The end of the U.S. summer festival season is more or less upon us: we already know what Lady Gaga wore at Lollapalooza, how Pavement sounded at Sasquatch!, and what classics Stevie Wonder knocked out of the park at Bonnaroo. For a select few, however, the real summer festival is still to come -- the one where you can check out Explosions in the Sky between card games with Steve Albini, watch some of Jim Jarmusch's favorite new films, and maybe even snag a round of golf with Bill Murray. Who needs tickets to an overcrowded pop festival when there's indie sleep-away camp?
For the third straight year, London-based organization All Tomorrow's Parties is offering an alternative to mainstream summer showcases by promoting ATP New York, a three-day fest at Kutshers Country Club in Monticello, NY. Ticketholders will experience stand-up comedy and acts like Iggy & the Stooges performing classic albums on Friday, Sept. 3; an ATP-selected day of indie rock (Sonic Youth, Tortoise, The Books) on Sept. 4; and a day of music curated by "Coffee & Cigarettes" director Jarmusch on Sept. 5, not to mention art presentations, film screenings, book clubs and outdoor activities throughout the weekend.
The three-day fest attracts a modest group of indie-culture obsessives, but staying small and sponsorship-free is exactly the point of ATP New York. The festival is limited to less than 3,000 people each year, and there are no plans to expand or incorporate sponsors in order to compete with major U.S. fests.
"Some bigger festivals are good, but I know there are always complaints about there being too many people," says ATP founder Barry Hogan. "I think what we're doing at ATP is pulling back and doing less things, but making them more special."
Since forming in 1999, All Tomorrow's Parties (named after the Velvet Underground song) has promoted intimate festivals at holiday camps in the U.K. as well as curating events at Primavera Sound and the Pitchfork Music Festival. While ATP launched a California-based festival in 2002 that lasted three years in various locations, the revamped New York version has remained in its remote Monticello location, which is two hours north of New York City.
Although a $250 weekend pass is similarly priced to Coachella or Lollapalooza tickets, ATP New York offers an experience akin to a posh weekend getaway, with tennis courts, a health club and golf course all on Kutshers' premises. "It's one big community hanging out, really," says Hogan, "and there's nobody that doesn't like the area."
Along with the boutique size of the festival, ATP limits VIP and backstage areas so that fans can run into and chat with their favorite artists. "I prefer it when shows and festivals don't have too many restrictive areas, which are everywhere at larger festivals," says guitarist Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls, who are set to play on Sept. 5. "I love hanging out with concertgoers and fans."
Instead of embracing mainstream headliners, ATP prides itself on its offbeat line-ups, which have combined underground artists performing classic albums in their entirety with inventive indie acts. While the long-awaited return of My Bloody Valentine announced ATP New York's arrival in 2008 and the Flaming Lips rocked last year's festival, this year's line-up appears more idiosyncratic, with veteran acts like the Breeders and Mudhoney playing alongside newer artists like Girls and Avi Buffalo. ATP is also not afraid to bring back bands that are well liked within the community: minimalist rockers Shellac are scheduled to rock Monticello for the third straight year, for instance.
"It's not trying to be Lollapalooza," says guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who will perform with Sonic Youth as well as his side project Text of Light on Sept. 4. "It's not trying to have the lineup of a major festival, but I think that's its strength. It knows the community in which it exists."
However, the biggest wrinkle in ATP's festival model is the role of a curator, typically a well-respected artist or musician who oversees the selection of one day's performers and activities. While past ATP curators have included Vincent Gallo and "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, Jarmusch ("Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," "Broken Flowers") is handling Sunday's festivities by handpicking the lineup, which includes Raekwon, Dungen and Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions. The director will also be curating "Criterion Cinema" selections with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore as well as presenting some of his favorite books in the ATP Book Club.
Hogan says that ATP researches an artist and their music taste before offering the curator role, in order to secure a consistent product for the festival's fan base. However, Hogan immediately viewed Jarmusch as a perfect fit for the brand.
"If you look at all the movies that he makes and the musicians he's worked with, from Tom Waits to Neil Young… I knew he was suitable to what we're about at ATP, and what's really exciting about him is he always has a thousand ideas," says Hogan, who adds that his dream curator is "Rushmore" director Wes Anderson.
ATP New York does not have a long-term deal with Kutshers, but relocation does not appear to be a short-term possibility. Hogan says that the organization is in good standing with the country club as well as the Monticello area due to the boost that the festival gives local businesses.
As far as the success of ATP New York's unique format, however, the jury may still be out. While ATP has enjoyed success in the U.K. for over a decade and nearly sold out its New York debut in 2008, the economic recession hurt ticket sales for last year's festival.
According to Hogan, this year's ticket sales are up 35 percent from last year and the festival is close to selling out. Yet the event organizer remains realistic about the state of the economy and how costly the ATP New York experience can become. After all, most fans are combining ticket sales with lodging and travel expenses needed to arrive at the isolated location.
"I wouldn't tell you it's been a walk in the park," says Hogan, "but I think that we're trying to build something of a fixture that people look forward to every year, and that if we have exciting curators every time and keep the quality up as it has been for these three events, then it will continue."