How to Run a Festival Campsite Disco on 12 Volts

Today we’re chatting to non-other than Rich Littlewood, metal fan, minor agriculturalist and builder of devices from Newcastle (the proper one in the North-East of England, not the one near Stoke, he insists). Richard has been something of a legend in the Download Campervan Field since 2014, masquerading as WearTheFoxHat on the Download Campervan Forum. From what we hear, Richard is good with his hands, in so much as he loves making things, mending things and growing things (he is a proud allotment owner). He’s also well known for helping campervanners out, answering questions on the Download Campervan Facebook page, organising get-togethers and popping up at the right moment with screwdriver and voltmeter.

FVL: Rich say hello.

RICH: Hello!

Hello-Rich
This is Rich

FVL: Rich, have you always been a metal fan?

RICH: Oh yes, since I was about 5 or 6 when I discovered my Dad’s 7” single of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid (with The Wizard on the B side) I’ve loved rock & metal. This was only interrupted by a wee dalliance with the techno scene in the late 90’s which saw me gurning away in front of many sound systems in dirty venues dancing as fast as my fat little arms could wave. When I found time to sober up I managed to get interested in the technical side of live music and taking my first tentative steps in the tech world, getting involved in organising festivals and gigs in Newcastle, building my first PAs and hanging round with some very strange characters – true story: Ben Folds Five once accused me of stealing their gear out of a venue at the university

FVL: I don’t actually remember Ben Folds Five but they sound very rude. How long have you been coming to Download?

RICH: Since about 2009. I did a year in the main campsites and realised I was too old to be slumming it in a tent, so since 2010 I’ve been coming in motorhomes and later on caravans because I like my luxuries like cold drinks, comfy beds, and a lack of hollering idiots tripping over my tent at 3am.

FVL: Do you do any other festivals other than Download?

RICH: Just Download & Bloodstock for now. Very different festivals but both great fun. Newcastle seems to exist in a strange 200-mile belt between Leeds & Glasgow where big bands rarely tour. Smaller bands mysteriously skip us, and any festival with anything approaching an interesting line-up usually fails before it’s even happened (latest casualty being “Wasteland” festival). I should probably go to more festivals but they’re always a fair old trek.

FVL: I suppose there’s always a chance that Sting will put in appearance when he’s visiting home. Maybe that’s not a good thing, though. We hear that you’re involved in putting on Thursday night party with a difference in the Download Campervan Field every year. Do tell.

RICH: So, we started these little soirees in about 2013 and they’ve grown into a bit of a monster. The first year was basically a posh “Champagne” tea party, and we started being adventurous in 2014 with an attempt at outdoor cinema. Sadly, that fell flat on its arse due to it not being dark enough for our pitiful 12V projector, and the sound system being too small, but lessons were learned the hard way and people still had a laugh due to the presence of alcohol. After that we hit on a magic formula: Drink, dressing up, BBQ and bad music. There’s now a different fancy-dress theme each year. This year the theme was Togas but, in the past, we’ve had Villains, Champers for Campers (previously mentioned), a Christmas party (complete with Christmas presents) and Britney Spears. Inevitably, we’ve had pirates at least once, it is Download Festival after all.

 Some of the better outfits from the Villains party in 2018 - Cruella Deville, Dick Dastardly and Voldemort
Some of the better outfits from the Villains party in 2018 – Cruella Deville, Dick Dastardly and Voldemort

It’s a festival opening party so obviously there’s always irresponsible drinking involved. Each van is encouraged to bring a flavoured vodka. We’ve had everything from sherbet lemon flavour to marmite and everything in between. Everyone swears by their own recipe but, I can assure you, they’re all horrible. Everyone also brings something for the barrel o’ punch. Or, rather, a barrel of orangey grey fluid that is roughly 50/50 mixed spirits and fruit juice. Some of the guys are quite partial to it. They generally end up falling over a lot.

Christmas Party Theme 2016

There’s usually a barbeque on the go as well, next to which we pile a ridiculous quantity of raw meat, burgers, etc, which is normally still there in the morning. Which just goes to prove there are not as many rats at Download Festival as you might expect.

FVL: OK rewind. Britney Spears, you say?

RICH: So we’d settled on a “school disco” theme, virtually every bloke decided that it was an opportunity to dress up as schoolgirls. That quickly morphed into a bit of Britney Spears theme; and our attempt to set a world record

FVL: A world Record?

RICH: Yes. We applied to Guinness (and paid a bloody fee) to set a world record for “The most number of schoolgirls lip syncing to Britney Spears”. We got over 25 “Britneys” (some of whom definitely had beards) Plus a Jimmy Saville (don’t ask) lip syncing away. Sadly, because Guinness have no sense of adventure or humour, they blocked our application as apparently setting a world record needs to involve “some degree of skill”, so it’s an unofficial record. What rubbed salt in the wound was Guinness keeping the fee.

Britney-Spears-Record-Attempt
Britney Spears Lip-Sync Unofficial World Record

FVL: How do you decide what the fancy-dress theme is going to be?

RICH: Like most things these days it’s basically a social media bun fight. The suggestions for the following year start to come in quite soon after the current festival has finished. Then we debate it for the next 11 or so months and finally decide on something completely different about a week before the festival starts, which is why most of the costumes are so bad. No, actually, to be fair the standard is surprisingly high for a bunch of metal heads. The hardest thing is steering everyone away from choosing pirates as the theme again. It’s kind of the metal default fancy dress and for some, its just their normal clothes.  The 2020 theme is already under discussion and I’m sorry to report that “Gold Hotpants” (long campaigned for by DevilMan from the Download Forum) is currently tied for first place with “German Sparkle”. Don’t have nightmares!

Rich and Pete Devlin (DevilMan) the inventor of Gold Hotpants – Don’t have nightmares!

FVL: We hear you put on some electronic entertainments as well.

RICH: Yeah, the abject failure of the outdoor cinema stung a bit, so I retired to the shed and got tinkering building a 12V disco and everything needed to put on a proper party. Technical shenanigans aside, we have a crap crack team of fellow DJs to help marshal the party and keep the masses entertained on a Thursday evening. The first year was a bold move with Karaoke and I was terrified it would fall flat, but the moment (after about 5 minutes of awkward background music) that a bunch of hairy-arsed blokes got up to murder the Spice Girls Wannabe, was the moment I realised it was going to be OK. Since then we’ve put on a full-blown disco a few times, and a repeat of the karaoke, the trick is to keep mixing up the ideas and always leave ‘em wanting more. Happily it’s not me on my own, and I’m ably supported by a couple of friends DJ Wikkid Attack (Eddie) and DJ Not-Sure (Ian ) -all DJ names are picked by the trusty DJ Name Generator, hence my alter ego being Dr Manspread. Together we’ve managed to play the most terrible music we can find and keep the show on the road

DJ Not So Sure
DJ Not So Sure

FVL: Wow 12 volt disco. That must be challenging.

RICH: It’s been interesting and challenging: PA, audio mixers, disco lights, and a full karaoke rig – all built to run of 12V DC batteries. I think I’ve dismantled the PA and rebuilt it about 4 times, each year adding more volume and more gadgets – 2019 saw me adding proper lighting control with a 12V DMX controller. It’s amazing what actually runs at 12V (or lower) once you start poking about with it; and every once in a while, I’ll spot something that gets me thinking “Ohhh, I wonder if….”.

PA Testing in the garden
PA Testing in the garden

It’s really just about experimenting and seeing what works and what doesn’t, and if you’ve got a remotely practical head you can work it out. That said, my shed is full of bits of old experiments and failures, the attempt at a 12V bike generator failed miserably; and I’ve only electrocuted myself a few times. I’ve had to accept that sometimes, in the course of testing things, you can make mistakes, sometimes creating black smoke and frazzled circuits; so I’d advise anyone thinking of similar to be careful and be prepared for the odd accidental bang or fizzle. Most of the time – by luck or accident – it works first time; but “safety first” kids – if in doubt, ask the internet and be prepared to have at least one person either laugh at you or question your competence.

Early Prototype

FVL: Are there any particular technical issue when working with 12-volt audio.

RICH: Biggest problem with 12V audio is earth hum when you start connecting different equipment with the same power source together. There’s these lovely little isolators you can buy, but when you’ve got amps, mixers, tablets, karaoke gear and more to power, and each stage needs to have an isolator, it gets faffy to remember to fit them. I’ve ended up hard wiring them into just about every bit of kit I’ve got so I don’t end up playing “hunt the hum”

Roadie lovingly unloading precious disco equipment
Roadie lovingly unloading precious disco equipment

Music wise we have a strict policy of “no proper rock or metal”, so it’s 100% cheese and guilty pleasures all the way:  Everything from S Club Seven to Rednex via Black Box and The Bee Gees. You’d be amazed what metallers will sing and dance to once they’re drunk enough.

FVL: Are there any rule for attendees of these events?

RICH: No not really. The fancy dress is optional, but most people do it anyway. It probably fair to say rules are flexible and largely dependent on how drunk the DJs are. The only rule, I suppose is that everyone has fun.

Compulsory fun is strongly enforced at the Thursday Night Party

FVL: So, who comes to this 12-volt bonanza?

RICH: It’s just a group of regular Download Campervanners that have become mates originally though the Download website forums and subsequently through a shared interest in loud music and cheap alcohol. I think there’s usually about 20 -30 of us, some years a lot more. There’s strong drink involved so it’s attracted a significant Scottish contingent. On top of that we usually attract various passers by and nearby campers who stop off and try to suss out why someone is playing Gina G at full blast and end up being tricked into drinking some of the more challenging vodkas.

FVL: As well as having the power to trick people into trying weird drinks, you’ve obviously built up a few technical skills as well. Where did your interest in being a handyman come from?

RICH: Necessity – I knew my way round a few power tools; but made the mistake of buying a house that needed a full renovation from top to bottom. With little money to spare I had to learn about everything from bricklaying to plumbing & kitchen fitting. It did give me an excuse to get some cracking power tools though. I now just need to find a job that would justify buying a plasma cutter.

FVL: What’s the biggest project you’ve ever taken on?

RICH: I ended up, mostly by accident, in charge of a festival for a few years: even working with a team it’s almost a full-time job alongside doing a full-time job! I did it all for the fun of it so didn’t get paid a penny; but when you see thousands of people partying away with grins on their faces you can’t help smile and your sore feet suddenly feel a little less heavy. These days I’m older and (supposedly) wiser; so will stick to things a little less ambitious.

FVL: Couldn’t agree less. Your ambition appears to be a genuine force for good. Speaking of which, you’re also known as bit of a gardener. How did the allotment thing come about?

RICH: Honestly? I got old and started turning into my dad…. Though seriously, I’d been messing about in the back garden, and suddenly decided that I quite fancied a space away from the house to lurk in, grow things, and generally relax in. Alcohol was probably involved in this decision and proves that any decisions made whilst drunk are either genius or idiocy

FVL: What do you grow?

RICH: I’m ashamed to say I’ve fallen under the influence of the allotment “old timers”, so it’s traditional veg all the way – leeks, beans, tomatoes and the like – basically anything that can survive my chemical warfare struggle with slugs and pests. But it’s satisfying going up there on a summer’s evening and having a little potter about. And I’ve tried to use technology to make life easier like automatic watering systems for the greenhouses. No-one’s noticed the solar panel on the greenhouse yet so it’s all good.

Rich’s allotment plot

FVL: That sounds very tasty. I hope you’ll give use a shout when you’ve got some veggies ready to eat. Rich, it’s been a great pleasure talking to you. Keep up the good work with the 12-volt appliances and veggies. We hope that you get the plasma cutter one day and next year’s Download Campervan Thursday night is a raging success.

Hopefully catch you at Download or possibly another festival in the near future. Ideally not in the gold hot pants though. And, we sincerely hope that touring bands and festival organisers put Newcastle back on the tour map. 

FVL OUT

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