If you’ve ever had a blast at MusicfestNW, you have Trevor Solomon to thank. He’s acted as the festival’s executive director since 2006, and his sense for booking strong, diverse lineups has helped grow MFNW into not just Portland’s biggest music festival but one of the great annual events in the entire Pacific Northwest.
This year’s MFNW, happening Aug. 16-17 at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, will be Solomon’s last. In September, he moves to Boston, where he will take over booking the twice-annual Boston Calling festival. He’ll be succeeded by Monqui talent buyer Matthew McLean.
Before he goes, we sat down with Solomon to discuss his tenure at MFNW, the state of music festivals in general, and that time he got booted from his own after-party.
Willamette Week: You started booking MFNW in 2006, which was your first festival ever. Tell me about that first year.
Trevor Solomon: I came on in March, which was way behind the eight ball. When I was hired, marketing the festival was a big thing, and getting bodies in the room. There wasn't a consistency. The first year I didn't really plan it, but we had some themes. Like we had Dandy Warhols with Brian Jonestown Massacre. We also had Silver Jews with [Stephen] Malkmus. Also that first year, we did Black Keys, which is nuts thinking about it now. We also had Helio Sequence, which would become a staple of the festival for a long time. We also had Britt Daniel. It was a great first year. It was insane in the sense that everything was just thrown at me and I wasn't sure how to handle it at first. I also did all the production. I remember sitting at the Roseland and every time the doors would open for a show, I'd get like 16 phone calls with people freaking out. And I was the only person they could call, or Richard [Meeker, WW publisher] or Mark [Zusman, WW Editor-in-Chief]. Each year, I began taking a little bit of the pressure off myself.
What's the hardest part of booking MFNW?
Your own self-criticism. Because I'm never satisfied.
In what regard? With the lineup?
The lineup, the consumer experience, the consumer feedback. There have been times I felt euphoria, but I can count them, and there are not many. Girl Talk at the Roseland in 2007. Major Lazer at the Roseland. The National at Pioneer Square. And Fleet Foxes [at Crystal Ballroom in 2008], which was just epic craziness.
What's the closest you've come to being satisfied with the festival as a whole?
It's almost a tie between 2010 and 2012. 2010 was the first year we went to Pioneer Square, so it was like a home run. The National and Decemberists were perfect there. We had Wiz Khalifa and Sleep and Major Lazer at the Roseland. It was just like one of those years you felt like things were connected. Then 2012, the Pioneer Square shows did really well, between Beirut and Girl Talk and Silversun Pickups. Also that year we had Tallest Man On Earth, which was probably one of the more epic shows, and we also had two nights of Passion Pit.
The thing I'm most proud of with the festival is certain bands' experiences and how much they want to come back, be it Girl Talk, Spoon, Tallest Man on Earth, Helio Sequence, Thermals. You can tell they care. Charles Bradley, who's played twice. Fucked Up, Deerhunter, the Bronx. All these bands have had good experiences.
Did this year's format change factor into why you’re leaving now?
The opportunity presented itself to me. I do feel like it was time, but I was burnt out three years ago, honestly. I don't think the change and the criticism led me to move. I think the criticism was a bummer. I get it and I'm OK with it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But I wasn't like, "This sucks, I'm going to find something else." I was like, "I'm going to battle this through and hopefully it works." And I still believe that, because it's coming up next week and I'm still here. I want it to do well. I appreciate, specifically, Richard and Mark for giving me this opportunity, because it's made my career and it's made my life change in ways I never thought it would.
Do you have a perception of how doing a festival in Boston is going to be different from doing a festival in Portland?
Higher stakes a little bit, just because it's a bigger city. I think the eyeballs of the industry might be on me a little bit more.
How do you feel about the music festival economy in general? There was an article on recently predicting the festival bubble is about to burst.
I think in some markets, yeah. I think Portland is starting to witness it with [Project Pabst] and MFNW and Pickathon. People are going to have to start choosing. Europe hasn't busted out yet, and there are still a lot of great festivals in Europe. I do think some festivals will weed themselves out. In the end, the festivals that will be around a long time will be around because of good curation and a good festival experience. That's what you need.
Not to pigeonhole your taste, but you're a rock guy, in a festival landscape that's more and more dominated by EDM and hip-hop. Is it possible to continue booking like Guided By Voices and Superchunk?
You make them fit. Paul Tollett booked Afghan Whigs, the Replacements, Anti-Flag and Title Fight [at Coachella] this year.
But then you end up with, like, 100 people watching the Replacements.
But I don't think Paul is going to change that, because he comes from Goldenvoice, which was the punk-rock promoter of L.A. If you have that will and that mindset and understand that, you're going to continue to [book those bands]. Maybe the Replacements aren't playing in front of 100,000 people, but whoever they're playing in front of, it's awesome. I went to Atlanta and saw them and it was awesome. There were a lot more kids there for Modest Mouse, but it's a balance. You have to mix them in with the Sky Ferreiras and Iggy Azaleas of the world.
How do you balance that with the financial concerns of a festival?
You pick and choose. You go for your big stuff. This year, Haim was a big band, Phantogram was a big radio band. Girl Talk, Spoon, they’re big bands. But then something more eclectic that I just want people to see is Thundercat, who I just think it awesome. Another similar band is the Districts, who are not a big band but I just think they're killer. I saw them play and I was like, “I want to book that band.”
You have a reputation for being a bit of a hard-ass. Do you think you've calmed over the years?
When I first started, I was 110 percent about the job. I drove it like a ship, where I was very demanding. Meeting my wife was the first calming thing, which was 2010. Having a son in 2012 was the next calming thing. I freaked out during a show when my wife was pregnant. During that time, I was like, “I need to relax. I've got a baby coming, and there are more important things.”
What's the story of you getting kicked out of your own MFNW after-party?
We had a party at a space in northwest, near Chinatown. I had some drinks—it's funny, because it's the one year I didn't drink until the last night [of the festival]. I wasn't sober, but I don't feel like I was wasted, either. I went into the party, and there was an altercation at the door, where one of the guys from Shaky Hands was being thrown out. I asked security what's up, and they started physically getting into it with him. I just grabbed the security guard and he pushed me to the ground and threw me out. I'm not accusing them of anything, but I think in their minds, they saw me play in the Jesus Lizard cover band I'm in, and I think they felt I was pretty aggressive person. They may have had some reason to think so, so they said, “You're not allowed to come into the party.” I argued with them for a while and they said they were going to call the police and have me arrested. I said I wasn't going to sign the check, and it became a huge deal. It came in what was not necessarily the best year for myself. It was just a bummer.
What's your advice to your successor?
Don't take it personal, and book with your heart.
Don't take what personally?
If a tour manager yells at you, if a booking agent yells at you, if a consumer writes something about you, if people say this other festival is what you used to be—don't take it personal. You will, but try not to.
Is that advice you're able to follow on your own?
No. But I try to.
MusicfestNW is at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Naito Pkwy between SW Harrison St & NW Glisan St, on Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 16-17. $65-$175, free for children under 8. All ages. See musicfestnw.com for a complete schedule and to buy tickets.