Since it started in 2002, the Sasquatch! Music Festival has grown to be one of the most lauded, talked-about festivals in the country. Held at the picturesque Gorge Amphitheatre, just three hours southeast of Seattle, the annual festival traditionally boasts one of the music world’s most stacked and diverse lineups, rivaling—some say surpassing—those of Coachella and Lollapalooza. But while its reputation has warranted more days, bigger acts, and longer hours, one thing has stayed the same: the festival’s inclusion of and loyalty to Northwest musicians.
“There’s no quota for local artists, but having strong Northwest representation is a high priority and a big part of keeping Sasquatch!’s distinct identity,” says Adam Zacks, the festival’s creator, curator, and all-around mastermind.
Zacks says his goal in booking local artists—which make up about one-fifth of this year’s acts—is to provide them with a springboard to further visibility and development. Over its 11 years, Sasquatch! has continued to do just that, introducing then-burgeoning artists like Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart, Shabazz Palaces, and Macklemore to thousands of festival attendees who may not have known them.
The magnitude of this opportunity is not lost on the local musicians making their Sasquatch! debut this year, as part of the weekend’s lineup of 127 musical acts, comedians, and speakers. “To be in front of that many people, and to play our music, it’s going to be pretty incredible,” says Harrison Mills, who will perform as Catacombkid with Seattle-based electronic duo Odesza on Monday. “We haven’t played a real festival yet. We’ve played some smaller ones, but nothing this big.”
This year’s most-anticipated local Sasquatch! debut may be that of Rose Windows, a band that’s been generating buzz for its psychedelic, folk-infused rock. The band—whose set will preview its first album, The Sun Dogs, due later this summer—will make its Sasquatch! debut on Saturday afternoon. “Being the first act of the day, we kind of feel that we get to wake up the crowd. So that’s cool,” says Rose Windows’ Nils Petersen. “Because of this, we’ll probably be playing our more abrasive, hard-hitting set.”
How do local acts earn a spot on the Sasquatch! bill? Zacks admits that spreading the love equitably is always a challenge. He tries to give attention to artists who are making strides and having a breakout year. He also considers the growing popularity of certain genres, the most notable in recent years being hip-hop and electronic dance music. For the former, recognition has come in the form of the Cthulhu (previously “Maine”) stage, added to the festival in 2012 as a showcase for the Northwest’s flourishing hip-hop scene.
But the most assured way to a Sasquatch! stage, says Zacks, is to stay focused on creating music from the heart—and to perform it like your life depends on it. “This is always a good strategy, and we’ll eventually catch up and notice,” he says.
Assuring a return trip to a Sasquatch! stage, on the other hand, sometimes requires as much quick thinking and creativity as hard work. Take the case of RA Scion, who returns to the festival this year in support of Adding to the Extra, his new album with Todd Sykes. The Seattle-based MC (real name, Ryan Abeo) first played Sasquatch! as half of Common Market in 2007—a year memorable for the unexpected hailstorm that forced the cancellation of Common Market’s set.
“It was my first time performing at the festival, and I was so excited,” Abeo recalls. “And 40 minutes before our set, the skies opened up and they shut down the entire festival.” The inclement weather didn’t stop Abeo, who pulled his truck up to the gate, blasted the stereo, and played a spontaneous un-miked set that proved to be one of that year’s most talked-about festival performances.
Likewise, rock-guitar virtuoso Reignwolf’s series of impromptu concerts around the festival grounds made him a natural choice for a follow-up. “Reignwolf earned a return visit by making such an impact on unsuspecting audiences last year playing renegade sets on top of Easy Street’s van and in the campground,” Zacks says. “Consider this his encore.”
The impact of Jessica Dobson’s experience at Sasquatch! 2012 was different. “I think the monumental moment was eating shit on stage,” says Dobson, who performed on the mainstage as guitarist for headliners the Shins and returns this year as the leader of Deep Sea Diver. “There was a guy dressed in a costume, and he ran on stage and scared the shit out of me. I tripped on my cable and fell on my face.”
Despite the misstep, Dobson says she’s honored to take part again. She just hopes her return will play out a little more smoothly. “For this one, it’s a different experience, because it’s my band and all the little details are my responsibility,” Dobson says. “There’s no big crew taking care of things. It’s exciting but nerve-racking.”
Another local returning from last year is Macklemore, who moves up to headlining the mainstage on opening night. That booking, Zacks explains, is a massive high point of an unbelievable year of worldwide success for the artist, who will most likely pack the amphitheatre.
Ben Gibbard—the most persistent local musician at Sasquatch!, with five years of experience and counting—will close the festival on Monday as half of the recently rejuvenated Postal Service, who played the fest back in 2004. “They have a meaningful history with us,” Zacks adds. “Their last performance prior to this reunion tour was at Sasquatch!.”
Such a history might await any one of the newbie locals. But they first have to survive their Sasquatch! debut. Dobson provides this common-sense advice: “Hit Stumptown in the morning, don’t fall in front of 50,000 people—and don’t be a butthead.”
RA Scion speaks from experience: Bring extra clothes. “It’s a festival, so it gets grimy and gritty—and you never know what the weather is gonna do,” Abeo says. “And once you have wet jeans, it makes for a long day.”