What if they gave an All Tomorrow's Parties and nobody came?
That's the short version of what happened to the second annual Los Angeles staging of the adventuresome rock festival of that name.
The event was postponed in June because of slow ticket sales, and again in September, at which point organizers decided to move it to a new, uncharted venue, the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where it finally sees the light of day Saturday and Sunday.
"Obviously I have some good commercial instincts, but when it comes to selling tickets to rock festivals I don't know the first thing," says the curator of this year's ATP. "Some good commercial instincts" is putting it mildly. The curator of this eclectic gathering is Matt Groening, the creator of one of the most enduring and lucrative cultural phenomena of modern times, "The Simpsons."
The irreverent cartoon series is about to open its 15th season, making it the longest-running comedy in TV history.
"My thinking was I would pick a bunch of bands who have very intense, loyal followings, and if all their loyal followings showed up you'd have a successful festival," he says. "But the grim reality is that you need some superstars in order to pull people in."
Here at Groening's Santa Monica production offices, the comic book sector of the "Simpsons" empire hums away quietly in a spacious ground-floor area. Up on the second floor, between the office where he still draws his long-running weekly comic strip "Life in Hell" and a library stocked with science-fiction books, is the room that embodies the cartoonist's relevant obsession.
The walls' shelves are packed with CDs and LPs of all genres, from pop to jazz to novelty. Groening demonstrates how an entire unit slides on a track, revealing a second CD case behind it, this one full of world music, filed alphabetically by country or continent.
"Music still consumes me," says Groening, 49, who indulges his appetite by globe-trotting from New Orleans for the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival to Bali to hear gamelan music to Tokyo to shop for experimental pop records.
Growing up in Portland, Ore., he listened to his family's 78 rpm recordings of Hawaiian music and to Top 40 radio. The life-changing revelation came when he was searching for a station on his transistor radio and encountered a piano arrangement of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." It wasn't long before he and his friends were seeking out the wildest music they could find, buying and trading albums ranging from jazz and blues to the Mothers of Invention and other rock trailblazers.
"In the late '60s pop music seemed to be extending its boundaries every month," says the amiable cartoonist, sitting in his headquarters' showcase office. "Every new Beatles album that came out was a huge cultural event, and they were doing something that hadn't been done before.
"And then in 1969 when 'Trout Mask Replica' came out, we said, 'This is the greatest album of 1984. If this is how great music sounds now, just think where it's gonna go in the future.' We didn't realize that it would never be surpassed."
Groening's abiding passion for that visionary album by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band was the key to his curatorship of All Tomorrow's Parties, a job that essentially involves drawing up a "wish list" of performers. His friend David Sefton, the head of UCLA's arts program (a partner in ATP before withdrawing early this year because of budget cuts), is another Beefheart partisan and urged Groening to take on the task.
Groening went for it, focusing on the unlikely goal of reuniting the long-scattered Magic Band. That mission was accomplished -- the eccentric collective (minus its retired leader) not only plays on Saturday's main stage bill, but also has released an album in which it revisits the old Beefheart material.
"It's great to have someone like Matt on board because he's passionate about music," says Barry Hogan, who founded All Tomorrow's Parties in England five years ago. "That's what ATP's all about, having people with passion, and he fits the mold perfectly.
"He seemed to be very familiar with all these lesser-known bands.... He's got great knowledge. The best way to describe him is eclectic. He can like anything from the Tiger Lillies to Iggy Pop," says Hogan. "He's not pigeonholed into any one genre."
That would make Groening an ideal curator for a festival named after a song by the Velvet Underground and designed to attract a curious and adventurous audience by virtue of an intriguing mix of artists rather than established names.
Although that concept has made ATP a success over the years in England, Groening's initial lineup sold few tickets. He, Hogan and their partners at the Goldenvoice concert promotion firm reevaluated and revamped. With the dust now settled, the final roster has been beefed up commercially without sacrificing credibility.
Alt-rock patriarch Sonic Youth (which curated ATP's U.S. premiere last year at UCLA) and the reunited Iggy & the Stooges join such indie-rock stalwarts as Modest Mouse and rising force the Shins as strong draws for the festival, which has a capacity of 5,000 each day.
The lineup also includes such current rock bands as Mars Volta, Built to Spill and Black Heart Procession, innovative elders (Terry Riley, James Chance) and unclassifiable mavericks (Daniel Johnston). A tribute to the late Elliott Smith, who had been scheduled to play Sunday, will be performed by his backing band with singer Lou Barlow.
"I suppose it could be described as indie-oriented," says Hogan, "but there's definitely elements of the avant-garde which have been influenced by the Magic Band.... I think it's a nice balance."
"It's just fun to explore the history of music," says Groening, who served time as a rock critic for the L.A. Reader in the late '70s. "At Amoeba yesterday I bought a two-string African guitar album.... I'm always looking for something that I haven't heard, something that surprises me.
"I like quite a variety of music that is not reflected in this lineup," he says, "but I don't think that Inuit throat singers and Balinese gamelans and barking seals would bring in the kids."
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The Parties' guest list
Matt Groening had a warning for musicians he was inviting to the festival: Just because you're playing All Tomorrow's Parties does not mean you're gonna be animated on "The Simpsons."
Many came on board anyway. Here are Groening's comments on a few of them.
The Magic Band "The No. 1 reason I wanted to do the festival was the honor of having Captain Beefheart's Magic Band reunite, and to be associated with presenting them. I drove up to the desert and heard them rehearse and record their album.... I like the album, but it barely captures the power of them live. I can't wait to see them on the stage."
Sonic Youth "My philosophy in agreeing to this was to take the name of the festival, All Tomorrow's Parties, a Velvet Underground song, and draw a through line [from that band] to Sonic Youth, who curated the festival at UCLA last year, and try to stay true to that spirit."
Daniel Johnston "My all-time favorite singer-songwriter, whose emotional turmoil is reflected in songs that are both funny and heartbreaking, and so much more authentic than any other songwriter I've heard. He's like a Neil Young who's been kicked around the block."
The Danielson Family "They're Christian, sort of avant-garde rock 'n' roll with a Christian philosophy. It's an unusual mix. They're great."
Terry Riley "One of my heroes, the composer of "In C" and landmark minimalist compositions."
All Tomorrow's Parties
Where: Queen Mary, 1126 Queen's Highway, Long Beach
When: Saturday-Sunday, 1 p.m.
Who: Performing Saturday: Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Mike Watt, John Wesley Harding. Performing Sunday: Iggy & the Stooges, Mars Volta, Cat Power, Carla Bozulich, Har Mar Superstar
Price: $50 each day or $85 for a two-day pass
Contact: (562) 435-3511 or www.atpfestival.com