Having made their name in Bristol's vibrant underground music scene, celebrated party-starters The Blast have gone on to become among the most respected promoters not just in the region but in the country as a whole.
Priding themselves on their commitment to being unrestricted by genre boundaries, the team have welcomed a host of genuine megastars to their parties across the last decade – Giggs, Chase & Status, Skream, Diplo, Skepta – as well as countless other beloved acts from the worlds of drum & bass, dubstep, house, garage, grime and more.
And now, after teaming up with legendary drum & bass brand Hospitality, The Blast have become a driving force behind a brand new project: Shockout. On 24 February 2018, the Bath & West Showground will play host to the very first edition of the festival, featuring performances from the likes of Shy FX, My Nu Leng, J Hus and High Contrast.
Ahead of this new adventure, we spoke to The Blast's co-founder Rob Cracknell about how it all came to this.
Hi Rob, how's it going?
Not too bad thanks, how are you?
I'm good – thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Are you busy?
No problem. No it's normal day in the office really, just going over some ideas and some bits and bobs, mainly London stuff today so it's all good.
And whereabouts are you now, are you in Bristol?
I'm in Bristol today yeah, in our office on Stokes Croft. Which is good for me because it's a 20 minute walk from my house as opposed to a 2-hour train journey to the Fabric office in London.
The main reason I wanted to talk to you is because you've got your new festival Shockout coming up. But it would be good go back a bit to how you guys at The Blast started out. How did you go about throwing your very first parties? And what motivated the decision to start doing that?
The first decision came from myself, Tom Hoyle and another gentleman Olly Ball. The three of us set up The Blast, but Olly emigrated to Australia about 5 years ago so he's no longer part of it, it's just myself and Tom.
At the time The Blast was kind of born out of a slight frustration from us, as we felt there weren't that many nights that had multi-genre lineups. We just didn't really feel like that was something that was happening.
We'd all enjoy different types of music independently, but we never really managed to find a night where we could all go out together and enjoy that. Although we all enjoyed each other's music, one of us would be slightly more into something than the others. And because of that we started putting on our first couple of parties, trying to mix up different genres.
I guess it was also kind of a feeling of competitiveness that we wanted to put on lineups that we didn't think had been done before. Which was perhaps not as easy as we'd perceived it might be, because it's not just about you wanting to book someone, it's about selling it to the act who is maybe used to just playing within their own genre.
So we had some really good parties early on, like [rave legends] Shut Up and Dance playing with [Brazilian baile-funk band] Bondo do Role from Diplo's label. And then we had Diplo and Sinden at Thekla which was a really incredible show.
Yeah I was going to ask about that musical diversity on your lineups – while I'd say it's broadly bass-centred you guys cover a lot of genres in your nights. Did that come from each of wanting to bring their thing to the table?
Yeah I guess so. Again because it hadn't really happened we felt we had quite a blank canvas to work on. I know other nights had done it, I'm not by any means taking any credit for coming up with mixed lineups as an idea. But we all had different ideas of how we thought raves should run.
And we all saw that there were a lot of things [different scenes] shared, like drum & bass with its MC culture and grime with its MC culture for me just fit together perfectly. So if you start the night with grime and end up with drum and bass, it would get more and more hyped throughout the evening
A really good party I remember doing we started off with Dub Boy playing bashment and stuff like that, then went on to Ratpack, then Congo Natty, then Nicky Blackmarket and Kenny Ken.
I think that was our first big party we did – which wasn't initially called Shit The Bed, that was just the strapline on the poster, and then that became a night as it were. And we ended up selling quite a few t-shirts that said 'Shit The Bed' on.
I remember seeing those about I think...
[laughing] Yeah there's still some embarrassingly kicking around some places...
It's hard for me to talk for Olly now because he's obviously on a different continent, but me and Tom get a little frustrated when people talk about what we do as just 'bass music', it almost seems a bit reductive or crass.
It's more than that, we can book across the board – you know, we'd have no issue booking anything from the Mumdance and Pinch side of things all the way to someone like SaSaSaS.
If it's good music and you can make it work together, and you think it's gonna be a vibe, it's all good. So we've always just tried to keep labels and parameters off it as much as we can.
We had Jamie xx and Addison Groove play for us at Thekla - and even though I think probably only 10 people turned up, we never felt particularly confined with what we do because we've never said "this is what The Blast is".
It kind of feels like we can do anything, and I think that's really important to us.
Yeah that's definitely something I'd identify about you guys, having been to some of your nights. It wouldn't feel unusual hearing house in the main room and then someone like Benga or Spyro playing in the next room...
Yeah I think that's important, that kind of collective spirit. It's a big pay off for when people say "you know what I was planning to see X but I didn't end up seeing them in the end because I was transfixed by Y". That's really cool that people can wander into a room and find something new, that's what we're in to.
We don't really book anything that we're not in to - which is the same with FabricLive, Run and all of our projects really – we try to stay as true to the craft as we can when setting those lineups. Although I'm aware that 'True To The Craft' is a byline of Exit Records so maybe don't quote me on that [laughing].
For those early parties - was there anyone in particular that you remember being particularly excited to have booked? Any landmark names that made you feel like you'd really made it by having them play your party?
I can only speak for myself personally, but one of the main ones for me – at an early party in Level on Park Row which is sadly closed now - was Altern8, which for me felt pretty seminal. We had Altern8 at one and DJ Assault at another one.
As much as they are amazing producers and incredible performers, there's such a visceral tag on them both. You know when Altern8 step up with those masks on, or when DJ Assault gets on the mic and starts saying all manner of weird Miami bass shit, it really seems like a kind of moment. So I guess those guys for me.
I also remember being at Glastonbury one year, after about three years of throwing parties, and DJ Zinc walked past myself and Tom and he said hello to us and casually walked on; that seemed like a big thing.
We'd booked Zinc a couple of times by that point, but the first time booking him was a real landmark moment. It felt like possibly all the stuff we'd been doing was being noticed, and he was one of the first big, big DJs that came down that we were desperate to book.
The likes of Zinc, Nicky Blackmarket, Ed Rush, Fabio… they were all some of the soundest blokes and they'd give you ten minutes before and after the set just to talk about… probably the same shit they have to say to every young promoter [laughing]. But it was so inspiring at the time, being able to meet those guys and being able to have a drink with them.
I am into other music as well, but I remember meeting Skibadee and for me he's like my… I was gonna say Bruce Springsteen [laughing]… but yeah I used to fucking hero worship him when I was a kid, so to then have him come off a set and say "that was brilliant, thanks very much lads, hope we can do this again", that makes you want to do it all again regardless of however much money you've probably just lost.
At the start we weren't very good with our finances, it was an attitude of "let's just sell this place out and have a wicked party… the rent will get paid somewhere else". At one point I was managing an off-license, working in the evening as well, and then we'd go out and flyer afterwards.
Me, Tom and Olly would all be putting up posters all day, flyering every night, talking about music constantly and then if you were flyering people would let you into their nights for free. So we'd be seeing all sorts of DJs, getting about the place. It was really good, a really fun time. Not that I'd have it in me these day to go flyering every night.
No I can imagine not, I suppose there's not so much need for it these days as far as you guys are concerned. It might be hard to say for sure, but do you think that being based in Bristol made it easier to do the things you wanted to do, because of how vibrant the scene was and is for that sort of music in the city? Or do you reckon you could have just as easily done it somewhere else, say Manchester or Leeds or wherever...
I'm not sure… I know that when we were working in Bristol we were very lucky to be surrounded by the people we were.
I started working at a music management company called Hope, and they shared an office with D-STYLE and RUN – RUN being a drum & bass night that I now run. Those guys were giving us a lot of sound advice. We were also socialising with the Blowpop guys who were probably about five years ahead of us, and they really brought us in which was fantastic.
I guess the main thing at that time was that we really had the support of the people ahead of us, no one tried to stop us doing anything, which was really good. The only line in the sand was really: "That's my DJ. You can go for him, but I won't be too impressed", so everyone respected that.
There was a bar called Arc Bar which me, Tom and Olly used to go to a lot – we did a lot of nights down there – but it was run by one of the guys from Team Love called Tom Paine. And that place was kind of a collective hub.
We'd go down there on a Tuesday night and not come out until like Thursday… it was kind of post-uni wild times. You'd go down there for an hour DJ set, end up staying about 14 hours and you'd come out with an idea for a night.
It's nice now to see everyone from that hub doing so well. Team Love are doing their stuff like Love Saves The Day festival, we're doing our bits. That was kind of our generation's hub for it all, [laughing] basically a shit-hole we all used to hang around in, get caned and talk about this, that and the other.
Do you miss those early days? Or do you like the increased professionalism? I'm assuming there is a slightly greater level of professionalism these days…
[Laughing] We're definitely more professional now… it's hard to say whether I miss it not really. The old days were fantastic and we did them to the best of our abilities, but I like to think we've just slightly changed, we do other stuff now.
I thoroughly enjoy what I do now and also I'm getting older now [laughing]… if I cane it for four hours I'll feel it for about three days. I like having an office, I like not having to work from home. Excel spreadsheets were seemingly a marvel about 6 years in because we work out before the night exactly how much money we were going to lose.
I think maybe the thing I do miss most is the flyering aspect, it was quite nice running the gauntlet coming out the club. All the flyerers knew each other, there was no real competition between promoters, so we'd all just have our cans of beer after we'd already been in the night, and everyone would have a catch up and probably end up going back to house party or something afterwards.
It's kind of harder to stay in touch with your peers like that now, but then I think that's probably a wider societal thing. People don't stay in contact as much because a message on Facebook maybe seems like enough now.
Moving forward from those early days a bit now… when I think of The Blast, I think of Motion. It really feels like it's your home and there's a heavy association between the two brands. How did that relationship develop?
I guess it's because we were there so early. When we first went there – around the same time as people like Just Jack and Penguin Dance – the skate ramps were still in and you had to put the decks on top of one of the ramps and move everything around a bit.
But Motion feels like home to us because it feels like we've both moved forward and evolved at a similar rate. In the same way we can hopefully still challenge things with our bookings, people can also come into the venue and think "oh shit, stuff has changed"; you know, there's maybe a balcony been built, a new light rigging installed.
I like to think we share a common ground of trying to push things forward and not rest on our laurels too much. And while both parties are doing that, I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be our home for hopefully a long time to come.
And is that how Sequences Festival came about as well – part of that mutual growth for both brands?
Sequences for us was actually more of a knee-jerk reaction to what we saw at the time… a lot of quite safe festivals which were a little bit too 'bright lights and glitter'. Which is cool, and no disrespect to any of those kind of festivals going on. But Sequences isn't We Are FSTVL – it's an urban setting, and there's as much attention put onto soundsystems as there is into acts.
Precisely – bringing in the likes of RC1 shows that you guys really do mean business…
Yeah, and in our first year Mungo's HiFi filled that same space as well.
Talking to people critically, asking them what they want from the soundsystems, and then getting that sound engineered properly with the correct system; for us that's just like giving the proper platform for the music that we truly love in our scene. Uncompromisingly so, and in an environment that we believe can work the best.
Getting Chase & Status last year for me was huge, because they've released so many amazing tunes throughout their career and for me they are the pacemakers for that sort of multi-genre producer. So they embody a lot of what The Blast is about.
But generally just putting on really good bass music and not feeling like we had to have that glittery, glossy aesthetic to it was something we really wanted to explore. And people really took the approach – "here's a soundsystem, here's some really great DJs, and I haven't really got anything more for you".
There was no need for any promotional spiel or anything, all the information was right it front you and you can either take it or leave it. And luckily for us people were really drawn to it.
And I think ultimately that means you know that the crowd you've got is the crowd you want – that the people at the festival know that they like what's on offer...
Yeah exactly, there aren't really any points of confusion. No one is turning up and saying: "You know what, I actually thought it was going to be like this or that".
I think the best thing about Sequences was that people really got there early, they were really there to support all the DJs. It was the fastest we've ever had an event fill up. Which was really good to see. It's all well and good selling the tickets but if everyone turns up at like 7 in the evening it's still a shit event.
Do you think it's an event you're going to do more of in the long term?
Yeah for sure. Next year won't be at Motion, it'll be just outside of Bristol at a larger area. With it being our third year next year we want an element of expansion in what we're doing.
Which moves us nicely onto Shockout – how did that come to be?
I suppose it came about when Blazey from [Bristol promoters] Bodynod – a good friend of ours – contacted the guys who run Westfest at the Bath & West Showground. The Blast and Bodynod ended up doing stage there last year, and a bigger one again this year.
When we went last year we all got a big bus down there, and the whole experience was amazing. I loved the venue, I loved the unity of the crowd – I think there's something pretty special about drum & bass fans who just fucking love the music, it's really nice to be around that.
So we went away from that, and after a few conversations with Josh from Hospital [Records], we said "maybe we could do something in that space that kind of represents what The Blast is and what Hospitality is. Is that something we could do?".
I think every promoter will get it, you see a big space and you just want to fill it. You see the space, the light rigs, the stages and stuff and you can't help thinking "we could do something special in here, I think we could bring a really fresh take on this space".
So not long after that, probably about 18 months ago, we just started talking, meeting up with everyone, and it started… I don't want to say a creative process because it's not like we're artists or anything… but you just start talking about ideas, potential lineups, things you think would captivate people and make them want to go to that space.
And about 18 months later the lineup came out, and the feedback so far as been absolutely incredible.
Yeah it looks like the reaction has been really great, and I think a big part of that comes from that strong partnership with Hospitality. Being such a recognisable brand they bring their own very devoted fanbase, so to have that relationship between you guys and them is a really promising prospect.
I'd like to think that with all the parties that both of us have done in whatever iterations and in whichever venues, having the two brands together sends a message of: "You are going to get the best show. There won't be bad soundsystems, bad lighting, bad installations – it is going to be a top notch event". That's important for us.
Obviously more will come out soon about how everything is actually going to look, but I think that it felt right for both parties to join forces and do something bigger.
And what do the next few months look like for you now, leading up to the festival at the end of February?
Well we just announced the lineup for our third stage in association with Drum&BassArena, RUN and On A Mission – which has got a big drum & bass lineup.
We'll have a video at some point showing people how to get to the site, because we're aware a lot of people won't have been to Bath & West before and we want to show everyone how easy it is to get there.
But I'm probably the most disorganised one of anyone working on this festival [laughing], so in terms of anything else I couldn't really tell you specifics I'm afraid.
Finally before I let you go, do you know yet if Shockout is something you want to develop into an annual, flagship event?
I think the main thing for me is that Shockout in my head is tied to Bath & West Showground, so you won't see it happening anywhere else. That's its home.
It's hard for me to say now, but everything at the moment is looking very good for this becoming an annual thing.
Roughly the same weekend every year, we want to go to Bath & West with Hospitality and throw a similar party – I don't want to say the same party because we don't like to replicate, but Shockout will happen somehow. Exactly how is the next question…
Well I look forward to finding out the answer in due course. Thanks for your time Rob.
Cheers mate, have a good one.