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Damnation Organizer Gavin McInally Discusses the Festival’s 2021 Return, New Home, and the Future [w/ Audio]

Gavin McInally, one of the organizers behind Damnation Festival, talks about the return in November and next year’s move to a bigger venue.



Damnation Festival Logo

For the last two years, the music festival circuit has been non-existent as a result of the restrictions imposed during the pandemic. However, summer 2021 finally saw restrictions lifted and the return of festivals and live music. For some, the return was too soon, but for others, they’ve soldiered on to put on some incredible events.

Pre-pandemic, one of the regulars on the UK metal circuit was Damnation Festival which announced it would return in November for a day of extreme metal headlined by Liverpudlian gore legends Carcass, along with a lineup including Paradise Lost, Conjurer, Godflesh, and many more.

Having already sold out in the lead-up to the event in November, Damnation announced the news that, for 2022, they would be leaving their home at Leeds University to move to the bigger BEC Arena in Manchester, and would be joined by headliners Ministry and Converge. Following the news, we got on the blower to one of the organizers of Damnation, Gavin McInally.

Thanks for your time, Gavin, let’s talk Damnation then…

Gavin McInally: “No problem. What’s you’re thoughts on the move to Manchester? Are you one of these guys that’s a bit pissed off that it’s moving from Leeds?”

Honestly, no. I’m a huge fan of the new venue in Manchester. Photographed a few conventions there and am really looking forward to seeing what you guys do there…

“I’ve been in it not only when it’s been empty but completely decimated. The floors were getting ripped up, the walls were getting ripped out so it was just a shell. A lot of complaints people are having is that it’s going to be impossible to get home from and get to. It’s not like it’s in a field in the middle of Derby, or we’ve put the event on the moon and asked people to travel there.”

Personally, I can’t wait. I’m not a big fan of Leeds University in general as a venue as it gets too cramped…

“I understand that and appreciate your opinion. I can see both sides of it and understand what you’re saying as I hate the limitations of some of the rooms and that has been a genuine concern and complaint for fans since 2008. I don’t know if you saw the reaction when we announced Manchester but it’s like that was almost completely forgotten about. That and people getting locked out of venues and it being a maze and people getting lost. It’s like that was almost completely forgotten and Leeds University was the greatest venue ever.”

So, we’re coming up to the last few weeks before Damnation. How are preparations going?

“As well as can be expected. There is still the cloud of COVID hanging over the top of the event and I suppose there will be until the day after. It’s a bit of a pain, but we’ve got a Brexit issue which we’ve never had before with three of the bands coming in from France. We have to get certificates or sponsorship or whether it’s invitations for artists to come and play. We’ve spoken to a lot of people but no one seems crystal clear in exactly what the answer is whether you’re in France or whether in the UK. Those are the headaches that we could do without, but otherwise, it’s where it needs to be. More of just working to get productions in place.”

That must be a better position to be in than that of the last two years?

“Yeah, I mean just to be doing it. I’ve taken the week off my real job just to focus on this and try and get these loose ends tied up, but you’re right, to actually get to this point because all we’ve done for two years is promote a lineup and an ever-changing lineup is as good. I’m almost loathed to say that it’s going to happen because COVID is still there and all it has to do is for one member or one crew member to catch it and you could lose an entire band. As I say, I’m waiting for the Sunday after Damnation rather than Damnation itself because I just want it to happen now.”

In terms of the lineup for this year, there have been a lot of changes to the original lineup. Were you prepared for that?

“When we booked the first lineup and the likes of Pig Destroyer, Pallbearer, Elder and Wolves In The Throne Room, that was almost pre-pandemic. That would have been the lineup for Damnation 2020. Those bands were already announced and tickets were on sale and selling, but at a point where there wasn’t a single case of COVID in the UK. I think by May 2020 we took tickets off sale and said we weren’t going to sell anymore until we had a clearer idea of what was actually happening.

“Obviously then it just got worse and worse and COVID just wiped out the calendar in 2020. So, as you probably saw, everyone just rolled over into 2021 so the predominantly American lineup with bands like Pig Destroyer, Wolves In The Throne Room, Pallbearer, Elder, they all just rebooked. Then over the months it just became clearer and clearer what was happening. It wasn’t that long ago that Pig Destroyer was going to fly into the UK to play just one show and they were still going to do it. Then America got hit and it became a case of could they afford to come out and do just one show?

“Possibly, but all of those guys couldn’t afford any sort of quarantine either side for their careers. It just became the sensible thing to knock it on the head and roll it over for one more year. The replacements we were able to get from the UK probably mean that, in a lot of people’s eyes, is much stronger than the lineup we had to start with.”

Did you have bands in mind that you were going to go to or was it just a case of who was available?

“Well, a bit of both, but at the end of the day, the pot is not that for an event like Damnation. You’re going to be looking at Carcass, Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Electric Wizard, Napalm Death. After that, there isn’t a whole lot left that can headline an event the size of Damnation. My Dying Bride were tied up with Hard Rock Hell Goth. Napalm Death were tied up with Bloodstock. That didn’t leave a whole lot left, to be honest.

“We’re lucky to get Carcass, Paradise Lost, and Godflesh as replacements, never mind the so-called smaller bands, but just to get those three big names for the UK was quite an achievement. I would say that to get one of those either Carcass or Paradise Lost was great, to get both was an achievement, then to get Godflesh as well was great.”

How did the Godflesh thing come about?

“Well, you know what, just asking them. Damnation has been in the scene for quite a long time now. So we know these people, we know these agents, the managers, the bands, so there are no trust issues. These bands have played it before, they know who we are, they know we were sold out by that point anyway. It was an unusual situation to be in, to approach these bands and say do you want to play our festival that you can’t see a single ticket for.”

The way fans flooded back and the event is now sold-out must be a huge weight off your shoulders.

“It would have been tough otherwise, but the timelines are that we did this backwards and forwards with the bands cancelling and rebooking. If I remember correctly, we’d sold pretty much half the tickets by the time we took them off sale to begin with so, when we put them back on sale, we still had those 1,500 tickets, plus not a lot of people refunded. Then the rest were snapped up and we were sold out entirely by March last year. There has been just a stream of refunds in the last month or so but it’s been mainly due to people outside the UK who can no longer travel or people who just don’t feel comfortable yet with live music.”

Is there going to be anything different this year in terms of the layout or the festival or any logistics that fans will need to look out for?

“No, not really. The biggest change this year is that we’re doing the special show the night before which is essentially a second day at the festival with those four special sets. That’s going to be 2,000 fans in there so it will feel like a second day even though it starts at about 7:30. We’ve always done like a pre-show event, but it’s been in a local pub with some local bands, it’s not been bands like Orange Goblin, Akercocke, Svalbard, and Raging Speedhorn all doing special sets.

“That’s the added bonus that we added to thank everyone who has supported us through the pandemic. Other than that, the venue doesn’t allow much flexibility in terms of what you could do beyond what we already do. We’ve pushed as far as we can. We use every venue to its capacity. There’s not a lot extra we could do at Damnation in that kind of venue.”

Is that part of the reason you’ve moved to Manchester next year?

“Yes. I mean, I’ve got flack off fans because I’ve got this Damnation Versus where I’ve said, multiple times and it’s the truth, if it’s not broke, why fix it? Damnation works as it is. We sell out. We’ve got great support from the fans, we attract great bands, but the pandemic gave me a chance to come off that promoting hamster wheel and look beyond what we’re doing.

“We were talking to people and were saying that Damnation could do more. It was sold out in March and bands like Pig Destroyer and Wolves In The Throne Room. Those aren’t the typical bands that are going to sell 3,000 tickets to anyone else so what we could do if we had a venue that took 6,000 and didn’t have some of the limitations that we had with the venue we’re currently in. Once we got our heads into it that we were going to try and do it, then we found the BEC Arena in Manchester.

“They’re quite excited about what we can do and now you’ve seen the product of what we can do where we can have the likes of Ministry and Converge on the same bill and that’s just the headliners for the main stage. There’s so much more to come on that bill that are going to fill out that lineup and it’s things that just would not be feasible when it comes to the current venue.”

Damnation Festival 2021 Poster

Do you think the move would have happened if you hadn’t, in your words, had the opportunity to jump off the promoter hamster wheel?

“No because there wasn’t time to think. Look, I didn’t feel like Damnation was coasting for the last five or six years, or do you look back and think could you have done more? Did you just accept that that is a band who you couldn’t get because the ticket prices will become uncomfortably high or the production wouldn’t fit in the room? Some of that stuff we did accept as limitations as part and parcel of organizing Damnation.

“For whatever reason, we told ourselves that there wasn’t another venue in the UK where we could do a multiple-stage bigger Damnation. We just accepted that all the bigger arenas were huge 14,000 capacity, one-room events which we were not interested in doing. Speaking to people within the industry and, as I say, coming off the hamster wheel, we said why don’t we at least have a look, and as soon as we did, within a few days that decision was made.”

You’ve talked about the challenges you face with the current venue. What about the new challenges you’ll face?

“Being bankrupt? (laughs) The money involved is astronomical. The cost of the production alone and putting stages, sound and lighting in a venue that size will probably cost a lot more than the entire venue hire, including security, at somewhere like Leeds University. On top of that, there is the cost of the bands you want to attract to get fans to come to the festival, you’ve got to be laying out some serious cash. So far we have. That was the case with Damnation as it is. If you lay out the cash and it doesn’t sell that you could lose tens of thousands in any given year so it’s just the same risks just multiplied.”

The lineup already announced has got people excited for next year. Do you think, going forward, this will open up new opportunities for you to take Damnation further?

“Yeah, that’s the whole idea. There’s no point in moving from Leeds University Union to Manchester BEC and doing the exact same thing. The whole point is to go there and have that freedom to do more in that venue. As it stands, we have that venue for a very limited time, like our main stage is only allowed to start at 2:30 in the afternoon, because it has a student canteen at the back of the room and it’s the same with the curfew. That might seem like minor things, but in an arena, because the main stage is not only not only available from 10 am should you choose then the whole production you can do around it is massive.

“I also think Damnation fans have fallen in love with the one-day event because they’re all our age now and have mortgages, and careers, and kids, and they don’t particularly want to spend two to three days at a festival and be bust for the week. That’s not to say there couldn’t be some wraparound event done before the event like the Night of Salvation one. Damnation would be the main event but then you could do something the night before for say an optional extra 20 quid. You could even do it on Sunday after as the production is already in place. You can get carried away in your mind about the possibilities for the future.

“The truth of the matter is we still need to sell 6,000 tickets. We’ve done 2,000 already 13 months in advance which is unheard of for Damnation. That’s spectacular for us as it usually is up to a few weeks out before Damnation before you get into those sort of numbers and that is because of the support we’ve got from fans and because the lineup we’ve got already is so strong. If we can get that first one off and make sure we don’t bite off more we can chew that would be the plan.

“We need to make sure that we don’t get to next year and screw it up on day one because we tried to do too much. I think just making next year’s Damnation a smashing success would be a result and then we can look at what the options are going forward.”

You’ve talked about venues, do you think this is the right kind of level for you a festival like Damnation in terms of the next step?

“We can sell 4,000 and have done on two occasions in 2008 and 2014 with Carcass and Bolthrower. Both years, we got a lot of flack about how busy the venue was and how it was oversold. The irony of it was that Slam Dunk used to happen and sell 6,000 tickets, but there is a difference between a 16-year-old teenager who is quite happy to be bounced about unlike a 45-year-old Damnation fan who wants to stand with his two pints is massive.

“We had to accept the fact that although the capacity could be more, our audience weren’t willing to accept that. We limited it to 3,000, plus guests/press/bands so there is still 4,000 there and it’s sold out pretty much every year since 2016.

“Taking that to the new venue and trying to sell 6,000 is a hell of a jump, but it doesn’t need to sell 6,000 in its first year to be a success. If it gets to the 4,500 mark, we’ll probably get to where we need to be without losing money. At some point, you have to say that is a feasible step. It’s not like we’re asking a three thousand capacity to become 30,000 next year so it feels realistic. Yes, it still feels daunting but it feels realistic and it kind of feels like now or never. 2022 is the year everyone is available to book.

“It wasn’t difficult to book all of those bands because they were all available. Other years you might have been fighting other festivals off or bands would have taken a year off because they don’t have a heavy touring schedule but these guys have had nothing for eighteen months. Bands are not saying no at the moment so it’s more a case of festivals trying to find them slots.”

That must offer a different problem given that there are the bands that haven’t toured for 18 months ready and bands who were already prepared for 2022 ready to go.

“It is a bit of stress because the truth of the matter is that there was like 22 American bands who had rolled over for two years on the bounce and we couldn’t just offer up 22 slots to the arena because we’re already losing one stage. We’re down from four stages to three next year. Yes, we can open the stage early so while you don’t lose that many slots you certainly don’t gain any.

“Giving over 22 slots would have been suicide because, again, you’ve got to sell 6,000 tickets, not 3,000 so, for some of those bands, we just had to be realistic and, at the same time, when a band like Pig Destroyer became available, we ripped their arm off.

“Fans have been paying for three years now to see Pig Destroyer and still not had that chance. Wolves In The Throne Room, again, another massive American band who we’re lucky to get our hands on. Bellwitch, Elder, Pallbearer, all there again next year but there were just some of those smaller packages that weren’t realistic. We’re having to hold off because, at the moment, there are maybe two or three slots available left.

“We’re in a situation now where you’ve got bands like Converge and Ministry touring Europe and you’re guaranteed that it will be with some amazing support. If we get offered those supports as well, sure it’s up to us if we take it, but you won’t be in a situation where you’ve filled up the bill and then some stunning support comes along and you can’t take it.”

Looking forward to this year then, who are your three go-to sets fans must-see?

“There is something about Regardes Les Hommes Tombre, Sylvaine, and Year Of No Light because these are the only three bands that are not coming from the UK so there is something quite exciting…

“Year Of No Light are a great band and haven’t played in the UK since Damnation in 2015. Regardes Les Hommes Tombre, I don’t think they have played Damnation and have only done a couple of small UK shows, and for Sylvaine, this is their debut UK show so something you won’t ever have seen in the UK.

“Those are the three I recommend people at least check out beforehand so you know if you’ll like them. Don’t do it afterwards then realize you missed Year of No Light because you were watching Memorium instead.

“Personally, I’m excited to see Paradise Lost doing Gothic, that’s going to be a pretty special set. I think it’s only happened once before for the 25th anniversary but this is now the 30th anniversary so it will probably never happen again. If you’re a Paradise Lost fan there is no reason you shouldn’t be in the room watching them do that set.

“For the metal fan, definitely Carcass. They’ve not done a show in two years now and they’re not one of these bands that showed up at the Download Pilot, then at Bloodstock, then Slam Dunk. They’ve got a brand spanking new album out and, if you’re a Carcass fan then it is your chance to come and see a band that doesn’t play that regularly haven’t played in quite a while.

“That being said, we invest a lot of time in the lineup and the bands so there are very few sets that I would say, even if I was going as a fan that I would skip because the line-up is incredible.”

Going forward then, what is the long term goal for Damnation?

“That is it for now. Six months ago, it is exactly what we’re doing at the moment. For anyone reading this, I’m a Daily Newspaper editor here. I’ve got a career that takes up all my time, Monday through Friday then some weekends. Damnation is just a hobby that I do for a couple of hours a night. That’s how it has always been. There has never been talk of taking it to Bloodstock size or being the next Download. There is no big plan. If we go to the BEC and sell 6,000 tickets then maybe it will become a full-time career because the money involved is frightening. I don’t want to let myself down or the people involved in Damnation.

“I’m doing it a disservice calling it a hobby, it’s a friggin’ passion. but it’s not something I can dedicate 40 to 50 hours a week to. If it does well going into 2023 then perhaps it’s something I will have to dedicate 40 to 50 hours a week to to make sure it’s done right. There are still a lot of things about Damnation that are done quite DIY that me and Paul handle from start to finish. That’s why there are marketing companies and PR companies and ticketing companies as these guys can offer something different and maybe they can offer something to Damnation?”

As you said, the festival is sold-out, any message for fans coming along?

“Get down there and let’s give that venue a great send-off. It’s been a long pandemic and we’ve been starved of this stuff for a long time and we missed Damnation last year. It’ll be good to have it back up and running and I hope we have a cracking day.”

I have an unhealthy obsession with bad horror movies, the song Wanted Dead Or Alive and crap British game shows. I do this not because of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle it affords me but more because it gives me an excuse to listen to bands that sound like hippos mating.