Right as Bonnaroo 2016 kicks off for a landmark 15th time in Manchester, Tennessee, we grabbed a few minutes of co-creator Rick Farman's time, to get his personal perspective on the history and magic of one of the world's great rock and pop festivals.
Hey Rick, thanks for taking the time out to speak to us. It must be a pretty busy time for you.
No problem. You know, we've been going for 15 years now, and we’ve had an incredible amount of consistency with our team over that time – so thankfully, for me, I can’t say it’s super busy. For people on site right now it certainly is, but for me it’s a little more … well, I wouldn’t call it relaxed, but… [laughs]
Yeah, it sounds like you're pretty chilled. So do you get to really enjoy each edition while you're there, instead of having to work the whole time?
I think both. I mean I do get to enjoy it, and especially at night. I think during the day you’re spending a lot of time tweaking things, and by the time night comes everybody’s kinda settled into what they’re doing. But I’m still making calls and trying to make notes.
That said, we’ve been doing it in the same place for 15 years, with a lot of the same team; for the last three, four or even five years I’ve really felt that I’ve been able to enjoy the festival and not just be out there producing.
Going back to 2002, what was it like when it all got started?
You know, we caught lightening in a bottle in so many ways. Because we were the fans for this thing, we understood the demand and the window there was for something like this in the American music scene. One of the things I often think about when I look back on it is that, when Bonnaroo launched, it was right around the time that digital music was coming up. I can remember being in our office downloading stuff off Napster when we were launching Bonnaroo.
So we were in the this moment where music listening habits were changing and evolving. People were living more of their lives digitally, and they were looking for something more immersive and more community based. And we just knew that if we got all these bands together that we loved, in one place and one time, and we provide an opportunity to camp and live a whole weekend together, that people would want to come to it. We would have been the first people lined up to go if it had been somebody else doing it.
The first edition of Bonnaroo, in 2002
What are you looking forward to this year?
I think for me, the experience is about catching that band that you didn’t expect to put on that amazing a performance. What usually happens for me is that I’ll have a lot of things I want to see, but I’ll try and leave a lot of open time and follow what people are talking about. Inevitably I see a performance by a band that I never expected to be that good, or that I didn’t know about at all. I think that’s always the most enjoyable part, to me.
We also do this thing called SuperJam, which brings different players from different bands together, kind of a unique thing we do. That’s always a highlight, and it’s always where a lot of the Bonnaroo magic happens.
Do those artists tend to cover each other's songs, or roll out the old classics?
It's a bit of both. The artists will usually rehearse for a couple days leading into the show, so they put together a real show. It’s something we’ve been doing a long time, and it’s just become one of the real signatures of Bonnaroo.
It’s fun to put musicians in a different space, and give them an opportunity to produce something that normally they don’t do. A lot of times, nobody asks musicians to do this kind of thing – it’s not like they’re not looking for those other outlets and opportunities. Artists want to experiment and try different things.
Can you pick out any favourite sessions from past editions?
We did one with Ben Harper, Questlove and John Paul Jones, which was unbelievable. It was just a complete rock throw-down. Those three musicians come from very different arenas, and to see them all gel together was pretty amazing.
We did one with Dan Auerbach and Dr. John, which was sort of a precursor to them putting out that record out [Locked Down] together. We also did an amazing one with Jim James from My Morning Jacket and John Oates, and they had a really interesting cast up there with them. R. Kelly was like “I’ve never done anything like this before” – it was so far from what he’s used to doing. I mean, say what you want about the guy, but he’s got an incredibly powerful voice. In terms of who his audience is, he was a little bit of an outlier to be at Bonnaroo, so to have him participate in the SuperJam was really amazing.
Two years ago we did one with Skrillex, and he put together this unbelievable live band. It was really a meeting of the electronic world with the live world, and an amazing cast from Damian Marley to Lauryn Hill came out. That was really interesting: to have somebody like him come in and really want to participate in the fabric of Bonnaroo, and put together something special – the guy worked his ass off to make a very special show happen – it’s pretty nice.
What do you think are the things that really separate out Bonnaroo from every other festival?
Well you know, one thing that’s really different in the States as opposed to Europe is that most premium festivals out here are city-based festivals. Although America has that history of Woodstock and others starting the camping festival concept, it really was never carried through to the current day – until Bonnaroo. So it’s the only fully-immersive event in that regard.
Something else that really stands out is Southern hospitality. People down here are super friendly and nice, so one of the things that Bonnaroo is consistently heralded for is just the vibe. People are all-in on having a good time. Ultimately, I think those things are the special sauce of Bonnaroo.
And how are you celebrating the 15th anniversary?
Well it may not be the sexiest thing [laughing], but one of the new things we have is that we actually built permanent bathrooms and restrooms on site. We’re always really striving to try and produce the best experience for the fans that you can, and that’s a major one, right?
Other than that, we’ve got our surprises in store. We’re bringing back some old things we haven't done in a few years, and… well, let’s just say there’ll be a few special surprises in there.
Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival 2016 takes place from 9-12 June. To stay up-to-date with all the latest news and announcements on next year's edition, join our Waiting List here.
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