Music

Spades, moustaches and 3D Tetris: The secrets of Glastonbury's legendary Block9 revealed

One of Block9's creators explains how they bring the show to life – including NYC Downlow's new door policy

A dancer at NYC Downlow, located in Glastonbury Festival's Block9

A 1,000 strong crew put Block9 together over the course of a month. Image: Kamil Kustosz

You may have read stories about celebrities and performers arriving at Glastonbury Festival in helicopters. Life is less glamorous for the musicians, singers, DJs, drag artists and go-go boys who put on the show at the NYC Downlow. Each year, they will all arrive together, on the Tuesday before the festival, in a big coach.

“For some reason, something always seems to go wrong with the transport,” says Stephen Gallagher, one of the minds behind Block9, the area at the festival home to NYC Downlow. “Whether it’s the bus breaking down on the side of the motorway, or somebody being violently sick inside the bus.”

In 2023, the coach cancelled two days before it was due to set off. But when they do arrive, it’s game on. A party, months in the making can begin. Bringing Block9 to life involves a 1,000 strong crew, many living on the festival site for a month. Most work for less than they normally do, putting together an area of Glastonbury born of queer culture, bold set design, and “temporary alternative realities.” As he gears up for his 17th year shaping a corner of the Somerset site, Gallagher gave the Big Issue an insight into what it takes to bring together the party capital of Glastonbury.

Inside the return of Genosys: ‘Like a really, really hard acid trip’

Once the mainstay of Block9, Genosys – a cuboid behemoth designed as a dystopian plant nursery – has been absent for five years. This year, it is making its return. It has been stored on site since 2019, and endured the elements during the festival’s pandemic hiatus. Bits of the set were stored in a field, and saw winters of rain and wind and ice and freezing.

“The set had suffered quite badly,” says Gallagher.

Genosys is returning for this year’s Glastonbury Festival. Image: Peter Podrowski

They had planned to bring Genosysy back in 2023, but didn’t make it. So last Autumn, they took the pieces of the set up to some barns on the festival site and rebuilt it. Its return to Glastonbury this year will include projection mapping on the stage. This involves taking a 3D model of the stage, designing projections using that model, and then repeating that in real life.

“You get the feeling that the boxes are moving, and that they’re becoming see-through and x-rayed and they’re glowing. You can project lighting effects onto them so you can make them have highlights and deep shadows,” he says.

“It’s going to look fucking sick,” he adds. “You don’t need to take any drugs when you come to Block9, we’ll do all that for you. You can basically come and stand in front of Genosys and feel like you’re on a really, really hard acid trip.”

NYC Downlow’s legendary re-entry moustaches are no more

Always accompanied by a long queue, NYC Downlow is a queer club sat in a field in Somerset which has long been hailed as not just one of the most fun parts of the festival, but one of the world’s best clubs, full stop.

Those in the know will often bring fake moustaches to the festival to try and hack the venue’s re-entry policy – once admitted, and after paying a £2 charity donation, residents are given a moustache to get back in. But this year there will be changes: the tent is bigger with a greater capacity, but there will be no re-entry.

NYC Downlow at Glastonbury Festival
NYC’s much-manipulated re-entry policy has changed. Image: Joe Hayhow

“It was literally roadblock from the very first moment we opened the doors, and it has been ever since, every time we open the doors of the club,” Gallagher says.

“We want to be sure that it’s fair to everybody, that it’s sure that everybody going into the club has paid the same donation. All of our guest list have made the same donation.

“I’m really hoping that it will deter tourism, shall we call it. The Downlow is an authentic gay and queer space. It’s not a theme party, it’s not for gawpers, it’s a real thing. We very much welcome a wide, very broad spectrum. Everybody’s welcome. But we also have to try and retain that energy, that vibe, and try and make sure that the Downlow is looking after the people it was built for, rather than just loads of people who want to come in and get an Instagram photo with some trans performers in the background.”

The ‘three-dimensional time-based Tetris’ of crowd control

There are around 210,000 people on site at Glastonbury. Put on a good enough act, and they’ll all want to be in the same place. Word of “secret sets” can spread fast, and in 2022 Mendip Council told the festival “improvements are necessary” on crowd control amid reports of security “not being able to prevent people from entering areas which had become crowded.”

Late-night access to Block9 and other parts of the South East corner is carefully managed, but Gallagher gives an insight into how crowds are controlled.

The organisers have to think carefully about programming to prevent ‘crazy crowd surges’. Image: Kamil Kustosz

“We definitely do think about it, and Glastonbury think about it,” he says, explaining they will keep in close communication with the overall festival organisers “to make sure we don’t cause some crazy crowd surges.”

He adds: “Sometimes it can be of benefit to have something else big going on in a nearby field, because it means that the crowd is spread out. On other occasions, the crowd management team might be like, well that’s going to cause too many problems.

“Let’s say you’ve got a dance music act going on in West Holts, then immediately after that finishes we’ve got a big act happening on IIcon, that means you’re probably going to get most of the West Holts crowd trying to get down to IICON. So there’s definitely a little bit of a three-dimensional time-based Tetris thing going on, to try and plug it all together and make it work. But it normally does.”

The ideas which never made it to Glasontbury

Anything goes. Almost. Over the years, Gallagher and co have had a number of ideas which never saw the light of day.

“We had talked about touring IICON, but it’s such a massive structure to replicate, you’d have to be a festival with either very big ideas, or very ambitious or deep pockets, to be able to afford to do it. We’re here in a strange bubble at Glastonbury – the normal rules of society and commerce don’t really apply,” says Gallagher.

“We had an idea that we were going to bring back [one-time Block9 stage] London Underground one year and have a crane with a wrecking ball on it, so it looked like a three dimensional version of a political cartoon,” he adds.

One year, he wanted to build a maze of heras fencing, with a buried shipping container as the secret destination in the middle. The maze never happened – but a shipping container did get buried in the field which is now home to IICON. The crew dug a massive hole for the 40ft container, filled it with tonnes and tonnes of concrete ballast, got a smoke machine and popped the doors open. The first job for the crew on Monday morning was to dig the container out of the mud and clay.

“To try and dig it out by hand, as the first job on Monday morning, with everybody feeling really shabby and not really wanting to be there, was extremely difficult,” says Gallagher.

“You have to switch your mindset and be like, right, this is it, this is what we’re doing. Just try and compartmentalise the feelings of despair and anguish.”

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