In the post-piracy music industry, weekend festivals have transformed from laid-back opportunities to see the year’s highlights into overwhelming spectacles whose headliners command exorbitant ticket prices. Coachella is now two weekends instead of one, crowds at every weekender have swelled to the tens of thousands, and fans are reliably, alarmingly landing in the hospital. It’s a fun ordeal, but an ordeal nonetheless.
Precious, then, is the festival that prioritizes a coherent lineup over heavy hitters, breathing room over blockbuster sales, and artistry over stadium anthems. Basilica Soundscape, at upstate arts space Basilica Hudson, has been doing just that since 2011.
Co-curated by Pitchfork managing editor and resident metalhead Brandon Stosuy, the three-day event brings a diverse group of artists to a stunning space for an audience of diehard lovers of experimentation. From September 11–13, fans boarding Amtrak in droves will catch headliners Perfume Genius and the Haxan Cloak, along with a dozen more acts both local and far-flung. “After the first year,” says Stosuy, “we were all surprised so many people came up to Hudson. So we kept doing it.”
The nineteenth-century former glue factory that gives the festival its name is as central to the experience as the eclectic lineup. Musician Melissa Auf der Maur, best known for her time as Hole’s bassist in the late 1990s, and her husband, filmmaker Tony Stone, purchased the space in 2009. The previous owner, an artist who had begun refurbishing it but grown weary of the project, wanted to pass it on to other artists. Other than stabilization and refinishing, they left the building mostly untouched, particularly its awe-inspiring open rafters. “They [only] did the things you want them to do,” Stosuy says of their rehabilitative efforts. “It’s raw, but it has nice bathrooms. You don’t want 200-year-old bathrooms.”
The festival venue comprises two rooms, one cavernous and one intimate. Stosuy and co-curator Brian DeRan keep the unusual acoustics of these spaces in mind as they build the lineup. DeRan’s tastes lean more toward folk, Americana, and psych, while Stosuy’s metal background brings darker, heavier music. “We have enough shared tastes to make it cohesive,” says Stosuy of their partnership. “But we balance each other out.” That balance translates to a lineup that this year hosts, among others, Norwegian singer Jenny Hval, Brooklyn metal band Sannhet, noise legends Wolf Eyes, and ever-shifting guitar experimentalists HEALTH.
Every edition also includes at least one artist who fits both sensibilities. This year it’s Brooklyn’s Weyes Blood, an indie-folk band whose singer and songwriter, Natalie Mering, has spent time with several experimental groups and contributed vocals to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. She’ll open the festival on Friday night with a solo set. Her experience and style fit perfectly into the Basilica aesthetic: beautiful but weird, musically complex, and forceful. Stosuy describes Weyes Blood as “dark West Coast Charles Manson psychedelia.”
Mering has never attended Basilica, but the festival’s reputation convinced her she’d be a good fit. “I like finding similarities and synchronicities in things that seem incompatible,” she says, rejecting “the idea that beautiful music can’t have intense, abrasive sounds.” Basilica maintains several of these dualities: very new music in a very old space, natural surroundings with industrial development, delicate folk and harsh noise — not unlike Mering’s output, which she says is “simultaneously sublime and violent and benevolent.”
Stosuy thinks Weyes Blood is the kind of lesser-known act fans will leave Basilica talking about, and considering who attends the festival — sometimes referred to as “music writer summer camp” — that talk could well boost visibility. Stosuy looks in particular for groups on the cusp of renown when he books Basilica. “I think it’s boring to only have big bands,” he says. “It’s so interesting to look back on a lineup and see where the smaller bands have wound up. Natalie fits into that.”
The flexibility to book only “weird, interesting” bands like Weyes Blood springs from the festival’s grassroots ethos. “We’re trying to do it without sponsors, so it’s harder but more satisfying,” Stosuy explains. “Every time someone buys a ticket it’s kind of exciting.” And people are buying tickets — Basilica has sold out every year since its first. Fans experience something special in the cavernous space and turn up the next year (and usually the one after that). It’s a respite from the typical festival experience of huge crowds, frustratingly short sets, and $10 Bud Lights.
Musicians who come home raving about the experience are also essential to continued success. They’ll play one year and return in the audience the following, or vice versa, spreading word throughout their scenes that Basilica is a treat and not a headache. The Haxan Cloak (née Bobby Krlic), a longtime booking dream of Stosuy’s, agreed to play partly because his label’s owner has attended most years and made it clear the festival is worth his artists’ time. That reputation gives even first-timers like Mering the confidence to play around with their sets — she plans to debut new material and try out new arrangements of existing songs.
For Stosuy, the biggest compliment about the festival came from Swans frontman Michael Gira, who said he had a lot of fun headlining in 2014, when the band played a three-hour set. “If he’s writing and saying nice things,” laughs Stosuy, “that’s kind of a major coup, because he’s known not to be the sunniest guy in the world.”
Considering the unique experience of playing at Basilica, it’s no surprise that even Gira would glow. Afternoons host film screenings and readings, often allowing younger artists to speak alongside or just listen to the musicians who influenced them. Artists who might never play together get to compose custom pieces; two years ago, four different bands played simultaneously, and this year, three percussionists will form the Triangle Trio for a single night to perform only at Basilica.
In its heyday the factory served as a shipping facility and a railway station. This original dual purpose, says Stosuy, imbued it with energy and cemented its identity as a busy gathering place. Every year, that identity expands: Since the original refurbishing, Auf der Maur and Stone have added a full kitchen, a recording studio, and gardens, with a preschool occupying part of the space during the school year. It’s becoming the community space they envisioned when they bought the building.
The communal aspect is key to Basilica’s unlikely status as a must-see festival. Far from Brooklyn’s noisy streets and the constant stress of being a working artist in an expensive city, another side of the music insiders in attendance emerges. “You see people more carefree than they normally are,” Stosuy says of the small-town experience. “There’s something about being in Hudson that allows [New Yorkers] to let loose and go a little crazy.”
Basilica Soundscape takes place September 11–13. For lineup information, schedules, tickets, and more, click here.