DESERTFEST London founder Reece Tee comes back to a game-changing festival.

Written by Interview

A boundless passion for the music we all love: this is what drives DESERTFEST London founder Reece Tee. Given the stoner and doom festival will be celebrating its 8th edition this May as well as launching the first Desertfest NYC, we wanted to decipher the formula behind an event that gets even bigger (7,000 attendees in 2018!) and more tantalizing each year, while remaining true to its roots and audience no matter what happens. This may be due to the fact that its promoters have been championing a concept that goes beyond the genre itself — the idea of an independent, niche event that also stands for newcomers and smaller bands as a springboard to eventually help them gain momentum over time. Conversation flows with a devoted fella like Reece, who gladly opens his festival’s doors to us. It’s now crystal clear that the connection with the legendary ‘generator parties’ has never lied in the Desertfest name or location, nor even the scene it embodies, but in its power to turn a festival into a massive family reunion with like-minded heavy music lovers from all around the globe. See by yourself.
(Cover photo: Reece Tee and Jake Farey by Gaël Mathieu)

For starters, could you remind us the whole story behind the first Desertfest in London?

Reece Tee: Our company Desertscene had been promoting shows since 2009, but Desertfest came about from a drunken idea after promoting a show in London and losing money. I knew what passion there was for these bands as I was passionate about them myself, but some stuff wasn’t selling as well as it should have, and it was frustrating. It seemed logical to me that there needed to be a bigger platform in the UK for these bands, where everyone could come together and share their love of this music. At that time there was really only Roadburn, and they were moving more into other stuff, away from the more rocking stoner bands that was so important to us at the time and still is!         

You recently announced a NYC edition to take place this April at Saint Vitus Bar and The Well in Brooklyn… Tell us more about this new one. How did you put it together?

Reece Tee: The US has been on my mind for a while. Like Europe a few years ago, there seems to be some traction over in the US for the bands we love. It’s a 3-day festival over a couple of venues, not as big as the Euro editions but it’s a start. We are using Saint Vitus bar for the first night, as that place has been the place to be for bands playing there, The main venue is The Well — the main stage is out in a courtyard holding around 1000 people, with a smaller venue inside and a very cool bar. NYC really reminds me of London when we launched in 2012, there is a hunger for it over there, bands, fans and agents all want to help to make it happen and that feels good. It fits perfectly with the other city festivals we produce, it’s what we do and I couldn’t be happier to finally get it off the ground. I’m sure it will evolve and we will make some mistakes in this first year, but I’m excited about what we can do in NY.

“Desertfest isn’t a franchise, any Desertfest is partnered with a good local promoter or promoted directly by ourselves.”

Some headliners names have already been dropped: Elder, Windhand, Monolord… Are there any bands that explicitly asked to be part of the adventure?

Reece Tee: It’s been a little surprising the reaction from bands and fans for Desertfest NYC, we have been blown away, really. Whenever you embark on a new adventure like this, you trust your instinct and believe it will work, but when we announced the event along with the first batch of bands we really knew we was onto something cool. I can now imagine DFNY growing into something like its European brothers. Agents and bands alike have been getting in touch to try and get on, but we are starting small and there is limited space in the first year. We need to be clever with our booking, and make sure the line up really hits home and puts Desertfest on the map which I believe we have done.

Tell us more about what we can call the “Desertfest brand”. Do promoters come to you in order to use the name, and what is your exact involvement in the Berlin, Belgium and New-York editions? Are you a Desertfest control freak?

Reece Tee: We have a lot of requests to do new Desertfest’s around the world but we need to make sure all the ingredients are right for a successful edition. There are lots of festivals now catering for the genres we love, and that’s great for touring bands and the scene in general, but we always want to make a Desertfest extra special and so we need to be 100% sure before we launch anything new. Desertfest isn’t a franchise, any Desertfest is partnered with a good local promoter or promoted directly by ourselves.

“Nothing blows your mind more than a new discovery when you least expect it. It’s what Desertfest does.”

Let’s talk about the lineup, as Desertfest is a subtle mix of exclusive performances and discoveries, or let’s say “local discoveries”. Do you intend to keep this direction over time? Have you found a balance in the way you build your lineup?

Reece Tee: There is nothing I love more than to book bands that are starting out or unknown, and then use Desertfest as a platform for them to go to the next level. I think people trust us now, and Desertfesters love catching stuff they don’t know, it’s a very open minded crowd and has allowed us to experiment more with the festival. We always try to make sure that there is a strong vein running through the festival. For example, if you are a Doom fan, then chances are you can move around venues and see what you love all weekend and the same goes for stoner or psych stuff too, but we do and we like to throw a few curve balls. Very rarely would you see a ticket buyer moan about the choices, even the stuff people don’t know is cool as fuck, we know this as we booked them. Nothing blows your mind more than a new discovery when you least expect it. It’s what Desertfest does.

The Atomic Bitchwax at Electric Ballroom – Desertfest London 2015

Desertfest takes place in emblematic spots: the Camden borough, along the Spree River in Berlin, the Trix venue in Antwerp, and now Brooklyn… Despite its name, it is an urban festival and unlike most indoor ones which are pushed outside of towns, it constantly takes place in the heart of the cities. 

Reece Tee: We are proud that our festivals happen in the cities, it gives it a dirty underground vibe which is fitting. These cities are where these bands work hard to make their careers, these are the dirty bars where people make their name so it’s the real deal, we don’t need to build a city in a field, we have the real thing. Having said that, who knows where this journey will lead… maybe even the real desert!

“I want to see Desertfest still championing the underground in ten or twenty years time. (…) Our model is to have smaller cooler festivals around the world, rather than try and make a 10,000 capacity festival and risk our integrity.”

Do you think this festival is safe from a possible “disneylandisation”? I’m referring to some major festivals attended by posers or people who obviously don’t care about the music?

Reece Tee: It’s our job to make sure we book bands for the music and not just because they get some hype or radio play or could be ‘the next big thing’. We as promoters have a responsibility to make sure this thing doesn’t crash and burn. With any boom there is a burst, and I would hate to see Desertfest chewed up and spat out by mainstream hype. I want to see Desertfest still championing the underground in ten or twenty years time.

With such a growing success, how to keep integrity, spontaneity and being connected with the fans?

Reece Tee: We are the fans, so making sure we are catering to our core audience is so important to us. The festival has grown along with the growth of the scene in general, so it’s not like we are trying to cater for a mainstream crowd and sell out. Our model is to have smaller cooler festivals around the world, rather than try and make a ten thousand capacity festival and risk our integrity. When the time is right for a big festival, then I hope we are there to make it happen but only when the growth has taken its natural path, if we push too hard then I think you lose the essence of what Desertfest is all about.

We recently interviewed Brant Bjork and talked about his involvement in the Stoned and Dusted festival in Joshua Tree. He mentioned a will to gather a bunch of friends and have fun in the desert. Could we imagine a Desertfest in the wild with generators and beer kegs? The symbolism would be strong!

Reece Tee: It is a dream of mine, and I think New York is a step closer to it happening in some time in the future. If we do a real Desertfest in the desert I may need to change the name to piss people off, I love the comment ‘there’s no desert in London’. People take it literally and it makes me smile.

Let’s talk about the team behind the fest. It must take an army of enthusiasts to organize an event of this kind?

Reece Tee: Desertfest really wouldn’t be alive and well without the knowledge, enthusiasm and love of some great people who have helped along the way. The team has grown over the years, but everyone is always motivated by the love of the music over money and that ethos is still strong. My knowledge only goes so far so having people to be able to throw ideas about with is so important and I’d like to say a special thanks to Matt (Human Disease Promo) for being my go-to font of knowledge when I’m stuck with something, but there are so many people who have made Desertfest what it is today and thanks to everyone that’s helped, from our paid team to our volunteers, bands and fans.

Desertfriends at the Black Heart

What is the role of German booking agency Sound Of Liberation in the overall process?

Reece Tee: Matte from Sound Of Liberation has been our business partner in this from the start. From the original idea, he wanted to launch Berlin at the same time. We share bands and ideas and feel the high and low points together. When we move out and launch another edition anywhere, we are Desertfest together. Our partnership have turned into a very strong friendship, I count Matte as a very close friend.

What happened to Desertfest Athens? Are they still struggling? Their 2016 and 2017 line up were amazing! The Greek music scene is so vibrant and creative, with bands like 1000Mods or Naxatras.

Reece Tee: Greece has such a strong scene and that story isn’t over yet, the two editions we done were great, the venues, the people, the vibe is all there and we are looking forward to going back. The issue is, getting the bands we need all there together over one weekend is hard as its all fly in’s and getting the right headliners can be tricky. We want Athens to happen when everything fits rather than it have to be every year, there’s too much pressure on the thing for it to be that regimented. We want to put on the best festival we can, so quality over quantity is the key in Greece. I’m pretty sure we will be back in 2020.

With seven editions under your belt, how do you see the future for Desertfest? More days? More venues? More interaction within various artistic fields? More cities?

Reece Tee: I think the New York announcement shows the direction we are moving. For us, it’s about bringing this cool thing we have built to more people around the world. Growth needs to be organic, we are doing this for the love of the music, so we don’t want to push something that people don’t want. You get a feel for the right next move, so we don’t plan too far into the future, let’s see where it goes next.

Any chance we get a French edition someday? Or are you afraid that all these editions would cannibalize each other?

Reece Tee: We really can’t do too many and we have to make sure that one edition doesn’t take away from the next. With Belgium running, we would probably find it hard for a French Desertfest, but who knows what happens in the future.

“Booking Sleep at the Koko marked the start of us growing as a festival, and a goose bump moment was watching them live knowing this was just the start for Desertfest.”

Dixie Dave (Weedeater) & Matt Pike (Sleep) backstage at Desertfest by Jessy Lotti

You also play guitar in Steak. Thanks to their notoriety, some musicians start producing other bands or found their own label. You decided to start a new kind of festival. Was this a logical consequence of being in a band?

Reece Tee: It’s just a passion for music in general, Steak’s first E.P was released the same year as the first Desertfest in 2012, I think it was just a coming together of getting off my arse and doing more of the stuff I loved and I think I made the right decision. I still love writing and playing music as much as I love booking Desertfest. Nothing’s easy, some of the things we have done as a band and as a promoter have been some of the hardest things, but on the occasion you get it right and it’s the most rewarding.

You have booked an incredible amount of artists over the years… What is your best, and worst memory? (come on, tell us everything, we are all friends here)

Reece Tee: There have been some incredible highs, each year we think we can’t beat the year before, but somehow so far we have managed. I would say booking Sleep at The Koko was a real turning point for the festival. At that time there was plenty of competition and we had relaxed a bit — so we had to grow or get eaten up by other festivals. Sleep marked the start of us growing as a festival, and a goose bump moment was watching them live knowing this was just the start for Desertfest. There have been some lows, but to be honest I try to focus only on the good stuff!

Thank you very much for your time, Reece. See you in Camden this spring!

Desertfest London – 3-5th May 2019 Camden London – Infos and tickets
Desertfest Berlin – 3-5th May 2019 Arena Berlin – Infos and tickets
Desertfest NYC – 26-28th April 2019 Brooklyn, NYC – Infos and tickets
Desertfest Belgium – 18-20th October 2019 Trix Antwerp – Infos and tickets

Last modified: 24 January 2019