Belle And Sebastian's Mediterranean cruise festival promises to be Bowlie on the open waves.
Splice your mainbrace child, you walk like a landlubber. Yes, all aboard the Boaty Weekender, Belle And Sebastian’s very own oceanbound festival setting sail around the Mediterranean next August without a care for their average fan’s complexion. Packed with cult rock bands, live karaoke, University Challenge quizzes and all manner of B&S themed shenanigans, it’s a bobbing Bowlie, and running just twenty years behind schedule.
“We had this idea back in 1997 or 1998 for very different reasons,” says Stuart Murdoch of the time he originally floated (sorry) the idea of an SS Tigermilk. “We originally wanted to perform on a boat because the early band, we were so bloody useless at doing gigs. Half the band had never played live, including myself, so the soundchecks were so painful, and getting to grips with the acoustics of every new hall, etcetera. We thought if we played on a boat we could set up once and then tour around Britain and bring people onto the boat. It was just pure, lazy practicality, completely pragmatic.”
Stuart’s sailor father helped him plot out docks and ports suitable to sail a Belle And Sebastian ship into, P&O ferries offered them the use of a cross-channel vessel, Channel 4 got behind it, but the expense ultimately scuppered the ultimate B&S boat trip. Instead they began hunting the UK for unusual venues that would suit their huge late-‘90s cult crowd. “I wasn’t a big fan of the regular festivals at this point,” Stuart recalls. “As a group we kind of weren’t built for getting up on a stage outside and making a lot of noise just then. Also our fans were of a similar ilk. When we were traveling round England I spotted what I would’ve said was a typical Belle & Sebastian fan of the time crossing the road in front of us and nearly getting run over. It just occurred to me that we should put on a festival, we should give this guy somewhere to go where he might actually meet somebody who he could be friends with.”
They plumped for Pontin’s holiday camp in Camber Sands, Sussex – Stuart was an alumni of the accounts department and bar tills of Ayr Butlins and knew that holiday camps were ready-made fun factories lying dormant out-of-season. “From time to time we occasionally did have rock‘n’roll weekends when the likes of Screaming Lord Sutch and people from the ‘50s got together and played music in the bars. You don’t work in Butlins without being completely subsumed by the ‘Butlin-ness’ of it… so, for me it was a natural thought that the chalets were there, the chalets were empty, the venues were there – all we needed to do was get the people.”
Cue 1999’s The Bowlie Weekender, the first curated alternative rock event to take over a holiday camp. The likes of Teenage Fanclub, Mogwai, Sleater-Kinney, Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips were hand-picked to play (“The first three acts I wrote down were Blondie, The Velvet Underground and Morrissey, none of which we managed to get”), band-selected films and TV shows played out on their own in-chalet television channel and film festival, and a true community spirit ensued. “The vision was probably a bunch of like-minded people enjoying music in a more domesticated atmosphere than your average campsite,” Stuart says. “I knew that at Butlins it was quite fun. Even the staff at Butlins used to have a lot of fun running in and out of each others’ chalets and general chalet life. There’s a lot of drinking… I thought people could be freed up slightly. My notion was that the bands would be in chalets pretty much side-by-side with the punters and there’d be a little bit more democracy than the high fence between them at festivals.
“When you do something for the first time there’s a genuine excitement about putting something on. John Peel and Jarvis Cocker turned up just because they wanted to, just to play records. They were genuinely enthused and intrigued… I noticed that everybody was smiling, and I remember Mercury Rev showing up and instantly started barbequing, which was bold for early May in the south of England. Lots of acoustic guitars and people were strumming late into the night. It was lovely, it was a happening.”
Organising the inaugural event with a skeleton off-season staff, on the other hand, was “a dog’s dinner… I was running around, like spinning plates” and left Stuart too exhausted to enjoy his own “middling” Sunday night show, so B&S retired from Bowlie after the first year, handing the reigns of the weekend to All Tomorrow’s Parties, which expanded the concept into numerous annual alt-weekends at a variety of camps, curated by the likes of Pavement, Tortoise, Portishead, The Breeders and My Bloody Valentine. “I went down to the next one, which I think was led by Mogwai, and I had a lovely, relaxed time walking around the camp,” Murdoch says. “I was very happy that the idea continued. It never occurred to me that we’d do it again because to put everything into one event that feels special, I felt that we’d just move on from there. But then ten or twelve years later it seemed like it’d be good to have another one.”
Bowlie 2, staged in 2010 at Butlins Minehead and featuring sets by Foals, Crystal Castles, Wild Beasts, Julian Cope and Frightened Rabbit among many others, was much more fun for Stuart than the first event. “All the extra-curricular stuff was well established,” he says, “the football tournaments and the film festival, all that kind of stuff worked much more smoothly. I remember walking into the canteen on the first day and seeing everybody, going round from table to table. It felt like being the best man at a wedding greeting all the aunts and uncles. But in a way I love that feeling. You used to get that at festivals, backstage at the dining areas at festivals, but not so much anymore, now that most of the bands are half your age and they look down your drainpipe trousers at you. I got to see much more than the first time. One of my highlights was Edwyn Collins doing old Orange Juice songs with Franz Ferdinand as his backing band, it was fabulous.”
So when the organisers of luxury Caribbean rock cruises for the likes of Weezer and Coachella got in touch looking to try out their plan in the Med, the idea for the Boaty Weekender was raised from its watery grave. “I thought it’d still be fun to go around but to embark in different places that we haven’t been for a while, places that were more difficult to get to, be it the Greek Islands or over to Israel, Palestine, Sicily, places like that. We came to a compromise, so what we ended up with for this first try-out in Europe is a blend with what they’ve done in the Caribbean and this original Bowlie idea.”
So when Boaty Weekender launches from Barcelona in August 8 next year for its five-day Med cruise with B&S, Mogwai, Yo La Tengo, Django Django, Alvvays, Hinds, Buzzcocks, Bowlie veterans Camera Obscura and plenty more onboard, what can the 2,500 lazy plank walker Janes expect?
“It a bloody big boat,” Stuart says. “It should be a really comfortable cruise. We’re leaving from Barcelona and the first thing that’ll happen is there’ll be a concert as soon as everybody gets on board, we’re gonna do a concert on the deck as we sail off. The band are probably gonna play pretty much every day. We’re heading for Cagliari in Sardinia, should take us a couple of days to get there. It’s different from the Caribbean, in the Caribbean you never get off the boat but I really wanted to stop somewhere and get off the boat for a while. So we’re trying to organise with a promoter in Cagliari to actually do a show or have a party or event there, maybe with other bands meeting us, and then get back on the boat.”
Boaty TV will be running in all the cabins, Stuart will be holding sunrise yoga sessions on the deck and bands and DJs will rock the waves late into the night. Expect themed dressing-up nights (“If there’s any place you can lose your inhibitions it’s on a Belle & Sebastian boat trip”), live-band indie rock karaoke and a real-life University Challenge with B&S as Jeremy Paxman. “We’re gonna build a University Challenge-style set for that. That should be fun.”
And will Stuart be donning the captain’s hat at any point?
“Actually taking the wheel?” He laughs. “I would love to but we’d probably have to have very clear seas. Because my dad and brothers worked for Caledonian MacBrayne, the Scottish ferry company, we took all of our holidays on the ferries. I remember me and my brothers were allowed up in the wheelhouse and my brother touched something wrong and the ship took a 90 degree turn and went in circles. As long as nobody remembers that incident I might get to steer.”
Step onto their gangplank, baby…
Tickets for The Boaty Weekender can be purchased here.