At age 31, John Kelly (JK) McKnight is far beyond his years when it comes to large-scale music production.
11 years ago, JK pulled together a handful of bands, one of which was his own, to play a cozy park next to his parents house in Louisville, Kentucky. That’s how Forecastle, the largest music festival in the Bluegrass State, got its start.
Back then, and up until recently, McKnight ran the entire show. Press releases, vending logistics, port-o-placement, setting up arts and activism programs and oh yea, booking the bands...he was in on it all. Now with the ten-year anniversary of Forecastle bearing down on the planners, now many in number, McKnight has added the role of delegator to his resume.
He also owns a unique perspective from the participating artists side of things. As former frontman of The Vixen Red, an indie band from Louisville, he understands the rigors of the modern-day musician.
With that experience in pocket, the hands-on approach that got him to his current status and the willingness to relinquish complete control for the greater good of the project, it could be said that JK McKnight is the future of festival organization. This is a fact not lost on Knoxville-based entertainment juggernaut AC Entertainment, which hired McKnight in 2011 and are now producing partners of The Forecastle Festival.
BLANK recently caught up with McKnight and asked him about the humble beginnings of Forecastle, what fans can expect in 2012, the impact of the Louisville arts on the festival and much more.
BLANK: Where did the name for Forecastle come from?
JKM: I came up with it when I was about 19 or 20. It refers to the crew’s quarters of a ship. I had just gotten back from Ireland and had toured all kinds of castles, so I kinda had that word in my head. So I was looking for a nautical, spare-time theme for the name for the festival. I looked at a ship as a metaphor for art and music and the forecastle is where people always come together after a hard day of work.
B: Describe the First Forecastle.
JKM: The first one was really embryonic. It was really more of a concert. It was about six bands at a small park called Tyler Park. Louisville has a really famous park system designed by Frederick Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City, The US Capitol Grounds, The Biltmore in Asheville, NC…he’s probably the most famous park architect that ever lived. He did 18 or 19 parks here in Louisville and Tyler Park was the smallest of them. It seemed like a great place to do something and my parents lived adjacent to it. I had just moved back from Charleston, South Carolina and I was looking for a fun way to get all my friends together and reconnect with the people that I hadn’t seen in a year or two and that was really it. I remember using my parent’s house to load gear in and take it down to the park. There were six bands and I probably played in two of them. It was really small.
B: How did that turn into a large-scale music festival?
JKM: Through many years of incremental hard work. There were big keys that definitely helped. I think in the second year, 2003, the Arts and Activism components and making them all three equal was pretty big. We drew three times the people in 2003 with really the same budget and lineup. People were coming for different elements and I think that’s when we realized we really had something here. Once we had that format, the focus went to growing each component.
It’s hard to think about this now, because every festival has a greening aspect to it, but back then they really didn’t and the ones that did have a sustainability system didn’t market it, so we were really the first ones to ever put all that on an equal playing field. That really got a lot of people’s attention and helped us for years to come.
In 2004, we went from the smallest park to the biggest park in Louisville, which is called Cherokee Park. We did the first festival in over a decade there and there were 5,000 people and it was all free. That year, Patagonia came on board with us along with Red Bull. They realized we were doing something a little bit different.
In 2006, we expanded to a 2-day event and moved from a non-profit to a for-profit. We brought in Sleator-Kinney on their final tour and some other national acts. Which was really cool for us. After that we moved to the Riverfront, which was always our goal. We spent three years on a beautiful property called the Riverfront Belvedere. And it took us three years before we outgrew that space and moved next door to Waterfront Park, an 85-acre, top 15 urban-designed park in the country.
We’ve had other partnerships come into play as well. AC Entertainment coming on board in 2011 was a big boost for us.
B: That is a ton of growth and movement. It sounds like the city of Louisville has been very accommodating to you.
JKM: Yes, It has. It’s been a really good relationship. They understand what we are trying to accomplish and the waterfront development is actually privately owned and that company couldn’t have been any nicer to deal with. They’ve told us before that we utilize the space better than anyone that has ever used it. We always wanted to find ways to compliment Olmsted’s design. From day one that was one of our goals.
B: How did AC Entertainment get involved?
JKM: Ashley Capps and I got introduced a couple of years ago through a mutual friend named Bobby Burke. Bobby would e-mail Ashley and try to get him to Forecastle. I think the stars kind of aligned at the end of 2010. We had reached out to Ashley again and he invited me down to Knoxville and we realized pretty quickly that there was a shared vision in how we like to present events. I was in the right company, it just felt right and it was a really cool experience.
B: Was there ever any hesitation to partner up and thus maybe relinquish some control of an event that you created from scratch?
JKM: No, not at all. Knowing what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve done, that really provided a sense of security for me. They’ve faced the same things that I’ve faced and I can look at their message and see that they have the same philosophy and the same approach on how they go about things.
It was a relief. For years, I had been managing almost every single component of the festival by myself, so to have a company that understood these things better than me in some departments, it was actually a big relief.
B: How did My Morning Jacket become the curators of Forecastle 2012 and what does that actually mean?
JKM: What it means is that they are involved with us as partners in really trying to make the best festival possible. A lot of it has to do with the city of Louisville. With this being the tenth anniversary of the event, we wanted this to be a celebration of the city and what better band to help us do that than My Morning Jacket. It involves the music of course, it involves a lot of the charitable components and it has even come into the design of the festival, like the after-parties and some other things. We’ve been able to leverage each other and get the best out of each other.
B: When I hear of musicians curating festivals, I always wonder if they bring any outlandish ideas to the table. When you bring in a new element to your normal production team, does that ever bring any funny ideas in to the mix?
JKM: There are all kinds of crazy ideas that have floated around. We have meetings out of my house about once a month with them and of course, there are things that come out that are very interesting. There are moments like that, sure, but their time is pretty slim too, so we are pretty much cutting to the chase with most of it.
B: What sort of special plans does My Morning Jacket have for this festival?
JKM: A lot of the special stuff revolves around Louisville and things that we’re going to be doing that we haven’t done on this scale before. A big focus for a while was the Louisville part of the festival and how that is going to come about. A lot of that stuff is still getting figured out.
B: What exactly do you mean by Louisville part of the festival?
JKM: We’re going to be building a Louisville Village area, which is something that MMJ does at their shows, but we’re ramping it up a notch, adding a lot of experiential areas and treasure areas that we want people from out of town to experience.
B: Being from Louisville, have you been able to follow and enjoy the climb for My Morning Jacket?
JKM: Yea, I remember the first time I heard of them I was in high school in my Philosophy class and our teacher was a big fan. I was 17 or 18 and I remember people talking about this band from Louisville that was really big in Europe. I had been friends with Jim (James)’ family for years before that and became really good friends with Patrick (Hallahan)’s family after that. It’s been interesting to watch them grow. They’re incredible ambassadors for this city.
B: How has the festival layout changed for 2012?
JKM: We have Jim Tobin on board this year, one of the most legendary people in our industry in the country. He’s helping us create a more efficient site plan. We’re opening up new areas and we’re also closing off some others. Overall, we’re utilizing the space a lot better than we have in previous years. We’re using a whole new section of Waterfront Park that we used for Halfway to Forecastle as well.
B: Any new stages or tents this year?
JKM: Yes, there will be a new stage with a heavy Louisville presence. We’re working on a lot of new activities that we haven’t done before as well, which will be announced in a couple of weeks. It’ll be music, it’ll be art, and it’ll be activism…there’s a lot of cool stuff that’s going to turn heads.
B: Forecastle has won a lot of awards. What separates Forecastle from the myriad of other festivals in the country?
JKM: I think our format is the first thing that sticks out to people. The Arts and Activism are just as big of a part of the festival as the music. We try to stay cutting edge in that way. I feel like we pay a greater attention to detail than a lot of festivals. And really I think we are fortunate to be in premier venues. Olmsted parks are an internationally recognized system of parks and it makes for a really incredible setting for what we are trying to accomplish. When you add really great programming behind that people start to pay attention and really enjoy what you’re doing.
B: How many people came in year one and how many people do you expect this year and what would a sell out be as far as numbers?
JKM: There were probably 100 people there in the first year, and this year we’re expecting about 35,000. The whole park is 85 acres and we’re only using maybe 1/6 of that. We have the opportunity to expand into that if need be…we could use the Belvedere property as well if we needed to, so that’s a hard question. That’s definitely one of the items that will be discussed in future years. Can we expand on our footprint and grow into other venues there and ever into downtown?
B: Can you talk about Forecastle Foundation?
JKM: I first came up with this idea when I was 14 or so. I was reading a National Geographic and there was an article on ‘hot spots’ in Brazil and some other areas in the Amazon that were being threatened. So I wondered, can a private citizen in the United States purchase the land where these things are occurring or do you have to go through the government or what. So I started writing letters to the White House because I didn’t really know what else to do and about six months later I started to get some back from Al Gore’s office. The letters suggested that I contact the US Ambassador to Brazil, so I started writing him letters and a few months later I got some letters back from him and he told me how to do it.
So I had achieved half of my goal, I knew what to do, I just didn’t have any money to do anything about it. So the idea kinda got shelved for a bit but it never left the back of my brain. Fifteen years later we added the big component of the activism to the festival and that’s how the Forecastle Foundation came to be. So we’re working with companies and festival goers and everyone to see how we can preserve these vital areas that we all depend on.
B: What are the goals for 2012 in particular as pertains to the Forecastle Foundation?
JKM: This year we’re really just trying to get ourselves off the ground. We’ve already had over 20 members join the board. We won a pretty big award and got a big grant last year. This year’s festival will really be our coming out party.
B: You’re very young to be this seasoned in the festival circuit. How old are you and have there been times when people didn’t take you seriously at first because of your age?
JKM: I’m 31. And yea, you have to adopt a certain attitude to it. I realized my only solution (to that) was to out-perfect everyone out there. I figured that if I can be better than what the bigger guys are doing, whether that be from our website to press releases or anything, I just wanted to be a lot more detailed and a step above everyone else because I realized that in order for us to gain ground we had to put ourselves up on a certain level and that’s the attitude I kept from day one. And I still have it today.
B: Do you know where the late night shows will be held this year?
JKM: We’ll be doing two nights on the Belle of Louisville, which is what we’ve done the past few years. We’ll be announcing those in April, and we’re looking at other venues in downtown Louisville as well.
B: Are there any other additions that taking a year off allowed you to complete?
JKM: All the stuff with the Foundation. We have taken the time to do that right and that’s exciting. I’m very glad that we took the extra time to get it incorporated and put ourselves out there the way we want to be presented.
B: How proud are you of the 2012 lineup?
JKM: I’m really happy with the lineup. I think it’s very Louisville-centric but it also has a lot of appeal to a wide audience. People have bought tickets from California to Ney York and beyond.
B: What kind of artist additions can we expect?
JKM: There will be more to come. The new additions will solidify the desires that people have from previous years. We’re still working on the final offers so it’s hard to tell what bigger pieces will be added. There will definitely be more artists announced.