Arts interview

The story behind Boston Calling

The up-and-coming festival’s co-founder talks to The Tech before the September show

6938 bostoncalling
The fourth installment of Boston Calling Music Festival opens this Friday at City Hall Plaza.
Mike Diskin

Even though only in its fourth installment, the three-day Boston Calling Music Festival is already becoming a landmark of Boston’s entertainment scene. The lineup for this week’s shows includes The War on Drugs, Lorde, The National, Nas with The Roots, and Future Islands. The Tech recently interviewed Brian Appel, co-founder of Boston Calling, to find out how the festival was conceived and what happens behind the scenes during the show.

“My partner Mike Snow and I were working together at WFNX Radio and the Boston Phoenix. We spent several years planning events and concerts in the city, and began working on the idea of a music festival for the radio station,” said Appel. “WFNX eventually stopped broadcasting, but we still believed in the idea, so we went and got approval from the Mayor’s office to do the event, and that’s how it began.”

The festival quickly became a hit among Boston’s music fans. Most of the performers were well-known bands and musicians such as Dirty Projectors, Marina and The Diamonds, St. Lucia, and Vampire Weekend. The lineups, however, are not just random selections of available performers. “We have a curation team of several people, including the Bowery Presents, and Aaron Dessner of The National. We all look at what artists are touring around our festival times, who may be available and a good addition to the lineup, and between Bowery and Aaron, we begin conversations with artists and agents,” said Appel. “It sometimes feels out of control when you are in the midst of trying to book [more than] twenty artists, but so far it has all worked out!”

Appel added that Boston Calling leans slightly toward indie-rock music but that not all of the performers fall within the genre. “It starts with The National, who we sometimes think of as our ‘house band’,” he said. “But we do not aim to be a fully indie-rock festival. You’ll see electronic, pop, hip-hop, alt-country, and even some metal on our bills.”

Despite the presence of big-name performers in the festival’s lineup, Appel said that it’s important to give recognition to those performers who have not climbed the top charts yet. “It’s a balancing act. For obvious reasons, you need bigger names on the bill to make sure that you sell enough tickets to make the event financially stable,” he said. “But part of the fun of the curation is to pick artists early on in their career and lock them in before they get really big. We’ve had some luck with this; we booked fun., Bastille, and most recently The War on Drugs just as they were getting very popular. It’s good vision by Bowery and Aaron.”

As with every music festival, excellent organization is necessary for the shows to run smoothly and it seems that Boston Calling’s teams are doing their best to make the festival stress-free. “We have an amazing team that keeps the event running very smoothly. We’ve had some good luck in that the audience is always very calm and respectful, and we’ve got an amazing production manager, Bill Kenney, who keeps the stages running perfectly,” Appel said. “You know the event is going well when the radios are silent for an hour at a time during show days.”

Appel added that the organizers’ relationships with the performers are strictly professional and that the main task is to keep the audience, bands, and the sponsors happy. “None of us have much interest in celebrity sightings,” he said. “We’re thrilled that the artists have chosen to be at Boston Calling, but we have a no-hassle policy for the acts backstage. No photos, no media, no autographs, no meet-and-greets. They’re here to do a job, and the best thing we can do is put them in the best place to do it, and get out of their way.”

For him, the most rewarding part of the experience was “seeing it all come together and knowing that there were four or five of us just two years ago who thought it was crazy and went ahead with it anyway,” he said. “The press has been really amazing, and every time we see an article written about us, it still feels like the first time.”

When asked about the future of Boston Calling, Appel said, “We don’t get too far ahead of ourselves! Right now we are focused on the September edition. 2015? We’ll start to think about that after September 7!”

The September installment of Boston Calling Music Festival 2014 begins this Friday at City Hall Plaza. For full information about the tickets and performers, visit