Our chat with Bonnaroo Co-creator Ashley Capps
Bonnaroo is a land all its own.
For one weekend a year, Manchester, Tennessee goes from a normal population of right around 10,000, to the Volunteer State’s seventh largest city.
It’s hard to believe that the Bonnaroo Music and Arts festival is about to celebrate its 12th year of existence.
As one of the largest musical gatherings in the United States, the focus is music, sure, but there’s a reason why it’s called a music AND arts festival.
With over 100 bands playing over a four-day period, the music is certainly the reason for the season, but the greatness of Bonnaroo is within the sum of its parts.
There are art installations and symposiums located throughout the Bonnaroo campus, which includes a post office, hundreds of acres of campground and nearly a dozen stages. It becomes a wondrous, functioning city, where flip-flops and tennis shoes are the only transportation device you’ll need.
There is very little connection with the outside world. There’s no TV at your disposal and there are few places outside of a smartphone where you can surf the web once inside the festival boundaries.
If you’re looking to get away from the trivial tedium of every day life, Bonnaroo is your place to disappear for one long weekend.
Multitudes of people have committed to make the annual pilgrimage to Coffee County, Tennessee, not because of the music alone, but because of the synchronous environment that the festival creates.
We caught up with one of Bonnaroo's co-creators about the festival’s growth, what additions fans can expect in 2013, how Bonnaroo landed the biggest name in music and much more. Here is our interview with Ashley Capps.
BLANK: Can you talk about this lineup for Bonnaroo this year?
Ashley Capps: We’re really proud of the lineup this year, but in all honesty it came together this year the same way that the lineups come together every year. It’s become an ongoing process. In the case of Paul McCartney, that initial discussion happened five years ago. One of my partners and I met in London with Paul’s representatives and discussed the possibility of him playing Bonnaroo and at the time, we hoped that he was going to do it just a few months later. It takes a while sometimes for these things to come together and that finally happened this year.
BLANK: You now have two proper Superjams and who knows what will happen once everyone gets there. Has Bonnaroo become the home of the collaborations on the festival circuit?
AC: I think one of the things that distinguishes the festival from many others are some of the unique collaborations that happen during the weekend. In some cases those collaborations happen spontaneously and it’s the nature of many of the artists that we book to play the festival to join their friends on stage, and then other instances we structure it with a superjam. We’re always looking to create unique experiences, both for the musicians as well as for our fans.
BLANK: I think the musicians look forward to it as much as the fans in many cases. Have you noticed that?
AC: I think so, and it’s largely because the fans are so receptive to it. And the musicians feed off of the enthusiasm of the audience.
BLANK: There are more and more festivals popping up all the time now. Has the decline of album sales and the birth/growth of the Internet been the number one thing behind the growing number of festivals, since most bands make their money playing live now?
AC: Things continue to evolve or devolve depending on what your perception of it is. I think that festivals blossoming now the way they are in the United States is really following a tradition that has been the case in Europe for decades. In some ways I think the explosion of the festival scene in the US is long overdue.
BLANK: With that in mind, do you consider these newer festivals in the south like a Hangout Festival or a Shaky Knees competition or do you enjoy the company?
AC: There’s always competition for people’s time and attention and their money, so there’s a certain competitiveness to it, but I also think that it all helps to foster festival communities and it increases a person’s opportunities to have the festival experience and if you go to a festival and you have a great time, I think it makes you more likely to go to other festivals as well. So, yes it’s competitive, but I also think it helps to nurture a scene.
BLANK: What are some of the other festivals that you have an affinity for?
AC: There are all sorts of festivals that I go to and enjoy. I always look for festivals that offer a really unique experience. I love going to Coachella out in the desert, which for me in many ways kind of symbolizes the launching of festival season. I love bluegrass festivals and many small festivals, like LEAF in North Carolina…I attended an incredible event in Norway a few years ago called PUNKT, which is a festival attended only by a few hundred people but it’s an exquisite and unique experience. And I’m also partial to our other festivals (outside of Bonnaroo). I love Forecastle, on the waterfront in Louisville. Mountain Oasis is something that I’m especially looking forward to this year. So I’m definitely a festival enthusiast myself, not just a producer.
BLANK: Are there going to be any modifications to the way the inside of the festival will be set up? It seems like you’ve landed on a layout that you’re comfortable with over the past few years.
AC: I think we’ve got the basic plan locked down but we’re always looking to evolve the festival experience, whether it’s for new offerings or little tweaks here and there, to improve the operations and the flow of things. We hope that a lot of things are invisible to festivalgoers but these things manifest themselves into everything running more smoothly.
BLANK: Have you thought of having an all electronic music stage?
AC: This year, we’ve converted one of our tent stages into, essentially, an electronic stage all weekend long. We’re shifting around some of the designations, so I can’t tell you if it’s This Tent, That Tent or The Other Tent, but it will be one of those three.
BLANK: Do you feel comfortable with the Comedy tent as it is, or do you feel the need to ever have someone on the main stage again like you did with Chris Rock?
AC: I think when the opportunity presents itself we will certainly do that again, but we love the Comedy Tent the way it is. It’s just one of the very special elements of the festival and it’s a great platform for comedians at all the various stages of their career to reach out to a new audience.
BLANK: Comedians like Daniel Tosh or Bob Saget…those are big names, so I was curious if you would do something similar to what you did with Conan a few years ago and show it on a screen as well.
AC: No plans for that right now, but we’ll see.
BLANK: Has the process of booking and logistics gotten a lot easier over the years? Is it a “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse” type of thing?
AC: Bob Dylan said, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying”. So we’re always looking for ways to improve things and nobody involved in our team feels complacent. It’s about honing in on the details and trying to introduce new elements that keep the festival fresh and exciting for people.
BLANK: What do you look for when you’re thinking about taking on a new project or even in the people that you work with?
AC: I think each festival starts with a concept and it evolves from that. The type of new projects that we look to take on are typically projects that we feel like there’s the opportunity to create an exciting experience for people. That is what is separating really great festivals from everybody else.
BLANK: Do you ever get concerned that you might spread yourself too thin with all of the projects that AC Entertainment continues to take on or is the goal to get bigger and bigger?
AC: The goal is not really to get bigger and bigger necessarily. We love what we do, so we are always looking for new opportunities, but we don’t do new things for the sake of doing new things. So for instance this year there is an explosion in festivals, but we made a conscious decision that we were going to focus on our existing festivals and making them better before we took on any new projects. So all of our attention this year is on Bonnaroo, on Forecastle, on Mountain Oasis and we’re doing another Mumford & Sons event, like we did in Bristol, TN. This time it is in Saint Augustine and it’s going from one day to essentially two days now. There’s a Friday night component and it will go all day Saturday. We’ve got some new projects that are definitely on the drawing board for 2014. It’s hard to determine which of those will come to fruition, but we’ll see.
BLANK: Many bands play the festival circuit and hit several large gatherings throughout the season. Would you prefer to have acts all to yourself or is that just part of it?
AC: It’s impossible to have everyone all to yourself because everybody has to make a living, but we do try to book each of our festivals where it stands apart from the others. We certainly succeeded this year with Bonnaroo, and I think that one thing that sets it apart is Paul McCartney. At Forecastle, The Black Keys and Robert Plant are playing and neither are doing a lot of festivals this year.
BLANK: You’ve traveled all over the world. What is it about Knoxville that has made you stay in your hometown?
AC: First of all, it’s beautiful. I love being in East Tennessee and the mountains. It’s also been a great palate for me creatively. There have been opportunities with the Tennessee and Bijou Theatres…and even though it’s not in Knoxville, Bonnaroo has been a great opportunity and it’s here in Tennessee. It’s a great community and there are wonderful people here. There’s a tremendous energy at this particular point in Knoxville. It’s both relaxing and inspiring to be here.
BLANK: Can you talk about the process of taking on Mountain Oasis and the parting of ways with Moogfest? And what can fans expect from the new festival?
AC: In a nutshell, Mountain Oasis is a continuation of what we did the past three years. We had licensed the name, Moogfest, and Moog Music elected not to continue to license it. We loved what we were doing and we got great response from the fans and people visiting Asheville. From my perspective it’s going to be a very similar format. We understand that Moog Music is planning to do a Moogfest, so it will be returning but we don’t know any details about that. But we’re well on our way for Mountain Oasis and we expect to let people know more about it in late April/early May. It’s going to be an amazing lineup this year. We are VERY excited.
BLANK: Have you ever sent anything from the Bonnaroo Post Office? I am determined to send something out this year.
AC: (Laughs) Oh, you’re catching me. I have to confess, I never have, but I have received something from the Bonnaroo Post Office.
BLANK: Is there any BIG EARS news?
AC: 2014. That’s one of the events that I will say out loud that we’re looking at for 2014…The return of BIG EARS in Knoxville!
Tickets and more information can be found at www.bonnaroo.com
To see a more in depth interview of the history of the fest that we did with Capps for the tenth anniversary of Bonnaroo, check here.