Ashley Capps on This Weekend's Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit, Asheville, Bonnaroo, Way More (Q&A)

(Photo: Courtesy AC Entertainment)

Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment, which is presenting the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit Oct. 25-27 in Asheville, North Carolina.

This coming weekend marks the launch of a new music festival franchise in Asheville, North Carolina. The Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit runs Oct. 25-27 and will feature mostly smaller electronic music artists with the notable exception of headliner Nine Inch Nails. Other draws on the bill include Neutral Milk Hotel, Animal Collective, Gary Numan and Disclosure as well as heritage acts like Silver Apples and Sparks and new jack EDM’ers like Bassnectar and Pretty Lights.

Ashley Capps, founder and CEO of AC Entertainment, is presenting Mountain Oasis and up until this year also promoted Moogfest, a similar-minded music festival that had run every October in Asheville since 2010. The year, however, the owners of the Moog decided to take the festival in-house and move it to April. Capps, who has booked shows in the mountain town for some twenty years, sat down with Billboard for an extensive interview to discuss the launch (or relaunch) of Mountain Oasis, the split with Moogfest, his Asheville recommendations, his far flung music tastes (from Stockhausen and Widespread Panic to Anthony Braxton and Paul McCartney), the state of Bonnaroo and his recent decision to get out of management.


Billboard: You called Asheville one of your favorite cities on the planet, why?
Ashley Capps: The name for this festival Mountain Oasis is what Asheville is—an oasis in the mountains. For years and years and years it has supported the arts and live music at a level that far exceeds cities many times its population and size.

What's the population?
The official population is about 100,00 but there are a lot of communities surrounding it that aren’t large, but when combined you get into the hundreds of thousands pretty quickly within about a 50 mile radius. There’s also many college students at private colleges like Appalachian State, Furman, Converse, Mars Hill, Warren Wilson as well as Western Carolina University.

What’s your must-see nature recommendation for first-time attendees?
First of all the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses right through Asheville and the Appalachian trail is nearby and you’re in the Pisgah National Forrest  – some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. You have Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.

How are tickets selling for Mountain Oasis?
It’s approaching selling out – our best selling year so far.

One of the most striking things about Mountain Oasis is how outro or avant-garde the bill is—Half Japanese, Daniel Johnston, Silver Apples—some of these artists might have trouble filling rooms in NYC let alone Asheville, who booked it?
It’s myself, Bryan Benson and Steve Greene. They’ve been at AC Entertainment for the last 10 years or more. They do a tremendous amount of the booking which comes from a variety of ways. Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel is responsible for Half Japanese and Daniel Johnston because we made him the offer to curate a part of the festival and he was like I’d love for these guys to play in front of me – that’s Jeff Mangum more than its us. 

Half Japanese

One of the most interesting things – and this goes back to the original concept of Moogfest – is that there is so much to explore there. Certainly Moog instruments has had a huge impact on contemporary music and goes back to 70s and all the prog rock with ELP and Yes and so many of the big rock bands of the 70s and also in jazz in the 70s and a lot of fusion music and there’s also a strain of experimental avante-gaurdism that was not only interesting in its own right, but over the course of time came to influence what a lot of what is now pop music.

At the same time, were the underground electronic music fans upset someone as commercial as Nine Inch Nails was on the bill?
No, not at all. People are really excited. I think people were upset by the conflicts. One guy was upset that Actress from UK was playing against NIN – that’s actually kind of a conflict for me to. But it’s probably not a conflict for most NIN fans.

What are some of the non-music events?
Gary Numan is giving a talk. We have a number of panelists who are coming to us from world of tech and instrument making, production who will participate in the panels. There’s also interactive, educational experiences for people to get hands on experiences with instruments like Theramins.

Who’s booking that?
Jessica Tomasin, who works with us at AC, also runs an incredible recording studio in Asheville called Echo Mountain where T Bone Burnett, Zac Brown, the Avett Brothers and Dawes recorded – it’s an amazing recording studio. She’s helped along with members of my team there.

What’s Mountain Oasis’ capacity?
We’re set up to sell 8,000 tickets per day. It could probably go bigger, but providing a great experience for everyone is our number one priority. The fest takes place in multiple venues of different sizes. The Arena is about 7,000; The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium is about 2,400; Orange Peel is about 1,100; the Diana Wortham is about 500, Asheville Music Hall is about 350.

The Diana Wortham Theatre

You recommended the Diana Wortham as a must-see, why?
It’s an exquisite fine arts theatre. The acoustics are magnificent. The experience between the artist and the audience has a rare intimacy and for the right concert, the experience is unparalleled. It’s a beautiful little venue.


So Moogfest started in 2004 at Manny’s Music in New York that featured a clinic with Keith Emerson (of ELP) and Bob Moog himself before moving to a four-hour gala at BB Kings. And you eventually proposed bringing it to Asheville?
That’s correct. We’ve been doing concerts in Asheville for about 20 years. In fact, I did a camping event that was in many ways the prototype for Bonnaroo just outside of Asheville in 2000 -- a couple of years before Bonnaroo. It was also called Mountain Oasis but we ran into challenges with that fest finding the right location in which to produce it. Then Bonnaroo became Bonnaroo.

So what happened between Moogfest and you to end the partnership?
It’s pretty simple, it was really their decision not ours. The reason for making it so are somewhat of a mystery to me. We licensed the name Moogfest for a dollar a year and this just arose from discussions of wanting to do this festival.

You were originally in touch with a member of Bob Moog’s family, right? 
It was his daughter Michelle, she was the first person I talked to about the music festival. Shortly after Bob died, she was in the early stages of founding the Bob Moog Foundation. At the time it wasn’t like I wanted to create Moogfest. We were just conceptualizing about the kind of festival we wanted to create in Asheville. I had known Bob -- I didn’t know him well, but I had known him because I started in the early to mid-90s doing a lot of shows in Asheville. Lori Anderson was the first person who said to me, “Did you know Bob Moog lives here?” And I was like, “No, I didn’t really know that.”  And she was like, “Well, he does and I want to meet him.” 

At the time, he somehow lost the rights to the name Moog Music and his company was called Big Briar. So we went to the manufacturing company and met Bob and it just continued. And other artists wanted to do it. He loved music and not just electronic music by any means. The last time I saw him was at a John Hartford concert we did at the Orange Peel. After his death and hearing about the Foundation and their plans to create a Bob Moog Museum and all, I was like it’d be great to somehow honor Bob Moog’s legacy and so I started the discussion with Michelle. She introduced me to Mike Adams who had managed to secure the rights to name to Moog Music and was now running the manufacturing company. We started talking about ideas and I pitched the idea that Moog Fest in New York which went kind of under the radar there.

How did it make the move to Asheville?
With the fact that Bob had lived in Asheville for the last 30 years, the manufacturing Company was still there manufacturing these amazing instruments, plus everybody wants to visit Asheville --  it was the perfect combination. And, as we discussed, it was the idea of taking the Moogfest name and rebranding it in Asheville as a contemporary music event rather than one that was solely focused on the past which was what we rolled with. So they licensed the Moogfest name, but it was really our event in every sense of the word: we paid for it, we planned it, we booked it, we marketed it.

Did Moog get any revenue from it?
No, they really didn’t. But they didn’t have any money at risk. We were just licensing the name. As the event grew they became unhappy with the arrangement and they sent me a notice saying they didn’t want to continue licensing the name, so at that point we had to come up with a new name.

I read that attendance was down in 2012 and the fest was cut to two days instead of three
That is its own complicated story: In 2012, when things started getting a little rocky with the Moog relationship, there were challenges with the renovations of the Asheville Civic Center and we couldn’t get a clear picture if the venue was going to be functional for our event. It took us a lot more time than it should have in my opinion to work through those questions. I made the decision that we were not going to be able to do Moogfest because we were running too late and there was just too many unanswered questions and it didn’t feel right. In early May, we were convinced to move forward, but it was so late in the game in terms of planning that we did not feel like we could do a three-day event on the level that we wanted to do it. We weren’t going to be able to attract the talent that we needed to do the event. So we decided to scale it back to two days and that was the reason. We didn’t decide we wanted to do a two days event, we decided we needed to do a two day event.


One of the things most surprising is how far flung your music tastes lie. You had a radio show on an NPR in Knoxville called Unhinged in the late-1970s where you played artists like Anthony Braxton. And the first show you booked was Tristan Honsinger, a free jazz cellist -- where did that come from? How come you weren’t burned at the stake?
Sometimes it’s really nice to be in an unexpected place and be able to create something in an environment that is open and unexplored in that regard.

And the Tristan Honsinger show sold out.
That tells you that at the time there was a certain hunger. That there was an openness and certain hunger to explore and experience things a little more different.

I know your parents had Beatles records, but how did you go from that to Anthony Braxton?
I’ve always has an aspect of my personality that wants to learn and explore and that came out pretty early. My dad was a drummer, not professionally except for short period in his life, but he as a jazz fan, a drummer. He traveled to New York a lot and he’d tell me about seeing these artists in jazz clubs. I remember at a pretty young age about the same time I'm discovering the Beatles I’m also discovering Miles Davis, Lee Konitz and Gil Evans -- these are records that I stole from my father that I still have in my collection to this day. I didn’t necessarily know what to do with some of the music, but there was something about it that I’d keep listening to. I love pure pop music – the Beach Boys and Hermans Hermits, the Beatles, and Gary Lewis & the Playboys and all of the pop music of the time, but it didn’t keep me from buying Frank Zappa records. 

Miller's Department Store in Knoxville

Kids today seem more open minded to different kinds of music and can go seamlessly between say an EDM festival, indie rock show and hip-hop – and that’s still not as big a range as what you seemed to be ingesting.
I remember buying a frank zappa record at the department store when I’m like 12 years old. I bought it because it had a weird cover. This was in Knoxville -  it was Miller’s Department Store I still remember the day that I saw it sitting on the shelf and I was like ‘boy, that looks really weird, I want to check it out.’

How’d it get to Knoxville department store?
That was one of the other thing about the 60's there was a lot of things making their way – it was hard to find out about stuff maybe, but there was a tremendous renaissance going on in music. Whether it was John Coltrane or Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sun Ra or Jimmi Hendrix and Cream – in a way there were no boundaries. Bill Graham at the Fillmore putting Miles Davis on in front of Santana - which these days makes perfect sense but back then it didn’t really.


I read that your wife is German and that seeing how European festivals were run inspired you to think about having a camping and music festival.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Europe regularly since the mid-1980s and one of the things I was struck by in the late-80s and throughout the 90s is the degree which festivals are the cultural landscape of the European summer for music. Fests of all kinds – classical music, jazz festival, avant-garde, big rock festivals, city festivals, camping festivals – they’re everywhere. What seemed like an infinite number and I was very inspired by that. I started trying my hand at other small festivals whether it was a jazz festival weekend or a bluegrass weekend -- we did a little thing here just to celebrate spring. I was very intrigued by the festival experience.

During this whole time there started to be conversations with some of the bands that played Bonnaroo the first year like String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, the Grateful Dead – at the time it was Phil and Friends – who we focused on. The idea germinated in a lot of different ways and took a lot of different paths. One of the most influential things for Bonnaroo in particular was Glastonbury. It was just such an iconic event. The fact that there had been this festival that had all of the aspects of Wooddstock and more but it had survived year after year after year since 1970 in some incarnation – I would just look at that or like Woodlands or Roskilde and think why is this not going on in Asheville?

What is the state of Bonnaroo 12 years in – how's its growth, structure, success?
I say this every year and I really mean it every year. It just keeps getting better and better and it’s something that I dare not predict. Almost every year we find it’s like “Okay, what are we going to do next year?” But somehow through the creative process it all comes together to create a really great experience. Last year based on what I heard from fans, what I heard from artists, and from what I heard from our team - many of whom have been out there all 12 years – it was the best festival ever. I’m not sure what the chemistry is exactly but I do think the team that plans and executes every aspect of Bonnaroo asks ourselves one question every year which is how can we create the most amazing experience that we know how?  I think as long as we focus on those details we’ll continue to create an event that people will respond to.

Does it get harder and harder to top once you’ve had Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney– are you gong to get Zeppelin to reunite? What can you do?
We’ve done a good job of not letting ourselves get sidetracked thinking how we can top presenting this artist or that artist and really focus on what the opportunities are in any given year. Every year something really extraordinary emerges from the whole process.  People ask how can you top Paul McCartney. You can’t top Paul McCartney. You can’t do that. And Paul’s performance at Bonnaroo was everything you could ever possibly ever want a Paul McCartney show to be and more. It was – hate to use this word – it was an iconic performance. It floored everyone who experienced it. It was so wonderful so inspirational.  You can’t top it but you can use the inspiration from that and try to do the best that you can to create something amazing in 2014 which working hard at doing.


Did you just open an office in Nashville?
We did a couple of weeks ago. We announced it last week.

It was really the culmination of a lot of things we’ve been working on that’s just grown and grown and grown. Part of it has to do with Bonnaroo – we started working even more closely with the Nashville Conventions Visitor’s Bureau and the City of Nashville the State of Tennessee and were looking for synergies. There’s some interesting ideas and programs that we’re exploring with them. Last year we did a shuttle program for the first time that enabled people to experience Bonnaroo in a slightly different way. Some of them lived in Nashville, some chose to stay in Nashville and go back and forth. It’s actually the only way you can experience just a single day of Bonnaroo.

Are you thinking about a festival in Nashville or growing your footprint there?
We’re already very, very active in Nashville we have a partnership with two clubs – with the Marathon Music Works, which is a 1,700 seat venue and with the Exit Inn which is 500 capacity and an iconic venue in Nashville – it’s the place where the Clash played when they first came to Nashville and Jimmy Buffett, Springsteen, Rahsaan Roland Kirk—it was an amazing venue in the 70s.

And we do quite a few shows at the Ryman and we do stuff at the arena. Over the last 15 months have had a close association with the Nashville Symphony – they have an extraordinary Symphony Hall called the Schermerhorn and we’ve been booking all their non-symphony performances since Aug. 2012 and it’s been a very successful program. For all these things it just got to the point where – Nashville is only 2.5 hours from Knoxville and we can do it from here, but it got to the point where we really couldn’t anymore.

How many employees do you have?
I think 51 somebody just told me – we’ve started adding people.

You were managing Abigail Washburn for a while and read you stopped doing management, why?
I felt like I needed to focus my time and attention on events. It’s really what I’m good at and more and more opportunities were emerging and I simply had to make a very difficult decision. Fortunately, I love Abigail Washburn and working with her was a very very wonderful and rewarding thing. The woman who helped me to do that is continuing to work with Abigail so there’s a continuity there.  It just got to the point where I didn't think I could pursue what I needed to purse and offer Abigail the kind of support that any artist needs from a manager.

It’s interesting these days how many companies are becoming full-service operations – a publicity firm opens a management agency and then a publishing/licensing wing and it seems to kind of sprawl.
It’s very tempting, I found myself wanting to be involved on the management end because I did want to experience the business a little bit more from an artist perspective. I felt like I had some experiences to offer that would be valuable for artists. In truth, the day-to-day practice of that became a lot more complicated.

You must see so many artists throughout the year who you must think you would like to help.
That was exactly the impulse I had for a while – I was very enthusiastic and wanted to help but management is a 24/7 gig. When it got to the point it was clear that I had to make a decision to go in one direction or the other I felt that my skills were more in the event creation business and there’s a lot of opportunities here. We engage with artists as curators we encourage artists to create special projects, there’s a lot of opportunities on the creative end of things – artist management is its own very special niche.