In January 1994, I was invited down to Union Chapel in Islington which had just opened as an arts centre, and with its labyrinth of rooms and corridors, seemed the perfect environment to do a multi faceted Sunday social, in an era when such a thing didn’t yet exist. A lot of people were growing tired of the party scene at that time, so it seemed serendipitous to conceive the idea of The Big Chill, inverting the regular club concept of the times, and making the most ambient space the central attraction, with added sideshows, including brain machines, cafe, art gallery, bookshop, cake and tea stall and of course free internet access (we were the first event in the Uk to offer this facility as well as to publish our own website). And so, my partner at the time, Katrina, joined me on this journey which was to last well over a decade. The formative London event - more a ‘happening’ than a club - was a Sunday ‘all dayer’ and soon attracted hundreds of people for its own brand of social networking, helped by positive early press from David Toop in The Times, DJ and Mixmag, as well as our own On magazine.
After two years, this ‘festival in a club’ concept evolved into the great outdoors, again on a whim. After camping out with a few friends in a bunkhouse in Llanthony in the Black Mountains, I asked the Abbey owner if he knew of any land locally which we could hire to bring a few friends to celebrate the glorious beauty of the area. He said he knew a farmer down the road, immediately called him and set up an appointment straight away. The farmer agreed, and we camped in his field by a running stream that night, listening to Global Communication’s 76:14 album under a bright starry sky, feeling totally inspired and deciding that we had to come back with some friends the following summer.
In August 95, The Big Chill Gala was born. We invited the regulars from the Union Chapel and the word soon spread to around 500 people, who celebrated a gloriously sunny non-stop weekend in the wilds. The line-up was great, but wasn’t the main reason people came, including as it did our regulars Matt Black from Coldcut, Mixmaster Morris and of course Global Communication, alongside the likes of George Evelyn (Nightmares On Wax), Springheel Jack and ice sculptor Jony Easterby. There was no security, (other than the farmer with his pitchfork) as no one had breached the secret. We had a handful of gatecrashing ravers and travellers, who stayed a while before deciding that it wasn’t for them. The only other visitors were the local police, who firstly read us the freshly implemented Criminal Justice Bill, then decided it wasn’t a rave after all, and proceeded to come back to hang out, when they were off duty or not making arrests in the streets of nearby Brecon, where the local jazz festival was taking place. They concluded that it was the most peaceful, best organised event they had ever witnessed in the area.
After something of a false and somewhat rollercoaster start with our first attempt to put on a licensed festival (read the blog here), we felt crushed and were bankrupted, but had miraculously pulled off an event, though it was a million miles from what we had envisaged. It was this single fact that kept us going through some tough times. After a year or so licking our wounds, we finally got up and running with the first of five years at the lush and beautiful Larmer Tree Victorian pleasure gardens on the Wiltshire / Dorset borders. The new event managed, once again, to remain a well-kept secret for the first couple of years, but soon gathered an unstoppable momentum, as we gained respect for our attention to detail, choice of idyllic rural locations rather than characterless showgrounds, and for nurturing what was emerging as a loyal online community.
As it blossomed, The Big Chill was seen as offering a unique (at the time) blueprint for a lifestyle ethos that went way beyond being just a festival, and which has since spawned many imitators, with varying degrees of success. We were approached by The British Council, and collaborated very successfully with on a pioneering and iconic 1000 capacity event in the Opera House in Cairo. I took The Big Chill (in microcosm) to one of my favourite places, the Greek island of Naxos, where we put on a week long party three years in a row (2000-2002), which was life changing for some many people in different ways.
The Larmer Tree site eventually became overwhelmed with people wanting to attend the already sold out event or to find a way in however they could, so we branched out and started to do a second festival after being approached by Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire and invited to use their deer park. The seclusion and rolling hills on the edge of the Malverns again provided an ideal setting for us and The Big Chill flourished and grew exponentially between its 2002 debut here (8000) and its current size (35000), but it was not without heartache again, as we fell two thousand tickets short of break even in our first year, which resulted in us having to sell 50% of The Big Chill, which was eventually picked up, for no cost other than bank rolling our cash flow during the winter months) by The Cantaloupe Group, owners of Cargo in Shoreditch.
This situation worked well for all parties for several years, as the company branched out into opening London venues The Big Chill Bar in Brick Lane, followed in autumn 2006 with the three storey Big Chill House in Kings X, and a one off festival in Goa in 2007, though the fast growth rate was arguably a reason for many of the stresses and strains that inevitably took hold, and eventually led to me parting company with the baby I’d been so involved in nurturing for fourteen years.
Looking back philosophically, things move on, and I’m probably at my best pioneering new visions for more leftfield cutting edge projects. In truth I had become bored, and craved the stimulus that new and fresh dreams and schemes provide. The greatest thing that The Big Chill’s golden years provided for me was the bringing together of people to find the common denominators, the energy, the life-affirming and life-changing qualities that I never imagined were possible. In the environment of the festival, it gave me great pleasure to be in a position to give early exposure in programming artists such as Lily Allen, Goldfrapp, Amy Winehouse, Gotan Project, Mr Scruff, Seasick Steve, Röyksopp, Zero 7 and Lemon Jelly during my formative years and to also see iconic names such as Leonard Cohen, David Byrne and Isaac Hayes joining Big Chill family for guest slots.
And we were arguably the catalyst for the chill out boom at the turn of decade, at the same time establishing ourselves as one of the top half dozen UK festivals, and, through our attention to detail, bringing about the rise of the smaller, more intimate, “boutique” festival.
I parted company with The Big Chill in December 2007. More on this in my book when it is finally published.