The man who's laughing all the way to da Bank
Despite looking just like a regular punter, the Radio 1 presenter has created the hit Bestival events, runs his own record label, and now has a very successful podcast. Ian Burrell reports
Monday 28 January 2008
Rob da Bank is the man who has developed a chilled-out bar culture for those 30-somethings who found themselves too tired to rave, but not ready to see their social lives lost forever to the demands of nappy-changing and school runs.
In doing so he has carved out for himself a chunk of the Radio 1 schedule, built up his own record label and grown his Sunday-evening party sessions at a London tea-rooms into Bestival, the runaway hit of the summer music festival circuit. He is also enjoying unexpected success with his Sunday Best podcasts, made independently of the BBC and furthering the name of his Sunday Best label.
But the DJ, whose real name is Robert Gorham, is an unlikely mogul. Tall with lank hair, which he wears in a ponytail, and the driver of a VW Camper, he looks like just the sort of laid-back, latter-day hippy that you might expect to find sitting around a campfire at Bestival, his annual Isle of Wight bash for 20,000 people that can claim to be the world's biggest fancy-dress party.
Coming across as being just like one of his own punters makes perfect business sense, of course, though Gorham hasn't orchestrated that. He just carries on being himself, playing his favourite tunes, thinking up ways of having fun and, somehow, his empire continues to evolve.
So his two-hour Radio 1 Rob da Bank Leftfield show on Sunday night/Monday mornings is now followed by a further two hours of 'Rob da Bank and Friends', while his festival has spawned a spin-off "Camp Bestival", for 10,000 people in Dorset, and his podcast is generating 10,000 downloads a month.
"I started off doing a club just as a bit of a laugh and it all snowballed from that. My manager might beg to differ but I've never had a master-plan," says Gorham, almost apologetically, speaking over a glass of red wine in the Hospital Club in London's Covent Garden. "Part of the success of Sunday Best and Rob da Bank is that I don't like to think in terms of a brand. I've never done it for the money. I know that Bestival is a brand and that Sunday Best is a small brand and that I'm a bit of a brand myself but I've never set out to be like that, it's just sort of happened."
He admits that, having found he could make his living from partying, he has had to define some sort of purpose in what he does.
"It has become a 24/7 job [but] it's not as if I have to go and work in a mine or a factory. It's an amazing job if I can call it a job but it has become so busy now that you do actually have to think, 'What is your message?' So the core value is – and I sound like a bloody brand manager now – whether I'm doing the radio show or the festival or the podcast is good music and a bit of fun. The thing that underpins it all is breaking new music."
Gorham, 34, was the Radio 1 presenter who would stand in for John Peel when the great man was on holiday. The pair shared an office and Gorham was given the difficult task of filling Peel's Friday night slot when he suddenly died in 2004.
Though he is eclectic in taste, he does not for a minute claim to be Peel's successor. "I'm not John Peel, I can't play 150 genres in one show," he says. "On the Radio 1 website I fall under the category of 'experimental', although there are people who come on my website and say, 'You are about as experimental as cheese on toast.' Not a compliment, obviously, but I'm glad they bothered to listen in the first place."
Though he admits to being "a bit of a technophobe", he especially values those listeners who come to him on podcast, where he really does go out of his way to surprise. "It's like the unexpected, there could be anything around the corner, from an Icelandic folk record with a brass band on it to minimal techno from Berlin. It's really, really random, kind of like doing a mix.
"People put up with a lot if it's only half an hour, they want to hear little snippets of a lot of different things. What I like about the podcast is that people are specifically coming to listen to that, they've not tripped over it by accident."
He says that, though the BBC is now putting out Radio 1 podcasts of its own, they are limited by copyright regulations in the amount of music they can play. The Sunday Best podcasts, made by production company Talking Voices, are less constrained. "I don't play stuff from major labels, only independents. As the owner of an independent label I see the value in someone promoting my music – I think it's fantastic if someone is going to play my music on a podcast, rather than being scared that someone will download it."
Nonetheless, his Radio 1 work is "by far the most important part of what I do in terms of having opened so many doors", he says. "Radio 1 is like my job, although I'm only doing it four hours a week. We are reaching hundreds of thousands of people, which with a record label or podcast it is impossible to do."
As a DJ who's prepared to embrace new music he receives up to 400 free CDs a week. "I get three postbags and it takes half a day to go through it.
"Thousands of people would be delighted to receive that much music. John Peel always used to say he had an entire room of music he hadn't opened – he refused to throw it away because he was sure that nestling in there was a diamond that he could be the first one to play.
"But I'd prefer that people sent me MP3 files because they are quicker to open."
In July, Rob da Bank will host the more laid-back Camp Bestival at Lulworth Castle, with appearances by Suzanne Vega, Billy Bragg and the Flaming Lips, among others. Rob da Bank will be one of the featured DJs. This offshoot he describes as being "less ravey" than the main Bestival event in September. Both events he plans with his wife Josie. "Camp Bestival is for people who enjoy hanging out by the camp fire and chatting, rather than people who pitch their tent and find it again three days later. It's for people like me, 34 years old and a couple of kids. You want to see some bands but you also just want to wake up in the countryside with your friends."
Rob da Bank is someone who dreamt up a music festival which features, knitting tents, Women Institute members serving tea and thousands of punters in outlandish garb.
He himself nurtures an ambition to attend disguised as a piece of fruit. "I really want to go as a giant pineapple with prickly leaves." Experimental indeed.
Rob Da Bank's podcast is at www.sundaybestpodcast.com
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