Check out WW's MusicFestNW 2008 guide for a complete schedule and band profiles.
You can almost hear it coming.
MusicfestNW, now in its eighth year, will be Portland's prime destination (well, 20 destinations, really) for music lovers tonight through Saturday, Sept. 3-6. Most stories you're likely to read about the festival in the local and national press focus on one or more of its 215 bands, which hail from Portland and around the world (we're looking at you, Monotonix,).
That's great. But what you are less likely to come across are liner notes from behind the scenes of this festival, detailing the 1,000 little decisions made over the past 360 days that culminate in MFNW's music-packed, sweat-soaked, four-day run.
That's precisely the stuff WW is in a position to fill you in about, seeing as we put this thing on every year. Not that this story is all numbers. We threw in firsthand accounts of some of the best moments of past MFNWs, interviews with a handful of this year's most exciting performers, complaints and gripes from festivalgoers and even a few top-three lists by everybody from MFNW organizer Trevor Solomon to Christina Horey, a random festivalgoer who bought a wristband from WW's front desk last Friday.
Of course, if it were up to me, I'd just make you a mixtape.*
See you at the show.
—Casey Jarman, WW Music Editor
Way back in 1995, when torn jeans and baggy flannel ruled the earth, Willamette Week's two owners, publisher Richard Meeker and editor Mark Zusman, approached the folks from Austin's then-young South by Southwest (SXSW) festival with the idea of starting a large-scale music festival in Portland. SXSW bit and North by Northwest (NXNW) was born. It was big, with more than 300 bands in 1999—though Death Cab for Cutie wasn't quite so big a deal back then—but seven years into their relationship, WW and NXNW broke up.
"I think the guys from Texas wanted it to be a certain way and the paper wanted it to be a certain way," says current MFNW director Trevor Solomon. "And Texas came in here and pissed everybody off, which wasn't their fault, really; they just didn't know anybody." He's being nice. So is WW publisher Richard Meeker, who says the group from Austin realized that "culturally, it wasn't the right fit for them to be here in Portland." Adding, "They have a different management style, they're much more aggressive and much more profit-oriented." Read: They pissed everybody off.
The SXSW crew cited its "carpetbagger image," along with WW's desire to discontinue its sponsorship of the festival, as reasons for leaving town in a February 2001 story in the Portland Mercury. Displeased with the Merc article, SXSW managing director Roland Swenson underscored the cultural divide by firing a "fuck you" and "kiss my ass" email to its author, Merc music editor Julianne Shepherd (which the Merc then printed as a letter to the editor). WW took the high road, referring to the Austin staff as a "wacky crew" full of "fine people" and suggesting the booming music towns of Manzanita, Ore., and Whitefish, Mont., as potential new homes for NXNW.
In 2001, WW's then-sales manager Russ Martineau demanded that the paper take the reins and start its own festival, MusicfestNW. WW scaled back the operation to focus largely on regional music, and gathered national talent slowly but surely over the course of the next seven years. "From the very beginning, the goal was to promote music and the music scene in Portland," Meeker says, before glancing nervously at his computer. "My biggest concern is the weather."
Five Fingers of Funk and Latyrx at Roseland
Hip-hop arts both local and national kicked off the inaugural MusicfestNW. The unusual emphasis on hip-hop in super-white PDX led Tanya Gayhart of The Columbian to write awkwardly: "It was an eclectic group of people not usually seen together in Portland."
The Wrens at Berbati's Pan
When refined post-punk outfit the Wrens closed down the '04 festival at Berbati's Pan, WW's Richard Shirk quoted bassist Kevin Whelan as saying, "You better lose your shit, Portland." And it did.
"They put out that record, Meadowlands, that year, and it was a big deal. It was magical," recalls MFNW director Trevor Solomon. "They didn't get onstage until 1:30 [am], and the stage manager tried to cut them off at 2 [am]. It was packed. I was fucked up. I almost had to beat up the stage manager. It was my favorite record."
Hazel, Pond and Crackerbash
at the Crystal Ballroom
Not content to put on a simple one-band reunion show, MFNW '05 pulled together a triple-header of some of the best acts from the Portland music scene during the previous decade, capping off the Saturday night show with a bill featuring '90s-era icons Hazel, Pond and Crackerbash.
"People have been asking what it's like to grow old," said Hazel's Jody Bleyle from behind her drumkit that fateful night, before answering that question in front of a full Crystal Ballroom: "When I dance to Crackerbash now, I pee a little."
Girl Talk at the Roseland
Love Girl Talk's Greg Gillis or hate him, the laptop maestro had the capacity crowd at the Roseland completely freaking out last year. We'll just let Gillis himself explain it:
"I asked [the Roseland staff] if it would be possible to get a couple people on stage, and they said it wouldn't be doable, and I was like, 'How 'bout just a handful?' and the staff was being a little bit difficult about it. They were saying that they couldn't move Clipse's DJ gear…. I asked them if there would be a barricade between the audience and the stage, and they said yeah, so I asked them if it would be cool for me just to set up my table actually in the area in between the stage and the people. Of course, immediately after I started, every kid within viewing distance jumped over the barricade to join me there, and it got to be very compressed. It was cool—one of those shows where even for the people from front to back, it became way less about watching me play around with the computer and it kind of just turned into a big party. It kind of stands out in my mind as a unique show from, you know, my entire history of shows."
Musicfest's utilization of Sonicbids, a company that organizes bands' digital music and press kits for bookers, has caused a minor stir in the local music community. As it stands, the only official way for a band to apply to MFNW is to subscribe to the online service. Former Gang of Four bassist and current Portlander Dave Allen of Pampelmoose.com argued on his site that, for the service to be fair, bands should know how many slots are available for a festival. Todd Berry of local label Greyday Records has similar concerns.
"I have a lot of issues with the way Sonicbids ends up working," Berry explains. "[Bands] are paying money to be considered for things and a lot of times just end up under a stack of a thousand other bands."
WW will not disclose how many bands have applied for Musicfest via Sonicbids, nor how many of those are playing the fest or how much profit is made from using the service. "We made a little money," says MFNW executive director Trevor Solomon. "But not enough not to stop it if we thought it was the biggest ripoff in the world. We were just trying to do something and be organized with it rather than have 500 CDs sitting on my desk. It's very systematic." He says MFNW will probably continue its partnership with the service for next year's festival, though it's unlikely to be the only way for bands to apply.
Sometimes it seems everyone wants to go to the same show. MFNW wristbands don't guarantee entry into venues, as 33-year-old Portlander and Mercy Corps employee Kelly Delay found out last year:
"Unlike Bumbershoot, where you can walk from show to show, Musicfest is a drive or bike ride from venue to venue," Delay wrote WW. "As the popularity of the event increases, so does attendance of the venue, which decreases the assuredness of getting in. So, in many ways, you are wholly invested into the show you decide on and there are slim possibilities to see two shows in the same night due to the number in attendance or the physical ability to get to another venue."
MFNW feels your pain, Kelly. The bosses say last year's fest was the first time most of the big venues sold out on most evenings—a bittersweet accomplishment, since it also pissed some people off. But "there are sure to be more [sellouts] this year," says WW publisher Richard Meeker. "People need to understand that if they've got wristbands, they need to get to a venue early." Executive director Trevor Solomon—who repeatedly joked he wants to be "the fucking Michael Phelps of festival directors"—asked for clarification of Delay's complaint. "So they don't hate the festival, they just hate the idea that they have to stand in line?" Solomon asked. "That's OK."
MFNW artists on Portland
20: Number of months since seminal Olympia-based indie label Kill Rock Stars moved its HQ to Portland.
"The reality is that every band on the label who has been successful has been from Portland. Even Bikini Kill—three-fourths of them grew up in Portland and moved to Olympia to go to college. I think aesthetically we've always felt a stronger connection to Portland than Seattle; it just fits more in line with who we've always been. We always really enjoyed being a part of the Olympia community, and there's a strong connection that we'll always have in Olympia. But I want to have that in Portland."
—Maggie Vail, Kill Rock Stars VP*
1999: The year Portland's Helio Sequence formed.
"For the last seven years I've listened to people say, 'What's Portland like? I'm thinking of moving here.' And it's escalating now. It has been really interesting to see Portland turn into the cool, liberal place to go. You're either going to go to Brooklyn or you're going to go to Portland. You'd tell people before that you were from Portland and they'd be like, 'Oh, Seattle?' and you're like, 'No, Pooort-laaand. It's a different city.' I'm not moving anytime soon."
—Benjamin Weikel, Helio Sequence
11: Years since WW put Spoon's performance at EJ's atop its "Great Live Shows of '97" list. Frontman Britt Daniel relocated to Portland three years ago.
"[Portland's] my favorite place. I just always had this impression of Portland, from only having played at EJ's and Berbati's. Mostly we played at [the beloved and now long-gone punk club] EJ's, and spent a lot of time in motels on Sandy Boulevard. I had this impression of Portland as being something from a Dan Clowes novel. Kinda dark and magical and creepy and wild. Then once my girlfriend moved up there, she lived downtown, so then I started getting a different impression of it. I just always loved it, though. And we had toured for a long time where there would be a few kids, but it didn't feel like a happening gig even at a venue with a 200 capacity. We played a lot of shows that were maybe 10 full for years. Portland was one of the first places where kids came and they actually knew some songs."
—Britt Daniel, Spoon
90: Estimated percentage of the capacity crowd that was dancing at Starfucker's recent PDX Pop Now! performance.
"Last year no one knew who we were or I was or whatever, and it was just all about fucking around. I mean, it still is a lot of fucking around. But I feel like it's the Blazers last year vs. the Blazers this year. There was no pressure last year, and they still did good, and it was like, 'Oh, awesome.' And this year it's like, 'You better do good because you have Greg Oden.' And if they don't it'll be like [disappointedly], 'Wow.' " —Josh Hodges, Starfucker
9: Years since beloved Tacoma punk group Seaweed disbanded.
"A lot of people were bothering us to play again, so we just decided it's time, let's reform, let's be that guy. I mean, there are a lot worse bands that reformed, so let's be one of those bands. We are not moving in different directions. It's your typical loud, medium-paced punk rock. We came to the conclusion that that's the kind of band we are, so that's what we should make. There'll be a couple of quiet songs, but everything else will be pretty blasty. We just try to be kind of like blasty and heavy. I don't know how well we ever achieved that, but it's the same kind of songs with a different flavor, in a better way. Our new drummer has inspired us, and we got some new amps. We're really hoping it comes out good." —Wade Neal, Seaweed
1: Time on Sunday morning that Centromatic plays Doug Fir
"Oh yeah, that cherished 1 am start time. We've done the Saturday night closers a few times, you know, the 1 am closers, and it's still spirited, but in a different way. In a very exhausted, 'We finally all made it to the finish line, let's just kind of pull the rip cord and let's have one last wind-sprint of a good time and then sleep late the next morning' kind of feeling." —Will Johnson, Centromatic, on playing MFNW '06
6903: Miles between Tel Aviv, Israel (home town of Monotonix), and Portland.
"We are always going to play on the floor. We are playing another big festival coming up and just talking to the venue that's, like, a 2,500-capacity room and has a very strict fire marshal, and they are trying to convince us to play onstage. But as far as we are concerned, even when we get to play the bigger rooms, our show will be set up on the floor. I can't really imagine our show if we're not inside the audience. I love it. The audience can watch the show, and we can watch the audience—it's kind of a show for us, too. When you are on the floor you can really feel the audience and communicate better." —Yonatan Gat, Monotonix
21: Number of bands Seattle radio station KEXP's Cheryl Waters mentioned when asked for "a couple" MFNW acts she was the most excited about.
"In such a short period of time, Trevor [Solomon, MFNW executive director] has done an amazing job. That festival is very new in [the MFNW] incarnation, and very impressive. It's not only the festival we feel like getting behind, it's also a city with a rich musical legacy.... We definitely play tons of local Portland bands—the Dandy Warhols were just here to play our biggest fundraiser, we have bands like the Helio Sequence in heavy rotation, for a long time we've been playing bands like the Joggers and Fernando. And I just discovered Blind Pilot." —Cheryl Waters, Midday host on KEXP
MusicfestNW takes over Portland Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 3-6. Visit musicfestnw.com for a full show schedule, venue list and individual show prices. Festival wristbands are $50, available at
2220 NW Quimby St., 243-2122, as well as Music Millennium, Jackpot Records, 360 Vinyl, Backspace and ticketswest.com. Wristbands and single-entry admissions are available at all MusicfestNW venues during the event.
MORE: Check out the entire MusicfestNW guide with descriptions of every band playing at wweek.com/mfnw2008.