Debacle Fest 2013, Lo-Fi: Chicago avant-house-music producer Hieroglyphic Being is putting on one of the most mind-blowing displays of live electronic music I've ever witnessed.
His set's a combination of Sun Ra's astral-jazz improv and Conrad Schnitzler's mad-scientist analog-synth tonal vocabulary, all powered by oblongly funky rhythms. It's the climax of the festival, a holy-shit/WTF? experience that will resonate forever within everyone who's there... all 20 of us.
And that sums up the challenges that Debacle Fest organizers Sam Melancon and Rachel LeBlanc face as they prepare for the experimental-music event's seventh edition. Last year's Debacle was the biggest and best ever from an aesthetic standpoint, featuring several world-class national acts (Date Palms, John Wiese, Expo '70, etc.), with much of it happening at the pricey arts space FRED Wildlife Refuge. Melancon and LeBlanc went all out, in keeping with their goal to increase Debacle's reach every year. But attendance was disappointing, and it forced them to reassess things. Such was the bummer's magnitude, they even considered not doing Debacle this year. The duo thinks part of the problem is that the kind of people who like Debacle-esque music are mostly introverts and homebodies—people who'd rather "sit at home contemplating music while stoned," LeBlanc says.
Instead of folding, though, Debacle's brain trust shifted the focus to the Northwest's abundant talent pool. With crucial help from LeBlanc—whose experience working for Hollow Earth Radio, the Magma and Carousel festivals, and Big Freak Media has given her outstanding connections in the local scene—Debacle secured Lo-Fi, Black Lodge, and Victory Lounge as venues. Instead of going for four days and nights, Debacle is compressing to a Friday-night "Opening Ceremony" at Cairo and a Saturday explosion of 20-plus acts, augmented by an afternoon record-label fair featuring DJs Explorateur and Domenica. LeBlanc arranged for Napkin Friends food truck and Full Tilt Ice Cream to serve the three venues clustered at the corner of Republican Street and Eastlake Avenue East. Victory Lounge will also offer food specials.
Ever the booster of Seattle left-field music, Melancon says in an interview at event organizer/PR maven LeBlanc's Capitol Hill apartment, "It's going to be very novel, what we've come up with, especially on Saturday. You could read a little bit of spin in this: 'Hey, we're going to celebrate our locals!' But there is a bit of me being frustrated by the fact that we have these amazing locals nobody cares about."
Although tech-noise/ambient producer Black Hat (who's playing Saturday) lately has been getting national attention, other excellent locals like kosmische electronic trio Brain Fruit, free-jazz/voodoo-drum ensemble King Tears Bat Trip, husband-wife drone savants L.A. Lungs, and wife-husband space rockers Ecstatic Cosmic Union remain unjustly obscure. Debacle is a prime platform to expose overlooked artists who are making some of the best, most challenging work in the region.
Part of the new strategy involves, according to LeBlanc, being "over-the-top scrappy. We're going to scale back a bit, but how can we still make it a spectacle and not retreat with our tail between our legs? How can we make it ridiculous? Let's do it how other festivals do—with multiple stages at the same time and bands playing at the same time."
With all three venues on Saturday being adjacent to one another, patrons can roam with relative ease to catch the action. Sets will be about 25 to 30 minutes, and with enough cunning, you can see about half of the acts—for $10, dirt cheap in today's wallet-shocking festival realm.
Melancon notes that some frustration may arise from the seeming chaos, but insists, "It's full of options, so we've been using the phrase 'choose your own adventure.' We've been using the word 'clusterfuck.' I've used the words 'cutting contest.' We kind of want it to be a little intense and competitive in a weird way. If somebody says, 'Oh, crap, I missed this and everybody's talking about it,' that's an okay way for somebody to come away from a fest this size.
"We'll have programs at every door," he continues. "We'll be telling you at the door what bands are on, so you can make your path. I'm hoping there are accidents where you get stuck in a club and decide to check out something you didn't plan on and get your mind blown. There's a real mixture of go-to Seattle experimental bands and things you don't get to see normally. If we can emphasize anything, it's to be open to your path diverging from your plan."
Melancon is a great believer in taking experimental music out of the intimidating sphere of academia and fostering a more primal, communal feeling. "I'd love to stress that there's nothing scary about Debacle Fest. If anything, it's super welcoming and calm. If we could create this insane mass of people on the corner and this legendary weekend, I think that would heighten everything. The bands would bring it on this level we've never seen from Debacle bands before. For this to work, I want it almost to be hard to get away from the stage you're at. You have to swim upstream because you gotta get to another thing. Overload is a real big thing this year."