MoogFest: Synthesizing a Weekend
By John Schacht
MoogFest’s Ashley Capps talks about the Asheville fest’s second year.
Ashley Capps, the 56-year-old CEO of AC Entertainment, has been booking bands in Asheville since the 1980s. During that time, he took more than one touring artist on a pilgrimage to meet Bob Moog, the legendary inventor of the synthesizer that bears his last name. (Moog passed away in 2005.) So in 2010, when the opportunity arose to expand on the modest, day-long Moogfest held in New York City each year and host it in the town Moog called home for the last 30 years of his life – well, if only all decisions were that clear-cut.
Of course it has also allowed Capps to expand his festival empire; he’s a co-founder of Bonnaroo, and runs Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival and Forecastle in Louisville, too. Last year’s inaugural Moogfest was, by almost all accounts, a big hit with both the 30,000 attendees and the Chamber of Commerce types. And this year’s expanded lineup and attendance, as well as more participating venues, suggests Moogfest is off to a whizz-bang start. Shuffle spoke with Capps over the phone from his Knoxville office.
SHUFFLE: Tell us how Moogfest landed in Asheville?
Ashley Capps: There are several different threads to this, but in a nutshell we started doing shows in Asheville a couple of decades ago. Actually, the first one I did was in 1985, but we really started bringing a lot of shows to Asheville on a regular basis around 1991. The community’s always been a very responsive community in supporting the live music scene – it’s just been a real pleasure doing business there. And a few years into it, I started encountering artists who wanted to meet Bob Moog who, frankly, until it first came up, I didn’t know was living in Asheville. So I met Bob a couple of times back then and took some artists to visit him, they ordered some of the instruments that he was making – at the time, he had actually lost control of the Moog name, and it wasn’t until 10 or 11 years ago that it was rebranded, appropriately, as Moog Music. But the fact that Moog was in Asheville, it became increasingly a Mecca for musicians to visit the Moog manufacturing company when they came to town to play. At the same time, we’re looking for new opportunities in Asheville, so it wasn’t too long before a festival concept emerged for me: Why not build a festival around Bob Moog and his legacy, this instrument that changed the history of music. We knew that there was the Moogfest that had been going on in New York, and some other isolated events created throughout the world. But my vision really was to bring it to the town that was Bob’s adopted hometown, the headquarters of the Moog manufacturing company where all these instruments were being made, and that the event, by virtue of being in Asheville, would really attain the profile that it deserved.
SHUFFLE: The New York event was a smaller, one-day event, right?
AC: Yes. And the other thing that we have done with Moogfest in Asheville – knowing the artists that were really embracing the Moog instruments and their legacy and everything, I felt that it was very important to re-cast the event as a contemporary music experience, and not merely a celebration of the past.
SHUFFLE: How long, from the initial conception, did it take to pull the event together?
AC: It took a little bit. We had intended to do it a year before, in 2009, but there were a couple of things that conspired against that, the economy not being the least among them. It took some time for us to put together the lineup and concept that we felt was going to be a success.
SHUFFLE: What role did the Moog Foundation play in getting it here?
AC: (Company president) Mike Adams at Moog Music, and Michelle Moog-Koussa, from the Moog Foundation, both have been instrumental in the event happening. Amy Parker, also, who works with Moog. Much of what you see at the festival is the result of a lot of brainstorming and collaborative ideas. So, yeah, they’ve been very involved in that sense. And one of our principles from the very beginning was to find a way to use the event to also support the Moog Foundation’s activities as well. Obviously it brings a lot of attention to the Moog brand in general.
SHUFFLE: Was it important to you guys to make this more than just about the bands coming in?
AC: Yes. I think what makes all festivals stand apart is the overall experience. And certainly the music is arguably the most important component, but we wanted this festival to have facets to it that really encouraged the audience to explore their own creativity. And to really embrace some of the potentials that these amazing instruments open up for people to explore that creativity. So it’s intended to be a spark, in a lot of ways. And also the interface between the visual arts and film were all things that we are very interested in exploring even further.
SHUFFLE: Was the Halloween weekend date a part of that? Was it intentional, or did it just sort of fall in your lap?
AC: Early on we weren’t really locked into it being Halloween weekend. First of all, it just emerged as an open weekend when we could get the venues that we needed to do it. It also fit in with some of the key artists that we were looking at booking last year. So the stars aligned on Halloween weekend, but I think that aspect really just added another element to the experience that created a really extraordinary event. So we’ve aligned ourselves with it now. The combination of all these great musicians and artists coming to town, and the spirit of the Halloween weekend, and the city of Asheville itself, really creates an unbeatable experience.
SHUFFLE: What struck you most about last year’s event? Would you do anything differently?
AC: We were blown away by how the audience embraced the event in its first year. It was really gratifying and humbling to see people open up to the experience immediately. The fans got it; they were interested in Bob Moog and his legacy. Their support for the event and the extent to which they embraced it right off the bat has been inspiring to us, to do more and build on that success.
SHUFFLE: How would you rate it compared to the first year of your other festivals?
AC: Well, Bonnaroo had a great first year. We’ve got a nice track record of people responding very strongly to our festivals, which I’m very proud of. But it’s certainly nothing I’d ever take for granted.
SHUFFLE: There were complaints last year about overcrowding at some shows, and multiple artists on at the same time — what would you do differently?
AC: Every festival has its learning experiences and there are always things that you want to do and for whatever reason you can’t do in a given year. So there’s really a never-ending set of evaluations and re-evaluations and tweaking of the system, and then new things that you want to explore, and new ideas that you want to bring in to make it an even greater festival. The process of creation is really never-ending in the festival sphere. Much of it we actually hope will be invisible, that it makes everything run more smoothly, and then some of it will be very visible. This year we’re planning on turning up the visual art experience on every level – whether it’s what you see on stage, how the venues feel, some surprises just out in the community, some installations, like the Eno installation. That element of the festival will show some real growth this year, for instance. And we’ve got some surprises up our sleeve that I would tell you about but I’m not absolutely 100 percent sure which ones are actually going to happen to this year. It’s still very much in flux. We announced almost two-dozen new bands today, for instance, 23 I think. TV On the Radio, and James Murphy and Pat Mahoney from LCD Sound System, and Flying Lotus and St. Vincent.
SHUFFLE: How did you go about curating the festival –are you getting more unsolicited inquiries from bands this year?
AC: That’s definitely true, there are many artists interested in playing the festival who heard about last year, sometimes from their friends, and it’s a concept that resonates with them and they’re eager to do it. And then in other instances, it’s us reaching out to artists that we would like to present that we feel like would fit into the concept really well. So there’s a lot of give and take there. But it is very gratifying to see the extent to which many artists, even after just one year, have really embraced the festival’s concept and vision.
SHUFFLE: How much bigger is this year’s festival then?
AC: Our major new component in terms of that this year is that we’re adding an outdoor venue. So that’s going to open up some of the possibilities in terms of what we’re able to present. We’re still keeping this relatively small – we don’t want it to be too crowded. We want it to be a great experience for everyone who attends. So we’re limiting the attendance, but we’ll have room for a few more people this year than last; last year we kept it to 8,000 people a day. This year, probably go to more like 10,000 a day.
SHUFFLE: Any chance for day shows this year?
AC: We’re still working on the schedule, but I think a lot of people appreciated having their days free. I appreciated it too. It gave us time to show some films and do the workshops and some of the inter-active experiences – so we’re definitely not going to start at noon or anything like that. Although there will be a handful of special events that probably will happen earlier in the day, and we may start the outdoor stage sometime in the mid- to late-afternoon. All I’ll say for now is that it’s not normally a music venue. It’ll be a great outdoor space, and just one more facet of the Moog experience.
SHUFFLE: There were a few bands on the bill last year that didn’t seem to have much to do with Moogs; how did you decide to bring in some other bands that didn’t fit the mold, as it were?
AC: We wanted the Moog theme to be a thread around which we built the festival, and not a box which contains it. So we certainly don’t want to be limited simply to artists who play Moog instruments. And we don’t really want to be limited to artists who work in electronic music. Bob Moog really loved music, and he really loved a lot of acoustic music as well as electronic music. In many ways the theme of the festival is celebrating Bob Moog’s creative spirit, as much as it is about the specific instruments he invented. We don’t want to be boxed in, is what I’m saying in a nutshell. Like last year, Van Dyke Parks came in and he played acoustic piano, and it was fantastic, one of my favorite shows of the weekend. And he’s got a Moog connection – he’d actually come to Asheville to visit Bob and he did one of the first and most amazing things on the Moog synthesizer back in the 1960s when he recorded and composed this music for the Ice Capades. So he actually had that connection even though he didn’t perform anything electronic during the festival. But, again, our theme behind the festival is about creativity and innovation, and not merely about electronic music.
SHUFFLE: There were some complaints about there not being enough local bands on the bill last year…
AC: We actually had several local bands on last year. I think it’s always important for a festival like this to try to acknowledge the local scene. We want to be careful, though, sometimes it’s challenging to do that. The last thing in the world we want to do is just put artists on there for the sake of putting them on there, then have them in a bad spot or nobody come to their show because they’re all at something else. It really just depends. But we try to keep an eye out for artists that are great fits that would be worthy additions to the festival – and it if doesn’t happen this year, maybe it’ll happen next year. But we certainly hope that the festival itself, and the fact that it’s happening in Asheville, also inspires the local musicians in the community to create even greater work.
SHUFFLE: What kind of economic impact will it have on Asheville? Sports teams are always inflating the financials when it comes to their impact on a city…
AC: The economic impact on Asheville is pretty extraordinary. There’s certainly a value there, but I think there’s also a hidden value, which is in the creative inspiration it can bring into the community as well. We love Asheville. It’s a great destination town, but it has a wonderful history of being culturally aware and supporting the arts in all of their various manifestations. I’m constantly dreaming up reasons for going to Asheville.
SHUFFFLE: Is the Foundation still receiving just a dollar out of every ticket?
AC: Yes. We also run other programs to raise money for the foundation as well, and in fact we’re hoping to expand upon that this year, too. The ticket prices are similar this year – certainly the Tier 1 was, and I think the Tier 2. There may be one that’s slightly higher but we’ve tried to keep it within the same realm. We haven’t announced the day passes yet, but we expect to do that in the next couple weeks. Frankly, the demand has been so strong for the weekend passes, and we have so many people traveling from out of town in, that we wanted to make sure we gave all of those people an opportunity to get a weekend pass before we started selling the day passes.
SHUFFLE: Finally, what are you personally looking forward to most this year at Moogfest?
AC: Oh, gosh, there’s so much, I really can’t single out one thing. I’ve got so many of the artists whose music I love coming this year that I’m kind of pinching myself over it. But if I had to zone in on just one thing, I think having Brian Eno come to Asheville, and being able to host the 77 Million Paintings installation and have Brian give a talk – this is something I’ve been working on for two or three years. Not necessarily for Moogfest, we were considering it for another one of our events as well, but it ended up coming together for Moogfest and it’s a beautiful fit for the festival. I’m quite thrilled that that’s happening.