A Conversation With Sasquatch Founder Adam Zacks!
Photo: Kayte Olsufka
By Matt Vaughan
The Sasquatch! Music Festival is celebrating its 15th year and Easy Street Records has been the festival’s onsite retailer and meet-n-greet specialists for 14 of those years! Always held on Memorial Day Weekend and always held at the award-winning spectacle that is the Gorge Amphitheater. It is the preeminent Northwest festival, often acting as the launch pad or coming out party for many of our local acts, including The Shins, Postal Service, New Pornographers, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Modest Mouse, The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, Death Cab For Cutie, and Head and the Heart. Who's it going to be this year?
This year, over 100,000 fans will take over the Gorge for four days (May 27-30). Every year Easy Street sets up a booth, not unlike a fireworks stand, on the grounds of Sasquatch!. Maybe you’ve seen us? We schedule as many artist signings as we can, and the booth also serves as a pop-up shop, with CDs/LPs and any other kind of product that the bands want us to sell. (The Gorge folk handle the t-shirts by the way!) Easy Street has a unique perspective on the festival. We are among the fans. We are also close enough that we can see all the mainstage acts. It’s pretty clear to us when a band has delivered a special performance. If they are signing at our booth, we can tell by the size of the line. We can tell by how many records they sell, and of course, we can just look out from the booth and see who has the largest crowds and what people are saying as they walk by after a show.
There is always the unexpected at Sasquatch! and we have to prepare as much as we can for that. For us, it’s a little bit like playing the ponies. We order product in advance for all the bands that are performing, but we don’t always know how well a band is going to go over. Did we order too many or not enough? Certainly, if a band is going to be doing a signing and meeting their fans, we can be assured that their record sales will most likely be high.
This year, we are putting our early bets in. Here’s your Easy Street Handicapper Tipsheet, try not to miss these performances….. The Internet, King Gizzard, X Ambassadors, Nathaniel Rateliff, Mac Demarco, Ty Segall, and Grimes. Also, try not to miss the undercards, newcomers Andra Day, Oddisee, Houndmouth, Speedy Ortiz, and Kaleo. Of course, your undefeated champions of the festival are first and foremost, The Cure. Also, Alabama Shakes, Sufjan Stevens, Kurt Vile, Yo La Tengo, Leon Bridges, Florence and the Machine, Disclosure, Chet Faker, and expect a beauty from M83.
The founder, booker, and mastermind behind Sasquatch! is Adam Zacks. Matt and Zacks recently spent a few moments together to reflect on Sasquatch!
MV - What is the greatest single performance you’ve ever seen at Sasquatch?
AZ - Great question. It’s hard to pick just one, but I’ll try to recall some of the most unforgettable moments.
LCD Soundsystem in 2012 was great. Just a huge collective next level dance party.
The Shins in 2004 - I like the band a lot, but this is memorable as much for the streaker. I’m actually not sure he’d technically be considered a streaker since he stayed on stage so long. At some point he’s just a new member of the band!
During the hailstorm in 2006, The Constantines responded by performing like it was their last day on earth. Hail was piling up on the stage at and equipment at a fast clip, the audience was running for the exits, and all the mayhem inspired them to rip it so hard like I’ve never seen. Eventually the sound and power had to be cut for safety.
Last year we had Kate Tempest on the Yeti stage. She had a surprisingly large crowd and tapped into some kind of wavelength with the crowd that had many of us in tears of joy. I remember getting a lump in my throat and thinking “what in the world is going on with me?!”. Then I turned around and it was clear everyone was feeling the same thing.
Lastly, any time the musical heroes of my youth play the festival (Beastie Boys, R.E.M., The Cure, Robert Plant) it is wildly surreal.
MV - Have you ever booked an under-the-radar act, hoping for people to discover them, and by the time tickets actually went on sale, they were well-established and became a big contributor to sales?
AZ - There are several examples of this and it’s usually driven by a crossover radio hit: Mumford & Sons, Foster the People, Fun, Hozier, Alabama Shakes.
MV - Over the last couple years, I've been hearing a lot of local music biz guys talking up this notion of “music discovery.” Is that what sets the Northwest culture and Northwest concertgoer apart? They don¹t have preconceived notions, they are open to something new?
AZ - It’s a nice idea that I hope and believe has some truth in it. I’m very keen to do whatever I can to foster a culture that values the exposure to a broad spectrum of art and music.
MV - In your 15 years of putting on Sasquatch, there must be a few personal moments that has made your involvement and time put in that much more worth it? A moment that when you are a Grandpa, you will reflect on, or an image that will come forth when thinking back on Sasquatch? For me, I can¹t help but recall the one-man dance party that eventually took over the hill during Decemberists, or the sex scene on the hill for all to see during the same set. Of course, the hailstorm during Neko Case and Iron and Wine. The image I always seem to think back on though, is watching the Bad Brains and seeing the Beastie Boys all walk up side stage, early afternoon set, singing all the lyrics, with their kids (also all boys) geared up in Bad Brains t-shirts jumping up and down. You essentially had 3 generations taking in one moment together! The Beasties would later that night absolutely crush it, the last time a lot of us from the NW would ever see MCA. RIP
AZ - You called out many of them for sure! I would add Bjork’s performance to that list, and (haters back off!) Coldplay too. There are some non-musical moments that always cause me to take a pause of gratitude. When I wake up Friday morning and see that a temporary city has emerged in the campground overnight, the magnitude of it all is really striking.
MV - How was the Easy Street connection created and why do you like having a retail presence at Sasquatch?
AZ - Having distinctly local partners has been an important part of the vision. We’re lucky to still have many great, independent record stores in the Pacific Northwest, but none embodies the community spirit quite like Easy Street. We thought it would be a good thing for people to get turned on to a new band at the festival and immediately be able to harness that enthusiasm by buying a record and often getting an opportunity to meet the band. Easy Street does a great service by providing this opportunity at the festival. The local vibe staffed by true, knowledgable music lovers was an obvious fit for us. Also, cool van.
MV - I’ve heard you say that your booking technique is instinctive. Personally, I think gut instinct is more of a Northwest quality than it is in most parts of the country, maybe it’s part of our pioneering spirit. I¹d like to think that it makes for distinctive unpretentious quality, one that has separated Sasquatch from the others. Is there a fear in going off your gut when you are dealing with big money? It must be like playing the ponies a lil bit?
AZ - Exactly right- the pioneering spirit in the Northwest is alive and well. There is most definitely risk in taking chances with the programming or really any enterprise which embraces an instinctive path over relying on tried and true metrics. There are so many examples of greatness and innovation being achieved by trusting human instinct but fear of failure is a constant presence for most of us.
MV - Your wife Lynn, who we knew before we knew you, seems to be quite involved in the festival, making it more of family affair than people might think. What can you tell us about her and her involvement?
AZ - Lynn plays a critical role in fostering the warm family feeling that people experience at the festival. This happens both backstage and front of house in small and large ways, and it all adds up to being one of the key factors that differentiates this event. Among her many roles, she coordinates with all our non-profit community partners and helps them engage with the audience well beyond standing behind a table. We host regular meetings for those struggling with substance abuse because of her work with MusicCares. We have self defense workshops because of her work with Fight The Fear. We have hearing tests and free custom ear plugs for artists and crew backstage. She taps me on the shoulder when I’m being a dummy. She inspires me to improve and keep an eye on gender and racial equity in the booking. The list goes on, and she rarely gets the credit she deserves. Anyone that knows her though, knows she’s a force.
MV - In the age of streaming, MP3s, and online subscription services, in your opinion, how is it that indie record shops in the Northwest have survived, if not prospered?
AZ - My observation is that it seems like the record store has always been a challenging business model with tight margins. Some of my favorite shops were always more than just a record store. You used to see lots that had head shops in the back, or skateboard gear, or t-shirts, incense, etc. I have fond memories of spending too many hours at my hometown shop Rainy Day Records in Olympia. Easy Street has cemented itself as a place of cultural relevance and social hub with the great cafe and legendary in-store performances. Another aspect of a good record store is a knowledgable staff that can make recommendations. The algorithms of the streaming services can never match the enthusiasm of record store employee or DJ or even concert promoter championing an exciting new act. Lastly, the resurgence of interest in vinyl has to be a good thing for record stores. I think its been a good reminder for a lot of us that flipping through record bins is a lot more satisfying than pointing and clicking through an iTunes carousel.
MV - What can you tell us about John Norris and the Sasquatch Podcast that just started up?
AZ - A podcast production called CRN International expressed interest in creating a behind-the-scenes style podcast for the festival just a few months ago. They’ve done other ones like the Car & Driver podcast but I was mildly skeptical. I am however a big fan of the podcast format and there are several that are part of my daily routine, so I was interested to see where they’d take it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by CRN every step of the way. Besides just being good people with production skills and an ear for quality, they have exceeded my expectations first by scoring John Norris to host and then by managing to secure interviews with lots of artists like Brittany Howard, Børns, and Kurt Vile.
MV - One of the biggest questions we get at the booth is “Where the hell can I buy the band posters?” You guys always talk ‘em up, but they are nowhere to be found. We know a lot of time goes into creating and printing them. What can you tell us?
AZ - The poster project was started as a way to engage local designers and create opportunities and visibility for them. There is always a mix of pros and students and the results each year are really incredible. The art of the concert poster (especially hand silk screened) is something that has been at risk since the proliferation and easy access to graphic design software and cheap color printers. The reason we don’t sell them is that the sale of concert posters is in a gray area where there is not common agreement on whether its kosher or not for a graphic designer to sell their artwork without the express permission of the band whose name is on it. There is a long history of this happening but it remains a subject of debate. We’ve had a small handful of bands (out of hundreds) get upset about the festival playing a role in creating images without their blessing, but most enjoy it. Some designers choose to contact artist management and work out a sales agreement, but we do not participate in that. We give a stack of posters to each band, give some away to local charities for their auctions, and display them at an annual gallery show.
MV - There seems to be a lot more female acts performing this year. Was that intentional?
AZ - It’s obvious that there is inequality in the music business on both the artist and business side. Something we could do near term is give greater attention to booking female performers. Even with the improvements we’ve made, the balance is lopsided. Longterm, we work with groups like Rain City Rock Camp for Girls and the Vera Project to help create the next generation of artist and music professionals in what will hopefully be a more equitable and welcoming environment for all genders.
MV - Am I correct in thinking that there are far more unsigned acts performing this year? What new music sources are you using, have a favorite? Where are you finding this unsigned talent?
AZ - I try to seek out new music everyday and just listen for something that resonates. My eyes and ears are open all the time. Many of my best recommendations come by word of mouth from friends and family.
MV - You are acting more like an A&R guy than a booking agent. Like Kaleo, where¹d you find them?
AZ - It’s funny you say that because I used to think being an A&R guy for a record label was my dream job. Kaleo came on my radar first from their booking agent. I get a lot artist reps hyping me on their bands. It’s their job of course, but after a while one becomes numb to it. I paid special attention to Kaleo because I was intrigued that they are from Iceland and there has been this Seattle-Iceland connection developing. “All The Pretty Girls” was the first song I heard. I liked it but it sounded similar to Bon Iver to me so I needed to hear that there was more to them before committing. With each song they sent their depth and own identity revealed itself.
MV - Lastly, I hope you weren’t too upset with me when Reignwolf and I drove onto the grounds and he did an impromptu performance on top of the Easy Street van. Stagehands and security were pissed, telling me that Easy Street was gonna be barred from the festival for life, but apparently you had our back from what I understand. For that, I'd like to say thank you.
AZ - I was the opposite of upset, it was pretty thrilling to witness. I kinda love that Reignwolf has yet to put out a full proper album and his reputation has spread almost entirely on the strength of his live performances. No record and he opened for Black Sabbath around the world. Pretty impressive. Time for a record though right? Maybe a live double album like Frampton for his first release. How cool would that be?