Glorious chaos in the Glastonbury fields: An interview with Block9
By now, Block9 is the stuff of legend.
The brainchild of design duo Gideon Berger – AKA GIDEÖN – and Stephen Gallagher, over the past decade-plus, the pair have dedicated themselves to the creation of what they like to call “temporary alternative realities” rooted in immersive music and theatrics; mesmerising sets and a DIY attitude; house music and resolutely queer club culture. Spaces to engage and environments to get the mind pondering – and the feet moving, of course.
The most renowned of these experiences, we reckon, has to be Block9 at Glastonbury. In the years since the pair touched down on Somerset soil with their proto-Block9 venue, the 70s-inspired NYC Downlow (which served as the festival’s first queer venue), the project has also grown to encompass two adjacent fields – Block9 East and West – in which iconic venues such as the Downlow, but also IICON and Genosys, come together as one to form the beating-heart of after-hours Worthy Farm; a fantasy world for the hundreds of thousands who pass through each and every year.
This year marks a big one for Block9 and its founders – in less than a week’s time, Block9 will celebrate its 16th birthday at Glastonbury with a mega line-up that reaches from OG legends like Underground Resistance, Timmy Regisford and Mala through to contemporary favourites such as Eliza Rose, Simo Cell and Tash LC. We’ve done some celebrating of our own with the Block9 crew this month, too, as we shared archive festival sets from Neneh Cherry, Masters at Work and more for our Crack Mix 500 milestone.
To accompany the sets, we caught up with Berger and Gallagher to discuss the vision and story behind Block9, and what we can expect from them at Glastonbury this year. Check out the interview, alongside a gallery of images captured at Block9 over the past 15 years, below. Find Crack Mix 500 here.
© Martin Perry
Crack: How did you meet and when did you start working together?
Gideon Berger: We met in south London working in a set fabrication workshop. There were two warehouses: one was for props and dressing and the other was woodwork and metalwork for set building. There was one stereo that was shared between both warehouses. As is my way, I occupied the stereo and enforced my musical taste on all of the other people there. I think it was the first or second volume of my SlowJams mixtapes – so like R&B, soul, blues, jazz and that kind of stuff. That was one of the first things that got Steve and I talking. Eventually, we just went, ‘Fuck working for other people, we’ve got better ideas and we can do things our own way’.
Crack: And that was the beginning of Block9?
GB: From there, we did a bunch of work together on different projects, and then we decided to build the [NYC] Downlow at Glastonbury. I’d been travelling and spending time in the States around this time, and had seen all of the amazing, large-scale queer sound systems, parties and crews at Burning Man – back in the day, before it was taken over by people in fluffy boots arriving in helicopters from Los Angeles. I came back really inspired by this idea that, if house music, disco and queer underground culture was flourishing at American festivals, why the fuck was it a barren wasteland of heteronormativity here in the UK? So, we decided to build the first queer venue at Glastonbury.
We begged, borrowed and stole from our friends in events, film and TV, and nicked things out of skips. We got some handouts from our friends at Glastonbury, who took pity on us because I was already doing art direction at a festival area called Lost Vagueness – which is the kind of hangover from the New Age travellers site, outside of the official legal festival. We built the Downlow and it was a instant success. Then we decided to sort of formalise the partnership; we started Block9 and the rest is history.
Stephen Gallagher: Right from the very beginning, it was a group of friends coming together, and us convincing people that this was going to be a good idea! Everyone worked for nothing. We did everything between ourselves and our friends, from making food for everybody to DJing to driving vehicles. We were making it up as we went along. We had a history of working in that sort of field, so we knew how to do stuff, but there was ‘have a go’ attitude to it all. That continues today.
© Peter Podowski
Crack: What drew you to each other as collaborators?
GB: Steve could use a tape [measure] better than me!
SG: And Gideon had the gift of the gab!
GB: That’s quite an eloquent summary of the partnership.
SG: We had complementary skill sets. I came from a kind of fine-art, set building, set painting [background] – I did scenic painting for a few years after art college. I was also doing quite a lot of work in advertising and stuff for film and TV. Gid was also doing that sort of stuff, but also big parties and events. Those two thing came together in the creation of the Downlow.
GB: Before moving into a house, I’d been living on site with the New Age travellers in a vehicle for 20 years. When I met Steve, I was living in a bus. I’d just been travelling around with a sound system doing raves and festivals in Europe, North America and the UK. My engagement with the festival initially was through that crew – who, arguably, are the spiritual core of Glastonbury and continue to have illegal park-ups, raves and sound systems away from Glastonbury. I then got invited in and became formally part of their field/Lost Vagueness. So I was already part of the Glastonbury festival ecosystem, and so it just made sense to sort of deploy mine and Steve’s new energy in something that felt a bit white and straight.
You know, dance music was certainly represented at Glastonbury festival [before], but it sounded like British and European kind of dance music. Block9 is really founded on a different sort of dance music aesthetic. Bringing a queer venue playing disco, early deep house, acid house was really the mission. Not because we were box checking – it was music first and the cultural family element of what we wanted to do. Horse Meat Disco were involved in the start of the Downlow. We did our first fundraising party with them; they all came and DJ-ed and literally did everything – they helped put the tent up and carried shit around. It was all very much the communist pipe dream of a collective crew making something from nothing. Not because we wanted to earn money, but because we wanted to create the thing that we wanted to inhabit.
© Matthew Walter
Crack: Let’s chat fundraising and supporting charitable causes – something Block9 does in or outside of Glastonbury. For readers who have visited venues like the Downlow, they’ll already know about mandatory moustache policy – real moustaches, or false ones purchased on-site. Could you walk us through this some more?
GB: Block9 at Glastonbury Festival, over the past 16 years, has raised and donated over £90,000 to various different organisations – from human rights organisations to HIV/AIDS, access in developing countries, through to disaster relief and a whole bunch of other causes. The easiest way to explain it in its Glastonbury incarnation is, you’re not allowed into the NYC Downlow unless you have a moustache. If you don’t have a moustache, you have to purchase a moustache for £2, and then the profits raised from that moustache operation go towards causes that we feel strongly about. But above and beyond the Glastonbury operation, anytime where we have a self-initiated project, where we have the option of doing something that means something, something with a cause, we always do because making money isn’t a cause.
Crack: What were you most excited for ahead of that very first Glastonbury outing?
SG: I was fucking nervous. We had no idea that it would even work or that anybody would want to walk in the door. But it was also brilliant, because we were totally doing our own thing. That was a pretty amazing feeling. To have no compromises and just do it in your own way – make your own art, build your own thing, bring your own people – it’s special.
GB: I just thought Glastonbury would only have straight people. Because I’ve been going ever since I was a kid, and there’s nothing lonelier than wandering around a festival of 200,000 people and just being the only one – or at least feeling like that. I was nervous it was going to be a theme party, which is obviously would have been fucking shit. But everyone showed up and it was vibes. People were hooking up and getting it on. The music was amazing and the sound system was amazing; there was no security and there no fire exits. It was just chaotic and glorious.
Crack: How did you feel after, when the dust had settled?
GB: Devastated, covered in mud, fucking massive comedown. The trucks were stuck in the mud and there was no one to help take down the tent – the tent that was white when we put it up, but brown when we took it down.
© Kamil Kustosz / Mathew Smith
SG: Yeah, it was fairly exhausting to say the least! We had basically hired this lorry for the weekend. I think we had a seven-and-a half tonne lorry – the biggest we were able to drive at the time – with the biggest box that you could possibly get on the back of a furniture lorry, so we could stuff all of our set and materials and everything into it. On the way out of the festival, it was so muddy that we had to drag it to the back of the Downlow tent with a telehandler through the mud. We couldn’t drive it to where it needs to be, so we had to drag it there. We loaded up with all of our shit – massively overloaded it – and then had to drag it back onto the trackway again to get it off site. Do you remember during the build, Gid? It was storming the whole time.
GB: All of the power got flooded and we lost power a few times a night. But, in all of that, some of the drag performances that happened on stage – Suppositori Spelling, who came over from San Francisco, did some absolutely genius performances. Scotty, who’s super famous now, did a sort of impromptu vogue ball with looks made out of bin bags, sleeping bags and tents. It was amazing.
Crack: Fast forward to today, and Block9 is coming-of-age and turning sweet 16. What have been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned over the years?
SG: Even though everything has become way more professional – the size and scale of what we do at Glastonbury, and beyond Glastonbury, is so much bigger than that first year – we’ve held onto that DIY aesthetic. We’re still finding the edges of what you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing and seeing where the sort of soft spots are, pushing and pushing harder the whole time.
© Martin Perry
GB: For me, it’s been the cumulative gathering of contacts. It’s like the network – the sort of international queer network of people that actually give a fuck about music, and have devoted their lives to it all the way around the world. Whether that’s the MARICAS crew in Barcelona, the Honco crew in Pittsburgh or House of Aviance in New York. Or the Athens crew, or the Berghain crew. The family of people that are connected to the Downlow now spreads internationally, and people introduce other people through word of mouth. Now we are able to get not just some amazing crews to come down and party with us, but DJs, too. Kerri Chandler, François K, Roger Sanchez, David Morales – this year Timmy Regisford – the list just goes on and on and on.
There’s only a few people that we haven’t had. We haven’t had Ron Trent, but very much hope to have him next year. It’s been very much a word of mouth thing; Kerri, or Masters at Work, leave the Downlow and say, ‘That was fucking wicked, why don’t you get so-and-so’. These massive international superstars whose usual DJ fees are $25,00-30,000 plus flights from New York and a five-star hotel, come down for expenses. They’ll be eating food from a fucking paper plate in backstage Block9 and loving it. Feeling like part of the history of house music – because we’ve earned our place there – is something that’s happened through learning, and accumulating and building on, relationships and networks.
So the short answer to your question about what we’ve learned, is that the sky’s the limit. We aren’t a theme party. We aren’t somebody doing, you know, a Paradise Garage-themed event. We are something that’s furthering a genre of music and an ideology behind it. The Downlow is important in re-establishing the queer DNA at the heart of house music, and reminding people that this music is a queer phenomena, and it directly links to New York and disco.
“We were making it up as we went along. We had a history of working in that field, but there was ‘have a go’ attitude to it all. That continues today” – Stephen Gallagher
Crack: Let’s talk programming. What is it you’re looking for in the artists you invite into Block9?
GB: That their music is good – full-stop! If people are making amazing music, in any capacity or in any genre, and they appear on the radar, then we’ll reach out.
Crack: What have been your personal highlights over the course of Block9’s presence at Glasto?
SG: There have been a few moments. When Jonny Woo’s band played in Maceo’s, that was amazing. I’ll never forget the first year of London Underground, when L-Vis 1990 (AKA Dance System) played. It was such a mission to get it built and open – we were late opening and didn’t open until the Friday. We were under such intense pressure; it nearly killed everybody. The sort of combination of relief and the whole venue absolutely kicking off was really overwhelming. When Hot Chip came down and did a Prince tribute, the field was so fucking rammed it was unbelievable. There wasn’t a square centimetre of space in the whole of Block9 and everyone was having the most amazing time. It was such a moment.
GB: For me, musically, I think Kerri Chandler in the Downlow. I’ve been buying his records for three decades – I think I first bought one of his records in 1992 or something. To have the guy who is responsible for some of the best house music ever made – and just the fucking loveliest guy – be so well-received and to absolutely slay and to absolutely love it… He was just so humble and so gracious and so sweet and so lovely, and did it for fuck-all money-wise. That was it. Kerri.
© Jacob Love
Crack: What experiences are you trying to foster through the visual identity and staging of Block9?
SG: Each venue came about in different ways. Back in 2010, we built the London Underground. That came about because we wanted to take on our own space. Prior to that we’d been part of Trash City, which was originally theatre and circus. We wanted our own field and to build a second venue, a counterpart to the NYC Downlow. So we built something that was London-centric, and focused on London music, sound system culture and pirate radio and that stuff. That kind of broke the mould. The Downlow did one thing and then the London Underground did something again, because nobody was expecting to see six storeys of a full-size London tower block with a tube train smashed through it in a field in Somerset. People were walking up to it and tapping on the side of it to see if it was made concrete. They thought it was a permanent, concrete-built thing.
A few years after that, we moved fields. Again, we wanted to push the boundaries and took on a bigger space. We wanted a third venue that was outdoors because the London Underground and NYC Downlow are both interior clubs spaces with a big set-built exterior. So we built Genosys, which was very large, brutalist structure and focused on the birth of electronic music. Each of the venues has a kind of a raison d’etre in terms of how it looks tying into the music that’s programmed for it. Then there’s IICON, which was built in 2019 after three years of development. We had an idea for a new arena and wanted to go much bigger than we had before, so we built a 10,000 capacity arena inspired by a piece of music by French composer Oliver Messiaen, called Quartet For the End of Time. The whole narrative of that space is an audiovisual translation of that piece.
GB: The head that forms the stage is a sculptural object that refers to humanity staring into a screen whilst the planet and and the ecosystem hurtles towards destruction. We wanted to be able to acknowledge and engage with that notion, and invite artists who are also engaging with that notion through their music.
Crack: Can you expand on that a little?
GB: I’m not talking about singers or bands singing about climate change, the metaverse, or the development of AI. I’m talking about the the musical aesthetics in some of the left-field, more experimental and darker fringes of electronic music. Also trying to push beyond conventional time signatures. Quartet For the End of Time was also a play on words because of the crazy time signatures some of these artists have adopted. Just trying to push beyond what I like to call children’s bangers, the low-hanging fruit. It’s fucking easy to make people go crazy by playing the most super-saturated, banging, ravey stuff. That isn’t what IICON is about. It is about trying to go a bit deeper, musically and intellectually.
© Courtesy of Block9
Crack: How many people pass through the Block9 fields on an average night of the festival?
SG: Across both fields, it’s probably something like 25,000-30,000 people at any one time. But over the course of a night, you could have 100,000 people going through.
Crack: Logistically, how do you deal with that volume of people?
SG: We have an incredible team of people who work with us across all aspects of the project from start to finish. Whether it is site and infrastructure staff like build crew, riggers, set builders and carpenters and all of that side of it through to the production team who plan and organise everything, or our caters. We work very closely with Glastonbury’s own site team – we’re like a subset of the main Glastonbury festival, almost like a festival within a festival, if you could imagine that. So we have our own teams and our own way of doing things, but it coexists within Glastonbury’s main structure. To somebody coming in fresh and seeing it for the first time, it’s so massive and mind-boggling. But because we’ve been doing it for so long, a lot of those systems have built up over the course of many years – and Glastonbury has been doing it for a lot longer than we have, obviously, so we dovetail with their systems. It works really well.
© Egle Trezzi / Kamil Kustosz
Crack: What are you most excited for people to experience at this month’s festival?
GB: Underground Resistance on IICON is the rudest motherfucking booking that we’ve ever made, so I can’t wait. Zenker Brothers are just faultlessly genius, and Timmy Regisford in the Downlow. He is Shelter, New York – the last living club from those sort of dynasties of the golden age of New York. He’s playing on the Sunday. To have Timmy in the Downlow is an honour.
SG: Four Tet on IICON. I’m interested to see what he’s going to bring. The Blessed Madonna is back again, on Genosys this time. Seeing her out in the field will be a very different experience – she normally plays in the Downlow. Mala is back, too.
"The [NYC] Downlow is important in re-establishing the queer DNA at the heart of house music, and reminding people that this music is a queer phenomena" – Gideon Berger
Crack: We are thrilled to have you onboard for our Crack Mix 500 celebrations. How does it feel revisiting those archive sets?
SG: Listening back to those mixes, it does transport you back there. Takes you back to the moment, which is fantastic.
Crack: What are your hopes for the future of Block9?
GB: As queer becomes mainstream, [I hope we can] preserve the magic that happens in Downlow and in the Meat Rack, in the spiritual heart of some of the Block9 venues.
Steve: For us to keep pushing the boundaries, keep making interesting work and keep collaborating with interesting people. Keeping it fresh and changing it the whole time. You know, nothing stays the same forever. The challenge for me is always the most interesting thing about it; the idea of doing new things, always.