Pitchfork thrives in bigger festivals' shadows

July 8, 2007


On a bookshelf just inside the door of At Pluto, the concert promotion company Mike Reed runs in a cramped North Side office, two titles are prominently displayed. One is the autobiography of Bill Graham, the notoriously mercurial promoter who ran the Fillmores East and West and who helped make the Monterey Pop Festival a defining moment during the Summer of Love. The other is a collection of writings by the man who preached that we should love even those who hate us, Mahatma Gandhi.

According to his friends, there are elements of both men's temperaments in Reed, but what Graham and Gandhi actually shared was a can-do attitude capable of moving mountains. Reed, the soft-spoken and self-effacing 33-year-old visionary behind the Pitchfork Music Festival, downplays the significance of displaying those books; "Some friends gave them to me," he says. But he definitely shares their subjects' optimistic and unyielding approach to any challenge.

"I'm the one who doesn't like to be told 'no,' " the Evanston-born former football player and avant-garde jazz drummer says. "Nobody can tell me, 'That can't happen.' I know I can do it."

Indeed, over the last three years, the Pitchfork festival -- which will draw 13,000 adventurous music fans to Union Park Friday night and 17,000 each day Saturday and July 15 -- has become one of the most successful independent music fests in the country, as well as the rare concert that is more than just a concert, creating a real sense of community among musicians, fans and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.

What's even more impressive is how Pitchfork does this with a budget industry sources say is one-tenth what's spent to promote festivals like Lollapalooza, Coachella and Bonnaroo -- and that Pitchfork charges only $50 for a three-day pass, compared to $195 for Lolla.

"When people ask how we can offer all of this for so little money, my response is that they should ask, 'Why do other festivals charge so much?' " Reed says. "They're about making money, and the aesthetics aren't really part of it."

'The Mike Reed Fest'
It quickly becomes obvious during any conversation with Reed that he is first and foremost a music fan and activist. He fell into concert promotion almost by accident, and he's guaranteed to wince whenever the words "music" and "business" are paired in the same sentence.

In 2004, Reed was best known on the Chicago music scene for his rhythmic contributions to numerous jazz and improvised music projects. (His own recordings include the 2006 album "In the Context Of," a collection of duets with Jeff Parker of Tortoise, among others, and the recent "Loose Assembly: Last Years Ghost.") In between gigs, he manned the tap at the Charleston Bar, and he worked for a company involved in marketing and promotions at many of the city's big street fairs.

"Basically, I was turning 30 and I had no money and I really needed a job," Reed says. Since he was the only one among a group of idealistic friends who had any experience putting together events, he wound up as the key organizer of the Interchange Music Festival. Spread out over several days in August 2004 and hosted at local clubs such as the Hideout and the Empty Bottle, that fest drew together Chicago artists devoted to the non-partisan goal of voter registration.

"The first sign of trying to make [concert promotion] some way of making a living was when we did the Interchange Festival," Reed says. "Even though that was obviously a benefit for a cause, just the power of seeing these people coming out for the music and realizing that we had put it together as just a bunch of friends doing it on our own reinforced that -- since the people running a lot of these street festivals were basically chuckleheads -- if they could do it, we could do it.

"That's how it started, with us asking, 'What if there was a cool street festival -- one that had an aesthetic and which took its cue from a community, instead of just from trying to sell beer?' Two weeks after Interchange, I decided to do a [bigger] festival and get Pitchfork to curate it."

Though Pitchforkmedia.com was already the most popular indie-rock publication on the Net -- it now claims to attract 1.5 million readers a month -- Reed wasn't too familiar with the site; he just knew it would help to have a media presence attached to his festival, and that he needed a bigger name than "the Mike Reed Fest." He also knew he needed a corporate structure, so he partnered with Jon Singer and Mike Simons, who run a travel and events company called Skyline Chicago, and who had the capital to cover expenses such as insurance, sound and staging.

Reed, Pitchfork and Skyline worked together to make the first Intonation Music Festival an unexpected commercial and artistic success, drawing about 15,000 fans a day to Union Park in July 2005 for cutting-edge acts such as the Go Team!, the Hold Steady and the Decemberists, to name three that have since risen from underground buzz to mainstream acclaim.

A 'pleasant experience' for all
But nothing breeds dissension as quickly as success.

The Monday morning after the first Intonation fest, the promoters fielded calls from massive corporations eager to buy them out -- including Hollywood's William Morris Talent Agency, which owns a stake in Lollapalooza -- and they started fighting among themselves about how to grow and proceed in the future. Several months of legal wrangling resulted in Simons and Singer retaining the Intonation name -- they ran the second Intonation Festival in Union Park last year, but opted out of promoting another fest this summer -- while Reed split off to form a new company for his festival, based on in a 50/50 partnership with Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber.

"What Mike does sort of blows my mind," says Schreiber, who recently relocated to Brooklyn, though Pitchfork's office and staff remain in Chicago. "He does pretty much all of the organizational stuff. When you get to the concert and look around, virtually everything you see -- from how the stages are set up to the booking of the bands to the vendors -- he's done virtually all of that. We feel really assured, working with Reed, that everything is going to run really smoothly."

Renamed the Pitchfork Music Festival, the next fest that Reed promoted in Union Park came close to selling out on two days last July, and it featured acts such as Art Brut, Ted Leo and Spoon. This year, the fest has expanded to three acts on Friday night and more than 18 per day on Saturday and Sunday, and all three days sold out two weeks before the event. (For the full act-by-act preview of this year's performers, see my column in this Friday's Weekend section of the Sun-Times.)

"We could definitely get more people in [to the park], but we want this to be a pleasant experience for everybody," Reed says. "We're doing 17,000 a day now, and we're spending almost no money on marketing. If I wanted to get as big as Lollapalooza, I'd have to play a different game, and I don't want to play that game. I don't know that we want that type of audience, either, where it's just a ramshackle type of thing."

A less capitalistic approach
Lollapalooza's musical lineup tries to offer something for everyone, ranging from alternative rock to hip-hop to jam bands, all thrown together with little rhyme or reason, like merchandise in a big chain store. But unlike Wal-Mart, it doesn't offer any blue-collar bargains. Regular concertgoers pay top dollar for food and drink, cope with sketchy sound and stand on crowded softball fields, while more privileged attendees enjoy catered spreads and lounge under umbrellas in exclusive VIP sections. (Lolla sells private cabanas with their own viewing platforms for $32,500 for a party of 30.)

Pitchfork hosts a modest chill-out area with a few picnic benches backstage, but there are no VIP areas for watching the music; the musicians stand beside the fans. The two main stages run consecutively instead of concurrently, dramatically improving the sound; food and drink from local vendors costs a third of what promoters charge at Lolla or outdoor venues such as the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, and there are no corporate sponsorships or intrusive ads anywhere in the main music venue.

True, Lolla draws three times as many people (60,000 a day) with much more famous acts. But remember: Today's buzz band is tomorrow's superstar headliner. Of this year's Lolla lineup, seven acts performed on the Pitchfork or Intonation stages in 2005 and 2006.

Unlike Lollapalooza, Pitchfork tries not to book bands that are performing at other festivals in the U.S. this summer or that have appeared on one of its earlier bills, making the fest seem more unique. And Pitchfork generally shuns nepotism: Several Lolla acts are managed by the same people promoting the festival, while Reed has steadfastly refused to put his own band on the Pitchfork lineup, though many of his friends think he's crazy to pass up such an obvious opportunity.

'I like to make money, too'
Reed maintains Pitchfork passes on a lot of lucrative but ostentatious promotional opportunities less on principle than because overt marketing would alienate its core constituency of indie-rockers, for whom Naomi Klein's No Logo is a sacred text. This year, Reed agonized for some time about making a deal with Chipotle Mexican Grill to serve as the main food vendor, and only decided to go with the company after researching its owners (the McDonald's Corp. once owned a majority interest, but it divested last year) and its business practices (its packaging is environmentally friendly, and it favors organic produce and free-range meats).

"As nice and as benevolent as I might appear to be, I like to make money, too," Reed says, laughing. But he is obviously proud of having created a thriving festival with a growing reputation as an event for real music lovers.

Putting this event together is a community effort

In addition to lending its name to the festival, the indie-rock Web zine Pitchforkmedia.com is credited with curating the event. But what exactly does that mean?

"As far as what we do in the festival and who we're trying to present it to, it's sort of a selfish enterprise in a lot of ways: We're putting on the bands that we want to see," says Pitchfork publisher Ryan Schreiber. He adds that he thinks of his readers and festivalgoers as people like himself: "rabid, music-hungry music addicts, basically."

Months before the festival, the Pitchfork staff draws up a wish list of acts, many of which have been lauded in the publication's reviews.

"I pretty much go with what Pitchfork wants to do," Reed says. "Pitchfork has to be happy, and we have to keep the kids [concertgoers] happy. Then, at the end of the day, there may be some acts that I really want to add into the mix. I love to think about it like making a record: Every festival should have a different thing happening."

Once the concert is under way, Pitchfork staffers pitch in to help as needed, but the heavy lifting is done by Reed and his staff, which includes familiar Chicago music scene faces. such as Mary Jones (an artists' manager who handles artists relations), Tim Tuten (co-owner of the Hideout who serves as emcee), Howard Greynolds (a manager and former publicist who serves as stage manager), Johnathan Crawford (a graphics and Web design guru) and Anders Lindall (a free-lance writer who handles publicity; Lindall is a frequent Sun-Times contributor, but he is not involved in the paper's coverage of Pitchfork)

Oh yes!  Ono sought out Pitchfork

While Yoko Ono periodically has continued to make music in the nearly 27 years since she lost her husband and collaborator John Lennon, live performances have been few and far between. But the artist's headlining slot at the Pitchfork Music Festival next Saturday will be special for another reason besides the infrequency of her shows.

Ono's most successful song as a solo artist is about an incident involving a friend and Lake Michigan. "A song that I wrote called 'Walking on Thin Ice' was inspired by Chicago, of course," the 74-year-old artist said during a recent interview from her office in New York. The lyrics: "I knew a girl who tried to walk across the lake / 'course it was winter when all this was ice / That's a hell of a thing to do, you know / They say the lake is as big as the ocean / I wonder if she knew about it?"

Arguably the most haunting song in Ono's catalog, the prescient musing about the fragility of life will always resonate even more because it was the tune that she and Lennon were working on in the recording studio only minutes before they returned to the Dakota on the night of Dec. 8, 1980, when Lennon was gunned down by a deranged fan.

A few days before we spoke, Ono had traveled to Las Vegas to attend the first-year anniversary performance of the much-ballyhooed "Love," the Cirque du Soleil production based on modern remixes and mash-ups of Beatles classics. That night turned into a family reunion when Ono exchanged pleasantries with her husband's surviving bandmates, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and George Harrison's widow Olivia.

But Ono always has been reluctant to live in the past. As an underground artist and dedicated futurist, she long has pushed the envelope for what can be considered rock 'n' roll. Now, after years of being ignored by the mainstream and derided by Beatles fans, her work is being embraced by cutting-edge musicians in the electronic dance and noise-rock undergrounds, many of whom weren't even born when she and Lennon met in 1966.

Released last February, "Yes, I'm a Witch" is a collection of remixes of Ono songs by artists such as Peaches, Le Tigre, Porcupine Tree, DJ Spooky, the Apples in Stereo and the Flaming Lips. It's a fitting companion to the recently issued "Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur," which features two discs of artists covering songs by Lennon. Some bring a new perspective to the originals (R.E.M., Green Day, the Flaming Lips), while others fall flat (Christina Aguilera, Lenny Kravitz, Jack Johnson). But both albums are still vastly preferable to "Love."

I asked Ono if there isn't something a bit insidious about the Beatles nostalgia that continues to reign supreme among the Baby Boom generation -- especially in contrast to the younger musicians who've been free to discover her music and that of her husband on their own terms, free of rose-colored reminiscences about the Summer of Love.

"I don't want to be that person who lives in the past," she said. "Even with Sean, I would never want to say, 'Oh your mom did that one, your dad did this.' No, you are your own inspiration, and Sean discovered [our music] on his own. It's a famous story, but when he was very young, somebody told him, 'Your dad was a Beatle.' He came running into the kitchen, saying, 'Daddy were you a Beatle?' And John was like, 'Well ... yeah.' "

According to Pitchfork promoter Mike Reed, Ono approached the festival after all of the acts had already been booked. She had wanted to perform with her friends Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and Cat Power (who appears on "Yes, I'm a Witch") at South by Southwest last March, but organizers there shut down the show because it wasn't a festival-sanctioned gig. So it's a safe bet she'll be joined by Moore and Cat Power here, since they're both on the Pitchfork lineup.

"I don't know exactly what I'm going to be doing -- I mean, I do know that, yes, there are some things I'm going to be doing with some friends, but I don't want to say that now, because I think there should be surprises. [In recent years,] I've felt more relaxed in the studio. But in the old days, I really loved [live performance]. I'm getting into it again now, and it's really good to get back into it."

Ono added that a project like "Yes, I'm a Witch" feels like a vindication, though it hasn't entirely registered yet. "I feel good that the superstars of the indie scene wanted to do that, and each one of them really did a great job. Because of that, I just feel that it's time that I should just come out and [perform again], and this will be a great chance to meet some of them.

Yoko Ono performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival at 9 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are sold out.

'Mirrored images'

Of the many acts at next weekend's Pitchfork Music Festival, the one I'm most excited about is the New York-based experimental quartet Battles.

After a series of three promising EPs released shortly after the band formed in 2004 ("Tras," "EP C" and "B"), guitarist/keyboard Ian Williams (formerly of Chicago art-punks Don Caballero), guitarist David Knopka (ex-Lynx), drummer John Stanier (of Helmet and Tomahawk) and vocalist Tyondai Braxton took things to another level with their recent album "Mirrored," creating a collection of utterly unique soundscapes that draw on familiar elements of avant-garde and progressive rock, hip-hop and electronic dance music while sounding completely fresh and thoroughly unprecedented.

I spoke with Williams about the origins of the group and its unique sound.

Q. What was the goal when you set out to make "Mirrored"?

A. The EPs were sort of made when the band started, and we really didn't know each other that well musically. They were like a sketch, and we were just putting our feet in the water so we could start touring. The album was more like, "We've been playing together for a couple of years now; we know each other; we're a lot more confident; we can let our guard down a bit and have some fun."

Q. The songs are so unconventional, unique and free-flowing that I have to ask how they come together. Do they stem from improvised jams?

A. I don't think any of us think of it as jamming; for us, each part matters, and each part has a purpose. When you put all of these micro things together into a larger edifice, the song comes together, and there's nothing superfluous in it. It's not like, "Let's find the groove, and by minute three, we'll be in it, man!" [Laugh]

Q. Well, I'm particularly curious about Tyondai Braxton's weird, wordless vocals. Psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna wrote about hallucinating and meeting the "elves who run the machinery of the universe." I can't help thinking those elves sound like Tyondai! Tell me how you met and how he developed his singing.

A. I lived in Chicago from 1997 to 2000, and then I moved to New York after Don Caballero broke up. I was playing a few solo shows as a guitarist, not even knowing what I was doing; it was just like, "I guess I'm a musician, so I'll keep playing music." Then I saw Ty Braxton and I liked his music, and I kind of got to know him. He would sit on the floor and do these solo shows, surrounding himself with a lot of effects pedals and making noises with his mouth -- just filling the club with sound. I said, "Would you like to come along and add whatever you're doing to whatever I'm doing?" So the two of us started putting our sounds together.

You know, there are lyrics to the songs. I've read a lot of people writing about "lyric-less vocals," but there are words, and I just think Ty's very aware of not letting them get in the way of the music. I'll read things on the Net about people trying to figure out what the lyrics are, and when they're wrong, it's really funny. But it's cool that people can just fill in the blanks. A lot of the singing I like tends to be Arabic or Japanese. I don't know why, but I like the idea that I don't know what they're saying. To me, the vocals are just another instrument. There doesn't have to be a message.

Q. John Stanier is a heck of a drummer, but what he's doing in Battles is very different from what he did with Helmet. How did he come to join the band?

A. I knew him from when I was doing the early Don Cab stuff; we sounded close enough to Helmet that we played a few shows together. We were both originally from Pittsburgh, and every few years, I'd bump into him on the street and say hi. After Ty and I started making music, Ty knew Dave and brought him along, and it was like, "We're sort of almost a band." The logical conclusion was we needed a drummer. I ran into John in the street, and I thought he wouldn't want to do it -- he was playing in all these other bands -- but he was interested, and when he joined, that was really the transition from the vestiges of our solo projects into a band.

Q. How do your live performances differ from the recordings? Are you really able to make all of those strange sounds onstage?

A. We don't go into the studio trying to capture the power of our live show. When you play live, it can have this certain magic and immediacy; I don't know what it is -- maybe the volume and the now-ness. With a studio recording, even if it's just on a boom box in the rehearsal space, that quality does not translate. So we kind of go into thinking the studio is a different beast; let's try to play by the studio's rules. Whereas live, we play by the stage's rules.

I think when you see us play live, we're not obscuring anything. There's no pre-recorded stuff where we just trigger a sample or play a backing track. You can see us make all the sound onstage, so it's sort of a transparent process. At the same time, I've noticed that people who've seen us five or six times will say, "I'm still just sort of figuring out exactly what your process is!" It does confound people.

Q. Do you feel as if you're part of the progressive-rock tradition at all? I hear a lot of King Crimson, Soft Machine and Brian Eno in your music, among many other things.

A. Progressive rock sort of has a taint of bad taste to it these days, but at the same time, that's almost like your key to understanding us. When I was in Don Cab in the '90s, the whole thrill of playing a King Crimson guitar riff in an odd time signature was that it was almost funny; there was a touch of irony to it. We were still young kids growing up out of hard-core punk bands, so it was almost like there was a punk ethos to what we were doing: We were breaking the rules of punk by bringing in some prog-rock. At this point, I don't even know what the point is. I just like some of that music!

You know, there have been a lot of different kinds of modernist movements in the different stages of rock's development. At one point, it was, "Psychedelia will take you there!" Then it was progressive rock, or punk rock, or electro. At this point in history, I think it's very easy to be aware of all that stuff, with iTunes and the Internet, and there are so many different futuristic statements that have been made that most seem sort of out of date to us. Yet there's this wealth of stuff for musicians to use. The thrill of it now is that you can mix a house influence with glam-rock and prog or hip-hop, and use all of these different ways of putting things together.

Battles performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park at 4 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are sold out.