Road to VanFest: Interview with Van Wolfe
The eighth year of local music festival, VanFest, was recently announced for arrival on Saturday, August 25 at Royal Arch Masonic Park in Maple Valley. To celebrate the little fest that could, we're spending the next two months highlighting the bands playing VanFest 8.
If you're unfamiliar with VanFest, the micro-festival was founded in 2011 by then-16-year-old Van Wolfe with the goal of bringing the community-oriented focus and intimacy of underground music to a beautiful park setting deep in the woods of Maple Valley, WA and has always been focused on benefitting a cause. The past few years, the benefit has been hyper-local, with all profits, as well as on-site donations, given to the Maple Valley Food Bank.
This year's lineup consists of 26 bands who are joining the ranks of previous performers like Car Seat Headrest, Chastity Belt, Dude York, and Great Grandpa. Highlights include Seacats, Whitney Ballen, Familiars, Tool (a new project consisting of Caitlyn of Hoop, Julia and Gretchen of Chastity Belt, and Michael from FF), Da Qween, Anime Creek, and many more.
To kick our Road to VanFest series off, we spoke to founder/booker Van Wolfe about some of his thoughts about the festival he built with little resources beyond personal initiative and ingenuity.
What inspired you/gave you the gall to start your own festival at the tender age of 16?
Naivety and bravery. I think as children and teenagers everyone has huge dreams and big ideas that are generally unrealistic and out of reach, I was just one of the few people that actually took steps to do it. I guess the first time I really thought about doing it was while sitting on a couch in Goodwill with my friend Tyler drinking off-brand Mountain Dew and cracking a joke about how I should start a music festival so I can get a sponsorship from Safeway’s off-brand Mountain Dew. Sometimes taking an outlandish idea and building it into a real thing is the right thing to do. I didn’t do it alone, I had help from a lot of friends that I went to school with, including someone who kind of merged their fest idea and a lot of bands they knew into mine the first year, Andrienne Pilapil. Without her and a lot of my friends at Green River it never would have gotten off the ground and actually happened.
Did you receive any backlash or criticism back when you were a teenager trying to book a festival?
Originally VanFest was supposed to be at my house in Maple Valley, out in my yard. That turned into a big dispute with my dad and stepmom. I fought a bit, presented to them my solutions to all of their concerns, but I was 16 and they didn’t exactly trust me, which makes sense looking back on it. I did have to move the venue for the first year to this barn I found in Buckley (just outside of Enumclaw). Outside of that, people were very supportive. Probably more so than now, even though I actually know what I’m doing now. People tend to give a lot of support to younger people doing things above and beyond their peers, and that support was crucial to actually making it happen
Who are some of your favorite artists that have played VanFest?
I could go on forever about the artists that have played VanFest and gone on to be very successful in music lately, but some of my favorites that never really got the recognition they deserved would be:
XVIII Eyes (formerly known as Eighteen Individual Eyes)
They broke up a couple years after their 2013 VanFest performance, but that band really was something special. Jamie Aaron Aux, who makes solo music now, has the best guitar tone I’ve heard in a live performer probably in my whole life, Irene Barber, who is now in Dust Moth, is an incredible and unique vocalist, and the rhythm section which i believe was bass player Samantha Wood and prolific Seattle drummer Andy King really locked it in good. The songwriting was mindblowing, they performed great, I could vouch for that band forever (if they reunited)
If BEARS were BEES
This is a project of Maple Valley hometown hero TJ Grant. Very clever quirky fun singer-songwriter type stuff. He’s performed a few times at the fest, it’s been incredible each time, and it’s a good reminder of the amazing talent that came up even just in the small town I have this fest in.
LO’ THERE (formerly known as Lo’ There Do I See My Brother)
They started out way back in the day as a straight up instrumental post-rock band. These days, they’re killing it with this heavy Deftones-esque shoegaze rock. I’ve been hyped on this band for half a decade now, through everything they’ve done and every major step they’ve made as a band. I think 2018 is going to be a big year for them, they got some tour stuff lined up, they’re on Capitol Hill Block Party, I’m glad to see people finally backing one of the most underrated Seattle Bands of all time.
This is a band so good that I invited them to play for four years in a row. They’re now split up, all their members are in different projects that have played VanFest in the years following the breakup. I haven’t seen a band in Seattle since them that inspires me at the level that they did. The proggy indie-rock songwriting with a focus on atmosphere, dynamics, and doing some real interesting and emotive stuff is right up my alley. They set the standard that everyone else should try to meet.
This saxophone and drums duo plays weird music. Almost jazzy, it involves a lot of pedals and looping and textures on the sax, and Chris Icasiano’s legendary insane drum skills. It took me years to actually get them booked and it was all worth it.
As a musician, do you prefer playing or booking festivals?
Playing them, for sure! Doing the part where I just show up and perform is a lot of fun. Booking and organizing VanFest is a lot of joy, but it is as much labor as it is love. Being able to roll into a festival and play to a big crowd that’s having fun and reap the benefits of the labor of those organizers is something I’ll never stop enjoying.
Who are you most excited to have play this year?
I’m really proud of this entire lineup! But if I have to play favorites, and pick a top 5, I’ll go with these:
Whitney is an angel. Her voice is chilling in the best way, and she writes songs that really make you feel like you’re out in the wilderness, alone with your feelings. Even as a solo performer she captivated me, but her recent expansion into a full band lineup makes these songs feel huge. Perfect for the sundown set out there in the park. The atmosphere is just so fitting.
These guys are from Portland, pretty much completely unknown, I only found out about them because I played with them on tour, and they subbed in for a band that dropped the day of the show. I’m glad that other band disappeared, because The Vedasay is the real deal. They’re half Mars Volta, half Parliament Funkadelic. Half chaotic psychedelic prog, half aggressive funk. The musicianship alongside the bizarre songwriting and great stage presence is something I am excited to bring to the fest.
These guys are an instrumental electronic space-jams band comprised of just two drummers and two keyboard players. Every time I’ve seen them they’ve done this wild collective improvised set where they’re so tight with each other you would think they actually wrote the dang tracks. The more percussion a band has, the better, and GEMS brings quite a bit of that with the dual-drummer thing. This is a band that I think will be a great new discovery for a lot of the VanFest crowd, and I’m super hyped that I was able to get them on the lineup this year (I’ve been trying for a while)
Shubzilla x Bill Beats
This is one of Seattle’s best rapper/producer duos right now and I didn’t even know about them until I saw them at SXSW earlier this year all the way out in Austin. Shubzilla is someone who came up originally in and around the nerdcore scene that was really blossoming in the PNW, but has broken out of those boundaries. She’s got excellent lyricism and aggressive well-enunciated delivery on top of booming instrumentals provided by Bill Beats. Their live shows are killer, and bringing high quality hip hop to the park is always something really fun to be doing.
Retirement is a band that I’ve been trying to tell everyone about since their first VanFest performance two years ago. Unfortunately, this will be one of their final shows ever, but I’m honored to have the chance to host them one more time. They got post-rock dynamics, piano rock instrumentation, and emotive songwriting that brings strong feelings out in a way that’s rare to hear. Make sure to show up and say goodbye to one of the best active Seattle bands.
What’s your dream VanFest lineup?
My dream VanFest lineup would be to book every single band that I want to without limits on the amount of artists I can bring in. If I could have every single band I email respond with an enthusiastic “YES” and I could have 200 bands, that would be the dream. Being able to show off everyone, all at once. Also, I’ve been trying to book Wimps since 2012, and the scheduling just keeps not lining up, so any year I’m able to get them on the bill will be the ultimate dream.
Don't miss VanFest 8 on Saturday, August 25th from 12-9PM. The event is all ages and costs 15 advance, 20 at the gate to get in. Purchase advance tickets here.