Revelations – An Interview with Damnation Festival Curator Gavin McInally

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In October 2005 a young Glaswegian, sick of the direction metal festivals were heading, realised a crazy notion and months of insane work with a raucous expression of rebellion in a dark, cavernous club in Manchester. Celebrating its tenth anniversary this November 1st, Gavin McInally still talks of Damnation Festival, now based at Leeds university, with infectious enthusiasm and pride.

I first asked the reasons behind picking Manchester for that first Damnation festival in 2005: “It was purely logistical. We had to face facts: in Glasgow, we’d possibly have struggled to get the numbers we were after. In London, we wouldn’t have had the following from Scotland or Wales. So we tried places like Sheffield, Bradford, and Nottingham, but Manchester had what we wanted at the time.”

So how did the idea became reality? “I knew nothing about the industry then. I was a fan who followed Download and Ozzfest, but I felt they were becoming tired. We had some great bands on our own doorstep – the likes of Charger and Sikth – and I thought ‘How hard can it be to find a pub to put half a dozen bands on?’. So a dozen of us set out on a bit of a crash course! I was a journalist by trade, so found it quite easy to contact the bands. Once they realised we weren’t offering a bag of peanuts to play, it soon became much bigger than the pub gig I’d envisaged! My lack of experience a challenge though. There was a lot behind the scenes I didn’t know, like any of the technical aspects required for a gig. We’ve got stage managers now so in comparison to then, it’s like night and day! We’d booked fourteen bands of a high calibre, and the guy at Jilly’s Rock World was pivotal in helping things run smoothly.”

I almost puked!”, he replies to my asking how he felt that morning. “Despite seeing the ticket sales; the message boards buzzing; and the bill fully realised: it doesn’t hit home until you see the people queuing outside. It’s then you think, ‘Shit! This isn’t a joke!’ By that point there was nothing I could do if something went wrong: it was all in the lap of the Gods. Last year, bizarrely, I could’ve left the venue and had a sleep. Everything was running so perfectly!”

There’s a small team involved in bringing this extreme extravaganza to us, helping Gavin at various stages of the process: “One by one over the years the original team fell away, but we’ve picked up some vital people. Our graphic designer, Bri, is responsible for all the posters you see, and for the way Damnation looks online: and Becky of course, our press officer, who deals with you guys! The core is me and Paul, based in Nottingham, and we deal with all the bookings, Facebook postings and correspondence, all the day to day stuff. Then of course we have freelance stage managers, engineers and venue staff who deal with stuff on the day.”

Damnation is renowned for staging some lesser-known acts, but it’s a situation Gavin is torn over. “It’s frustrating. We’d love to fill a venue with these guys, but we have to think realistically. Fans wouldn’t come to see 27 bands of that calibre. Putting a local band on a headline stage in a 1,000 capacity room, with 25 people watching, does nothing for the band, the festival or the fan. You need a Carcass or a My Dying Bride to make it worth the ticket money. It’s great to give that chance though: Iron Witch opened the fourth stage last year, and there was no room at the back. If 600 people watch and 500 of them stick a ‘like’ next to that band’s Facebook page after seeing them, fantastic. That’s why Damnation started in the first place. We’ve only around four slots to give to that level of band so we sit around and filter through to pick the best ones. Evile, who opened a stage in 2006, are probably the biggest example we’ve had. They were unsigned when we put them on, and we can’t take the credit for their success but to see them supporting the likes of Megadeth now is a great feeling.”

For this November, Raging Speedhorn and Bolt Thrower were the first to be confirmed. I felt that the former were core to the festival itself, having brought home the first event. “It’s a personal thing. The first metal gig I ever went to was Charger, Speedhorn and Amen, and I’m a massive fan. We don’t have a big habit of rebooking bands – nobody else has played more than twice – so it’s testament to how fondly they’re thought of here. They went out with a bit of a whimper but they’ve tried other things and come back. They’ve never had Frank at Damnation before, so to be doing their first two albums also, it’s going to be an unbelieveable show. Bolt Thrower? That in itself is incredible as they only play festival or two per year across the world, so to even be considered is unbelieveable. Tickets began to fly as soon as they were announced.. Some crazy bugger from Australia’s booked flights on the strength of that alone! We’ve also got Saint Vitus and Cannibal Corpse, so that’s some opening salvo! There are four or five others lined up for announcements soon (Anaal Nathrakh, Revocation and Corrupt Moral Altar were announced after the interview), & they’ll be fantastic. It’s the tenth anniversary and we want people to say, ‘That’s the best bill of this year.”

The festival, of course, continues to grow: too big for some, who complained of time clashes last year. “It’s frustrating for us too. We’d love to ensure everyone gets to see all the acts but, you know, it’s the same at every festival, some of the biggest in the world. The only way you’re going to avoid it is to book shit bands. The only advice I can give is, if you really want to see a particular band, get there early. When Vallenfyre played the rectangular-shaped Terrorizer room last year (a big bottleneck resulting in a queue outside the doors), there was enough space for another two hundred people in the wings. It was really annoying for us, and for the fans who couldn’t get in. So nearer the time we’ll have plenty of notices saying ‘Please don’t stand at the entrance’.”

We agree on how irritating this was, particularly at the aforementioned stage at regular intervals last year. So, given this, are there any changes planned for this year?

We did consider going to two days but, surprisingly, the feedback has been a resounding ‘no’. We’ve generally a slightly older fan base, many with kids, who don’t want to have time away from home or spend two nights’ hotel fees, they’ve got work Monday morning…I think our average punter is 33 and maybe we can’t survive for two days at that age! Why mess with what’s working and try to make it into something else?”


I asked if Gavin felt he’d opened doors for the indoor festivals in this country, the ‘Punter’s Festival’. “Well, in 2004 when I first got the idea, there was only really Download and Bloodstock as far as I’m aware. There have been so many since and whether Damnation played a part I don’t know as I’ve never asked any of the organisers. If it did, great. It’s not rocket science. It’s just getting the investment, showing a bit of commitment, doing it right, and putting on a product for fans that’s worth it: offer them something different from the usual tour that’s going through town, and see if you succeed.”

Upon being asked if he is proud to be the curator of one of the greatest indoor festivals in Europe, Gavin’s down-to-earth nature resulted in a ‘wow’ before his considered response: “Obviously I love Damnation to bits. The line-up for me is the best as it’s my taste in music, they’re bands that I want to see. So yes, proud of what it’s become, delighted that so many fans share the same taste.’ And as for the future? ‘If I had a really bad year where I was shat upon from all sides, that could break my spirit: but at the moment there’s absolutely no reason why Damnation couldn’t go for another decade. I’d rather be optimistic: let’s look at the twentieth anniversary in ten years time eh?!”

Gavin is an affable, ebullient ball of energy who talks fast about his creation as if it were one of his children. The love displayed is evident in the product thousands of fans have witnessed over the last nine years, and whenever the name is mentioned it’s with deep reverence by all who’ve attended. Make sure you don’t miss out on this year’s festivities – just don’t stand in any bloody doorways, right?…

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