Interview: Mountain Jam Producer Gary Chetkof

Mountain Jam – although synonymous with Warren Haynes – is also the brainchild of Gary Chetkof, owner of Woodstock, NY’s independent rock station WDST. This year’s festival kicks off on Thursday with a lineup that includes My Morning Jacket, The Avett Brothers, Umphrey’s McGee and, of course, Gov’t Mule.

When asked what has made de Mountain Jam a lasting success, Gary summed it up with a nod to Mr. Haynes. “To have a festival produced by an independent radio station and an independent musician who is one of the nicest guys in the world, one of the most talented guys in the world, really goes hand-in-hand,” he said. HeadCount has been at every Mountain Jam since 2006, so look for us in the “Awareness Village.” And read on to get Gary’s unique perspective on one of the Northeast’s most popular festivals.

HeadCount: Quite a lineup this year.

Gary Chetkof: Thanks, man. Yeah, somebody else made the comment that it’s very meaty. It really isn’t just baby bands and then big bands, it’s just one after another. It’s pretty insane. We definitely went after that kind of talent, and I mean we’re all just music lovers here, you know? It’s hard to contain ourselves, you know – we have to stick to a budget!

When you think of where you started and where you are now – what have been the things that took you to this place where you can have such a meaty lineup?

I think it’s steady growth enables you to do that. And I think that to obtain steady growth, I think you need to constantly reinvest in the festival. Every year you say, “How can we make the festival better?” Just about every solution costs money. You know, more of this, more of that, more signs, more security, more traffic coordination, more, more, more. So I think putting that effort into always making it better than the year before, and listening to everybody’s opinion, from the fan suggestions to the bands to the great staff that we’ve put together – really caring about it. I think that eventually pays off, I think people want to come back if they have a good time. Even in this economy, they put it on the top of their list as a not-to-miss thing. That kind of enables Gary the Promoter – he’s comfortable enough to increase the talent budget.

What are some of the things you’re most looking forward to this year, that really exemplify that reinvestment?

Well the first is the Thursday night addition. It’s the first year – we’re letting campers in a day earlier, we’re making Thursday night an intimate night, we’re only allowing a few thousand people in, and we’re making it a really special pre-festival evening. I think that shows a lot right there, because the real impetus for doing that was how do we make the campers’ entry into the festival easier? And rather than just doing it on a Friday morning, and opening up the gates and having people wait in the inevitable line, staggering it to a Thursday and a Friday will make that a better experience for the campers. Having an intimate Thursday night will make it a cooler thing, a different experience. Increasing the nature of the bands on the side stages, having the acoustic stage get bigger every year. Adding things like an organic wine and beer lounge in the Awareness Village. Making the VIP experience more interesting, creating really cool things like a grove of hammocks in the woods and adding to that, creating cool visual effects. I think all those little things add up at the end of the day to a better experience for everybody.

Most people who attend Mountain Jam probably don’t know until they get there that there’s a radio station behind it. Can you tell me a little about that relationship, and how the two kind of work together?

The radio station came first obviously, it just celebrated its 31st year, and it’s one of the few remaining really cool, hip progressive rock stations that people might remember – if they’re old enough – back in the late 60s, 70s, of great FM progressive rock. And Mountain Jam originally started as a celebration of the station’s 25th anniversary. It was only intended to be a one-day outdoor event, and Gov’t Mule graciously agreed to headline that, and then Mountain Jam really sprung out of that, it just ended up continuing from a spontaneous event of ‘hey, let’s do this again, and try to do it two days in the second year and three days in the third year, and camping.’ And the relationship is really strong today in that – I think a lot of the bands Mountain Jam books that are not just traditional jamband types of bands come across from Radio Woodstock’s influence on some of the booking. It’s always been a station dedicated to discovering new music throughout its 31-year history. Things like Edward Sharpe, Civil Twilight – even Grace Potter, the station has been playing Grace Potter since her first record when she was wearing baggy jeans and flannel shirts. A lot of those bands – The Avett Brothers, you know, even Michael Franti, who’s played every Mountain Jam since the first one – it’s all a reflection of the bands that DST helped to discover and pioneer on the radio.

How long have you been involved with WDST?

I bought the station 17 years ago, 1993.

We hear about all the consolidation in the radio business, how it’s nearly impossible for an independent station to survive. How have you guys done it?

We have a brand, this Woodstock brand, that we’ve been very loyal to. And we feel that that gives us the torch to program a radio station that is not necessarily a mainstream typical FM radio station. We’re one of the few radio stations in the country that will play anything from the late 60s to cutting-edge, something that comes out today. So the music programming really is very inclusive, very eclectic, and really has 50 years of rock and roll. It starts with the brand, the vision and the programming and the uniqueness of the station. And it translates to the fact that we attract great people – we’re all very passionate about being proud to be associated with the station, keeping it successful and vibrant. And I think it’s won the support of listeners and advertisers and artists. You know, artists come out of their way to play for us on the radio, do a concert for us at the theater next door to the radio station. And we’ve also stayed very much abreast of new technology – we were one of the first radio stations to stream on the internet, back in 1994, if you can believe that. We’re very big with digital media. We have an association with CBS radio in New York who puts us on their radio platform and they stream us and expose us to people across the country, who can listen to us on a smartphone. So it’s a lot of factors.

Do you have a sense of how many Mountain Jam attendees are listeners?

Yeah, my sense is about 25%.

So it’s really a natural marketing platform for the festival.

Yeah, the whole area of the festival is really entrenched with Radio Woodstock listeners, and then hopefully a lot of those people from outside have heard us, have certainly gotten enough emails, signed up for newsletters and become listeners on the Internet.

It seems that a lot of the characteristics of WDST, Radio Woodstock are also characteristics of Warren Haynes, just in terms of being authentic, being a throwback. It seems like a natural fit in that regard.

It’s exactly right. To have a festival produced by an independent radio station and an independent musician who is one of the nicest guys in the world, one of the most talented guys in the world, really goes hand-in-hand. His vision in programming is really similar to ours. Warren is not just a jamband guy even though he’s in that world. His versatility and interests cut across all styles. So it’s a blast programming the festival with him because there’s really no rules and no barriers other than ‘we just want great musicians, great artists.’

What are some of your favorite musical memories over the years, from the festival?

The ones that I really get the chills about, I can tell you – the first one was Phil Lesh and Friends at the third Mountain Jam, which I think really took the festival into a whole other stratosphere. And it was an honor – Phil had just come off of his recuperation with his liver transplant, and to have that group – they assembled at the radio station, they practiced here before, they went out there and they played with sheet music! And that was mind-boggling to me, it really took us to the next level. I think that Levon Helm and Friends last year was another mind-blowing experience, to be able to celebrate his 70th birthday with all the amazing guests we had last year. I probably won’t remember them all right now, but – Donald Fagen, Jackie Green, and Ray Lamontagne, Alison Krauss, Steve Earle – the adrenaline rush on that was just unbelievable. I think. Having the Allman Brothers was another spine-tingler, you know – seeing mountain Jam performed by the Allman Brothers, we never imagined that that would happen one day when we were first starting the festival. And I think Michael Franti’s sets, what he’s done over the years and seeing him grow in stature… Same with Grace Potter – first time she played Mountain Jam she was on the tiny little second stage, and now she’s going to be playing right before My Morning Jacket on Sunday night. And then there’s all the crazy Gov’t Mule sets over the years – how they can be so dynamic, and every set be so different. And you know last year, when they did that whole Pink Floyd stuff – it never ceases to amaze me.

Let’s talk a little bit about the Awareness Village. We’ve seen nonprofit villages done every which way at a festival and I really think you guys have just found a formula that others haven’t found in terms of just creating a real hub that people want to go to, and I’m always amazed by the traffic, because the layout of the mountain doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that, and yet people find it. Tell me a little about Awareness Village, and what we can expect this year.

Awareness village is really the spiritual center of Mountain Jam. It’s where we have a lot of community groups and not-for-profits and healing centers which serve to really make people, you know, think more than just about a music festival, you know, about their place on earth, everyone’s relationship to one another, and how we can make the world a better place. It’s really transformed lives – from crystal workshops and chiropractic healing centers and massage therapists, there’s an altar, people write prayers and hang them up there, and they’re read at the end of the festival every year. It really is the heart and soul. We also have a kids’ area where the kids can see performance in the morning when they get up. It’s a feel-good place. Obviously you guys are coming back – we’re proud to have our association with HeadCount for as long as we have. And I’ve seen how you guys have grown and really made a big impact on government in this country. We have Family of Woodstock, which has been around since the Woodstock festival, helping needy people and people who might have counseling issues. Community Energy Group is a group that has a lot of wind energy – they put back credits to offset MJ’s carbon footprint over the weekend. Amnesty International is joining us this year, they have a big anniversary celebration. The Hudson River Sloop, which is associated with the Clearwater Festival, teaching people about the importance of keeping the Hudson river clean, they’ll be back. Rock The Earth will be joining us, an organization dealing with healthcare, and healthcare seems to be the hot issue of the day – how we can make healthcare more affordable, looking at it as a basic human right.

Well we definitely appreciate it, Gary, we’re looking forward to it. I think we’re going to have some veteran HeadCounters there who did it last year also; a lot of them are excited to come back. So yeah, man, congrats on the success. How many people are you expecting this year?

You know, probably 12,000, I’m thinking it’ll be pretty similar to past years. Between the economy and gas, it’s a tough year for people. We’re happy to do our same numbers we’ve done and grow a little bit. And we like the intimacy – I think that’s another reason why the festival is so successful, is that we really haven’t tried to grow too big and lose the intimacy of what Mountain Jam is all about.

I definitely applaud the approach you guys have taken, it’s pretty remarkable. To just kind of do it on your own terms. That’s what it’s all about, in the end.

Yeah, man. You know that.

Tell your friends!