The Heliotrope Festival is an annual event spotlighting underground and experimental music in Minnesota; this year, the festival celebrates its tenth anniversary with a three-day lineup (Thursday-Saturday, June 5-7) that includes dozens of artists. I spoke by phone with Richard Barlow and Erik Wivinus, who were among the festival’s founders and continue to serve as co-curators.
Give me the 15-second elevator pitch: what is the Heliotrope Festival?
EW: In my mind, it’s basically there to present things that are underrepresented or under-recognized—or things that get a fair amount of attention, but embrace a spirit of adventure or experimentation, pushing boundaries. As long as the motivations are sincere and the primary motivation is aesthetic rather than careerist; people who are doing what they do whether they get attention or not.
RB: A lot of the musicians are from underground scenes; they play basements and art galleries. By having a festival where they all come together, they get presented to more people—and to each other. They discover like-minded acts, and audiences build for everything. Everything gets more attention than it would receive on its own.
So it’s a diverse mix of music. Are there any common threads?
EW: It is pretty wide-ranging. These acts are the sort of [artists] you would see in basements or dive bars. We want to put them in a more grandiose setting with theater lighting and a live video montage by Emily Kaplan. It’s [artists] that would fit a theater setting, but normally don’t have the chance to play [in that setting].
RB: The event becomes an immersive experience: lighting, video, a merchandise bazaar. The whole experience transforms things. I’d also say there’s a degree of experimentation [among the artists]. Free jazz, I think, has a common thread with noise music and psychedelic music; they’re all pushing [boundaries]. By introducing their fans to one another, they might see that these things are more related than they might have thought.
This is underground music, then. Why is it underground? What keeps this music from becoming more popular?
EW: Some of the sounds these people use might be considered abrasive to more sensitive ears—though some of it is also quite beautiful. It’s music in long and abstract formats.
RB: There’s a lot of purely instrumental music—which is, for some reason, a non-commercial mode. Thinking back to our repeated refrain, there’s a lot of experimentation going on. As Erik said, it’s sometimes quite beautiful, but it’s not necessarily conforming to established modes of verse-chorus formality. That might be why these things aren’t more popular, but people who do like more standard formalities might think, for example, the International Novelty Gamelan is quite gorgeous.
EW: Many of these people operate in willfully cloistered areas. Some of them just haven’t become popular yet; in the past, we’ve presented Daughters of the Sun, Vampire Hands, and Skoal Kodiak.
RB: Speaking of Vampire Hands, their bassist [Chris Bierden] is now in Poliça.
EW: Paul Metzger is a guy who’s been involved in this scene; now the world knows about him. Breakaway is one of the new acts involved [in Heliotrope] this year who could get more popular soon.
Is there anything special about Minnesota’s experimental music scene?
EW: I don’t think there is. There’s an underground like this in a lot of places—Baltimore, Montreal, any number of places have weirdos doing weird stuff.
RB: If anything, the Twin Cities [underground] scene may not get the attention it deserves. There’s a sense among fans that there are cool things happening in Baltimore and New York; we want to draw attention to the things happening here.
You mentioned a merchandise bazaar. Say more about what’s happening at the Heliotrope Festival besides the music.
RB: We always set up a bunch of tables so acts can bring their own merch: LPs, CDs, and so on. I’ve always tried to make the festival a nexus for creativity. We encourage people to design and sell their own posters. We’ve had people design silkscreen posters for the festival. We’ll have a couple of record labels represented at booths, locally-run independent labels selling their wares. John Kass from Go Johnny Go brings in boxes of cheap vinyl; maybe other people will bring that sort of thing. This year one new thing is that we’ve invited Kickstand Press, which does live silkscreening. People can bring in their own t-shirts to have something silkscreened. There are a lot of ways for people to bring their creativity to bear.
EW: A lot of these acts also include accomplished visual artists, who bring their art to sell.
RB: Zak Sally from White Map is a graphic novelist; he’ll be bringing his publications in.
Music festivals come and go. What’s kept Heliotrope going for ten years?
EW: For one thing, we have a lot of people with the necessary skills and dedication to help us out of the goodness of their hearts. They move away, then they travel back to [participate]. Rich [Barlow], for example, lives in New York state now. Beyond that, it’s keeping it as affordable as possible.
RB: It helps that early on, we figured out how to do it without any budget. The organizers have never made any money. Any money we make, we split among performers equally, so the degree to which we get paid is the degree to which we’re involved as performers. That changes the pressures, compared to if you’re doing work like this and expecting to get paid a living wage.
When people get to the office on Monday, they’ll be like, “Whoa, dude, you should have gone to Intermedia Arts this weekend! I saw…” Finish that sentence.
EW: I’d hope they’d say they saw a fantastic performance they expected to see, and three other things that blew their minds that they had no idea even existed.
RB: I’d hope they’re left too speechless to single out any one moment.
Thursday, June 5
6:00 Milo Fine, Paul Metzger (Fine-Metzger duo)
8:40 International Novelty Gamelan
9:15 Jesse Petersen
9:40 Mar Habrine
10:20 Robust Worlds
11:00 Comb Boats
Friday, June 6
6:50 Old Moon
8:00 Take Acre
8:30 Thunderbolt Pagoda featuring Jason Kesselring
9:45 American Cream
11:15 The Rope
Saturday, June 7
6:15 Transitional Species
6:45 Dolores Dewberry
7:20 New Wave Hookers
8:00 Blood Folke
9:20 Temple Of Set
11:15 House Of Atreus
Photos by Adam Bubolz