Tune in to Hollow Earth Radio, and your ears could happen upon anything from a squealing free-jazz saxophone solo to an interview with Pete Best, your favorite local surf band to a block of obscure Northwest hiphop, and everything in between. And I do mean everything. You can even call the voice-mail line and record your troubles, drunk dials, paranormal encounters, and public service announcements to be aired.
Founded by Garrett Kelly and Amber Kai Morgan in 2007, the online-only, free-form, nonprofit, all-volunteer-all-the-time operation's commitment to weird and wonderful sounds culminates every March with a month of weekend shows called Magma Festival. Offering hiphop, hardcore, garage, pop, experimental, punk, loud, quiet, young, old—it's a sonic buffet for every taste imaginable, and they never book the same band twice.
Six years of Magma has resulted in spectacular shows, appearances from hard-to-track-down outsider celebrities, insane dreams that came true, and the time that even cops surrounding the building could not stop the dance party. I interviewed Kelly about what makes Magma and how it's only getting more out-there.
When did Magma Festival start? What was the first one like?
The first Magma Festival was in 2008. At the time, Hollow Earth Radio had zero dollars, so we were looking for a way to have the radio station start paying for itself. We threw a bunch of benefit shows over the course of one month to cover the costs. We were incredibly overzealous. I think we had something like 15 shows every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and maybe a Sunday, too. It was crazy. We almost died. Magma is no longer a benefit or fundraiser, but we do collect donations at the door, and we'd love to give folks a nice little receipt for a tax write-off. A substantial amount of the money the radio station uses to get by—rent, web hosting, basic equipment, toilet paper—comes from donations at events.
What is Magma Festival trying to achieve?
We want to create a public forum for the people of Seattle to experience underrepresented sounds and perspectives. That's the mission we came up with in our first year as a radio station, and Magma Festival is trying to make that a physical reality. We dream really big and think about what crazy shit we would want to see that would never ever happen. And then we bug people to death until they relent.
How do the various bands get chosen to play?
We strive to select bands and performers that are really, really underground or making weird sonic stuff that we feel should be given more exposure. The festival is very personal—all of the bands, artists, and musicians are people we adore and we wish had more people listening to them. A good example is Marianne Nowottny—who is playing this year—who should be in the canon of underground music luminaries with people like R. Stevie Moore. She's really obscure and has been making incredibly singular and experimental music since she was a teenager in the 1990s.
In the course of our booking, we also keep diverse lineups in mind. We look to make sure people who are from underrepresented communities—people of color, people of all ages, women, queer-identified people, people with disabilities—are given a place in the lineup.
This year, Magma is offering everything from hiphop and hardcore to experimental and garage. Has it always been so eclectic?
To be honest, the first shows weren't as eclectic, but after being disappointed with other festivals that seem to book the same bands year after year (good festivals, even), we decided to enact a policy of never booking the same band twice. We take pride in these guidelines, because it means we have a better chance of not being cliquey while also forcing us to look outside of our own friend groups for different emerging or long-dormant acts.
Individual DJs and volunteers from within Hollow Earth book and host the shows, which explains the variety. Underground music spans many genres, and some are especially underrepresented because they don't fit into the mold of what's appropriate for the radio: too raw, too challenging, too weird. We celebrate that. For instance, we broadcast an entire 19-hour performance of Erik Satie's Vexations. It's just the same three-minute piece of music played 840 times. We're willing to go there.
How many volunteers are needed to run the festival?
During a given show, we will have 8 to 10 people volunteering—we need A LOT of help during Magma. Volunteering spans MCing to baking cookies, running the door to sound engineering, and more. If people want to come help out, this is a great time to start!
Is Magma predominantly about music, or are there other kinds of art or activities involved?
In the past, we've done art installations. At the very first Magma, we had an installation at Windows Gallery consisting of found objects (Amber and I have a huge personal collection of found art/objects, and we sought out other people with their own collections). We put it on the walls and let people read through disturbing letters and such. There were listening stations to hear found answering-machine tapes from thrift stores that had caught conversations. Totally wild stuff.
We tried to build a volcano one year and have it explode, but it was like the weakest explosion ever, so we haven't done it since. It ended up rotting in my front yard.
In 2011, we got a grant to curate an eight-episode radio documentary about the legacy of underground music in the Northwest. We called it the Sea-Port Beat and aired it that year throughout the month of Magma with in-person listening sessions at the station.
This year, we will be doing a teen radio play workshop every Saturday. If you know any teens, we are still looking for sign-ups!
Is the artwork different every year for the flyers? Which artists have participated in the past?
Yes, the artwork is different every year. We usually put out a teaser flyer, a flyer for each individual show, and an overall poster for the whole festival. The teaser flyer always reads "When's It Gonna Blow?"
This year, the teaser flyer that Shana Cleveland (from the band La Luz, who are also playing this year) made was just so good that we decided we didn't need a main poster. So we are breaking with tradition. In the past, we've had spectacular artwork from Christian Petersen, Shana Cleveland, Emory Liu, Shannon Perry, Ian Ferguson, Clyde Petersen, Dax Anderson, Aerick Duckhugger, and a ton more.
Tell me about some favorite, interesting, weird, or notable past Magma memories.
Light Rail/Dark Rail was a show on the light rail with like 20 musicians hopping on the train car at different stations from the International Street Station all the way to Sea-Tac and back. Something like 400 folks showed up, and the trains were just overwhelmed with people, marching bands, noise folks, women in giant beehive wigs singing, performance art.
Afterward, we had a show at Radar Hair and Records where musical collective Rob Walmart performed out of their ice-cream truck and Djin from the YaHoWha 13 (a psychedelic band made up of Source Family cult/commune members) played an improvised set with Seattle musicians.
For a grunge-inspired show, we reunited an early pre-Mudhoney improv band featuring Mark Arm and Steve Turner called the Thrown Ups. Leighton Beezer started the group in the '80s with the premise that the band never practiced and never had any songs. Also on that bill was this guy Human Skab, who put out a tape when he was 10 YEARS OLD back in the '80s. He was from Elma, Washington, and was championed by Bruce Pavitt back in the day. He got written about in Spin before all the other grungies, so he considers himself the original grunge band. At that same show, Al Larsen of Some Velvet Sidewalk also played and blew me away, and Tom Price of the U-Men and Gas Huffer played with his band.
It took me two or three years to track down Jan Terri and ask her if she would come out and play a show for a bunch of sweaty kids. AND IT REALLY HAPPENED. She played at the Black Lodge, and it was amazing. The space was packed and rocking all night—it was the most overall successful Magma show I've been to. Super-great feel-good vibes.
At the first Magma, we were having a dance party at Windows Gallery in Fremont, and this dance-punk band Huh-Uh were playing. All of a sudden, a man ran by outside followed by a bunch of cops with their guns drawn. The cops made us all go inside the venue and close the blinds—everyone got down on the ground as cop cars spread out all around the building. A helicopter flew overhead and shined lights through the window in the ceiling, the police car lights flashed—it felt even more like a disco. We were worried there would be an imminent shootout, but eventually we got restless and the band just kicked back in with all those lights and the manhunt still happening. We just kept partying with the whole scene going on outside.
More Magma memories from Hollow Earth volunteers:
Bobby Young: Every year I get blown away, but the best is always the Magma finale. Whether it's a band destroying a saxophone on a mic'd-up chain-link fence, or a band with packets of shaving cream and pasta attached to their bodies that explode during the set, or a couple of busker bands that you hear off in the distance walking toward the venue and then entering and starting an epic dance party... It's always a unique experience that I never forget.
Darren Hungerford: Polka Dot Dot Dot in 2011 at 20/20 Cycle was really exciting. The place was percolating with joy and excitement. The band hadn't performed together or even seen each other for months before their Magma show. I remember seeing them rehearse next door at Hollow Earth before the show, trying to cram as much practice in as possible before the performance.
Jared Harkness: Best Memory: getting sprayed with shaving cream by the Thrown Ups. Worst Memory: getting sprayed with shaving cream by the Thrown Ups.
Rich Jensen: The Grunge Oddities show at the Ballard Mine was very special. Human Skab, Al Larsen, the Thrown Ups.
Jonathan Cunningham: My favorite memory was last year's Central Sounds–curated Magma show at 20/20 Cycle with Katie Kate, Metal Chocolates, and White Rainbow. The place was packed, it was hiphop/DIY to the core, and lots of great people came out for the show.
Mark Anthoney: Last year's Magma had a lot of variety and some unique shows. I really enjoyed the show curated by Nonsequitur at the Chapel Performance Space. There was a cello, violin, and erhu improvisation of the national anthem. They tore the song apart! I didn't come to that show expecting to see something punk as fuck, and it was awesome.
How can a person get involved with Hollow Earth or Magma Festival?
It's SUPER EASY TO BE A PART OF IT. We want people to come make the radio station better, especially if they've got a show they want to do that fits our mission of "underrepresented sounds and perspectives." COME MAKE IT HAPPEN. Take over the space!
What does the future hold for Magma Fest?
We always have a stockpile of crazy ideas swirling around. I've always wanted to do a show that involves a big sleepover/dream journey. I also have a friend who did performances in Seattle in the '90s with special LED glasses and binaural recordings—200 people would come sit in an auditorium and be stimulated by light flashing on their eyelids and weird music. It could make you trip the fuck out! I would love to revive this one day. I would also love to see the anarchist-improv band Audio Letter play, or a Mr. Epp and the Calculations reunion. Sir Mix-A-Lot in the Dick's parking lot on Broadway. Or Dickless. Maybe a Magma Fest party featuring real magma from Mount Rainier. Or all of the above.
This is going to sound super-dramatic, but after the Thrown Ups, I literally felt this weird mind-body chemical crash. I've never done ecstasy, but I imagine it's the same feeling. I really couldn't imagine another show that would ever be better than that one. And then Jan Terri happened. And now Behead the Prophet and Marianne Nowottny and Harvey Sid Fisher are playing this year. Every year when I think we've outdone ourselves, something even crazier happens.