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The question mark is critical. A lot of people were in their feelings last weekend at Eaux Claires IV. Confusion was palpable. Anxious, information-addled minds demanded answers.
Who is playing this festival?
Why is the schedule not listed in the field notes?
Where are the hand washing stations?
Why do I have to leave the festival to get to the media tent?
What is “Pirates”?
Where the F*CK is the Janette stage?
Why the hell are police going undercover to bust people for smoking weed when musicians are smoking it onstage and when I get back to my local library the first thing I see is a book entitled ‘CannaBiz: Big Business Opportunities in the New Multibillion-Dollar Marijuana Industry’?!!!??!
This world is so goddamn hypocritical. There is so much injustice, so much dehumanization, so little respect for the Earth, so many fake-ass people who will sell their soul for a dollar.
The music industry, as far as I can tell, is a merciless machine that takes advantage of brilliant, fragile artists year after year after year.
In 2015, Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver fame) and Aaron Dessner (of The National fame) joined forces to create a space where their musician friends, friends of friends, heroes and fans could come together for a yearly respite in the lush confines of Vernon’s hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Amid a slate of stale music festivals, Eaux Claires was a hit due to its diverse lineup, collaborative spirit, idyllic setting, communal vibe, and inclusion of art, film, literature and dance. Last year’s outing, which featured Chance the Rapper, Sylvan Esso, Paul Simon and Wilco, was a celebrated event.
This year, Eaux Claires purposefully scaled back, booking less star power and instead focusing on collaboration and creation, anchored by a weeklong artist-in-residence program.
Then the festival made the unprecedented move of keeping its lineup a secret.
For this, Eaux Claires has been thrown to the wolves.
If the festival had made its intentions more clear from the jump, I suspect the press (and certain vocal attendees) would have been less critical. Then again, the welcome note on the festival’s website pretty much says it all, though it is characteristically abstruse.
Despite the negative coverage, not all who wandered at Foster Farms last weekend shared a sense of disappointment. Many were inspired. Others felt refreshed. Some left transformed.
Eaux Claires will have you believe that the festival is ultimately about you, but that really depends on who you are.
In its first three years, Eaux Claires featured a centrally located installation of the festival’s name in oversized, three-dimensional letters, which made for a popular photo and meeting spot.
In its place this year were the characters “⊏∧∣∣∨”. It took me a minute to realize this was the word “EAUX” half in the ground, which is the perfect metaphor.
Eaux Claires IV was essentially split into two simultaneous festivals. In the open field the three biggest stages hosted (mostly) familiar acts that (mainly) played songs from their discography, occasionally with collaborators.
This was the music you (may) know and love, the music you (might) have seen before and could (potentially) see elsewhere. This represents the half of the “EAUX” that is visible.
The rest of the festival was rooted in Eau Claire. These performances were either a result of the artist-in-residency program, an improvisation, a cover, a remix, or some other unholy amalgamation of sound. (One outlier was hip-hop artist Astronautalis, who used his residency to throw a rave deep in the woods behind a closed door, with a DJ booth covered in hunting camouflage.)
These unique performances mostly took place on the small stages in the woods and on the Music Box Outpost, though Mouse on Mars Dimensional PEOPLE and PEOPLE Mix Tape each respectively closed out the big stage.
The bulk of the artists in residence were friends of Vernon or Dessner. There was also a good amount of unbilled festival alum hanging out and performing. In addition, IV featured more writers, with select readings accompanied by music.
This represents the half of the “⊏∧∣∣∨” installation that is theoretically in the ground. This is the stuff you can only see at Eaux Claires.
And so, if you are the kind of person who only wants to see music you know and love performed live, Eaux Claires is probably not for you.
But if you are the kind of person who appreciates improvisation, collaboration and risk-taking, then this festival is definitely for you.
The “⊏∧∣∣∨”installation metaphor could be extended to comment on the decipherability of the festival’s intentions. But I’m not here to judge those who don’t “get it.” That’s mean. However, I will say that if people had paid closer attention to the festival (and read my sh*t) they would not have been surprised.
When I spoke with Eaux Claires creative director Michael Brown last summer he explained that, “The founding musicians are really just one high school generation that grew up together and branched out to different cities and different projects, but stayed close and still work on music.
“The festival stems from a desire for all of them to come back together and work on something collaboratively,” Brown added. Hence, the consistent presence of Justin Vernon’s circle of friends.
Brown also explicitly told me that their goal was to one day exist without a lineup announcement. At the time, it sounded an idea that was still a few years away. I didn’t think they would dive into the deep end so soon. But as walked the festival grounds it dawned on me that they had been building up to it.
At the second Eaux Claires, Bon Iver used its headlining set to debut a brand new album, as did Francis and the Lights. There was also an exclusive performance of the Dessner-helmed Grateful Dead tribute featuring a buttload of collaborators.
Last year, there were seven “mixtape” sets, six slots “open for artist collaborations,” at least three exclusive performances, a handful of “Artists in Residence,” a few Wilco offshoots, and the first public performance of the Vernon-Dessner collaboration Big Red Machine, which headlined the first night of IV.
It’s important to note that IV did not go all-in on the “secret lineup” concept. This was not making-a-Kendrick-Lamar-album level of information lockdown. A few artists confirmed participation via social media, while the festival itself released cryptic clues. An extensive Reddit thread eventually figured out most, if not all, of the lineup.
I never read the thread because I didn’t want to have expectations. I genuinely wanted to be surprised. I trusted the festival. But after a while I couldn’t avoid the chatter. Curiosity got the best of me and I became aware of the theories.
I’ll admit to a small pang of disappointment when I finally got my hands on the lineup, only because there weren’t any “big name” surprises or Patti Smith or Sufjan Stevens. (Damn you internet!) This feeling quickly passed. I realized that those expectations were based on speculation and my understanding of a traditional music festival, which Eaux Claires is not.
In order to enjoy Eaux Claires, you have to open your mind to new possibilities and new music. More than anything, it is this open-mindedness that connects the Eaux Claires community.
As the festival’s welcome note reads, “It’s not about the bands, it’s about the collection of art and artists reacting with the collection of you. We’re less interested in telling you what it is than you making it what it becomes...The most important detail is you. You: willing to walk into a mix of art and sound and big and small and through the abstract science of the benevolent crowd, turn it into Eaux Claires.”
There may not have been as many “big names” as previous lineups, but in my estimation, IV featured more female bandleaders, more artists of color, more openly queer artists, and more Native American performances than past installments, which may not matter to you. If so, Eaux Claires may not be for you.
Despite missing more of the festival than I care to recall due to the volume of simultaneous sets and physical fatigue, my heart was full by the end of IV.
The only truly disappointing thing about the lineup was that, for the first time, Mother Nature didn’t show up to remind us who’s boss.
Imagine, if you will, being a (relatively) young writer. You catch wind of a poet and essayist named Hanif Abdurraqib. You borrow his latest book (They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us) from the library. You are mesmerized within the first few pages. This is what you have been striving for.
Three weeks later your new literary hero is three feet away from you in a tiny house. Because of a wall next to the chair you are sitting in you can’t actually see his face as he reads unless you lean uncomfortably forward.
Instead, you sit back and watch his Air Jordan’s juggle an imaginary soccer ball as he reads from the same book that is in your backpack. It is a story about seeing Carly Rae Jepsen at Terminal 5 in New York City. It is one of your favorites.
“Does anyone listen to Carly Rae Jepsen?” Abdurraqib asks.
“Hell yeah,” you reply.
“Cool,” he says.
“‘Run Away With Me’...let’s go,” you add.
“A banger,” he confirms, returning to the story.
This happened to me within the first hour of IV. I walked out of that tiny house to the sight of hundreds of fellow festivalgoers holding hands, circling the Flambeaux stage, led by the Ojibwe group Iron Boy as part of the Opening Ceremonies.
Talk about a strong start.
Of all the new stages at IV, the two most talked about were the in-the-round Flambeaux designed by Erlend Neumann (who created Dessner’s Long Pond recording studio in Hudson, New York) and the Music Box Outpost created by the New Orleans Airlift Collective, essentially a treehouse with playable parts.
The venue I kept returning to was The Trees, created by Andy Ducett and Chris Kallmyer. This small, nondescript stage was augmented by speakers dispersed throughout the surrounding trees, creating an immersive sonic environment. It featured pop-up performances by artists in residence.
What made The Trees so successful was how, like Flambeaux, it was set up in-the-round. Without an elevated stage and towering gear, you could see right through it. You saw peoples instead of just the back of heads. Performers typically faced each other, so matter where you were you could also see an artist’s face. This forced connection created an especially intimate setting.
During Gordi and Julien Baker’s set at The Trees, the Australian folktronica artist handed her microphone to an audience member. Gordi then looped this person’s voice into the song that she and Baker were creating. It may have been the most quintessentially Eaux Clairesian moment of the weekend.
Opening The Trees stage was “Crumbs,” an improvised set by Milwaukee-based musicians Devin Drobka, Christopher Porterfield, and Caley Conway, who played together in Field Report later on the House of IV stage.
A month before the festival, Caley Conway was invited to play with Field Report. Following a three-week crash course in their material, Conway partook in the artist-in-residence program and joined the Eaux Claires Women’s Choir.
“The whole concept of what we were doing, which was improvising with each and responding to sound, I am pretty insecure about because I haven’t done a lot of playing in that style,” Conway tells me about the Crumbs performance at The Trees.
“But I was in total awe and wonder of that stage. I was also really glad to have a chance to let music come out of me, possibly play a bunch of wrong notes, and just start being creative and get into a groove with those guys in particular, considering I had my first Field Report set with them later that day.”
On the first day that Conway arrived at the residence, she, like all the residents, was offered a time slot in the woods and access to whatever equipment she might need. Conway declined, feeling it wasn’t her place as she was so new. But by the end of the weekend Conway felt comfortable enough to invite fellow artists to join her on a set.
“I was so inspired while watching these collaborative performances at the festival. I want to do it more. I’d love to have a leadership role in a project like that. Or just call up my friends more and create something that doesn’t matter,” says Conway.
Devin Drobka, another Field Report member (and arguably Milwaukee’s best drummer), was also an artist in residence who popped up all over the festival. Like Conway, it was Drobka’s first year as an artist. But as a founding member of the Unrehearsed MKE series and the improv rock project Argopelter, Drobka was more comfortable with the format.
“I have self-doubt sometimes, so to find a community of people from all over the world that are also pursuing this and putting themselves at the front lines in the true sense of an avant-garde, it feels really good to know that there are people for it and you just have to keep doing it,” says Drobka.
Another stellar performance at the The Trees featured yet another Field Report member, bassist and experimental musician Barry Paul Clark. The day before his set at The Trees, Clark visited the tiny house while Leesa Cross-Smith was reading.
Just before Clark’s set, festival narrator and literary curator Michael Perry asked if Cross-Smith could join him. Clark was overjoyed. He provided a gorgeous soundscape for Cross-Smith’s reading. It was another very Eaux Clairesian moment.
When I spoke with Clark later that day, he echoed a sentiment I’ve often heard from Eaux Claires artists and fans.
“I’m really just trying to savor this and hold onto it for as long as I can. As far as being a freelance creator, you don’t know what it’s going to be like tomorrow or the next week or the next month, so you just try to hold onto what you have while you have it, and try not to sink when it’s over.”
The Field Report crew weren’t the only artists gushing about the weekend.
Los Angeles singer Phoebe Bridgers, one of the most anticipated artists at the festival (based on the speculation), finished her set by saying, “This was the coolest experience of my life.”
One of my favorite parts of Eaux Claires IV was seeing Hanif Abdurraqib go from the tiny house to The Trees to joining Julien Baker on the big stage.
“It was really special, and something I’ll hold onto for a long while...A flood of gratitude for Julien and the space our wild ideas found to lock arms with each other,” Abdurraqib wrote on social media.
If you are an artist who is interested in collaboration, no matter your level of notoriety, Eaux Claires might be for you.
One way of thinking about Eaux Claires is akin to how I think about my writing, particularly my music writing.
Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner don’t have to do this festival. It doesn’t make them any money. In fact, it actually loses them money. Similarly, I make a pittance from my writing. But money is not why I write. Nor is profit the impetus for Eaux Claires.
I have no illusions that my writing is widely read. I don’t pretend to think that because someone picks up a copy of the Gazette and reads my article about [insert band name] that they will then go see them play. Our culture is too fragmented and on-demand. I suspect my writing is mainly read online by the subjects of the articles themselves, then maybe circulated to their friends and family through social media.
But as a freelancer, I only write about artists I believe in. My hope then is that by treating their stories with care and giving them a platform, however inconsequential amid a seemingly infinite deluge of media, that it might bolster their confidence, if but a fraction. This, I think, is part of the reason why Eaux Claires was created, or at least it is one of most beautiful side effects.
Melancholy may be the most common aesthetic similarity between the music of Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner. I’m talking about sad boy indie rock.
Of course, this is not everyone’s cup of tea. As such, the first three Eaux Claires managed to include enough bright, “danceable” alternatives to satisfy a spectrum of taste.
If there is one gripe about IV that I can sympathize with, it is the feeling that upbeat, “happy” music was in the minority. However, the more I consider my feelings about this past year, between the untimely deaths and the geopolitics, the more I think that IV is the festival 2018 deserves.
For as long as I live, I will never forget when Julien Baker rose like a goddamn phoenix on a satellite stage during The National’s set at Eaux Claires IV.
There is Julien, queen of sad girl indie rock, one of two artists to share a feature credit on a Frightened Rabbit song, which is a sad boy indie rock band from Scotland, but not just any sad boy indie rock band, Frightened Rabbit is my favorite band, if favorite bands are determined by the number of times you’ve screamed a band’s lyrics back at them.
There is Julien, one of the only people to have sung on record with Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchinson, who jumped off a bridge two months ago, who is gone forever.
There is Julien, singing a song about isolation and despair, and I can’t stop thinking about Scott, can’t stop thinking about when he was alive and in the flesh and I met him on his tour bus outside the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee and we talked, and somewhere in the conversation I brought up Eaux Claires and he told me he would love to play the festival, and now I can’t stop thinking about how he will never play another festival ever again.
There is Julien, getting to the final chorus and now I’m thinking maybe this is a song about hope. I have to believe that it is.
There is Julien, singing the opening lines to the song that made me fall in love with my first sad boy indie rock band.
“We’re half awake in a fake empire.”
When The National finish their set, a set which inspires me to put my phone in my backpack so I won’t be tempted to take notes, pictures or videos, so I can be fully immersed in the moment, which feels like a small victory in and of itself, when this set is over and the smoke from the fireworks in my heart has cleared, I remember something Nathaniel Heuer (of Milwaukee doom-folk band Hello Death) told me about avoiding music that might bum you out.
“I mean, being bummed out is part of the thing. If I was bummed out, I would listen to Leonard Cohen so I could feel more bummed out and try to deal with it. Try to think about why I was bummed out. You know, do what you should do emotionally.”
The second time my photographer and I reenter IV after visiting the media tent a security woman insists we empty our water bottles, even though we just grabbed them from a cooler in the media tent. This woman also insists on checking our bags despite the fact that we walked by her on our way out.
This makes me think about the film Almost Famous and how the young journalist is referred to as “the enemy” by some of the musicians he is assigned to cover.
As the negative press rolled in earlier this week, I wondered if Eaux Claires intentionally tried to piss off the media by making our tent difficult to access.
In an interview with a fan publication that was distributed on the grounds at IV, Michael Brown admits, “We want the festival to be smaller. We don’t want more people. We want less people.” Maybe pissing off the media is a way of accomplishing that.
It’s more likely the negative press is the result of overblown expectations created by the secret lineup, cuts to amenities, and a dismissal of the collaborative spirit of the festival.
A friend and fan of Eaux Claires told me this week that he was briefly bummed out when he learned the lineup, but not because of the artists who were or weren’t scheduled to play. He was sad because he could sense the impending backlash.
I’ve managed to stay away from the online discussion of IV, but my friend tells me that it has brought out some ugly, entitled attitudes about consumer capitalism and art.
Part of me wants to say, "If one of the collaborations from IV leads to a project that is as timeless and as influential as For Emma, Forever Ago or Boxer, then all of the long lines and hurt butts will have been worth it."
But no, that feels like an old way of thinking. It should not just be about creating an artifact that can be bought and sold.
After all, Eaux Claires has always been about those singular moments of magic, that funny math, those improvisations that last a lifetime, that which you can only hold in your heart.
I think back to formerly surly security guards gleefully dousing a sweaty, pulsing Sylvan Esso crowd at the first Eaux Claires, or Chance the Rapper’s surprise appearance at Deux, or the world premiere of Big Red Machine on the stage my girlfriend designed at Troix, or last weekend when Julien Baker rose like a goddamn phoenix across the field.
Hopefully, IV starts a conversation about how we quantify live music in an era when hardly anyone pays for music. (Or at least hardly anyone pays for specific albums/songs.) Furthermore, how do we quantify the performance of new music or music that is being created in the moment?
As Michael Brown wrote on Twitter, “20 years from now people at EXC3 will realize they saw Justin and Aaron creating new music together, in the moment, live in front of an audience. The bravery and guts to do that is inspiring. Eaux Claires is an incubator and now those projects are breathing life.
“Look past the performance aspect of it all and realize you’re being invited to witness and experience a process that is complex and guarded for good reasons. It’s a dream come true for lovers of music. The ability to be there and share that moment.”
The statement that Eaux Claires is trying to make with the secret lineup, I think, is that you shouldn’t judge a festival based on its lineup. It should be about the quality of the experience.
If seeing unique collaborations and "unfinished" music doesn’t enhance the quality of your festival experience, then Eaux Claires may not be for you.
It’s also important to remember that before they ditched a lineup announcement entirely, the names on the Eaux Claires lineups were all the same size. This is because the festival does not want to be hierarchical. Caley Conway can attest to her treatment as an equal by the staff and crew of IV.
In Los Angeles, there is a comedy club that books over a dozen comics on a single showcase, all of whom perform short sets, many of whom workshop material, and you do not know their names when you buy a ticket, but you trust that it will be worth your time and money. There is a similar space in New York City.
Eaux Claires is trying to be like those comedy clubs.
More importantly, Eaux Claires is creating a community. Beyond the fact that most performers know Justin Vernon, there is another good reason why IV merch included the “Family Reunion” and “Thanksgiving in Summer” branding.
As I've said before, our culture has become increasingly isolating and our entertainment options more and more on-demand. It is a noble cause that Eaux Claires seeks to inject a sense of intimacy and spontaneity into the festival experience.
The response to IV reminds me of the response to Bon Iver’s live debut of 22, A Million at Deux. I was assigned to write a track-by-track review that would be published the next day. I stayed up in my tent thumbing my iPhone until three in the morning.
In hindsight, this was a pretty silly assignment. How can you judge music you’ve only heard once with 20,000 people in a field? I wasn’t sure how to feel about the record at the time, but over the years it has become a personal favorite. Similarly, it may take Eaux Claires some time to rewrite and refine its formula.
A few articles have predicted the downfall of Eaux Claires. Granted, the market is pretty oversaturated and a few major festivals have fallen recently; Way Home took a “pause” this year, while Sasquatch, FYF Fest and nearby Summer Set called it quits. If Eaux Claires did not return, it has already made a lasting impact on the area.
When I spoke with Michael Brown last summer I mentioned the slick recap video they made for the first festival. He told me that when they watched this video they thought it too closely resembled what a music festival is supposed to look like. As such, they consider the first year to be a creative failure.
This makes me think about something Julien Baker said at The Trees.
“Failure is our most intense didactic tool for learning humility, at least that’s true of my life. It’s also a tool for reframing what you think of as failure into maybe not failure, and instead progress.”
Eaux Claires does want to be an exceptional version of something you are familiar with. Eaux Claires wants to be something else. There may be a few logistical hiccups along the way, some creature comforts you’ve grown accustomed to might be eliminated, there may not be as many household names, but the spirit of Eaux Claires expands exponentially.
Here it is worth mentioning that out of the Eaux Claires community and an experience at the Funkhaus in Berlin two years ago, the PEOPLE artist collective was born.
Last year, there were “PEOPLE” t-shirts for sale at Eaux Claires, with no real explanation besides the “People Mixtape Vol. 1” and “People Mixtape Vol. 2” sets by Vernon, Dessner and friends.
Earlier this year, a PEOPLE website was launched as a free, non-commercial platform to share new and unreleased music. These are demos, backstage recordings, and other recordings that might not otherwise reach the public. The website already includes a “Live from Eaux Claires IV” folder where you can hear recordings from the residency and the festival.
The PEOPLE website is also the place to buy tickets to the PEOPLE festival at the Funkhaus in Berlin August 18-19. It will be another week residency and two-day festival rooted in “new material, collaborations, unique arrangements and dissolving borders."
Interestingly, the names of the artists participating in the PEOPLE festival have been released, but when you sit down for a performance you will not know which combination of artists you are seeing until the lights come on.
Now that the dust from IV has settled, there will be questions.
Where does Eaux Claires go from here?
Will Eaux Claires become Berlin in the woods?
Will Vernon move the festival to his April Base studio?
I’m starting to think that having the answers might be besides the point.
"Where you are who you are." - Big Red Machine
EAUX CLAIRES IV.
Joey Grihalva is a Milwaukee-based writer.