Ken West on Big Day Out lineup: Pearl Jam, Blur, Arcade Fire
Over the course of an hour, Ken West spoke with FL about Big Day Out’s incredible 2014 lineup – Pearl Jam, Blur, Arcade Fire, Snoop – the festival’s past troubles, working with “diva” acts and more.
The Big Day Out has put together an “impossible” lineup for 2014 headlined by Pearl Jam, Blur and Arcade Fire and promoter Ken West is excited. Very excited. It’s a lineup over a decade in the making and one that confirms Big Day Out’s lasting pulling power following some shaky years and very public setbacks.
“I would be happy with any of those three acts closing the festival,” West tells FL. “We haven’t had that before. So it’s the most impossible lineup we’ve had because if you think about it logically there’s no other place in the world where you’d get these three acts on the same bill unless it was Live Aid. That’s the only other time you can get the egos pushed out of the way … While three bands don’t make a festival these are three really fucking good bands.”
When you’ve run 21 Big Day Out tours you inevitably have great stories, big opinions and absolutely nothing to hide. So speaking with Ken West isn’t exactly an “interview”. You just call the Big Day Out offices at the scheduled time, get put on hold for a moment and listen to a few bars of Rick Astley’s masterpiece ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ then you just sit back and let Ken talk.
There’s plenty to talk about. There’s the three massive headliners, hints about sideshows, the second round announcement and even a special new stage he’s building especially for Blur dubbed the “Love Stage”. Plus West’s thoughts about repeating headliners, working with “diva acts” and his (friendly) rivalry with Soundwave.
On booking the 2014 lineup:
It’s been excruciating. There have been so many processes along the way where we’ve pretty much had what we wanted and then they moved the Grammys to the 26th of January. I won’t even name the three acts that dropped out [because of that], but we were: ‘Ah, fuck!”. Then we ended up with a really good save position. Luckily this is a weird year where there seems to be a glut of really perfect Big Day Out style acts that are putting out albums. We know we were in for it at the beginning: “When’s the album? September? Great!” It’s been a long, long process but it began at the beginning, as I said last year, never again will it be a bottom up bill. It has to be top down.
On Pearl Jam:
We spent a lot of time going through things with Pearl Jam because they’ve always wanted to do the show and obviously they’re very cautious about how they do things. We were lucky enough that it felt right for them and it certainly felt right for us.
Charlie Jones at C3 [Presents, BDO co-promoters] is really good friends with Eddie [Vedder]. He hung out with him on the weekend at that cyclone in Chicago. They had 40 000 people, they had to stop the set for two hour and didn’t finish until 2 o’clock in the morning. [Charlie] saw him the next day and all he could talk about was how excited he was to play the Big Day Out. Blur are doing the same thing. That’s what you want. That’s what I need more than anything; real artists to be genuinely excited about being on an event . “This is going to be great!” not “This will be really good for our career”. I don’t want that; I don’t want anyone who thinks about a career. It’s the music industry; it’s not meant to be a career!
On booking three “white whales”:
This is the best lineup we’ve ever put together. It’s the most impossible one we’ve ever put together especially in a modern age. You have no idea how hard this process has been. I went over to Mexico to see Blur play their first club date and that was like Beatle mania. I watched that side of stage in the club and then watched them the next night at the Viva Latino festival with 70 000 Mexicans jumping up to ‘Song 2’ and just thought “This isn’t going to happen [for Big Day Out].” I would be happy with any of those three acts closing the festival. We haven’t had that before. So it’s the most impossible lineup we’ve had because if you think about it logically there’s no other place in the world where you’d get these three acts on the same bill unless it was Live Aid. That’s the only other time you can get the egos pushed out of the way. The rest of the time it has to be status and position. The major, major acts really are protective of their shows lighting and presentation. While three bands don’t make a festival these are three really fucking good bands.
“There’s no other place in the world where you’d get these three acts on the same bill unless it was Live Aid”
It’s been a very, very long road to get to this point and not in our wildest imagination did we think that they’d all hit at the same time. And that we’d be able to work out that we could do it. That’s where the second show in Sydney comes into play because that tends to be the one simple way to be able to make it possible; to be able to afford it. Without that we’re into a situation where you’re limited by the realities of gravity. That’s the big, bold step.
It’s really embracing the idea that we really had an opportunity this year that we couldn’t possibly ignore. Probably for the last five years, with the growth of other events which in different ways chip away at you (specialty events mainly) because everyone’s looking for a headliner. Soundwave, Stereosonic, and Future; even to some extent but not really Splendour. You get the gut feeling that you’re never gonna get one of these “Oh my God; we’ve got this together [lineups] which used to happen more when Big Day Out was in a vaccum. We had more liberalness of how we could put the show together because it wasn’t really made for the full mainstream world. I’d almost given up hope that something of the calibre [could happen] that we could get over all the egos and money and everything else and go “Let’s just do it.”
On fitting in three headliners:
We had the situation that both Blur and Arcade Fire, virtually in the same day or two, said we really want to do this. Then we had to redesign the show to accommodate the talent. I think that’s the breaking point with Big Day Out now – and the great thing with the partnership with C3 it that they like change. We have an incredible opportunity and I can’t choose. I can’t say let’s take Blur and not Arcade Fire or Arcade Fire and not Blur. My friends would never forgive me if I didn’t take Blur and the commercial side of it is Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire are on a big roll up, they’re not looking at festivals. They’re looking at their own stadium shows in America. We’re very honoured that they want to come back to do this and that’s partially because of the relationship they have with Pearl Jam. Everything gets interconnected on that front.
Blur’s only taken me 14 years! That was a long negotiation. We tried really hard to get Arcade Fire for 2012, they were going to be a headliner then. Blur were going to be a headliner in various year’s but they couldn’t get it together and more importantly they weren’t connecting as a band. You’ve got to get a band that’s not only rare and special but that’s also need to embrace the idea of performing with other bands, playing to a younger audience (if it’s an older act) and doing what Neil Young called the “educational set”, which is another way of saying “greatest hits”. You can’t be self-indulgent at a festival if you’re a headliner.
I saw them at Fuji about ten years ago  and they were wearing beards, looking down at their shoes and looking unhappy. They delivered a set and shuffled off. [But now] they’re really excited to be doing this material again. Because they never broke up they never reformed. That’s very English; you never bother to break up because that’s too much hard work. It’s like with Neil Young, he said “I haven’t done these songs in 10 years. I’m ready to do them again.” That’s a short burst of flame [Blur playing hits] that we’ll be lucky to have. And with Arcade Fire on the way up, I’m just really happy with the chemistry of it. I don’t care if nobody goes; I’m gonna be at the front. I’ll be broke, but I’ll be happy.
“They’ve never been here really”
The Australian bands that know Blur’s going to be on are coming to us and saying “We want to play with Blur”. That’s a really funny emotional thing that from the American perspective they just don’t understand at all. Blur’s not that big in America. But this is Australia, and they’ve never been here really. It’s just way too long between tours. I’ve probably seen them 10 times at Fuji Festival and in England and stuff like that and a lot of those shows have been pretty bad because the band weren’t getting on. Damon was restless. I’ve seen loads of my favourite bands do bad shows because they’re in their own problems. But seeing those shows [in Mexico] there was a feeling not necessarily of closure, but of “Thank God we’re finally doing this”.
That’s their full show, they’ve got the full brass section, they’ve got the choir. We’ve got the whole box and dice coming. So they do need to command their own stage.
On Blur’s “The Love Stage”:
Blur will be headlining a new Big Day Out stage dubbed “The Love Stage”.
I just listened to Blur and thought that every second song has the word love in it and I love the act so let’s call it the Love Stage! The acts on that stage will have a name for that stage, so it won’t stay the love stage it’ll probably only be for one year. Then next year if it was Slipknot it might be the Kill Every Fucker in the Room stage. No it wouldn’t… but it would be themed accordingly.
“We’re getting the whole box and dice”
It’s the love stage; we’re going to make everything lovely at it … That’s me listening to Blur for hours going how the hell can I solve this problem [of having both Blur and Arcade Fire]. Blur wouldn’t logically play third on the show and have no lights and no presentation to just fit in with Pearl Jam. The obvious solution to this is to make three stages, which is going to be expensive, but then we don’t want them to overlap. So we have to ultilise the Boiler Room curfew to get it there and then redesign [the layout]. That took a month to convince everybody that it all made sense and that it was an equal playing field. That’s what those three act deserve and need, so then you rebuild the show around that. Next year might be different.
Lumineers are playing over there, Grouplove are playing over there. Would have love to have had Snoop over there but he want’s to be on the main stage so that’s alright. I got sick of colours, so I thought let’s go for emotion.
On Arcade Fire:
The scary thing about Arcade Fire is that they don’t know what they’re bringing because they haven’t designed their shows yet. These are the first real shows [after their album is released]. They’re doing some warm up shows as far as I know but this is the real start of their world tour. On the other side of the coin, it’s the end of the world tour for Blur. One’s beginning, one’s ending. All I know is that they are very ambitious and that scares us, but we will make it happen. If you’ve got an act that is on an upward trajectory like a Muse on the way up they tend to not only be delivering a show but laying a platform for the future so they tend to throw everything into it … we’re getting the whole box and dice which is why we’re able to get some of these uncompromising big acts on to the Big Day Out: because we don’t ask them to compromise too much.
On Snoop Dogg/Lion:
Snoop Lion is part of the greatest hits set. There’s some great fucking tracks on that Snoop Lion album and I’ll be pissed off if he doesn’t do some. It’s a combo. There’s a process that goes on with major acts, with Snoop Dogg/LionDogg/Lion (whichever you want to use on the day) with a festival audience is that they want to get over that “Well I’m this, but I’m also still that”. If Snoop Lion came out at the moment there might be some fans that would find that confusing they might not know if that’s what they want to see or not, and it’s not as though he’ll automatically get a big reggae market.
On the second lineup announcement:
I stopped [the first announcement] at 33 or something like that but at the end of the day it’s closer to something like 45 acts. We’re not talking massive acts [on the second announcement].
Some of the acts that we’ve put on in the past just haven’t been much fun to deal with. It’s pretty good fun for the audience but they need to fit in with the other artists on the road. The other factor is safety being paramount with Pearl Jam; I don’t want to razz the thing up too much. There’s a little bit of paranoia that’s always going to be with the Big Day Out since 2001. That’s our legacy, so safety is number one. We have some good harder acts that wanted to be on the show that I’ve deferred for the moment until we can get on sale.
We’ve really only got a finite number of spots left and a lot of things will happen over the next three months musically. If you shut your booking process seven months out then everything beyond that is excluded. If we’re going to be serious curators of an event, especially on the fresher stuff. If you’re not going to go to the show on this lineup then a small breaking band isn’t going to change your mood. So we’re holding off on the 50 acts that are pushing and saying “choose me!”
On side stage bands:
The smaller stuff is good, but I can’t say for certain that we’re going to be witnessing the new Kings of Leon or anything. A lot of the Big Day Out is to do with being a show of its time that’s incredible. Then there are the shows that were good but historically become incredible.
Nobody remembers that Coldplay were on at 1.30 in the afternoon in 2001, the Limp Bizkit year with Rammstien. Historically it’s awesome, but at the time they were just some weird band with a song about “yellow”. Or the early White Stripes over on the Essential stage or the 2000 with Metallica and you’ve got The Strokes (it was agonising trying to convince The Strokes to play before Metallica – you can imagine how that negotiation went) and you’ve got a little band called Kings of Leon who were getting $1000 dollars to support them on sideshows. We had The Strokes and Kings of Leon together on Perth Outlook for a 900 capacity room.
In terms of the smaller acts, I’m not sure how quickly they’re going to grow but I know that Grouplove will be great. Algorithm will be great. It’s perfectly timed for quite a few of these acts to lift up.
On The Algorithm
Is it metal or is it techno? It’s great; it’s both. Just as long as the techno people don’t think it’s metal and the metal people don’t think it’s techno I’ll be alright! That’s always a problem because then the act falls through the hole in the middle.
On Bolier Room headliner Steve Angello:
[Swedish House Mafia member] Steve Angello is a bit of an experiment for us, but having said that who really wants to be playing against the end of Pearl Jam and the beginning of Blur? It’s a tough gig. That’s part of the rationalizing of programming a show. We’re programming the festival as we book it.
On moving the Australia Day show back to Sydney:
A lot of people in Melbourne were complaining that it was on the Australia Day because they want to go away for the long-weekend. [Melbourne’s now on Friday but] it’s the Friday of the long weekend. If you can’t get the fucking afternoon off on the Friday leading into the long-weekend you’re not trying. School’s not back, university’s not back, Soundwave was on a Friday last year and that was a normal work day. I’ve done Sydney plenty of time on a Friday and had no trouble selling it out. I think Australian’s have a natural tendency to want to take the day off. Their work ethic is maybe a little bit lower than it is in Japan or China.
On bands playing different sets:
Most of them just naturally play different sets. Pearl Jam have said they always play different sets. And Blur play different sets. I can’t comment for Arcade Fire and I’m pretty sure that Snoop doesn’t even write a set. We are encouraging the acts to [play different sets] not for any other purpose than “why not?” It’s not like it’s a gimmick to try and convince you to go twice it’s just that we’ve checked with some of the acts that generally do that and just said that it would be good to keep in mind because of the two shows in Sydney. For some people a different set will potentially mean going twice; maybe not many but some will. It’s not as bad as having two shows in the same city where they do the same joke in the same spot in the same song. “That was meant to be spontaneous, but you did it again!” I can never work out how stand-up comedians work, how can you do that?
On New Zealand:
New Zealand in 2012 never should have happened. We had it all stacked the wrong way. We’d been talking about the viability in New Zealand for five years leading up to that, including three sell outs out of the five. We’ve got so much freight, we’ve got so many people on the road to deliver the whole show partiacially to do with the internet – with the internet you can’t hide the other shows. You get into a position where you think “It’s not viable, we shouldn’t do it” but we were committed so we followed it through. Then it went wrong. I definitely shouldn’t have carried through with the show once the backlash was there, but that was part of the blind thing of “The show must go on”. I must be related to Barnum or Bailey.
“Big Day Out lost $1.5 million in New Zealand in 2012”
Logic said it shouldn’t have [happened] but that’s only 2012 not the whole time of it. The rest of the time it was stupid to do the shows there because it was scary as hell because no one bought their tickets until the last week, which is a fairly “New Zealand” thing. It was great to do them while we had shows in Australia to help sustain what was at best a break even exercise in New Zealand. Then when the pressure in Australia came on we couldn’t afford to subsidise the New Zealand part of it then it was not viable. We’ve gone into this one on the basis that it has a stand alone budget and we’ve pulled everything into line. We’ve negotiated the artist’s fees down specifically for New Zealand and explained that it’s New Zealand dollars over there. Before it was [the fee for] six shows, one’s New Zealand, divide that by six and that’s how much it costs to play New Zealand. We’ve had to reinvent the process to create a viable event. It was just that year  because it lost $1.5 million.
Big Day Out’s new site at Western Springs
(Photo via Doubtful Sounds)
On the 2012 lineup:
Kanye was the only person left who was available because if was left so late with everything else going wrong. I had huge reservations about that; I have a personal policy that if it’s not a show that you believe is worthy of presenting then you just don’t do it.
There was one thing driving me more than anything on that 2012 show when it was over and dead and buried was the thought that it can’t finish like this. I’m not saying that this is the last show that the Big Day Out is doing. We fought so hard to get through that year so that we could potentially get to this show and say “That was just a fuck up, please forgive us”. This [2014 lineup] is really what we do. We work all year to do the impossible.
On “diva” acts:
[Kanye and Jay Z] are no fun. They’re just no fun. Those big R&B acts aren’t any fun on the road. But Snoop isn’t an R&B act; Snoop is his own food group. He’s a party kinda guy and the people working with him are casual. They’re not paranoid about losing their jobs. When you get these diva acts, which is probably the best term for them – and that doesn’t necessarily mean R&B either, you can see what a diva situation is like with Nick Cave – everybody’s a bit nervous around them. Jack White for instance. “Oh I gotta keep Jack happy, I go R&B acts gotta keep Jack happy” But once they settle in and do their thing it’s a totally different ball game. The great thing about it with someone like Snoop is that it’s cas[ual]. It’s not like: “Man, my limo’s not long enough”. There might be problems on other fronts, but they’ll be fun problems. You want to have as many “fun problems” on the road as possible.
If you’re really into hard rock and metal then Soundwave’s your show, but you don’t need to hate one festival to like the other. Sure, we fucked up and they went great; it was a good game.
The narrower genre festivals have a much easier time of it. It’s murderous trying to work out whether I take that really awesome metal band or do we take this world class DJ. You’ve got a limited budget and a limited number of stages.
“You don’t need to hate one festival to like the other”
We’re still in that process where you buy your music by the metre – that’s why AJ [Maddah, Soundwave promoter] wins out with all these three word band names, while I get stuck with “Pez” or “Off!”. It’s hard because people want to see a big lump of names. Our policy is that we want bands to play fuller sets. Soundwave got them down to 20 minutes a set. That’s just not logical for a band to do a 20 minute set or a half hour set. I had Dethklok in but they haven’t quite gotten it together for this announcement. I’m not shy of this [heavier] stuff; I just want the right stuff.
I do know that it’s a little light on on [the heavier] front, but some of the second announcement stuff will correct that.
On repeating headliners:
That was part of the process that we had to brake. The success of the Big Day Out created a multitude of problems and one of those problems is that lots of bands that played on it wanted to play again. We really liked lots of those bands and we didn’t want to see them play on someone else’s festival. We ended up in a spiral process of saying “Oh yeah, that should be alright” and then it sells out and you go “Great!”. The shift in that process is that we’re not really playing any favours anymore. We’re asking “What’s right for the show? What’s the audience perception going to be if we announce that act? Can we accept the frustration that if we announce an act they’ll be disappointed, but if they get announced with someone else they’ll get excited?”. We just have to accept that. As much as possible we’ll be bringing – we won’t be calling them Big Day Out virgins – but we’ll be chasing holy grails and white whales. Anything that we can find that will be worth more to our audience than something they’ve seen before at out show.
On “white whales” he’s still chasing:
You think I’m ever going to get Radiohead on this? I’ve got to turn it into a solar powered vegan festival before they’re happy – I’m joking by the way! – but there are some acts that would be really great to get. Some of them have passed being considered viable because it’s been too long. Obvious one: 10 years ago we were in discussions with David Bowie about playing but let’s face it I don’t think he wants to do much these days and for our audience it’s too big a gap. It would be an amazing thing be I couldn’t rely on it because we kind of did that experiment with Neil Young. It was really great for the media, really great for a certain part of the audience, but most people were cramming over to see Prodigy. There’s not a lot left.
Shows in Sydney will be very rare, because we’re doing two [Big Day Out] shows. Anything that we do will be very, very small. There’ll be a few extra shows in Melbourne because of the one day, but again most of those are “underplays”. There’s no decision on the top three on what they’ll be doing – actually no, the decision’s made for Pearl Jam because they’re bringing family out and having a holiday and [sideshows] are more work. That’s preferable for them and it’s preferable for us. The second part of the equation – and something we talk to the acts about – is that the building up process of the sideshow thing is great if it’s exposing you to your fans in a smaller situation or if it’s a building block process and you’re on the way up or if you’ve got fans who just won’t go [to Big Day Out] and it would be better to see them in a small theatre than in a paddock.
We’ve found that when it comes down to acts that are likely to tour again at some stage then just doing the Big Day Out is a better call for them because as we’ve found with acts that did sideshows and then did a return tour, the return tour didn’t do as well as if they’d just exclusively done the festivals. “Oh I’ve don’t that. I’m a fan and I went to the sideshow and it’s only 15 months later; I don’t know if I can be bothered going.” You create two distinct experiences . I can’t say who’s doing what because to be honest we leave most of these things till a bit later but let’s just say [sideshows] are rare. That’s the thing we’re trying to get back to – the idea that the Big Day Out is a really good time for the bands.
On the future:
In the modern process of the internet and the trial by Twitter how are bands going to get to the point of being Pearl Jam? They have to survive some really scathing moments. Every act’s put out some really crap albums out, but now days you don’t seem to be forgiven. “We want the new stuff and we want the safari-park box ticking, bucket list act and all the middle stuff oh well… whatever”. How do you survive long enough to be a Pearl Jam or a Blur and get through 20 years of more and have the audience allow for your bad album along the way? That’s going to be the new challenge. We’ll just build supergroups; that’s the next step isn’t it? We had a robot band this year! I don’t have any super groups up my sleeve, apart from the ones we’re going to try and build on the day. There might be alcohol involved, but I reckon we can get one supergroup on one of these shows.
Big Day Out 2014 dates
Friday, January 17 – Western Springs, Auckland
Sunday, January 19 – Metricon Stadium & Carrara Parklands, Gold Coast
Friday, January 24 – Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne
Sunday, January 26 – Sydney Showgrounds, Sydney
Monday, January 27 – Sydney Showgrounds, Sydney
Friday, January 31 – Bonython Park, Adelaide
Sunday, February 2 – Claremont Showgrounds, Perth