Pin It
Aphex Twin Bloc
Angela Mazur

Bloc: UK's biggest rave heads back to Butlins

Two and a half years on from the disaster that nearly crippled it, the party is back at the edge of England

In July 2012, Bloc left Butlins and headed to London Pleasure Gardens, a venue that was all set to play host to what was arguably the UK's largest ever showcase of electronic music. Snoop Dogg, Steve Reich and Gary Numan aside, Bloc's curation had eyes locked firmly on the underground. One glance at the timetable revealed a bold assembly of dance music's auteurs, with Actress, Shackleton and Joy Orbison all set to perform. It was ambitious in its conception, but the prospect of making it reality proved a bridge too far. Bloc 2012 was a total disaster.

It's perhaps the UK's most famous party that never was, lasting just five hours before being cancelled amid scenes of forged tickets, insufficient security and a venue clearly ill-equipped to deal with the rigours of a two day festival. There were reports of stampedes, of people fearing for their lives, lost in the crowd.

Over the years Bloc had forged a reputation for throwing some of the most hedonistic parties in the country, but this clusterfuck threatened to sabotage all that hard work. It thrust the company into administration, a move that left a lot of punters dejected and out of pocket and left artists sceptical about whether they could work with Bloc again.

That weekend in July, parties sprang up all over London, as confused artists and partygoers battled through the rain searching for a way to salvage some fire from Bloc's ashes. Despite being confronted with the reality of having to find a million smaller venues across the city to host acts that had been coldshoudered by the cancellation, the determination of Bloc's extended family to make it happen any which way served as example that the UK has something of a penchant for electronic music and the hedonism that accompanies it.

After declaring the company bankrupt, Bloc was forced to start back where it began, putting on parties in a warehouse in Hackney Wick, slowly inching back towards functionability and regaining the trust of those that were let down by 2012.

It's carried the festival off its deathbed – Bloc Weekender is very much alive again, back at Butlins in Minehead, a sleepy town that lingers on the west coast of the UK. We caught up with Bloc founder Alex Benson to talk starting a label, UK politics and the return of the festival that bankrupted them.

This marks a return since the 2012 disaster – are you nervous? What brought you back?

Alex Benson: We were stunned by 2012. But we went back to work very quickly, because promoting is our trade. We couldn't work on the same scale we had done before everything had imploded, but I don't know really how to do anything apart from promote techno and I know George (Bloc co-founder) doesn't either, so that was what we set our minds to doing. We went bust in the July of 2012, occupied a warehouse in Bow by October 2012, ran the first party there on new year's eve 2012 / 2013, and traded up from there until today.

So the answer to the second part of the question, is that we're not back, we never went away. We were just doing the same thing but during that period it didn't attract as much attention. The answer to the first part of the question, is that naturally, we were very nervous at first.

But ultimately I believe that Butlins provides the best infrastructure for a music festival in the entire country if not the world, and that other people think that too. I knew that if people got behind it and supported it by buying tickets, our re-assembled team would be able to run it, no danger.

Putting it on sale was a test of that belief, and that was a very nerve wracking moment. But it turned out that people fucking loved it. It's now sold more tickets than we had ever hoped for in the comeback year and is about to sell out, so I'm no longer nervous. I'm actually quite looking forward to it.

How have you recovered financially? What was the economic fallout of last time - did you lose a lot of money?

Alex Benson: Yes, we lost everything we owned. We went down to slightly less than zero in financial terms, and slightly worse in terms of reputation. We recovered by taking over a warehouse in Bow. A friend had begun a renovation project there and couldn't help but notice we needed a project to take on. He offered us the lease so that we could make a proper venue out of this old warehouse. We were very grateful for the offer and I don't know what would have become of Bloc without it.

We cleared the building, built toilets and installed soundproofing, and we did that for £6,000, all on a credit card because we were flat broke. We made friends with the neighbours and got a TEN licence for a party on new year's eve 2012/2013. From there, we ran parties, invested back in the building, and traded up. We erected walls in the back part of the building to make workspaces and sub-let it to small businesses.

We had turnover to borrow against, and we put the credit to good use acquiring more leases on more buildings, where we erected more walls to make more workspaces, which in turn were rented out to more small businesses. The club we had built was a good club, and in due course it was granted a full licence and we perfected the soundsystem and the lighting hosting better and stronger parties. Our Autumn St venue has a licensed capacity of 580 souls, and it is full most weekends. We have 30 small businesses as tenants in the yard surrounding the club, all working with one another on various projects.

That's the point we had reached when we felt stable enough to return to the weekender format.

You’ve also started a label called Bloc - people would say that in 2015 that’s a crazy idea. Why did you want to do that and how’s it going? What are your plans and your objectives with that?

Alex Benson: It's crazy if you expect to make money from it, but if that's not what you want it for then it is a source of unparalleled joy. Neither George nor I are artists, so this is as close as we get to the creative process which has inspired our entire careers. That's exciting. We can hear unfinished work, influence it with brute grunts or cackhanded gestures, help present it or even better reach more people than it would otherwise, all of this is fucking thrilling – and that's not bad business – that's therapy. I would pay for being involved in that kind of enterprise. Actually, I think I already do.

We have no real plans for it, and no objective other than immediate, sustained gratification for the listener. It is going to be a very good techno label and all manner of things can come out of that, especially when they are attached to a venue.

How do you see the UK’s music scene? In rude health or place of stasis?

Alex Benson: I like it. There's plenty of world class music being produced in the UK. It's a shame there aren't really enough venues in London - it suffers from the real estate bubble taking advantage of the regulatory environment in order to make it difficult or impossible for them to begin or survive.

Perhaps there will be a property crash one day - that would change the cultural landscape to something more comparable to that in Germany and other countries in Europe where there isn't such extreme pressure on land.

What about the UK's political landscape - what future do you see for our youth?

Alex Benson: I think the major defining change in people's lives has been a lack of security – in your job, your home, the constant, lurid reports of conflicts that seem to get closer to Britain every news cycle. People have had to accept insecurity in their everyday lives in a way they just haven't had to for a generation or more.

So against this background of material insecurity, at both ends of the political spectrum extreme, single-issue parties have sprung up, and they are reactionary parties in the truest sense of the word. Reacting to sense of unrest that's engendered by, say, not being able to afford to live in your house or being perpetually at war.

These feelings are valid, but the way that they are expressed is not always valid. I think that some of those single issue parties promise to lend dissatisfied people an easy way out in the form of an off-the-shelf identity they can take on to mark themselves as different from other groups of dissatisfied people. I don't see that, as a country, dividing ourselves up is particularly helpful in solving those problems of dissatisfaction and feelings of insecurity.

I'm 31, so I don't quite qualify as the youth, but my experience of the past few years suggests that the current landscape favours self-starters. If I was leaving university, I don't think I would be expecting to be tapped on the shoulder and offered employment.

Why Minehead - what is taking you back to that part of the world? Can we expect any surprises this year?

Alex Benson:  It's very beautiful, but primarily, it's where Butlins is. It's difficult to communicate how perfect a self-contained little town with purpose built nightclubs and auditoriums is for staging an electronic music festival. You have to come to see it. As for surprises – isn't it enough of a surprise that we're back at all?