Grateful Web Interview with Ken Hays

Article Contributed by Dylan Muhlberg | Published on Friday, March 30, 2012

Grateful Web's Dylan Muhlberg had an opportunity to talk to Ken Hays, founder of Gathering of the Vibes festival.  Ken discussed the impetus for creating Vibes back in 1996, the current status of the jamband scene, why Vibes is such a family friendly fest. and Ken gives a hint on who we can expect from this year's Vibes...

GW: Alright, good morning, this is Dylan Muhlberg on behalf of Grateful Web with Ken Hays, the founder of the Gathering the of Vibes festival. Ken, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

KH: Yeah, glad to be with you Dylan.

GW: Let’s talk about the beginnings of the festival back in 1996. Being an east coast based festival, in celebration of the Dead and its fans, how did you feel about not only having the Gathering out east, but hosting a primarily east coast lineup such as Jazz Mandolin Project, moe., and Max Creek?

KH: Well, it started out as “Dead Head Heaven: Gathering of the Tribe”, at SUNY Purchase college over memorial day weekend 1996, after mayor Giuliani said no to a Gathering in Central Park, similar to that which they had in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Some friends and I got together, from Dupree’s Diamond News and Terrapin Tapes, and decided let’s do this ourselves. We put together a lineup, like you said, with Jazz Mandolin, Max Creek, moe. and Strange Folk, and got some of the early players, a long time ago.

GW: Yeah, this ties into my next question. Many of these bands you were booking in the mid-nineties for the Vibes festival, though they were known and respected in the scene have blow up into huge touring outfits such as the Disco Biscuits and moe., What are your current thoughts on the status of whatever the “jam band” scene is today, and how does that play into booking your festival?

KH: I think the status of the “jam band” scene is in good shape. We can always use more up-and-coming, creative new blood entering the market place because that’s what keeps us all thriving and inspired musically. Some of these younger bands are just hugely talented and we're thrilled to be able to put them on our stage, and for people to be really engaged in what they’re hearing.

GW: You settled on the Seaside Park venue in Bridgeport as I understand it in 1999?

KM: Yes.

GW: And so far you’ve had eight of the Gatherings at this venue. What would you say keeps bringing you back to the Seaside Park festival site?

KH: Well it’s a beautiful space, I mean 370 acres all on the water. This is a park that was donated to the city of Bridgeport in 1875 by then mayor P.T. Barnum, and really it’s a beautifully manicured space, close to home and our office. And I love it. This is our fifth year of our five-year contract with the city. There’s upsides and some downsides. One is the aesthetic beauty and being on the water, Seaside Park off of the Long Island sound, and the downside is that its so logistically challenging. You know, just doing a festival on the skirts of a major city. I love the venue; I think our attendees love the venue. The water has always been something that’s attracted me toward doing Gathering of the Vibes. Whether it be Croton Point Park back in 1997, on the Hudson, or in 98’ when we moved  to Plattsburgh, New York right off of Lake Champlain. The water has always been something that felt right and I’d love to continue doing the festival on the waterside.

GW: And it’s definitely a refreshing change from the ordinary atypical music festival site, such as Bonnaroo, just a gigantic characterless field. So are there any drawbacks or challenges with the city or is everyone pretty cooperative on that end?

KH: No, the city loves the Vibes, as does the state. You know, we book up eight or nine hotels in the area so the tax revenue they’re thrilled about, and economic development and tourism. They’ve been incredibly supportive for a state like Connecticut that known as being incredibly wealthy. Connecticut is in terrible financial shape and massive debt. It’s something that hopefully we can help bring some positive vibes to the state and incredible music. It’s tough times out there and hopefully the economy is looking up, there’s a lot of heads out there still just scraping by and barely making ends meet. And we’re trying to reflect that by keeping the ticket prices down. And just so you know, this is an enormously expensive venue. I mean when we we’re in upstate New York it was half the cost of doing business up there than down here at the waterfront. We got coast guard, state police boats, the harbor police boats out there, and not to mention all the security that we hire just to make sure that everyone is safe on the waterfront, cause that’s the downside of our location, taking that extra precaution.

GW: Sure. So, last year was admittedly my first time at the Vibes, and I have to say Ken I really adored how the lineup blended the contemporaries of the Grateful Dead, such as Dr. John, Levon Helm, Taj Mahal, and Ivan Neville with the newer acts like Big Gigantic, New Mastersounds, and Assembly of Dust. Can you brief me in the process of putting together balanced lineups like that?

KH: Yeah, basically I snag the ten people closest to me and we sit down and have a brainstorming session, and we put together our A-list. You know if we had unlimited amounts of money that we could put into talent, who would we want there and is it realistic. Then you look up booking agents and see what the band’s routing is and the money it would take to get it done. And then it evolves from there. Shoot for the stars, and settle at the sun if you can’t make the stars.

GW: Cool. Well I’m really looking forward to this year’s Gathering. I noticed that in last year’s lineup you also featured headliners such as Elvis Costello or Janes Addiction, which are obviously not as common to the average “jam band” festival, is that a direction we can expect the Gathering to be aimed toward this year and in the future?

KH: Not so much this year, but in years going forward absolutely. We have to continue to evolve, we brought in Jane’s Addiction because they were outside of everyone’s comfort zone a bit. It’s heartwarming to see people that were really engaged in it, that either loved Jane’s Addiction when they were in their twenties or thirties or these kids that had never heard of or seen Jane’s Addiction. Kind of similar to back in 2003 at the Vibes when we had James Brown perform, you know, I took a lot of heat for that. But to be able to turn on so many people that may have heard of an artist but never seen perform live, that’s something that’s meaningful and I hope to be able to in future years move more along those lines. Not necessarily what’s hip or pop or what’s hot right now in the marketplace. But bands that have significant material substance, that are incredibly hot musicians. That’s whats #1. To be able to bring in acts that are spectacular in their own right.

GW: Absolutely. So, I was surprised to see so many families turn out for the Gathering last year, not that I had a strong pre-disposed opinion. Many music festivals I have attended in the past were really unsuitable for young people and I didn’t feel that way at all about the Gathering. What do you think about the environment fosters that family ethic?

KH: I think this is something that I am honestly most proud about. Last year I think we had around two thousand kids under the age of fifteen that came with their parents. It’s just an indication about the health and well being of the Vibe tribes, and that were doing the right thing. That people feel safe in Bridgeport and at Seaside Park, and that there’s incredible activities and interactive stuff for the kids. You know there’s so few times that parents and their kids are able to bond. For me it was going with my dad to Shea’s Stadium to see the Mets Play. And now, kids are dialed in on their computers and on Facebook or video games. There just isn’t the opportunity for families to truly bond together. The kids will bring their friends and the parents bring their friends. I think its time well spent. I always get emails and calls thanking me, talking about stories how parents and their kids bonded at Vibes. It’s really meaningful.

I think we’re on the right path. There’s nothing too radically different that’s going to be happening this year. We got a strong solid lineup. You know, nothing too over the top, The Stones aren’t going to be performing [laughs]. But its great that all of the living members of the Grateful Dead WILL be joining us again (!!) along with a bunch of other artists, some that we’ve seen before and others that we haven’t. I look forward to showing people what’s in store with our artist announcement this Monday.

GW: So good to hear about that. Really want to thank you for taking this time with me and with Grateful Web. Look forward to meeting you this summer at the festival!

KH: You too. Take Care.