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Pete Lawrence Discusses The Campfire Convention And The Little Chill Festival w/ Chewy Beatwell

How you doing, Pete?
Very well, thank you.

You’re bringing the Little Chill festival to East Sussex in July, as a fund raiser for your new project, which is very exciting news. You have been busy!
Yes, we have been working away on the Campfire Convention, my new social network, which is very much inspired by the Big Chill community and it’s geared towards the Little Chill festival in East Sussex.

For those who may not know about the Big Chill festival, Pete, shall we get into the history of how that began and how it evolved?
Sure, well it started very spontaneously. I sort of picked up on the desire to do a Sunday Chillout in North London and we were invited down to Union Chapel, which has now established itself as quite a famous venue as well still being an active non-conformist church. I was shown round the back rooms and thought that it would be a good place to throw a party. I think we were the first people to go into there and do anything other than the church service, which was still taking place on the Sunday morning and then on the afternoon we went into the back rooms to curate this 8 hour happening from 4pm-Midnight. It moved through various shades of ambient music but it was very pure ambient at the time and not just about the music. People like Stuart Warren-Hill of Hexstatic, who became a Big Chill mainstay, was very much involved from the start in pioneering the audio-visual side. It sort of converted the club concept in many ways as the central room had mattresses and was totally chilled out and horizontal for 8 hours. Then all the interesting stuff was taking place in the little alcoves above the main room, or in the little side rooms, which we later moved into for regular monthly events. We just varied it around a lot, so one month you may get a dub soundsystem in one of the side rooms and then the next month it may have been an art installation. You never quite knew what to expect, and we didn’t either to be honest. It just evolved really and it was a very fluid concept but it was centred around a much more social take on clubbing, or post clubbing. It wasn’t just about clubbers who hadn’t slept we also had families come along and a real mix of people, so we were very much about joining the dots.

So, it was more than just a coincidence that it happened at that post-rave time in the mid 90’s, did you have that idea in your head to have just a chill out space, or was it always going to be more than that for you?
I think it was always going to be more. I always had the idea of bringing different tribes together, so we might include some folk music, or some film soundtrack stuff, we even moved into Drum & Bass. It was just a hybrid of mixing genres up, mixing media up and mixing people up. We did that for a year and a half at Union Chapel between 94-95. We had some amazing responses to the events. We were reviewed in the Times for the first one we did and then the likes of Mixmag & DJ Mag who picked up on it. Dave Swindells at Tim Out was a great supporter too. We were described as a ‘Festival within a club’ so the move to go to the great outdoors was as much about my mates encouraging me and saying that if I can do a festival in a club then I can do one in a field. There was no design, there was no business plan, no spreadsheet, it was just a case of getting our friends together and seeing what would come out of it really.

Did the ethos grow from there?
Yeh, everyone used to remark about the ethos of the Big Chill but we didn’t have one really, we never wrote anything down!

Those early Big Chill punters made that their own then I guess and from what they saw around them?
I think that’s what it was all about, yes, people just making their own meaning to what was going on. The first festival was pretty much an illegal event in a field the Black Mountains in the Welsh borders. It was an incredible event for around 600 people in 1995. People started attaching their own assumptions and interests and they started suggesting ideas to us. It just evolved as a family and I keep coming back to that word ‘family’ but I wasn’t involved for the last 4-5 Big Chill’s and in the latter years it lost the sense of family and became a generic festival. What was important seemed lost. It grew because it started with friends and then their friends and the circle grew organically. It was more than clubbing, it was about bringing people together with different interests and it was explosive.

I think my first Big Chill event was at the Metro in Sydney as part of the Big Chill down under tour, 2001 I think. What are your memories of that?
Back in the midst of time! Yes, the Sydney one was great! We did Perth, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne and had a great week. We then popped into Tokyo on the way back! We never did a festival in Japan but there was a whole crew over there and again it felt like a family, our Japanese family, who used to come over to our events in Naxos in the Greek Islands. There was sort of an International cultural exchange going on. I’m not sure how aware you are of the history of the Big Chill but those people who were involved with us in the early days were part of a real rollercoaster ride and we had a real saga when we tried to do our first legal festival in 1996.

Yeh, i heard something about that, the one in Norfolk?
Yes, that’s it. We came unstuck in a number of ways! Amongst the saga was the wind and stormy weather, local residents and being run out of town! Followed by headlines in Diss Express. It will all be in a book when it finally comes out, I’ve almost finished writing it, I made all sorts of notes at the time, so it’s all down on paper.

Oh, wow! There’s a book? When does that come out?
I haven’t got a plan at the moment. I’ve pretty much finished writing it and it’s book of memoirs really. I just need to update the Campfire stuff and it will be released when I can get round to it.

I’m excited for that. I still have my copy of ‘Crossfade’
Right, yeh! It’s a really underrated book. That was and Vicky Howard and myself inviting people to write about genres, which was something we generally tried to avoid the whole notion of genres and the title ‘Crossfade’ reflects that. We had Mixmaster Morris write on Jazz and Alan James – who sadly just died a few weeks ago – who wrote about post punk. Hillegonda Rietveld wrote about the Hacienda and Techno and I did a folk piece also. There’s some great stuff in there and it shows the broad musical span of the Big Chill.

I guess, again, writing the book is just an organic expansion of the Big Chill?
Yeh, it was. As I said the whole thing was organic and there was no business plan. My ex-partner Katrina was the absolutely vital part of the machine. She picked up the organisation of it and left me to do the dreaming and conceptualising of it all. We were all pretty hands on but without Katrina it wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground, as she started to organise the teams and then it just flowed from there to the point where we had 100’s of staff on the weekend itself when the festival grew from 600 people to 40,000 at it’s peak at Eastnor. We went through a variety of venues. From Larmer Tree Gardens on the Witshire/Dorset borders to Lulworth Castle where Camp Bestival is. Also, we did lots of stuff abroad. Naxos we did 3 years of parties there, we did one with the British council in Cairo, which was a real highlight. We did others in Europe and in Japan also. It was very exciting times.

My first Big Chill was the last year at Larmer Tree Gardens. I was chuffed about that as I feel that Larmer Tree was the spiritual home for those first few years, it was a beautiful site.
Yeh, it many ways it was the making of The Chill. We had 900 at that first one and we were still coming out of the traumas of Norfolk. We did a very gentle approach at Larmer tree in 1998. It was a lot about broadening out into the Jazzy sound from the ambient stuff. I met Norman Jay around that time in Sydney actually and then he came and played for us and really broadened it out massively. Then it suddenly became that iconic Sunday lunchtime set. At its peak in Eastnor he must have been playing to 30,000 people. I met him for lunch recently and he said that the Big Chill was the making of him, which made me so incredibly chuffed to hear that. Knowing how important that the Good Times soundsystem was for the Notting Hill Carnival and that was an institution, so for him to say that about the The Chill just made me realise how we brought people together in new ways. He still has so much love for it and it was he who prompted me to look at doing the Little Chill festival.

At what point did you feel that the Big Chill had run it’s course and you were ready to move on to other projects?
I was certainly ready to move on. We lost a lot of our original followers by the time I left and they could see it being commercialised. For me personally each boardroom meeting became a battle between ethos and commercialism and I slowly started to lose out. I thought that it had turned into something that I really hadn’t got in mind. It took me a while to negotiate getting out but at that point they made it very difficult for me to continue, so I felt that I had no choice.

So, you moved on from there and started the Campfire convention a few years ago?
Yeh, we did a soft launch a couple of years ago as a social network. It’s equally about the events, so they run in parallel. The inspiration came from The Big Chill as we had a simple web forum then and a whole variety of stuff being talked about on there. It just had this real sense of people being there for each other, it was a real altruistic spirit. I know of probably 30 or 40 marriages that came out of the forum and our events! So we wanted to carry on that lineage and thought that if all that can be brought about by a simple forum page and which could be so inspirational what if we could people a few more tools. This is an idea I had really before Facebook was established, giving people a profile page, to give collaborative project space, to give them a local beacon they could join, so to make a geo-locational aspect to it. Also, to have a magazine end of the website as well. Hopefully our software update will very soon enable people to make the whole user experience much more seamless.

Sounds fantastic, Pete. So, tell us about the idea of The Little Chill and it’s purpose as a fundraiser for The Campfire Convention.
The idea around the fund-raiser was that we could start to pay some of the volunteers at Campfire. We have developers and we have PR people for example and it’s just starting to come together. Again, there’s no business plan, well there is now but there wasn’t originally. The idea is that it’s completely run by volunteers and will in time be owned by volunteers. We had the idea to bring in what we call the Karma scheme, where the more you get involved in the website the more you will get back in literal profit share. In that sense it’s quite a radical new model for social media that moves away from the surveillance capitalism of Facebook and Google, where it actually puts the power back in the hands of the people that are using it rather than mining their data and selling it on as adverts to other corporations and political organisations. We are seeing more horrific revelations and it’s a real challenge to get off Facebook if we are all on it. I took some inspiration from Matt Black who simply said that he wasn’t going to it anymore. If we can get a number of us to stick two fingers up to Facebook, even for a month, what effect would that have? Maybe not much but it’s worth a try.

Something needs to change and this sounds like a great platform to help make that change.
I think it’s got potential. The idea with The Little Chill is to join the dots between The Big Chill years and what we are doing with Campfire. I’m realising the power of timeless music and it takes you back to all the things that happened back then. It’s the most emotionally resonant art form there is.

Where is the Little Chill then Pete?
It’s in East Sussex near Ringmer and it’s over the weekend of the 26th-28th July. It’s an intimate event and more of a ‘down on the farm’ vibe than a festival vibe, which is where my heads at now.

It looks like you have called in a few favours looking at the line up that you have got!
It’s been amazing actually and all aside from one has said yes, as they were really busy that weekend.

The line up really evokes memories of the early Big Chill events.
Yes, it’s pretty eclectic and we will be having other things going on. We have a Campfire tent, with speakers on a few panels and sessions. Also, we have a couple of yoga and well being areas too. It’s a great location for it all.

I hear there’s a secret lunchtime set from a Big Chill icon? I think we may have given the game away here a little!
Well, the eagle eyed amongst the readers here may have noticed his name mentioned! Yeh, he played at some legendary Sunday lunchtime sessions at The Big Chill. We can’t mention his name for some ridiculous music biz contractual reasons but I think you can guess who it might be!

The Little Chill takes place between Fri 26th & Sun 28th July 2019.
More info and tickets link is here: https://campfireconvention.uk/node/8230

To find out more about the Campfire Convention, go here: https://campfireconvention.uk

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