Pickathon Lineup Announced
Pickathon, one of the most cutting-edge roots music festivals in the US, has announced its lineup for 2012. From August 3-5, the hills and woods around Pendarvis Farm, located just outside Portland, Oregon, will be packed with music lovers of all ages. And the 2012 lineup reflects the kind of programming diversity that is a hallmark of the event. To better understand Pickathon’s programming, Hearth Music interviewed Pickathon founder Zale Schoenborn for a lively chat about where the festival's been and where it's going. Check out the interview below.
Hearth Music Interview with Pickathon Founder Zale Schoenborn
We're talking on the phone from his home in Portland, and Zale Schoenborn, one of the key Pickathon founders, sounds remarkably relaxed for someone whose festival is about to drop a full lineup. Maybe it's because he's working for the first time with a national publicist, whereas before he'd have to call up national press outlets to get articles. Or maybe he's used to the pressure, after all, Pickathon's been around for 14 years now!
The 2012 Pickathon lineup is chock full of accepted indie bands, like Dr. Dog, Neko Case, Blitzen Trapper, Phosphorescent, Alela Diane, and plenty more, but Zale wants to talk about the smaller bands, the 50% of the festival designed only for showcasing fascinating artists, regardless of whether anyone’s heard of them or not. Talking about Los Cojolites, a Mexican son jarocho ensemble, he’s bursting with excitement about discovering their sound, a regional Mexican tradition that hasn’t been heard in the American mainstream since Richie Havens co-opted an old song called “La Bamba.” “It’s like country music from a different location,” he says. “It totally translates. It’s so infectious and so good that it doesn’t even seem foreign when you see it. It’s totally related to string band music to me but it will blow people’s minds…”
Zale was a particularly hard person to interview, not because of his personality, which is open and joyous and easily excitable, but because he’s the kind of music lover who just wants to share his excitement and it’s easy to get swept up in that. I got the feeling that he loves finding out what kind of music a particular person likes, then finding a common ground to that music. And I think he programs Pickathon that way. Gets all his friends together and just talks back and forth about all the music they’re currently most excited about, genre divisions be damned. At one point he confessed, "Your initial intention when you put together a festival is to please yourself, right?”, and as festival producer myself, I couldn't agree more! The current Pickathon lineup certainly supports this idea, with innovative encursions into “world” music groups like Mali’s Vieux Farka Toure and Quebec’s Genticorum. I wanted to get to the bottom of his booking philosophy, so I opened by asking about these world artists.
Hearth Music: Let’s talk about the line-up. It almost seems like you’re moving a bit towards world music. I noticed, aside from Genticorum, you also have Vieux Farka Touré. Is there a desire to move towards world music at all on your part?
Zale Schoenborn: No, we don’t do anything consciously. We kind of first collected everybody’s favorite 20-30 records, right, that they thought was happening in various music scenes at that moment. We ended up with 600 records that were all from the end of last Pickathon through coming out with new records in 2012, and [Vieux Farka Toure’s album] was one of them that really surprised us. I’ve always loved the relationship between the blues and Mali… That relation almost to R.L. Burnside; there’s kind of a trance-like quality to it… And that relationship, and that essence of how amazing the music is, was our criteria for deciding that that band…
We’re not necessarily trying to be world, but we definitely love to tickle the music lover inside of everybody to turn them on to something completely different. That said, we do have a couple of folks from outside the country that we don’t usually have the luxury of drawing.
HM: Like who?
ZS: We have Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, who we’ve been trying to get for years… they opened for Coldplay the last time they were in the States, but they are so Pickathon. I mean, they are huge in Europe, they are absolutely a ginormous band in England but the style of music that they play is retro-country-blues… Then you can go in the totally opposite direction like Los Cojolites which is the son jarocho music… They are just unbelievable, my friend, they are so good! They are this crazy band we discovered in the heartland of the Veracruz scene. They have been described to me as the Avett Brothers of that world. They don’t speak English, so we’re going to be handling them but it’s just such awesome string band music!
…I realized that there are so many smart people who care deeply about different music than I do, and that I should, at least, listen to those people. We should completely look at all this 'under the rug' stuff… what gets people excited in a particular world and then, a lot of the times, they’re right. They may or may not be your home base of music, but when you look at this music, and you have never heard of it, it may be the most exciting thing going on for a particular community. Bruce Molsky, Danny Paisley is another example. He’s never been to Oregon... He is the darling of all of those people in Nashville. He’s looked at as the best living singer in bluegrass music. He’s just amazing; he’s just flat-out got it… And Ted Jones is another guy. He’s 24; he looks just like Jesse McReynolds, but he believes it. When he’s playing, he’s cross-picking mandolin. He kind of sounds like the Delmore Brothers. He’s super young; he’s just tearing it up, like this old school style, completely oblivious that his music doesn’t translate really well. No machine behind him, nothing, but he’s like looked upon by the folks who love this music like myself. My dad, who only likes bluegrass, looks at those two bands as the folks he cares about to see at Pickathon. He doesn’t know who anybody else is.
HM: Didn’t Pickathon come out of Portland’s old-time scene?
ZS: I played bluegrass before I was even interested in old-time. My friends don’t give a rat’s butt about old-time. They draw this kind of imaginary line that says, ‘That’s not bluegrass.’ You probably know what I’m talking about, it goes the other way with old-time to other scenes. People draw these imaginary lines. So, we didn’t care about those imaginary lines even in the beginning which was an absolute curse for us. Those scenes, the hard-core, built-in scenes don’t want their music mixed.
HM: When you were starting off, how did you deal with trying to please the bluegrass community, the old-time community, the indie community?
ZS: We didn’t... That’s what has started off as our biggest weakness. We were destined to be 200 people including musicians, or smaller. For 7 years, 6 years, we were under 300 people, because it’s just like you’re taking a bunch of music that is not necessarily transcending popular culture in the first place, and then you’re crossing these kind of imaginary lines where all these communities love their music in pure forms or they think they do. They want to go to a Blues Festival. They don’t want to go to a Blues Festival that has Celtic music at it. The Celtic people want to go to a Celtic festival. So, we always felt passionately as musicians and as music-lovers that you can do this because most people love a lot of music and it’s not a big deal. It should work eventually… at least we’re enjoying it, the musicians enjoy it. So, let’s just continue… And then the indie thing crept in as we started moving to Pendarvis. Indie was becoming more of an infused part of what we do. And then, the last 6 years the doors are just completely broken down.
HM: At Pickathon, do you see examples of the walls being broken down like an indie crowd going crazy over a super hard-core folk performer or a folkie crowd going crazy over an Indie band?
ZS: Totally, all the time, everywhere . When we schedule, you never can be in a safe zone. We won’t allow the music to kind of be in one continuum at one stage… But the musicians, I think that is our most common feedback, is they just love that kind of cross-pollination. Musicians, it just blows their minds, they walk away completely wanting more and it feels like a big reason why they really want to come back so strongly is, the experience is just so emotionally, intensely overwhelming, to have that kind of crazy talent. And it’s crossing so many boundaries, it just kind of blows your mind… We just expect that people who are open are going to discover a lot of stuff and we love the whole mixture of it.
HM: How long has Pickathon been going and who really started the festival at the very beginning?
ZS: I started it with my wife and my brother. My wife, Wendy, my brother, my mom and friends. We just started it and I just sucked everybody in. That was 14 years ago this year… That was 1999. We did it at Horning’s Hideout and I think right around year 7, we got booted out of Horning’s Hideout in the middle of June with the festival in late August. It was brutal! We had to basically move… and we went to a place down in Woodburn, Oregon for a year. In that place, since it was a big hayfield, we learned how to run a production. We were just putting music in a campground up to that point and at year 7, when we had to move to a big, giant field, we were like, ‘Oh, crap! How do you do water? How do you do electricity? How do you do bathrooms? How do you shave? How do you do all this stuff?’ From the middle of June to August, we had to patch together all of this. That was the year we had The Be Good Tanyas and Jolie Holland and Freakwater Reunion. And then, after that, like I said, that place imploded. And then this will be our 7th year, we went to Pendarvis Farm, which was a farm that was really nothing like it is now… They kind of got into us and we slowly introduced and started growing at Pendarvis Farm. We just took off! We had 700 people the first year at Pendarvis total and now we’re up to 5500, if you include the staff, musicians and 3,000 paid.
There’s 5 partners now in the whole festival which are totally important. My brother Eric who does the website. Terry, you’ve met Terry, he’s the one that works full-time on the festival, who books the festival, who does all of the running of the festival. And my brother does all of the web, the conceptual design, and the art. I love the curation of music, I’m involved in everything too, the general person. And then Ned Failing… he’s our straight man in a lot of ways… the guy who actually keeps a bunch of wildly creative types functioning. Then we have a hospitality guru, who’s been cooking for us since day one of Pickathon, used to cook for the whole festival… His name is Michael Dorr. He’s just an absolute genius with people. He has been a huge reason why Pickathon is so comfortable atthe festival.
HM: I remember maybe 4 or 5 years ago, there was an article about Pickathon that talked about the phrase, “indie roots.” I think it credited that phrase to you and to Pickathon. Do you feel like that you developed a genre or kind of built a middle ground between indie and between roots music that became indie roots
ZS: I think four years ago, we were more identified with thinking that’s what we were doing for sure. Up to even 2009, that really was like a theme. It’s starting to have a lot less meaning for us, realizing that we don’t necessarily need that kind of label. It was something that helped people understand what we were doing different and maybe it’s still helpful in a general context… We feel more confident in the fact that, ‘Hey, this is just great music’ and people are going to catch on and gravitate for the fact that this is something different and people are going to be okay with crossing a lot of ground.
HM: Well, okay, let me expand the question. Now that you feel that the festival is financially secure, like you’re going to have enough people there, do you feel now that you can make the decisions in programming that you couldn’t make when you were trying to attract a large crowd? Do you feel that at some point you had to sacrifice your vision in order to get people in?
ZS: No. We’ve been foolish enough to never really care about that and just believe that quality would work over time. So, I still feel that way. Our line-up is crazy, I really think that if you look through this and marked who’s obscure and who’s not obscure, a good chunk of this, 50% of our line-up, is close to zero draw in Portland. We always have been doing that, it’s just that the choices we get to make are just a lot easier for us because we do have all this love from the community artists and booking, and now we have a history with them. They’ve had a great time; it’s working; they’ve actually seen their market grow substantially after playing Pickathon, and so the eco-system is starting to re-inforce itself… It’s becoming easier to program Pickathon; we’re having to do a lot less explaining of ourselves. We don’t take that for granted at all, we are super-honored that we have this ability now to be more, instead of the begging side, more of a curating side.
HM: Right, right. So how did you survive for 7 years when you had relatively small audiences? How did you manage to keep that going?
ZS: I have a day job. It’s called a day job. The festival never even broke even until year 10.
HM: Holy shit! [laughing]
ZS: That’s called 'for the love of it,' right? [more laughing]
Get a preview of what you'll see at Pickathon 2012: