A music festival like no other

A Q&A with the founder of FORM Arcosanti, which bucks corporate festival culture.


A music festival like no other

A Q&A with the founder of FORM Arcosanti, which bucks corporate festival culture.

A music festival like no other

A Q&A with the founder of FORM Arcosanti, which bucks corporate festival culture.

When attending a music festival, almost nothing is worse than realizing two artists you were hoping to see are scheduled for overlapping sets. At best, you’re forced to compromise by seeing short chunks of each; at worst, you make the difficult decision to miss a set in its entirety.

FORM Arcosanti festival, which launched in 2014, has solved this problem, among others. There’s no overlap: one set takes place at a time, interspersed with non-musical events including yoga and wellness gatherings, pool parties, and even poetry readings and visual art from artists. This year’s lineup spanned genres, featuring artists like Florence + the Machine, Anderson .Paak, Destroyer, Skrillex, DJ Koze, and more. In early May, the immersive experience, which is held in the Arizona desert for three days, celebrated its largest attendance since its inception: 2,500 people.

The festival is held in Arcosanti, Arizona, a town 70 miles outside of Phoenix. With the closest airport about 40 miles away, and every part of the town within walking distance, Arcosanti has been called the “city of the future” by Architectural Digest. It’s an eco-friendly human habitat one could read about in an Ursula K. Le Guin novel; the buildings look as if they were built by a future civilization, and are surrounded by picturesque cliffs and canyons.

The town began development in 1970 by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. At the time, Soleri was concerned with humanity’s treatment of the earth and its environment, citing overdevelopment as eroding the earth, rather than highlighting its intrinsic beauty. His solution to this problem was “urban implosion rather than explosion,” and what he referred to as “arcology,” a conflation of architecture and ecology, in a book by the same name. For Arcosanti, Soleri used his experimental architectural skills to complement the surrounding landscape rather than wipe it out. The result is still ongoing. Even after almost 50 years, Arcosanti as an architectural project is supposedly only five percent complete. In one section of his book, Soleri wrote, “our. . . suburbias work only on paper. They will never truly and substantially work for real. They are not real. They are utopian. Arcology can be a congruous system and, as such, an optimum system for the full and complex logistics of individual and social life.”

On an annual basis, FORM festival gives attendees a glimpse into this vision of humanity working together with the environment, rather than against it. There’s a communal vibe to the weekend, with no VIP areas. Much of the food is plant-based, and this recent iteration made use of the environment for multiple experimental art installations. It may sound utopian, a word that’s often used to describe dream-like impossibilities, but FORM makes communal eco-based living a reality for music fans, at least for one weekend.

The Outline had a chance to talk with Zach Tetreault, the founder of the intimate festival and drummer of Los Angeles art rock band Hundred Waters, about the festival’s ongoing development, a couple of his favorite things from this year, and the process of planning something so extensive.



Why did you start the festival?

I was in a band that was touring a lot of the time. We were looking to create some sort of unique, intimate destination experience after a long tour. My best friend is an architect and he told me about Arcosanti. We went and visited it, and were really attracted to the principles and design and aesthetic of this place and we talked to some people there and were pointed in the right direction to do a show: our album release show in 2014. From there, the idea of filling this void of an intimate and meaningful experience became clear and the artist feedback and the industry feedback and the guest feedback was so positive that it was like, “oh, we’re on to something and there’s really something special here, and that isn’t really happening anywhere else.” I personally became very excited about the idea of evolving this model and this concept and so each year it’s kind of developed and morphed and gotten better and different as things take on shape.

How much do you think the surrounding space of Arcosanti adds to that development?

Arcosanti shapes the event. A big part of the reason why the event came about is reflected on the principles of Arcosanti, which are written in there manifesto of an alternative way of living and a more lean and sustainable way of life. Intelligent design and thoughtfulness and frugality are all kind of reflected in the festival itself.

There’s a utopian aspect to it.

There’s a utopian aspect inherently, but that’s not part of Arcosanti’s wordbank or vocabulary. They’re not interested in the concept of utopia at all. It inherently kind of feels that way when you’re there because it works so well. The idea of utopia is very out of reach and I think the idea of it is that what they did there and what that is is not out of reach, it’s actually quite doable as they proved by having volunteers build this place. So I think that by calling it a utopia, that makes it seem impossible.

Which is obviously not the case because it exists. Apart from the music, what is the setup like?

Artists have their own dressing rooms and catering, but there’s no artists-only areas or VIP areas. There are panels, a whole series of programming in wellness and fitness going on throughout the day. Outside of the music, we partner with activists and cultural leaders to do story-telling and performance pieces. We had Patrisse Cullors, an artist, organizer and freedom fighter. She’s one of the founders of Black Lives Matter. She did a performance art piece this year. We brought out representatives from Florence + the Machine’s book club to host a poetry reading and Florence interviewed a couple authors and her favorite poet, Yrsa Daley-Ward. Then Nadia from Pussy Riot! talked about her book, and they sat there in the vaults with like 2,000 people around them talking about poetry and books for an hour on Saturday morning.

We have climate related discussions with representatives from the United Nations, and National Geographic. We did astrology workshops and wellness and health [workshops], learning how to make better food and nourish your immune system through learning how to make certain things. Across the board, there’s everything from plant medicine to art workshops with artists who perform. A lot of the time we’ll get the artists that are performing music to also do a panel to talk about their visual art. We collaborated with the people at Magic Leap this year and had a whole activation tent where people could demo the Sigur Rós Magic Leap experience, which is like an augmented reality headset where you are immersed in this world of sound and art that Sigur Rós came up with. At night, we projection map the canyons entirely with an artist from the Klip Collective that used what I think was the biggest projection mapping ever at any event. We projection mapped the entire canyon. We have pool parties all day on Saturday and Sunday.

That sounds like a lot for just three days. How do you keep it all straight?

The festival has been a little nebulous with how it’s evolved. Every year we kind of learn and discover things that we can do across the site to make this experience even more immersive. This is the first year that we projection mapped the canyon, but we’ve been doing these weekend pool parties every year because there’s an amazing swimming pool on the edge of this cliff. That’s obvious, but what isn’t so obvious is the canyons being this amazing palette for projection mapping. It took us a little while to get to that; to have the resources to commission someone to do that work.

What was something that really impressed you this year?

Down in the field was the biggest ever land art mandala that was done completely by the artist Jim Denevan on our campgrounds. It was just another extension of the festival. The photography of that piece of art is probably the most exciting photography of the entire event. The camping circled around it and it’s the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen by far; this massive land art mandala using fresh grass cut in different sized triangles to make this campground art installation thing. Pretty mind-blowing, but every year we just learn, “oh what if we did something over there in that part of the site?” We try to make it so that the entire site is a giant, immersive experience.

Aside from all the other activities, you all have a broad range of musicians and bands. How do you decide what artists you want to play at FORM festival?

I’ve been booking the event entirely since the beginning, so it’s all stuff that is inspiring to me and my partners and also just stuff that I feel will work really well in that space and within like a day journey at the space. I like to think and imagine what it would be like to wake up there as a guest in the campgrounds and start the day. I think about how that journey would feel because nothing overlaps within the programming. You can see everything and go to everything. For Friday, you arrive and you settle in and then you see a couple of amazing bands and then you have this incredibly emotional, intimate experience with Florence + the Machine because this is a show where she’s never done anything that intimate before. So you’re seeing this super rare, super emotional show. From that, you go straight into a different space where you see two super incredible DJs like Peggy Gou and Bonobo in this amazing and immersive club experience where they DJ until two in the morning and it’s just this amazing party. And then you wake up on Saturday and you do some yoga and wellness programming. Then you go to this book club poetry thing and Florence is reading poetry and you cry and then you see a harpist playing in the vaults. Then the music starts to pick up a bit more and you have Fred Armisen in the afternoon and you start laughing at his comedy routine.

I think of the programming as taking you on this journey of feelings throughout the day. This year, at like four in the afternoon we had Pussy Riot!, which is pretty abrasive and has this punk vibe, but we can get away with a lot that way and have it be pretty varied in genre. Everything works together and speaks the same language of intention and authenticity. I don’t generally book much that’s... I don't know how to say it. Everything is pretty approachable, and not too controversial. I like to have something for everyone on the lineup.

Would you say that every year the festival has developed in new directions?

Yeah, for sure. It’s definitely grown every year and evolved and gotten more interesting. We have to keep it interesting for ourselves. Nobody wants to do the same thing every year and for me it’s exciting to have new challenges and new things to work on with the site. There’s no doubt we’ll have to try to level it up for next year as well.

I know you just finished this year’s festival, but is there anything you have in mind for upcoming years?

I do. I have a couple ideas, but I'll probably save those for now.