Seaprog is a progressive music festival that takes place each year in Seattle. Each festival, over time, has gained a theme or prevailing atmosphere. Seaprog is one of the most adventurous and experimental lineups of all of the American festivals. Since their first Seaprog event five years ago, they’ve consistently highlighted bands that buck convention and push the envelope, and truly embody the “progressive” label. This year, Seaprog boasts an amazingly varied lineup that includes some incredible avant garde and experimental bands, such as Cheer-Accident, Free Salamander Exhibit, BubbleMath, and The Mercury Tree (see full artist schedule here). We talked with Dennis Rea, festival organizer, about the history of the festival, the mission of Seaprog, and much more.
How did Seaprog begin?
Seaprog was the natural outgrowth of a small periodic concert series, Zero-G Concerts, that was curated by myself (current Seaprog organizer Dennis Rea) and others for several years. Zero-G shone a spotlight not only on local progressive rock, but also contemporary jazz, improvised, experimental, and other neglected musical styles. After witnessing an especially strong set by a local progressive band, I declared that the Seattle area boasted such a wealth of top-flight progressive musicians that we could host a festival that would compare favorably with any of the other extant U.S. prog events. I was overheard by two other veteran progressive musicians, John Reagan and Jon Davis, who called my bluff, and hence Seaprog was born. The event is now in its fifth year and has six core organizers.
SeaProg is unique, in that the bands are often more experimental and avant-garde. Why the more adventurous focus? Tell us about the SeaProg Manifesto.
Most festivals necessarily reflect the tastes of their organizers, and in our case those tastes run decidedly to the more imaginative and challenging end of the progressive spectrum, hence the booking pattern you’ve observed. We were also well aware of the handful of other prog-rock festivals that take place around the U.S. and felt that they already provide comprehensive coverage of classic, symphonic, and other prog sub-genres, so we chose to focus on a more neglected cranny of the progressive netherworld rather than duplicate the efforts of others. There was also some concern that prog in general was viewed as a sort of dusty ‘museum piece’ by non-specialist listeners, so we wanted to underscore that progressive rock – in the original sense of moving forward – is very much alive and thriving in the shadows today. The Seaprog Manifesto – tongue partly in cheek – basically lays out this thinking in slightly more detail, so that people will be very clear about this festival’s priorities. That said, I believe folks will find that our lineups over the years have been refreshingly stylistically varied and not at all confined to the avant-garde camp.
How was the lineup selected?
Basically, each year when planning begins, we come up with a wish list of artists who 1) haven’t yet played Seaprog and 2) are within reach for a nonprofit festival like ours that has a limited budget. We then put out feelers to those artists and see where it leads. One very important consideration is that Seaprog remain primarily a showcase for progressive Pacific Northwest musicians who seldom enjoy a dignified platform for their art in a city that by and large is hostile to this sort of music. On the other hand, we understand the necessity of bringing in some ringers from outside the region or country to heighten draw and give local audiences a treat. We’re also happy to field submissions from hopeful participants, but given our geographical isolation, many balk at the expense of long-distance travel, which as a small nonprofit we’re ill equipped to cover.
Is there a progressive scene in and around Seattle? Tell us about it.
Indeed there is! I touched on this above, but for a city that’s predominantly associated with anything but progressive rock, there is quite the sizable and stalwart community of both musicians and listeners – one just needs to look under a few rocks. There are several internationally prominent figures who live in the area, such as Alan White and Trey Gunn (and King Crimson even rehearse here), but they rarely perform locally. To my mind, the most exciting action is largely out of sight in what could be termed the true underground, where numerous highly skilled, imaginative players continue to steadily pursue the music they love regardless of the absence of remuneration, large audiences, or mainstream acclaim.
If there is such a thing as a Pacific Northwest sub-variant of progressive rock, I’d chalk it up to a broader range of influences – or shall I say, permissible influences – than much classic prog. Progressive musicians in this area tend to embrace modern jazz and classical music, world music, experimentalism, and noise more than those in other scenes I’ve experienced, and are far less concerned with walling themselves off from the march of time.
Tell us about the venue!
We’re extremely fortunate in having the ideal venue for an event of this type and scale. The Columbia City Theater is a lovely and historic venue that dates back to 1923; Hendrix played there, and Ray Charles recorded there, among many, many others. It’s physically gorgeous and just the right size for a prog-rock festival in a city that isn’t exactly overflowing with prog fans. Its size does prevent us from presenting any of the upper-tier prog bands, but then so does our budget 😉
What are your hopes for future Seaprog events?
We’re not the greatest capitalists – you’ll note that we very pointedly operate the festival as a nonprofit event – so we’ve never had our sights set on endless growth. The fact is that each of the past four organizer-financed editions of the festival has lost money, a loss that we were willing to absorb in exchange for providing a beautiful experience for listeners and musicians. That’s not a sustainable approach in the long term, but we recently became an officially registered nonprofit organization under the aegis of Shunpike, and there are very encouraging signs that we may actually break even this year, as advance ticket sales have significantly exceeded those of past years. Getting the festival on a sustainable footing and achieving modest growth are good enough for us; we’re all musicians with multiple involvements and day jobs on top of it, and none of us envisioned becoming more than occasional impresarios. But we’re absolutely delighted to have made possible so many memorable musical moments over the past five years, which truly make all the organizational scrambling worthwhile.
Seaprog will take place this weekend, from June 1-June 3 2018! Buy your tickets here if you haven’t yet!