Talking ‘Symbiosis’

Symbiosis co-producer Kevin KoChen talks with Pollstar about the Gathering scheduled for September and why it’s like no other multi-day event you’ve ever attended. “Nobody is prepared to witness what happens,” KoChen said.  “And when it does, it makes all the planning worth it.”

At first glance, the Symbiosis Gathering taking place Sept. 17-20 at Woodward Reservation Regional Park in Oakdale, Calif., located approximately 100 miles east of San Francisco, seems like another electronic music festival. Nicolas Jaar (DJ set), Cocorosie, Tipper, Lucent Dossier Experience, Quixotic, Vau De Vire Society, Tune-Yards, Griz, and Justin Martin are just a few of the many acts on the lineup.

Photo: Symbiosis Gathering

Digging a bit deeper gives you a different picture of Symbiosis as you discover that it’s a creative utopia that strives for a more united future.  Along with music spread over six stages, the weekend includes otherworldly art installations, permaculture education programs, a kids area, yoga, gourmet food, a speaker series and several interactive activities.  Oh, and don’t forget about the Woodward Reservoir’s sandy beaches and all that water to cool off in.

KoChen’s first Symbiosis experience wasn’t as one of the event’s co-producers.  Instead, he was one of the speakers and did a workshop comparing the astrological cycle to biological processes.  Like many of the event’s attendees, he enjoyed it so much that he wanted to become involved with Symbiosis.

Photo: Zipporah Lomax
In the driver’s seat while Sidecar Tommy (Tommy Cappel of Beats Antique) rides shotgun.  That’s Maya (the pooch) in the middle.

10 years and five locations for the Symbiosis Gathering.  How many people did the first event attract?

I believe there were probably around … less than 1,000 people overall. … I wasn’t involved with the production that year.  I was actually asked to come be a speaker for a workshop. 

How do you move from speaker to co-producer?

There are several of us.  Symbiosis is very much a meritocracy.  We’ve gathered people over the years are excited about the project – intelligent go-getters … we collect those types of people and that’s how we’ve built our team over the years.

Is Symbiosis a music festival with workshops and conferences or more of a community event where music is just one of several attractions?

The other facets of Symbiosis have always been front and center.  It’s almost like fly fishing, where the bright, shiny things are what brings people to the event.  Then we have all the supplemental things that they don’t realize how much they are going to enjoy until they actually experience them.

We don’t think of ourselves as a music festival.  We call ourselves “The Gathering” and that is what we’re trying to do.  We’re trying to gather all these different facets and aspects of this kind of … counter cultural movement, bring them all together in one place.  We get people who don’t normally hang out together to interact and create new connections.

Nevada’s Burning Man is often described in similar terms.  What are some of the major differences?

Burning Man is not curated.  Organizers for Burning Man have art grants they give out to various collectives or individuals to build things. … They let people create out of a blank canvas.

For Symbiosis we’re curating things. … Because we pull in a lot of the Burning Man community, people are used to being part of the show.  We get to experience both of those things where we’re curating but at the same time people are bringing unexpected aspects, art sculptures or performances unbeknownst to us because they’re the types of people who like to contribute to the experience.  We don’t have a lot of passive observers. … Festival-ing is a contact sport at Symbiosis.

Symbiosis is promoting a ‘five-day elemental alchemy program.”  What can attendees expect?

Photo: Symbiosis Gathering
“One of the things we offer that most festivals don’t is European-style progressive House and progressive Trance.  Nobody in the United States does it on the level that we do.”

There are three different paths you can take – the art version, the yoga version or the permaculture version.  That’s an immersive experience concerned with one of these topics [that] creates opportunities to learn from fantastic teachers.  When you act on information, you embody that information.  That’s what we’re trying to do.  It’s like an embodied experience of learning that hopefully people take something valuable from it, including new relationships with people they haven’t met before.

Does Symbiosis maintain contact with participants after the event?

There are way more opportunities to get involved with Symbiosis than probably with any other event, outside of Burning Man.  Burning Man is not a music festival.  It’s its own thing.  There is no other event like it.  Symbiosis is definitely a hybrid.  It is curated, we have music, and lineups.  Besides Burning Man, I don’t think there is any other event [where] there are more opportunities to get involved. 

Part of that is, when we announced in January, we had 16 different ways to participate in Symbiosis.  It’s almost like a ride that people can get on, and we try to invite people to try  as many of these different aspects because, I think, all of us are artists at heart but we just don’t utilize that.  When given the opportunity, you’re giving yourself a chance to do something that you can do but don’t often allow yourself to.

Do the artists on the music lineup get involved?

They have interests in that kind of stuff.  The Polish Ambassador has a series where they do “action days” before a lot of his shows.  We had a couple of people ask about getting involved in the immersives.  It’s tough for the artists to get involved in that way because of how they are booked.  They’ll be playing one show, let’s say, Chicago, in one night and they’ll come to San Francisco the next night. We get a lot more participation on their return visits.  And that’s what we really try to do.  We try to create a community … to bring people back who really enjoy what we create and want to experience it more.

How far might participants travel to partake in Symbiosis?

We’ve had participants from all continents, except Antarctica (laughs).  We were looking for some penguins to import but decided that wasn’t very ecological.  We have people coming from all over the world. I think we had 37 countries represented last time and we’re well on our way to surpassing that.

One of the things we offer that most festivals don’t is European-style progressive House and progressive Trance.  Nobody in the United States does it on the level that we do.  We get a lot more people from Europe – from Spain, from Germany, from Italy – because this is a type of music that’s very big in Europe … that isn’t celebrated here in the States.

Are there any language barrier problems?

We’re inspired by events such as Boom Festival in Portugal, Universo Parallelo in Brazil and Rainbow Serpent in Australia. Having music without words allows everybody to participate in the music regardless of language.  Oftentimes, because people … may not speak the same language, they may look over and smile.  You get a lot of nonverbal communication on the dance floor.

And off of the dance floor?

We’ve never run into that problem.  The thing with a lot of Europeans is they speak multiple languages.  Because English is very prevalent, most people can speak enough English to accomplish what they need to.  On the other side, we have enough foreign people on staff that usually we can communicate with anyone.

In regards to staff, security and so on, how many people does it take to hold Symbiosis?

I would say anywhere between 1,000-2,000 people.

And, like your participants, do people come from all over the world to work on the event?

Oh, yes.  We have a really good reputation overseas, partially because we bring in music no other event does.  Our partners have created relationships with those other festivals … so people can come over from other countries and collaborate.  We’ll get visas for different people who are coming to create art.  We’ll put them up in our homes. We’re much more a familia organization than a corporate organization. … We don’t have any corporate sponsors. We also don’t sell alcohol. In every way we are very grassroots.

What goes into building the music lineup?

We have between three and 11 people who have input into the lineup.  We have people on the booking council who are stronger in certain areas. We have people who favor bass music, people who favor house music, people who generally like music.  It’s a lot of ideas that get thrown about.  Honestly, it’s one of the more fun parts of the event.  You’re just playing this “imagine” game.  It’s like you’re 5 years old and you’re talking about all these acts you can get. … Part of that creative process is our artistic project. The festival for us is an art project that we’re constantly painting, building or contributing. It’s really an imaginative, creative process that we get to share with 7-11 people.

Is the final outcome what you imagined Symbiosis would be or are you always surprised about something every year?

It’s hard to imagine the actual experience.  Especially because you’ll have thoughts in your mind on how things will look, the timing of things – people being late, rescheduling, whatever.  Every event has been a spectacular learning experience – as far as witnessing the camaraderie and the creation of all these people who are coming together to work on something they believe in.  It’s definitely something that, after each event, you sit back and you’re amazed.  Even though you are building this event, to see it come to fruition is amazing. We’ve compared it to a birthing process where the event production is just like this gestation period.  The birthing of the festival itself – nobody is prepared to witness what happens. And when it does, it makes all the planning worth it.  We’ll spend a year planning for these five days.  There are some expectations you have to let go of.  There are times when you think you’ll want something but something better is created by the team that we’ve compiled.  It’s a process of working on something, and at the same time, not being attached to the vision of the outcome that you had, and instead appreciating what is actually created.

Are you constantly working once Symbiosis begins or can you change hats and be just another participant for a while?

I did that, actually, for the first time in 2013, which was amazing.  Part of being a grassroots organization is that invariably you can be understaffed. We don’t have the sponsorship money to throw around, the alcohol money to distribute.  I parked most of the cars in 2006, 07, 9 and [at] the Pyramid Eclipse.  Even [as] one of the producers creating the entire experience, I ended up in the parking lot because that’s kind of how Symbiosis works.  When there is a hole, somebody steps in to fill it.  Now we’ve gotten to the size where we’ve been able to employ people to take over some of the jobs we used to do. This year I should be the most free I’ve been at an event.  However, it’s in our nature to love working on stuff.  We’re always trying to help out, enrich the experience in some way. But we do get moments to appreciate it like an attendant.

Photo: Symbiosis Gathering
“There are three different paths you can take – the art version, the yoga version or the permaculture version.”

What are some of the advantages of holding Symbiosis at Woodward Reservation Regional Park?

It’s 100 miles away from San Francisco, which is, by far, the closest we’ve ever been to a major metro area. That’s fantastic. There is a reservoir to swim in.  I’m sure you’re well aware of California’s water situation.  To have a swimmable body of water is a real treat.  Also, we have a really good relationship  with the park directors.  We’re building a relationship with the community as well. That’s what we want. … We like this place. We’d like to come back. There are challenges.  All we can do is try to do a good job and relate as best to the local community as we can.

During the first time Symbiosis was held at Woodward Park, did you see some uses of the location that you didn’t expect?

Definitely.  That’s what led to [creating] this Art Boats situation.  As far as I know, it’s not been done by a major festival.  [It’s inspired by] events – one of them is called Camp Tipsy and another one is called Ephemerisle – are boats and art boats-centric events. We’ve taken some of the cues to add that aspect to Symbiosis Gathering.  When you get experience at a site, you can improve all of the logistics.  Trying something for the first time, you’re invariably going to come up with unexpected situations.  By returning, we can fix some of the issues that came up and, once again, just amplify the experience.

When explaining Symbiosis to people who are not familiar with the concept, how do you get the point across that it is not another music festival?

We try to unpack the entirety of the event.  Especially on Facebook. We released our music lineup in May. So, really the last leg – six weeks to two months – we’ve been unpacking all of these different aspects.  Part of the thing we’re trying to get people excited for is this “Shenanigans & Experience.”  The Shenanigans are going to be at the hub … where the workshops happen.  But at night it’s going to turn into this improv, sketch-comedy, participatory theatre.  We have this group coming out from New York called Chaos Karaoke.  It’s a karaoke show where if you’re doing well, you’re celebrated and if you’re not doing well, Death actually comes and kills you onstage.

We’ve also created a game show called “The $40,000 Pyramid Family Feud” – a little mash-up between “$25,000 Pyramid” and “Family Feud.”  It’s a completely rigged game show where people have the opportunity to apply to be on it, to be the family on the other side of this Pyramid Family Feud. … To be on stage, in the game. We’ve come up with the questions, we have characters that will be in the game.  The audience has a chance to get up on stage to play this completely rigged game.

Photo: Symbiosis Gathering
“We don’t think of ourselves as a music festival.  We call ourselves “The Gathering” and that is what we’re trying to do.”

Is it “rigged” in that it’s completely planned?

It’s a theatrical production that is open for improvisation.  “Completely rigged” may not be the best term.  We create a structure for comedy to happen.

What kind of ticket options are still available?

Right now you can get general passes for $280, plus fees. In the stores, without fees.  Car camping is available.

Have you already started working on next year’s Symbiosis?

We’re in dialogues with agents and managers but we don’t want to put the cart before the horse.  We’re going to have this event, see what the county thinks and if it’s mutually agreeable we’ll move forward.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received that you apply to Symbiosis?

Jim Stearns, who is one of the co-founders of High Sierra Music Festival, was encouraging us to create what we wanted instead of creating what would be “successful.”  He said, “As an event producer, you have to be willing to take $25,000, put it in a paper bag and set it on fire.  I feel like the idea that we want to create the event we want to create has overpowered the need to try to build something for popular appeal.  That has always stuck with us, that we’re creating the event that we truly love.  As event producers, what we’re trying to do is create the best possible experience.  We really think of this as eventgoers.  Because that’s where all of us came from.  We weren’t like people who had MBAs who saw the festival bubble as a quick way to make a buck.  We’re longtime music enthusiasts that are trying to create the best possible experience for people.  Hopefully, every year we get a little bit better.

Photo: Symbiosis Gathering
“Oftentimes, because people … may not speak the same language, they may look over and smile.  You get a lot of nonverbal communication on the dance floor.”

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