• Interview

Pickathon: An Interview with the Founder, a Cincinnati Native

This summer several music festivals will dot the American landscape. Most notably, Lollapalooza gets underway, this weekend, in the Windy City. But on the west coast, in the ever-progressive outskirts of Portland, Oregon., a Northern Kentucky native is making final preparations for one of the country’s most innovative and awe-inspiring gatherings of its kind: Pickathon.

Cincymusic.com’s Michael Clare caught up with fellow Beechwood High School Alum, Founder/Executive Producer of Pickathon, Zale Schoenborn, to talk about the festival.

Cincymusic: How do I know I’m not really talking to Eric? [Zale has an identical twin brother]
Schoenborn: [laughs] You’d have to see it to believe it. Eric is on his way out here and will be here on Monday. He’s flying in from Miami.

Cincymusic: You have 6 words to describe Pickathon. Go.
Schoenborn: [more laughter] Fantasy. Musical. Weekend. How’s that?

Cincymusic: [laughs] Nice. That’s close to 6. Explain.
Schoenborn: [laughs]  It’s meant to be, kind of an alternate reality.. a kind of craft.. a way of putting things together that’s hard to describe. I can say it’s a level of high craft and things being put together that are, with all of the venues we have, are incredibly complicated in the way that they’re built for some kind of Alternate Reality experience. And we’ve just been working on them for 8 years out the 15 we’ve been here. So, there’s like “The perfect Rock-n-Roll” venue called the Galaxy Barn which is like the most amazing Rock-n-Roll Dance Hall experience. Then we have a small Acoustic barn called The Workshop and we have a stage out underneath these big fabric sails. If you look on our website or Facebook, you’ll see these amazing pictures of this modern sculpture. This is actually our main stage. There’s really no way to describe it other than to see it in the pictures and just imagining it and even then, it’s stunning to see. It’s an insane amount of work and there are no “normal” stages here.

Cincymusic: The guys from Guildworks are really masters of the craft, aren’t they?
Schoenborn: They are. It’s kind of taken awhile for us, as a team, to get to this level. We never could really have started here, so this is kind of our pinnacle.

Cincymusic: Since this is the 15th year for Pickathon, do you feel like you’ve arrived?
Schoenborn: Well, we like to say “we play a big musical festival on TV.” We’re always mentioned in the Top 10 Music Festivals in the country and a big part of that is the influence and the people and just how much they love it and artists are drawn to it. And the treatment we give the whole experience, for the artists and the audience, is a lot of common sense. We approach it like, “how do you make it the most amazing thing you can come up with?” And you come up with all these different things and little ways and there’s not really one component.. it’s not like we set out to be the “most sustainable music festival,” but here we are! We don’t have any plastic and we don’t have any single-use [items]. We don’t throw anything away. There’s no trash. We wash our dishes, for the whole festival. It’s crazy. So all of that stuff really kind of helps define us but, it’s all really more of a response to, “oh shit, you have all of this trash! Why would you want to have all of this trash?” Like, what can we do? It was insane how many plastic cups we had to throw away! So it was that kind of thinking that led us to all of these little things.

With the Guildworks folks, it’s just like,”how do we improve the sculpture and get more efficient with it?” We like the end-look of things and look at it almost like a painting or sculpture and then figure out how to make it practical.

Cincymusic: So you start with the end in mind and then work your way backwards?
Schoenborn: Yeah, which isn’t the best way with [something] technical or a process or anything like that. It’s been our strength and our weakness. Now, we’re finally matching function with “the look” and getting better at that.

It’s not like a “normal” festival or every festival you’ve ever been to where you have a square stage and you pop it up and it has a “truss” feeling, a box, right? You hang speakers and lighting on it. It’s almost like a program you can save on your USB stick and you just plug it in and “it works.” Well.. we don’t have any horizontal trusses. Ours are all asymmetrical. We don’t even have one of those spaces.

Cincymusic: Sounds very organic.
Schoenborn: It is very organic. It’s very time consuming and costly but, because of that, it’s also really cool. It’s unique and interesting. And you can just, kind of, do things that are different.

Cincymusic: Let’s talk about the lineups. The lineup keeps growing and getting better.
Schoenborn: The lineups have been just slight variations on a similar theme. Music is at the center of this, right? It’s all about the music. The music is, for us, this kind of collection of all the music from people we know. We’re very open-source about getting everybody’s best ideas from all kinds of viewpoints and putting together the world’s largest playlist we can come up with. It’s a very heavily filtered, contemporary music. So, records out the next year or the current year, and it’s really important to us and helps us have a system where we don’t turn down people [because so many people want to come] and it’s a way to keep up on the creative, light vibe of a band that’s on the upswing and putting their energy into it.. that’s when you want to see them perform.

So what we end up doing is, collecting the kings of different music worlds [laughs]. And they may be small or obscure but, we’ve had Buffalo Killers, from Cincinnati. You know Heartless Bastards have been here multiple times, last year they were here. We’ve had, from Lexington, this band named Sunday Valley, through this guy named Sturgill Simpson who’s now in Nashville [TN], who’s playing here. And those guys are like, kings of their musical worlds and you can’t go wrong, even if people don’t know them. Because the other aspect of Pickathon.. we’re pretty irreverent about things like “Poll Star” followings. We can’t really do it another way. It’s gotta be about how amazing the music is and people gotta have faith [chuckles].

Cincymusic: Talking about the music, it’s about an “experience,” not just for the people coming to the festival but for the bands as well. You’ve talked about a cross-pollination of the different bands that play Pickathon.
Schoenborn: They can’t stand it! It’s so fun for them! It’s so Common Sense. Of course they should be able to hang out and enjoy it and be mixed into the crowd and with each other but, it’s so.. Uncommon. 

Cincymusic: It contradicts the usual cattle-call for bands at a typical festival, doesn’t it?
Schoenborn: Ohhhhhh yeahhh! There’s such a short window when you get to Hospitality for the bands. Unless you’re “the star” and you get your own trailer but you’re not mixing with anyone, right? We have very communally, beautifully designed spaces where they’re, effectively, parties, right? People are hanging out with each other, watching [music], getting their minds blown by it, getting fired up and getting ready to show off to people that they were so psyched to see. It’s a crazy reverberation of people getting excited. It’s so common sense.. it’s how you treat people in your normal life anyway. And we just apply it to a music festival. We’ve just added that extra layer of Humanity to the festival from all angles. 

Cincymusic: I read that you were in Year 10 before you broke-even. What’s up with that? Is that Passion or Insanity?
Schoenborn: Aye yay yay! It’s kind of a mix of both! [laughs]

Cincymusic: Damn the torpedoes and who cares how much it costs! Right? [more laughing]
Schoenborn: “Who cares how much it costs,” or, “we’re really not gonna pay you,”  .. just a lot of things where you have to have “grown-up communication” about “grown-up stuff.” And we just don’t exploit people. It’s a tough festival model. We have to do things like, keeping our density levels intentionally low; to about a Third or a Fifth of what it could be. That’s a direct impact on everyone. We could be much larger, like other festivals, but we don’t want to do that. We want to keep the experience super amazing which means that the density has to be down and tickets have to go up. We’ve been totally open and honest with our audience about that and they’ve been wanting it.

Cincymusic: Let’s go back a few years [clears throat]. I say “few” [Schoenborn laughs].. Take me from Ft. Mitchell [KY] to Portland [OR].
Schoenborn: All of this was kind of built and happens because I constantly have people like Andy King involved, Mike & Chris Reigert, they went to Beechwood.. think of it as an outgrowth of Beechwood Rd. across from the school. I’d have a “pool party.” These guys would come over to scrape the pool. They didn’t know they were going to do that but, it was fun. I was kinda like the Pied Piper.

From Beechwood, I went to school at UK off and on until about ‘91/’92. I moved to Chapel Hill [NC] for a couple years, then, in Boulder [CO] took grad courses in Electromagnetics. I met my wife, Wendy, who was playing in a popular Bluegrass band at the time, and was motivated to go somewhere else because Boulder was not the “dream city” for her. So we migrated to Portland. Back in Colorado, we did a parody on the Telluride Festival called the Tell You What Festival and everyone had walkie-talkies made of cereal boxes. It was an eclectic mix of rock and lots of others and, in Portland, I just found that there wasn’t anything like that out there. And that’s sorta how we got started.

Cincymusic: So, how did you not call it the Schoenborn Anti-festival Festival?
Schoenborn: [laughs loudly] It is kinda that! When we first started doing it, we didn’t have anything besides 90 people there with musicians and kids and dogs. It was basically a potluck and we didn’t know what we were doing. We jumped in so deep! We had no idea. All of a sudden it happened. We got better. But [back then] we didn’t care. We could have a music festival and be cursed by it or blessed by it. [All of the purists] told us that, “if you’re gonna have a Bluegrass festival, have Bluegrass,” or “if you’re gonna have a Blues festival, you better do Blues.” If you’re gonna do Irish, or Rock or whatever.. that was kind of a major league curse and kind of the “anti music festival” part of it.. there’s a dogma.. “if you want to be a serious festival” .. and Eric & I have the same view.. no matter how much I love a certain genre of music.. I don’t want to have to sit for 3 days and listen to the same stuff.. not enough to want to hang out. That’s nuts. It had to be “damn the torpedoes, we’re going to mix the best music regardless of genre.” That was kind of our Cincinnati, hardcore, belief that “this is the way we’re going to do it and there will be people who are going to like it!”

Cincymusic: Do we call that “Cincinnati hardcore” or “Kentucky stubborn?”
Schoenborn: [laughs] Kentucky Stubborn! Exactly. We just wore that.. We still wear that! We book bands that have no draw. Like Ginny Hawker from WV. You’ve probably never heard of her but she’s probably one of the best country music singers alive and, the list goes on and on.. but these bands break out and are able to play much larger venues after Pickathon. We’re able to take bands from obscurity into a different level of playing. Which is fun for us. And we’re really lucky that we’re surviving through that. And it’s because people come and experience it. It’s really hard to describe and it’s a lot of “word of mouth” and ends up being a lot of “oh yeah, I love that music! I don’t know a lot of the bands but I know it’s gonna be great!”

We go to the hardcore lovers of any particular music style and pay attention and ask them who the best, unknown, acts are. Their judgment is just.. so far above.. and some bands are well-known. Some aren’t. We’re just focusing on the soul, the grit of a genre.

Cincymusic: So you’re influenced by your travels, your musical upbringing..
Schoenborn: Yeah.. friends, the broad influences I had growing up, from my dad liking Bluegrass, to Lexington.. there’s a lot of music in Cincinnati that you get exposed to beyond Classic Rock, which I still listen to.

It’s amazing how many people from Kentucky and Cincinnati are still weaving in and out of Pickathon. And as much as we describe or read about it.. it’s the ones that come out that say, “I can’t believe I haven’t been coming out here for years!”

Cincymusic: Do I get a Primo camping spot when I come out next year?
Schoenborn: Of course!

Get more info on the 15th year of Pickathon at https://www.facebook.com/pickathon  and http://www.pickathon.com/info/!

Pendarvis Farm just outside of Portland, Oregon
August 2nd - 4th