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As Solid Sound Returns, A Look Behind The Scenes At MASS MoCA

The indie rock world is descending on North Adams, Massachusetts today for the Solid Sound festival at MASS MoCA. WAMC went behind the scenes to see what it takes to pull off the three-day festival.

Sue Killam is the Director of Performing Arts at MASS MoCA, and, in the final hours before the festival’s opening, she’s running out of space.

“It’s going to be really full," said Killam. "It’s going to be bustling. Solid Sound is sold out, so we’ll not only have all of the audience members filling up every crevice – galleries, indoor spaces, outdoor spaces – but we also have all of our artists here as well, hanging out and performing and really being a part of the festival vibe.”

Over 8,000 tickets have been sold for the three-day festival curated by Chicago-based indie rock band Wilco. Every other year since the first installment in 2010, Solid Sound sees MASS MoCA fill with food vendors, stages, tents, pop-up concerts, and a host of musicians, comedians, and artists of all stripes. 

“It’s a takeover," said Director of Communications Jodi Joseph. "Wilco really comes in and they program all these spaces, and they kind of own the night and the weekend, so it’s just a completely different MASS MoCA. A thrilling, lively, exciting one.”

The museum is housed in a sprawling, 16-acre brick compound that was originally a textile mill in the 19th century and then the Sprague Electric Company for over four decades until 1985.

“I like to think about too as like little renaissance villages or courtyards," said Killam. "Because as much as we’re a factory building, we have all these beautiful inner courtyards that get transformed will all this great music and art and ideas.”

That transformation is no joke.

“It takes every single staff person that works at MASS MoCA to participate and give back to this festival, and that’s around 160 people," she told WAMC. "Plus, we over-hire, and that is at least a team for the production side of things for about 30 to 40, plus Wilco brings in their whole crew and team, which is probably another 20 to 30 people, and I’m sure there’s other departments who over-hire, I just don’t see their payroll go by, but I bet they do.”

Killam says that the museum works to incorporate the North Adams community in its festival planning.

“We’ve also reached out to the Louison House, which is a place for folks in transition from a housing perspective, and they’re going to staff our remote parking lots that we have because we have people that park all over the city all down Route 8,” she said.

And that’s not all.

“We also hire people in the community for childcare, or for volunteers, and like I said, parking lots," continued Killam. "So there’s other places where we bring people into the work community. So I wasn’t doing the math, but we’re well over 200 for sure just to get this all going and taken care of.”

Just over one of the canals that snakes through the MASS MoCA campus, Killam walks to a spot at the foot of Joe’s Field – the site of the Solid Sound mainstage tucked on a hillside behind the museum’s Building Six.

“We’re standing right now at what’s known colloquially as Local Hill," said Killam. "And it’s a code name that the locals who come to all the festivals and big concerts here have figured out, and it’s literally the little bit of rise of asphalt, and if they are looking for someone they just say ‘we’ll meet you at Local Hill’ and everyone knows where to go.”

Joseph says that sense of familiarity is what makes even the inevitable close of the festival – and the months of preparation that goes into it – powerful.

“One of my favorite festival moments is almost always running into Lickety Split, who’s been serving food to museum patrons for 20 years, and typically at the end of our festivals they just put out pots of coffee and a note and a bucket of apples telling everyone to get home safe and thanks for being here, and it’s so poignant, and I get a little weepy,” said Joseph.

Monday is still a long way off for Killam and the Solid Sound team, but she says she isn’t dreading it.

“Assuming everything has just gone great, and people have had a great time, it feels pretty good at the other side," said Killam. "You’re tired, your feet hurt more, and you’re stilling running around cleaning up stuff and tents and all of that, but you just accomplished something and I think there’s a real sense of team pride when everyone’s at the end of it, seeing what we accomplished, taking it all down, and open for business the next day as if nothing happened. It’s kind of wild and amazing to watch.”

Click here Visit wamc.org to learn more about the city’s safety preparations.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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