Home is the unspoken but clear center that holds together the Anacortes Unknown Music Series. Formerly What the Heck Fest, the newest incarnation of the same event is a festival only in the most liberal of definitions. Certainly, there are fans of art and music convening across multiple days to enjoy one another’s contributions. However, you won’t find throngs of people, long lines, or any sign of an alcoholic beverage, unless it’s consumed over lunch or dinner in one of the town’s quaint pubs or diners. Instead, the fest is driven by music from bands and artists from the region and includes avant-garde performances, poetry readings, and an annual dinner show catered by a local community center—the Croatian Club.
The festival’s organizer is primarily Phil Elverum of The Microphones and Mount Eerie, but he seems to have some help from former Beat Happening member Bret Lunsford, who initiated the festival before passing it down to antecessor Elverum. Both men are from Anacortes and possess a tremendous affinity for the place they were born and raised. Fittingly, the festival opens with a Powerpoint presentation by Anacortes historians Wallie Funk and Bret Lunsford, who has two historical books about his hometown currently in publication. Even when music commences later in the evening, it begins with a long spoken prelude by Lunsford about the church in which the show is being held, its history, and the relationship of that history to Lunsford’s grandparents who were Croatian immigrants. This precedes a set by Lunsford’s band D+, a group that includes Northwest mainstays Phil Elverum and Karl Blau as members.
The remainder of the evening is filled by divergent yet equally spellbinding performances. Graphic artist and experimental musician Geneviève Castrée plays a set consisting of live loops layered upon each other assisted by her single electric guitar and jarring vocal lines, sung in French. Castrée happens to be Elverum’s wife, and although it’s rare to see the two exchange a casual, tender moment, the appeal is obvious. During her set, thunder booms ominously and lightning flashes outside the church, perfectly accompanying the performance. Just after her set ends, the power goes out, but the small crisis only adds to the intimacy and memorable nature of the night. After the impromptu intermission, a meager amount of power is secured from what must be a generator to allow for band equipment and a single floor lamp by the light of which Karl Blau and his band perform. It’s better like this than with the lights on anyway—attendees seated and huddled together on the church’s wooden floors.
Following their set, a twenty-minute film by Vanessa Renwick depicts illuminated jellyfish floating around. It’s scored by experimental, ambient sound and provides a deep meditative aura that hangs over the audience. It’s a perfect visual counterpart to the act we have seen and the one that is to come. Dylan Carlson of the band Earth closes the night with a series of long, droning experimental songs that also utilize a single guitar and effects pedals. Though anyone meeting him is likely to first notice his dark tattoos and grisly chops that jut out six inches from his jaw, his cheery high-pitched voice exudes joy and a spirit of sharing when he speaks between songs. The music isn’t exactly the kind of thing you’d find in most American churches, but the reflective, introspective energy that permeates the night feels like our own little devotional for the communal spirit that will dominate the next two days.
The church in which the performance takes place is not so much a church anymore, since it has been purchased by Elverum and transformed into a recording studio that he calls simply “the Unknown,” acting as the namesake for the new version of the festival. The Unknown hosts most of the performances for the weekend, though a significant number of bands perform at the adjacent Causland Park, as has always been the case. Between the Unknown and Causland Park, you can often spot Elverum hurrying back and forth, acting as festival manager, carrying an extension chord or power strip—always wearing his trademark flip flops like some American Zen master. On the occasion of this year’s festival, the park saw beautiful, sunny, almost hot (especially for the far Northern Washington island locale) weather as well as more typical—misty, foggy, chilly—moments.
When you see the fog hovering over the water and rolling quickly but gently through the hills and small mountains (including Mount Erie) surrounding Anacortes, Elverum’s music begins to make sense. But nothing emerges as so humorously illuminating and clearly invocative of his songs as the blaring fog horn that serves as my party’s wake up call as we camp in Washington Park, located four miles outside of Anacortes and severely close to the island’s ferry stop. A visit to Elverum’s hometown sheds incalculable light on the sources of his music. But Mount Eerie’s set won’t happen for hours. Now, we obey the fog horn and rise to head to the main street that bisects Anacortes. There, the citizens of Anacortes have assembled along Commercial Avenue, setting up tents and folding tables, putting out wooden crates and cardboard boxes, all filled with a variety of junk—sweaters, wooden signs, crystals, porcelain figures, miscellaneous metal parts, super 8 video cameras, to name a few. This is Shipwreck Day, and it is a cultural tradition that the organizers of What the Heck Fest/Anacortes Unknown always make sure coincides with their festival.
After we take our time perusing the blocks of booths, we head over to Causland Park to see Calvin Johnson, arguably one of the primary reasons anyone’s in the park today, appropriately kick off the day’s festivities. Three microphones on stands are positioned for performers; cords, amplifiers, and monitors are in place. Johnson shows up a few minutes late to the arranged performance space and wastes no time before totally dismantling the setup, pushing all the equipment out of the way. He has a knack for doing things his own way. He dances in flowing freeform movements, shaking a pink tambourine, crooning odd, a capella songs in his baritone voice, and strumming an unplugged nylon-string guitar. Everything is just right.
Gazing around the tiered amphitheater that surrounds the stone gazebo of Causland Park, you won’t be surprised see unkempt musicians and a few of Seattle’s hippest clientele who’ve made the trek an hour and a half north. However, you’ll also see elderly couples who live in town, smiling and looking on alongside a significant number of families, couples young and not-so-young with children from infants to teens. While the festival showcases some stalwart artistic contributors from the region (D+, Karl Blau, O Poan, LAKE) and a few hand-picked acts (Bouquet, Grouper) from slightly more distant areas, it also serves as a place for truly local artists to showcase their work, regardless of age, style, or notoriety.
On Saturday afternoon a full audience watches Sleepy Lagoon perform a set of roughly rendered rock songs. The band appears to have an average age of 12 or 13 and they sound great, even if completely derivative of the “grunge” and rock that has typified the Northwest region. The kids of Sleepy Lagoon are Anacortes kids, and they’ve lucked into having a lineage of folks who believe not only that the place they come from is important, but also strongly value the practice of encouraging and supporting the art and music of young people, just as they were fostered and educated in establishments like Anacortes’ record store The Business, once owned by Lunsford, and KAOS, the radio station at The Evergreen College in Olympia, which harbored youthful versions of Elverum and K Records founder Calvin Johnson.
Sleepy Lagoon’s performance is only one event in a larger pattern that becomes clearer the closer one looks. During a set change for the park show, I wander over to the Unknown to check out the Small Press Book Fair that is being hosted during the daytime. There, independent publishers from Portland and Seattle are assembled to distribute their work, as is Mark Baumgarten whose recent book Love Rock Revolution—K Records and the Rise of Independent Music just came out last week via regional imprint Sasquatch Books.
I make my way around the U-shaped table configuration, browsing, and come at last to a table behind which sits an eight year old named Isaac. Isaac has two short, hand-drawn zines called “My Castle,” which focus on witches, dragons, princesses, and of course, bands. The newest edition is in color and costs $3, while the previous issue, which has only a color front—an excellent drawing of a tattered, pointy, brown hat—costs $1. I buy both. Isaac signs them on the title page in purple ink. He takes my money and provides change. His dad sits nearby, vaguely supervising transactions, but really, it’s all Isaac. Beyond the concept of home, this is the second most important facet of the festival—it takes anyone and everyone seriously. Who cares if you’re a teenager? If you sound like another band? Or if you don’t? If you’re an experimental musician, a poet, or a filmmaker? If you’re just getting started or have been at it for three decades? Just as Calvin Johnson proved you didn’t have to have a bassist or be machismo to play punk 30 years ago, who says you can’t self-publish and distribute at eight? Here is Issac. And he’s almost sold out of issue number two.
Later that evening, Isaac’s mother, Laurie Goldston performs an incredible set on her cello, plucking, strumming, and moving the bow across its strings. She’s tapped into the most expressive part of the self, performing in a trance-like state as she sways, eyes closed, emitting music that fuses acoustic noise and elegant strings. Earlier in the night, Paul Benson, under the name Motorbikes, performed a carefully crafted set that showcased his prowess at using loops and delicate, ethereal vocal melodies before Bouquet, an L.A. band played their third show ever—a set filled with dark pop songs driven by the lilting voice of Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs who used to perform in The Finches.
Even earlier in the evening, we took part in one of the most integral and communal parts of Anacortes Unknown (and What the Heck)—the dinner show. Each year, festival attendees gather in the basement of the Croatian Club to share a meal. The dinner is accompanied by a few musical acts. Most notable tonight is Dennis Driscoll, a festival staple who performs quirky songs about trolls and hula hoops. His mannerisms are spastic as he frantically flips through a book of lyrics from which he reads as he plays each song. His sincerity and warmth are a triumph with everyone. He has apparently been on some leave of absence, because Elverum welcomes him back with a devoted speech and swears up and down that Driscoll’s performance at the inaugural What the Heck Fest in 1998 is one of his two favorite shows ever.
Back upstairs, as Laurie Goldston finishes, it’s time for Mount Eerie. As enjoyable and refreshing as all of the festival’s sincere, odd, provocative, and devoted artists are, Mount Eerie towers above the rest. Though many come for the laid back camaraderie and easy pace of the fest, or to see a collective of committed musicians, some come knowing only that Mount Eerie will be performing. I was as floored as anyone by Elverum’s newest work that has begun to fuse his black metal experimentations with more traditional songwriting and pop music. Most of the times I have seen Mount Eerie involved solo performances, a difficult format for communicating his newest work.
Tonight, Mount Eerie is a full band with album contributor Allyson Foster on bass and backing vocals, Paul Benson on drums, Carson Churchill on second guitar, and Nich Wilbur on keys and synths. Elverum is at the helm and in top form. The band is unbelievably tight. Everyone is perfect. It could be the energy of the festival, but even Elverum’s shy confessions of not knowing what to say come off as exuberant. Later, in an interview with me, he will use only one sentence to describe the night, earnestly stating with a tone almost defeated by resigned happiness, “It was just such an amazing evening.”
At one point, Foster seems to complain to Elverum that she can’t push the effects pedals she needs to in her bare feet. He solves the problem by lending her one of his sacred flip-flops. Then, he switches his remaining flip-flop, wearing it on the wrong foot, so he too can continue operating pedals. Mount Eerie performs a set of mostly new songs. Fitting, because they center more so than any of his previous work on this place, Anacortes—home. Within the few comments Elverum does make during the set, I sensed that something has changed in him since I have seen him perform last. He seems more in control of his vision, more comfortable in his surroundings. I watch these songs performed in the same room where they were conceptualized and committed to recording. The result is spiritual.
Tomorrow, the final bands of Anacortes Unknown’s lineup will perform. LAKE, a band often considered to be the younger, torchbearers of the Olympia and Anacortes scenes will perform a phenomenal set in the park, employing seven members on guitars, keys, drums, bass, saxophone, and a variety of smaller handheld instruments. The end of the festival will be bittersweet, but nothing can damper the state of contemplative joy that consumes the audience as they sit, intently and quietly watching Mount Eerie create aurally complex songs and textures.
For me, independent music has always been about sharing rather than selling. When I’m packed into festivals of tens of thousands of people watching the buzziest bands on the scene and holding an eight dollar beer, something feels amiss. The band might rock, and I might have a great time, but there’s a nagging sensation that reacts to that kind of mass hysteria. I’m just not sure what’s independent or DIY about selling 85,000 tickets for $300 each. As the banner of “indie” music has become increasingly popularized, I can admit that I sometimes lose sight of what it’s all about.
Anacortes Unknown is a group of people who seem to never lose sight of what it’s all about. I don’t know of a place where people are more serious, genuine, and committed to their art, or where people are as accepting, approachable, and down to earth. In Anacortes, at the Unknown, I feel found. Elverum owns a church now. If sincerity is your bible, if independent artistic creation is your compass, if music is your map, this is your Mecca. I, for one, have my flip-flops on.