It’s a cold Friday morning on Fernhill Farm, a few miles out of Bristol, and Arctangent co-founder James Scarlett gets a text message from a taxi driver in Sweden.
He is lying half-awake in his on-site cabin at Arctangent, an annual weekend festival that boasts ‘the best math rock, post rock, and noise rock the world has to offer’.
The taxi driver tells James that his Saturday headliner, Cult of Luna, hasn’t made it in time to catch their flight at Umeå Airport.
James knows from years of experience that this is the first spark in what will be a cavalcade of subsequent problems, a ball-bearing thrown in the well-oiled machine: connecting flights missed, airport delays, late arrival at Heathrow, hole in the setlist schedule, a legion of angry fans who have been drinking since noon.
James starts the day with frantic phone calls to the band’s UK booking agent but, eager to cut out unnecessary middlemen, starts talking with the band directly. The band won’t make it into London Heathrow until late Saturday evening, the very time when they are scheduled to be playing 110 miles west.
James doesn’t want to wake up to this sort of dilemma. Should he try postponing their performance? It’s a risky choice. Saturday is the last day of the festival and there’s a noise restriction in place from 11:00pm with heavy fines for offenders.
Then there’s the logistics issues. The equipment unload, soundcheck and lighting schedules have to be changed, reprinted, and delivered to all the tech crew. And if one of the hundred-plus crew members is not working to the newly revised script, the card house that holds the rest of the night together is potentially going to topple. The well-oiled machine fails.
Suffice it to say, you can’t just ‘put them on a bit later’.
So the alternative choice, possibly the only choice, would be to cancel Cult of Luna’s set. But what about the fans who travelled to his muddy patch of South West England specifically to see their favourite band play? Do the band still get paid, or is this the start of a legal shitstorm?
James engages in a five-hour long argument about whether or not Cult of Luna play the festival that night. The band want to come but James, cognizant of the curfew situation, is pleading for them not to come.
There is already enough on James’ plate. He is busily checking his app to wind as, being on a hilltop, a strong wind could at any moment tear through the festival and lift tents off their pegs.
James has just clocked over into his 40’s. Did he know ten years ago that he would be arguing with one of his favourite bands in the rain on a farm outside of his Bristol hometown?
And the owners of Fernhill Farm, where ArcTanGent takes place each year; did they know that they would be in the rain one night watching a man wedge a microphone between his teeth, jump off stage, climb a twenty-foot pillar (the highest anyone has ascended on their property) and, timing the moment perfectly, throw back his hands and plummet into a pool of drunk but obedient music nerds?
They probably had no idea of any of these when they first met on the fields of Fernhill Farm in 2012. James and co-founder Simon Maltas had spent a good year and a half driving across the country trying to find a suitable site. Nothing quite hit the mark.
When you arrive at the potential site for a weekend festival there are several things you should be considering before you put down the money:
- What is the accessibility like? Are there hard roads that can get staging vehicles, portable toilets, food trailers and cars of punters in and out of the site? Do the roads continue around the farm?
- Are there water mains? An extremely important consideration given how expensive it is to tanker in water to a festival.
- How many residential houses are nearby, and how far away are they from the site? Is there going to be any arising issues with noise pollution? Fewer houses with wide dispersal is ideal. In these cases, advising the neighbours that there will be a bit of noise between 11am and 11pm for one weekend in the year is an easy negotiation at their front door.
- What is the topography like? Festival-goers don’t like camping or parking on a slope.
- How effectively does the site drain? Given the high chance of rain for this region and time of year, will rainwater be rapidly sponged by the soil, or will the site be overwhelmed by troughs mud?
In addition to the practical considerations there is also the intuitive assessment that must be made: can we picture a festival happening here? Where would we put the hundreds of cars? Where would the 300m2 of staging be placed?
Of course, the team have a suite of carefully calculated answers. Si has detailed maps where every stage, food trader and toilet is measured to within a metre of where it should be. Everything is staked out. In fact, a week before the festival the whole field is filled with stakes and placards saying who sets up where.
Of course, they reached an agreement with Fernhill Farm and here we are ten years later. Ten years later. But this was one layer in the plethora of tasks to set up a festival.
James Scarlett, Si Maltas and Goc O’Callaghan are the original trifecta of Arctangent. It has been a privilege to know them since the early years of the festival, to watch it grow under their leadership.
I’ve talked several times with them on the plights of those early years. Numerous meetings with the local council prior to getting their event license. It was rough. They faced every curveball question. What would you do if the stage exploded and there was a dense fog that prevented people from safely navigating emergency exits?
The police had to sign off; they met with them countless times. They were even more difficult that the council meetings. And that makes sense. The police don’t want to be accountable for the festival fiasco that made the front page of the paper. Look at Fyre Fest, Woodstock 99. There are strict guidelines. They need clear and unequivocal proof of feasibility.
Each time I interview James, Si and Goc, I get a new fact. Like the time when the roadies for a well-known band (whom I can’t name) accidentally let their trailer loose at 2000 Trees and it went rolling down the hill towards the campsite where everyone was asleep, but miraculously caught a bit of turf and ground to a halt before it could do any damage. Or the time that Steve Albini autographed a drum skin for James with the following: ‘on a night like this, it hurts less to remember we are mortal’.
My favourite story is the name. Originally, the festival was to be called ‘To The Spiders’. Then, for reasons only known to themselves, the crew called it ‘Bobfest’. And then eventually: “there’s a British band called earthtone9, they have an album called ‘arc’tan’gent’. This took literally months because we really wanted something that reflected the type of music in the lineup, and three years down the line I’m still really happy with it”.
Our silly website, Fecking Bahamas, was formed on the grounds of Arctangent in 2013. My wife Kat and I met our fellow team members at a pie stall. They didn’t study journalism, had never written an article. We are turning ten years old as well, as it happens.
For that reason, and countless others, we are indebted to James, Si and Goc. I’m sure many people reading this have similar experiences they are grateful for.
Oh, and Cult of Luna did play Arctangent 2018 in the end. They took the late plane, and were moved from the main stage to the smaller Yokhai stage. The crew were updated, the light and sound crew were swapped, the crisis was averted.
Such is the quick-draw strategic thinking of people that have spent ten years in the game.