These days, dusty dirt roads lead you to plenty of music festivals but there’s something about FORM Arcosanti that strikes you dumb with wonder. First, it’s the bewitching architecture of the desert town where it takes place. An hour north of Phoneix lies Arcosanti, an experimental city built starting in the ’70s—led by Italian architect Paolo Soleri (mentored by Frank Lloyd Wright)—and was never officially finished. Soleri envisioned a self-sustaining community that lived in harmony with nature and each other, designing buildings that stay warm in winter and cool in the summer to communal spaces like the open-air amphitheater (Arcosanti’s cultural nucleus). While such a utopia is still out of our grasp, it might be envisioned for a fleeting moment for a weekend in May, when some 1200 people celebrate creativity and collaboration in a place that looks like Tatooine.
If you’ve yet to hear of this music festival, it’s maybe because FORM Arcosanti breaks a lot of rules of what a “festival” is supposed to be. Those who are interested in attending apply; answering questions such as “What is most important to you?” and listing their creative pursuits. If accepted, entrance and camp sites are free. And the line-up of artists performing doesn’t match the price: Four Tet, Bonobo, Thundercat, Perfume Genius, Skrillex, Julia Holter, Saul Williams, D∆WN and much more await. This intimate communion in the desert was founded by none other than artists themselves, the four friends who make up the band Hundred Waters. Drummer Zach Tetreault—who books all the acts himself—spoke to us about how the idea for a free-by-application festival (he likes to call it an “artist’s retreat”) came about, how to keep something this special sustainable, and how Arcosanti lends itself to some magical moments.
As a performer and a participant, can you describe your love-hate relationship with festivals and how it trigged you to found FORM Arcosanti?
There’s different purposes for all these different mediums. A performing arts center show gives you the ability to have this elevated audience and maybe design a show around a grand piano, a chorus and a small orchestral arrangement. If Hundred Waters was planning a show at a performing arts center—those are the things we’re going to think about. If we’re doing a DIY show in Gainesville with our friends, we know that the PA is going to be horrible, and the sound’s probably going to cut out, we’ll see what kind of lights we have. We would design a show that’s going to be high-intensity, super minimal and roll with it. Every show, you have this sort of re-approach: what’s going to work and what’s going to be the most impact.
At big festivals, it’s the same way. You know that you only have a limited availability of the audience’s attention because there’s three other things happening on stages throughout the festival. You really have to captivate them and deliver a performance that is valid of their time—people who’ve never seen you, to try to win their hearts quickly…
Kind of like Tinder, in a weird way.
[laughs] Yeah. There’s that aspect to it, but as a performer at large festivals now, there’s this lack of intimacy and connection with other artists. A void that I see. You’ll be so excited because you’re playing this festival, you’re playing Bonnaroo with Grimes and Local Natives and all these people who you love. Then you get on-site and you realize you’re just cattle being herded in a shuttle to the trailer into a golf cart to the stage. You’d be lucky to bump into anyone you’re hoping to connect with on the artists’ front before you’d have to leave eight hours later. It becomes this impersonal job. When you’re doing the festival circuit and you’re playing 20 festivals, they all sort of blur together. It’s all of this corporate, branded events with very little, actual artist connection—that starts to wear on you. As a festival goer too, you’re totally cattle as well. Massive herds, just being told where to go. I think that’s where the idea of this being a free, really intimate festival kind of came from. It was just a reaction to that. Let’s find a way to make a festival for artists, for performers.
So what was the first Arcosanti like?
The first one was so special! Because it was so organic and by accident, really. You know, the first FORM Arcosanti wasn’t intended, in the planning phase, as being a festival. It was intended to be an album release show for our band and a little retreat for eight artists. There were only eight bands in total! Everyone within arms’ reach, close friends—Gchat-level friends—everybody did it just out of love. We literally brought our PA from our practice space out; that was the PA on the main stage.
We did it for nothing and the result was this beautiful energy of collaboration, the spirit of art for art, with no connotations of publicity or branding or any financial barriers. We left the first year incredibly inspired. The things about that I knew were special, we made sure to preserve, and then all the little things we saw as places to improve, we immediately started thinking about how to address those issues going into year two. So year two was a massive improvement. We went from eight artists the first year to 25 the second year.
And none of the artists are paid?
At this point, the artists are paid but at a much lower fee than they’re used to, I would say. It’s still very much being done out of love; we don’t have big budgets. But the spirit of it and the experience, what you can gain from it is worth more to the artists now than ever, in this over-crowded festival environment. I do all the bookings myself, entirely, and when I’m talking to artists or agents or managers about it, I really frame it more like an “artist’s retreat” rather than this high-profile music festival. It’s very much encouraged for them to stay the whole weekend there, rather than just come in for day. And we’re more than happy to accommodate artists for three nights. Those are the things that we push for. We can’t pay exorbitant fees but we can put you up for three nights and feed you, your family can come out, and guarantee that you’ll build relationships, have an awesome time and leave being really inspired.
What kind of feedback have you received from some of the artists? Based on past line-ups, it looks like many artists return again and again.
Totally, it’s becoming like a summer camp for some of us. [laughs] Like How to Dress Well, Tom Krell, he’s going to be out there this year for the third year in a row—and he’s not even playing! He already bought his flight.
This year, you’re trying out something out for the first time: the patron program. How does it work?
So because FORM is free-by-application, we have carved out this little tier of our participant pool for patrons. We’ve sort of begun operating as like a museum does. A very limited pool of these patrons put down an amount that allows those 1,000 artists, creators, architects, designers, educators, people who have applied and gotten accepted, to come for free. In exchange for this dollar amount, you get a bed on-site (a mobile, modular hotel—what you would think of as a luxury glamping scenario at a festival) and food and drinks.
This is the first year we’re operating without any sort of benefactor or investor, and we’re simply doing it on sponsorship and patronage. We’re just dipping our toes in right now, doing a limited run of these patron packages, creating a little village of these mobile hotel units. Aside from where they’re sleeping—and those patrons who also buy into the food-and-beverage program—there’s really no other delineation between patron and applicant and participant. The whole on-site experience is free of any class system: there’s no like VIP viewing or patron area.
What were some of your favorite highlights from last year, and what are you excited about for this year?
The first night is always a rager. I just go really hard on programming Night One, it’s just like a total dance party. And this year’s is ten-fold what last year’s was. [laughs] I’m so excited about Night One this year. The Range, Ryan Hemsworth, Mija, Bonobo, and then Four Tet and Skrillex are going to go back to back in the canyons through the night, probably until sunrise. The city is built into a canyon, so our late-night retreat—we leave the site and and there’s this pilgrimage down a little dirt path into the canyons. This year, we’re bringing an art installation stage that was designed by some friends in Gainesville called Elestial Sound. That’s where we’re going to have some really awesome after-hours stuff.
Last year, so many amazing moments. One of my favorite artists, period, Bing & Ruth—David Moore is the guy behind that—I had him out, which I was excited about because Tomorrow is the Golden Age is one of my favorite ambient albums ever. He played that in the amphitheater, which was incredible, and then Sunday: he just asked me in the morning, “Hey, can I wheel this piano out to the edge of the cliff?” There were three grand pianos on-site in different locations; one of them was sort of near a cliff’s edge. We wheeled this thing out onto the grass, right on the edge of the cliff, and got my production people to mic it and set up a little practice PA, facing out into the canyon. And he just played for two hours while people were waking up and walking around the rocks. People started gathering, sitting around him, and sitting down out in the canyon, scattered all away across the mesa. It was this beautiful moment that could never have been planned.
FORM Arcosanti takes place 13-15 May 2016; participant applications have now closed but there are a few patron packages remaining as well as a chance to win tickets through new platform Loveback. Today they’ve also announced another first: NeueHouse is bringing cultural programming to FORM including live performance art by Alexa Meade; conversation with Sanford Biggers; screening and discussion with Doug Aitken. Stay tuned as we’ll be in attendance and reporting back.
Outdoor bandshell image courtesy of Jacqueline Verdugo, piano image courtesy of Rocco Avallone, all other images courtesy of FORM Arcosanti