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The Interstellar-fication of Wakarusa

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“A Festival within a Festival” you say? At first glance, it sounds like a riddle wrapped in a helix wrapped in some cosmic Fibonacci reach-around of enigmatic trapezoidal proportions. Oh, the questions that this must pose…

But where does one festival start and the other one end? Do I have to camp in some far-off land for one festival while being completely removed from the other? Oh, the places we will go… Does the one festival dream about the other festival at night? Oh, the things that we will see…What if I want to be at one festival, but the other doesn’t approve? Oh, the things we will wonder… If the one festival falls in the woods, does the other festival hear it? Oh, the things that we will wanderDoes the one festival ever sneak over to the other festival in the middle of the night? Oh the questions...oh the questions that this will presuppose…

It’s going to be okay though people! I am here to tell you that there is only one festival. However, there are really two festivals…just wrapped in one. All.Happening.At.Once. I know, sh*t gets weird when you start mentioning festivals within the same sentence as festivals. There are two different names. Two different t-shirts. Two different posters. I mean, the universe could implode on itself at any given moment. Coke could become Pepsi for a day. Left could be the new Right. A cat could marry a dog. Your ass might trade places with your brain. A straight man could turn out to be a super, really hot transvestite. Or, just, maybe…a festival could be within a festival. Yes! I like where this is going. Now that we finally have that figured out (hopefully), I want to share with you the story of a certain festival of dance music electronica that has been taking place within a certain other festival (in case you weren’t aware) for almost half a dozen glossy calendars now. One of them calendars with pictures of cats marrying transvestites inside of it. But really now, in all seriousness, after great contemplation…off in a not-so-distant, but strange and gorgeous space, over on a Mountain called Mulberry, in a country called Ar-Kansas, there is a special little place that goes by the peculiarly engaging designation of one Waka-Waka-rusa. And nestled within the tender bosom of this fuzzy Fozzy bear is yet even another festival. One that may or may not exist in an alternate dimension of awe and fresh untz untz beats splendor. One filled with such fanciful delights as lasers, synthesizers, Science Breaks, wobble-bass, bass-heads, Floozies, hoopsters, glitter, Sound Tribes, screamers, ravers, belly dancers, dreamers and some guy named Minnesota who is really from California! (what a weirdo) And that’s just this year alone!

But lo and behold, this Interstellar Meltdown has been transfusing itself in and throughout Tony Waka-la-russa’s mind, body and soul-stream for soon to be six strong and deep. However, the beauty of this electronic thoroughfare is not just that it brings in a hypnotic hodge-podge of highly relevant and curve-setting dance-dance disco fever musique, but really the silky seamlessness of its presence within an already lively variation of talent from every musical walk of life. This is not some self-contained petting zoo that is off to one side of spectacle farce ("Oh look honey, there's 'trap' music over there...how nice"), but rather an elemental force that has been interweaving and etching its excellence all along the walls of a festival’s psyche for many moons now. Whether it be a 4 a.m. Main stage melee of Ghostland glori-fornication, a raging tent Revival of Papadosiac projections or a sunrise Satellite Emancipation, this Meltdown of Interstellar-ness has unwaveringly been laying its claim as the place to be within the place to be, while still having no intention of leaving anyone feeling left out. This year will be no exception when it comes to silencing any speculation where one festival ends and another begins. Being that acts such as STS9, Bassnectar and Infected Mushroom pulse in the same heartbeat as major headliners for “both” festivals. Further proving the strong cross-over appeal of Interstellar Meltdown and the fact that any notion of there being two different festivals, two distinct identities or two separate crowds is a misnomer that even our boy Fozzy bear would roll on the ground giggling over. Altogether, 40+ “EDM” acts will be layered coherently throughout this year’s stout line-up among all six stages. To shed further insight into this non-dichotomy, I sat down recently with Brett Mosiman, who is a certain director of an overall festival, to talk about how a Wakarusa became Interstellar…

MC: Thank you for taking some time to talk with me today. So when did Interstellar Meltdown officially start and what was the motivation behind incorporating it into the festival?

Brett: It started 6 years ago actually. Before then, we were having a lot of success at Wakarusa with DJ's like Bassnectar and sensed a growing interest in the electronic scene. So we branded it as “a Festival within a Festival.” We came up with the name “Interstellar Meltdown” and ever since we've had acts that were in the live electronica/EDM/DJ scene and it's been very well received.

MC: Was there anything in particular that tipped you off at the time in terms of sensing a sea change with the electronic scene coming on strong and finding a way to capitalize on it?

Brett: Beyond just Wakarusa, we were doing promoting in some clubs. And you could tell that the scene was really gaining steam with some avid patrons, if you will. We felt the wave coming on and kind of jumped in at a time that I consider to be fairly early. But certainly EDM has become a very strong segment of the music industry and some of the biggest talents of the last 3 or 4 years have come from there. Whether it's someone like Skrillex, Tiesto, Bassnectar or Pretty Lights. What is probably surprising people is how much staying power it has had. A lot of people thought it would only be a 2 or 3 year trend that would just fade away. But it seems that its staying power is very strong.

MC: What was your vision early on with this? Was it simply a way to attract a larger festival audience or was it more along the lines of creating a layer that would help put more of a stamp on Wakarusa's identity?

Brett: Well I think kind of both. Wakarusa is such an eclectic festival, that it was a way for us to market directly to the EDM fans. Forty DJ's might get lost in our 150+ artist line-up. But when we can do it on an Interstellar poster, it's pretty powerful! "Man, they have as good of a line-up as any EDM festival out there!" So that was part of it. And Wakarusa prides itself on being cutting edge and ahead of the curve as well. It is "Tomorrow's Stars are Today" kind of branding. So it all fit into that.

MC: I know that you take an active interest in finding those acts that are on the cusp of breaking through and make it a point to book them for Wakarusa. On the Interstellar side, do you also see an opportunity with that to find producers or acts that are on the verge and bring them into the fold?

Brett: Oh absolutely. I think that the track record kind of speaks for itself. We've had Bassnectar and Pretty Lights and Skrillex and Big Gigantic and on and on. We've had most of those guys at the very, very front end of their career and also had them back as headliners too. We are always looking for the young, hot acts whatever the genre may be. Whether it's R&B, Hip-hop or Reggae or EDM.

MC: Were there any producers or acts that were loyal or integral early on in helping you achieve a foothold with Interstellar? You know, to the point where you were starting to make some forward progress with that concept?

Brett: Lorin (Bassnectar) was very, very appreciative and has been really supportive of everything at Wakarusa through the years. He first played 8 years ago back when we were still in Lawrence. I think it might have been his first festival booking ever. With our history together, he has been someone that we’ve been really, really happy to see in terms of his development and how big he has become when it comes to selling out arenas. He's certainly one I would point to that has been very influential in bringing about Interstellar.

MC: Yes, and what a force he has become. Is there anyone else you could point to for helping broaden the Interstellar horizons?

Brett: I think the first year we were on the mountain we booked Pretty Lights and pretty much no one had really heard of him. And that set really ignited things too. That was where we knew we really had something special. The crowd was just going crazy and the buzz was huge. And recently in successive years we have had Skrillex and Big Gigantic. Some of the biggest pre-festival buzz for Wakarusa as a whole is "I can't wait to get to that set!"

MC: Last year, I spoke with Jamie Janover, who has performed at the festival in years past. He had this to say about Wakarusa/Interstellar Meltdown: “Wakarusa is one of the only festivals east of Colorado that encapsulates a lot of what is going on with the West Coast electronic scene. They put it into the context of jam, rock and pop. There is a smaller West coast electronic music festival embedded within a festival with more mainstream acts.” With that being said, what were some of the challenges involved early on with attracting producers and acts to a festival in Arkansas of all places?

Brett: We moved to Arkansas in our 6th year. So we were fairly well established and it wasn't that big of a challenge to get people to come to Arkansas. Once they saw the Mountain, they were sold. With Mulberry Mountain being such an unbelievable site, it is a huge calling card. But I do agree with Jamie though. When he says West Coast I believe he is describing Burning Man, Burner culture and some of the Bay Area scene. And I concur that we bring a lot of talent from the Bay Area and aspire to have art installations in the same vein as Burning Man. So there probably is a bit of that West Coast feel east of the Rockies with Wakarusa and Interstellar.

MC: And I noticed with this year that there is a nice showing of producers out of the Bay Area. Obviously you have Bassnectar as a headliner. But with regard to acts that are not as well known (Random Rab, Phutureprimitive and Thriftworks) there are some strong producers out of the San Francisco area that will be performing. Whether it is West Coast producers or any one of the many, many sub genres, do you go out of your way to have a healthy cross-section of electronic music?

Brett: We do. I think that we are trying to get more house, deep house and trap and not just have 40 bass or dubstep acts. I think there is a conscious effort to get different genres from within that scene and also bring in Canadian and European acts as well. So there's a conscious effort to bring in electronic acts from around the world and showcase them in the Midwest.

MC: Going back to more of the livetronica side of things. Whether it is with a band like STS9, The New Deal, EOTO or The Disco Biscuits, do you strive to have more livetronica acts to make things more seamless going from the non-electronic sets over to the DJ/Producers?

Brett: We have variety. There are different strokes for different folks. We have 6 stages that we have to populate nearly around the clock. If we have 60 straight-up DJ's there wouldn’t be enough cross-appeal. We try to mix it up between genres and styles and live vs. DJ. And give as broad of a spectrum as we possibly can. One of the things that has made Wakarusa so successful and why it has been around for over a decade is because we have had our finger on the pulse of music in this genre and this community. We have put together lineups that appeal to everybody.

MC: Speaking of cross-appeal, when it comes to the kind of acts that are booked for Interstellar, do you try to appeal to more of a cross-over fan? Or is it more unapologetically catered to those festival-goers who are already into that genre of music?

Brett: I think that the initial thought with Interstellar is that we would appeal more directly to the burgeoning EDM fan base. Then again, we still try to appeal to those who are not the “dyed-in-the-wool” EDM fans. Because there have been plenty of festival-goers that come to Wakarusa, experience some amazing EDM sets and are like, "Hey, this is pretty damn cool. I'm glad I gave it a shot!" So I think that it works on all levels.

MC: Even up to this day, have there been any models that you draw inspiration from for Interstellar that inform your decisions to some degree?

Brett: I'm unaware of something like this at any other festival. So I think that Interstellar is really unique. I think that from Day 1 we hoped that it would grow and attract and that it would become its own standalone festival. That's probably still the goal. That is something that has been in the back of our mind since Day 1.

MC: As far as Interstellar Meltdown being its own festival, do you feel like you are any closer to that actually happening?

Brett: Yeah, we have had discussions about it, so it's not unlikely.

MC: Would that component just go away completely or would there still be some sort of electronic presence at Wakarusa?

Brett: Yes. I think it is part of the fabric of what we do.

MC: I know you would probably agree that one of the calling cards of Wakarusa is for it to have that all-out party appeal to it, ala New Orleans style. That you could say that it is geared toward the "all night party people." Is Interstellar Meltdown at the heart of this?

Brett: I think I would describe Wakarusa as being more towards Mardi Gras in that it's a raucous party affair in comparison to Harvest Fest. I'd be careful to call it “all out party people” though. There are elements of EDM that are troublesome and unsightly and that frankly have to be constantly addressed. We provide an environment that is safe and still really diverse though. There might be 3 or 4 stages going on at 3 o'clock in the morning - and they're all packed. So I think that is really a cool thing. But it might not be for everybody that wants to go to bed at 11 either.

MC: Now, with that being said, I have to ask. And I will preface this with saying that your average seasoned festival-goer is well aware of certain not-so-savory or just downright very unfortunate things that can happen in a festival setting. Nowadays it has definitely reached more of a mainstream awareness. As you and I talk, the “elephant in the room” is the ever-increasing problem with EDM festivals and the unavoidable drug-related incidents that come with them. Granted, this is not exclusive to only EDM festivals or electronic music. Regardless, there are still those tragic stories that seem to accompany EDM-centric festivals. What steps does Wakarusa take to help avoid these kind of issues and ultimately just make the festival as safe of an environment as possible?

Brett: We spend a tremendous amount of energy and money trying to keep people safe. Trying to educate them. Trying to keep it a clean environment. It really boils down to personal responsibility. We do have a responsibility and obligation to do what we can and it starts with education. You know, take care of yourself, take care of your body, take care of your neighbors and be responsible. I think if people follow that, then there really won't be any more problems than previous decades or generations.

MC: And you talk about taking care of your neighbor, having that community atmosphere and having those values promoted at the festival. How else do you see Interstellar being an extension of the values that you wish to promote within your festival atmosphere or culture?

Brett: We see Wakarusa as being a four day island from civilization. You can wear your costumes and you can do what you want. You can be crazy and fun and funky. You get with your friends and you also make new friends. Again, like Burning Man, it is its own city, its own civilization and has its own rules for those four days. And paramount to all of that is the golden rule, which is that you treat everyone like you want to be treated. If everyone did that amongst countries or politics or whatever it would be a thousand times better world! And frankly those four days of Wakarusa for most are a much better world. They're looking out for each other. They are helping each other set up their tents and sharing their food. And if somebody has been in the sun for too long or whatever, they really take care of each other. It really is a wonderful and uplifting four days for everybody involved.

MC: Other than having a plethora of electronic and DJ sets, what are some intangibles that Interstellar brings to the table?

Brett: This year we've added an incredible increase in the art element and hired a new art director. We are bringing in artists from all over the country with various installations and interactive art. That is something that I really look forward to increasing in the coming years. And again, that really is a page out of Burning Man where we've offered grants to various artists to come do their thing. And year after year we will keep adding to it. It will be central to transforming the Mountain into that fantastical island for four days. So that's one. I think there is just nothing quite like the Mountain. And the Satellite stage in particular is just a magical space for 3 or 4,000 people to enjoy the very best the planet has to offer as far as dance music.

MC: Whether it's this year or moving forward, will having art installations and live painters be a highly integral element of Interstellar? Will those be features that largely contribute to Interstellar Meltdown’s identity and make it that much more of a special part of Wakarusa?

Brett: Yeah, it's a broad spectrum of art. There might be costume puppet stilt dancers and performance art or live painters or graphic artists. There are design artists who work with stretch fabric. And then there are lighting and laser artists. So we are bringing more of all of these each year in an effort to truly amp up the experience. The production values just get better and better each year. As we grow we can bring more of that to bear in that overall experience.

MC: Supporters of Interstellar Meltdown would say that it instills a "Festival within a Festival." That it creates variety and depth to the music. However, there might be some detractors that would say it lessens the overall sense of community because there are plenty of festival-goers, the die-hard EDM crowd specifically, that might come just for those acts and nothing else. And the same goes for those who are coming just for the rest of the festival and want nothing at all to do with Interstellar Meltdown. So perhaps that could be pulling against the community thread in some way. Because essentially one could see it as being two separate draws rather than one being an extension of the other. For people who believe that, what are your thoughts?

Brett: Ohhh, I think it's a pretty soft argument that not a lot of people make. But, it does take place on our forum occasionally. "I hate dubstep, I hate DJ's...."(laughs) Or "I only like dubstep and DJ's." And you know, the basic response is, "Hey, we have 200 sets of music with 6 stages going on.” You don't have to go see Reggae if you don't like it. You don't have to go see any DJ's if you don't like it. Most festivals have 2 stages and 30 acts and they are a fine festival. We are just more like South by Southwest where there are 50 to 60 sets a day on 6 stages. And so if you happen to have an aversion to some style of music, you can still have a phenomenal time without being exposed to that.

MC: Not to beat this horse, but there are quite a few festival-goers that spend a large majority of their time down at the Satellite Stage or are generally removed from the rest of the festival. Do you ever hear any feedback about how that might be taking away from the overall community vibe or atmosphere of the festival? Or do you feel like it is still pretty strong?

Brett: Oh, not at all. I think that diversity is a great thing. This is a crowd that embraces diversity. We have EDM music on almost every stage maybe except for one. And so most stages have a nice mix of music. So with the Interstellar crowd, if they are really fervent, they are still moving around the site to the various stages as are the people that may or may not like it. I just think it enhances the whole experience and the extra diversity is welcomed by almost everybody.

MC: In terms of this year, who are you most excited about that is on the bill?

Brett: Well, Bassnectar is coming back for the fourth time, but with his biggest show ever. Infected Mushroom has a giiiiant show as well. Then you have The Floozies, who are going to have their biggest show ever. There are the staples like STS9, who will be playing 2 sets. And you also have staples like EOTO, who will have a big Sunday night show like they always do. Rusko will be performing for the first time on the Mountain. So there is clearly a lot of really cool stuff on the bill that gets the juices flowing.

MC: Here is another “elephant in the room” of sorts that I feel the need to bring up during our conversation. Last year Wakarusa was inundated with torrential thunderstorms. It very quickly was being regarded with terms like “Swamparusa” and such due to the midway, tent stage area and campgrounds being hit with what could be described as relatively minor flooding. With regard to planning for the weather, what kind of steps are you taking in the event that adverse conditions come about again?

Brett: It's hard to imagine much worse weather than last year, but we are fortifying roads and creating a lot more drainage. Working with seeding and all kinds of things to help with drainage. And so that's a big one for sure. In general, last year I know that some of the folks were mad when we lost sets. But again, nothing can be more important to us than our safety. We spend a lot of money on the most accurate, targeted weather information on the planet. When they tell us in 30 minutes that there is going to be 50 mph straight-line winds, we have to evacuate to keep people safe. And sometimes they don't see that. Sometimes it's sunny skies when we get that. And people might be grumbling when they have to get back to their car and then the sky opens up. Just know that we are doing everything we can to keep people safe first and foremost and make sure the show goes on afterwards.

MC: At the end of the festival, when you sit back and evaluate everything, what is going to define success for you this year?

Brett: In general, we think of ourselves as Willy Wonka and we want people to have fun and have the experience of a lifetime. To come away saying, "That was maybe the best four days of my life. I can't quite put my finger on it. I didn't get much sleep. I probably didn't eat right, but I wouldn't trade that four days for anything!” It's being at the shows and watching people dance. It's watching people smile or high five or hug or have their group photos. It's the feedback on Facebook of "Oh my, that changed my life!" You know, that really is why we do it. And that's where we get our satisfaction and will to do it again and again.

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The Wakarusa Music Festival will be held June 5-8 up on Mulberry Mountain just outside of Ozark, Arkansas. To purchase a pass to this year's festival, please visit the Wakarusa website for more details. Also, be sure to check out the schedule for the entire festival and the Interstellar Meltdown page for more info as well. See you up on the Mountain!

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To read more stories about music festivals, the Tulsa music scene and the surrounding area, please subscribe to my work on this site. Your support is greatly appreciated.

- Matthew Cremer

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