Alex James, the Blur bassist and cheese impresario, is hosting his seventh food and music festival, the Big Feastival, on his West Oxfordshire farm over the August Bank Holiday weekend. The dad-of-five tells Gill Sutherland how his plans for a quiet country life have gone joyously awry.
Feastival is celebrating its seventh year, how has it changed over the years since its original concept?
“We are always trying to think of ways of making it better. You never know what the hell is going to work until you actually do it. We’re trying all kinds of new things.
“There’s over 750 festivals a year in the UK every summer and most of them don’t make any money… I think you’ve got to have a really clear proposition and you have got to execute it really well. I’ve made five kids, six cheeses and eight albums — so I can do music, food and family!
“It’s a lot of work. But it’s like being in a band — it is fun and doesn’t really feel like work.”
How would you describe the festival’s unique vibe?
“It’s a celebration of country living. We fill the farm up with fantastic food, great music and shipping containers full of Lego! I guess if you were coming to see Blur back in the day, you’ve got a couple of kids now, and you are still into music but you like the idea of lobster and chips as well. So we’re here!”
Feastival is sometimes sneerily thought of as a ‘posh festival’… What’s your take on the gentrification of festivals?
“I’m all for gentrification of festivals — it’s a good thing! When Blur started doing festivals there were only two [Glastonbury and Reading] and when I told my mum we were going to do Glastonbury she was aghast, she thought we were going to be murdered!
“It’s just one of those things that the more popular they get we work out how to do them better. So now you can add on all these layers of finesse that would not have been possible 20 years ago.”
Feastival seems to attract the Chipping Norton set… I remember seeing a photo of you standing between Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron…
“Oh every time I do anything The Guardian prints that picture! But you know Cameron is the local MP so I hope he comes — Jeremy Corbyn is welcome as well!
“Food in particular crosses all boundaries — race, gender, creed and politics — it’s a great universal. Everyone is welcome. My favourite type of party is granny dancing with the grandchildren, and maybe Kate Moss lurking about somewhere! Great food and music…”
What are some of the highlights this year?.
“For the Hacienda Classical on Friday an orchestra and DJs will play music from the famous Manchester nightclub. Peter Hook [bass player with New Order] tweeted me asking me to place bass on Blue Monday — that was the record that made me want to be in a band so that’s a real fantasy come true for me.
“We also have a lot of chefs that come and camp together for the weekend — they have a big chef geek-out. They bring their families and everyone has a real hoot.”
If you could have any of the chefs cook you a meal who would you choose?
“Blimey that’s difficult. Jamie is good at DJing [he laughs] so he would be my top dj choice! Actually it’s incredible watching anyone who is a master of their craft… but I’m really delighted Mark Hix is coming back, I’ve known him for a long time. For Hixy food is a complete vocation — he’ll be like ‘got any capers?’ at three o’clock in the morning. He never stops cooking. So I am doing a demo with him on Sunday morning which usually starts with him making me a bloody mary.”
Will the dish involve one of your cheeses?
“We try to make sure that the chefs aren’t short of my cheese!
“We are doing hot cheese toasties in the cheese hub, where the Groucho Club are running the bar for me, which I am very pleased about. I did run way from London ten years ago for a quiet life in the country — and now I’ve built a Groucho Club in the back garden!”
You’ve still maintained your enviable rock star visage, you don’t look like a man immersed in the world of cheese…
“Yes I think when Blur get back together that always does me good because bass players do tend to be a certain shape, and cheesemakers tend to be another kind of shape. I think having five kids keeps you fit, it’s very grounding — running around shouting like a sergeant major.”
Do you get nostalgic for the pop star days?
“Actually we’ve built a studio here and William Orbit has moved in and we’ve done some stuff together! We’ll be playing it in the Cheese Hub.
“I keep my hand in. I did wonder how I was going to fill that void of playing in front of thousands of people every night and then six years ago Jamie [Oliver] approached me about putting on a huge festival in the back garden and I thought yeah that hits the spot!”
To finish, what have been the stand out food and musical experiences of your life?
“One of the best meals I ever had was in Morocco — which is weird because I hate Moroccan food. I went there with Claire [Alex’s now wife] just after we had fallen in love and Blur had recorded Think Tank — there was no electricity just candles and no menu, just what the fishermen had caught that day.
“I like to look forward, so my next musical high will be playing on Blue Monday on Friday night at Feastival!”
WHEN AND WHERE: The Big Feastival takes place at Kingham, near Chipping Norton, from 25th to 27th August. Big names include co-host Jamie Oliver, chef Mark Hix, while Madness, Olly Murs, Peter Hook, Shaun Ryder, De La Soul, Dodgy and The Cribs are among the musical acts. For full line up and tickets go to www.thebigfeastival.com