This weekend, a disproportionate number of hip Brooklynites fleeing the last, gross days of city summer will land in Hudson, NY, a handsome riverfront hamlet with a regular population under 7,000. Since 2011, Basilica Soundscape, a boutique music and arts festival, has been the strong magnet pulling them two hours north. Held in a converted 19th century glue factory turned local culture hub, Soundscape has drawn wild acclaim for its dramatic setting and carefully cultivated lineups. This year’s bill is another dark, adventurous mix of rising stars and unknown pleasures. The punishingly loud electronics of The Haxan Cloak and the elegantly wounded glam-pop of Perfume Genius headline a uniformly exciting lineup of musicians, authors, and visual artists scheduled to appear.
We talked to Basilica’s rock star owner Melissa auf der Maur, along with the festival’s booking team, performing musicians, and participating artists, to give you everything you need to know about the anti-festival that’s become the favorite grown-up summer camp of New York City’s creative community.
QUEEN BSS: Talking to Melissa Auf der Maur
As a key member of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins in the 1990s, through her own solo albums in the early 2000s, Melissa Auf der Maur was alt-rock royalty. Her post-music career is less high-profile, but just as formidable. She bought the refurbished factory in 2009 with her husband, independent filmmaker Tony Stone. Together, they run the Basilica center’s year-round schedule, bringing experimental film screenings, food festivals, and drone marathons to the small, but vibrant local arts community. Basilica Soundscape is the grandest use of its intimidating yet intimate structure, and the thing driving glowing New Yorker notices to their efforts.
She filled us in on her adopted home, and its signature event.
How would you describe the day-to-day arts scene in Hudson?
Tony and I moved up there in about 2008, and put it this way, when we got there all of our friends were over the age of 50—these really cool white-haired eccentrics who had all left New York City in the first wave of loft buyouts in the 90s. We started to tap into Bard College students who might want to work our film screenings, and then there was this new wave of basically super eclectic liberal arts students that started infiltrating. Those two demographics sort of explain the day to day, other than the fact that it’s kind of on steroids now.
Do you guys see Basilica Soundscape as a driving force, attracting creatives from the city to upstate?
Well, it’s hard to say, because it’s all happening in tandem. But the mission behind BSS is hoping that people in the city, which, the majority of our audience are people from the city coming to immerse themselves in a big upstate weekend. We create that to invite people to imagine what experiencing music and art is outside of cities. It’s not only because we’re out of the city, but we’re also away from the big corporate structures which make up everything nowadays.
Do you remember the first moment you realized the full possibilities of the right performance in that space?
Yeah, I’ll tell you exactly what it was. It was Basilica Soundscape 2013. It, still to this day, is one of my favorite moments of music and performance ever in my 20 years of commitment to traveling the world and seeing music wherever I can. It was the Friday night collaboration between Matthew Barney and Sir Jonathan Bepler, a four way conduction of Julianna Barwick versus Pig Detroyer, Evian Christ versus Pharmakon. It was in-fucking-credible.
It was the first moment I was pulled out of being the production manager / the mailroom / fucking every tiny detail of every thing that happens in that space. I was pulled out of my administration production role, and I saw all that was happening in its grand, experimentalism. Honestly it’s a struggle having an independent alternative music venue in the middle of nowhere. [laughs] It’s not easy.
It’s that moment that I can reconnect with that provides the inspiration for Tony and I to keep pushing uphill. I don’t that was experienced ever before…by anybody.
Exactly! And we didn’t even document it because we were too busy moving lights and shit. It’s never going to be experienced again, and it was one of the finest memories of that space.
Is that something you won’t let that happen again?
No, it happens all the time. [laughs] All these amazing things happen and it’s like… fuck… I was too busy checking that the door girl had change. Now I’m starting to think that it should be our default motto—“You only experience it here, and it’s not going to live on YouTube. Sorry. You have to take the train to see it, or else you’re not going to see it.” If you’re really in the moment, you don’t have to or want to be thinking about the future version of that moment.
Many big festival lineups are dominated by defunct bands reuniting, but that hasn’t been the case with Basilica. Is there a stated goal of focusing on bands that are currently active?
Yeah, we have definitely not been interested in the reunion shows. Even bands that I love, it doesn’t fit in the vision of what we’re trying to so with Soundscape. But I have no objection to reunions and I like the cycle of life and rebirth and death, and I think that’s a healthy thing and I think that’s beautiful.
I’m sure there’s been a ton of festival offers for reuniting certain Hole lineups, over the years?
There have been many conversations and attempts and ultimately decisions not to do Hole reunions. For bands that have really complicated histories, I think it’s really important to protect the integrity. You have to do it with all of the guts and purity that the original good parts of Hole had. Because a lot of these talks have happened since I’ve been directing Basilica, I’ve probably had a much more critical eye on it.
Honestly, what’s important to me right now is bringing relevant, quality art and music to the surface and to the world. That’s the most important thing. Unless the Hole reunion is that, I’m probably not interested.
Building the Basilica Soundscape Experience
In addition to Auf Der Maur and Stone, the BSS booking team is made up of Brian DeRan, a Los Angeles based music industry veteran and owner of Leg Up! Management, and Brandon Stosuy, Director of Editorial Operations for Pitchfork Media in Brooklyn. Where some festivals are preoccupied with the blockbuster names that draw massive corporate support, Basilica’s concept is defined by it’s limited space. No matter how much praise is heaped upon it, its crowds can never grow bigger than the 1200 people who can fit in the building.
“Festival culture is so weird now,” says Stosuy. “When I went to Governor’s Ball, just kind of walking through the crowd you got the sense that there were so many people there not even to watch music, but to hang out with their friends and do drugs. That’s fine, but part of what I like about Basilica is that the people who go seem really engaged with it. You’re not standing in a field with 40,000 people like, alright I’m anonymous. You feel like you’re part of something.”
DeRan, whose tastes in world music and outsider psychedelica act as a balance to Stosuy’s preference for noise and metal, agrees that the inclusive feeling and limited scale are what set them apart in an increasingly crowded festival market. “There’s no separate VIP area that someone can’t get to,” says DeRan. “There’s no, ‘Oh, let’s pay an extra 70 dollars so you can get free drinks here.’ It’s such a small spot. To keep it that way, really makes the audience part of the event and not just an observer.”
The festival seeks to reward the attention of its small, plugged in crowd with an array of peformers outside the same bold-font dozen that hop from fest to fest over the course of a typical summer. Unlike Stosuy’s booking for the proper Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, the biggest names of the moment aren’t the goal here. (Pitchfork’s involvement on a company level comes from graphic design and media support only.) This year’s lineup started with the Saturday night headliner, The Haxan Cloak, the fearsome electronic project of dashing Brit Bobby Krlic. Haxan’s music is exhilaratingly bleak and deafeningly loud, far from the summer good time vibes a mass-market fest would desire as a closing statement. Perfume Genius, led by not-exactly-cheerful-himself songwriter Sam Hadreas, was then chosen for the arresting contrast his delicacy would provide leading into Haxan. Additional pieces were added from there to provide a perpetual balance. Young Brooklyn metalheads Sannhet and avant-garde pop from Norwegian Jenny Hval will also perform Saturday, interspersed with drum circles and spoken word interludes. Poets, such as Dorothea Lasky, will spout verse from the building’s rafters. Friday night will host sets from mysterious UK electronic act Actress, along with alternately vicious and elegant rock bands like Calgary’s Viet Cong and L.A.’s HEALTH. That night’s schedule takes detours, too, into film screenings and a traditional performance for tabla and sitar.
Stosuy says that any one out-of-whack element might tragically warp the carefully eclectic center of gravity. “At one point, someone from in the periphery floated this idea, ‘Hey I heard that Flaming Lips might be available,’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, no, fuck that,’ “ he says. “We don’t want Flaming Lips there. There’s things that don’t make sense to have there and wouldn’t be in the spirit of it,” he says. “What we want to avoid is a crowd that is only there for one band and is bummed about the other stuff.”
That “other stuff” goes beyond performance, with visual art offerings filling the complex’s smaller spaces. Controversial NYC artist Dan Colen has prepared several large scale paintings on site, and Massachusetts visual artist Micheal St. John has curated an in-complex gallery show called “The Now Forever” which he says is “created to be in dialogue with the “Forever Now” exhibit at Manhattan’s MoMa. St. John says that viewing the work upstate might “allow more time and space for the experience, as being outside the city does have the illusion of slower time and more space.” Scheduled reader Holly Anderson, a respected downtown poet whose words have previously been adapted into song by punk legends Mission of Burma, thinks the wild discipline mixing on Basilica’s lineup gives the art and lit extra life. “I generally hate straight up poetry readings,” she says. “Too much like sitting in Catholic church as a girl.”
Everything that goes into the BSS experience, from brokering unique one-off music collaborations to choosing what stocks the book table, has been done to earn trust for repeat festival goers who’ll know their experience is in good hands. John Olson, a vet of the Michigan noise scene whose grizzled band Wolf Eyes is paying Saturday night, and might seem otherwise out of place amid such natural tranquility, appreciates that effort. “How many times does a music fan put down money to take chances? I would say that’s about zero, you know? You don’t go to a movie theater, put down your money and say, ‘Alright, you pick!’ Though he does note, “We just played the biggest Satanic public event in the history of the world, so it’s kind of hard to top that.”
With a game audience and a libertine spirit, it wouldn’t be totally out of character for Basilica Soundscape to file that one away for next year.