight per cent of which is still involved twelve years down the line. It’s those people that keep the festival a friendly atmosphere. We have a very strict (excuse my language) no a***hole roll of call.
So everyone is well mannered, helpful and charming all that stuff. I think that helps give it a friendly atmosphere and a good atmosphere is what you need for a family-friendly festival.
In your opinion personally since you’ve been doing this job for a very long time, how much has the UK festival market changed over the years?
Well it’s grown hugely and it’s now at saturation point I would think. The other thing is that whilst there’s a lot of new small festivals starting and the odd big festival starting, I think there is a shift to the local festivals. Everyone has now got a festival within a 50-mile radius if not more. There was one down in Oxfordshire when I started which was Truck Festival. Now there are about five festivals within a 50-mile radius. I think with over five hundred in the UK, there are just far too many and I think there will be a process of weeding out. Every year or so, a couple of festivals will go up or down in this risky business. I think it’s a healthy market, there’s definitely something for everybody and if you are going to start a festival you need to make sure you find a niche for it. It’s no good starting a festival with a few random bands as that’s probably going to fail.
Ok. When you’re looking at artists and their scheduling, do you broadly think in terms of afternoon and evening artists?
Well I think you need a great act to open the festival. You need interesting acts in the afternoon. I remember I used to a lot of work at Cambridge Folk Festival about twenty odd years ago it was. It was fantastic seeing a range of artists on different stages and it was really the artists you’d never heard of that were the exciting ones. Of course you have the headliners but I think it’s the act on the third stage in the middle of the afternoon that you’ve never heard of is quite often the act that you remember.
Very true actually. Over the years, what was your bravest artist inclusion and was it successful?
Ooh. Paul Simon and no I’d probably say! (Laughs)I think it was 2008 and we started in 2004 and we weren’t particularly looking for Paul Simon but he came up as a suggestion from an agent we talking to about another artist. It was a big threat for us financially and it did bring us a bigger audience. But the combination of the performance was very lacklustre really and the weather which was pretty bad kind of did us in really. We kind of learnt a lesson in some ways. Potentially it is worth taking the gamble but you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket is probably the old-fashioned saying.
Understood. So far, since Cornbury has been going what was the biggest surprise to you as regards to audience reaction?
I suppose James Blunt. He’s a very nice man and all that stuff but he was in my hit-list put it that way. He was extraordinary really. He walked from the back of the arena to the stage barrier but the audience lifted him up onto the stage and then he delivered a fantastic set and even those people who were very much against him seemed to be converted. It was quite a surprise but he hasn’t been performing around the world for as long as he has without being good at his job. He is extremely good at his job.
Very much so. Now, with artists’ demands and riders would you be able to tell me the best and worst at Cornbury?
The best and the worst. I think birthday cakes seem to appear more often than birthdays I suspect. I think when you have to give certain artists vitamin D injections before they go on stage that’s quite an interesting one. We have a doctor backstage normally just to make sure we’re geared up for that kind of thing. Various artists have become legendary for their do’s and don’ts; Van Morrison has some interesting requests from time to time but it’s worth it because he’s the most incredible I’ve ever worked with. It’s kind of swings and roundabouts but it’s not like the old days. At Cornbury I don’t think we’ve had anything particularly strange. I earn my money doing private shows so what pays for Cornbury in some ways is doing Whitney Houston for an oligarch or Simply Red and sometimes some of those requests are a bit mad. Generally not too bad.
Brilliant. I can appreciate you’re probably a bit pushed for time as you’re going to Larkin Poe tonight.
It’s alright we’ve got another five or ten minutes till we get there don’t worry.
Ok so are there types of music you feel are not quite right for Cornbury?
Well I don’t think it’s a dance festival. I don’t think we’ll be doing what the Americans call EDM anytime soon. Anything metal-ish probably not although I wouldn’t mind doing a rock act but I suppose it would be a soft-rock act like Aerosmith or something like that. I think you just need to be careful of not booking anything that is going to put your audience off or to bring an audience that doesn’t suit the event. I mean there are certain bands which shall remain nameless that might bring the wrong type of punter. Fifteen per cent of my audience is under ten we don’t want someone running through the audience and knocking a small child over because that’s not what we’re going for. I have worked at a lot of different events and I don’t think I’ll be getting The Prodigy anytime soon.
What were the last three albums you either bought or downloaded?
I bought a bunch of albums last weekend. I bought the new Van Morrison record ‘Duets’ which I think is great, I bought The Staves album which I think is pretty good, I bought the Brenda Carlisle album which is great. What else did I buy? Oh yeah George Ezra’s album just to acquaint myself with the rest of the songs I mean we know the hits but I was interested to see in that old-fashioned way whether he could make a consistent album. To be honest, I haven’t got round to listening to it yet.
The Van Morrison record is fantastic, I mean it’s quite interesting people like Van, Leonard Cohen, Bryan Ferry who are all of a certain age who are all making really great music still.
Yeah that’s how I feel about Billy Joel actually.
Yeah that’s very interesting actually. I’ve done a show with him and he’s a fantastic guy. I start booking for the festival earlier and earlier and for this years I started in August and I literally started with Billy Joel and worked from there. Obviously, they’re quite serious money but we still went after them to start off with. I’d love to work with Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder is on the same list too. But you’re right it’s very interesting there are a lot of those acts that are flowering.
Yeah. I saw him last year at Hammersmith Apollo.
Oh you went to that show. Was he great?
It was phenomenal. I mean I’m only twenty one so I’d never seen him.
I thought I can’t miss this and it was just two magical hours. It was one of those gigs where you couldn’t believe you were there.
I know that sounds a bit odd but there are so many people like that. I think James Brown was another one.
Yeah I worked with James Brown towards the end and he was fantastic. Actually I was fortunate enough to see Joe Cocker one more time before he died. I think I saw him at Hammersmith and he was one of the great Cornbury triumphs because no one else in the UK would book him for a festival. He was very unpopular but he played Cornbury in 2005 along with Amy Winehouse and that was one of my favourite years. Not many people turned up but we were very happy with the music at least.
Final question really, if I want to eat or drink at Cornbury what are my options?
Well we’ve got about twenty different food traders and although there’s a lot of food at festivals now, we always make sure we have the best food that we possibly can have. We have a man who runs our concessions who’s a trader himself and he has won awards at other festivals and he monitors the traders we provide. We change and update them from time to time and we make sure it is done as well as possible. We like to think we’ve got the top caterers available also we have our local brewery which is in Hook Norton and on our tenth year they created an anniversary ale for us which I actually took part in the creation.
I went to the brewery and did the mash-ups and mixed the hops and all that kind of stuff. So we have Hook Norton and we have a Cornbury wine that I select and that is served in plastic bottles. It sounds kind of wrong but actually we researched it quite heavily before we got involved with it and it’s a very delicious mix that we select. So the wines and the beers and then all sorts of things. But trying to have a good cross-section of craft ales is important for us and I think the ales are our most popular drink so that’s important to get right.
Lovely to talk to you Glenn. Hopefully we’ll have a longer conversation at some other point.
That would be brilliant. I’ll buy you a drink if we get to meet up face to face.
Exactly. Obviously, come up to Cornbury and we’ll sort you out.
Thank you very much Hugh. I hope that was interesting and you enjoyed it. Enjoy Larkin Poe.
Cornbury Festival will take place between Friday 10th July-Sunday 12th July 2015 at The Great Tew Park, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. For more information and to buy tickets visit www.cornburyfestival.com