Seaprog 2015—the only Seattle-based festival dedicated to progressive rock—is gearing up for its third annual edition August 7-9 at the Royal Room and Columbia City Theater. Organized by veteran guitarist/composer Dennis Rea (Moraine, Tempered Steel, and many other projects), Seaprog is a musician-run event that, despite its nonprofit status, faces the crucial challenge of attracting enough attendees in order to break even. If it fails to do so, Seaprog will likely not happen next year—at least not in its current ambitious format. Seattle's entrenched, traditional antipathy toward prog rock has lent a quixotic tenor to Rea's festival, which this year will feature Nik Turner & Flame Tree, Magick Pagoda, Upwell, Debora Petrina, MoeTar, and eight other acts.
Prog rock traditionally has received little respect and attention from mainstream music media and much indifference or scorn from the general public. (As someone who was part of a collective that put on prog-oriented DJ nights at the defunct Living Room Bar, I've experienced firsthand this widespread apathy toward it.) At its best, though, prog has produces some of the most profound expressions of creativity and beauty within rock's long history. At its best, it is rock with a PhD, fired by a daredevil urge to innovate, high on magic mushrooms, infatuated with avant-garde and classical composition, and inspired by the literature of Tolkien and Lovecraft. A working musician since the early '70s, Rea has been fighting to make this music better known through his work as a co-director with the Seattle Improvised Music Festival and Zero-G Concert Series, and, of course, Seaprog. Below, I interview him about the latter subject, about which he has much to say.
There's been talk that if Seaprog doesn’t draw well this year there won't be a next year. Is this true? Whatever the case, what qualifies as “doing well” for Seaprog?
Dennis Rea: As the wag said, "Rumors of Seaprog's death have been greatly exaggerated." But yes, it is true that, even as a not-for-profit venture, the festival needs to at least break even in order to be viable, and we have yet to reach that threshold. In an act of fiscal hara-kiri, the three volunteer Seaprog organizers (John Reagan, Jon Davis, and myself) finance the festival out of pocket to eliminate any corporate taint. Thus far we haven't explored nonprofit funding sources due to a hesitancy to take on yet another full-time job (grant hustling) and a well-founded perception that a handful of "made men" typically monopolize those sources in this city.
Hopefully, the inclusion this year of our most prominent headliner to date (Nik Turner with special guests) will help us turn the corner. We're not shooting for the moon—a turnout of roughly 250 on the Saturday and Sunday would put us close to our goal.
Until now, we've adopted the model used by some of the more prominent progressive-rock festivals back East, that is, an emphasis on selling package tickets to the full event. Even though our package prices are considerably lower than those festivals' and a fantastic value considering the number and quality of acts, Seattle audiences have proven curiously resistant to the concept, forcing us to offer much-discounted single-day and single-event admissions, as well. This runs counter to our philosophy that a festival is by its nature a community happening rather than a succession of individual acts. In that sense, going to see just your favorite band violates the spirit of a festival, which is all about mutual support—otherwise there's no point in staging a festival at all.
What do you think are the main obstacles to getting people interested in checking out progressive music? And what are the most effective ways to persuade them to explore it? Do you think the genre is plagued by misconceptions?
Even more than in most cities, Seattle listeners are notoriously hostile to progressive rock, or what they understand to be progressive rock. It's ironic how some otherwise open-minded people here malign intelligent music in much the same way that red-state denizens celebrate their own ignorance. And it's doubly ironic that some of the world's most revered prog-rock bands (King Crimson, Yes, Soft Machine, Hawkwind, Tangerine Dream, Faust) have included an impressive number of Seattle musicians in their lineups and extended families.
That said, there are valid reasons why so-called "prog" has alienated most nonspecialist listeners. There's a justifiable wariness of a musical technocracy that often values feats of athletic prowess and complexity for its own sake over emotional directness and depth. But I'd argue that the more technocratic sort of prog represents just one branch of a multiverse of adventurous, questing music that arose from psychedelia. Other branches led to some of the most interesting, original, and well-played music on the planet, and it's these strains that Seaprog exists to showcase. While certain notorious offenders who won't be named here tarnished the entire genre with their Wagnerian grandiosity around 1974, there has always been a vigorous "third stream" of truly adventurous progressive rock thriving in the shadows from the '60s onward.
Many people are rightfully excited about Nik Turner & Flame Tree’s set on Sunday, but tell us about some of the other lesser-known acts on the bill and why you booked them.
We're especially proud that this year's Seaprog lineup presents arguably the most gender-balanced roster of any progressive-rock festival we've seen, in a genre that's often viewed as male-dominated. As a corrective to that perception, the majority of this year's acts are either fronted by or heavily feature some truly ear-opening female musicians.
Coming all the way from her native Italy is vocalist, keyboardist, and composer Debora Petrina, who'll be joined by her duo partner Mirko Di Cataldo on guitar and percussion. Debora has been turning heads lately with her oblique and sensual songwriting framed by avant-garde jazz-rock and electronics. In a career spanning the worlds of modern classical music and art rock, she has collaborated with artists ranging from Elliott Sharp to Seattle's Jherek Bischoff, and has drawn praise from the likes of David Byrne and Terry Riley. She can even claim the unusual distinction of sharing co-composer credit on works by John Cage and Morton Feldman.
Joining us this year from Oakland, California, are the arresting and truly unclassifiable MoeTar, our Saturday headliners. Fronted by vocalist Moorea Dickason, MoeTar subverts pop-music conventions by blending sophisticated hooks with advanced musicianship, daring arrangements, and socially conscious themes.
A perfect metaphor for the volcanic forces underlying the Pacific Northwest is Upwell, a Seattle band operating in the nether realms where heavy rock, raw emotion, blazing virtuosity, and artistic ambition meet. Described by producer Jack Endino as "one of the most terrifyingly great bands I have ever known out of Seattle," Upwell combine brawn and brains in a bracing juggernaut of foreboding sounds, centered on the powerful voice of Michelle Pavkovich.
Also doing our region proud in this year's Seaprog are General Mojo's, Pink Octopus, Panther Attack, Simon Henneman's Northern Cantrips, Isthmusia from Kingston, Washington, and Autumn Electric member Johnny Unicorn and His Jam Unit—a cross-section of Northwest innovators whose diversity illustrates just how far progressive rock has evolved since its origins in the '60s and '70s, suggesting intriguing avenues for future development. And as always, we'll also be presenting a range of exemplary smaller acts in the front bar of the theater between mainstage acts.
What else is on your agenda for 2015?
I piled up too many concurrent projects this spring and summer and want nothing more right now than a good rest in the mountains. But a few notable releases are on the near horizon, including
Nik Turner & Flame Tree on Cleopatra Records, the reissue of Savant's landmark early '80s Seattle experimental records on RVNG Intl, and the eventual release on MoonJune Records of the debut album by Seattle composer/musician Jon Davis's Zhongyu, which I co-produced and am very excited about. I'll also be participating in a reimagining of the late Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival.