"You hear from a lot of people who have built anything, the easiest way to never get there is to quit," says Rob Fitzpatrick, co-founder and primary booker for Levitation Festival.
Less than two weeks before the festival, founded in 2008 as Austin Psych Festival, is set to kick off, Fitzpatrick is feeling good. After taking a year off in 2017, following a cancellation less than 24 hours before the gates opened in 2016, Levitation returns to Austin as a four-day series of club events centered in the Red River District. Ticket sales have been "super strong," social media excitement is solid and without the "incredible expense and risk of building a city out in a field," he says, logistics are much more manageable.
The lineup is adventurous and well-curated. On Thursday, free-ranging rocker Ty Segall is paired with post-punk rowdies Parquet Courts and Austin’s own bar busters, a Giant Dog, at Stubb’s. On Friday, indie rock weirdo Ariel Pink, post punk outfit Diiv and psych soul standout Nick Hakim are stacked together at Empire. Early British shoegaze act Slowdive shares a bill with Austin’s electronic music breakouts Survive at Stubb’s on Saturday. And Sunday’s close-out activities include a one-two punch of fine, female-fronted indie fuzz with Waxahatchee and Hurray for the Riff Raff at the Mohawk.
Waxahatchee plays Levitation on a shared bill with Hurray for the Riff Raff on April 29. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMANJay Janner/American-Statesman Staff
Also on the roster: experimental pop ace, Panda Bear; industrial metal pioneers, Ministry; and three shows by Austin’s favorite San Francisco psych act Thee Oh Sees (styled on one bill as Oh Sees). There’s also a show that pairs host band the Black Angels with Brian Jonestown Massacre and bills featuring some of Austin’s top psych-leaning acts including Golden Dawn Arkestra, Holy Wave and Ringo Deathstarr.
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This will be the festival’s 10th year in Austin, a milestone the event should have hit last year, but Fitzpatrick says, "We were still figuring out everything after 2016 which was such a huge blow for us just being, basically, a festival that’s run out of a spare bedroom."
In 2016, Travis County officials made the decision to cancel the outdoor music and camping event planned at Carson Creek Ranch, because a strong storm system was detected moving through the area the day before the event. The festival grounds sustained considerable damage during the ensuing storm. Many of the artists scheduled to play were booked into club shows, but fans who planned to camp were left stranded. And in the aftermath, refunds took longer to process than anticipated and the festival faced two lawsuits related to production and sponsorship expenses.
The lawsuits were resolved last year, but was a nadir for the festival, an event that "started as an idea that Christian (Bland) and Alex (Maas, from the Black Angels) had to invite all of their friends and all of our favorite bands for a fun weekend that was just a party," but had been slowly growing into an international destination event and a global franchise. In 2016, the festival hosted shows in Vancouver, Chicago and Angers, France, but after the Austin cancellation, they pulled back on everything except the French festival, which celebrates its sixth year this fall.
"There was definitely a point where it looked like we might not be doing this anymore," Fitzpatrick says. He credits festival business partner Johnny Sarkis for stepping in "as a friend, a great partner to help me figure it out and help us find a path forward."
Christian Bland, from left, Rob Fitzpatrick, James Oswald and Alex Maas, founders of Levitation, pictured at the short-lived Rvrb Records storefront in 2014. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMANAmerican-Statesman Staff
Though Carson Creek Ranch had been an idyllic location for the festival, from a customer confidence point of view, Fitzpatrick says he felt like they couldn’t go back after 2016. "Also, in a way, when you do a big festival outside of downtown … you end up competing with all the clubs. … A lot of the folks who own these venues, they’re our friends and we’ve been working together for, I guess, like a decade now. And when everything happened in 2016, everybody really had our back. They moved tons of shows to kind of accommodate us."
With so many venues clustered together into one central district, Austin is uniquely suited to host a club-based festival, and this format has several obvious advantages over an outdoor event. "These turn-key venues that do live music basically year round, 365 days of the year, they have real bathrooms, great staff, sound. Everything already exists," Fitzpatrick says.
To build the festival lineup, Fitzpatrick invited like-minded music bookers to participate. The folks from Festival Nrmal in Mexico City, Desert Daze in California, Burger Records, Gorilla vs. Bear and local powerhouse Margin Walker all participated in putting together showcases. Tickets to each showcase can be purchased a la carte.
"We have a lot people who are buying tons of tickets across the weekend and we have a lot of people who just wanted to see one band and now they can do that, and it’s kind of more like a choose your own adventure format," he says.
A limited number of full-festival passes swiftly sold out as did many of the individual shows. Many more are heading in that direction.
"Just in the first year of this new format, we’re already kind of running out of room," Fitzpatrick says.
Moving forward, he hopes to find a way to continue to accommodate more people comfortably. "I think that there’s definitely a way to continue using all the venues, but at the same time offer something similar to a festival experience," he says.
Right now he plans to continue working with the clubs to see how the fest evolves
"I’m really excited about the future and where we’ll go next," he says.
Golden Dawn Arkestra. DAVE CREANEY FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN.DAVE CREANEY