Roots, Branches, Sprouts & Seeds 

A look at Treefort's impact on Boise's music scene

"Treefort is a megaphone to an already healthy and vital music community."

"I'd sort of written the scene off as mostly cover bands and stuff like that."

"Everybody around [the festival] has been woven together like fabric."

"Treefort has definitely done its job in making Boise music-aware."

Eric Gilbert, co-founder and director of the Treefort Music Fest, has been called a "mastermind" and a "godfather" of the Boise music scene. Sometimes, the praise gets even more hyperbolic.

"I've been hearing 'Best Festival Ever' from bands, fans, writers, Twitterers," Nick Peterson told Gilbert during a March 2013 interview for the apesontape.com podcast. "Bands crying that it's over. You're getting compared to religious deities, I see on there."

Now in its third year, featuring more than 350 bands and expanding to include technology, film and other aspects of Boise art and culture, Treefort isn't a case of turning water into wine. Instead, as Gilbert told Peterson, he and the rest of the Treefort team simply saw a diamond in the rough.

"The idea from our perspective was to really build on what is really becoming a growing momentum here [among] the creative class scene in Boise in general but also--very much so--the music scene," Gilbert said.

Festival producer Lori Shandro touched on the same idea after she was named one of the Idaho Business Review's 50 Women of the Year.

"We were all working on our paths and we came together at the right time, in the right place, in a community that wanted it to happen," she said to Idaho Statesman's Dana Oland this past February. "It was serendipitous. You couldn't force it."

These statements aren't just boilerplate. Talk with others connected to Boise's music scene--musicians, promoters, scene veterans and newcomers alike--and a portrait emerges of Treefort as both an outgrowth of and an inspiration for a community of imaginative, passionate individuals.

"Treefort is a megaphone to an already healthy and vital music community," said Evil Wine promoter Wes Malvini, who worked at Red Room during the past two Treeforts and will act as a venue manager at The Crux and The Shredder during this year's festival.

"For Treefort to continue to be a sustainable entity, it needs to continue focusing on the already vibrant community that exists," he said. "Treefort gives a sense of power to those who have been building it and continue to push things."

Roots

As those who remember the 2010 Promenade Music Festival--or Boise Weekly's own Local Music Festivals--will know, a multi-day, multi-venue music festival isn't a new concept for Boise. Local musician and producer Todd Dunnigan, who organized the History of Boise Rock showcase at the El Korah Shrine on Wednesday, March 19, even had the idea for one more than two decades ago.

Back in the '80s, Dunnigan went down to South By Southwest with a friend.

"We had the same idea," he remembered. "We came back from South By Southwest, and we were like, 'This would be the best thing for Boise if we could do something like this here.'"

But the city government at the time didn't agree. Dunnigan and his friend pitched the idea to then-Mayor Dirk Kempthorne, who wouldn't OK the permits.

"We went to various local businesses and said, 'This is a really great idea. What do you guys think?'" Dunnigan added. "Are you guys crazy? That's a stupid idea," those business owners said.

Prevailing attitudes in the Boise music scene during the '80s and '90s didn't make a large, multi-genre festival seem possible, either.

"Scenes at large didn't seem to want to intertwine," Dunnigan said. "There were people in individual scenes who'd say, 'Hey man, we ought to really combine forces.' But their scenes at large just didn't see the merit to it."

Musician and soundman Doc Woolf, who started out in the late-'90s, early 2000s punk and metal scenes, had similar recollections. He also noticed the music suffering from this isolationism.

"The majority of the bands [at the Bomb Shelter rehearsal space] were punk and metal, and they all sounded the same. They literally all sounded the same," Woolf said. "And it's not until you walk around and meet everybody that you find out people are bored with that scene. And they want to do something new, but they feel like people won't come out and see them if they try something experimental."

Still, a supportive, collaborative environment began to grow. When Dunnigan and House of Hoi Polloi's Steve Fulton founded Audio Lab Recording Studios in 1992, he said the idea was to make it "a clubhouse for Boise musicians."

"I want this to be a place where the rapper guys are hanging out with the alternative music guys and they say, 'Hey, let's make a track together,'" Dunnigan said.

Such was Ryan Sampson's experience when his ska band The PirkQlaters recorded the album Tough Town, USA there.

"There was us and Kamphire Collective--a hip-hop group--and Exit 51, an alternative country group," Sampson recalled. "It was a good array of bands. And it worked: We were all best friends. I still talk to a lot of them to this day."

A similar atmosphere developed at house show venues like the House of Rock, which was run in the mid- to late-'90s by musician and former BW music writer Jason "Bug" Burke. Burke started booking shows mainly as a way to barter with touring bands--"If you put on a show for [my band] in North Carolina, when you come through, definitely hit me up," he said as an example--but his house quickly became a fixture of the music scene.

"They were getting big bands that were up-and-coming and soon to break," Sampson said. "Jimmy Eat World played there. ... It was a vast melting pot of different styles and shows."

The House of Rock also became "like the Cheers [of the Boise scene]," Sampson added. "Everybody hung out, everybody went to shows. And the whole viewpoint of the House of Rock was, 'The House of Rock will support you if you support the House of Rock.'"

To that end, show-goers emptied their pockets to pay touring performers and the House of Rock booked local bands.

This spirit carried over into the new millennium, when a younger generation of Boiseans set up house venues like Grandma's House and the Baby Sale House. Adam Showalter--who will perform at this year's Treefort with his tongue-in-cheek hip-hop act Sword of a Bad Speller--started going to house shows when he was 18 and ran the Baby Sale House from 2007-2009. Groups that performed there included Wolvserpent (then called PussyGutt), which ran a house venue called Elk a few years prior, and one of Treefort 2013's most popular acts, Wooden Indian Burial Ground.

"We weren't getting anything out of it," Showalter said. "It was hard work. If anything, we lost money."

But he and others in the scene held shows because "it's an important thing to experience and to help other people experience. House shows changed who I am. House shows are the reason I have the friends I have now."

If there's an underlying theme to the past 20 years of Boise music, Todd Dunnigan said, it's this: "Ain't nobody else gonna do this for us; we gotta do it ourselves."

Branching Out

Eric Gilbert didn't realize the vibrancy of the Boise scene immediately. When he and his Finn Riggins bandmates Lisa Simpson and Cameron Bouiss moved here in 2009, he didn't know if they'd made the right decision.

"I'd sort of written the scene off as mostly cover bands and stuff like that," he said in an interview with BW in July 2013. He'd been exposed to a wide variety of music while attending the University of Idaho, both from DJ-ing at the college radio station KUOI and from checking out the house show scene in Moscow.

"It ebbs and flows with the different students and stuff, but I remember it was very empowering," he said.

A premium was set on "really engaging, fresh, wild music," Gilbert said. "There were a lot of cool bands at the time creating all kinds of cool stuff. It was just a cool scene to be a part of and a good petri dish for us."

By contrast, the only Boise bands that he'd encountered in Moscow were cover bands, which were "laughed out of town." Prospects seemed even dimmer when he looked around the Boise scene and observed "a lot of infighting and weird jadedness." But when Finn Riggins participated in Visual Art Collective's Rotating Tongues II anthology, which required groups to write and perform two original songs (recorded live by Steve Fulton and Audio Lab), Gilbert saw the light.

"Everyone was really nervous, but it was cool how everyone was supportive of each other," he said. "I saw in everybody a moment of, like, 'Oh yeah, we're all on the same team. Where have you been? I forgot how awesome you are.'"

The combination of invention and camaraderie that Gilbert observed convinced him and the rest of the band to set down roots in Boise. Wes Malvini believes that a similar spirit has helped Treefort succeed and grow.

"The best thing that Eric did as the director of Treefort was bringing in outside promoters--bringing in third-party promoters, giving them a showcase," he said. "If he hadn't done that and if he didn't continue to do that, I don't know if Treefort would be as valued as it is. Because he allows everybody in the community who's involved in music--everybody in the community who's involved in art--he allows them a sense of ownership."

TO Entertain U promoter Seth Brown--who set up a showcase at Tom Grainey's on Friday, March 21--agrees.

"I've been really stoked on the open-mindedness and activism [of Treefort]," Brown said. "Instead of just supporting the core genres that Duck Club [Gilbert and Shandro's promotion company] personally works with, they're helping all the other promoters and bands in other genres that they don't necessarily work with on a day-to-day basis. They're helping them get a foothold ... so that people can decide if they want to be a part of it or not."

Gilbert and the rest of the Treefort team handled this year's new "Forts" in the same manner. Sage Yoga owner and Yogafort curator Marisa Weppner, who also sits on Treefort's artist selection committee, had gently suggested the idea of holding some yoga classes during the festival last year. She and dance instructor Celeste Bolin each set up a morning class at El Korah Shrine during Treefort 2013.

"We had about 25 people each day, which we thought was pretty successful," Weppner said. "So they told me last summer, 'You can curate Yogafort and make it what you'd like it to be.'"

Weppner credited Treefort with "seeing potential within the community, not just within music but all across the board, and helping that to be fostered and grown and just realized within people."

Storyfort curator Christian Winn has also observed a strong synergy between all the different pieces of Treefort. "Everybody around [the festival] has been woven together like fabric. It works really, really well," he said.

Rich Soil

Treefort includes not just promoters and bands, but volunteers as well. Even after three years, volunteer coordinator Elizabeth Corsentino is still amazed at the number of people willing to contribute their time and energy to the festival. Especially since, aside from the ability to buy a pass at a reduced price, they don't get much tangible in return.

"They want to do anything they can," she said. "They want to spread the word. They want to hang up posters. They want to pour beer. They want to sweep the street. Of course, there's a few people who want a cheaper ticket, and that's totally understandable. ... But for the most part, people actually just want to help make it happen."

The number of volunteers has grown with the festival. According to Corsentino, almost 200 people volunteered for Treefort 2012. In 2013, more than 300 volunteered. This year, Corsentino needs to manage nearly 400 volunteers. "I'm not exactly sure yet; hopefully, not that many," she added.

Corsentino takes particular pleasure in the number of teenage volunteers who are "just doing everything they can to get involved in the music and stuff that they're interested in even though it's not really afforded to them easily," she said. "They can't go to bars and they can't help out [inside], but they're willing to do whatever it takes to get involved."

Todd Dunnigan believes that the widespread support for Treefort "just seems to be more of an overarching support for the arts that's grown over the years. I think a lot of people who were fans of art and who were doing art in Boise automatically assumed because they lived here ... it must kind of suck compared to what's bigger and better. And then they got out there in the world and discovered, 'Oh, you know what? Boise's got a pretty good scene.'"

Local government and businesses have certainly been more amenable to Treefort than they were to Dunnigan in the '80s. In a recent interview, Gilbert noted the support that the festival has received from Mayor Dave Bieter's administration, as well as the Boise City Department of Arts and History. He added that many businesses not located near the Treefort venues have donated food. These include the food co-op Idaho's Bounty, which has agreed to give its excess produce to restaurants contributing to Treefort.

"They don't have increased business, but they see the festival as something that's contributing to a macro rise in the community," he said.

Unofficial support systems for Treefort have also arisen. In February 2013, Treefort marketing director Megan Stoll created the Facebook group "Shacking at Treefort: Fans, Bands and Press" as a way for out-of-town artists to cut down on touring expenses and experience the festival beyond their sets. The group, which now has more than 350 members, allows people to work out traveling arrangements, find places to stay and, occasionally, set up house shows.

Stoll created the group on her own to prevent Treefort from being liable for any incidents that may occur. She monitors it, though, and participates in it sometimes.

"I even have a guy this year who's camping in my front yard," she said, laughing.

Sprouts

If Treefort is a megaphone, as Wes Malvini described it, it's being heard in quite a few places. Pre-Treefort concerts have sprung up this year in Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Missoula, Mont.; Salt Lake City and Moscow. While the shows have Treefort's approval and feature bands which have played or will play the festival, nearly all of them were organized with little or no input from Gilbert (the exception is a March 16 show in Seattle featuring local group Hollow Wood and Seattle group Friends and Family, which Gilbert said he was "a little more directly involved in").

The Salt Lake City pre-party, a two-day event at the Barrel Room, was organized by Psych Lake City, a promotion company run by Kyle Wilcox from the band Dark Seas and Tcoy from the band Max Pain and the Groovies. While Gilbert suggested it and put him in touch with touring groups, Wilcox set up the pre-party mostly on his own.

"It's good to spread the word of Treefort down here," Wilcox said. "It's a close commute; it's not far for people from Salt Lake to travel up there."

Setting up events like this also "helps grow our scene and bring a lot of good bands in. And the better bands you bring in and the more bands you bring in, it builds the music scene here."

Brett Hawkins, who plays drums for Sun Blood Stories and fronts Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant, sees Treefort accelerating the growth of the local scene, too. He moved to Boise from Idaho Falls in 2009, immersing himself in the "unfiltered, raw shit going on" in the house show scene.

"Things kind of died for a while, it seemed like," Hawkins said, "but now, there's this huge revival of people who are just pushing and not just trying to be in a band to play this style of music or this style of music."

Instead, he sees more people making music "for the rewarding aspect of creation."

Doc Woolf sees this as well when he handles sound at The Crux's Monday open mic. "A lot of young people and even not-so-young people are getting into the music scene and really mixing it up," he said. "You've got a hip-hop artist sitting down, exchanging information with a country-folk singer."

Others are finding their way in the post-Treefort music scene. Cameron Andreas toyed with the idea of relocating to Boise from Twin Falls, but he didn't know if there'd be a place for the kind of "psychedelic pop" that he wanted to make ("I thought maybe everything was kind of all Built to Spill-ish," he said). Then he attended Treefort 2012.

"The first year of Treefort was huge," Andreas said, "I came up from Twin and saw all these bands that I'd never even heard of that were from Boise like Teens and Wolvserpent. And it was just like, 'Whoa, I thought wrong. I don't know why I felt discouraged at all about this place.'"

Although it took Andreas some time to get established in the Boise scene, he managed to secure his own showcase at Treefort 2013, which featured Wolvserpent, Canadian duo Menace Ruine and Seattle drone doom band Earth. He has another showcase at this year's Treefort with ultra-raunchy San Francisco, Calif., punk band The Dwarves headlining. He has also started his own label, WavePOP.

Frankie Tillo of the young psychedelic blues band Virgil (formerly Ronnie and the Reagans) said that he started hearing about Treefort "as soon as we started gigging [in Idaho Falls]. The second gig, someone was like, 'You guys should look into playing Boise.'"

The band stuck around Idaho Falls for a short time, playing 30 gigs during the summer of 2013. When the DIY venue The Wax House closed and the town's scene started to crumble, Boise was the logical place to go.

"There seems to be a scene [here] and people care about it," Tillo said. "And you attract people who are driven, which is very important."

Kristy Scott, who performs as the haunting sadcore act Starlings Murmurations, is one of those people. She moved from Seattle to Boise almost three years ago, hoping to take advantage of the lower cost of living and focus more on her art. While she doesn't think there's much of an audience here for her kind of music right now, she feels that Treefort has opened a space for broader musical appreciation.

"It feels like being part of a movement that's gaining momentum," she said.

Growing Pains

It there is a movement going on, not everyone in the Boise scene has felt like part of it.

"Feedback from some artists has been, 'Why can't I be involved? Why can't I be part of it, too?'" observed promoter Seth Brown. "People actively want to be part of [Treefort], and if there's anything negative, it's because people are sad that they weren't selected."

Or if they were selected, they weren't scheduled at venues or at times that would attract much attention. Ryan Sampson had that complaint, which led him to hold the all-local Treehouse of Horrors at Sammy's on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights during Treefort 2013.

"And the cool part of it was it caught [Eric Gilbert's] attention," said Sampson. "It took nothing flat for him to realize what I was doing. ... He actually looked at it as extending [the spirit of Treefort]. He appreciated what I was doing." (It may be worth noting that three bands that played the Treehouse of Horrors--Piranhas BC, Upinatem and Marshall Poole--are part of this year's Treefort lineup).

Complaints have also arisen over the radius clause in the Treefort contract, which prevents bands from playing in town before or after the festival for a certain length of time. John Pisano, who ran Old Boise Guitar Company for 26 years and performs as Johnny Shoes, looks at this clause philosophically.

"I couldn't afford not to play anywhere else in town for a month," he said. But he noted that "it does make a lot of sense for musicians who are coming in from somewhere else. Obviously, if a musician's coming in from somewhere else, they're not here all the time, so it's a special event."

But Treefort is a work in progress, Pisano said. "There's always going to be growing pains," he added.

Planting Seeds

As popular as Treefort has become, associating with it may not guarantee a financial profit.

The Bricofort vendors and food trucks that provided information on sales during Treefort 2013 varied widely in their experiences. The City of Trees sold out the special Treefort edition of its Boise skyline T-shirt. Archie's Place grossed between $4,000-$5,000, which amounted to a solid profit even after band meals, truck fees and other costs.

On the other hand, Chris Titus of Rolling Hawg sent an email stating that he only managed to break even after labor costs, noting that "the No. 1 thing that set the volume of sales for each food truck was location. The food trucks who were inside the main venue close to the beer tent did very well. The food trucks that were staged around the Linen Building and Modern Hotel did not fair [sic] as well due to less traffic."

No one had any complaints about the music, though. Radio Boise DJ Psycache Ziran wrote that he sold little of his Gypsy Lovers Designs leather jewelry at Bricofort.

"That said," he added, "I have noticed a palpable difference in the music scene in Boise over the last couple years, and I believe Treefort is an important catalyst in this phenomenon."

In "Bug" Burke's view, the changes to the Boise scene over the past three years haven't all been positive.

"I guess I came from a scene where there was a lot of people working on one thing and maybe a lot of people working on one other thing and that's about it," he said. "Now there's a lot of little different things, a lot of different promoters and a lot of different bands, and they're all trying to grab the cheese. Which, to me, makes it not as fun." Attendance and earnings for a given show could be less "because there's so many shows and so many people. I think it's weakening the scene."

But Doc Woolf argues otherwise: "In my opinion, I think it's a great thing for Boise when there's too much going on and you can't decide which show to go to," he said. "That just goes to show how much good music is in the Valley."

As for Treefort itself, the festival organizers lost money in 2012 and 2013, but Megan Stoll said they consider the loss "more of an investment," noting that it can take three to four years before a festival starts to break even (not including past expenditures).

Gilbert added that he regards it as "normal for any business, any festival. Especially because we want to do production right." This can include bringing extra sound equipment to different venues, which he and his associates consider worth the cost.

Regardless of what happens to the Tree past this point, the seeds may already be planted.

"Treefort has definitely done its job in making Boise music-aware," Andreas said. "So I guess that is its main importance. It has brought many people together, many like minds and musicians and artists together. I think that it already has done its job."

For a full schedule of acts, Forts and venues, plus times and prices, visit treefortmusicfest.com.

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