With Bristol-born Chepstow-based Balter Festival a mere few days away, we had a chat with co-founder Elias aka gypsycore producer and DJ E-Coli about the new-ish, totally off-kilter festival that’s already attracted a cult reputation and following as it enters its fourth year this June.
Like all of the best festivals, Balter was born out of a genuine love of music from a likeminded group of friends who wanted to put on a good party (Boomtown, Shambala, Fieldview, to name a few).
Elias explains how he made the journey from playing in rock bands in Devon, to creating one of South West’s favourite new festivals…
‘I’ve been playing music since I was very, very young – touring with bands since I was about 16. Then I got into organising events when I was 18, doing free parties or mini-festivals down in my hometown of Devon once a year. Those grew to be quite big, with bands over a couple of days and about a thousand people at the last one.
‘I was playing all sorts of different types of rock music really; I used to play drums so I just liked playing loud music. Then I did a music technology degree at Glamorgan in Wales, which is where I met Chris (his Balter festivals co-conspirator).
I was getting a bit fed up with how bands are like a marriage… Whereas making music and DJing on your own, you’ve only got yourself to blame or yourself to thank
‘There, I started learning programs to make music on like Ableton and Logic. I was getting a bit fed up with how bands are like a marriage. You’re with these people that you might not even particularly like all that much (I did get on with them!), but you’re just thrown in with people and you have to make it work. Whereas making music and DJing on your own, you’ve only got yourself to blame or yourself to thank.’
‘I became a part of the Jigsaw soundsystem, which is now a Bristol-based free party soundsystem that was started about ten years ago by Chris.
‘We’ve been playing as a soundsystem for years, and I’m also out DJing every weekend as an electronic rave DJ, which has meant that I play with and know most of the DJs that we book for Balter.’
With both of them having more than a few years’ experience putting on parties, Balter Festival was conceived through an off-the-cuff discussion in Chris’ living room, going from talking about whether or not they could do a festival, to booking Baskerville Hall two days later for 700 people.
Now entering its fourth year, Balter attracts around 4000 partiers to its new home at Chepstow Racecourse, and while that’s a fairly impressive level of growth, Elias explains that that’s not on their agenda.
‘We want to keep it real slow – we don’t have any aspirations to be massive. We just want to see how it goes and creep up a little bit each year.’
We had a group of eight from Israel, quite a few from Belgium, and people from America – it’s pretty nuts, people come from all over for it
In an undisputedly saturated market, Balter has managed to mark itself out as standout festival – and for some, one worth travelling across the world for.
‘We had a group of eight from Israel last year, quite a few from Belgium, and people from America – it’s pretty nuts really, people come from all over for it.’
Naturally, there’s a very strong Bristol contingent, with around 50% of last year’s ticket sales coming from our fair city – helping create those warm and fuzzy family vibes the festival is known for – but there’s also a strong following in places like Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, as well as Scotland, says Elias.
And as well as attracting new Balterites each year, there’s a pretty dependable returning crowd, with many people feeling an almost-sense of ownership over the festival. With such huge numbers of festivals for people to choose from, we asked Elias why he thinks Balter has achieved that coveted status.
‘I think down to the fact that Balter was built out of the rave scene, which is a scene of people that communicate with each other and come and get involved with things.
‘It’s a very close-knit group. It’s a large group – there’s people all across the country – but at the same time it’s close knit and people feel an ownership over the festival because we know so many of the people, or they’ll know someone else involved in it.
We want people to come and feel involved, because ultimately the punters make the party
‘That’s very much what we want. We don’t want to be some big conglomerate festival that tells people what to like, what to listen to, and then they do it.
‘We want people to come and feel involved, because ultimately the punters make the party. The music’s good and obviously it’s fun watching DJs and bands, but at a good festival, the most fun is had with your friends and other random people.’
It’s just not the punters with a heavy Bristol leaning, with local favourites including Zen Hussies, First Degree Burns, Sam Binga, Gardna and Born on Road peppering the lineup, as well as stages run by Bristol’s 24 Hour Garage Girls and artist collective Sika Studios, who’ll be arriving with their travelling skate ramp and resident graffiti artists in tow.
It’s just not the punters with a heavy Bristol leaning, with local favourites including Zen Hussies, First Degree Burns, Sam Binga, Gardna and Born on Road peppering the lineup
‘The Bristol scene is great – we’ve got some of the best music from around the world, as far as I’m concerned. People travel from all over to world to come hear music in Bristol, so why not make a festival out of it?
‘That’s not to say we’re discriminate about where people come from, there’s very good music elsewhere in the country, in Sheffield and Manchester, for example – it’s just naturally very Bristol leaning.’
Although their heart and soul goes into curating their lineup, Balter is very much one of the festivals that’s not all about the music, with plenty of wacky sideshows and games for people to explore between stages.
‘We’ve got loads of random silly little things going on. We enjoy our artwork and we’re bringing a lot of artists in from across the country. There’s loads of sideshow games – this year we’ve got a church with some twisted nuns who are going to be doing weddings and funerals and confessions.
‘We’ve got the Bucky Brigade, who are a walkabout act that started at Balter, because we sell Buckfast on the bar – as far as we are aware, we’re the only festival who does that – so we’ve got a group of girls that go around and play Buckfast-themed games with people.
We sell Buckfast on the bar – as far as we are aware, we’re the only festival who does that
‘We’ve also got magicians, bingo, a cinema tent showing weird, twisted short films… There’s plenty to do other than music.
‘The atmosphere is pretty nuts – we’ve got a funny group of people who come every year. We take the festival very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously – we’re not trying to be more than we are, we’re just trying to have a fun weekend, and the right kind of people who like the right kind of music appreciate that.’
We couldn’t finish up our chat without mentioning the nearly-irresponsible bar prices, which go another step towards proving that Balter is about throwing a good party and not lining the organisers pockets.
‘Because we get to choose drinks prices, they’re very good! Cold cans are £2.50 or pints are £3 – pretty sure that’s a cheap festival bar! People don’t want to come and have to spend loads of money on a cold beer.’
Do what you want basically, just don’t be a dick! That’s our rule
For first-timers heading to Balter this year, fancy dress has developed a stronghold at the festival – particularly on Sunday where a cross-dressing theme seems to have developed of its own accord.
‘Fancy dress is definitely encouraged, but we don’t do a theme. As I said, we’re not into telling people what to do. Dress up… or dress down – quite a lot of people get naked. Do what you want basically, just don’t be a dick! That’s our rule – and a simple rule of life.’
If that hasn’t got you in the mood to ‘Balter’ (verb / ‘to dance or tread clumsily’), Balter’s Sunday Soundclash defending champions Born on Road have put together a 40-minute jungle mix to give us a taste of what we can expect at the Sunday throw down. Crank your speakers and tune in below…