Festival preview: Slam Dunk director Ben Ray on the growth of '˜the biggest independent rock festival in the country'

Slam Dunk festival has come a long way from its origins as weekly club night at The Cockpit in Leeds 16 years ago.

Enter Shikari

Today it’s the UK’s foremost punk pop festival, based in three locations – Leeds, Birmingham and Hatfield in Hertfordshire – with multiple stages hosting dozens of acts.

“It started when that wave of pop punk and ska punk started becoming very popular,” recalls Ben Ray, the event’s director and founder.

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“We did a night to cater for the big fan base of people that started to get into that music.

Neck Deep

“Between 2001 and 2006 it was just a club night and a series of concerts in Leeds, mainly at The Cockpit but also at Leeds Beckett and Leeds University.”

The first festival was held in 2006. “It wasn’t really planned; it was more like an accident,” says Ray. “We put Fall Out Boy at Leeds University Refectory, which at the time as the biggest venue in Leeds, in January 2006, then we got told by their agent that they were coming back in May and automatically he said, ‘Sorry, you won’t be able to get a show because Leeds hasn’t got a venue big enough for them’.

“Luckily we just had permission from Leeds City Council to start putting shows on at Millennium Square so I went to them and said, ‘It’s the end of May, the weather should be warming up, we’ve got this venue in Millennium Square, why don’t we do an outside gig – especially if it’s on a Saturday?’, which they did.

“Then I thought 7,000 in Millennium Square is actually a little too big for them – the biggest venue they’d done on the tour was Brixton Academy, which is 5,000. So I said, ‘Because it’s a Saturday, why don’t we open the doors a little bit earlier, put on a few more bands and call it a festival?’”

Ben Ray, Slam Dunk festival director

The event sold out but Ray quickly realised that finding another headliner of similar pulling power for the following year was be difficult. Instead he decided to scale Slam Dunk down and for the next three years it was held it was held at Leeds University.

“In 2008 we came across the winning formula, which was a multi-stage indoor music event,” says Ray. “At that point Leeds University had this great format which was multiple stages under one roof. That third year it went from a one stage event to a four stage event.”

In 2010 a second day was added at Hatfield University; three years later there was a Midlands leg too – initially at Wolverhampton Civic Hall then, from 2016, at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.

In 2015 the Leeds leg expanded. “We moved out of the university and almost took it home , back to Millennium Square,” says Ray.

Deaf Havana

2017’s event will also utilise the First Direct Arena for the first time along with the O2 Academy, Leeds Beckett University, the nearby Key Club and various outdoor stages.

“It’s unique to have a fenced-off multi-stage festival site in the city centre,” notes Ray. “With the Academy nearby and the Arena just across the road, it’s not too far to walk.

“The Arena is the biggest venue [with a potential capacity of 13,500], but it’s going to be stage 2. We’re not using the full Arena; we’re using standing and the lower tiers only. We’re running Leeds Arena as a 5,000 capacity. Millennium Square is 7,000.”

Musically the festival has “changed a little bit” from the original parameters that Ray set for it back in 2006. “It depends on who are the biggest bands at the time,” he says. “But it is a niche festival – it is that alternative scene of pop punk, ska punk, hardcore, metalcore – all the ones that go together.

Neck Deep

“The stages have changed, depending on the bands that I’ve got from each sub-genre, but it’s always remained true to the scene.”

This year’s event is already looking to be the most successful yet. “It’s done great, we’re at record sales,” says Ray. “We’re going to do 17,000 in Leeds this year. Hatfield’s now the smallest one and that sold out a few weeks ago at 10,000, and Birmingham is 16,000.

“We’ll get close to 45,000 this year across the three locations. It’s the biggest independent rock festival in the country.”

The Leeds leg principally attracts fans from across the North as well as Scotland and Ireland, but, says Ray: “We get a lot of people travelling from around the world. Australia, America, all across Europe. People travel and the Leeds site is very popular for that. They can get flights to Leeds-Bradford [airport] , it’s quite a destination one whereas the other two sites are not in the city centre.”

This year’s festival is headlined by Enter Shikari, who are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first album Take To The Skies. Singer and keyboard player Rou Reynolds says: “Slam Dunk is a festival that we’ve been attending from the very start – Slam Dunk South is actually on the campus of my old Uni in Hatfield!

“It’s grown into one of the most important festivals in alternative music, and it will be an absolute honour to headline it in 2017.”

Ben Ray, Slam Dunk festival director

Also on the bill are Don Broco, Deaf Havana, Beartooth, Bowling For Soup and Neck Deep.


Deaf Havana