Damnation Festival’s Director Gavin McInally: “We’re looking at an almost sold-out arena and wondering how we top this line-up next year?”
In our latest cover story, we spoke to Damnation Festival’s Gavin McInally about coping with headliner pullouts, a new bigger venue, fresh challenges, and an almost sold-out 2022 event.
With less than two months to go and just over seven hundred tickets left to sell, Damnation Festival was hit with the news that one of the headliners, industrial giants Ministry were cancelling their whole European tour, including Damnation.
So, having taken that one on the chin, organizers rallied around and pulled out three special album sets from fellow headliners Converge (performing Jane Doe), Pig Destroyer (performing Prowler in the Yard), and Godflesh (performing Streetcleaner) as a replacement. The three full album sets come as an addition to the previously announced special set from Swedish metallers At The Gates, who will be performing their genre-defining classic Slaughter of the Soul in full at the all-dayer on November 5th at the BEC in Manchester.
This incredible news came just days before we were to sit down with Damnation’s Festival Director Gavin McInally to chat all things Damnation, and just after the announcement that having moved to a much bigger venue, there were barely seven hundred tickets left. Plenty to chat about with Gavin then…
Should you wish to listen to this podcast-style, or play it while you read, our full conversation can be streamed via SoundCloud here.
When we spoke last year and you were talking about what your expectations were for this year, I think you said something about if you sold about four and a half thousand tickets, you’d be quite happy that it was in a good place. As of writing, about 790 short of selling your allocation…
Gavin McInally: “Yes. I mean, not to be smoking mirrors, we can technically go all the way to the 6,000, but we will probably go to 5,500. So we have passed 4,500 which I totally made up about. You also do quite a chunk of those tickets in the final weeks, so I’m quite confident that we’ll get through that 5,500. I don’t want to be greedy and squeeze out every ticket sale then what happens is we start stumbling at the same problems we had with Leeds. I’d like to feel out the venue first before we start going to the 6,000. So, yes, there is about 700 tickets left however, that’s not to a 6,000 capacity.”
Congratulations though, I mean it’s a fantastic achievement considering where we were last year at Leeds University which is was about 1,500 people. To make that jump even to the 4,500 is incredible. I think it’s just a testament to how people are really into the festival and what you’re doing which leads into the next question.
Last year’s lineup was great, but this year is out of this world even before even before the changes. How quickly did it all come together?
“By the time we spoke last year, I think Ministry and Converge would have already been booked because I’m pretty sure they were in the bag well before last year’s Damnation. I think we put tickets on sale before last year’s Damnation because someone bought one for the wrong year. It’s been a long time in the making for Converge and Ministry. After that, it’s been a bit of a trickle for the rest of the bands. It’s been a bit difficult because the timeline has been all over the place with bands you’ve lost, bands you’ve rebooked, bands you’ve lost for no good reason. It’s been together up pretty much until Ministry pulled out then it became a bit chaotic.
We knew the bands, but didn’t put them all out because, unless you’re Hellfest or Wacken, you’re not going to sell out instantly, so to put everything on the poster and you do all your ticket sales, you don’t really have a well to go back to for promotion. I think the final announcement was just before Bloodstock about six week to two months ago and it was looking spectactular then, as you said, Ministry pulled out.”
“Minstry announced they were cancelling their tour because of unforeseen circumstances and a festival cancelling. The only festival on their tour was Damnation which was a bit of a shock.”
For fans, that news came out of the blue, but how far in advance were you aware of it coming?
“So, what happened on that night was I got a call from Wednesday 13’s agent who was also on that bill and he told me to check my inbox. There it was saying Ministry had gone due to unforeseen circumstances and a festival cancelling. One issue with that was that the only festival on that list was Damnation. First of all, that was pretty surreal losing your headliner with about six to eight weeks to go, but to lose it to a festival cancelling and yours being the only festival on the tour was a bit of a shock.
I wanted to get something out there so I spoke to Paul and told him because I wasn’t going to wait for third parties to start messaging me asking what was going on and asking was Damnation cancelled. Within 20 minutes of me knowing it was online announcing that Ministry were no longer playing Damnation. What’s the worst that can happen now? If ten Ministry fans buy tickets then I’m going to have to deal with ten Ministry fans down the line. If anybody accuses us of mis-selling the lineup then we can deal with that, we just wanted the news out quickly and on our terms. So, essentially, when you found out was about 20 or so minutes after we found out.”
That being the case, you’ve not just gone for a replacement, you got four bands to play spectacular sets. That’s not an easy thing to pull together at the best of times. How did it all happen, and come together and what was the timeline?
“It was a bit of good fortune. I was a bit of opportunity in that Damnation is an established event and so we can go to these agents and bands and make an offer and get taken seriously. Let’s not beat around the bush here an absolute fucking shedload of cash. It costs more for those sets than the entire Ministry fee so we lost Ministry then spent more money than for Ministry to get those sets.
When I say good fortune, Jane Doe and Prowler In The Yard wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the Metal and Beer Festival in America earlier this year. Both bands would have had to rehearse those sets as there were probably songs in there that both bands hadn’t played in a decade, or even ever, so there was no chance both bands were going to agree to that and have six weeks to rehearse.
Then the relationships we have with the bands and their agents, we thought we’d explain and say we’d lost Ministry could you do us a solid and do these sets. We thought we might get one of the three bands give us something to work with but we got all three to add to Slaughter of the Soul which was already announced at that point. When I say they cost more money, it’s not that I don’t agree because those sets demand more attention, they attract more fans, and it makes more money so the cost goes up.
Ultimately, you go back and forth and you think is it worth it or shall I walk away. I got excited though, because I had these four sets and I think Godflesh came through first with Streetcleaner then Prowler In The Yard, then I think it was pretty close with Jane Doe so, by that point, I was pretty desperate to get all four and make it work. I didn’t want to end up with the situation of the top three bands doing an album set and Converge just doing a standard album set because it wouldn’t have worked as well.”
I don’t know anyone who’s not had their mind blown about that entire announcement. From your point of view, which of the four are you most looking forward to?
“They’ve all got their own merits haven’t they? Slaughter of the Soul probably isn’t getting as much love as the other three at the moment, because that’s the one that was already on the poster, but then you’re getting the At The Gates fans asking what the fuss is about because Slaughter of the Soul is the best of the four. Most folk are for Jane Doe but, weirdly enough, the set I’m most excited for over the whole weekend is We Lost The Sea doing Departure Songs on the Friday night. We’ve also got Celeste doing Assassine(s) as well so we’ve got six pretty special exclusive sets over the two days. I’m pretty excited about all six but, if you put a gun to my head, I’d have to say Jane Doe. What about you?”
At The Gates without any hesitation. Now, one comment I saw on Facebook after Ministry pulled out was around the headliner and were you now considering Converge as the headliner. I think the response was something about considering all options. Can you expand on that?
“First off there was a weird thing going on with the co-headliner thing happening with Ministry and Converge from the start. First off, Ministry were going to close the set and were billed as headliners, but Converge were equally billed from the very start. Now, this is a bit of a compliment for Damnation and how fans can lose a bit of the reality. Ministry got booked about 15 to 16 months ago, and if you’re going to get bands like that, they work on that kind of schedule. Bands like Kreator, Emperor, Meshuggah don’t just agree to play an event in six weeks time. Meshuggah and bands like that would be booked into next summer’s schedule.
So, when people suggest bands like Strapping Young Lad, they’re not even a band let alone an active touring one, never mind just Devin Townsend. To get these bands in six weeks time is not realistic. We tried a couple of long shots. We tried Botch, but I never hoped to get anything from that and we got a polite decline. We also tried Sodom because they were on that Dominion Festival so we knew they were actively ready to come and play a gig, but we couldn’t make that work. It would also make us look a bit naïve going to Emperor or Meshuggah and asking them to play an event in six weeks time.
We tried a couple of those long shots but they didn’t work out. I was pretty certain the band to replace Ministry was going to have to be British. Carcass were already on tour. Paradise Lost I think were somewhere as well. So, we were left with Godflesh or Napalm Death. Godflesh tick that industrial box as you were losing an industrial band and at least getting some kind of industrial band to replace them.
“We tried Botch, but I never hoped to get anything from that and we got a polite decline. We also tried Sodom because they were on that Dominion Festival so we knew they were actively ready to come and play a gig, but we couldn’t make that work.”
The thing is, I wasn’t keen on getting Godflesh to just come and do Godflesh as we had literally just had them in November. Streetcleaner was… no matter if we’d got Jane Doe or Prowler in the Yard, Streetcleaner was the one we were always going to go after for Godflesh to play. Had Godflesh said no then maybe we would have had to go to Napalm Death and ask them to do some sort of album set? It was a weird one so when I say all options were on the table, they were.
Realistically, we could have got told no by Godflesh and Napalm Death then we would have just been going down the pecking order and working with what we could get. Ultimately, we are not in control of that situation when we are only so many weeks left until the festival. Luckily Godflesh are playing Irish shows a week later so they’re ready to go.”
Touching on what you’ve said though about people asking for Emperor and Strapping Young Lad, the fact that you’ve managed to pull those four sets out of the bag with the bands you have with just six weeks to go, it must be a massive compliment that bands are willing to work with you on those timescales?
“Yeah, I absolutely appreciate that and I sent the agency emails afterwards to say I appreciate this. These things often come down to money, but that’s not to say that Damnation itself didn’t play a part in these bands being willing to do that for Damnation. I don’t believe that, if this was another festival and not Damnation or had the reputation of Damnation that offered the same money and asked them to play those sets, those bands would have said yes.
So, we do appreciate the fact that these bands are coming to do those sets, and I believe these bands are only going to come and do these sets where they feel they are going to be appreciated and well received. They’re not going to fly in and do these sets just for the money. It also helped us at a time when we really needed it because everything has been going great and the lineup is excellent. I didn’t want to spend the last six weeks just nursing a broken lineup. This gave the whole thing a fresh impetus and a fresh excitement. As you said, people have been losing their minds over those four sets and the tickets sales we’ve done since those four sets were announced have been unreal.”
Check out our photo gallery from Damnation Festival 2021.
Looking back at the whole experience, from everything you’ve experienced and it was a whole new level for you from last year, what would you do differently if you could go back twelve months, and go through the whole experience again?
You know what, hindsight is 20/20. I think the Ministry cancellation was a real reminder that you can plan as much as you like, we could have had all the production sheets done, all the lighting plots in place, the exact audio, the exact visual, the way the stage had to be set up, the number of rolling risers from drum kits, we could have had all the merch printed and the backline in the bag for Ministry, there is so much more you could do so much further in advance you could have had Destruction, Toxic Holocaust, and Ministry on it and all three bands pull out for no real reason other than they can no longer do the show.
“I’m sat here looking at nearly selling out an arena and wondering how the hell we’re going to top that lineup for next year?”
Maybe if you’d asked if I’d liked to have been further along with the organization, the answer would probably be yes, but how would I feel if I had five grands worth of merch printed and it all had Ministry, Destruction and Toxic Holocaust on it? I’d be pretty gutted and I’d be kicking myself for not being where we are now.
I think the things we’ve done wrong we won’t realize until Saturday November 5th when we’re sitting in that venue, but that’s a realistic way of looking at it. I was talking to Paul the other night and there’s going to be stuff we realize doesn’t work until you actually see it not working. It could be the one way systems, the placement of the merch hall, the same kind of things we overcame at Leeds, or where we reached the point where we couldn’t overcome them.
I’m not sat here looking at the mess we’ve made of the last twelve months, I’m looking at the fact we’re about to sell out an arena. I’m more worried about 2023, what the hell do you do to follow that lineup?”
You’ve definitely raised your profile and the fact that it’s now almost a sell-out, at what point do you start looking at 2023 and what is your vision?
Again, a couple of months ago was when we started proper work now, because that’s when the agents start to get in touch. Often, there’s bands and you’re trying to put them not so much in the back of your mind, but if you want to deal with these bands, you need to work in their schedule, but you’re trying to focus on the fact of your own first stab at an arena before sitting thing about how great these six bands will look on your 2023 poster.
Look, the 2023 poster will simply not exist if you don’t get 2022 absolutely spot on, and in some ways, 2023 has been getting planned for two or three months, because that’s when the first the news came in from the bands that were going to be available. It’s not going to really get started to November 6th, because that’s where we’re going to know what works and what doesn’t work because the arena itself, you tell the guy you want to book it again for that date and that’s that. Then, after that, you build your lineup and as you get closer to the event, it starts to get to the more nitty gritty like portaloos, and security, and fencing, and graphics, and all that jazz.”
When you wake up on November 6th, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
“It depends how November 5th goes (chuckles). I’ve done both. I mean, I’ve never felt the same way I felt after 2005, I was there dazed as I wasn’t ready for that. I couldn’t quite believe it had happened. I just felt a sense of achievement and then the reality. I was young at the time, I think I was 23. I just remember going through Manchester where the first one was hosted obviously and just being on cloud 9 thinking this is fantastic. I’ve also had the ones where I have woken up the next day like 2011 was one particular, I just woke up and it was fucking horrible. There was just so much we should do better. Ultimately we did end up doing better, they were just stupid little hiccups which ruined the day for me as organizer.
So, we’ll see if everything goes the way it can and should go then I will be immensely proud of the fact that this happened and over the moon and ready to do it again in 2023. If it doesn’t go well, I’ll probably still wake up with the bit my teeth and say that was all that stuff we’ve got wrong and make sure that gets fixed, and as long as it’s nothing really awful, touch wood, we don’t get acts of God like the place gets flooded, we just want to make sure it happens, people have a great time, has a safe time and wants to come back in 2023.
I talked to my wife about it, this is the only Damnation where I would sacrifice every bit of potential profit if you gave me that every single person to come would have the best festival of their life. This compounds into the profit for the future if everybody this year comes, has an absolutely phenomenal time and wants to come back next year. I mean, a festival where everyone going thinks it is shit because they couldn’t get any food, or the toilet queues were too much, or the sound was crap, or all of the above. It defeats the idea of selling the place out.”
Definitely. Just to wrap up then, I know everybody I’ve spoke to is absolutely buzzing for the lineup. I can’t wait. I said to you last year, it’s such a great move and now you’re 700 short of a sellout in Manchester.
For those fans that have stuck with you from day one in Manchester, you come back to Manchester and for those fans that have yet to experience Damnation, have you got any message for them?
“For both, firstly the people I only know through Damnation, and you see them every year, they make it part of their annual calendar. I’m quite transparent for them so they know me and I know them. I only see them at Damnation or in the Download (Festival) field and I see them and can have a cuddle and say thanks for coming. There’s a handful of people like that who’ve been coming since 2005 and they feel part of the festival and they should because they are. It’s why it has got to where it is.
Then there are the people who can’t believe they’re going to get to see Godflesh and it’s like you could have seen them in Leeds in November. They’re just getting exposed to the festival though in the last few months and that’s fine as well. It’s quite reassuring to know that we’ve just scratched the surface. Like, you walk through the Download crowd and I can guarantee most of them haven’t heard of Damnation Festival. The profile is definitely raising now and you can go to Bloodstock or somewhere and see Damnation t-shirts in the crowd, but there is definitely still so many more people to tap into who would come along to Damnation and really enjoy it.
It’s taken us a while to get away from just being an underground extreme metal festival with just black and death metal and grind for some people, but there you go, we’re heading in the right direction…”
For more information and ticket info on Damnation Festival, head over to the Official Damnation Festival website.
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