How Moogfest Crafted One of the Most Adventurous Lineups in the U.S.
A chat with Ashley Capps
Asheville, North Carolina’s Moogfest announced a number of new additions to its lineup this week, including Nas, Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), and Morton Subotnick; on October 26 and 27, they join Primus, Orbital, Richie Hawtin, Squarepusher, Four Tet, GZA, and Actress in rounding out one of the most adventurous festival lineups in North America — and that list of names only scratches the surface.
Moogfest wasn’t always like this: It began in New York, in 2004, as a rock-oriented tribute to Bob Moog, the pioneering synthesizer inventor, who passed away in 2005. For four years, the festival’s lineup gravitated towards prog heavyweights, jam bands, and jazz and funk icons — Keith Emerson, Jan Hammer, Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell, Umphrey’s McGee — before organizers pulled the plug. In 2010, Knoxville’s AC Entertainment took over the brand and moved Moogfest to Asheville, where Moog spent the last three decades of his life and where Moog Music maintains its headquarters today. AC Entertainment knows a thing or two about festivals: The same team produces Bonnaroo — a former jam-band staple that has grown into something like the South’s answer to Coachella — as well as events like Big Ears, with a focus on out rock, improv, and experimental electronic music. (“It was heaven,” wrote the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff of Big Ears, in 2009.)
It’s easy to see how this year’s Moogfest fits into its organizers’ mandate: Acts like Primus, Nas, Miike Snow, and Santigold anchor the big-tent end of the spectrum, but most of the marquee is given over to artists that straddle scenes (GZA, Mouse on Mars, Blondes) or don’t really fit anywhere, like Black Moth Super Rainbow. And Richie Hawtin, Carl Craig, Pantha du Prince, Four Tet, and Actress will, for one weekend, turn Asheville into the site of some of the best four-to-the-floor club music on the planet — not bad, for a city that’s way off the Los Angeles/London/Berlin axis.
SPIN spoke with AC Entertainment founder Ashley Capps about reinventing Moogfest, electronic legacies, and how the jam-band circuit helped produce the current festival landscape.
It’s an amazing lineup — I love that you have people like Actress and Tim Hecker and Julia Holter in there with Nas and Orbital.
You’re zoning in on some of my favorite acts. At least part of what I do is that I always find a vehicle to book the stuff I really want to see.
Who is in charge of the programming — is it you, a group of people? And what are your main criteria for putting it together?
It’s evolved to the point where there’s definitely a group of us involved in the discussion. We reach out to the Moog Music people for suggestions from them. We listen to the fans for suggestions from them. I direct it, but I’m always eager to hear what other people have to say. I don’t know everything, so I get turned on to new stuff all the time.
The criteria, like every other festival that we do, is pretty unscientific. I would say the lineup ultimately develops out of a very organic process. We certainly have a vision, and with Moogfest the vision is clearly focused around the idea of electronic music in general and the Moog legacy, to some degree. Although we’re very careful to make sure that the Moog legacy is a thread that runs through the festival and not a box that tries to contain it.
So as we’ve put out there in our mission statement, more or less, we’re inspired by Bob Moog’s innovative spirit and his love of music. And he loved live music, and he loved a lot of live music with nothing to do with electronics or his instruments. I remember one of the last times I saw Bob Moog was at a John Hartford concert, you know? But he loved that social aspect of the live music experience. So all of those factors come into play.
Your company, AC Entertainment, also produces Bonnarroo. Is it fair to consider Moogfest something like Bonnaroo’s more experimental younger brother?
They’re really very different beasts all together. The scale of Moogfest is certainly much smaller than Bonnaroo. Moogfest is not a camping festival, and I think the camping element or ethos of Bonnaroo is really core to what the Bonnaroo experience is all about. Undoubtedly, there are certain similarities, simply because we’re involved in both of them. But I really see them as very different types of experiences. You know, we actually have another festival called Big Ears which is really far more experimental in its intentions than even Moogfest.
There was a pre-existing Moogfest that was in New York City [from 2004 until 2008]. It was taking place at B.B. King’s, and it was three or four acts in a single evening. It really focused primarily on the Moog historic legacy in rock music, or rock-related music. So artists like Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Jan Hammer; I think that really the most contemporary artist they presented was Bernie Worrell. I started talking to them several years before we launched the Asheville event, because from my perspective, I was like, “Why not Asheville?” That was Bob’s home for the last decades of his life. It was the headquarters of Moog Music, where they still make these instruments. You know, they’re still making them by hand in downtown Ashville — they’re not being manufactured overseas, as with many other electronic instruments. And on top of that, Asheville’s such a fantastic city, such wonderful place to visit, that to me it seemed logical that we bring all those elements together.
And then as we started thinking about the concept of the festival, it seemed very important to me to reinvent it. Knowing how much Moog was still innovating — they’re still designing and launching new electronic instruments, and they’re very actively embraced by contemporary music makers. So my feeling was, I wanted to acknowledge the past, and we do, and it’s very important, but I really wanted to recast the event as a contemporary music festival as well.
This is your third year; what have you learned from the two previous editions? Will this year’s event be larger than the previous one?
We actually expanded rapidly last year. We grew it significantly, added an outdoor venue, and it proved to be a very difficult experience. The outdoor venue didn’t work out for us the way we had hoped it would, we got clobbered by the weather — obviously, the weather’s pretty dicey at the end of October — and this year we chose to focus and to dial it back just a little bit. We’re doing two days; we’ve really got a third day, because Justice is playing on Thursday evening, technically a standalone event, but we’re encouraging Moogfest people to come in a day before.
So we scaled it down to two days, but we’re still using five venues, and trying to focus just a little bit more and develop the experience a bit more. Doing a festival is always a learning experience, you know. After 11 Bonnaroos we’re still learning lessons about Bonnaroo and applying those lessons and hoping the festival continues to evolve as an amazing experience for everyone that attends. All of our festivals are really governed by that. You have an array of things you would love to see happens each year, and you have to assess ultimately which ones you’re going to focus on, and continue to build the experience in that way.
There are different philosophies in festivals. Certainly, Bonnaroo is about abundance. I love that, in a way, although it can be very frustrating that you can’t see everything you want to see. But the whole cornucopia aspect is what that festival is all about. But with Moogfest, I wanted to dial it back a little bit. I had attended some festivals in the last year where it was a little more possible to relax and breathe a little bit, and I really appreciate that. There’s going be plenty to do at Moogfest, and there will be plenty of conflicts, but hopefully programmed in such a way that it really enhances everyone’s experience.
Electronic music has obviously exploded in the United States since Moogfest began in its current incarnation. Has its newfound popularity had any effect on your programming decisions?
Sure, that’s part of the culture that we choose to embrace. That’s something of a happy accident. We plotted this festival several years before we actually launched it. I would say we focus maybe a little bit more on bands, and more on a historical precedent, than some of the more hardcore electronic-music festivals. We have elements of that, but we have elements of a lot of other things as well.
To me, one of the most exciting things about the festival is the multifaceted aspect. Yes, we have hip-hop. Yes, we have pop music, but we also have some of the new sonic explorers like Daniel Lopatin and Tim Hecker and Julia Holter and people pushing the envelope in some ways. I personally love being able to bring those worlds together into a single experience.
I think it’s interesting that while the big electronic-music festivals have pretty conservative booking policies, it’s an organization with roots in jam-band culture that’s taking on the more cutting-edge electronic music at the moment.
Well, my roots aren’t really in jam band culture. I work with a lot of those acts, and certainly Bonnarroo, in its first years, was somewhat stereotyped as a jam-band festival. And there was a reason behind that. That was an audience that had shown it wanted to travel, to experience the artists they loved playing the music that they love. So I think there were more open to the experience of a weekend festival and camping. But beyond that, the interesting thing to me about jam bands is that the term is virtually meaningless. It’s really about bands who improvise, but the bands themselves draw from so many genres of music. There are jam bands that are influenced by jazz, by bluegrass, different types of ethnic music from all over the world. Certainly by rock, by electronica. And at Bonnaroo, that gave us the core to be able to spin off all these tangents and create our ultimate goal, which was a music festival. And one that had a tremendous amount of variety and excitement to it.
My own personal passions in music — I started out promoting avant-garde concerts. I was a jazz fan back in the ’70s and ’80s, back in the days of Henry Threadgill and Derek Bailey and Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann, when all of that scene was coming up. So I’ve always had a taste for music that pushed the envelope.
In last year’s XLR8R review, noting that Tim Hecker played to a pretty empty room, they said that “maybe the tastes of the Moogfest promoters are loftier than their audience.” What are the challenges in trying to present some of the more experimental artists alongside the big headliners? Are there two different publics at the festival?
I’ll be honest with you, I think last year we were a bit over-programmed. We had an extraordinary array of artists playing, and I was really excited about the lineup, but the juxtapositions proved to be a bit challenging. I really feel like we mis-booked Tim Hecker. I had booked him at one of our other festivals before that, at this amazing theater in Knoxville, and he played in this pitch-black environment, and it was quite an extraordinary sonic experience. We hoped that by pairing him with Amon Tobin, we would bring in a larger audience and create a similar environment, even though the room that he played was quite large. Sometimes you take a chance and it doesn’t quite work, and that was one of them. Fortunately, what Tim does is so powerful and so compelling, that it didn’t really matter. [Laughs] You know, the experience of the music was there to be had, and I don’t think people were looking around saying, ‘Gee, there’s not enough people’ or anything like that, because it just completely filled the room. But yeah, it can be challenging. This year, one of the reasons that we scaled back is that we wanted to make certain we were presenting everyone in the best possible situation.
Tim couldn’t have been too upset, since he’s coming back.
I don’t think Tim was upset at all — he had a great time. Again, what he does can fill these cavernous environments, and that’s a really remarkable part of the experience.
I was really excited to see that Morton Subotnick will be performing Silver Apples of the Moon alongside the video artist Lillevan.
I’m really, really excited that Morton Subtonick is coming. One of the visions that we have behind Moogfest is that we want to introduce the younger audience to some of the pioneers of electronic music whenever possible, and certainly Morton Subtoncik is one of those. He’s not a Moog artist, but, like Bob Moog, he turned everyone’s ears around, especially with Silver Apples of the Moon, and then Sidewinder and some of those early, classic pieces. What he’s doing now with Lillevan is amazing.
Are there any further announcements to come?
There are still some discussions that are being had that I’m trying to finalize. One of them I can’t announce, but he rarely performs in public these days. I’m not sure what he’s going to do; he might just play acoustic piano. But we can go there, if that’s what he wants to do. The first year we had Van Dyke Parks, and you know, Van Dyke was one of the early experimenters with the Moog, back in the 1960s, and he was a close friend of Bob’s, but when he came to Moogfest, he just played his classic tunes sitting at the piano. It was like a somewhat eccentric look back on 100 years of American music, and it was just great. We feel like most of our focus needs to be on that kind of electronica, but not all of it.
Well, the piano is a machine too, when you get right down to it.
It sure is. It’s an extraordinary invention.