HT Interview: Ken Hays – Gatherer of the Vibes

Words: Carla Danca

This year will mark the 17th annual Gathering of the Vibes, so we took some time to sit down with Gathering of the Vibes founder Ken Hays to discuss the 2012 installment of the festival which takes place from July 19 – 22 at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Hays has been through it all from memorable musicians to record breaking heat waves and even a lightning strike or two over the years. What makes GOTV such a special festival for so many people and one of the largest festivals in New England? Check out what Ken had to say about it below..

Hidden Track: It’s about two weeks until showtime and a pretty busy time for you. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going on at headquarters this week?

Ken Hays: Sure. We’re wrapping up last minute details, insurance, A/V agreements, I’ve got about ten guys down at Seaside Park on the Ops team that are laying out all the locations with spray paint and chalk lines and getting ready for the tents, staging, generators, Porta Potties and all the things that it requires to keep 20,000-25,000 people happy for the week.

HT: It’s probably great when it gets down to this point and its just the machine working

KH: Yeah, if I wasn’t so bogged down with emails I’d be a whole lot happier.

HT: I think that’s every working person’s dream.

KH: Absolutely. (laughs)

HT: This is the final year of your five year contract with Seaside Park. Does it get easier to have it at the same place each year or with all the new work and new ideas is it no different than starting from square one?

KH: Well there’s definitely a learning curve and last year we had our first heat wave at 105 degrees on Thursday, 103 on Friday, 98 on Saturday, and then a nice breezy 85 on Sunday. So it was toasty and you do the best you can to prepare and you try to keep everyone happy and safe and covered. So every year there’s always something that comes out of left field.

HT: What would you say to people who are looking for a more tranquil experience, a more rural location. A lot of people still have memories of Indian Lookout Country Club and love going out to the country and feel that’s what festivals are about – leaving the city behind. What are your thoughts on that?

KH: Well for me, almost from the start I love the water. Whether it’s the Hudson River or Lake Champlain or Long Island Sound. To be able to listen to the music while dancing in the water, with the ocean breeze, at least for me, helps to blow all the troubles away.

HT: [The ocean] is cleansing and having grown up in Connecticut in that area, I can see why it’s a big part of your life.

KH: Yeah it is. I went to school out in Colorado and missed being on the water, but then when I was back in Connecticut I missed the mountains. So I guess the grass is always greener on the other side. But it’s definitely more challenging to throw a party like Vibes on the water, for safety reasons and the obvious. But to have 2 ½ miles of Long Island Sound waterfront and a 1 ½ of beach, certainly there ain’t no place I’d rather be.

[Photo by Jeremy Gordon]

HT: Each year there are dozens of bands that play the Vibes. When does the planning start? Do you take any time off in between the festivals or are you already looking at 2013 and beyond?

KH: I’m always thinking beyond, it’s in my blood and in [the blood of] those that are closest to me which allows Gathering of the Vibes to flourish. So we’re always thinking about new and different ideas and concepts. Whether it’s  some like motion-detecting tap lights in the Porta Potties to any other neat and new technologies that can improve the attendee experience. That’s extremely important to us, we want to make sure everyone has the best time they possibly can.

HT: That’s definitely what Vibes means to me, having the best time you possibly can.

KH: Absolutely. Forgetting about the everyday drama of our lives and having an opportunity to hang out with friends and family and listen to some great tunes and hang out on the beach.

HT: What would you say is one of your favorite Vibes memories? Has there been any occasions when you heard something that made you stop what you were doing and just listen to the music?

KH: Musically, I think the two-night run of Phil Lesh and Friends at Indian Lookout in 2002 with the Quintet, that was just an absolutely extraordinary band and I remember where I was as Phil was finishing up his encore. Then he thanked me and the whole team from the stage, for putting in the love and the work that it takes to pull something like that off. It was a really special nod. Phil was interviewed on the bus after the second performance and said that he thought those were two of the best shows he performed at ever. That was something…and I agree. From start to finish, both nights, just exceptional performances.

HT: Absolutely and considering he played at places like The Pyramids in Egypt, it’s not a bad thing to be up there with those top few performances.

KH: Right, it was a surprise to hear him say that, but Phil and everyone can feel the love. Bobby as well, they don’t play for silver they play for life, they all do, that’s just true to the core.

HT: Speaking of Phil, one of the questions that’s been on a lot of people’s minds this year is the fact there hasn’t been a Phil and Friends lineup announcement and with that comes a lot of speculation on who’s going to play with him. Any hints?

KH: No way. I’ll let Phil tell everyone, but I’ll say its impressive.

HT: OK, fair enough and we’ll make sure we’re there. Its kind of nice to have a little bit of a surprise and it gives people something to talk about for the next few weeks and keeps everyone guessing. Speaking of Phil,  this year you have the “Core Four” Grateful Dead members. If you could have your dream sit in, who would be there and what would they play?

KH: I’d like to have Jerry back with Branford (Marsalis on sax) and Bruce (Hornsby) on keys, similar to Nassau Coliseum 1990 on Without a Net. When Branford hit the stage, we all knew that something magical was going to happen on that second set, going into Eyes of the World. It was just spectacular.

HT: I guess if you’re going to get your dream show, that’s a good one to pick – go big or go home time.

KH: (laughter) Yeah, I’d love to see that.

HT: Were you there that night?

KH: Yeah, I remember exactly where I was when I heard that saxophone go off and I said “wait a minute, we got something really special about to happen.”

HT: Who in particular are you excited to see this year?

KH: Well right before Phil and Friends on Friday night is Bobby with Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers (Bruce’s band) along with special guest Branford Marsalis. Then there’s (the recently reunited) Strangefolk. I saw them perform a couple months ago at Brooklyn Bowl and they were just awesome. It was just great to see the guys back on stage together. In addition, Sound Tribe Sector 9 hasn’t played Vibes in 11 years, and having Les (Claypool) back with Primus. Then there’s Steel Pulse and the Avett Brothers on Sunday and our old friends Max Creek and Keller Williams. Karl Denson will be there with the Greyboy Allstars,  [I look forward to seeing] Yonder Mountain String Band and it will be great to have Royal Family Ball with Soulive and Lettuce play late night until the wee morning hours as well as having Conspirator and the guys from Big Gigantic joining forces as Gigantic Underground Conspiracy. That’s going to be a pretty powerful late night. So I’m pleased with the lineup and I feel really good with how it fell together and based on ticket sales and the vibe online, people seem excited about it as well.

HT: Definitely. There seems to be a nice mix of the classic artists we’ve come to expect along with acts like STS9 coming back after a long break. It’s always nice to have a mix of the new and the old and Vibes does a nice job trying to balance that out.

KH: Thanks. Yeah, that’s the key, always bringing in fresh blood, while at the same time giving the Vibe Tribe the artists they know and love.

HT: Anything else you’d like to tell our readers or anything special you’d like to mention?

KH: Well we’re doing our Terrapin Foundation food drive again. So if people don’t mind, grab a cardboard box and go in your kitchen and take out some cans of non-perishable food items and drop them off upon entry at the Vibes. There’s a lot of people out there, even in Connecticut, that are hurting. Last year the Vibe Tribe donated over 7,000 lbs and our goal is to top that. With everyone’s assistance we can help those in greatest need.

HT: Absolutely, we need to look out for our brothers and sisters who are a little less fortunate right now and not everyone has the ability to escape for a weekend. Thanks so much for your time and we look forward to seeing you at Vibes starting July 19th.

Tickets and a limited number of VIP Packages are available through the Vibes website.


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