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Dennis Rea: Zero-G and the Sea Prog Festival


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I know for myself it was important from the beginning that our series span not only the outer edges of jazz but also the outer edges of rock.
—Dennis Rea
Based in Seattle, guitarist Dennis Rea has a long history playing creative and experimental music as well as progressive rock. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he lived and performed in China, putting together some of the earliest tours by Western musicians performing non-mainstream music, and in 2006 he published a book about his experiences there entitled Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan. Rea also has a history of being involved in organizing creative music events and is a co-organizer of the Zero-G concert series "with a focus on exploratory electric instrumental music...spotlighting a multifarious selection of the region's most adventurous instrumentalists from diverse scenes, from accomplished scene veterans to head-turning emerging artists," and in July 2013, with partners Jon Davis and John Reagan, he spearheaded the coordination and production of Sea Prog, Seattle's first weekend-long progressive rock festival in more than a decade. (Source: dennisrea.com)

All About Jazz: Let's talk about the Zero-G music series and the Sea Prog festival.

Dennis Rea: Zero-G actually originated with Rik Wright, the Seattle guitarist. Rik was offered an opportunity to do a regular booking at a local venue, and he was interested in doing it, but he didn't think he could carry the load all by himself. So he sought out the assistance of me and also Jason Goessl, another guitarist. We are all three guitarists, that is just coincidence.

Our idea from the beginning was to do something different from the other series in Seattle. Various series would focus on outward bound jazz or art rock or various types of orphaned musics. The Seattle scene has a tendency, I have observed, to segregate itself into competitive camps, and people within those camps tend to take little interest in what is happening outside of their own circle. They don't show strong support for people outside their circle, and they typically ply a particular type of music or approach to music making to the exclusion of other ways of making music.

I know for myself it was important from the beginning that our series span not only the outer edges of jazz but also the outer edges of rock. That would be satisfying for me because my interests span both genres. There is an abundance of very talented, very interesting bands working in both areas in Seattle, but there was no real overlap between the scenes until Zero-G. So typically when we book—and we have been doing this either monthly or bi-monthly for three years now—we make an effort to bring in people from the different scenes, and in a way force them to mix, and by doing so force their audiences to contend with some of the other music that is being made in this town.

AAJ: Does Zero-G have a mission statement?

DR: We don't have a formal mission statement, and we are pretty much open to considering anything that falls within some loose parameters. Initially we wanted to focus almost entirely on instrumental music, because instrumental music tends to be segregated in this town, but over the years various acts have come through that use vocals to some extent and we decided that they were perfectly salient with the vision that we had in mind. So we are not strictly instrumental, but we tend to book mostly instrumental acts. That is about as close to a mission statement as we have. We are looking for music that pushes the boundaries in an area spanning contemporary jazz, contemporary rock music and sometimes world music hybrids. We tend not to book so much the free improv sort of thing because there are venues for that, and the venues that we customarily use are just not the right forum for that kind of music. It's because of noise issues and that sort of thing.

AAJ: What kind of success have you had with Zero-G?

DR: Our success shows in our longevity. This thing is still going three years on, and if you had asked us to predict how long we would be able to keep this afloat back at the onset then I would say that we would be very pleasantly surprised to realize that we would still be doing this three years on. Booking on a monthly or bi-monthly basis over that stretch of time in a city the size of Seattle, there is bound to be some overlap, some double booking, and some return bookings. But we are still managing to pull a few rabbits out of our hats here and there, especially encouraged nowadays by the activity among some very young people on the scene who seem to be rehabilitating progressive rock in new terms. We are pulling from that crowd, and there is always a fresh crop of new jazz faces coming up every year. Many of them go the mainstream route, but the people who are doing something original or are giving it their best effort are the people we are interested in.

AAJ: What have been some of the challenges you have had to deal with?

DR: The largest challenge by far has been getting anybody to pay attention in the press. I think it is fair to say that the Seattle music press is almost entirely fixated on indie rock and hip hop and this kind of neo-Americana folk music. Ghetto musics like the type that we present are about the most ignored music in town, and trying to get a preview or a review is like pulling teeth, so we have faced challenges in that regard. We have a handful of allies in the local press who have come out for us on occasion; otherwise, it has been pretty much word of mouth, our own web site and our web outreach efforts, and Facebook events and that sort of thing, the kind of thing you have to do nowadays.

AAJ: How did you get involved in the coordination of the Sea Prog Festival?

DR: I think you could say that Sea Prog was a natural outgrowth of Zero-G. None of my partners in Zero-G, and that now includes John Seman from the Monktail Creative Music Concern, none of those guys were involved in the organization of Sea Prog. But it was an outgrowth of Zero-G in that I saw numerous bands pass through our series that really knocked me out who were playing something that I would term progressive rock. Now I understand that that's a really loaded term and that is anathema to some people, but progressive rock in actuality has fractured into so many different subgenres that there is music that resembles the old progressive rock of yore, there is music that is basically power pop dressed up with some fancy licks, and then there is the avant-garde side of things and that is my primary interest and that is the type of music that Sea Prog is tilted toward most consciously.

What happened was one night at a Zero-G concert after a particularly inspiring set by some progressive rock band, I said publicly that I thought that we had enough talent in that genre in our town that we could hold our own damn progressive rock festival that would compare favorably to any of the others held in any other locale in the world, and I do strongly believe that. One of the people who became my partner approached me about that and he thought it was a good idea, and then a third person also approached me having overheard that and he agreed not only that he wanted to get involved but that he was also willing to put up some of the financing to make such a thing possible. Hence, we undertook the experiment that was Sea Prog.

With Sea Prog my initial idea was to showcase Seattle talent, and I still believe that after the first festival we have still only scratched the surface of that. At some point it became clear to us that to boost attendance it would be in our best interest to bring in a couple of ringers from out of town, so we examined our wish list and brought in Thinking Plague, who are based in Colorado but have a couple of members with Seattle ties so they were still technically tied in with our local community, miRthkon from the Bay Area, and Jolanda from Italy. The rest of the program was all Seattle bands.

We went out a bit on a limb. What we wanted to do, having seen these acts perform in dive bars, we wanted to create a situation where they could perform in a more dignified setting and be treated as the accomplished artists that they are; where they could actually make a little bit of money for a change, and get good sound reinforcement and loving care. That is basically what we wanted to create, and I believe we succeeded. Going into it, even right up to the time of the festival, it was anybody's guess whether this thing was going to be a flop or a mild success. Nobody was more surprised than the organizers when it ended up being a smashing success, and I think by pretty much any meaningful measure the first edition of Sea Prog was a roaring success.

That bodes well for the future. It is really too early to say where we are going from here, but it is likely that it will happen again and our venue of choice, the Columbia City Theater, has expressed interest in continuing to partner with us on this. That is a huge plus for us because, as far as I am concerned, apart from all of the fantastic music that was presented at the first Sea Prog, the star of the show was the venue. We just happened to make the perfect choice of venue.

People have attempted in the past to mount progressive rock events in Seattle and nobody has entirely succeeded. Some people who tried very early on couldn't get it off the ground. Some very ambitious people back about 12 years ago launched something called Progman Cometh. They brought in one of the greatest lineups of progressive rock musicians that Seattle has ever seen—including almost anybody who was anybody on the Canterbury scene—but they made the mistake of overestimating the audience, and they put it in a theater that seats one or two thousand people. They were never able to get more than 150 people in there at any given time during the three-day festival. We were determined not to make that mistake and not overreach, so our choice of the Columbia City Theater, which is a venue that holds at maximum about 250 people, it ended up being perfect.

You have to remember that there is not a large audience for this music. Even in a city this size, it is pretty much a niche music, but when presented in a venue like that you get a modest number of people in there, it feels like a happening scene, and that energy transmits to the musicians on stage. The musicians were delighted to have great sound reinforcement, to actually be playing in a theatrical setting, and I am certain that they would all want to come back. I am certain that others are going to want to hop onboard the train in the future. I am certain that everyone who was there had a wonderful time.

The thing about a festival is that it is not just a series of gigs. It is also a social event. Progressive rock festivals, the ones that happen that are scattered around the world, the social element is a very important part of that. We tried to create an environment where people felt comfortable, relaxed, and encouraged to interact with one another. The theater proved to be perfect for that, because of its size and availability of a large front room with a bar where we were able to book some smaller acts in between the main stage sets, so there was some continuous activity happening. We also located it in a small, tight knit community, the Columbia City neighborhood in Seattle, where there were plenty of dining and drinking options right nearby. It made for just a great weekend out for a lot of people.

AAJ: Can you talk about what some of the challenges were of getting the festival going?

DR: We had the same challenges that Zero-G always faces in getting anybody in the press to pay attention. Apart from some enthusiastic notices in the internet progressive rock community, the worldwide community, locally we did not get any press at all until the final week before the festival. What press we did get was surprisingly enthusiastic and well informed. That was a very heartening indication that perhaps people's attitudes regarding this type of music may be softening, and I am sure that as word spreads of the caliber of the music that happened at that festival, people are going to maybe reconsider what progressive rock means in 2013.

AAJ: My final question is with regards to a complaint that you hear from a lot of musicians when they can't get into a festival or a series for some reason, not just here in Seattle but anywhere. So my question is: can you talk about why sticking to a specific mission statement, or at the very least a standard of musical performance, is important to the success of an independent music festival or series?

DR: We made no bones about the fact that this was a curated festival and as such it unashamedly reflected the tastes of the curators. It is possible that in the future we might open it up to an application sort of arrangement, but for the first festival we wanted to see a really strong lineup. We wanted this to succeed, so we booked some of the best quality acts that we could get our hands on. We approached other acts too, a lot of them were unavailable, but we didn't want to overdo it. I would say that if we were to do this again you wouldn't see any repeats the next time. We will continue to plum the Seattle scene for musicians that meet this broad criteria that we have established. I will say that we are not really interested in a lot of the music that would be termed neo-prog, which is really more song based. We are more interested in the more instrumental heavy type of music.

We are aware that there are people out there that probably felt left out. Just yesterday somebody posted on the Sea Prog page on Facebook: "Why weren't this band on the bill? They are so fantastic." The only answer I had to that was: because we had never heard of them. So I would advise people in that kind of a situation who want to get involved to do a little outreach. Outreach doesn't just mean reaching out to people who are organizing festivals and asking for a gig. It also means making yourself an active member of the community and showing your face at other people's gigs. Again, we are trying to overcome a tendency of people to kind of clump into different separate groups in this town who are jealous of each other. We don't want any more of that. I would say that those people who took a chance on Sea Prog that are people that we never saw before, they went home satisfied. They had a great time, they made new friends, they realized that we are not bad guys. We are not trying to monopolize the scene.

My advice to any hopefuls is get involved. Show your face at other people's gigs. Let us know you are out there. Let us check you out. Don't just remain in isolation and complain about never getting any gigs. Another thing, though, that has to be borne in mind when we are booking something like this is that it costs money to put on a festival like that. It costs a considerable amount of money. We want to raise enough money to be able to pay the musicians well. If you want to play on our festival but you have no draw because you are basically playing in your bedroom all of the time at some place way out in the suburbs, musically what you are doing might be very compelling, but there is an expectation that you are going to bring some people to the festival; to participate in making this a success.

Selected Discography

Dennis Rea/Wally Shoup/Tom Zgonc, Subduction Zone (Nunatak, 2012)

Moraine, Metamorphic Rock (Moonjune Records, 2011)

Dennis Rea, Views From Chicheng Precipice (Moonjune Records, 2010)

Iron Kim Style, Iron Kim Style (Moonjune Records, 2010)

Moraine, manifest deNsity (Moonjune Records, 2009)

Stackpole, Stackpole (First World Music, 2001)

Photo Credit

Steve Kennedy-Williams

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