The story of Lee Fest’s origin is a much publicised one. Take the Android advert, which played in cinemas up and down the country. The one minute clip, starring founder Lee Denny himself, visually retells the day Denny received the instruction from his holiday-bound parents ‘not to have a party’ at the house. In what has become urban history, teenage Lee abided by this one, specific piece of legislation – and staged a festival instead.
All you have to do is type Denny’s name into a search engine of your choosing, and you’ll be met with a host of online articles referring to the Lee Fest founder as the pioneer and saint of modern day, DIY culture. You’ll find one of them on this very website.
It’s not difficult to see why, either. Ten years later and Lee Fest is now one of the most acclaimed mid-size festivals in the country. What began as a clever exercise in youthful rebellion has grown into an annual hideaway for thousands of festival-goers all over the country; people just like Lee, who still subscribe to the magic they can provide. In 2016, he welcomes them to The Neverland.
‘When we did it in 2006, we had five days to plan it and a day to clean up. It was just to see if we could do it in the garden – at the time that was a challenge. We were like “oh my god, this is so silly!”’ he tells me, as indie rock stalwarts We Are Scientists arrive backstage.
‘It’s kind of the way it’s been ever since – there’s never been a grand plan’.
Whilst initially, I find Denny’s claim to chaos a little hard to believe, the more I wander around the festival site, the more it begins to ring true. In its tenth year and first outing on its new, much larger site, there’s still something flung-together about Lee Fest. That’s not me saying it looks rushed, because that wouldn’t be true at all – with three provinces, each containing a different theme (Lost Boys, Mermaids and Pirates), the site is constructed in an immersive, insanely beautiful manner. No, what resonates the most, is the romanticism behind its running. For Lee Denny and his team, the only thing that’s important is that people fall in love with the place as much as he has. The festival is an assortment of wacky, fantastical goings-on, designs seem to have come straight out of Denny’s mind, rather than a business plan.
‘I always liked that idea of refusing to grow old – not in the sense of not maturing, but accepting that there’s always more. Always more to do, always more to learn, there are always new adventures. I want to provide a space where people can do that, give them the chance to experience something they’ve never done before’.
‘We’ve always been the little guy on the festival and it’s very much in our roots just to have fun – that very much continues, even now’.
It’s difficult to escape how much of Lee finds its way into the way the festival runs – I mean come on, it’s named after him. For him, Lee Fest is still a product of escapism, just as it was when he started it at sixteen. In an approach that Denny refers to as ‘taking all the smaller things I love about different, larger festivals and placing them all together as one’, he strives for that escape to be universal. He wants friends on this magical journey.
‘What I really like is the mix of people at Glastonbury – all different creeds, backgrounds and histories’, he declares. ‘But everyone comes together and has this amazing spirit and energy, that’s what we’re trying to create here. The diversity of stuff happening, people meeting each other, learning about different worlds and having learned something new. The eclecticness.’
‘Festivals are just tiny utopian societies that you build for like, one weekend – it’s such a crazy idea. There’s not a single remnant from them once they’re gone, apart from people’s memories and that connection they had with other people’.
I ask him which moments throughout the festivals lifespan jump out to him as defining, and he immediately replies with ‘every year’. Dressed in an outfit that can only be described as a Disco Admiral, and sporting a Kid-At-Christmas excitement throughout our conversation, it’s almost impossible to separate the big-thinking sixteen year old with the man currently seated opposite to me. Why is the theme Neverland this year? ‘Because my parents are always asking me when I’m going to grow up and get a proper job,’ he smiles.
‘Obviously I don’t want to do that.’
And why would he? Right now, he’s the king of his own, alternative kingdom. Musical acts such as Bastille and Young Fathers count him among the first people to show them support, whilst thousands of people owe the best weekend of their year directly to him. He sits here, covered in glitter, like a proud dad.
Lee Fest revels in detachment. It’s completely separated from the commercialised festival chain (‘they can’t take the risks that we can take’) – and completely separated from reality, too. The Neverland acts as a bonkers hideaway; you can only see it continuing to grow.
Is there a blueprint for this expansion?
‘We’re very conscious about keeping the specialness of it. That comes from the core.’
‘There is no ideal, though – ideal is whatever come. As long as it’s still really fun, really nice, supporting new music and continuing to do all of the things that were important to us when we started it, then that’s great. We’ll just grow and develop, we’re a significant community, now – and you don’t choose the direction of that.’
‘Just… more of the same’.
Words by Niall Flynn