You know you’re in trouble when, speeding down the fast lane of the M4 on your way home from playing a music festival, the driver of your car (the Welsh singer) turns to the passenger (the Californian bassist) and surprisingly calmly enquires: “could you take the wheel please, mate? I seem to have gone blind.”
In trouble, yes. But surprised? Not really. Not any more. This incident - a freak attack of a vertigo-inducing condition called labyrinthitis - concluded with five hours in Newport A&E. But near-oblivion has been a mere footnote on a summer festival season which has passed by in a whirlwind of glory and disaster, sunshine and downpours, adoration and indifference, freebies and rip-offs. When AC/DC – not known for understatement – once sang that “it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll,” they really weren’t kidding.
The difference between the reality of playing festivals as an up-and-coming band, and your family and friends’ perceptions of what this involves couldn’t be greater. After all, things couldn’t be going much better for us on paper. The band I drum for, Welsh psychedelic harmony-merchants Howl Griff, have got an indie record deal, a PR man, a radio plugger and even a small merchandise stall. We’re getting regular airplay on Six Music and have received some glowing press. So when you say: “we’re playing a festival this weekend, mum”, she mentally pictures something a bit like that nice Beyonce was doing on the telly.
The only problem is, there are literally hundreds of festivals out there competing for punters’ hard-earned cash so - like Forrest Gump’s own toffee-crazed mother – you never quite know what you’re going to get when you get there.
At its worst, the results are dispiriting. At the Celtic Blue Rock Festival in Llanfyrnach a couple of years ago – a seven-hour haul from a gig in London - we humped our equipment (including an amp weighing more than a Fiat Punto) through a quagmire, in a monsoon, to play a set to three people, all of them related to our guitarist. At the Borth Festival, with singer Griff inexplicably wearing a boiler suit in 80-degree heat, the few-dozen crowd huddled nervously at the back because they were terrified of the two half-naked, saucer-eyed banshees at the front, dancing to their own tune.
A 15-hour round trip to Milton Keynes, meanwhile, was so painful it has almost been forcibly erased from the memory. Having spent £200 on travel, our set was cut to 10 minutes long after an excruciating lounge singer dressed as Dracula over-ran.
Our guitarist, Gary, has an even worse story from a previous band: “we got told we were playing at a festival with Van Morrison in Lincoln,” he says. “When we got there, we were actually playing on a canal bank next to the supermarket Morrison’s. The gig was going OK until half way through a ballad, when an announcement came over the tannoy that ‘a brown dog has fallen in the canal’. Amazing.”
Getting paid £50, or nothing, or a box of Carlsberg, for a gig that has cost you hundreds to get to, becomes routine. Big payment cheques bounce (cheers, Tenby Folk Festival 2008). It’s little wonder that bands often turn to drink and, on one shameful occasion, I got locked out of the band hotel and spent the night sleeping in a giant plastic shoe on a children’s playground.
So why do we do it? Easy. For the transcendent moments that actually go right. For the Pie & Pint festival in Cheltenham, of which we expected nothing but found 1,200 people dancing their socks off in the sunshine. For the superb crowds at Castell Rock, LeeStock in Suffolk, Coity Castle in Bridgend and Penn Festival in Buckinghamshire. For the moment Lauren Laverne tells you she thinks your band is “bloody lush”. For finding yourself inexplicably backstage in an English field, playfully putting the rapper from Snap! in a headlock.
Hunter S Thompson once wrote that: “the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” He’s probably right. But for now – blindness permitting – we’ll be keeping our eyes on the road.
Howl Griff play ChagStock Festival, Okehampton, Devon on Saturday 23 July, and Cloud Cuckoo Land Festival, Fernhill Farm, Somerset on Sunday 7 August. Find out more at http://www.howlgriff.com/ and twitter.com/howlgriff