Mumford & Sons hosted the year’s only UK leg of their own Gentlemen Of The Road event in Scotland last weekend. Barry Nicolson met up with the band on site for a look behind the scenes and to find out why support acts like The Maccabees are so keen to be involved – and how they managed to book Foo Fighters for the US Stopovers…
Nestled away on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park is Aviemore (pop: 3,147), a picturesque highland holiday town, known for hosting snowsports enthusiasts in the winter and hill walkers in the summer. Visitor numbers have waxed and waned over the years – the nearby ski resorts remain popular, while Santa Claus Land, one of Scotland’s first theme parks, has stood eerily derelict since the late ’90s – but the place has always retained a certain charm, thanks in no small part to the striking beauty of its surroundings.
What it doesn’t particularly have is a tradition of live music: Aviemore’s main venue is the Old Bridge Inn, a 100-capacity pub which does a decent job of bringing in up-and-coming acts from around the country, but where household names are thin on the ground – or were until this weekend, at least.
As you arrive into Aviemore, you can’t miss the fact Mumford & Sons – and 20,000 of their fans – are in town: the bunting that seems to be hung from every lamppost rather gives the game away. The night before, several members of the band – aided by former Noah & The Whale bassist Matt Owens and his new group Little Mammoths – even took over the Old Bridge Inn, playing Rolling Stones and Elton John covers well into the night. “It was pretty amazing,” grins Mumfords keyboardist Ben Lovett, who’s looking a little worse for wear today. “It’s all part and parcel of this event that we’ve put on, so it’s not like we could just go home and go to sleep…”.
The event he’s referring to is Mumford & Sons’ latest Gentlemen Of The Road Stopover, which Aviemore is playing host to. These shows, which the band have been staging since 2012, are essentially one-off festivals produced in collaboration with the towns and cities – usually ones that aren’t major gigging destinations – they take place in, featuring lineups curated by the band themselves. This one boasts Ben Howard, Primal Scream, The Maccabees and Lianne La Havas, among others, including local artists Honeyblood and Rachel Sermanni. As Lovett explains, “we wanted to have a go at having a bit more control over what happens at a festival. Ethically, we wanted to avoid any advertising or branding, because that’s always been a big deal for us – you go to a festival to see live music, not to be sold beer. But the main thing was the idea of collaborating with small towns in all these different corners of the world. They’re part of our identity: we’ve put out three albums now, but these shows maybe say a bit more about who we are as a band, the kind of stuff that we’re into. They’ve become inseparably aligned to our story.”
Two festivals in particular – Australia’s Laneway and Scotland’s Loopallu – served as the inspiration behind the Stopovers. Wandering around Aviemore’s backstage enclosure, you notice the small details they’ve presumably picked up from those events, like the way the dressing rooms are arranged in a circle, subtly encouraging everyone out into the communal bar area for specially organised whisky tastings, or the presence of a music room, where artists can plan and rehearse collaborations, like Marcus Mumford guesting with King Charles, or joining The Maccabees to play ‘Pelican’. Later, guitarist Winston Marshall requests that all the artists and their crew gather round to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to his dad, while Mumford goes around distributing glasses of champagne. It’s the kind of stuff that should happen backstage at a festival, but rarely does.
“After a while, festivals can start to feel samey,” admits Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks, who’s playing his third Stopover of the summer. “But one of the things Mumfords have always been very good at, in all aspects of their life as a band, is inclusiveness. Glastonbury is what it is and Bestival does what it does, but these events definitely have an identity of their own. There’s clearly a lot of thought and care that’s gone into them. Personally, I’m not really one for the jamming, but some bands are, and Mumfords absolutely love it…”
Given how integral festivals have become to most bands’ touring itineraries, it should come as no surprise that more and more artist-run affairs – like Jay Z’s Made In America, Slipknot’s Knotfest, Wilco’s Solid Sound or My Morning Jacket’s One Big Holiday, to name but four – have been cropping up in recent years. As Marshall explains, much of the impetus for doing the Stopovers came from “conversations at other festivals about how much we hated being herded around like cattle, and all the other aspects of the experience we felt we could improve upon. We were so cocky when we started! Of course, what we’ve discovered is that it’s fucking expensive to do these things, and we’ve had to eat some of those words. It’s definitely not an easy thing to do, but at the same time, it’s also lots of fun.”
Marshall, it turns out, didn’t make it to The Old Bridge Inn for last night’s festivities. “I knew I wanted to have a big one to Simian Mobile Disco tonight, so I decided to save myself,” he explains, somewhat at odds with the perceived opinion of the band as rustic, folksy chaps rather than early hours ravers. “You have to be able to put on a great show, so you can’t go out and kill yourself every night. Maybe if we were Primal Scream, but never been able to get fucked and pull off a great show, which I’m sure they’ve done a few times.”
No doubt, but while we can spot assorted Maccabees tossing around an American football and Honeyblood mucking about with a set of inflatable skittles, Bobby Gillespie and co conspicuously refrain from any backstage merrymaking. “We haven’t got much of a history with Primal Scream,” admits Lovett, “but we wanted to respect the significance of this being a Scottish event, and we’ve been big fans of theirs for a long time. We’re often friends with the bands we book, but this year we wanted to broaden the spectrum a bit, so that it doesn’t start to feel like a club.”
Putting the line-ups together is obviously the most exciting – and in some ways, the most important – part of the process, but Mumford & Sons’ involvement in the Stopovers goes far deeper that. “We do go out to the site and meet people from the town,” says Lovett. “When we played Seaside Heights in New Jersey a couple of months ago, I found myself around a table with the local police commissioner, casino owners and people from various local businesses, talking about their concerns and what they wanted to get out of the event. It was a very open dialogue, and we have to get involved in it, because we’re part of the persuasion process. We can’t do it at arm’s length.”
Since the inaugural GOTR Stopover at Huddersfield’s Greenhead Park in 2012 (“The worst of the lot,” reckons Marshall, “not because of anything to do with the town, but because we didn’t know what we were doing,”) the events have only grown in size and ambition. They started off as single-day affairs, which inevitably meant that everything was geared towards Mumford & Sons’ own performance, but, says Marshall, “we don’t want it to be just ‘The Mumford & Sons Festival’, we want it to be a festival in its own right.” In 2013, they expanded the events to two days, “but that means finding another headliner, and they’re hard to get – not just to book them, but to convince them to come to places like Aviemore, which aren’t really on the ‘route’. Next year we’re looking at putting on a three-day event, and we’ve already got an idea of where we’d like to do it, but whether we can get the bands to play is another thing entirely.”
Booking headliners is a challenge even for established festivals, with an ever-increasing number of events competing for a relatively small roster of suitable artists. Mumford & Sons’ might not be able to pay top dollar, but their major advantage is that they can call upon their friends: Vampire Weekend co-headlined in Lewes two years ago and Ben Howard does the honours at Aviemore, while this summer’s US Stopovers feature Alabama Shakes, Flaming Lips and – in what can only be described as a major coup – Foo Fighters on main-stage duties.
“We begged, absolutely begged, Foo Fighters to come and play, and they said yes, which was incredible,” grins Marshall. “You’d have to ask them why they agreed to it, because they’re biggest rock’n’roll band in the world and they’re probably taking a big pay cut. I wouldn’t do it if I was them! But obviously we’re fucking delighted that they said yes.”
Might the collaborative, artist-run ethos of the Stopovers may have played a part in their decision?
“That might have had something to do with it, yeah. If you look at Foo Fighters, they’re a band who’ve always been very supportive and very vocal about helping out the artists they love, so perhaps doing something fresh and collaborative like this appealed to them.”
It certainly appealed to Wayne Coyne, who’s playing all four of this year’s US Stopovers. “He had some friends who went along to the Guthrie, Oklahoma Stopover in 2013, and they told him all about how great it was,” says Taylor. “When we did Seaside Heights back in June he was telling us how much he loved what we were doing, the idea of involving the town, of the concessions all being local, of getting the brewery to come up with a special Stopover ale…”
You can see why Coyne would fall in love with the idea of the Stopovers: as festivals become increasingly, insidiously corporatised, there’s something homespun and determinedly indie about these events, which are as much about creating a sense of camaraderie between artists as they are about entertaining the punters. “If we ever had the opportunity, of course I’d love to put on a festival of our own, so long as I could come up with all the ideas but not have to do any of the work!” laughs Honeyblood’s Stina Tweeddale. “If all it took was writing ideas down on a whiteboard and having other people make them happen, that would be great, but putting one of these shows on is an incredibly tough job, and it takes a lot of guts to do what Mumford & Sons are doing.”
Even some of the major events have had trouble selling out in recent years, while T In The Park’s teething problems with its new site of Strathallan – bottlenecking between stages, the flow of traffic on and off site, disgruntled fans waiting through the night for buses to arrive – are an example of how even the best-laid plans can spiral into chaos. Mumford & Sons’ massive popularity means they’re better placed than most bands to absorb any financial losses, but staging your own festival will always be a risky business – as Marshall points out, “they’re definitely not an easy route to making money. In fact, we’d probably make a lot more just by playing V Festival.”
There may be more artist-run events than ever before, but it’s hard to say if they truly represent the future of the festival industry: artists will never be short of ideas, but turning those ideas into a reality means exposing yourself to a lot of risk. Much depends on the band themselves, and how committed they are to making them a success – even Metallica, with their bottomless pit of cash, ultimately decided that the Orion festival wasn’t worth the loss, and shut it down after just two years. For Mumford & Sons, however, you get the sense that these Stopovers represent something more than a mere business venture, and there’s a lot of road left for them to travel.