One of the ways we can all show our support to the
furtherance of Progressive Rock is to attend a performance.
I’ll be the first to admit that’s tough to do when you live on an
island off the coast of
prog festivals that are popping up in most parts of the country making
it a bit easier to take in the live experience. After attending my second Calprog last October I thought it would good to get a behind the scenes look at what it takes to make one of these events actually come together. So here is my conversation with Calprog founder Jim Harrel or as he’s affectionately known PapaJ.
Jerry Lucky: CalProg #5 is now in the history books….do you have any initial post event comments or reflections?
Jim Harrel: This was perhaps the best musically of all the festivals we’ve done. Everything was working. Every band was well prepared and turned in inspired performances, the sound was great, the people fantastic, the production went very smooth (with the one exception of a forgotten European power converter), just an all around positive and enriching experience. But here’s the thing, you plan this thing for about 8 months, it is always in the back and often in the front of your mind during that time and then POOF! In 2 days it’s over. I’m counting Friday since we load-in and set-up from 1 in the afternoon. The real festivities begin on Friday night with the Patron Dinner (24 Patrons, the CalProg Crew and all the artists) followed by the “Pre-Show” which is open to the public. On Saturday we roll in and are all ready to go at 11am.
But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah, POOF. There is so much stuff going on Saturday that it’s just total sensory overload. I mean no human brain can actually process all the data that’s being fed in so a lot of it is stored to review mentally over the next few days. There’s such a great vibe with the people and bands at CalProg it’s a sort of euphoric mountain top experience. On Sunday the crew usually has breakfast together to review the production and swap stories. But then on Sunday afternoon I am just spent. Physically I’m sore in every joint, every muscle. And mentally I’m drained. I always take Monday off to finish recuperating. But then there’s a sort of post-fest depression. All the stuff that you’d been living and breathing for 8 months just happened in a relative blink of an eye and then it’s back to real life. It always takes me a week to get back into the groove.
JL: Before we talk about CalProg, fill us in about who Papa Jim is, and what does he do when he’s not involved in staging a progressive rock music festival?
JH: You mean in “real” life? Well I’m a father (Papa) to 4 children ranging in age from 17-25, three girls and one boy. I’ve got a lovely and supportive wife who I have been married to for 20 years this year. Anyone that has been to a CalProg event has met most of my brood as they usually work the shows. My job title is “Manager, Data Warehouse Systems” and I work for a not for profit health care company that is like an HMO for senior citizens (65+). Essentially I’m a techno geek working on corporate database systems (SQL SERVER) and business intelligence data delivery tools. I also have been hosting a web-radio show for about 8 years now called “PapaJ’s Matinee” on Saturday nights from 7pm to 11pm PST at www.deliciousagony.com (had to get a plug in). I also spend a lot of time listening to music and way too much time with the DVR. “Hi, I’m Jim and I’m a media junkie. Say, do you have a FIVE step version of this 12 step program? I don’t want to miss Criminal Minds”.
JL: Let’s go way back to the beginning…what led you to produce that first event?
JH: Wow, this could be a long answer. I’ll see what I can do to shorten it. I had spent a lot of time with Spock’s Beard (that’s a story in itself). When they recorded SNOW I was in the studio with them for 10 days video taping for the “Making Of…” DVD and just generally being a studio monkey. Some may know that it was at the end of those sessions that Neal Morse told the band that he was leaving due to his religious path. I forged some strong relationships with the guys over that period of time.
In 2003 Neal had just finished the Testimony album and was looking to do a tour with Mike Portnoy and a cast of thousands. OK I exaggerate, but there were a lot of great musicians in that band. Anyways he called me and asked if I could help them procure a venue and backline for their LA area stop. I had toured with a Christian music group in college for 2 months in the summer for 2 straight years so I had a good idea of all the requirements for putting together a production like that, and I set out to make it happen.
There was a group of friends that are local that I had met through the internet, and then at real life gigs. They were prog lovers like me. I recruited them to help out in the Testimony show and we all found it to be a profound experience and just plain fun! So we kind of collectively said “Man this was great, we should do another event.” ProgWest had been on hiatus for 2 years I think, and we started tossing around the idea of a prog festival. That vision became CalProg. I’d like to mention that to this day the “exec staff” has been these same people, and they all provide counsel throughout the year and work every event we do pro bono. These are people I feel extraordinarily close to. Our all volunteer production staff has remained essentially the same over the 5 years as well, and in my opinion they out perform their “pro” counterparts in every way.
JL: Did you ever think that first show would lead to four more?
JH: Hah! In my foggy memory of that first one I seem to recall being on stage introducing the last act and I asked “Should we do this again next year?” The audience responded with thunderous applause. So at that point it seemed that we should in fact continue. But no, I didn’t think we’d do 5. To be honest, I never think beyond the next one. We just do what we do and see where it leads.
I think this is a good time to point out that even though we are called CalProg and the annual festival is our flagship event called CalProg, we actually do one-offs (one concert with one band) whenever the opportunities present themselves. Although this was the 5th CalProg, it was actually our 12th production. We’ve hosted bands like Mike Portnoy and his Who tribute “Amazing Journey”, Liquid Tension Experiment, The Flower Kings, The Musical Box, the Neal Morse Band and others. Our mission is to bring top shelf progressive rock music to people in a comfortable theatre setting.
JL: What was the most challenging part of putting that 1st event together…?
JH: Pretty much everything was a challenge at first. Getting “name” bands to sign on was hard since we were a start-up with no standing reputation. Budgeting was a lot of estimating and guessing whereas now it’s all based on actual numbers and is quite accurate. The sheer volume of work required was a bit staggering. Things like getting multiple bands to agree to play on a particular date, getting contracts out and back, the hotel, the venue, the patron dinner, sound, hospitality (food back stage), security and the list goes on and on. I don’t think most people realize how many things there are to juggle in such an undertaking, especially for the festival. The one-offs are quite a bit easier.
JL: As far as CalProg is concerned what’s getting easier?
JH: Everything is getting easier as you would expect. It’s the old “practice makes perfect” adage at work. We all know what needs to be done so events require less planning. In the beginning we would always get together as a group for an afternoon planning meeting to talk about who would do what, what we thought might happen, what we needed to be prepared for, what each post required, stuff like that. Now, I send out emails to the crew showing what the assignments are and they all know what that translates to on show day. As far as the planning and administration, ticket sales, budgeting and finances are all down to a science and fairly easy to manage.
JL: What’s getting harder?
JH: I don’t know that it’s getting harder, but what has always been hard is finding the right mix of bands to satisfy and more importantly DRAW the fans to the festival. Prog fans can be a fickle bunch. We try to provide a range of styles but without some “big” names on the bill, it can be hard to get people off their couches to spend 12 hours listening to music. If we can just get them there, they always seem to have a great time. I read every review and message board post I can find where people talk about CalProg and I don’t think I’ve ever read “what a waste of time that was, it really sucked.”
JH: The simple answer is because I was born and raised in
JL: The facility you use, The Center Theater Stage at the Whittier Community Center…it’s a lovely theatre, seats only 400 people, and as your website says, there’s not a bad seat in the house. How did you come to get this facility?
JH: As a teenager one of my fondest musical memories was going to the community centre
JL: You would think in a market the size of
JH: Again, prog fans are fickle. I’ve got a mailing list that consists of every person whose ever bought a ticket to any of our events. It has about 700 people on it. Every time we do a show I email all those people so they at least KNOW about it. It’s OK if people hear about a show and choose not to go, what I hate to think about is all those people who would be interested if only they knew. I try to use all the prog forums on the web that I can to let people know shows are happening without being obnoxious. For the record we have only sold out ONE CalProg, and it was the 2nd one in 2005.
But this leads to the bigger question of “Why isn’t prog more popular?” There’s some great music happening right now, really exciting stuff. Back in the day prog shows by the biggies (YES, Genesis, ELP…) were selling out big venues. Even if we don’t consider the youth right now, from that old crowd I bet a large number of them would love this music. I’d say 90% of the people I meet at shows are prog fans from the first wave that almost by accident discovered that there is NEW prog happening now, and most of them found out about it through the internet. How do we get the word out to those people who haven’t heard about it? I’d give my left nut to get the LA Genesis mailing list from about 1975 if there were such a thing!
JL: It doesn’t take a math genius, to know that CalProg couldn’t be much of a money maker. I’m guessing more of a labour of love than anything, and yet it has to make some financial sense to keep doing it. Without going into personal details, what does the income and expenses look like for an event like this?
JH: It is absolutely a labour of love, and you’re exactly right about the money. We’ve managed to remain solvent all these years mainly because of the success of our one-offs. Just let me say right here and now, God bless Mike Portnoy. He has done more to give life to the new wave of prog than anyone on the planet. Whenever we have him for a show it’s an automatic sell-out, and I’m lucky we’ve got a good friendship and business relationship. And The Musical Box was a gamble that paid off. In reality CalProg has only closed in the black 1 time. We’ve lost money on three and broke even on one. The other successes cover our indulgence in the festival. And believe me we ask ourselves if we should even continue it. But the fact is even though we’ve had some INCREDIBLE one-offs, CalProg proper is such a great experience every year that we keep doing it. It’s so fun to meet a bunch of people that share the same passion for this music. You could be a complete stranger when you arrive but almost immediately you’ll find yourself sharing stories with people like you’ve known them for years. And then to explore the four acts that are on the main stage it’s almost magical. It’s a high that no drug could ever give you. I’m gushing now huh? Someone throw me a rag!
JL: When will you start planning for next year?
JH: Oh man, I haven’t even come down from THIS year yet. I don’t know, we’re always scouting bands and following the latest releases to decide what’s hot. The exec staff and I share music and everyone puts in their opinions about their “CalProgginess”. And I tell you, their advice has kept me from following my heart right off a cliff in a more than one instance. But the answer to your question the real planning starts about 8 months out, you know booking the venue. Unlike other festivals that start announcing the day after theirs, we like to wait until closer to the event just in case some new release comes out that really hits us. The headliner we try to nail down early, but the rest we start making offers 4-6 months out.
JL: Normally CalProg has taken place in June, while in 2008 it was in October. In retrospect which was a better date?
JH: You know there’s kind of a glut of festivals through the spring and summer. And believe it or not prog fans are so devoted it’s not uncommon to have people from all over the country attend. It was always hard to find a date that didn’t overlap another festival and that the venue was available. But if you ask my crew they’ll tell you the REAL reason is because the stage craft area backstage isn’t air conditioned and it gets unbearably hot by the end of the afternoon during the summer. Anyways October worked very well for us and I think that will be our permanent time frame.
JL: What’s your most memorable CalProg moment?
JH: There are so many. So many funny stories, inside jokes and stuff that only idiotic adults can do. But I think I would choose a moment from the very first year. IZZ was on stage performing their classic prog cover of The Cage Medley by Genesis. It was a stunning performance. At the end they segued into the “And it’s hello babe…” ending of Supper’s Ready with the girls singing angelically. Chills came over me as I heard this historic gem and looked at my crew and the crowd of people totally mesmerized and I just started crying. It hit me “we did it.” BTW, I saw lots of big burly men wiping tears away too so I ain’t no girly man!
JL: Lastly, if there was one thing you would like to tell someone, that would sell them on the idea of attending CalProg…what would that be?
JH: If you are passionate about music there’s nothing like it. Come out and spend 12 hours with 400 people that you have more in common with than you’d think!
Thanks for being interested and for requesting this interview. I’m mostly a quiet guy… unless you get me started talking about music. Then I become animated and verbose as you can see. I’ll look forward to seeing you at future CalProg events!