Imagine a music festival with attentive attendees instead of the usual flower-crown, selfie-taking masses, a sprawling extravaganza in a Gilded Age-era factory that’s free of #brands hawking products and features art stripped of artifice, well-curated (and unprecedented) collaborations and even real bathrooms in lieu of Port-a-Potties.
While it might seem only a product of dreams, this idyllic festival does exist—nestled in the charming, storied town of Hudson, New York.
Now in its fourth installment, the Basilica SoundScape festival is the brainchild of three music industry lifers: Melissa Auf Der Maur, former bassist for throttling punk legends Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins; Brandon Stosuy, the director of editorial operations at Pitchfork and a show organizer for MoMA’s PS1 (among others); and Brian DeRan, owner of Leg Up! Management and Baltimore mainstay venue Ottobar. The veteran performers of Basilica are equally as impressive, and include downtown New York renegade Richard Hell (Television, the Voidoids) and the assailing noise pioneers Swans.
In 2009, Montreal native Auf Der Maur and her husband Tony Stone bought the Basilica, a cavernous place that been a forge and foundry for steel railways and was once a glue factory. Now, it’s the festival’s venue space when not serving as an alternative lower school and a flea market during the rest of the time it’s open, from April to Thanksgiving. It sits alongside the Hudson River, underneath a starry sky and chilly tendrils descending from the Catskills. “You walk into this town and the streets are talking to you,” Auf Der Maur says. It’s fitting for such a place to conjure its own strange magic, opening up a space where unlikely collaborations happen; and a regular, dedicated crowd of students, metalheads, weirdos, punks, chancers, audiophiles, gearheads and curious minds returns year after year to share these clandestine moments.
Resident expert curators Stosuy and DeRan helm much of the festival’s booking, which centers on musical acts but is open to everything, anything. The festival has, in the past, featured performance art, poetry, visual art installations by the likes of Harmony Korine and Dan Colen and compelling short films. For the 2015 Basilica SoundScape, which took place the weekend of September 11, the organizers pulled together a diverse bill of burgeoning stars for a series of heavyweight performances. The stacked lineup featured Los Angeles noise pummelers HEALTH, the wrenching pop stylings of Perfume Genius in a stripped-down solo set, the avant-garde Jenny Hval, a riveting sitar and tabla performance by Indrajit Banerjee and Gourisankar, and the warbling electronic musings of Bjork collaborator and dynamo The Haxan Cloak. With its vaulted ceiling and reverential reception from its audience down in the (pul)pit, Basilica resembles a sort of industrial church for goths.
Unlike just about every other music festival, Basilica isn’t interested in showcasing artists hyped by blogs, and isn’t even concerned about its image, as DeRan puts it. “We don’t have to worry about being cool, because we’re not. We’re two hours from cool,” he says, referencing Hudson’s time of travel from New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. “If we were down in the city, a lot of brands would be jumping to work with us.” Stosuy corroborates this, saying that it’s much more important for the bands to fit together in the space than to try to snag a hip up-and-comer to play Basilica. “Instead of having a ‘here are the bands having a moment right now,’ here’s bands that work together,” he says. “And we definitely do think about how things work in the space and sound in the space.” The idea is that attendees don’t have to rush off and try to catch great acts whose sets overlap, as during most festivals. Instead, they can drift through the various rooms of the Basilica, as one might through a gargantuan haunted house intact in its rustic glory.
Occurring every September since 2011, Basilica Soundscape both rounds out the end of the summer music festival boom and manages to stand alone as a singular entity that sells out faster with each passing year, and yet manages to stick to its grassroots, proudly operating without corporate sponsorship. In the past, Basilica SoundScape been called the music festival for people who hate music festivals; music writer summer camp; and an anti-festival. But let’s not detract from recognizing SoundScape for what it actually is: the ideal model for a festival.
For one, artists are drawn to both the space and the experimental spirit of the festival, and go out of their way to perform here either as one-offs or during tours. “We used to look at places like this, and we knew that you would sound huge,” Jake Duzsik, vocalist and guitarist of the band HEALTH, tells me as we share a beer outside the Basilica on the first night. “We found out about it when we got asked to play, and then I just started checking into it. It just seems curatorially to be a very tasteful, kind of metered, reserved nice festival. So we were pretty excited about it.” His bandmate John Famiglietti nods emphatically and chimes in: “And with the bathroom thing? I couldn’t wait to take a shit. I’ve already taken two shits since I’ve been here.”
Advertising for the festival has been appropriately minimal, with the organizers relying on word of mouth and a bit of social media buzz. And it’s working. That’s how Norwegian artist Jenny Hval, who delivered one of 2015’s most gripping musical performances, found out about Basilica. “I heard about the festival a couple of years ago because there was talk of, someone told me about how good it would have been if I played there,” she says over a green tea directly after her performance. “People are dedicated, and they stay, and it’s wonderful to see the full duration of a performance. That’s something that most artists think is very very important.” That’s because attendees don’t just check something out, like sampling, “but see how we work and what it does to us to play for the duration of the show, how it changes us, changes the audience. It’s real human stuff going on,” she says.
Bobby Krlic, who crafts cerebral, drone-infused music under the shadowy moniker The Haxan Cloak, first found out about the festival when Stosuy asked him to perform two years ago, and was drawn by “the whole interplay between industry and environment” of the space itself, especially as he was researching turn of the century industrial architecture while making his first album, The Haxan Cloak. Krlic shut down the festival on a stormy Saturday night; behind plumes of thick smoke, he spliced unreleased tracks from a “special set” he curated specially for the festival. It marked the last time he’s going to play for a while. (He recently moved to Los Angeles and is said to be working on making music for films.)
Naturally, getting the festival to this point took a slew of collective experiences, both terrible and terrific. Auf Der Maur tells me that her very first festival was the 1994 Reading Festival—during which she made her debut as Hole’s bassist, following the untimely death of former bass player Kristen Pfaff, in front of thousands of people. She realized that festivals could succeed with “individual programming” and “unique locations” after experiencing the heydey of ’90s festivals such as Lollapalooza, as well as European gatherings including the now-defunct, artist-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties, and after performing in the one-off traveling festival Curiosa curated by The Cure’s Robert Smith in 2004 (alongside Muse, Interpol, Mogwai and others).
Simultaneously, Basilica is a homecoming of sorts for Auf Der Maur, and a home away from home for the Montreal native. She says of her time riding the major-label wave in the ’90s: “I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and of course I enjoyed it. It was decadent, it was absurd, it was great, but it’s not where I come from. It’s not artist driven. It’s very corporate, money-driven, and so then I have been returning home. Soundscape, in many ways, is that.”
Contemporary festivals are plagued by their emphasis on the culture of festivals instead of the actual music, Stosuy points out. “Festivals are the worst way to experience music in a lot of ways,” he says. “Interestingly, there’s a whole generation of people or demographic who have never been to a show or a club or a warehouse to see two bands play. They just go to festivals.”
Whereas with Basilica, Auf Der Maur tells Newsweek, “I feel like people who come walk away and feel the urge to share something you had discovered.”
Part of that discovery is due to Basilica SoundScape’s mission to create a singular, holistic artistic experience for the people who come from far away to attend. Thus the coordinators have gone to painstaking lengths to create a safe, comfortable environment that caps at 1,250 people. And there’s an emphasis on the show going on, with no breaks even during the requisite changeovers between bands on the same stage. There’s always a film being screened, a poem being read, a tune being strummed or a song being hummed. “That’s why we called it SoundScape, because it’s this sort of continuous flow of things [with] everything woven together. You come here to experience the thing from beginning to the end, and each part fits together for a specific reason,” Stosuy says, citing a 2011 Basilica performance when four groups, Julianna Barwick, Pharmakon, Pig Destroyer and Evian Christ, performed simultaneously, each in one corner of the venue.
This year, Triangle Trio, a cohort of avant-garde drummers, played in the middle of the crowd while the acerbic group Wolf Eyes was at the ready to assail eardrums. Later, poets read in a room from high above the rafters, spitting such truths as, “Dear friend, I think you have a problem and it’s yourself.” Below, Mike Hadreas (as Perfume Genius) then hypnotized the crowd with a set of carefully arranged, poignant pop songs. In back of him, the Basilica doors were open, and a thunderstorm raged behind the stage. These sorts of resulting experiences make SoundScape almost indescribable, with a you-had-to-be-there fervor.
Perhaps most refreshingly, the festival gathers a group of people who actually want to be present for all the acts, and possibly listen to something they’d not usually turn their ears toward. The crowd was diverse in age, and was devoid of any pretense. Even during the more raucous acts in this year’s festival, notably British noise-electronica wizard Actress and Brooklyn metal band Sannhet, audiences were generally standing still and listening intently. It’s the only place that a lone woman playing acoustic guitar and singing in almost hushed tones—as festival opener Weyes Blood did—can sound almost deafening. And there was the nearly actually deafening, such as when HEALTH, self-describing themselves as "this year’s party band," treated a late-night crowd to pummeling tunes, one of the first performances upon the release of their sensational new album Death Magic.
One grave problem that Basilica faces moving forward is, in a sense, a non-issue: As the festival becomes more and more popular, organizers are facing the challenge of how to keep shelling out the same experience to attendees without selling out. None of the organizers want to expand the capacity to more than 1,200 people, but they say it’s becoming a concern as the festival continues to sell out faster, and hype precedes the event long before a lineup is finalized. “There’s a smaller space in the building as well that we use for screenings and more performance based stuff, but we may have to split stages...I don’t know,” says DeRan of Basilica’s future. “It’s definitely a growing pain that we’re having now. That’s the scrappiness of this. Keeps us on our toes.”
For right now, though, Basilica has achieved a perfect nexus of city and country, music and mystical experience, becoming a destination for the kinds of discovery that made us love music in the first place.