This summer, a world-class event of epic proportions is set to take London by storm, and I don’t mean the Olympics.
So far this year, Bloc 2012 has been the event that has dominated news surrounding the impending British summer, with a series of mysteriously arousing and downright jaw-dropping video previews and announcements. First came the news that Bloc was on the move again, leaving their revered Butlins location of the last few years, and trading it for the eerie, industrial backdrop of the London Pleasure Gardens in the Royal Victoria Docks. This video sparked the hype and it’s no wonder why. What a venue that looks set to be.
Then Bloc announced it’s second ground-breaking new feature for 2012 – the M.S.S. Stubnitz. An ex-German military ship that was bought by a guerrilla arts collective and converted into a nautical nightclub, the Stubnitz travels around the seas of Northern Europe entertaining extremely privileged crowds in an unbelievably unique way and will feature as a floating stage at Bloc 2012. Check this video for an interview with the ship’s self-taught captain, Blo, and you’ll see why this is likely to be one of the biggest events in London this decade.
All of that and we’ve not even mentioned the line-up yet. A vast array of electronic music’s most forward thinking and world-beating personalities will be in attendance, from Orbital to Snoop Dogg, Amon Tobin to Steve Reich, Flying Lotus to Squarepusher, amongst countless others.
So, with all that in mind, Adam Tiran caught up with one of Bloc’s directors, Alex Benson, to chat about the exciting new venue, their views on the Olympics and that boat.
So first of all let’s talk about the change of venue. How come you moved from Minehead?
We moved from Minehead because Minehead was too damn small!
Fair enough, I think a lot of people seem to have been disappointed because it seemed to create such a unique and intimate vibe, but I guess if ever you could top it, this new venue – the London Pleasure Gardens – has got to be one of the most exciting venues ever. Have you had much involvement in the development of the project?
Yeah, we’ve been working really closely with the guys, they’re absolutely fantastic. It’s a great project in that it’s very familiar oriented, I mean in terms of programming. In terms of work, we get as much done down the pub as we do generally on site.
So you’ve had quite a hands-on approach with the project?
We’ve just been working really closely with them. It’s a brand new project that’s started taking shape, and we’re the first big festival there. The guys are very, very creative people in that they’re as interested in what’s going to be produced there and the events that are going to be produced there, as they are in making the venue perfect, which is why we’ve had such an involvement. So yeah, there’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas…
So do you think in some way this could be like the Berghain of London?
(Laughs). Well we’re not actually…in those buildings, so it’s unlikely to be quite like the Berghain of London (laughs). No I wouldn’t get too hung up on the idea of relating it to something else that happens elsewhere. Obviously Berghain is fantastic but this is going to be the Pleasure Gardens of London and that’s what it will be.
Absolutely. It must be nice to form part of the celebrations for the Olympics and life in the East End in general?
I think that the Olympics has just given a whole injection of momentum, of enthusiasm, a general joy of being and activating stuff in London. I can’t think of a more exciting part (of London). Every time you turn around, everybody’s got some new ideas for enterprise, and the people and the councils, the powers that be, are much more willing to give you stuff to get started around the Olympics. And for me, quite personally, I think that if you just want to sit and watch grown men run fast in a straight line, you want to have a word with yourself, to be quite honest (laughs). But I think that everything that surrounds it, the buildings, the wonderful spirit of everybody mucking in together is absolutely fantastic.
I have to agree with you completely. I think all that we hear about the Olympics is usually pretty pessimistic from the news, but at the end of the day it’s going to make for a very fun Summer.
Yeah, I think it got unfairly knocked in the grand scheme of things, but my experience of it has been that it’s generating employment, activity, and all these things. I mean it’s better than absolutely nothing happening, and it gives you the ability and enthusiasm to just go and do something, like we did by just smashing it out and give it a go moving venue. Just going back to that issue of moving venue, I started Bloc some time in 2003/4 and we used to be at a small club in Brighton and then we went to another bigger club in Brighton and people would say, “Oh that club where it started, that was the one, that was Bloc. Not this one, not that one.” And then suddenly after a couple of years of being there, they’d be like “Oh yeah, this club is what Bloc’s all about”. Then we took Bloc out of that club and took it to a Pontins Holiday Park, and they were like “Oh, you can’t do that! It’s not on the seafront, that’s what Bloc is”, and then all of a sudden, they realised that they really enjoyed Pontins. And the same thing happened with Butlins, and now we’ve just moved again! What we have done the whole way is to maintain the ethos of Bloc wherever we go. It’s not bricks and mortar, it’s not a place – it’s a feeling, it’s a concert and that’s why we take it from place to place.
Yeah, unlike most festivals you’ve become a mobile festival and so you can’t define it by the venue as such, it’s about the experience itself.
Yeah, you cannot keep on recreating the same thing over and over again because it won’t be exciting. You’ll never capture your childhood again, you’ll never recapture the first time you went on an aeroplane or the first time that you ever did anything and I think that’s absolutely wonderful, but if you keep on trying to do it all the time, it’s going to get boring and repetitive. We have to keep on constantly trying to reinvent Bloc and that actually is much truer to Bloc’s spirit than worrying about changing between different holiday camps or buildings.
So this year, Bloc is pretty much the festival with the most hype surrounding it, at least in the UK, thanks to some pretty major announcements.
Thank you, yeah it does feel that way. The office has just gone absolutely crackers.
Have you always planned to have 2012 as THE year for Bloc?
Well, the Olympics – they’ve snuck up on us. But really, it’s better understood on a micro level. Whenever you happen to be at one particular point, you can see the next point coming up. And you don’t know what the point is after that, or after that. There’s no such thing as a 3- or 5- or 10-year plan, or a plan for the rest of eternity, but when we knew that the Pleasure Gardens was on the horizon we knew immediately that we wanted to be involved in that. So as soon as we heard about it, we wanted to get there as quick as we could.
So, it’s a bit of a no-brainer really, when you’re presented with a venue like that.
Well, I don’t know whether or not you could ever call anything a no-brainer, but if we’d have done the boring thing of just staying where we were and thought, “Yeah, we can carry on here a little bit”, I would have always wondered what we could have done to get to the stage where we’ve got Snoop, in the Docklands and the boat. So, I was like, “Yeah, let’s do that!”
So, what’s a typical day in the life of Bloc’s organisers?
Ooh I don’t know, what did I do today? We kind of get up late and probably go for a stroll down by the canal in Hackney Wick, and then it’ll probably be time for some lunch, so go and have some lunch and talk about what we did at the weekend and music, that sort of thing. Answer the phone, shout at each other – we bicker a lot, probably bicker and argue about money, disagree with each other’s decisions that have been made over the weekend on email. Then it’ll probably be time for another walk, might get to the office for the first time by about 3.30pm, go on Facebook for a little bit and then fuck it off and go to the pub at about 5.30pm or something.
(Laughs) That sounds a lot of fun, I’m sure there’s a lot more hard work in it than that but yeah.
So I’ve heard mention of some pretty exciting audio-visual projects this year and you’ve just announced Amon Tobin and his ISAM project. Is this a big part of what you want Bloc to be?
I mean yeah that’s just the direction we wanted to take it in, really. I mean, if you’ve got like two turntables, speakers and a mixer, you know, wicked. Don’t get me wrong, that’s the absolute solid rock foundation of pretty much every great night out ever, but I think that in this day and age, we like to mix it up a little bit and we’re really pleased that we’re able to develop these projects. I mean thank you very much for saying about the hype surrounding the festival at the moment. I think that if people had any idea what we’re looking at in terms of our main stage, how it will look, in terms of a light-laser, AV spectacular, they’d be shocked. It’s going to be the highest spec festival easily in this country this year.
Wow, exciting stuff. So you’ve got Snoop Dogg as one of your main headliners, and he’s coming straight off the back of that unbelievable performance at Coachella. But recently he’s had some trouble getting into the UK though, hasn’t he? Are you worried about that?
Umm, he had a little bit of a slip up with some high spirits in Heathrow Airport a little while ago, but we obviously won’t dwell on that. Snoop Dogg’s had various ups and downs over the years, that’s probably the best way to put it. But you were referencing that performance at Coachella, which is another perfect example of the way the guy has stayed at the top of his game, constantly reinventing himself and constantly doing something new. The man’s a cultural phenomenon, and I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love Doggystyle or Snoop and Dr. Dre, and he’s just going to carry on bringing it. He’s now performing with people who have passed over into the spirit realm, and who can say they’re doing that?!
He’s quite a character! Will we be getting to see any hologram appearances of dead musicians at Bloc?
I think it will just depend on whether or not he’s in tune with the twilight zone or the other side basically.
Alright, okay, keeping the air of mystery I see, good to hear. So, Steve Reich was also just announced, another inspired addition. It should be interesting to see how a modern classical composer fits into the festival setting. What kind of set up will he have?
Yeah, well he’s the first minimalist, I’m sure that we all remember minimal techno and how big that was. He’s one of those guys that you can trace blood lines through, like Richie Hawtin, which is why we took great pleasure in announcing them at the same time. His set up will be with the Bang On A Can Allstars, which I believe is a 9-piece ensemble with 2 grand pianos, and it’s exactly the kind of performance that we’re able to do at our new venue. We would never have had the space before but now we do. And that’s just another massive benefit of moving to the Pleasure Gardens.
So you can bring in these bigger names because you’ve moved, because you’re mobile and you don’t restrict yourself.
You can bring in the bigger names and most importantly you can bring in the bigger shows. We just wouldn’t have had space for those pianos before, we just couldn’t do it. We couldn’t fit Amon Tobin’s show either had we not moved.
Yeah I’ve heard his is quite a gigantic setup, isn’t it?
Yeah, I think everyone’s seen bits of the ISAM show and we can’t wait to be having him at Bloc.
Yeah I’m looking forward to that, for sure. So, we’ve obviously got to talk about the boat! The M.S.S. Stubnitz - what an announcement that was! I’d not heard of it before and it seems like a lot of people hadn’t either – like the best kept secret of the seas!
Yeah, the Stubnitz is not part of any kind of mainstream clubbing world. It’s not like Space in Ibiza or something, it’s not a big media property or anything. It’s true to itself as a multi-use platform for sonic and visual arts. It’s got this amazing history of being rescued from the clutches of the ex-GDR; it was about to be scrapped and sold to finance the new government following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It was obviously jumped on, pretty much, by the guerrilla art collective that now still run it. And inspiringly, the captain of the ship, for all intents and purposes, taught himself to sail a 2,500 tonnes 80-metre, iron ship with just the first principles. He went on there with a manual, in the same way you’d teach yourself how to program a video that you’re unfamiliar with, it’s just incredible! We were just told continually, “You’ll never get it, you’ll never get it down the Thames, you’ll never get it to Bloc, you can’t be doing this, this is just crazy” and every single time we were told, “No, you’re not going to be able to do it”, we just dug our heels in and our knuckles got whiter and we just insisted. It’s just a great, great addition to the festival.
So it’s a bit of Bloc’s ‘culture of resistance’ I guess.
(Laughs) Err well it’s more a culture of celebration I think.
Getting it down the Thames must have been horrific to organise.
In an Olympic year, yeah. It’s one of those things where you would tell them about it, and then you’d have to tell them about it again and they still wouldn’t know what the fuck you were talking about. And you’ve have to say, “No, no, no listen. It’s a club, it’s on a boat, it’s 50 years old, it’s 100m long”, and they’d be like “What the hell?” Because it’s so much bigger than pretty much any other boat on the Thames, there’s only a couple of places big enough to even moor it. That’s what’s good about the dock water, it’s been dug deep enough for ships that size when it was part of the Victorian powerhouse and industrial heritage, around that site. So there were lots of very fortunate things that came together to make this possible and I think that people are going to be blown away by it.
What’s the capacity?
We’re still working it out and we’d like to leave it a bit longer before announcing that in the public sphere. But it’s probably about the equivalent of that second stage we had at Butlins last year.
Ok we’ll leave it at that. Have you got any other surprises for us up your sleeve?
The Boiler Room lineup is going to be pretty special, and we’ll be releasing that a little bit closer to the date.
And they’ll be playing in the Stubnitz as well will they?
Boiler Room will be running a separate broadcast party from the ship, yeah that’s right. Still got the lineup for that to come. Anyone who can’t get tickets for Bloc will be able to see the Boiler Room show live, which will be great. The site itself is being conceived of by Bloc as being part of the event, so not just having isolated stages that you can walk to and from but the entire site is going to be one holistic, organic, pulsating whole, a celebration of technological musical innovation and culture. There’s going to be things to play with, lose yourself in, trip up over, break and get up again, we’re looking at projection mapping, etc. We’re going to really, really surprise people with what we’re going to do with the site.
Sounds like you’re really going all out.
Well, you’ve got to really haven’t you?
You do, and you certainly seem to have blown people away with the promotional techniques and the sort of air of mystery around it so far.
Yeah I’m happy with the way the campaign is going, and see it as a reflection of what is genuinely a really good proposition for London. I want to see London be able to compete on the world stage, I want to see London add something. Like you go to Sonar in Barcelona, or Exit in Serbia, and you should go to fucking London for something specific too. It should be successful, it should be visible because it has an extraordinary amount of local talent, culture, drive and it should be head and shoulders above these other European cities, and especially in an Olympic year.
I guess as well, being located in Butlins in Minehead is never going to be very much of a draw for the international crowd, whereas now you’re right next to City Airport so you’re connecting all the way to Europe straight away.
Well we were always pretty grateful to receive quite a lot of visitors from overseas before but Bloc is certainly internationally visible. George and I, the other director, we get approached a lot by other festivals – we’re going to Lyon and other places - to go and give a talk, explaining some of the processes behind Bloc and how we as programmers approach the festival. People like to look to things abroad and I think we’re part of that.
Finally, who are you most looking forward to seeing this year?
Probably Loefah and the whole Swamp 81 showcase, which is going to be something really special. It’s on the Friday night, it’s the first time we’ll have used the boat, so that’s one thing I’m particularly looking forward to. There’s all these other huge shows we’re looking forward to, and we’re going to be putting on loads of stuff we haven’t done before. I can’t wait to see those guys completely blow the main stage away.
Your enthusiasm has just excited me a hell of a lot more! Thanks very much for speaking to us.
By Adam Tiran
Bloc 2012 hits the London Pleasure Gardens on July 6th - 7th. For full details, line-up and tickets visit blocweekend.com