It's sustainable, diverse, passionate, and completely unique. We spoke to the artists at the Oregon festival to see what makes it so special.
Photo by Bridget Baker
I’m not some crunchy hula hooper who has 16 festy wristbands going up and down his arm. I have never sold mushrooms on a String Cheese Incident tour. I’m typically filled with quite a bit of cynicism, even a healthy amount I’d say. My mother recently told me that my favorite word has been “actually” since I was five; as in, “Actually, I found the overall vibe at Bonnaroo this year to be sophomoric at best.” Or, “Actually, I’d rather go to Syria than Hulaween.” I mean, I’m writing this for VICE for fucks' sake. I know a music festival isn’t going to change the world.
But Pickathon, which takes place every August at the edge of a forest in Happy Valley, Oregon is more than a music festival. It’s what other music festivals claim to be — an experience. The lineup is always stacked and is as diverse as the stages — which is some statement considering the three stages Pickathon hosts are among the most unique I’ve seen. The food and beverage program all come from businesses a mere 15 minutes away in food-and-drink-obsessed Portland. These delectable vittles are enjoyed with reusable camping cups and plates since Pickathon, the greenest festival in North America, has been plastic-free since 2010.
The fact that you keep seeing the same 5000 attendees, artists, families and crew members mingling together creates a vibe where you’re smiling and nodding at strangers, high-fiving little kids and telling one of your favorite musicians you dug their set and can’t wait for the next one — because everyone plays two sets at the festival. Pickathon’s power to move not only its diverse customer base (which includes most types of music fan and quite a few families with children) but the people working, the volunteers, the press, even the artists is a truly unique thing.
Everyone on Pendarvis Farm shares the feeling that there’s nowhere they’d rather be in the moment and that’s a rare feeling anywhere. Hell, even an orgy populated entirely by supermodels has the one blindfolded guy fearfully playing piano in the corner.
Photo by Bridget Baker
When recounting our experiences after the festival, a friend laughed and said quite leadingly, “Yeah, but you had a different experience than most of us, huh?” And he’s right, I doubt a single other person had an experience even close to mine. But that’s the thing with Pickathon: none of us are on even close to the same trip, and yet the entire affair works as smoothly as Andre Benjamin in front of a microphone.
It’s the kind of place a stranger tells you she wept when your friends in Futurebirds played their version of “Wild Heart”—a song she’d never heard before—then chokes up a little more when you tell her an ex-girlfriend once sent you a love letter that consisted simply of the song’s lyrics written out in beautiful calligraphy.
It’s the kind of place where you—or um, I—stumble upon a woman with an accent not unlike Bjork’s and who is so beautiful and so charming you think she simply has to be Miss Denmark 2016 (I’m aware Bjork is from Iceland, Facebook commenter). But in actuality, the truth will be far, far greater. She will, in fact, be a well-read opera singer who does live in Denmark, but is far too intelligent to objectify herself in a beauty pageant. You might be so taken with said opera singer that your passion—combined with the dramatic setting of the Woods Stage and depending on how many IPAs your liver is filtering at that moment—will inspire you to ask her to marry you during Yo La Tengo’s breathtaking rendition of “Black Flowers” a mere 15 minutes after meeting her, and you will only be half kidding.
At any other music festival, this gets you at the very least laughed at and provides you a last lovely view of her flowing blonde locks as she walks away, disappearing into the ether of life from whence she came. At Pickathon however, you somehow end up spending the entire weekend together laughing, discussing politics and art while seeing music like you’re the coolest international couple since Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin.
If all this sounds a little too hippie for you, let me be the first to congratulate you on being punk as fuck and/or reading Nietzsche for the first time. And let me draw your attention to something Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner told me: ”Pickathon is not for the weak. But not in a macho way. It’s not for weak-minded or the coddled. It's for kids, psychonauts, fans, bands, locals, out-of-towners. It works because it's hopeful and it means it.”
It’s hard to think of a better description of Pickathon than “It works because it’s hopeful and it means it.”
I could keep going—believe me, I have the stories—but I thought it’d be cool to let some of the musicians playing this year’s festival extoll Pickathon’s many virtues instead of yet another writer handling the praise duties.
I will leave you with one thought: at one point I joyously jotted down a single statement in my notes that neither had, nor needed, an explanation when I saw it the Monday after the festival, “I feel like every girl I’ve ever liked just walked by and kissed me on the cheek.” To quote the philosopher Holden Caulfield, “I don’t know exactly what I mean by that, but I mean it.”
Photo by Bridget Baker
Noisey: What made the weekend unique for you?
Dan Deacon: I really like how many families were there. It seemed to be the most family-friendly festival I've ever been to. I think it's important that kids experience performance and music and art that isn't made just for kids.
What was something that set the tone here this weekend? Lots of people have been mentioning the kids like you did.
It was nice to not see any cops. I think that goes a long way. The absence of imposing authority figures creates an atmosphere of implied mutual respect.
Thee Oh Sees were my favorite act of the weekend. They just crushed it.
If anything super strange or random stood out about your time I’d love to hear it.
I'm just glad my player piano showed up and that it worked.
Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff
Photo by Caitlin Webb
Noisey: I’ve been asking everybody about the diversity of the fest and if that is something they feel or notice.
Alynda Lee Segarra: Yes, absolutely. And it’s great. It’s just a very progressive place overall, you know? And it doesn’t feel like pandering, like “Oh we need five female lead acts” or “we need some people of color.” It’s just… real.
Exactly. Nothing here is generic. And you asked about the vibe — these little kids running around everywhere having the time of their lives, it’s so great how respectful everyone is of them and their parents, and it’s returned in kind.
How can you not smile at that?
Jamil Rashad of Boulevards
Photo by Bridget Baker
Noisey: Does something from the weekend stand out in particular?
Jamil Rashad: Man, everything. The whole vibe here has me blown away. Well, I was expecting it in one sense because a bunch of my friends back in Brooklyn told me about how amazing everything was here. The DIIV dudes are friends and they couldn’t speak higher of the experience. Still, I was blown away. I grew up in the South and there is just no way you could have this chill of a scene with everyone so happy and relaxed for four days. Especially with the kids! [Laughs] People back home would freak out about them being here and there’s just no reason for that — these kids are going to be so cool! The vibe is just one that’s so respectful to everyone from the artists on stage to the kids running around to the people serving food. They’re having fun and partying or whatever, but they’re doing it like adults. Like you were saying, it’s an amazing representation of all the best things about Portland.
We were talking about race a bit earlier, but the lineup musically is also really diverse every year and I think is a huge draw. I’m usually know 90 percent of the bands on festival lineups and with Pickathon I’m always excited for the surprises they bring.
Definitely, definitely. Even beyond the race thing, most festivals are so generic, and here it’s a great mix of smaller bands on the way up, established acts and legends like King Sunny Adé. It’s obvious they care about music above all else, but it’s also obvious they really go for diversity and try to celebrate everything and everyone.
So people were going ape during your sets — it was seriously electric. It was great I had the same sort of feeling I had last year watching Leon Bridges, that you’re heading for some big things.
Wow man. Thank you so much, that’s awesome to hear.
Seeing a crowd instantly respond like they would if this was just your show—and I think this speaks to music IQ of the crowd here—that has to help everyone get into it.
Oh, absolutely. We were ready to get with it when we got here, but seeing everyone moving right away was crazy! At a normal festival half the people aren’t paying attention to or are even there for the music. Everyone here is about art and music and celebrating that, and it’s impossible not to feed off that from the stage — especially with our type of music, we’re always going to feed off of people smiling and dancing.
Shana Cleveland of La Luz
Photo by Bridget Baker
Noisey: What was the coolest thing this weekend: crazy stages, the sustainability, and act you caught...
Shana Cleveland: I can't believe I'm gonna say this but the sustainability vibe was totally awesome! I never would have thought it would be possible to have a festival that didn't generate a shit ton of trash. Sure, at times it was annoying to have to keep track of your cup all the time, but that's a small price to pay to keep 'merica beautiful.
What makes this festival something so many people connect so deeply with Pickathon? Everyone keeps telling me how different playing here is.
It was totally different playing at Pickathon than some of the more typical festivals we've played. That's actually something the Northwest does really well. There are a lot of festivals up here that are chill, bring-the-kids, hike-around-the-woods type of deals. There's Helsing Junction Sleepover outside of Olympia, Doe Bay Fest, Timber, that all take place in beautiful natural settings. I'm gonna sound like a hippy here, but I think the sustainability aspect of the festival has something to do with how cool the audiences are. If you have to think about being respectful of the earth maybe it makes you more conscious and respectful of people too.
To me one of Pickathon's main strengths is the diversity of it's booking. They do an exceptional job across lines of genre, sex, race, everything. Does that hold true with you?
Yeah, that's true, the lineup does seem really diverse. The audience is still like 95% white though.
Thao Nguyen of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down
Photo by Caitlin Webb
Noisey: What are the best parts of performing and coming here?
Thao Nguyen: I love the Galaxy Barn shows. We've played two late night sets in the Galaxy Barn and they stand as some of our favorite sets of all time. I don't know how it happens, but I think every band has the same experience in there — incredible energy, such love and warmth shown, so many packed in, sweating it out, everyone is so sweet. I don't crowd surf but if I did I would do it in there. I also really appreciate that everyone only gets one stainless steel cup for the entire time and the ensuing gravity with which everyone handles their vessel. People I wouldn't typically expect to do so are looking for tape and a sharpie to label their cup. Many thanks to Pickathon for being so conscious of unnecessary waste and consumption and setting the tone for us.
Are the shows here more intimate than your typical festival show?
Yes, definitely. I performed our main stage set more like I would one of our rock club shows, because the audience's attention and energy and support made me want to engage and give much more of myself, which is a bit different than a typical festival show where it is harder to conjure and sustain that energy on your own. I looked up and saw everyone looking back and listening and that is a fresh drink.
I didn't get to see much because we were only there for the day and it was a bit hectic but I am so glad I caught Ezra Furman and the Boy-Friends.
I’ve been asking people about the diversity of the lineup here. It seems like it’s another thing everyone notices. Both more female-lead acts and people of color.
Yes, I definitely have noticed and been duly heartened and impressed — I think that more expansive line-up only adds to the incredibly down-to-earth and warm atmosphere.
Did anything super strange happen while you were here?
By the time we played our 11:40 PM set in the Galaxy Barn, it was our third. We were all a bit loopy and we were line checking in front of the crowd and typically I like to keep it crisp and pro but it's such a warm environment and it felt like we were all friends. So to check my vocal mic I told everyone about the pet chicken I had when I was 5. Her name was Jennifer. She was eaten by a raccoon. It was a whole dialogue, it was great. Worked some stuff out. And not strange or random but very kind and in the spirit of Pickathon: thank you so much to Catalinbread for leaving a brand new fuzz pedal for me onstage!
Lawton Brown of The Woolen Men
Noisey: Is being one of the Portland bands playing the festival this year a source of pride?
Lawton Brown: Being one of three Portland bands selected to play the festival this year speaks as much to Pickathon's brains as it does to our local standing in town. Unlike most of the rest of the cultural world as long as a music scene is sufficiently alive, credibility still can't be bought.
Running through the woods with Abi, past a couple hundred very chill festival goers.
How would you compare the amazing audience vibe to other festivals?
Having never played a festival of this type or size before, I can’t speak to any others. But it felt good and real which is rare anywhere.
King Sunny Ade's short, ultra-traditionalist talking drum set. Psyched too on Protomartyr's drummer’s sideways beat style.
Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats
Photo by Caitlin Webb
Noisey: As a Portland band it's got to be cool to get to play this festival that everyone just raves and raves about — is that a point of pride for you guys?
Eric D. Johnson: Yeah, it makes me happy that such a great festival is right in my town. Portland is changing a lot at a rapid clip but Pickathon kind of feels like a very distilled, concentrated version of a lot of the good things about the Pacific Northwest.
What about your personal Pickathon experience stands out the most?
I think it's the very blurred lines between audience and band. It's the one festival where I feel pretty free and easy about going out and just being a fan. Beyond the fact that getting in and out of the backstage is easier than most of the TSA-style setups other joints have going, there are always discoveries to be made, discoveries that wouldn't be possible standing side-stage.
Part of the special vibe at Pickathon to me is the fact that the audience is comprised of people who truly love music and all the sets are well-attended by respectful people who are actually listening instead of just partying. And I think the artists feed off that and play something beyond a typical festival set. Any truth to that for you?
Yes! I don't even really know how to answer that as you more or less described it the way I would have myself. It is very easy to give back to an audience who is giving you their all as fans.
Noisey: What stood out for you locals?
Joseph: To be honest, it's the food. Ha! But really, Portland is home for us and that city really cares about food. So coming off the road where it's hard to find imaginative fresh eats, Pickathon feels like heaven. All the vendors are some of my favorite restaurants: Boke Bowl, Podnah's, Pine State Biscuits. And most importantly, good coffee and good beer. It's the only festival I've ever attended that understands the urgency of a dark hot cup of coffee in the morning.
I think I know the answer to this, but have you found it true that the crowds here bring a lot in terms of attention and respect to the artists? You’re Portland-based, so you would know.
Complete truth to that. I think it's true for a lot of reasons — partly because Portlanders are generally eager, warm, outdoorsy, artistic people. And also the fest itself makes you feel welcome. I usually feel like a plebeian at festivals, you know? Or like a herded cow. Even as an artist there's always someplace I shouldn't be walking because my wristband isn't the right color and somehow I end up get chastised by a security person which deepens my fear of breaking the rules. But Pickathon feels like your own living room, like you belong, and that leaves room for magic in the music.
Another thing everyone has been talking about is how the uniqueness and diversity of Pickathon really permeates everything they do.
Agreed! I think that's true of their stages as well. Typically that's the downside of festivals in my opinion — the atmosphere. It can be hard to really experience the music when you're sweating and dehydrated in a dusty field. But Pickathon has a shaded field area, a mystical tree-covered woods stage, and an enclosed space in a barn—which is my favorite—that feels like the best intimate clubs. Personally, I like listening to music in the dark.
We played on Sunday night just after Beach House on a smaller stage nearby and while we were setting up they were finishing their set. It was cinematic. Their sound just washes over you and takes you somewhere so I had one of those existential moments — the kind of moment you hope for when you see live music — where everything felt vibrant and alive and clear. You know what I mean. That was a highlight.
Most surprising thing?
I didn't get a sunburn!
Thomas Johnson of Futurebirds
Photo by Caitlin Webb
Noisey: So was bringing someone to tears during "Wild Heart" the highlight? That was fucking cool and made me pretty emotional to hear her so moved.
The woman crying was certainly amazing. The Woods Stage was probably the most outstanding thing for me. Between an uber-chill Yo La Tengo set and a raging Thee Oh Sees show, that place was easily the highlight for me. It felt like Carcosa and it was awesome. All the other stages were cool in their own way as well.
I’ve heard you guys talking about how blown away you are by the place in general. From an artist's standpoint, has the atmosphere been inspiring in a different way than other festivals?
Yeah I definitely think there's truth to that. There's just a real communal vibe about the fest: lots of the artists hang out for the weekend, and since the place is so small you see a lot of the same people over and over. They also space the sets out so that pretty much every show is packed, and all the bands are good or great. The bands feed off the energy of the crowd, and the festival does such a good job putting together an awesome bill that the audience/attendees are constantly engaged and never needs to distract themselves.
Yo La Tengo is one of my favorite bands, both of their sets were great. Wild Reeds is a new band we all really liked as well. Ty Segall was awesome as per usual. Had no idea what I was getting into for Thee Oh Sees, they blew my mind.
So have things gotten pretty weird out there?
I spent some time hanging out with the White Rhino, a wondrous soul who basically recalibrated the universe on Sunday night.
Yeah, that sounds about right.
Ripley Johnson of Moon Duo
Photo by Caitlin Webb
Noisey: What stands out the most from Pickathon for you?
For me it was definitely the vibe. It’s certainly the most laid-back festival I’ve been to in the US: no noticeable police presence, no crazy lines, no overcrowding. So people seemed genuinely relaxed and happy to be there. We stayed for the whole weekend, it was so much fun. And we camped!
The audience vibe is really second to none.
Yeah, the audiences were really enthusiastic and curious, but also respectful of each other. It helps to have kids running all around. The really nice thing is that the bands, the campers, the crew, the volunteers, are all mingling and hanging out together. I kept running into the same random people over the weekend, and there was just a great rapport between everyone. Reminded me a bit of the great ATP festivals of yore—with fewer drunken Brits.
Noisey: Favorite acts from the weekend?
A: King Sunny Adé blew me away; I didn’t even know he was playing. Such an amazing band. And when Margo Price played Waylon Jennings’s “Black Rose”, that kind of made my festival in just one song.
Any weird stories you'd like to share?
A: I’d just like to give a shout out the drunk couple having sex in the tent next to ours—you did it!—and the really drunk woman trying to play the banjo at 6AM on Monday morning.
And finally, The King of Pickathon, Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade
Photo by Bridget Baker
Noisey: Dan, bless us with your thoughts on Pickathon.
Dan Boeckner: Pickathon is building an alternate reality festival utopia where King Sunny Ade and Vhöl and Alvvays and Thee Oh Sees share the same temporal spaces: Ewok Village, seeping barn, demolished fire station. Blink once and it's rustic hippie. Look up in the trees and tens of thousands of dollars of camera gear silently glide by on wires. You and your equipment are hurtling through the pitch black forest on a golf cart. You have a metal cup in your hand that you must never lose. Your friends are gone for a while because your phone is dead but no... there they are, watching Dan Deacon beat the crap out of a player piano and create something called a "high five wall of death". Pickathon is not for the weak. But not in a macho way. It's just not for the weak minded or coddled. It's for kids, psychonauts, fans, bands, locals, out of towners. It works because it's hopeful and it means it. That's more than I can say for most artist/audience interfaces. Lines get erased and you're pretty much guaranteed to see something you haven't seen before.
What he said.
Donovan Farley is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter.