Seismic-Sound Interview: With Jason Lajeunesse
As many of you know, the 2011 Capitol Hill Block Party is right around the corner, and this years line up is looking better than ever. One of my commitments to the music community is to not only focus on the artists, but also the people who are behind the process of making this city one lean, mean music machine.
Jason Lajeunesse is one of those people who has a vested history within the Seatttle music scene, but the general population doesn’t know that . Not only is he a booker, promoter and club owner, but he’s also a musician. So I was looking forward to sitting down with him and finding out where his passion for the business came from, but also about the festival itself; so we sat down at Moes and got some insight to not only the man who wears many hats in the music community, but some possible new directions the festival could take down the road.
How did you get started in the music business? Istarted booking a friends club in Vancouver around “97”, he had a little venue there and he put on a lot of local shows; but that’s when I started in the music industry, which I did for about 3 years. He subsequently sold the club, and moved to Seattle where he opened up Graceland and another club with a couple other guys. So while the booker at the Graceland took the booking job at Showbox, I was recommended for the Graceland job. It just seemed to be a good fit.
So were you always interested in music?I mean where did the passion for music come from? Well my grandmother played accordion and my grandfather played the piano and violin, I had an aunt that played the guitar, both my little brothers are drummers, so I certainly come from a family of musicians. A friend of my mom’s got me into Sonic Youth, Tom Waits and she was like listening to Husker Du when I was 10 years old. So I guess you could say there was art and music in my formidable stages in the early part of growing up. So I was fortunate to grow up around it, but lucky they had good taste in music too.
So what year was it that you made the leap to Seattle? That was in 2000.I essentially knew that they would be pulling the plug on the job up there, so I made the switch down to Seattle to take over booking at Graceland.
So you obviously acquired a lot of experience working in the music club scene, but when did it dawn on you to open your own rock club? It really happened organically. I was a buyer, when it first opened as Neumos, and it was owned by Marcus, Charles and Jerry. I came in as the talent buyer from Graceland. They approached me about coming to Neumos, and at the time Graceland was going through some changes, so I felt career wise it was the best move for me. So within 2 years of me being a talent buyer, Marcus decided he was going to get rid of his businesses and go back to school, So I was approached by the remaining owners about possibly getting some partners together and getting involved, but they were contemplating selling it. So I approached Steven Severin and Mike about coming in with me, and it just happened.
So as of currently its Steven and Mike and yourself who own Neumos. And who plays what role?Steven and I do all the booking together … 50/50 give or take. Mike is the actual GM and we do still have our partner Jerry who is still involved in the business aspect , and he was the original founder of Moe and Neumos, but he is pretty hands off overall.
So now…onto the Capitol Hill Block Party. What was the catalyst that brought that about? Can you give us a little insight? David and Marcus own it and they asked me to book it when I was working for Marcus here at Neumos. This festival just takes a lot of time up, so I was approached about 5 years ago now, and it seems that every year I have become more and more involved. But this year is the most I have been involved when it comes to community meetings, marketing and taking care of the staffing side of it.
So you do all the booking for the Block Party? Well yeah for the main stage and the Neumos stage. Tristen from over at Vera Project, programs that stage and I over-see that as well as the Cha Cha stage.
Do you focus on the growth of the festival or has that just been a natural progression? I think it’s just naturally grown, and I think we have hit what we are comfortable with and certainly with what the city is comfortable with as far as size. Last year we really peaked out. a few years ago it was just a visual call on how many tickets we should be selling etc… But it’s really been a learning experience, and trying to make sure the music is set up so there is some what of an even-flow.
So when Booking for you, what is your focus? Is it the hot big indie acts that create a draw or are you really researching the local scene? I would imagine a bit of both? Yeah I mean it’s all relative;you can’t have one without the other. For an example last year one of the mistakes we had was having MGMT on Friday, and it was amazing they wanted to play because it’s a small festival for them to play at this point. But they were into it, and liked the concept of it and did it for a total reasonable price. But what that did to the festival is made it very top-heavy, so it was one band that sold the majority of the tickets. So you just learn by watching the festival play out so to speak and gauge it by that. So I focused on smaller bands and having a broader section of groups, it seemed like a better approach for us, because it should be more about emerging talent;both locally and nationally and I think this year I was really able to stumble upon a lot of that. And the more the festival is established, the more that bands and agents actually route their tours over here this time of year to accommodate us, as well as a handful of other festivals.
What about moving the festival? There really is nowhere to move it. People talk about Cal Anderson Park. That would be great and Cal Anderson is beautiful, but the costs and the things we would have to do to protect the lawn alone of the park would be an issue. Capacity there is an issue as well. The city just probably wouldnt allow it. Several years ago we talked about moving the main stage there and that means shutting down Pine street which is a main corridor for public transportation. It’s just unreasonable.
Have there been talk about moving it anywhere else? No..the idea is just to keep it in this neighborhood. There is no plan to grow or make the festival any bigger. But I would like to refine it, and make the grounds more hospitable, make sure the surrounding businesses are happier and make sure the quality of the programming gets consistently better.
For me personally it seems as though, this is the most well-rounded festival, so obviously you’re doing something right: Well our budget for talent was bigger this year and bands are a bit more expensive. Bands are really counting on festival money to make a living, so peoples expectations continue to grow, but we can in no way be compared to things like Coachella which happens with agents and bands, and I am just like “we are no where close to that” *laughing*. I mean they say “well we got paid this for this”, and I am like we are talking about a $80 dollar ticket versus $240. That’s the reality of the ticket prices for us … they can’t really get much higher except for maybe some general inflation, but depending on what we’re programming , it has to be relative, but I certainly feel like this years is much more well-rounded and that was my intention; from door open till doors close. And of course some years are easier than others. We almost didn’t do a 3rd day this year cause of the lack of talent. We didn’t have a headliner for one of the days until about 20 hours until the line-up was released. It’s always full of surprises. I thought TV On The Radio was not going to happen and things just turned around. There was a whole lot of juggling going around.
As a music lover…booking something like this seems like a thrill. I know I love-making a music playlist for a party, so is this something you really love, or has it just become a job? No I still love finding bands that I can’t wait to ask to see if they will come and perform, like Austra, who I saw at SXSW this past year. The Festival is probably the funnest booking I do, because I get to hand design it. I have the most creative freedom with it.
When you go to other Festivals….local in particular. Do you go and kind of “shop” them so to speak…see what works, what may not? No…I can’t be concerned so much about other festivals, other wise people like Adam Zacks would give me a major concussion. You know how many times I have tried to book bands, but I hear “they are playing Sasquatch“… and I am ok with that, because that’s the reality of it. I feel like ours is a boutique festival, we do 9,000 people a day, and bumbershoot does in upwards of 30,000 people a day. Bottom line is we are not going to appeal to every demographic and if we did, it would be a very watered down festival. We have always wanted to add a electronic stage, but we are limited with space.
So what can you tell some of these local bands who are itching to get booked for the block party and have the talent, the drive and even the draw to do it, but somehow feel overlooked? how do they get booked? Well no doubt you have to be out watching other bands and participating in the music community and meeting other musicians, I mean it’s only good for you in general. But there are so many amazing bands that I remember or whatever after the fact, but its difficult. But certainly I say get out there and get involved in the community. It’s like music 101 to me. But there are a lot of talented people in this city, and the scene is strong, so get out there….
Give me 3 national bands that are booked that you are stoked to see, as well as 3 local bands. Explosions In The Sky is one of my most anticipated shows, and its amazing to have them here…I have tried for a couple of years to get them. Also Austra I am excited to see as I mentioned before; I want to see the response to her. And also Handsome Furs, I think they are incredible live. Local I would say there are a lot, but some I have seen a ton, so I’m trying to see the few I haven’t had a chance to see. But I love My Goodness, and I am excited to see them on the main stage and see how it unfolds. Also I am excited to see Federation X. I was lucky enough that they were playing a little tour in the PNW, and I was able to book them .Who else? Also excited to see both Sports, Craft Spells, live. And He Whose Ox Is Gored, so yeah I am stoked to see them live too.
What may be some things you’d like to do differently or improve upon for next years festival?3 things I’d like to see happen. I’d like to get more visual representation of the main stage on the whole festival grounds, but the cost of that is substantial, so unless we have a media partner that I can work with, it may be difficult to do. So more visual and audio.I’d also like to set up an outdoor chill stage with a Dj set up, where people can just go and kick it in the grass or whatever we would have set up, but we will see. It’s a space issue. And I also would like one more good size stage, but again its a space issue. Even 2 of those things would be great… but again we will see… all in due time.