Chris Schlarb is not an artist who likes to take the easy way out. His forthcoming album, Psychic Temple II, is conceptually and musically complex. But as attracted as he is to complexity as a bandleader, his planning as impresario of the forthcoming Clawhammer Music & Arts Festival, July 20-21 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was hardly less elaborate.
The festival started as an invitation to perform, from Oshkosh-based Schlarb collaborators Nathaniel Frank & the Wisconsin Magic. But, Schlarb says, “I’m bringing out like a six piece band,” an expensive proposition for a concert presenter. “So I said, why don’t we do a festival, and make it a bigger event? Get the community involved, instead of just putting on a show.”
And the Clawhammer Festival was born. Starting with Frank, “I started getting in touch with musicians and bands that were both regional and bands that I liked,” Schlarb explains. “I wanted to put together a music festival that I would want to attend.” That meant not only a wildly eclectic lineup, but also “good food, a great environment, and also some visual artists.”
“Normally outdoor festivals have terrible sound, and you’re standing in the sun—for me,” Schlarb says, “that’s not the way to experience music.” In Oshkosh, “They have this beautiful masonic temple there that they’re refurbishing, and they wanted a big event as kind of a coming-out party to establish the masonic temple as a place for artists to come by and play.” It was perfect for Clawhammer: “Performing on a really old stage as an artist can also be inspiring creatively. It brings more out of you as a perfomer.”
The visual artists were brought onboard by reaching out to the local community. “There’s a guy named Eric Anderson, who’s an artist in Oshkosh—he was brought in by Nathaniel Frank,” Schlarb says. Frank “gave Eric the leeway to get in touch with people in his community, to bring them into the festival.”
For the festival’s musical acts, “I was able to put out a few calls to Asthmatic Kitty artists who were relatively close by,” he says, such as Liz Janes—with whom Schlarb will share the stage—and teenaged sister duo Lily & Madeleine. But “I didn’t want it to be like a jazz festival or a folk festival,” says Schlarb; “I just really liked the idea of all these artists watching each other’s shows and experiencing a genuine sense of community.”
Outside the Asthmatic Kitty family, Schlarb says, “One of the things that’s really exciting to me is that R. Stevie Moore, who’s been making music since the ’60s, is going on before Lily & Madeleine, who were probably born in the ’80s or ’90s.” He’s thrilled to meet Moore, and to imagine what he and the sisters might be able to teach each other.
The rest of the lineup features the Haunted Heads; Attack, Octopus; All Tiny Creatures; deeply Midwest-rooted “high-concept hip-hop artist” Serengeti; and Joseph Huber, formerly of the “streetgrass” .357 String Band.
For Schlarb, the mention of banjo-playing Joe Huber brings to mind the numerous meanings behind the name of the festival: “There’s a style of playing called clawhammer, and the name Oshkosh means ‘claw,’ and then there’s this Captain Beefheart song called ‘Clawhammer’…” It’s a web of signifiers that wouldn’t seem out of place on his latest record.
“The antidote to being cynical is to be truly experimental,” says Schlarb. He sees experimentalism as “a sign of respect” to his Oshkosh audience: “Let’s try to really inspire each other, and hopefully that will inspire the community to come out and support the festival.”