If there’s a festival that has been devoted to stoner, sludge and doom metal music, it’s definitely Desertfest. Every spring for the past eight years, the festival has brought slower tempos and low-pitched sounds to different parts of Europe. The festival is held in not one, but three cities: London, Berlin and Antwerp. It also made its debut overseas this year, with the first American edition in New York.
It all started in London in 2012, when organizers Reece Tee and Jake Farey took on the ambitious challenge of bringing a festival like Roadburn to the UK. “We wanted to create something that we would enjoy, so other people would enjoy it too,” Reece says. “It stands for all the things we love about good festivals. We have tried to take away any elitism or music snobbery; music is for enjoying and having fun along with friends. That’s what Desertfest is about.”
Spreading the Desertfest brand to other European cities was crucial to giving the festival a strong presence in Europe. “Back in 2011, my friend Reece reached out to me with the idea of a combined indoor heavy rock festival,” says Desertfest Berlin organizer Matte Vandeven. “After several phone calls and meetings, we found the right structure to kick-start the event in both London and Berlin.”
The first edition of Desertfest took place in April 2012 in different venues in Camden, London, and Berlin at Festsaal Kreuzberg. “The atmosphere was electric,” Reece recalls. “It was a true celebration of our love for doom, stoner and desert rock; the name says it all. We had the support of the bands and the fans to make it happen, and we knew from the start we had created something very special.”
Things were also on fire on the other side of the English Channel. “It was simply great,” Matte says with enthusiasm. “The first night featured Orange Goblin headlining in a fantastic old ballroom, and everyone remembers an amazing vibe and spirit that was carried through the entire festival.”
Following the massive amount of positive feedback received on the very first Desertfest, it was clear that things would only get bigger. “After the success of the festivals, we had a lot of requests to bring it to other cities,” Reece explains. “It was very flattering to know we were doing something right, but we needed to be selective. You need the right ingredients to make it a success, and that includes good venues and great partners and teams on the ground to make it happen.”
“We wanted to improve the fest with another edition,” Matte adds. “And we found in Antwerp the right partners in terms of production, promotion, and infrastructure.”
Two years later, DesertFest expanded into Belgium. “The editions in Berlin and London were already going strong, and as a local organizer I saw room in our region that’s centrally located in Europe, and it seemed like a natural fit,” explains Wim Leppens, organizer of Desertfest Belgium. “The first festival was an expected hit. It was as if there was an audience just waiting for something like DF Antwerp to happen.”
Over the years, Desertfest has continued to bring different cities and cultures together under a single brand and a mutual devotion to heavy music. “What we love about the different editions is that they are all Desertfest, but all have their vibe,” Reece clarifies. “London is a street festival, running in and out of venues, taking over the streets of Camden and being part of a busy London music scene.” “In Berlin, we’re running the festival in one huge venue with a great outdoor area at the riverside, the atmosphere is more chill,” Matte says. “Desertfest Antwerp is the best house party in the world!” Wim adds. “The Trix venue is definitely a big part of our unique character, and I think one of the main strengths of the brand is that there’s a lot of cooperation between the festivals, but ultimately we all have our distinctive personality.”
Eight years is a significant achievement, and it is impossible not to look back at the past. “There have been many special moments, but I think watching Sleep perform for the first time at Desertfest was the start of the festival growing, so I have a soft spot in my heart for it,” Reece confesses. For Matte, last year was a game changer, “In 2018, the new venue was a big step for us. We remember that edition for the hard work we did but also because some band members were found by the cleaning lady in the kitchen, sleeping under some tables on the floor just covered with their jackets. Nobody knew how and why they ended up there instead of their hotel beds,” he laughs.
New memories have already been made in 2019 with the first Desertfest in New York. “It’s always been a dream for us to bring the festival to the United States,” Reece explains. “The venues we chose are very cool, and it was important to bring some of the chilled vibes from Europe. We’re already planning for 2020 in NYC.”
If New York ended successfully, London, Berlin, and Antwerp are just about to get started with new surprises. “The small private sessions in the basement will be back,” Wim announces. “In Berlin, we will have a ‘venue in the venue’ with a new sound system, and we added a warm-up show on Thursday night which features a secret headliner,” Matte continues.
“I’m very excited about our Sunday Roundhouse line up,” Reece admits. “Fu Manchu have been underplayed in London for years, so it is a great opportunity to have them headline in such a great venue. Along with them, we have All Them Witches, Witch, Earthless, and Colourhaze. The real magic will be the people, though. I can’t wait to see this huge family coming together to celebrate the common love for music.”