If you follow festivals, the story of Wakarusa may be nothing new. For those that dont, here’s the quick version. Started in 2004 by a rowdy bunch of Kansas promoters, Wakarusa (then in Lawrence, KS) spent the better part of the last decade becoming the nation’s premier mid-sized music and camping festival. In 2008, however, the officials in Lawrence decided they had had enough of the hippies running amok in their pristine Clinton State Park, and so, even after ponying up loads of cash, Wakarusa was kicked out. As it turned out, fate had other plans for the small event. After an extensive search for a new home, the organizers went with the beautiful Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, AR (already home to the Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival) and Waka got its happily-ever-after.
By all accounts, last year’s event was perfect. The fans couldnt get over the new location, and neither could the organizers, and so much so that theyre back for another year on the mountain top farm. In a time thats seeing many of the mid level festivals go under, Waka has held on to its niche, and through perseverance has positioned itself on top. The line-ups are becoming more diverse with jam, bluegrass, and country during the day, and an all night electro blow out featuring the nation’s top button pushers and DJs.
Now that organizers have settled down, theyve got some big plans for 2010. I had a chance to talk to one of the festival’s co-founders, Brett Mosiman. The two of us digressed on his festivals plans, starting over, and that Interstellar Meltdown he’s trademarked. By the sound of things, sleep wont be happening this year.
Tell me a little about the history of Wakarusa, how did it start?
How did it come to start? It was four buddies sitting around having a beer in the middle of winter thinking it would be a good idea to start a music and camping festival, so we launched it about seven years ago.
Did you think then that it would be where it is today?
Well, were certainly happy that we survived. It did experience really rapid growth early on, and we knew wed hit a nerve pretty early on because we ran into some issues with our beloved state officials, but we feel like weve been given a second lease on life down in Arkansas, and were really looking forward to the future.
Concerning what Kansas, from your point of view, what happened?
There were just some bigots here that didnt believe in treating everybody equally, so we moved on.
In hindsight, with the move to Arkansas going so well, do you think what happened was a blessing in disguise or is it still too fresh to make that call?
Well, its just not worth looking back on. Its our future now, and were tickled to be where were at, and we do feel extremely lucky that it all came about as it did.
So how did you guys end up choosing Mulberry Mountain as a location?
I got a phone call from a vendor about a year and a few months ago. He had been following our trivials online and said you should check this place out. I was familiar with the event they were holding there, but I never thought of it as an option for us. So we went down, checked it out and immediately fell in love with the facility and region, its just beautiful, and a very, very unique facility.
How was it to move the festival and adapt to Mulberry Mountain?
We though everything went pretty darn well for a first year event and from out of state. It wasnt a very stiff learning curve, we didnt feel like, and I think well make improvements this year with out a doubt. Not a lot that people will recognize them probably because it did go really well.
For those reasons then, do you see the festival in a better place than it was?
Yeah, there are lots of positives going forward. We have private land, a higher capacity, and a better lease structure. Were in a much stronger position going forward, and the future for Wakarusa looks very bright.
Now in terms of the line up, you guys have gone back to the early days with a focus on jam-oriented bands, leaving out a lot of the mainstream acts from before, is this something you guys are going to be sticking with or, will you bring back some of the mainstream?
I think its a pretty diverse lineup, and Wakarusas always been known for that. Out of the 100 bands, we expanded a lot on the electronic scene, and that will be another strong theme. One of the things we recognized right away was, as great as our location is, its very remote, and getting a lot of single day people out for something thats completely out of stride with what we have been musically is not really going to be a reality. Probably a few less of the Ben Folds and Flaming Lips of the world because we wont do any single day things, but itll still be an amazingly diverse line up of over 100 bands and six stages this year.
Six stages, wow. Could you elaborate a little more on that, how will the other two stages fit in?
This year were adding a couple of stages. One will be an early day coffee house stage with singer-songwriters. Its a really expanding genre with incredible singer songwriters out there, and I think things like MySpace have really re-launched the whole genre of troubadours, and its an awesome genre. Then, since we were so packed at the electronic stage last year, were adding another electronic stage, and even extending the hours of both so well have music 24/7, so there wont ever be a time when theres not music.
Where will those be situated on the site?
Theyll be more or less on the south side of the mountain, so theyll be away. Like one of the electronic stages is going to go until seven or eight in the morning, and were going to have some amazing sunrise sets with some of the biggest names in electronic music. The singer-songwriter coffee house stage will be mostly in the mornings. You can wake up early, go for a bike ride, or a hike, or a jog, or swim, and then maybe have a coffee and start your day with some killer singer-song writers.
Where did the idea to expand on the electronic side of music and to make it a big staple of the festival come from?
Well, I have a club and a promotion company, and you can just see those types of act resonating with the kids. Its been a theme thats been coming on strong for several years now. Certainly the success of bands like Disco Biscuits and Sound Tribe and Lotus have been carrying it from that side, and then Bassnector and stuff on the DJ side, its become really popular with the kids, and it was pretty much a no brainer to include it in the festival. The idea of having more of a dedicated space for this I think was unique. Seeing Sonic Bloom out in Colorado and things like that, and saying, lets do a festival with in a festival. Maybe you dont give a darn about Yonder Mountain or Split Lip Rayfield, but would love to see The Egg and 20/20 Sound System, and EOTO, you know, you can definitely do that.
Will there be any DJs or musicians like that expanding to the main stage or Revival Tent, or will they be sticking to the two tents you have set up?
Same as last year, there will be electronic acts at all of the stages. With out giving away any of the line up, certainly some of the bands are just bigger than the two electronic stages.
Going back to the old site, in 2008, how was it handling the tornadoes and all the weather? How was that year for you?
Well it sucked, and same as with the campers, batten down the hatches. I do believe that we have one of the very best crews in all of the festival business, and we got the early warning from our spotters in weather and law enforcement, and I believe our site was completely torn down and evacuated. There were no tables and chairs to blow around, they were all on the ground, and that took about 40 minutes — it was pretty Herculean. Afterward, most of it was back up with in a couple of hours. It was good communication and planning, and a great staff and crew to work with.
Anther big problem you had to deal with there was the security issues, how did you guys fix that with the new site?
It was an issue where we just didnt have any control, which is unusual since we were paying all the bills. It was something that was never necessary and was always blown out of proportion, and so it kind of took care of itself with the move. We have a very safe environment, and a very fun and festive environment, and it certainly was no issue last year.
And great weather too, if I do say so.
Yeah, cant guarantee that, but the folks that come out are a very hearty breed, and they can handle a little rain here and there. Luckily up here in the mountains in the national forest you just dont get very many tornadoes, so thats a good thing too.
Yeah, great mellow days, and cool nights
How great is that where it can be 90 degrees during the day and you can get a great tan on, and at night you still need a sweatshirt. I just love it.
So does that mean Mulberry Mountain is the new permanent home for Wakarusa?
Absolutely, I hope that we can stay there forever and ever!
So what kind of things are you looking forward to for Wakarusa in the new decade?
We really feel like were at year two all over again. Weve gone full cycle with some of our issues. The numbers were great in the move. A lot of people had the wait and see attitude, but you could just see around the lot last year that people were texting, emailing, and Facebook-ing their friends like, Oh man, you should have come! So I think were going to experience really good growth, and thats a great thing in this economy.
Weve always been one of the most diverse lineups, but you know, weve been one of the very best values. When you really put it into perspective, you get a four day world class vacation on top of a mountain with 120 bands for a little more or less than one night of a hotel room in Chicago or St. Louis, its just unheard of value. If you get your tickets early, its about a buck a set, which again, is an unheard of value. Its really catching on with the kids that theres not much of a better way to spend four days, on a mountain with a bunch of friends, relaxing, getting unplugged, away from everything, back to nature, and really connecting with people and nature and music. Its a very liberating weekend, its got a magic effect on your soul.