One of the premier avant-garde music festivals in the world happens to be taking place this weekend in Arlington. It’s all to celebrate the 10th anniversary of brainwashed.com, a music Web site founded and run by Massachusetts native Jon Whitney. For three days, some of the leading lights of the underground, including a multitude of local artists, will call the Regent Theatre home for “Brainwaves,” four events filled with music, visuals, and DJs.
NERD APPEAL: The fest, Jon Whitney says, will feature “people who don’t play their instruments the way the instruction manuals tell them to.”
“I’ve never done anything of this magnitude before,” says brainwashed.com founder and publisher Whitney, “unless you consider doing Brainwashed for 10 years.” Whitney began to plot the festival years ago. “I credit the genesis to the band Mono. They were relatively unknown, they were playing at the Zeitgeist, and they said if I ever started a festival, they’d be interested in playing it. I thought, ‘That’s an interesting idea, doing a festival . . . ’ ”
After he’d abandoned a plan to host the festival outdoors in Vermont, his thoughts turned to Arlington. “A lot of bands are flying in, and they’re not going to have camping gear, and the Regent is a fantastic theater. The people are really, really nice, and it’s so important to me that they’re willing to help and be a part of it. I’m not a big organization. There’s a lot of people who are helping out: crew doing sound and video and transportation and security, and that’s the type of people I want to work with. That way I can say it was a success, even if I don’t break even on it.”
Brainwashed has always been a labor of love for Whitney, and its pre-Pitchfork existence was born from the collaboration of some very particular people. “Most fan Web sites at that point were just ‘Ooh, I love Tori Amos, here’s a picture of her album cover!’ You know? So Brainwashed was really a music nerd’s place where we could find discographies and things like that. It was just a bunch of music nerds.”
Eventually those nerds, who traded tapes through the post office, became more like an army, with members from all over the world. The site is home to 50 mini-sites, labels like Kranky (Labradford, Godspeed You Black Emperor!) and artists like avant-diva Diamanda Galás. For seven years it was even the on-line space for post-rock leaders Tortoise. Add news, a radio stream, record reviews, podcasts, and, most recently, a video podcast and the content the site generates is overwhelming.
Whitney: “We’re unified in the belief that people should have access to information, people should not be prevented from finding out about music. If you want to talk about Pitchfork or the Wire or Rolling Stone, there’s a lot of music they won’t cover.”
Brainwashed was early to champion artists like Antony and Johnsons, Sigur Rós, and local stars the Dresden Dolls. “Any band that has any sort of longevity or any sort of relevance really has to build its audience. The people who are superstars overnight are obscure overnight.”
Dresden Dolls frontwoman Amanda Palmer knows the feeling. She may be enjoying major cult success now, but it was a long time coming. And Brainwashed was part of the process. “Jon Whitney and I go back to 1992 or ’93, when we met on the Legendary Pink Dots BBS,” she writes via e-mail. “The little bits of support and help he’s given us are endless. He even gave me my own personal URL to post up business info when I was a street performer.” In addition to hosting her e-mail for five years, Whitney teamed up with Palmer to bring Swans leader M. Gira to Boston.
Other local entities who have leaned on Whitney include Keith Fullerton Whitman (a/k/a Hrvatski), Lowell’s RRR Records, and microsound label Intransitive Recordings. But the site extends around the globe. “Brainwashed is another internationally visible example of Boston’s creative culture and our city’s active participation in the world of underground and experimental music,” says Intransitive owner Howie Stelzer. “If weirdo music is at all your thing, there’s value in seeing another aspect of what Boston has to offer.”
Whitney adds, “I’m really excited that people have bought tickets for ‘Brainwaves’ from Greece, from Japan, from Australia, Ireland, and England. I’m going to put on the best damn show these people can get for that type of money.”
Each of the four events offers a diverse range of performers, from noise acts to ambient droners to rock bands. But the shows are unified in their aesthetic, which Whitney characterizes as “people who don’t play their instruments the way the instruction manuals tell them to.”
Each event incorporates specific artist videos and some impromptu collaborations; Palmer, for one, promises a duet with Pink Dots founder Edward Ka-Spel. “Brainwaves” will also feature the world premiere of Lumb’s Sister, a film (20 years in the making) starring dark-folk icon David Tibet and scored by Nurse with Wound. “I asked people to play the fest who I knew personally,” Whitney explains. “I’m not dealing with managers or publicists or the kind of network you need to pull off a huge festival where people have to find sponsors and advertisers like soda companies and computer manufacturers.”
This staunch anti-commercialization stance may keep Brainwashed from reaching a wider audience, but Whitney has no problem in that. “Maybe a few more people will know who we are after this,” he says, laughing. “It’s okay: the important people know. The nerds know who we are. And we’re the nerds ourselves. Those are the people I want to please the most. It’s for everyone who comes, everyone involved, everyone who plays . . . and me.”
On the Web
Amanda Palmer: //www.brainwashed.com/amanda