Some time around 2012, Milwaukee musician Andrew Shelp began thinking of how he could contribute to the music community beyond his band Moss Folk. He eventually came up with the idea for a grassroots, DIY-type festival called Milwaukee Psych Fest. The festival, which first took place April 19-20, 2013 at Cactus Club, featured a collection of local, national, and international acts that all shared a love for psychedelic music. While many of the performers’ sounds varied, sometimes greatly, they all share the same passion for the freedom and creativity associated with creating psychedelic music.
“I want to emphasize the importance of community as well as the total freedom of expression and the acceptance of it in the ‘psych’ community,” Shelp told A.V. Club Milwaukee in 2013. “It’s all about community, and by working together we can make Milwaukee a truly amazing city.”
At times, it was a bit of an uphill battle for Shelp. He started his own promotions company Counter Culture Club and sought out sponsors around town to help him. But he eventually dropped the promotions company, as it was too time-consuming and got in the way of planning for the festival. He now books the festival as a music fan instead of a promoter.
“It’s not a business for me,” says Shelp. “It’s a passion and a hobby. Something I love to do is bring these bands into town and introduce my friends’ bands and talents to people in the town.”
Five Years and Counting
Shelp is thankful for the support and encouragement he’s gotten to keep the festival going.
“The way that it grew is probably the most exciting thing, to see that people are so receptive of it,” says Shelp. “The first four years people showed up and inspired me to go for it. This year I doubled my budget and went out on a limb and hopefully it will bring out a few more people that haven’t been out.”
He feels the festival gives people a fun opportunity to let loose and meet new people.
“I hope it encourages people to come out and let their freak flags fly and be comfortable around each other and let their guards down,” Shelp says. “I just love seeing people have a good time, to be honest with you.”
In the past, Shelp would work the door at Cactus Club, so he’d meet everyone that came.
“It was like a meet and greet,” he says. “Having that thing in common right away I feel I became best friends with everybody. Everyone is welcome, all walks of life. There’s nothing more important that to have people that want to be there be there.”
Now, as the festival readies for its fifth anniversary this week (Thursday, May 11 through Saturday, May 13), Psych Fest has become a well-oiled machine and a destination gig for many touring acts from around the world.
“A lot of them are on tour, so a focal point of their tour is playing the festival,” says Shelp.
The festival now sports over 20 sponsors from Milwaukee and the Midwest, which allowed Shelp to double his budget for spending from last year to $7,000. One of the sponsors is Dwarfcare Devices out of Eau Claire, which has worked with Justin Vernon and Volcano Choir over the years. In addition to being a sponsor, they’re bringing many of the guitar pedals, including a special one just for the festival called Milwaukee Psych Fuzz, a fuzz pedal.
This year’s lineup features 33 acts (including Shelp’s band Moss Folk) spread across three days on multiple stages located at Cactus Club, Boone & Crockett and Company Brewing (the latter hosting the festival’s first outdoor stage, in addition to an indoor one). Festival passes are $40 for all three days, $10 for Thursday, $15 for Friday, and $25 for Saturday.
Doug Tuttle, a musician from Rochester, New Hampshire, and one of the featured performers, wanted a reason to return to Milwaukee. And Psych Fest provided a compelling one. When he was e-mailed about it he jumped at the opportunity.
“I’d only played in Milwaukee once before but had a great time. I’ve been wanting to come back ever since,” Tuttle said. “I don’t get out to see shows too often, so it’s always nice when I play festivals like this to play a little catch-up and see what’s going on.”
Psych music is a term that has many meanings. But overall, many feel it’s more open-ended than regular songwriting. For Tom Schnier, the bassist of veteran Milwaukee act Vocokesh, the style allows more freedom for those feeling constrained by the verse-chorus-verse method.
“Psychedelic music provides a more free and innovative environment for musical expression,” says Schnier. “The keys to psychedelic music, in my humble opinion, are the experimental and improvisational aspects of the music. I think that creating something on the fly that may never be duplicated again is a very exciting aspect of the music. Each time it is played is something special.”
For example, the band never has a set list. Instead, guitarist Franecki will surprise them and just call out whatever he feels like playing at the time.
“We never know what will come next,” says Schnier. “It really adds to the improvisational aspect of our sets.”
Each year Shelp has striven to put together the most diverse lineup that he can. Shelp feels psych music can come in all genres, not just the 60s psych that is often associated with the term.
“I know a lot of people pigeonhole psychedelic music as Beatles-dream pop and that kind of thing but psychedelic music is in every style of music,” Shelp said. “Obviously, it’s up for interpretation by the listener. This year I guarantee there will be something for everyone as there’s literally every genre of music. And they’re all based in the feral, trippy, psychedelic world.”
This year’s diverse lineup includes Milwaukee hip-hop act Def Harmonic, whom Shelp has followed for sixteen years. He’s also excited to have Kikagaku Moyo (“the best band on the planet right now. Not kidding.”), a Japanese band focusing largely on traditional Eastern Japanese folk music, to play the festival. Like many of the bands, Kikagaku Moyo like to improvise a lot.
“More than just their music, I am influenced by their attitude towards music,” says drummer Go Kurosawa of the psych genre. “Style is not as important as long as it is free and creative…There is some unspoken connection that brings it all together. We have been very fortunate to travel and connect with people all over the world through music; psych or otherwise, music is a great connecting force.”
With this year’s diverse lineup, Shelp feels he’s fully realized his vision for the festival.
“This year it’s finally coming to fruition, what I always envisioned it being, which is a more eclectic lineup,” says Shelp. “There’s jazz. There’s hip-hop. There’s electronic music. There’s postpunk. There’s punk. There’s world music with [Japan’s] Kikagaku Moyo coming. That’s how I always wanted it to be.”
Every act fills a need and want that Shelp envisions his attendees will have. He feels as strongly about the local acts like Calliope and Vocokesh as he does headlining touring acts.
“If [the local acts] had more exposure they’d be touring the same circuits that the headlining bands are,” Shelp says. “They fit the needs of the festival and I feel I’m just filling gaps. These are bands that are really important to have at the festival.”
Playing the Fest
Playing Psych Fest is important for many of the local acts as they get to network with the touring bands. Victor Buell, the singer and guitarist of local band Calliope, has experienced this firsthand.
“It’s definitely a community, and it’s about helping people out,” he says. “Andrew does a great job of doing just that, of fostering the community and bringing people here and having people meet one another and make friends. We help bands that come through town, and hopefully when we go out on tour they’ll be able to help us. And they usually do.”
The festival has been a rewarding experience for Vocokesh as well.
“Getting together with all these bands from all over the US – and the world! – in a wonderful, nurturing, supporting atmosphere is absolutely amazing,” says Schnier. “Andrew puts together a compilation CD each year of all the bands participating, and that is another great opportunity to explore more music that we may not have exposure to.”
Shelp has many ideas of where he’d like to take the festival after this year. That includes considering the possibility of hosting more of the festival outside. He’s considered Humboldt Park, although he admits it would be expensive to rent out the bandshell and property. Another idea is to host it on someone’s farm. He might even consider making it a free festival if he can get enough sponsors. Whatever path it takes, it’s sure to have a lasting impact on Milwaukee.
“Musical diversity and exposure to eclectic styles of music and art is essential to any community, especially one like Milwaukee with such a rich art and music heritage,” says Schnier. “It is wonderful that folks still appreciate the artistic freedom that psychedelic music provides. It seems to take people outside the ‘real world’ and allow the listener to feel and interpret each song in their own special way.”
2017 Psych Fest Lineup
Thursday May 11th @ Boone & Crockett
Doors at 5 pm
6 pm – Diagonal
7 pm – Moon Rats
8 pm – The Harlequins
9 pm – Dead Feathers
10 pm – Heaven’s Gateway Drugs
11 pm – Al Lover (DJ Set)
Friday May 12th @ Cactus Club
Doors at 7 pm
8 pm – Moss Folk
9 pm – Al Lover
10 pm – Mr. Elevator
11 pm – L.A. Witch
Midnight – Holy Wave
Saturday May 13th @ Company Brewing
Noon – Vocokesh
1 pm – Dirty Dancing
2 pm – Mark Waldoch
3 pm – All Seeing Eyes
4 pm -Drugs Dragons
5 pm – Snoozy Moon
6 pm – Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk
7 pm – Plastic Crimewave Syndicate
8 pm – Floorian
9 pm – Flavor Crystals
Doors at 11 am
12:30 pm – Ravi/Lola
1:30 pm – Black Thumb
2:30 pm – Bill MacKay
3:30 pm – Foreign Goods
4:30 pm – Calliope
5:30 pm – Def Harmonic
6:30 pm – Chatham Rise
7:30 pm -Nest Egg
8:30 pm – Magas
10 pm – Doug Tuttle
11 pm – Ancient River
Midnight – Kikagaku Moyo