There’s something about the setting and sounds of Sasquatch! Music Festival that has enticed a horde of people into the desert of Eastern Washington every Memorial Day weekend for the past 17 years.
In the spirit of Woodstock, it’s a sudden swarm of people in a remote locale. Sasquatch! takes over the Gorge Amphitheatre in George. People camp in tents, pull up in RVs, sleep on cots, in the backseats of their car, sway with the beat and soak up the sun.
The festival has gone through changes and growing pains. It expanded from a single day with seven musical acts to an apex of four days featuring 124 music and comedy performances. One year even had screenings of a movie by The Flaming Lips.
This year, the comedy acts are gone, perhaps reverting back to the first year’s focus on music. But the sonic bounty is sticking around, with 81 bands, DJs, rappers and singer-songwriters taking the four stages over three days.
This interview has been edited (heavily) for clarity and length (because Graham is a talker).
Ben Watanabe: What’s got you most excited for the festival this weekend?
Steven Graham: I don’t think there’s anyone on this lineup that I’m strongly against. In the past, there’d be someone on the lineup that I’d be like, “Why?” The headliners are strong. Bon Iver. David Byrne. Modest Mouse.
BW: You don’t listen to David Byrne. Don’t front.
SG: No, but I’m excited to see him. And other people who haven’t seen him and maybe didn’t think they’d ever get to see someone that great will be excited.
BW: You’re all geeked up for David Bazan. You’ve seen him before, so what about it has you ramped up for him this weekend?
SG: Well, it’s not David Bazan. It’s Pedro The Lion. A lot of his stuff is really sad. After Headphones, and his solo stuff… anything new from David Bazan, I’m going to be excited about.
BW: You asked the festival’s founder, Adam Zacks, about the origin during your radio show this past Sunday. One of the things that stuck out was that Zacks said he intended it to be a reflection of the Pacific Northwest. What does that mean?
SG: I don’t wanna speak for anybody else. But what I took from that is, if you listen to what he said, the artists he ended up booking for the first festival, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, were really popular with The Mountain — R.I.P. — at the time. That really resonated with people here at the time. At that time, that’s what it was. Based on the lineup this year, and based on what he’s said, is he’s attempting to get back to that.
BW: I really got a kick out of him name-dropping The Mountain.
SG: Yeah, when he said that, I was like (starts bowing).
BW: Does the festival-goer experience change much from year to year?
SG: I think historically it does. One day, two days, three days, four days, I think it changes at any given point in time, based on how many days you’re there. I think a cool thing that’s happening this year is the El Chupacabra tent, which people call the dance tent, will have nonstop dance music… That’s very, very cool. Especially since there’s a certain population of people who go there and that’s their thing. When Tokimonsta stops her set, that’s someone who’s going to be there.
BW: How do you experience the festival differently now that you’re 31 as opposed to 21?
SG: Well, I actually worry about sunscreen, on my scalp. Once upon a time I would go and be happy to be there all day long and see as many bands as possible, whether I knew them or not. Now, I admittedly pick my spots and go and see someone I want to see. At this point, they allow re-entry, which didn’t used to be a thing. With that ability, I’m definitely picking my spots more and not spending my time just stuck in the sun.
BW: Who will surprise festival-goers?
SG: For Friday, it could be Giants in the Trees, which is Krist Novoselic’s new band, and they have a song called “Sasquatch.” Saturday, I think it could be Magic Sword in the tent. Even though it’s the middle of the day and probably best in the dark, I think it’s going to blow minds. Then Sunday, Gifted Gab was added kind of late to the lineup, but she’s really been blowing up lately. Not just locally, the hip-hop community is excited about Gifted Gab. She’s not on the biggest stage, but there’s going to be a crowd there, which is rare for 1:30 in the afternoon.
BW: Who’s going to be huge this time next year?
SG: We know about them because we’re here, but I really think Thunderpussy is going to get huge. They’re debut album is about to come out. They’re working with Mike McCready. Without an album, they’re booking every major festival. I can’t imagine that momentum slowing down. I say that as someone who’s partial to the local scene, but I would bet all my money on it.
BW: What are some acts that people could have seen in Everett or Snohomish County?
SG: Pickwick, Cuff Lynx played The Cannery once, Magic Sword, Thunderpussy, CCFX, I think that’s about it. That’s not bad, though. That’s a good list.
BW: Why do you go every year? You’ve got a family now, a puppy, a couple cats. These seem like things that’d make it so you’re ready to stay home, sleep in your cozy bed, do some work around the yard, picnic with your family, instead of getting grimy with a bunch of college kids and sleeping in a tent.
SG: It’s a thing that I just started doing when I was, nearly half my life ago, and kind of made the commitment that as long as they do this and I’m still having fun, I’m gonna keep coming. This is like the 17th year and like the 15th that I’ll be attending. I love that it’s this Pacific Northwest thing. We have others, like Bumbershoot. But the Gorge experience is just different. It’s a special thing for music lovers, and living as close as we do, maybe we take it for granted. But I don’t know that there’s going to be a show there every summer that I want to go to.
BW: What’s the allure of music festivals?
SG: You can get a chance to see a lot of bands, if you want. I imagine there are a lot of people who are big fans of this lineup who are really excited to see David Byrne. They probably didn’t think they’d ever get to see him. If you told me just Bon Iver was playing at the Gorge, I would go. Now I get to see Bon Iver, Modest Mouse, Thundercat, Son Little.
BW: Any pro tips for festival-goers?
SG: Don’t buy water. Bring an empty water bottle, bring an empty container, and fill it yourself. You’ll go broke if you try to buy enough water to stay alive.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the day Gifted Gab was performing. Gifted Gab takes the Bigfoot stage at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 27.