Behind the Scenes: Eaux Claires

Teaming up with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, and The National's Aaron Dessner,
Creative Director Michael Brown helped to put together the very first Eaux Claires Music Festival.


Thanks for taking some time to chat. Tell us a little about how you first became involved with Eaux Claires.

Michael Brown: Sure thing. I was originally a theater kid who grew up in Tennessee and moved to New York, and somewhere along the path I got involved with a couple of different bands and artists. The first band I really got introduced to everybody through was Grizzly Bear.

I met Aaron and Justin separately, but it was the meetings I had with both of them after Grizzly Bear shows that we all agreed we really wanted to work together. It was always in the back of our minds that it was something we wanted to do. So over the next couple of years, a few opportunities came up to work together.

I started working with The National first, and then after about fourteen months of working with them, Justin and I started working on a project as well, so I was doing production design for both the High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me tours for The National, and then the second half of the Bon Iver tour. We'd become really close and collaborative together, and in that time I'd gone out to Eau Claire to build the redesign of the Bon Iver show — and it was crazy. We basically built the Bon Iver set in the fields and driveways of Eau Claire during one of the most unseasonably warm winters on record.

(Laughs) So that was our first time working together. Then it got to a point where I was ready to move on from New York — I'd done ten years there, and I'd been touring a bunch and the flow of the city and everything else felt like it was actually hindering the creative projects I was working on. Justin basically approached me and said, "Hey man, you have to move out here," and sure enough, that's what I did. I've been living out in Eau Claire really ever since I started working on the festival. When Justin told me what it was all about and what he was trying to do I was totally onboard, and we've been going at it hard ever since.

How were you involved with shooting the announcement video? I love that the whole thing is centered around that old truck.

MB: Thanks, yeah I've either directed or helped create pretty much all the videos that have come out so far. Justin's had this old truck out in the barn and pretty much anytime you get it running it dies within a week or so. It's been this running joke that it's never being used, so we figured 'well we've gotta use this thing for something.'

What's the biggest difference between doing the set design for one show versus an entire festival?

MB: The biggest difference for me has been that festivals are all about building an entity that encompasses everything. Usually when I'm doing shows I'm so focused on just what is happening in that concert in the moment with those audience members. The festival for me has now become this great avenue of artistic expression and a way to rally together different artists to collaborate on one project. Just the sheer scope of it, and the fact that it goes across so many different formats from videos that are hitting the web, to graphic design, to photography, to working with visual artists that are doing installations on the festival grounds. It's what's been the most interesting and coolest part of all this for me.

You've said before that you're trying to break down the barriers between artist and audience. How are you trying to accomplish that?

MB: One of the things that was super important for Justin was that we knew there was going to be a relatable format that everyone expects — there's a well known construct in terms of music festivals where a band goes up on stage, performs, the audience is in front of the stage and watches the performance. I think what we're interested in is starting this conversation between our audience members and us as festival creators and curators, that it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.

Performance shouldn't be dictated by 'You get on this stage at this time, and you do this thing for this audience that's standing in this particular configuration.' So this second area is really about following that mission of being more open about how we do performances, and how we do art installations. So with Eaux Claires, specifically what you see is that the festival is divided into two sections — the first is a little more standard where there's two stages, but the other portion of this festival is called Saint Coix, and it's kind of a play on how no one knows how to pronounce anything in Wisconsin. There's this river the Saint Croix, but everyone calls it Saint Croy or Saint Crux. So this whole area is basically one giant installation. The large tent is the Dells of the St. Croix, named for the large gorges and bluffs that overlook the river, and then there's three other tents called the Banks of the St. Coix, plus the Mouth of the St. Coix, and the Channel of the St. Coix — so we're really trying to emphasize that this whole part of the festival is a different experience. It's creating two distinct styles within the festival.

But that's the mission of the different installations — specifically the tent, it's beginning that conversation about how we can break down the standard walls of an artist on stage, and the audience out front. We're going to have to learn from it year by year. You're not going to be able to go in and change all the language year one, but hopefully this community we're creating will keep learning with us and we can keep pushing it further and further until maybe 10 years from now this different format has been created.

You've toured all over the world. Were you inspired by the layout of any other music festivals that you'd seen?  

MB: Definitely. That was one of the benefits of working with Bon Iver and The National — we got to see a lot of music festivals. We would go from Australia, to Japan, to Taiwan, to South America. There's definitely different cultures that have been doing this for longer — specially in the UK and Europe. I really love the festivals that happen in places like Denmark and Sweden and Norway. They've done an awesome job of creating this artistic community that rivals the event and the performances themselves. There's one in Denmark called Northside that really struck me as having this wonderful balance of having the artist there and enjoying that performance, but then also enjoying the environment that's around you. 

Has April Base been your main headquarters throughout this planning stage?

MB: Yeah it has. Justin and I make up the Eaux Claires contingency and then we're working with several other smaller businesses to help us out. But Justin and I are living at April Base right now because we have so many creative projects going on that proximity is necessary just to get everything accomplished. But its been great, and we've been so fortunate this first year that so many of our friends are part of this festival and April Base has really become Grand Central for it. It's been amazing seeing all of our friends come through April Base for different reasons, and then aside from recording or doing other projects, also being equally excited to help us with the festival. It's not like there's some great grand plan, its just been a lot of spontaneous creativity amongst a lot of artists.

I really enjoyed Michael Perry's book Population: 485. What can you tell us about his role as Narrator for the festival?

MB: Mike's become a really close friend now and he lives right down the road from Justin. He's become a part of our daily life in this whole collaborative process. But it's an ongoing discussion. I feel like every couple of days Mike comes in and says, "If you have any idea where the narrator role goes...please let me know."

(Laughs) but I think that's kind of part of the fun — that we don't have this set idea of what his role has to be. Really it began because we knew we wanted a poetic voice in the written and spoken word parts of the festival and that's carried through in a letter to all of our pre-sale ticket holders, our artist bios — all of those words are Mike Perry, that's his voice and he's taking all of the things that we know about this area and what we know about those artists, and putting a more poetic turn on it than just your standard information. Our joke is that I would love it if there was a way Mike Perry could be there but no one could see him, like Daniel Stern in the Wonder Years, almost as if he was just narrating your whole experience. That's something where in the next couple years, when we really get the opportunity to expand creatively, that it's going to have a ton of room to grow.

How will you measure if Eaux Claires was a success? Obviously there are the ticket sales, but is there something that you hope fans walk away with that will make it feel really special?

MB: The only way I really want to judge the event is whether or not every single person who comes here walks away with a personal experience, and knowing that they'd come back and do it again. To me, that's the real metric of determining whether we've actually done something here. I want someone to walk away and think to themselves it wasn't necessarily this artist playing that song that was the greatest moment of the festival — I want it to be the entire experience altogether. That's how you really create a community. 

Thomas McDermott