Talking Modfest with founder Nate Wolff

By COREY OGLESBY

For Inland 360

The third annual all-ages Modest Music Festival is gearing up to take over downtown Moscow Saturday and Sunday, with a lineup that includes headliners Ural Thomas and the Pain, Horse Feathers, and the Shivas, as well as nearly 40 other acts from all over the geographical and musical map.

Though the music scene in Moscow begins buzzing with excitement months in advance, no one’s more excited about “ModFest” than co-founder and Humble Burger co-owner Nate Wolff. Although he’s likely one of the busiest people in Moscow at the moment, Wolff nonetheless found the time to sit down with Inland 360 contributor Corey Oglesby and talk all things ModFest.

Can you give a quick history of the beginnings of the Modest Music Festival? Do you remember where the idea came from or when you realized you wanted to head in this sort of direction?

Nate Wolff: I wanted to do a music festival for a very long time. I used to be involved with a production company in town called Stereopathic Productions that a buddy of mine, Larson Hicks, started in 2008. We did one music festival through Stereopathic called Birds on a Wire that was specifically an indie/folk music festival. It was super cool, but that was the first and last Stereopathic festival we did. The turnout was pretty decent—around the same size as a ModFest, which is like 400 to 500 people. It was super cool to see people actually show up for something like that, and that long ago.

I think that festival was in 2009 (it was 2010), because I’d actually moved to Portland and came back to help out with the festival that year. But when I was in Portland, I volunteered at a bunch of different music festivals — Pickathon, Music Fest Northwest — because I knew it was something that I wanted to try and do on my own. So when we started doing music at Humble Burger pretty regularly, that sort of thing was kind of in the back of our minds. Because, like, if you're doing your own thing and you have our own business, what's the point unless you're able to do the fun things, too?

So the origins of ModFest predate Humble Burger, in a way?

NW: Well, by the end of 2016, we were like, “All right, we're going to try and do (a festival) in 2017.” And I just started talking to bands who’d played at Humble Burger. I also really got a lot of help and advice from Eric Gilbert, who helped start Tree Fort in Boise. He used to live in Moscow, so he's a guy who’s very familiar with the music scene here, but moved to Boise after he graduated from UI and started Tree Fort the year after the Birds on a Wire Festival (Tree Fort actually started in 2012). So it was kind of like we were all trying to start music festivals around the same time. But Eric really helped put that first ModFest together.

Are a lot of the original ModFest collaborators still involved?

NW: Yeah. And every year, I still kind of try and check in with people who are well connected with what's going on musically, and I try to pick up bands that people who I really respect are excited about. That's how we ended up with the Shivas this year, which I'm super stoked about. We had a friend in common — Cam Spies, who used to be in the band Radiation City and now has a band called Night Heron, who are playing ModFest — and I just asked for some suggestions. And he was like, “Oh yeah — get the Shivas.” It's super fun to try and work with other people to flesh out what ModFest is. I mean, that's kind of been at the heart of it since the beginning.

Do you see ModFest as a forever-evolving thing? 

NW: Oh, yes, totally. I'm just trying to figure out what really fits with Moscow — while also trying to push things a little bit. Last year we had Lil B, which was maybe pushing things a little too far for where Moscow was, musically. But that's not to say that we can't do something like that in the future. I wanted to do something with a hip-hop headliner, and when the opportunity to do that came up, I was like, “I can't really say no.”

Because why can’t every year be different? A big part of ModFest for me is just trying to do stuff I think is kind of weird and interesting. Last year, we had an electronic music showcase — which is not something I'm super familiar with — but I was like, “We should just try it out and see what's up.” That's part of the DNA of the festival, too: trying to do stuff that will hopefully grab people who may otherwise not have experienced that.

That's one of the reasons why we try and make the lineup as diverse as possible. I want people to run into a weird electronic music thing or accidentally walk into a punk show. For me, some of the best experiences I've ever had going to shows have been seeing an opening band that I wasn't there to see and going, “This is amazing!” and holding onto that for years and years.

I love that all the Humble Burger and ModFest shows are all-ages for that same reason. Seeing live music for the first time can be totally life-changing.

NW: For sure. I mean, the accepted “rule” for live music is that it sort of has to be something that attracts people who want to drink, you know? Or that's at least what the live music model is built off of in major cities. And it’s a real shame, because you then have this huge problem where cities don't have any all-ages venues. You're excluding this huge population of kids, people who are just starting to get into art — making things, starting bands — and most of them are probably interested in music in some way, but there aren't actually that many places for them to go because they aren’t 21. We allow people to bring kids 12 and under for free because we just want them to be able to experience music.

If you could get any band to headline a future ModFest, who would it be, and why? Who's the dream headliner for you?

NW: One of the things that I would like to do is get Ian MacKaye (of Minor Threat, Fugazi). He has a band with his partner called the Evens, and I would love to have them play, maybe have him do some sort of talk. I'm just I'm fascinated by that guy. I've been listening to his music since I was a kid, so that's kind of the dream I have. A lot of people ask me if the end goal is to get Modest Mouse to play because of the name of the festival — which would be super cool, I’d be down for that — but for me, personally, my dream would be the Evens. I just think he has a lot of great things to say about community and art, and being engaged with the place where you live on the ground level.

As someone who grew up in the D.C.-area worshipping Fugazi, you have my vote for that one. But what’s the more concrete or immediate future of ModFest looking like?

NW: I'm planning to get Built to Spill to come back next year. Actually, I'm already starting to work on some stuff for next year because it’s going to be our fifth anniversary as a restaurant. We opened on September 24th, 2015, and we do ModFest as a kind of anniversary party, so next year I'm going to try and go a little bit big. I’ve been talking to Doug (Marsch) about trying to get Built to Spill to come back up, and I’m trying to get a couple of other bigger names.

But man, this year I'm super stoked about Ural Thomas. And Horse Feathers, who I haven't seen in a long time. Last year, I tried to do a little more hip-hop, and this year I’m trying to do a little more soul. Both Horse Feathers and -- well, Ural Thomas is just a straight up Portland soul legend. I mean, Ural Thomas performed with James Brown and Stevie Wonder. And Horse Feathers were just kind of an indie folk band for a long time, but they put out a record last year that's very soul, and very interesting. Seance Crasher is another band that has some pretty heavy soul. So I was trying to find some sort of through-line.

We also, of course, have a bunch of bands that we love who are either from here or used to be from here, or have connections to the area. I'm super excited about the lineup this year, for sure.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Modest Music Festival.

WHEN: 8-11:30 p.m. Saturday, 1-8 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Various locations in downtown Moscow.

COST: $30 for the weekend, $10 to $25 for single-events.

OF NOTE: Find a full schedule and tickets at www.humbleburger.com.

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