Olympia's 20th Year of Experiments

Finding fringe music beyond music's fringe

By Rev. Adam McKinney on June 25, 2014

As a music writer, it's more or less an open secret that we tend to get bored and give special attention to things that we may not even like in our leisurely hours, but that hit our ears as interesting in our work lives. The same likely holds true to other cultural criticism. I've written about bands that have actively hurt my ears or made me queasy, just because they were offering something that I had genuinely never heard before. Novelty will never be an unappreciated quality to anything, as far as I'm concerned.

Though music scenes have shifted and grown, in the Pacific Northwest, Olympia has maintained its status as a hub of musical experimentation. It should come as no surprise that they hold the premier South Sound festival for exploring the farther reaches of musical expression. Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the Olympia Experimental Music Festival and, as much as the music remains an intangible wonder, the festival itself remains comfortably in the same niche that it established for itself two decades ago.

The Experimental Music Festival was formed in 1995 by KAOS DJ Jim McAdams as, fittingly, an experiment to see if Olympia could successfully support a series of shows from outer-edge artists.

"It just created itself, really," says McAdams. "At that time, Olympia was really known as an indie rock/punk rock town, and I wasn't sure if I could put on an experimental show, and if anyone would come. I went to this mailing list and said that there was going to be an experimental music show, and asked if anyone was interested in playing. All of these people started messaging me from San Francisco and Canada and all over the place. I booked the Midnight Sun for a couple of nights and put on the festival. The first night was magical. I mean, both nights, all of the artists stuck around and everybody just watched everybody else play."

Over the years, the churning boil of experimental artists has remained an unpredictable constant, but the format has remained the same: an all-ages series of shows in a small space, with prices kept to as low as they possibly can be. This year, the festival turned to IndieGoGo to raise $1,000 to help pay the artists. All of the help is volunteer-based, and the door money goes to renting the space. As of press time, the fund had surpassed its goal by over $300. This is essential, seeing as how this year's addition involves bringing in acts from previous years, necessitating flying them in from all over the country.

"Twenty years later, we're trying to bring back as many people as possible that played the first festival," says McAdams. "What we've aimed at doing is showing that you don't need corporate sponsors, that you don't need the biggest venue in town, and that you don't need the biggest national acts to come around. You can decide what your niche is, and get people from around the country and around the world, to really put something together that resonates more at a community level, and that's what we've done."

The list of people making the journey to the Olympia Music Festival in its 20th year will ring bells for anyone familiar with music on the fringe. Mark Hosler of Negativland will be performing, as well as Elliott Sharp and Replikants. Seeking out people with names in the experimental music genre is almost counterintuitive. The object of a festival like this is to expose yourself to things you may have never heard otherwise.

This year's festival happens to be dedicated to a friend of mine - and a friend of the local music scene - Dave Graham. Not only was he a champion of local art, in general, but he personally helped out the Experimental Music Festival by supplying them with a PA at last notice. Graham succumbed to cancer, recently. You could do worse with honoring his life than taking in a bounty of new and interesting music.

OLYMPIA EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC FESTIVAL, 7-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 27-28, 4-8 p.m. Sunday, June 29, all ages, Northern, 414 1/2 Legion Way, Olympia, $10 per show or $25 for a festival pass, northernolympia.org


Friday: Elliott Sharp (solo and with Joe Trump), New York City; Peter Randlette, Olympia; Dead Air Fresheners, Olympia, with spoken-word artist Jennifer Robin, Portland; KnotPineBox, Olympia; J.D. Helwig, Portland; Big Tom the Lithuanian, Olympia

Saturday: Mark Hosler of Negativland, North Carolina; Impulsive Machinations, Portland; Arrington De Dionyso, Olympia; Ton Trio II, Oakland, Calif.; Chaostic Magic, Seattle; Giant Worm, Olympia and Portland

Sunday: Replikants, Olympia; Malaise, Seattle; Derek M. Johnson, Olympia; L.A. Lungs, Olympia and Tacoma; Four Dimensional Nightmare vs. Infradead, Seattle and Tacoma; Overdose the Katatonic, Seattle