A conversation with Adam Zacks, founder of the Sasquatch! Music Festival

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Eight years ago Adam Zacks gave birth to a beast. Now that beast is one of the biggest events in the local music landscape.

Zack’s baby is the annual Sasquatch! Music Festival, which kicks off at the Gorge Amphitheatre Saturday (May 29) and ends Memorial Day. It’s a festival that features more than 80 bands spread across three stages and a tent. The festival is an indie music lover’s paradise combining hours of the hottest indie music with the typically scorching-hot sunshine of Eastern Washington (although this year the weather forecast doesn’t look so hot).

Zacks, who is Seattle Theatre Group’s senior director of programming (a job unrelated to his festival role), is the creator and curator of the festival and has hand-picked each band that has performed at every Sasquatch! He’s perfected a wining formula that combines up-and-coming acts and relative unknowns with a few well-known headliners thrown in for good measure. The success of the festival has given Sasquatch! the reputation for being the fest to attend for anyone who wants to check out the next big thing or discover their new favorite band. It’s also given Zacks a bit of a reputation for being a tastemaker.

“I’m a sponge for new music. It’s what I am passionate about. I’m reading about new music and listening all the time and I think it really helped refine my tastes,” he said.

From Vampire Weekend to MGMT, this year’s festival keeps in the Sasquatch! tradition of spotlighting what’s hot in indie music by featuring just about every blogged-about buzz band that isn’t namedArcade Fire. It’s a lineup that’s heavy with critical darlings (The Hold SteadyThe NationalLCD Soundsystem) and hyped newcomers (Local Natives,The xx).

“The goal for the festival is to try to foster music discovery. This is where you go to discover new music and drink up these bands,” said Zacks.

Noticeably missing, though, are big-name headliners that draw crowds, but this year’s lack of known names didn’t hurt as Sasquatch! sold out 10 weeks in advance, at a ticket price of $75 a day. Previous Sasquatch! headliners include REM, Beasties Boys, Coldplay, Nine Inch Nails and other modern rock mainstays. This year Zacks called upon touring warhorses My Morning Jacket, British electronic actMassive Attack, cult favorite Ween and the reunited influential indie rockers Pavement to headline.

“The first year (of Sasquatch!) was about finding our voice and me having the courage to book the festival the way I wanted to. This year is the evolution of that with no household names for headliners,” said Zacks. “Having grown the festival organically, it gave me the confidence to book more instinctively and this year it paid off.”

The organic growth he’s referencing is the evolution of Sasquatch!, which has helped it become a monster on the national destination festival circuit while still maintaining its relatively small and distinctly Northwest feel.

Zacks said the first Sasquatch! was a bit of an experiment. He noticed a decline in the traveling festivals such as Lollapalooza, Ozzfest and Lilith Fair and decided to put together a single-day event filled with bands he enjoyed. The result was a day with jam bands that included Jack Johnson and Ben Harper, two names that weren’t as popular in 2002 as they are in 2010. Zacks knew he was on to something when the festival sold out in its first year.

“It’s something that has grown organically and not from smoke and mirrors,” said Zacks. “The slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach has been intentional. We didn’t want to make the festival out to be something bigger than it was.”

Another distinct feature of Sasquatch! that has evolved a bit is its emphasis on smaller, local bands. Locals used to be relegated to their own stage which meant they could go undiscovered if someone decided to skip the local stage completely. Now local acts are peppered throughout the festival, giving them better exposure and giving festivalgoers a better opportunity to discover local talent.

“I have given deeper thought to the placement of the local bands. In the past it was almost like they were ghettoized having to be the first band on a smaller stage. I think it is a better statement about the music to sprinkle the local artists throughout the stages,” said Zacks.

This year will see Shabazz Palaces, the most mysterious and buzzed about local hip hop act, open the festival Saturday as the first act on the main stage. Other locals getting love with favorable time slots on various stages include the Lonely ForestMinus the BearPast LivesJaguar LoveFresh Espresso.

While Sasquatch! is distinctly Northwest and nicely bookends the local summer concert season with Bumbershoot, there are outside forces involved. Zacks works in tandem with concert industry behemoth Live Nation, which owns and operates the Gorge, to promote the event. Live Nation could help attract the big hitters when it comes to headliners so why doesn’t Zacks go for the home run and book sure-fire, sell-out bands? Three words: location, location, location. The remoteness of the Gorge, combined with its limitation of only being able to sell 20,000 tickets per day (by contrast, California’s three-day Coachella Festival sold75,000 tickets per day) restricts who might and might not headline the festival.

“It’s really a function of the size of the festival. For any band that could play the Gorge by themselves and sell it out, like a Pearl Jam or Radiohead, we would have to make a compelling offer to have them play for less,” he said.

Since the location, which is Sasquatch!’s biggest asset, is holding back Sasquatch!’s evolution into a megafestival, would Zacks consider moving the event to a locale like Seattle where the fest could take over a location like the Seattle Center grounds?

“There has been no talk about moving the festival in the foreseeable future. The Gorge is a special place. Increasing the size of the festival is not a goal of mine,” Zacks said. “Going bigger and moving the site would alter the spirit of Sasquatch!”

Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 14 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut.com and others and was the founder and editor of defunct music site Ear Candy.