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Thursday, September 2, 2010

The On Land Experimental Music Festival: What's Burning Man, Anyway?

Posted By on Thu, Sep 2, 2010 at 11:31 AM

From this evening through the weekend, Café du Nord and its upstairs annex the Swedish American Hall are hosting the On Land festival, a dazzling array of ambient, psychedelic, improvisational, and straight-up noise performances. Much of the lineup testifies to the Bay Area's vibrant experimental music scene -- Oakland's Date Palms, for instance -- and another chunk comes from Portland -- such as Grouper, the critically acclaimed dreamscape project of Liz Harris. A few are swooping in from farther afield, including Brooklyn's Oneohtrix Point Never and Houston duo Charalambides, who are playing their first show in two years on Sunday.

All this is brought to you by the venerable San Francisco-based Root Strata label, run by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma (of Tarentel and of The Alps, who perform on Saturday) and Maxwell August Croy (of the duo En, who play tonight). We spoke to Croy to find out more about what all the Burning Man-goers will be missing.

How did the festival get started?
Jefre and I have been thinking about starting a festival featuring the music we're into (and release on Root Strata) for a few years. It wasn't difficult to notice the dearth of experimental music festivals in the Bay Area. That said, support from fans, the press, our sponsors, and even the general public has been great.

What models outside of the Bay Area inspired you?
I think the No Fun Fest was a pretty good indication of what is possible with these kinds of festivals. They invite some of the same artists every year, and we got to thinking along those lines, though we wanted to put our own spin on things. In many ways, we saw this initially as an extension of the label, but now that it's taking on its own life we'd like to branch it out to something autonomous a few years down the road.

Are all the artists involved Root Strata-affiliated?
Not all of the bands have released things on Root Strata, but there's definitely a feeling of extended family that goes along with it and the people we work with. Even the non-Root Strata bands, if we haven't put out something by them, we might soon. They're all artists that we respect or are longtime fans of, like Charalambides and Dan Higgs and Zelienople.

Has it been a big logistical effort to put everything together?
While it's definitely a lot of effort organizing a festival this size -- having a finite budget, arranging transportation, lodging, gear, etc. for 27 bands isn't a walk in the park! -- we learned a lot preparing for last year's fest, so things were a little easier this time around. The fine folks at Café Du Nord were willing to have us back this year despite our doubling the festival in size, which saved a lot of time and effort. Locating a venue was one of the more challenging feats we encountered last year.

What were some other difficulties?
We were really nervous last year because we weren't sure whether there'd be an interest at all. We were pleasantly surprised to find that there was, and two of our three shows sold out. It was tough to organize everything as just two guys; we had the help of our friends -- a lot of people came out of the woodwork to support us -- but they're people we would have worked with anyway.

How did your sponsors get involved?
Aquarius helped last year; they're not only friends but huge supporters of what we do as a label. We're always working with them in one capacity or another. Stumptown Printers is new this year, but we work with them pretty regularly on the production for the artwork on our releases. The Wire is new also, though we've been in touch with them for advertising for the label. KUSF is back from last year, and C&C Drum Company is helping us out with some gear. This year we just started planning super early and hit all the bigger players, hoping to get more support and possibly some money. Next year, if we can make the festival a non-profit, hopefully we can apply for some grants and that sort of thing, and bring in artists from farther away.

Who's coming from farthest away now?
There's Roger Tellier-Craig [performing as Le Révélateur], from Fly Pan Am, who's coming from Montreal. Dan Higgs was hanging out on the West Coast for a while, but I think he's back east now. Xela is coming from Massachusetts. We haven't gone truly international yet, but it's a geographically unchallenged festival.

Despite the absence of festivals, how do you think the Bay Area stacks up in terms of fostering an experimental music scene?
The first thing that comes to mind is that San Francisco has a very long history of experimental/underground music. One band I really like to point out is The Residents, who have operated on a pretty anonymous level, and still do; same with Caroliner. The other thing, especially about San Francisco, is that when you look at the economics of it, it's not a very musician-friendly town. The cost of living is so high and geographical space is relatively finite compared to places like Seattle or Portland or even Oakland, where you can get a house with a backyard for a fraction of the cost of a one-bedroom apartment here. It's interesting to me that, despite that, you have a wide breadth of experimental musicians in the area -- honestly, it amazes me that there are as many as there are, that people find the time and space to create and still live above the poverty line.

If anything, the economic situation and finite space just force artists to get creative and work with less. I'm a firm believer in creating in a space where you have restrictions. Of course, Portland refutes that, because they have a wealth of things we don't have. I guess it all balances out.

Is On Land the anti-Burning Man?
What's Burning Man?

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Daniel Levin Becker


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