"We started as something of a picnic party," says Pickathon founder Zale Schoenborn of his annual, three-day music festival, which come August 2, will return to Pendarvis Farm, just 20 minutes outside of Portland, Oregon. "That was 1999 and we had maybe 90 people out, just a little nugget of a thing that has grown slowly over the years to become the semi-behemoth that we are now."
This year, Pickathon will welcome some 3,500 guests to commune with a wide-ranging lineup that includes outliers from the worlds of indie rock, rap, and bluegrass alike, including Feist, Kurt Vile, Shabazz Palaces, Sharon Van Etten, Andrew Bird, Brad Folk, Shakey Graves, Parquet Courts, and several more. The roster, Schoenborn says, is "always a little bit irreverent and subversive," demonstrative of a philosophy he's maintained since he started booking festivals as a graduate student in electromagnetics while at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the mid 1990s. Though Pickathon maintains a year-round staff and employs a massive community of volunteers during the festival itself, Schoenborn continues to work a day job at Intel.
"This is a hobby gone way, way wrong," he says of festival-organizing and Pickathon in particular. "We used to have a festival in Colorado called the 'Tell You What' Festival,' a kind of parody of the Telluride Bluegrass festival. At the time, I was playing a lot of bluegrass myself, but we wanted to mix the music together, rock with bluegrass with country, which can still be pretty taboo in most of those communities. But we've always had the theory that good music is good music and style shouldn't matter. It's much more interesting to have a study or contemporary snapshot of the most amazing music you can find right now. And while folks have been drawing lines around us — saying this is what we are and what we aren't — we've never approached the festival any other way. There's just too much good music in the world."
And while mega-festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella have long brought together artists of all creative stripes each summer, Pickathon prides itself on its environmentally conscious approach and manageable crowd sizes. "It's probably the weirdest, strangest, most off-kilter thing about us," he says of Pickathon's population density. "We are coming in, as a national festival, at one fourth the density of Sasquatch, a fifth of what you might experience at Coachella. We do that on purpose to create space and the sense that you can be very close and intimate."
That feeling is spread across six stages that Schoenborn likens to "musical rides at a Disney theme park," each with their own distinct personality. "Our main stage, for example," he explains, "is a temporary structure built from 200,000 square feet of fabric. There is no boxed truss or black box look to it. It's asymmetrical, custom sculptural. There's absolutely nothing like it, but each stage feels almost like an alternate universe. You can be there and be lost, wander into another space. It's a comfort level that even allows for families and kids. That may seem really tough from a business standpoint, but it's part of our signature."
Similarly, in 2009, Pickathon became the first festival to cut plastics completely. In 2010, the festival did away with all single-use items, opting to sell tokens for (and urge festivalgoers to bring their own) plates, silverware, and collectible Kleen Kanteen containers they'll wash themselves using a custom-built industrial dishwasher. Additionally, water is provided free of charge. "These systems pay for themselves," Schoenborn says, of his token-based business model. "I think there's a sense that it costs a lot of money to do this. But it's actually the opposite: Less makes money, so to say. We hash it out with the people, our community, and trust that they'll have the conversation. By the time they get to the festival, they know what to expect, and they've approved of it. It's a piece of cake."
And in culling local culinary talent, Pickathon also provides food and drink from some of Portland's most popular and progressive chefs and breweries. It's just one part of why Schoenborn, 43, decided to stay. "Whether it's the art or the approach to sustainability, the mixture of music regardless of style, Portland is so attuned with exactly that," he says of the festival's relationship with its birthplace. "We draft so much energy from Portland. It's a key part of what makes Pickathon what it is."
Scan Pickathon's 2013 lineup below:
Andrew Bird, Divine Fits, The Devil Makes Three, Kurt Vile & The Violators, Sharon Van Etten, Shabazz Palaces, Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside, Feist, Vieux Farka Touré, Howe Gelb, Lady, The Felice Brothers, Tift Merritt, The Lone Bellow, Dale Watson, Foxygen, Wayne Hancock, Marco Benevento, Ginny Hawker, Parquet Courts, Breathe Owl Breathe, Lake Street Dive, Dirk Powell, Lightning Dust, Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole, King Tuff, JD McPherson, White Fence, Shinyribs, Yellowbirds, Foghorn Stringband, Shakey Graves, Caleb Klauder Country Band, Brad Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys, I Draw Slow, Leo Randeau, Malcolm Holcombe, Pure Bathing Culture, Sturgill Simpson, Old Light, The Cactus Blossoms, Pharis & Jason Romeo, Pickathon Squaredance with Caller Caroline Oakley, Diane Ferlatte, Cat Doorman, Circus Cascadia, Trackers Earth, and Caroline Oakley Family Dance Band