THE FESTIVAL FOUNDER DISCUSSES A MUSICAL EXPERIENCE YOU WON’T SOON FORGET
When Zale Schoenborn talks about Pickathon, his passion is palpable, his excitement contagious. If you didn’t already think this annual music fest sounded like a blast before speaking with him, chances are you’ll be bee-lining to get your ticket the second you and Zale end your conversation. Just spend a few minutes perusing colorful photos of festivals past or watching enticing video clips that emanate the crowd’s energy; it becomes immediately clear that there is something special about this “innovative music experience” that takes place in the Oregon woods.
FESTIVAL HISTORY Schoenborn, a mandolin player himself, helped launch the event 15 years ago, in what began as a small gathering of less than 100 music lovers representing all genres. Their simple goal? “How do we get the most amazing music we can in one spot,” explains Schoenborn. Since then, the festival has experienced a “slow growth.” “It’s been an experiment 15 years in the making,” jokes Schoenborn. Yet since the start, festival organizers have prioritized aesthetics, quality and sustainability, and a strong community of musicians has remained the heart and soul of the event.
THE SETTING This year, the fifteenth annual Pickathon takes place Friday, August 2, through Sunday, August 4, at the beautiful Pendarvis Farm just outside Portland. Since year eight, the festival has taken place on this stretch of land, and Schoenborn calls the venue’s proprietors “perfect soulmates for what we’re doing.” Pickathon organizers pride themselves on “focusing constantly on eliminating ‘normal’ festival hassles” and making it as pleasant an experience as possible for everyone involved—from young families to the performing artists themselves. (For example, families can bring in kids under 12 for free, and, even after putting kids to bed, parents can continue to enjoy music from their campground, thanks to Pickathon Radio’s broadcasts from the Mountain View and Fir Meadows stages on 90.1 FM.)
Schoenborn discusses the importance of elements like water, food, shade and comfort. “You can have the best music, but blow it if the experience is not superb,” he says. “It can make a good time feel icky.” He continues, “All these little things add up to deepen the experience each year, to make the festival stronger.”
THE SCENE From the beginning, the team has used a very “Seattle-Portland-Northwest” approach to the festival; they incorporate “craft everything” (food, beer, cider, liquor), keeping costs down while supporting local vendors at the same time. The festival also prides itself on producing no trash, no plastic, not even any biodegradable dishware. Instead, visitors either BYO dishware or stick to a token system that allows for the cleaning of dishes after each meal (visitors then take the dishware home with them at the end of the fest).
THE MUSIC Unlike many festivals that remain factional and stick to only one musical genre, Pickathon aims to provide “the most amazing music, regardless of the draw.” “It seemed insane for three days to only feature one style,” explains Schoenborn. “We’ve created a curated trust approach. Attendees may know as little as twenty percent of the bands, but that has been part of the vibe. They have to have total faith that that’s okay.”
This year’s lineup includes a vast range of incredible talents like Andrew Bird, Feist, Sharon Van Etten, Devil Makes Three, Shabazz Palaces, Vieux Farka Touré, Tift Merritt, Dale Watson, Shakey Graves, The Cactus Blossoms and Leo Rondeau, to name only a sampling. Not many artists return from year to year; in an attempt to “be fair” and rotate in as many musicians as possible, organizers feel strongly about bringing in talents who’ve released a new record in the recent past. Every year, they ask themselves: “What would make this year more amazing?” “We want to keep challenging ourselves and even the hardest-core music lovers,” says Schoenborn.
THE “WOW” FACTOR When it comes to the festival’s unique aesthetics, Schoenborn says it’s hard to explain “just how sophisticated the artistic teams are….It’s like putting together a museum collection.” Rather than generic stages you might experience at other festivals (square boxes with black curtains), attendees find six stages that Schoenborn describes as being a “musical fantasy ride.” For example, a crew of 15 works for three solid weeks to produce the ginormous, outdoors stages that provide plenty of shade. These stage sets boast impressive design stats like zero horizontal trusts, custom lighting, 12 miles of ropes and enough fabric to cover five or six football fields. “We don’t want a generic circus tent,” says Schoenberg. Then there is the Wood Stage, designed by local sustainability expert Mark Lakeman, and the Galaxy Barn that features a dance hall-club vibe. The Workshop Barn, where the Decemberists recorded their last number-one album, appeals to more intimate, acoustic sets.
THE PROCESS Each fall, Pickathon staff members compile a massive list of 1,000-plus band ideas for the next festival. They then convene regularly in a “Northwest-style meeting” (think sitting around a table with beer, rain falling gently outside), while they whittle down the roster during “great, fun debates.” Schoenborn admits that he regularly questions how they can possibly duplicate the awesomeness of the previous year’s fest. He comments, “There is so much amazing music out there, though, that I feel super duper confident we can keep the music and energy going.”
Something tells us that Schoenborn needn’t worry about the continued success of this beloved Northwest tradition. He concludes, “You have to believe, to be open, to tap the strongest talents. You have to be focused on the right things. Sure, the festival needs to be financially-sustainable, but that doesn’t need to be the fuel or juice to get to the amazing part….It’s enough to have people commit to doing their best work.”