By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
As recently as July 31, the New Sabbath Festival was known only for what it was planned as: a huge, wonderful lineup of local and nationally known folk, freak folk and acoustic acts.
The festival lineup includes Jana Hunter, Brothers and Sisters, and Peter and the Wolf, along with well-known locals such as The Theater Fire, Sarah Jaffe and Fishboy as well as a gaggle of lesser-known musicians playing on two stages at J&J's Pizza (upstairs and downstairs); two outdoor stages on the Courthouse-on-the-Square lawn; and at Banter, a coffeehouse on the northeast corner of the square. As many as 55 acts will play; that's the number boasted on the official page, though the lineup lists 48 bands and solo performers.
The New Sabbath Festival is spearheaded by Magilum Records, a loose collective of friends devoted to folk music, especially droning, psychedelic folk that mixes atmospheric noise into traditional-sounding arrangements. Magilum is mostly the brainchild of Bryce Isbell. The label is home to several bands and solo projects; most of the acts are the same players performing different roles to support each other's projects. Among the artists are Gashcat, Verülf and Psalms of Abraxas, but the band that appeared most poised for success was Matthew Gray's project, Matthew and the Arrogant Sea (of which Isbell is a member). That is, until recently.
If you've looked at WeShotJR.com in the past month, you already know much of what happened to MATAS. On July 30, WSJR's pseudonymous StonedRanger posted an item about the band that described the band's musical evolution and relayed information from Isbell concerning contract talks with EMI. Incredibly, Isbell claimed the band was in the process of entering a $6 million contract with the label.
Immediately, user comments on the site raised doubts about the supposed contract. Responses ranged from a simple anonymous "BULLSHIT" to thoughtful (if sometimes half-baked) analyses of the possible deal. Many had such a deeply hateful tone that it seems likely they were fueled by a previous grudge.
That grudge may have roots in an earlier controversy that centered on the New Sabbath Festival. The New Sabbath idea started as a showcase of Denton folk artists, who range from traditional one-person-one-guitar arrangements to collectives using found sound, synthesizers and other experimental flourishes. The organizers' enthusiasm and energy quickly led them to contact Brothers and Sisters, Peter and the Wolf (an acquaintance of the organizers) and Jana Hunter.
Isbell and Gray also got in touch with bigger, national names such as Bill Callahan (Smog), the Castanets and Daniel Johnston's Danny and the Nightmares. Though they never confirmed those three acts, Isbell and Gray told prospective New Sabbath bands that there was a good chance they'd be playing with them. Perhaps it was when Callahan, Johnston and Castanets fell through that an undercurrent of resentment first started.
While Isbell and band manager Freddie Schulze defended Gray and themselves on WSJR's comment board, the commenters' skepticism made them want to examine the supposed contract. Schulze, Isbell and others in MATAS knew they had to talk with Gray after they realized that all the information they had on the label dealings had come only from Gray. Schulze and Isbell had been so focused on pulling off the New Sabbath Festival that they had trusted Gray to handle the deal.
They met at Art Six Coffee House July 31 to go over documentation of the proposed EMI deal, hoping to find anything on paper they could show doubters.
"When we sat down to go over it and discussed what we knew about it, it became clear that it was a fantasy," Schulze said in an interview on August 1, the day after what he called the worst night in his life.
Schulze is certain that Gray believed the deal was real. What made it seem plausible to everyone involved was that the band had some dealings with another label that had fallen through but which somehow led the band to have contact with EMI. Schulze wouldn't name the other label involved or elaborate on the nature of the band's dealings with it.
"Matthew doesn't have a dishonest bone in his body," Schulze says. "He still swears everything happened."
In an e-mail exchange, Gray declined to provide names of any contacts at EMI or the name of an attorney with whom he'd discussed the imaginary contract.
Schulze says the attorney is real, which is sadly believable. Somehow it's not hard to imagine a lawyer charging an hourly fee to discuss a fantasy contract. Hopefully, he or she will be paid in pretend dollars.
But despite the very public fall of MATAS and Magilum from an impossible high to a humiliating crash, Magilum still exists. More important, the New Sabbath Festival is still on.
Schulze patiently answered questions about the EMI misunderstanding, though he clearly would have preferred to talk about the festival. It's understandable, considering the personalities involved are his best friends and bandmates—including Matthew Gray's brother Caleb and nephew Jacob. Still a part of Magilum Records, Caleb creates beautiful, chilling soundscapes of droning acoustic instruments and his own miles-away, heavily reverbed voice under the name Verülf; he also plays with MATAS. Jacob, who performs excellent (though more traditionally arranged) folk compositions as J. Gray, will perform at 1 p.m. Saturday on Courthouse Stage 1.
In interviews before the whole EMI debacle, Gray, Isbell and Schulze described the festival as an idea that mushroomed from the tiny spores of Denton folk-based experimental acts into a massive undertaking.
"It started out as a small thing," Isbell said. "The reason I wanted to do the festival, and the reason I started Magilum, is to open a window to our collective...We all very much love Denton, and our goal is to maintain the effort of experimental music here."
Despite the ballooning lineup and inclusion of non-Denton acts, the idea of promoting Denton first and foremost remains. The organizers offered sponsorship opportunities to and accepted them only from small, mostly local businesses, such as Strawberry Fields, Recycled Books and Music, Secret Headquarters and Gutterth Productions. Pop Monster Collective, a DIY label from Champaign, Illinois, will sponsor a stage. The decision to exclude chain businesses was intentional, a protest against the homogenizing forces of outsider developers.
Gray said the group intended to keep the festival centered on folk, however loose a definition of "folk" that might require. The organizers didn't want to turn any bands down, so a few performers agreed to play unplugged sets to fit the event. Many performers have also apparently agreed to wearing costumes. Gray says he's always dreamed of a costumed folk festival. No matter how his other dreams turn out, that's one he may realize. MATAS is still listed on the official lineup, despite Isbell and Schulze stating soon after the EMI unraveling that MATAS was out of the lineup.
Gray wouldn't share details about his costume plans.
Schulze says organizing the festival, the early lineup confusion and the EMI mess provided a few hard lessons: "We learned a lot on this festival about not jumping the gun."New Sabbath Festival|Matthew and the Arrogant Sea|Denton music|Jana Hunter|WeShotJR