ZT Interrogation: Damnation Festival organiser, Gavin McInally

A change of venue, city and the loss of a headline act… Damnation is never dull and this year’s festival at its new home at the BEC Arena in Manchester promises to be as good as anything in its illustrious history. Gavin McInally, Damnation’s commander-in-chief, talks festivals past and present with Paul Castles, and charts its development into Europe’s largest indoor metal festival.

Did you anticipate Damnation growing to what it has become?

I had nothing in my mind further than what was going to happen with that first one, but we quickly became a big event and by 2008 had 4,000 in a venue with Carcass on the bill. Damnation quickly became a big festival without folk really knowing about us. 2009 not the best and took a few years to build it back up but by 2015 16 it snowballed into the behemoth it is now. But I’ve never looked beyond the immediate year ahead. Of course, I’m really chuffed with how things have transpired, and I didn’t envisage it, but equally I’m not surprised how things have developed.

As a Glaswegian, why did you choose Manchester for that first Damnation Fest in 2005?

Well even back then I had made my mind up that didn’t want to go to London. I’m not a big fan of London and it can swallow everything up quite quickly. Glasgow has a fantastic metal scene, and I knew Scotland would support it but I was doubtful people from England would travel up so felt to make the festival work it needed to be somewhere in the middle of the UK. Had a look at a few options went to Jillys Rockworld, which I believe is now a Tesco, and worked out very well with Raging Speedhorn headlining.

After two years at Jillys you switched Damnation across the Pennines to Leeds, why was that?

The Manchester venue didn’t want to give up its club night on the Saturday so with the festival getting a bit bigger we went to Leeds Met University and had bands like Kreator, Anaal Nathrakh and Katakylsm. The main stage was fine but the second stage was awful. I wasn’t happy with that so the following year (2008) moved to Leeds University where Damnation stayed until this year. We loved it there but felt the last few years it felt like we had just outgrown that venue. The fans wanted to get through the door as it opened but some of the smaller stages weren’t geared up for the size of crowds who wanted to get in. It was made worse because the main stage could not be used until after the uni students had finished in the canteen and that had the effect in the early afternoon of shoehorning everyone into the other rooms which then got very busy. Some fans could not get to see bands they had especially come to see and that’s unsatisfactory. So during the pandemic I decided to look elsewhere and decided that the BEC Arena in Manchester would be ideal. It has three stages one huge with a 5,000 capacity then a 2,500 and 1,500 capacity rooms – all on one flat level. Without the stairs that Leeds Uni had, it should make it easier to get from A to B when moving between stages. I’ve been there to see it used for different events including a dog show and as a mad rave venue and it works as a venue, sounds and looks good, so now I’m looking forward to see how Damnation fits in.

How excited are you about this new era for Damnation?

I’m very excited, why wouldn’t I be – the line-up is phenomenal! Ticket sale have been excellent and it looks likely to sellout which makes us officially the biggest indoor metal festival in the whole of Europe. That’s quite an achievement to bring that to Manchester and the support from our fans has been incredible. We won’t know what happens until we get there on the day itself as to how it will work out across the three stages. I’m sure they’ll be lessons to learn this year at a new venue and we’ll learn them on the day, while just trying to tick every box. I just want everyone to enjoy it and come away from the venue thinking ‘that’s why they moved’. This will feel more like our event whereas at Leeds Uni we had to respect the needs of the students so couldn’t open the main stage until the student canteen had closed, stuff like that stopped us feeling it was our event – that won’t be the case at BEC.

Have Brexit and Covid made the actual business of staging a metal festival?

Well yes, everything is more expensive now. Bands are less likely to play Damnation from overseas unless they can fit it into a tour. There’s a nonsense at the moment where some bands need engagement letters to play but some bands told they need certificates of sponsorship so there’s still confusion over what is needed. We’ve been quite lucky so far but it’s been a total farce and I can’t see any positives from Brexit.

How big a blow was it with Ministry pulling out recently?

That’s the first time that’s ever happened where we’ve lost our headliner six or seven weeks before the day. Obviously, the years after Covid all the US bands pulled out and that was a blow and we had couple of panic-filled days until we were sure we had enough UK artists to go ahead. Hopefully the bands who have agreed to play whole album sets means that unless you were going just for Ministry the schedule is probably even better now. Clearly I spent a lot of time and money promoting Damnation with Ministry as our headliner. They figured in all our social media campaigns so of course it was very frustrating but what can you do. It was out of our hands.

Tell us about the whole album sets?

Once we heard the news about Ministry, I contacted four bands who were playing and asked them if they would like to play a memorable album as a full set. I asked Pig Destroyer, Converge Godflesh and At The Gates all at the same time thinking I’d be happy if just one or two agreed to play a full album set. The fact that all pf them said yes was brilliant. Godflesh played a normal set last year so who were happy to do Streetcleaner and Pig Destroyer agreed to do Prowler in the Yard I was over the moon.

Some festivals have a panel to select the bands – Is Damnation your call alone?

Yeah, well just me and Paul (Farrington). He’s worked with me since the start and has really been my right-hand man for the past decade or so. We decide who we want, and we’ll approach them. Ultimately, it’s my decision, there’s no one to have a meeting with, it’s just us! Always try to ensure a good a mix but getting overseas acts to make their UK debut at Damnation is something I really enjoy and hope to do more of in the future. I want bands from the US and Australia to think ‘yeah, I want my first UK show to be at Damnation’.

You’re always busy on the Damnation social media forums. Is that connection with the fans something you value?

Up until recently I have worked as a journalist as my full-time job doing something I loved. But I’ve now given that up to do Damnation full-time so I want to be fully invested with the fanbase and hear what they think, so that level of engagement is something I always welcome. Some promoters may believe they shouldn’t pull back the curtain and tell the fans what’s going on. But these are the guys buying the tickets so I want to be as open and welcoming as possible. I’m on the Arc Tangent forum as a fan so I see things from both sides. I enjoyed my journalism career but Damnation deserves my full attention now and that’s what I’ll be able to give it. Trying to organise a metal festival in the evening after your kids have gone to bed and on a Sunday afternoon is no longer enough to give the festival what it deserves. There’s so much more to do with Damnation. I need time to sit down properly and organise it and come up with new ideas. There’s a sense of achievement to pull off a big event with a demanding but loyal audience. Our fans are not flaky, they come back every year. I want everything to be of a good standard, including food and drink facilities. I want people to enjoy it!

Is it in any way daunting, now that you’re staging Europe’s largest indoor metal festival?

Some people can underestimate what it takes to put a gig or festival on. I’ve seen it across the board. Ranging from local club shows with a few hundred people up to much bigger events and festivals. I’ve been doing this since I was 23 years old and even I think the scale of what’s involved is massive, just thinking of things like the bars, licensing, merch, transport. I’d love all these events that pop up to be successful, but it’s a big ask. In 2009 we lost a lot of money. Some other festivals have had to pull the plug at very short notice. I hope they bounce back, I really do, but then you have to hope the fans who missed out and maybe lost money, have not lost their trust. You need fans to make the event but they won’t support until they’re sure it’s going to happen. With Damnation, if I can get that money in early, by selling early bird tickets, that’s a massive help each year. It’s a cash incentive for fans to to say we’ll support you, and pay just £55. I promise if we know we’ll get the money through the door early each year then the line-up will be stronger than if we only get all the money in a few weeks before the event. Ultimately, for any promoter, the biggest challenge is selling a ticket.

Damnation takes place at the BEC Arena Manchester on Saturday 5 November. Full details at www.damnationfestival.co.uk

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