Southwold: “There’s an expectation it will be of great quality” - Latitude founder Melvin Benn interviewed
Entertainment writer Wayne Savage talks to Latitude Festival founder Melvin Benn
It’s early June when Latitude Festival founder Melvin Benn and I meet at Southwold’s Henham Park. The sun is shining. Nearby, a flock of sheep seek sanctuary in the shade of a canopy of trees. It’s hard to imagine that in a few weeks time...
“...there’ll be a festival here. We work hard to protect the land and try to keep it clear and clean during the festival itself,” he stresses.
“The layout of the festival is really important to me. I spend a lot of time trying to find somewhere to put additional things. One of the charities I’m working with is the Kenyan Orphan Project, which is very close to me. It wants to do an activity based around housing for people in Africa. Finding the right spot for that... I come, wander, think ‘oh, maybe it’s not right there, is too noisy there, doesn’t work there’ or whatever and that does take time. Equally, deciding where to put the hot tubs, the new Alcove stage... you can’t just say ‘there’s a bit of grass there, I’ll put it there’, it doesn’t work like that.”
Latitude has grown so fast, establishing itself as a major date on serious festival-goers’ calenders. It must be satisfying but a lot of pressure?
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“It’s both of those, it’s very perceptive of you to pick up on the latter in particular because people don’t think of that too much. The audience expectation is significant and many of them buy because they want to be at the festival in the knowledge certain things are going to be there - even if they don’t know what they are before they buy the ticket.
“There’s an expectation that it will be of great quality, so there is that. You know last year I introduced a slot that classical pianist Lang Lang played on the Waterfront Stage; it was just a one-off slot but all of a sudden people are saying ‘well, whose playing that slot this year’. I hadn’t planned anybody to play this year, there becomes a pressure to actually deliver on that slot as well so it does add up.”
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Melvin puts Latitude’s quick success down to a mixture of things.
“That mixture creates a uniqueness... that’s what makes the festival so special. Where you have such dramatically different styles of entertainment, all of an accessible nature, that people who are culturally aware are interested in, that’s one of the things. It’s a beautiful part of the country, it just works really well.
“It (Latitude) is a joy to me. I was on a train to London just before Christmas and was just sat reading the paper when a chap came up to me and said did I mind if he just had a quick word. I didn’t know who he was, what he was going to talk about. He just said that he and his wife had watched Lang Lang together at last year’s festival and outside the birth of their children it was the most special moment in their marriage, he just wanted to thank me for it. That’s really something people get.”
A cross-arts programme, did Melvin ever consider taking the easy route and focusing on just one element?
“I always wanted it to be very cross-sectional. Actually, what I wanted Latitude to do was reflect my life, my cultural interests really. I felt if it reflected my cultural interests it would reflect a lot of other people’s cultural interests. I’m somebody who’s interested in music, of course, because I’m a music promoter. I’m also interested in cinema, literature, theatre, poetry, dance and cabaret as many of us are. So it was actually saying ‘look, this is how our cultural lives now encompass life’... they embrace all sorts of different cultural interests and I wanted Latitude to be just that.”
It’s a very personal festival?
Melvin agrees making Latitude similar to continental European festivals was a conscious decision; but adds it’s gone beyond the traditional music festival - certainly in terms of its content and diversity. Introducing more people to the arts was never part of the mission statement.
“I didn’t set out to be conversional or educational... I’m not a missionary or anything like that. This is much more about really wanting to express, as I said, my cultural interests and hope other people would follow.”
Attracing such strong line-ups every year, given the economic climate never mind competition from other festivals, has got easier as the festival’s reputation has grown.
“The event itself, the team who work for me, they’re the ones who create... one of the headliners this year for example, the agent rang me up and said this particular band want to do this particular night can you make us an offer and it’s all sorted. There wasn’t any thought I would be chasing them. That’s the case for a huge amount of bands, artists, poets, etc; they have it in their mind that’s something they want to achieve. It’s sort of like footballers want to play at Wembley... certain bands want to play this festival, and they’re going to play it, in a determined fashion.”
It must be so rewarding to know that there are acts out there coming to him?
“Oh it’s fantastic.”
And it takes a little of the pressure off as well?
“Indeed,” laughs Melvin. “It’s such a joy when it happens.”
A lot of the acts are fans too, wandering around, watching other performers. That says a lot about the festival.
“It does. It’s a wonderful thing they’re able to be so relaxed about wandering (around), really do want to embrace it, it’s been a big treat.”
Getting the gates open each year though is still a battle.
“Very much so... to get levels of exclusivity on artists, so you can only see them at Latitude. There are a whole pile of things that are really very important in terms of the overall mix of trying to put it together in such an economic climate. I feel we’re there, I feel we’re okay with it. The (festival’s) future is very much secure... it’s something all my team genuinely love working on.”
Melvin says the idea for Latitude had been spinning around in his head for about three years.
“I suppose if there was a Eureka moment it was probably reading one of the Sunday broadsheets and essentially wanting to bring to life the review section. I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could create a festival that would encompass all of this stuff.”
Despite looking at lots of locations he couldn’t find the right one.
“The location, from a geographic as well as a site specific point of view was important to me. Eventually, my site manager came to Henham and said he liked it and thought I would. He did also say he thought there was a couple of problems with the site which were the lake and the woods. I immediately said ‘oh crikey, that sounds to me like they might be the assets rather than the problems’. I came and looked at it and fell in love with it straight away.”
A music promoter, his passion for festivals shines through.
“Festivals are my passion, my life, I can’t get enough of them. To have one as special to me as Latitude is a wonderful spect of my life I’ve been able to achieve.” that.
He says 98% of him is still working on the day, rather than enjoying everything on offer. That said, he’s got some great memories.
“The acts are too numerable to mention but there have been some incredible moments at Latitude, absolutely incredible... opening the gates for the first time.
“The Matthew Bourne version of Swan Lake Sadlers Wells performed on the lake was mindblowing, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen and so busy - everybody wanted to be there. It really felt like all I’d dreamed of had come true at the moment...
“Thom Yorke on the main stage, playing his only ever solo performance on his very own piano that he brought from his house was equally special. Lang Lang last year was for me equally special... Ed Sheeran making his real first festival impact in front of an absolutely full main stage arena at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon when it was pouring with rain was just brilliant...”
“It is... Kraftwerk, Hot Chip, we’ve added a new music stage, the Alcove, tucked away in the woods... we think it’s the best festival in the world and it just keeps getting better. “We’re committed to making it better. Long may people’s support last but it’ll only last while we continue to work hard. We can’t stop, we can’t stand still, it’s our passion. We look forward to seeing you there.”