Interview: Stephen Rehage Talks "Voodoo Music + Arts Experience"
Tue, 29 Oct 2013 17:37:58
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"I'm a music fan," says Voodoo Music + Arts Experience founder and producer Stephen Rehage.
Rehage's passion for the art itself has fueled Voodoo for fifteen years. It's what has preserved the festival's spirit, soul, and mystique after all of these years. It's also encouraged Voodoo's evolution as the definitive American music festival. You're not going to see a better lineup all year. Voodoo 2013 boasts everyone from Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, and The Cure to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Calvin Harris, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Nov 1-3 in New Orleans will be another unforgettable weekend in rock 'n' roll history…
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Stephen Rehage talks the 2013 Voodoo Music + Arts Experience and so much more.
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Every year, the lineup is different, and it gets bigger and better.
Well, thank you! That's always the challenge. It's our fifteenth anniversary, and it's hard to believe we're there. In some ways, it feels like it was yesterday. In some ways, it feels like it was a hundred years ago. There are certain bands that have been on the list since day one. Pearl Jam is one of those bands. Through a series of friendships, I got to know those guys. It's a very personal and special night for us. We're really excited about for that part of it. Obviously, we've got some old friends back like Trent Reznor. It's the first time for The Cure. It's the second time for Kid Rock. There's a lot of fun stuff there. I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to pop around and see everybody.
What do the returning musicians typically say about the festival when they play multiple times?
We have the advantage that we're in New Orleans. Everybody loves to come to New Orleans. They tend to have friends and musicians they love to see. Last year, Jack White came in, and he was hanging out and playing in the basement. Those are only things you get in New Orleans. Those kinds of events are special moments, obviously. The Trent relationship goes back a long ways with him living in New Orleans. I've said this many times. We wouldn't have a festival without Trent Reznor. He, his manager Jim Guerinot, and Marc Geiger had the balls to actually play New Orleans 59 days after the levee broke. We all strapped it on and went for it with no business model behind it, no ticketing, no gates, and no fences. We put up a stage and went for it. That's the way rock 'n' roll should be. It's a big special relationship we have, and I certainly appreciate it. With Pearl Jam, one of my best friends is Steve Gleason. He's a former New Orleans Saints player famous for blocking the punt against the Atlanta Falcons the day the Superdome re-opened with U2. Steve was diagnosed with ALS two years ago. He's got a foundation Team Gleason. The premise or mantra of the foundation is, "No white flags" and "No surrender". We climbed Machu Pichu this year and jumped out of airplanes. Steve's going to kill me one way or another [Laughs]. He's friends with the guys from Pearl Jam. He's from Spokane, WA. Mike McCready is a good buddy of his. Mike came down and stayed at my house. We got to know each other and, through Steve, we started the dialogue of, "Would Pearl Jam be interested in playing Voodoo?" It happened that the timing was perfect for me. It was the end of their run, and it worked out. There's a personal relationship, and it's going to be a special night for all of us.
It may have taken fifteen years, but you got Pearl Jam at the right time.
For years, they didn't play festivals. They had that incident where they weren't comfortable playing festivals. It was only recently that they did Lollapalooza. When we were talking to Mike, he was like, "Have you ever asked us to play?" I said, "Yeah, for fifteen years!" [Laughs] He said, "Really?" I told him, "It's Pearl Jam, dude! I ask ever year!"
The festival appeals to every facet of the audience without ever compromising what Voodoo is.
I grew up in New Orleans, and music is just in the water here. It's what you do. As you grow up, you learn the history of the city and the neighborhoods. Congo Square was once a shantytown for 6,000 slaves—mostly from Haiti. On Sundays, they used to do these voodoo rituals, which were very flamboyant and colorful. People from all over the world would come to see these voodoo rituals. Believe it or not, it was called, "Free Slave Day". It's so barbaric to think of today, but it was the first place in North America where slaves were allowed any type of freedom. New Orleans musicians had carried that drum beat and soul through our culture. It's heard in a lot of modern music today. One of the greatest moments in the festival's history was watching Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Meters play an unrehearsed 12-minute encore. You've got one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands in the world going on stage with The Meters. They just jumped into it guitar lick for guitar lick and bass lick for bass lick. Flea and George Porter are going at it. That's a drum beat from New Orleans that's carried through to modern music. We try to present that story. Come see Pearl Jam or Nine Inch Nails, but there's also the Preservation Jazz Hall Band on the main stage. There's a jazz band in the gospel talent. All of these different genres of music are merging into one vibe. I think people who do the festival circuit learn a lot about the New Orleans music and culture when they come down here for the weekend. It's not just to see the big bands. They move around the site. You get a lot of artists cross-pollinating and playing with each other. There are a lot of special moments to stumble upon. That's been the really fun and creative part of orchestrating that kind of stuff.
Speaking of the name Voodoo, what are some of the most magical moments of the festival?
There are always some moments in the festival where you look out and go, "Wow, how did that happen?" You know all the work that's gone into it, the team of people behind it, and the number of hours they've put into it as well as the sleepless nights. You're almost like, "We didn't do that!" [Laughs] You've got 200 people in a marching band and guys in stilts, where did they come from? Those are the magical moments. It's not something you're buying off the shelf like, "Come down here and perform". It's fluid and artist-friendly. All of the artists are in one compound for that reason. Everybody is in that location. There's one central bar. They all start talking and having a couple of cocktails here and there. The next thing you know, they're on stage together. That's one of the coolest parts. A lot of the artists who come down stay the entire weekend. The artists come out to watch the other artists. It's a "who's who" on the side of the stage. You can always tell who's about to explode. I remember having The White Stripes right when they were breaking. You think, "How are two people going to play a main stage to an audience of this size? How's it going to translate?" You worry about that, and then you walk on stage and you see all the musicians sitting on the ground like little kids waiting to see this guitar genius. Jack White shows up, and it sounds like the entire band of Led Zeppelin is on the stage. You're like, "I think this guy's got a future" [Laughs].
You preserve the idea of "Music Discovery" with Voodoo.
It's the way I listened to music as a kid. It was strange. I remember people used to define things. I watched this documentary of The Rolling Stones and they said they were the "Anti-Beatles". The Beatles needed a nemesis so they fit that role. We used to have that debate over who was the better band The Beatles or The Stones. It was like pick one. Why do you pick one though? They're both incredible artists in their own right. They're not defining your personality. Enjoy both of them. What we tried to do with the festival in the beginning, now with technology, you can have 10,000 songs on your phone. It's not a choice of whether you have to listen to this or that. People are listening to all kinds of music and discovering all kinds of music. It's a great time. It's a constant discovery. I went to Sasquatch this year. I was meandering around, and I stumbled upon Shovels & Rope. It was two o'clock in the afternoon at The Gorge, and these guys were just blowing it off the stage. I thought, "Wow, how do I not know about this band? I'm in the industry!" You go home and do all of your research and download the record. The process of discovery is perpetual. You're always finding new great songs and artists that are cranking out music. The distribution model is a lot easier. You record it and can have it up the same day you record it. That process fits with the mindset of the festival. They seem to grow together over the years. That part has been fun to see. One of the things that's unique about the festival is we try to plan every detail and make a little room for chaos as long as we can keep it organized to a certain extent [Laughs]. We leave the room for chaos though. The artists have adopted the spirit of it, and they all put on costumes. As that tradition grows, some of the same artists come up with the best costumes ever. It's like, "Dude, The Flintstones are about to take the stage, are you sure this is MGMT?" [Laughs]
Who haven't you seen on this bill?
I haven't seen Calvin Harris. I'm looking forward to his set. One of my favorite artists is a friend of mine, Ruby. She was Jack White's background singer from last year. She's got her own band this year. She used to be in a project called Sam & Ruby and has played the festival four or five times in different variations, but this is her first project. I'm excited to see that one. It's great to see a friend who's been supportive and we have great memories with being on stage. Her career is about to go off the charts with this record. Preservation Hall Jazz Band recorded their first original music ever. It's a thirty-eight minute which they're going to play straight through on Friday. In typical main stage fashion, it goes Preservation Hall Jazz Band right into Macklemore & Ryan Lewis into Pearl Jam. It's that crazy transition there. I'm looking forward to their live interpretation of the record. They have some surprises up their sleeves.
Nine Inch Nails will bring it as well…
They always do! Trent has got that intensity about him. I've never seen anything like his show in 2005—the post-Katrina show. Everyone was very emotional because of the circumstances and everything that was going on. You got to see the intensity in his eyes. Talk about crazy memories. He closed the set on the piano playing "Hurt". At the end of the show, most of the city was the Army and people trying to fix up the city. You had Hum-V's and all of these military guys there. Trent finished the song, and they started shooting machine guns in the air as the encore! You're like, "Lighters are fine, guys!" [Laughs] I think I fell sleep out in the middle of the field for 15 minutes. The sun was coming up, and you see these people come over the wall into the venue. Hum-V's are driving everywhere. I said, "I think we can let security go. The audience has machineguns" [Laughs].
You actually get to enjoy the festival…
We have a really great team of people who have been with us 10-15 years. It's a tight group of people. I don't carry a radio on-site. They can't get in touch with me if they wanted to [Laughs]. "Where's Steve?" "He's out in front of Pearl Jam!" I don't carry a radio, because I believe you have to keep a pulse on. Everything's a "crisis" in that environment. You have to put it all in perspective and trust the people you work with. My job is keeping a vibe on what's going on. I
What was the show or moment that made you want to do this?
I don't know if it was a certain performance. I came up with a sports background. I played football at LSU and on the New York Giants. I came from training and putting everything into it in that environment. You can't hide. If you don't put the work in, you're not going to hide it. If you take a week off and don't work hard, you'll get an ass-whopping. That's what intrigued me about the business itself. On the weekend, you can't fix the lineup or not doing your work year-round and staying on top of what bands are hitting and what vibe you want to go into musically. It's a lot of work and homework. Going into the festival weekend, you know whether or not you put the hours in. There are a lot of similarities to that. It's not like you go to work and if you don't do your job for a couple of days, nobody notices. If I don't do my job, everybody's online going, "This lineup sucks" or "This is out-of-control". For me, it's the competitive nature of trying to get it right and be able to do what I love. That combination was what attracted me to it. My job is to stay on top of music I love. How hard can it be? It's a dream job. That's what attracts me to it and keeps it fresh every year. It's an entirely new process every year. You always hear football coaches say, "It's not last week's game. It's not next week's game. Concentrate on this game". It's sort of the same mindset with the festival business. You have to concentrate on the one in front of you. You don't credit for the last for the last fourteen years. If we didn't do a good job on this lineup, the last fourteen years wouldn't matter.
Have you experienced Voodoo?