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Chilled By Nature: In Conversation with Pete Lawrence

By Nikita Shah | April 11, 2007

Split Magazine: Pete Lawrence Big ChillUnless you are hiding under a great big giant rock, you can’t have missed the huge ads and the hype that the Big Chill music festival has created. So for those of you really under that rock, the Big Chill is a summer music festival that is held annually in the Eastnor Castle in the UK. Besides the UK, it has also travelled to countries like Greece, Egypt, Japan and the Czech Republic.

By some strange twist of providence (for good things like this generally never come to us in India), the Big Chill is coming to Aswem beach in Goa this year. It kicks off this Saturday (April 14) and runs through the weekend.

Split magazine caught up for an exclusive interview with Pete Lawrence, who along with Katrina Larkin, started this cult festival. And as the name of the festival might suggest, he’s one chilled out guy with his heart firmly in the right place. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

How was the Big Chill born?

Thirteen years ago, we were invited to a venue in North London, which was the back part of a Church (which was still actively used as a Church). We just felt as if it was the right place to start a Sunday club. We began and pioneered the whole audio visual thing but we also had four different rooms. We had a café in one area and full screen visuals and mattresses in another area, so people could actually lie down and watch — we were very ambient at that point in time. [There was] another room, where we would have an art installation. And so after being described as a club, it became fairly natural for us to progress to doing a festival in the field.

The Big Chill has become iconic in the UK, with nearly 35,000 people attending the festival last year. How did the Big Chill grow to such gargantuan proportions?

When it started out, it wasn’t a commercial enterprise; we didn’t have any funding, no financial backing. So we were just doing this festival for our friends. The festival was just 600 people in the start. It was a camping weekend in a very beautiful location in the Black Mountains of Wales surrounded by hills — it was totally illegal (laughs). The police were scratching their heads, but this was a very peaceful party, so they came down and loved it. They thought it was one of the best festivals they had been to, one of the best organised. And since then we have just grown by our friends telling their friends, really. We don’t really do a lot of print media advertising, we don’t have a very high profile in the media. We have grown by word of mouth.

What is the objective of the Big Chill?

It is to bring people together. It is to try and create an environment where people can feel creative and safe and sociable. It is very much about networking and community. People have found amazing networks of friends. People have found marriage partners, and they have found artistic collaborations. So apart from the beautiful scenery it is a hub of social interactions. And that for me is more important than anything else.

What do you look for when scouting for a potential location for the Big Chill?

First and foremost, natural beauty. We don’t do the festival in show grounds or arenas. We try to look for a very natural setting and we try our very best to marry nature and technology up, so it’s a very forward-looking technological process, but we like to do it in a very back to the basics, rootsy natural setting. Apart from that you have to look at the practical side, accessibility and logistics. But first and foremost it is the natural beauty.

The Big Chill is a very wholesome festival, where kids are also allowed in free of cost. But Goa, has over time, unfortunately acquired a reputation for drugs and the whole trance and rave culture. Were you apprehensive about this stereotype?

Correct me if I am wrong, but my impression of Goa, certainly from the UK angle, was that people had written it off. Trance music had a very narrow, very drug associated, certain-type-of-people kind of appeal. It seemed to me that for whatever reason it’s been dying off in bits in Goa too. Maybe the authorities have helped that. But I’ve also detected that people are hungry for the next music to come along, which is perhaps a little more based on natural highs.

Goa is also a very spiritual place; it’s a very beautiful place. So the time is really right now for the Big Chill to be here. Goa back home is getting a really new image, it is becoming very popular now for totally different reasons and for different types of people. So I see it as a real sense of the phrase ‘chill out’. I feel it’s really the right time to be in Goa, it’s natural evolution.

Split Magazine: The Big ChillHow do you select the bands that are to play at the festival?

I think the music should send a shiver down my spine. It should connect to me in a very emotional way. And then [I] meet the artist behind the music, because they should be good people to work with, they should be interested in what we are doing. So we have a combination of the people who have been with us from the start. Cold Cut, Tom Middleton and Mixmaster Morris, they’ve been with us since the first gig. But we also like to bring in new people. Sheila Chandra we’ve been trying to get, invite her for the last five to six years. Every year I get an email [saying] “sorry, I’m not performing this year”. Suddenly this year she is performing. So this is the first time she is coming back to India in 20 years. We like to combine family with new fresh artists. We don’t like to be pigeonholed.

Tell us something about the music at the Big Chill festival.

When people ask [me] what kind of music they will get to hear at the Big Chill, I hate to roll out genre names. It’s about busting the genres. That’s what we are about. We’re not about following the band wagon, we are about new ideas and fresh energy. I think we were the catalyst for bands like Zero7, who were I’m sure inspired by the Big Chill. But more than that, DJs have been dipping into music from 10 to 30 years ago and making it very relevant to right now. I think there’s as much energy to be had from that whole bank of music that has been made over the years as there is from the new and freshest stuff and recorded hits. DJs sometimes dip into Joni Mitchell and John Martin and Steely Dan and whatever their passion is and whatever they choose to play. I think Norman Jay played Jethro Tull at the Big Chill a year ago. There are no rules, so DJs feel very inspired and very liberated to play what they love. They are not straight jacketed to play 4 by 4 beats.

What is the ‘Body and Soul’ segment at The Big Chill?

In the UK, almost spontaneously, we had people, all sorts of therapists coming down. They thought it was an ideal place to do various forms of massages and therapies. We have a whole range of therapies from head massage to Reiki. I have seen that people are very open when they come to the Big Chill, and in many cases they feel liberated, they think it is a life changing experience in one way or the other. Part of it is examining the mind and body and soul and spirit, the whole package. A lot of them find that when they come to the event, it really focuses them on what they want to do, and part of that comes from healing themselves. I believe that the festival really inspires them. And if that works out then you can’t ask for anything more.

You are slated to play at the Big Chill too. Can you tell us about your project, Chilled By Nature?

I’ve not had much spare time, that’s why it took me 10 years to complete the whole album. The last two years have been really important. I’ve had live artists come in and record. There is a choral group that does covers of Bach and Mozart and the Beatles and they do it very a capella — they’ve come in on one track. Moses from Zero7 has co-written a track with me. It’s been really fantastic and great to finally have the album out. I love to be composing. Nothing makes you happier than writing new material. Organizing the festival is okay, but for purity of artistic expression you can’t beat sitting down and writing music. We are going live at the Big Chill with completely different versions of the songs from the album with an Indian percussionist.

Are there a social awareness issues that you take up through the festival, seeing as you are going to donate a chunk of the proceeds to NGOs that work with HIV infected children in India?

We are looking more and more at the complete picture. We are wondering in what ways we can make a valuable contribution, beyond just being an event that inspires people. We can do it in practical ways. Send cash out to charities. That’s the way we want to go.

Are you planning on making the Big Chill an annual event in India too?

Yes, very much so. And I would like more and more Indian artists approach us and get involved and any new ideas that people have, come to us, we are very open to new ideas. We would like to appeal to people, right from little children to 60 year olds. In the UK, we have a wide range of ages and people seem to get something different out of the event.

Do you have any message for the people in India?

Well, I hope that the people are going to come to the festival (laughs), and I really hope that they come down with an open mind, because the Big Chill is in its own way a mighty unique event. I would love for them to come down and have a great time and sample the different moods and atmospheres and the community. I hope you meet a lot of great people and have a very valuable experience.

I must say I am very excited by India at this point. I have met so many crazy people over here. The country is obviously at the cusp of a very big economic expansion and the social changes are going to be very exciting for the people here. And I’d like to think that the Big Chill plays a part in bringing people together and finding a common denomination. And hopefully spreading bits of love along the way!

So, if a weekend of relaxing and life altering experiences is on your to-do list (if it isn’t then it’s high time it was), then it’s still not too late to head out to the warm sunny shores of Goa.

For more information on the venue, artists and for ticket availability you can check out the Big Chill India Web site.

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