MONICA HOOPER/APRIL WALLACE
Colorful tree houses, a mirrored hot-air balloon, a disco madhouse and daily invasions of Soundsuits are some of the many things you can see and experience at the FORMAT — “For Music + Art + Technology” — Festival Sept. 23-26 on the private Sugar Creek Airstrip.
The 250 acres of forest-enclosed green space, just a six minute drive from downtown Bentonville, will be the site of this brand new festival in Northwest Arkansas, created by a partnership among OZ Brands, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Momentary.
More than 50 artists will be performing live, including Australian band Rüfüs Du Sol, Phoenix, Beach House, The Flaming Lips, British electronic music project Jungle and The War on Drugs, among others. Tickets for the event went on sale in late April.
While the festival will have traditional main and side stages for performances, live music will also happen in a number of alternative settings, such as a converted disco barn, a multi-room speakeasy, hidden forest enclaves and an open-air pavilion, according to a news release.
The premiere of an artificial intelligence collaboration between John Gerrard and Richie Hawtin will take place during the festival, revealing data- and environmental-responsive digital artwork. An “ever-changing” musical composition will be played alongside it.
Visual arts will play a strong role in FORMAT with installations, integrated performances and art experiences by several well known artists, including Jacolby Satterwhite, Pia Camil and Marinella Senatore.
Nick Cave’s iconic Soundsuits will make daily “invasions” at the festival. Cave’s elaborate costumes made of discarded materials are works of art. One of Cave’s sculptural Soundsuits — a large construction of twigs, synthetic berries and metal over a mannequin — was on display earlier this year as a part of “The Dirty South” exhibit at Crystal Bridges.
A mirrored hot-air balloon, called New Horizon, by Doug Aitken will make an appearance, and artist duo “assume vivid astro focus” will place colorful tree houses and other wooden structures in the forest.
The barn will be transformed into a “disco madhouse” by artist Maurizio Cattelan’s Toiletpaper Magazine, and a large scale maze made of recycled plastic bottles revealed, created by guerrilla collective Luzinterruptus, will be revealed.
Guests can also look forward to large-scale light installations, an interactive textile sculpture and a new design to one of the prominent venues involved in the festival.
The Soundsuits are coming.
And this time, the elaborate costumes — works of art — made of discarded materials will be worn by 14 people chosen in the region. The Northwest Arkansans inside each suit will dance and interact with the happenings and performances of FORMAT Festival, including those of Chic, The Flaming Lips, Phoenix and The War on Drugs.
Cave says the performers will spend two days workshopping and going through a series of exercises that will be interesting, fun and exciting.
“I don’t want anything to be planned,” Cave says of the performances of the Soundsuit wearers. “But we’ll be talking about improv and interpretation, being in the moment, and how do you recognize that that is happening and how do you sort of be fully prepared and ready to respond to music and sound in this way.”
A big part of it will be training the performers to be open to whatever situation presents itself — being ready for the opportunities. Since their bodies will be concealed by these objects, they’ll talk about the meaning behind it and how to project while wearing them — how to move into states of transformation.
Cave says he hasn’t worked with these particular performers, or even worked with his Soundsuits in this capacity before.
“For all of us, it’s so new, different and experimental, that’s the beauty (of it),” he says.
There’s a big difference between Cave’s sculptural Soundsuits, such as the ones on display in museums, and the ones you’ll see through the crowds at FORMAT, he says.
These are a series of 10 foot raffia and hair Soundsuits. Each suit takes weeks to construct with the aid of multiple assistants. Part is worn directly on the body, while the rest is a support on the person’s shoulders that extends four to five feet above that. That portion that is weighty and determines to an extent who can wear it, since the ability to cart it around safely is something to consider.
The 14 Soundsuit wearers will at times be interacting individually, in small groups and in some cases, all 14 will perform together. At one point, they will interface with the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff marching band’s drum line.
Some Soundsuit wearers will be on stage, some will be on ground level, and they intend to pull the audience in and interact with them, making memories and staying rooted in the primalness of the moment, Cave says. He’s made a group of raffia puffs, each about 36 inches in length on the surface, for them to throw back and forth to each other.
It’s based on the same “ideas of morphing, playfulness of being transformed,” he says. The Soundsuits are made in a way that allows that level of activity. In making the suits and puffs, Cave thought about distance, how far the viewer can see the objects and the visceralness of the fibers and the volume it makes as it and the performers move and become bigger and larger.
“I’ve never done this before, having a group of performers throwing (these) back and forth, creating a mass of color traveling through space,” Cave says. “The body finds its way into it, and that moment becomes something other. You are going to have these moments that it appears to be one thing and then transforms into something else.”
THE WAR ON DRUGS
You can’t just be a rock band these days. Musical genres are like shapeshifters. Once you think you’ve got a style pegged, along comes another band that calls itself “shoegaze” or “ethereal rock,” and there you are on Google trying to figure out how 15 different bands fall under the same category.
Which brings us to The War on Drugs, who picked their name because it didn’t lend itself to one genre or another. At first listen, TWOD is just a straight-forward rock band, but then comes the “swirly keyboards,” which bear comparison to other bands that aren’t quite rock ‘n’ roll. Throw in some other influences like “shoegaze” and “roots rock” and “layers and layers of synths,” and not even the band’s longtime drummer, Charlie Hall, is sure how to describe their low-fi sound.
“I don’t really have the elevator pitch like when you’re on a plane or something and someone’s like, ‘Oh, you must be in a band.’ If they ask me to describe it, I don’t have a set thing. You try to invariably go to these sort of lowest common denominators: ‘Oh, it’s like classic rock, but it’s like swirly with synthesizers.’ You never really know what to say. I think the word ‘dreamy’ always comes to mind.”
Hall says he’s OK with whatever the label as long as people are listening, adding, “If that’s what it is to you, then it is what it is, you know.”
Formed in 2005 in Philadelphia,The War on Drugs consists of frontman Adam Granduciel on vocals, guitar; David Hartley on bass guitar; Robbie Bennett on keyboards; Jon Natchez on saxophone and keyboards; Anthony LaMarca on guitar; Eliza Hardy Jones on keyboards; and keeping the beat on drums is Hall. The band was founded by Granduciel and Kurt Vile, who departed to focus on his solo career. In 2018 the group snagged a Best Rock Album Grammy for “A Deeper Understanding.” After that they went to work on their 2021 release “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” which they began working on before the pandemic, and touring started as restrictions were being lifted.
“I feel like we were out of the gates on the on the early side, especially like going over to Europe. I think there hadn’t been a lot of American bands over yet when we were there in March and April,” Hall says of touring earlier this year. “Before it was so different — not seeing people’s faces, having a mask on 22 hours a day, not seeing your best friend/bandmates’ facial expressions when you’re talking, and traveling around the world and not seeing your friends. One of the fringe benefits of this job is that you get to stay connected with people who live in faraway places. It was a little strange at first.
“At the same time,” he adds, “I think it brought us together in a way that was unique and kind of cool. You’re just so in it together, and you’re just working so hard to keep everybody safe and keep the train rolling, and we did.”
Still, he says that he experienced “this really beautiful feeling of connection because people have been waiting years to see [live music] and that … to experience it with thousands of other people that love the same thing as them … was this really joyous, beautiful thing that happened early in the year. And it still feels like that.”
The War on Drugs will perform at 8 p.m. Sept. 23 on the South of Oz stage. Other Friday night headliners will include Phoenix, Nile Rogers and Chic, The Marias, Leftover Salmon. Locals Honey Collective and Serrano-Torres will also perform on Sept. 23.
Then you can add genuine Delta-style blues to the FORMAT festival lineup that includes dream-pop, psychedelia, jazza and the groovy world tunes.
Hailed by Guitar World as “the future of blues” and “one of the most exciting young guitarists in years with a sound that encompasses B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and Prince” by Rolling Stone, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram will play the North of Oz stage at 5 p.m. Sept. 24.
At barely 23 years old, Ingram has already received a Grammy nod for his first album, “Kingfish,” and is now touring in support of his album “662,” the area code for his hometown of Clarksdale, Miss. He comes from a musical family, starting on drums, but picking up a guitar shortly after. In 2016 he played for Michelle Obama at the White House as part of a delegation of student musicians from the Delta Blues Museum. The next year he won the 2015 Rising Star Award presented by The Rhythm & Blues Foundation.
His first album came out in 2019 when he was still a teenager. It was named to NPR’s Best Debut Albums list in 2019. He took home five awards at the Blues Foundation’s 2020 Blues Music Awards, including album of the year, best emerging artist album and best contemporary blues album. He also won instrumentalist-guitarist and best contemporary blues artist. While his latest album hasn’t kicked up as much attention at the first, he has played festivals such as the Chicago Blues Festival, the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, the Bonita Blues Festival in Florida and The Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, and just a week ago he headlined at Bourbon & Beyond in Louisville, Ken., with Kings of Leon, Jason Isbell, Courtney Barnett, Brandi Carlisle, Eric Gales and more.
Keep up with Ingram at christonekingfishingram.com.
Shortly after the FORMAT festival announced that it was coming to Northwest Arkansas, several local musicians such as Serrano-Torres, Amos Cochran and Kayln Fay, among others, started posting mockups of their festival passes across social media. Even some of Northwest Arkansas’s local artists will be exhibiting and installing work during the festival.
Auralai, whose formal name is Stephanie Russell, is one of the local musicians who will be involved in the festival, playing on the Next Door Stage during the Sept. 24 lineup that includes Alan Power, The Phlegms, Katie Schecter and Black Bananas.
“I was incredibly fortunate in how I became affiliated with FORMAT festival. The organization CACHE started a dialogue and connected me with them, and negotiations quickly began,” she says. “I have played several large festivals, such as Summerfest in Milwaukee, but I don’t think any of them were quite as big as this one, especially in terms of production value. I feel really lucky to be performing at the inaugural FORMAT festival.”
Auralai has had a busy summer with touring and getting together new material. Over a quick email interview, she says, “I have many singles currently in progress that I hope to start releasing by the end of the year. I like to start a lot of things at once, so I have also been starting to organize an EP recorded completely on an iPhone with GarageBand. I have become fascinated with the concept of the accessibility of music, songwriting and recording. You can be a musician and write songs without knowing how to play an instrument, and you can record an album without having fancy gear or access to a studio. Releasing music these days is so cost-prohibitive, especially with meager earnings from streaming services.”
Part of her support comes from The House of Songs, which has supported many Northwest Arkansas-based musicians.
“I’m on my way to Nashville for Americanafest as I write this, thanks to The House of Songs,” she says of her work there. “They have done a lot for me since my move to Arkansas in 2021, and I am so grateful to them and their amazing team for taking such an interest in elevating musicians.”
Her latest release, “No Way In,” is on streaming services now. The song is a slight departure from her lilting, slightly ethereal cello-driven melodies from her previous album, “Songs for Dogs,” but her singing voice has grown bolder.
“‘No Way In’ was initially an instrumental song written by my musical companion, Nate Lehner. He has made a habit of creating all of his soundtracks for video projects that he is working on and was excited to show me this soundscape that he produced and recorded. A cello melody came to mind immediately upon hearing it, and then we started toying around with a vocal part. The whole song came together quickly, thanks to Nate for doing 99% of the work.”
Whatever ever the future holds, keep up with Auralai at auralai.com.
‘For Music + Art + Technology’
WHAT — A three-day festival of music and art featuring both international musical acts such as Rüfüs Du Sol and Phoenix, national touring acts such as The War on Drugs, Thundercat and Khruangbin as well as local music from Serrano-Torres, Amos Cochran, Kayln Fay, Auralai and The Phlegms. Art installations from locals such as Kat Wilson and Athen Brandon will also happen alongside Soundsuits by Nick Cave, a mirrored hot air balloon by Doug Aitken, and DomeRX by artist and designer Darren Romanelli/DRx. Vendors, camping and more will be available on site.
WHEN — Sept. 23-25
WHERE — Sugar Creek Airstrip, 3100 Price Coffee Road, Bentonville
COST — $125-$2,500
INFO — format-festival.com
If you missed out on grabbing tickets to some of your desired performances at FORMAT Festival, catch main stage performances at the Momentary, where video and audio will be streamed live on the Tower’s exterior for free. Bring a chair or blanket, grab a drink and enjoy the music, staff members encourage. Streaming starts at dusk each day.
7-8 p.m. — Nile Rodger & Chic
9-10:15 p.m. — Phoenix
9-10:15 p.m. — The Flaming Lips
Free, no registration required.
— Source: The Momentary