An interview with founder J.K. McKnight
Forecastle Festival founder and director J.K McKnight is a week away from perhaps the biggest milestone of his career: the massive 10-year anniversary of the Louisville festival, which started as a pet project in 2002 featuring a small gathering of bands at a neighborhood park. Since then, the festival has outgrown several Louisville locations – including Cherokee Park, Mellwood Arts Center and the Riverfront Belvedere –before finding a home in Louisville’s 85-acre Waterfront Park in 2010, where it has remained since then.
Forecastle’s 10-year anniversary (July 13-15) will be one for the books, with upwards of 30,000 people expected to converge at the historic river park for a line-up that includes more than 60 up-and-coming, local, regional, national and headliner acts from a variety of genres, as well as a number of non-music attractions. This year also marks the first time McKnight has teamed up with his new employer, AC Entertainment (the masterminds behind such festivals as Bonnaroo, Moogfest and Big Ears), in presenting a full-scale, 3-day event (last year, while McKnight was transitioning into his new position as AC Entertainment’s National Sponsorship Director, the team presented a one-day event called Halfway to Forecastle, in preparation for this year’s blowout).
Art and activism have always been an integral part of the festival’s M.O., with a large scale “sustainable road show” that features a display of alternative energy vehicles and technologies, a “conscious carnival,” a health and healing tent and a number of workshops and panels centered on sustainable living. A “visionary art experience” will take place inside a 30 ft. inflatable dome, and headliners My Morning Jacket have helped craft a Louisville village dedicated to showcasing local food, beer and culture.
For full details on the festival’s line-up (which also includes indie heavyweights Wilco, Neko Case, Sleigh Bells, Girl Talk, Bassnectar and a slew of up-and-coming talent from every genre imaginable) and to get tickets, visit www.forecastlefest.com. Festival director McKnight recently took a few minutes from his (insanely busy) schedule to answer some questions for Smiley Pete.
Forecastle started as a small, free event in 2002, with a handful of bands (mostly your friends’ bands?) playing in Tyler Park. Talk about that first year –– what was your vision for the original event? What motivated you to do it? Who was playing and about how many people attended?
The vision was simplicity. Simplicity. It was an opportunity to get acquainted with friends and people I hadn’t seen in a long time, as I had spent the previous year studying in Charleston, SC. The following year, I would set the bar a little higher. But for then, there were no thoughts or ambitions like that. I was with my friends, most of whom I still see today, and proud to plant a seed and accomplish something uplifting, inspiring and positive. A free, non-profit event that utilized the parks the way [park designer Frederick Law] Olmsted envisioned. There probably wasn’t more than 50 people there, and that mainly consisted of the bands playing.
Was there some breaking point somewhere along the way where you realized the potential growth factor for the event? At what point did some of the big players (i.e., Louisville’s mayor, agents for larger headlining bands, AC Entertainment) take notice of the event?
In 2005, certainly. What we pulled off that year was really historic and amazing. Literally with no budget, drawing over 5,000 people to Cherokee for the first major festival in a decade. It was a major feat, outdrawing the last major festival there (10 years prior) which was fully funded and had headliners like Bush and others. It was a moment I’ll never forget. Like the youth of Bardstown Rd. rising up and making a point. It got me thinking of bigger things. Before that, during the Tyler Park years, there was never a grand, 10-year plan or anything. I was doing it for fun and to give back to the community.
As for the later years, I would say 2006 helped put the festival on the national PR radar (thanks to Sleater-Kinney, who choose Forecastle as one of the final dates on their farewell tour) and certainly 2009 (Black Keys, Widespread Panic, Avett Brothers, Pretty Lights, etc) put the festival on the map with agents and promoters.
The line-up has always been a well balanced mixture of various genres – is their some underlying theme tying together all the diverse acts on the bill in your mind?
We take a lot of things into account. Genres and geography are certainly two of them. So is activism. We definitely want to be viewed as the festival focusing on emerging talent, something you see a great deal of this year.
Do you feel that the shift of the music industry in recent years has had an impact on the overall festival scene? On Forecastle?
There’s definitely much more of a focus on live music and people trying to populate that space. It’s a growing trend, given where retail is these days (RIP Ear-X-Tacy). It certainly forces us to stay creative and innovative, ahead of the curve. Not just with music, but with everything else we’re doing.