Magazine Feature

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and The National's Aaron Dessner on Their 'Anti-Festival' Eaux Claires

"In many ways, we have become the anti-music-festival festival,” says The National’s Aaron Dessner of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, which he and Bon Iver founder Justin Vernon established three years ago. “It’s about rethinking what’s possible when you get all these artists together.”

In a year when more festivals are advertising similar musical lineups, Eaux Claires -- slated for June 16 and 17 at bucolic Foster Farms, outside Vernon’s hometown of Eau Claire, Wis. -- remains a singular event. An artist-curated weekend that reflects its founders’ sophisticated tastes (and love of the regional music scene), Eaux Claires also has distinguished itself as a festival that encourages collaboration among its performers. Yes, the 2017 festival’s star, Chance the Rapper, is among the headliners, but so is Feist, who is making her only U.S. festival appearance. And Eaux Claires is the only place to see veterans Paul Simon and John Prine perform, respectively, with the classical sextet yMusic and Bon Iver.

Daniel DeSlover via ZUMA Wire
Aaron Dessner performs with Day of the Dead at Eaux Claires Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wis. on Aug. 13, 2016

“I always had a sense that there was something special about our area and the community of musicians that we’ve developed,” says Vernon of the festival, which has attracted more than 20,000 fans over two days. (Tickets range from $135 to $350.) “I wanted to give folks from Eau Claire the opportunity to see some of those folds and intersections, because we don’t get tours coming through.”

As they readied the latest edition of Eaux Claires, which will feature a more compact lineup and reconfigured festival grounds, Vernon, Dessner and creative director Michael Brown discussed their philosophy behind producing the ideal anti-festival festival.

Think Like a Ticket Holder 

Brown listened when 2016 festival goers complained that there were too many simultaneous performances -- Beach House and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, for instance -- that forced them to make tough choices. That’s one of the reasons Eaux Claires’ 2017 lineup has been halved, from 61 acts in 2016 to 21. “If year two was about expansion, then year three is about making sure we are creating the best experience for everybody,” says Brown.

Less Is More

Eaux Claires’ more tightly curated lineup is also intended to enable bands to play longer sets, as well as to foster the “cross-pollination” and spontaneous improvisation that, says Brown, is encouraged by the organizers: “If you have 26 bands, that doesn’t mean you just get 26 performances.” He notes that in addition to Wilco performing as a band, five of its six members will play with side projects, such as Tweedy, frontman Jeff Tweedy’s band with his son Spencer.

Open Early For Artists

Eaux Claires doesn’t just happen during the course of two days. Artists are encouraged to make the trek to Foster Farms a week before the festival to take advantage of rehearsal spaces set up on the property. “Come spend time in the woods, work on music, experiment with new ideas,” says Dessner, who plans to be on-site with Vernon. “This is a place to try something different” -- something as avant-garde as rapper Astronautalis posing as a priest in a confession booth in 2015, or as simple as singer-songwriter Sam Amidon strolling the grounds, teaching songs to festivalgoers in 2016. “We really want to push the artists to bring something one-of-a-kind to our weekend,” says Vernon. “It elevates the artist’s experience, which always elevates the spiritual nature of a music concert for ticket buyers.”

Scott Kunkel
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver

Everything Isn’t For Sale

“We are always trying to bypass as much of the bullshit surrounding the industry as possible,” says Vernon. “We still don’t have VIP viewing sections.” Adds Brown: “We don’t want a whole group of people standing behind people that paid more.” The Eaux Claires version of VIP, the Chippewa Enhanced Pass, a relative bargain at $350, includes catered dining, free beer and soda, and shaded viewing areas but no special vantage points. Dessner says festival sponsors consist mostly of local businesses -- “small breweries, things like that. We’ve been very cautious. We don’t really brand anything, like the stages.”

Always Surprise

According to the zine-like fest guidebook Troix, several “artists in residence,” including Jenny Lewis, Megafaun member Phil Cook and Vernon, will be “roaming the grounds performing where and when they see fit, and joining other artists onstage, prompted or unprompted.” That, says Dessner, is the heart of a festival: “It’s the things you don’t see coming.”

This article originally appeared in the April 15 issue of Billboard.