The lineup for the 2014 Reading and Leeds Festival was announced tonight (March 10), revealing – as promised by festival organiser Melvin Benn last week – “something we’ve never done before.” NME spoke to the man in charge about how he convinced Paramore and Queens of the Stone Age to co-headline, the surge in young British acts storming the lineup’s other stages this year and the 24/7, 365 demands of running one of Britain’s biggest music festivals.
After 17 years in charge, what’s your personal feeling right before you announce a big chunk of the Reading and Leeds lineup? Do you still get excited? Is this the point where it begins to all feel real?
“To be totally honest with you, maybe for other people in the office, but for me the feeling is all year round. It really never stops – it’s constantly in my life. But when fans see the lineup and when tickets start to sell, it’s always an exciting moment. As ever for us, this year’s lineup is a mix of where popular and alternative music has been, where it is now and where it’s going next, across a real spread of genres. There’s unquestionably a rock tradition at Reading and Leeds but equally there’s unquestionably a dance tradition at the festival and plenty of other sorts of sounds and audiences. So we try to reflect that. It’s a really strong lineup this year. We’re absolutely delighted with it.”
There seems to be a really great crop of young British bands on the bill this year, from Temples to Wolf Alice to Drenge, not to mention big slots for the likes of Disclosure and of course Arctic Monkeys. Do you think we’re in a particularly strong moment for British music, currently?
“I don’t think – it’s a fact. There’s a great pool of British talent to pick from at the minute. It’s great to be able to reflect how much British music is thriving with our lineup. There was a huge, huge demand for Arctic Monkeys to come back. To be honest with you, we’d have had them come back even if there wasn’t a huge demand because just they’re that good. They’re a phenomenal, phenomenal band at the pinnacle of their powers right now. That they have a long history at the festival and sharpened their craft here only adds to the magic of them headlining. Then there’s bands like Bombay Bicycle Club, who’ve worked their way up from smaller stages [to NME/R1 Stage headliners]. They’re a brilliant example of exciting young British music – they’ve always sounded entirely of the moment with each album and will continue to do that, because they’re those type of musicians, constantly evolving what they do. I see them on the main stage in years to come, I really do."
Do you ever manage to get down to the front for any bands during the festival or is it just too manic for you? Is there one you particularly want to see from this year’s bill?
“Oh I wish! I’d be happy to be at the front for Drenge. I have no idea how they do what they do as a two-piece, how they make such a huge sound. It’s a bit like the White Stripes – the first time I saw them I thought there must be some other people behind a drape helping them create that wall of sound but no, it’s just them. Drenge are really, really exciting.”
Do you listen to punters’ feedback when moving forward with the festival?
“We very much listen to our audience, definitely. Last year there was a resounding yes to having additional stages, the 1Xtra stage. Like I said, there was a huge demand for Arctic Monkeys, which we listened to. We also reacted to last year’s pretty catastrophic rains on the Leeds site and put in fairly significant drainage there that should help with that, should we get similar rains this year. It’s the bank holiday in August, so you never know what to expect, weather-wise, but that was something we won’t have this year. But we’re prepared for anything now.”
Queens of the Stone Age and Paramore co-headlining – how did that happen and how’s it going to work?
“Queens had been knocking on the door for years and Paramore represent a sector of music that’s built into Reading and Leeds’ history, that’s part of what we do and that we’re very much behind. Both bands wanted the headline slot and both bands could absolutely do it – they’re both fantastic bands. Both bands wanted to do it, but we didn’t know what to do. So, almost tongue in cheek, I said why don’t you both headline? I expected to get a response back from both camps that was basically two fingers up at me, but they were into the idea. They just didn’t know how it’d work. When I told them we have two sites and they could essentially swap who goes on last each date, they loved the idea. We're just working out the minor details now. The other two headliners were very straight forward – Blink 182 I began planning to bring back basically the moment they walked off the stage last time they were here [in 2010].”
Presumably you’re hoping to avoid the sort of comments made by Trent Reznor last year, who complained about Biffy Clyro headlining over Nine Inch Nails?
“Yes, that was a strange one… the funny thing was there was never any confusion over who was playing over who. Biffy were always meant to go on after so I was a bit confused by Trent’s comments. This isn’t a response to that at all, but it will be incredibly harmonious. Both bands will be brilliant.”
There were complaints last year about the lack of female performers on the festival bill. Did that factor into your thinking when approaching this year’s headliners?
“For me, popular music is not gender directed. It doesn’t enter my thinking when I’m working on who should perform at Reading and Leeds. Booking Paramore was certainly not a response to that. If there’s men or women in a band doesn’t bother me, so long as the music is good. I don’t try to keep any kind of gender balance or anything – it just honestly make a blind bit of difference to me. We just look to the biggest and best bands around and available to play. That Paramore is a female fronted band is fantastic, but what I care about it they make great music."
Another likely talking point – Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are quite high up the bill. How do you think they’ll go down?
“I think they’ll be phenomenal. I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be. They’re a breakthrough hip-hop duo making exciting, adventurous but accessible stuff. For them to play, it’ll be fantastic.“
How far in advance does planning a bill like this begin?
“A long time in advance. In fact – I’m in front of my computer now so I can tell you the exact time - at 11:24am this morning I had an email from a very well known band reaching out to us about headlining the festival not in 2015 but in 2016. That’s how far ahead it works. And this band, they’re absolutely potential headliners. They’re of that size. I think that’s testament to how much bands want to come to play Reading and Leeds. It’s an important place not just culturally but musically. But yes, it can be very difficult, planning a lineup. The locations stay the same but music changes quickly. But having made this my life for so many years though I feel confident in booking bands to play I know there’ll be a huge appetite for.”
On the whole, is the UK festival scene in good health?
"Absolutely. Britain has great festivals because we have great British bands, and we have great British bands because we have great festivals. So many artists playing Reading and Leeds have their own memories of going to Reading and Leeds which is testament to that. Festivals as a whole are part of British culture. It’s something we as a culture really cherish. It’s quite unique. Young bands play on bills alongside these huge acts and go in front of audiences they’d otherwise maybe not play to. So for many bands, it’s inspiring. I think the UK festival scene is in tremendous health.”