For the last two years, TRKfest, a small music festival on the edge of Pittsboro, has showcased bands from the Trekky Records roster and a broader community of local acts. Thing is, TRKfest was never intended to be annual. That's a happy accident.
The festival began as a fundraiser for the popular local label in 2008. Thanks to surprise success, it was replicated in 2009. With the third iteration due Saturday, it now has all the markings of a local institution. But the event's organizers have taken care to preserve the festival's informal and easygoing spirit—the spontaneous quality that growing festivals struggle to retain.
At that inaugural gathering, a few hundred fans ventured to the Piedmont Biofuels facility in Pittsboro, the outdoor venue that the festival calls home—and always will, according to Trekky co-owner Will Hackney. With landscaped fields and industrial buildings, the grounds uniquely balance the agrarian and the mechanical. "It looks like somewhere James Bond would break into," Hackney says approvingly, "but surrounded with organic farms."
That evening, an early and expanded incarnation of Durham's Megafaun took the stage, just as the band's star was beginning to rise following a high-profile tour with New York trio Akron/Family. The ensemble included members of Midtown Dickens and Akron/Family.
"The first year, we played as a hodgepodge of bands, as Megafaun & Friends," says Megafaun's Phil Cook, calling from the van with tour manager (and Trekky Records co-owner) Martin Anderson in the backseat. "Preparation involved a bunch of us learning each other's songs."
The performance's off-the-cuff, collaborative vibe indicated TRKfest's values—friendship, surprise, community. At TRKfest 2010, such accessibility and inclusiveness remain the standards. There is no cover charge, though donations are accepted. The bands play for free food, casseroles and covered dishes provided by a crew called "Trekky mafia" and the members' parents. Money-devouring concerns like security, setup and crowd control are handled as cheaply as possible or farmed out to the label's vast volunteer network.
"We'll show up at 10 in the morning on the day of the festival to set up," Hackney says, "and 20 or 30 people will be there, anxious to help." If 12 hours of music is too much to take in, the auxiliary entertainment is just as homespun—sprinklers, soccer, sack races, musical chairs, dance-offs, free haircuts, chill-out tents.
"It's all stuff that's a little too wholesome but is funny and fun," explains Hackney. "It should feel like your field day from school slash somebody's birthday party in the summer. We have a little less space this year because of all the vendors, but we're going to try and squeeze it all in."
Think local, think green, think family: This year, those three guiding principles for the festival come into clear focus. Take its new partnership with the Carolina Brewery. It's a regional institution, and its provision of kegs with compostable cups and special TRKfest pint glasses will eliminate the hundreds of PBR cans that the Trekky mafia historically cleaned up on Sunday. Most important, brewmaster Jon Connolly has a son, Ross, in the Trekky band Butterflies.
TRKfest is an exercise in growing that family, too: The festival's lineup always includes many acts that are not on the label. Of the 12 bands performing on Saturday, only four—Butterflies, Lost in the Trees, Embarrassing Fruits and Vibrant Green—have actually released music with Trekky. Megafaun, the closest thing that TRKfest has to a marquee act, returns year after year, even though they are tapped into networks with far more resources and visibility. Two months ago, the band nearly sold out Cat's Cradle.
It seems like an odd business model, to book a resource-consuming festival that features few bands from your own label, no ticket sales and no guarantees or other monetary perks to lure in bigger acts. The Trekky story, then, is one of those rare, uplifting tales of nice guys winning by blending genuine bigheartedness, local sustainability and some business practices that are sounder than they might appear.
"I don't even know how these guys are pulling it off," agrees Matt Park of indie-pop duo Veelee, who will play TRKfest for the first time this year. "With all the vendors and two stages, it's really impressive."
Indeed, one wonders if anyone but Trekky Records could not only pull off such an event but make it grow—the festival has gotten a little better each year, drawing larger crowds and bigger bands. Its practices and fortunes are entirely consistent with those of the label, which has always sacrificed profitability for a rarer kind of currency. While other labels chase after trends or lucrative business models, Trekky has quietly cornered the market in goodwill. Hackney and Anderson, the two young men who run the label, have been building bridges between disparate sections of the community since their early teens, and by now, the Trekky mafia has tendrils in every niche of local music.
Maybe success stories like Lost in the Trees—a longtime Trekky band that recently signed to much larger label Anti- Records and just finished a two-month national tour—bring home the bacon to bolster lower-profile acts. Or maybe such results just keep pushing Hackney, Anderson and the whole operation forward. Or maybe it's simply a cycle of positive feedback.
"For us," says Cook, "[the festival] is just a reminder of why we love living in North Carolina. I just feel so happy and proud the whole day."
On a blazing Carolina afternoon days before the festival, Will Hackney walks up to Durham's Mad Hatter Café while buttoning his shirt over his bare chest. He's petite and well-proportioned, with something of a handsome-elf countenance. When he enters the café, an employee zooms around the counter, effusing about TRKfest.
Laconically, Hackney replies, "Gonna be a good day,"
Hackney's just left the Piedmont Biofuels facility, where he helped a posse of volunteers build a second stage, a new addition that should make transitions between sets more fluid. "I've built some stuff before, but kind of figured it out as we went," he explains, sitting on the patio, slowly dismantling the top of a muffin. "I had a basic design—a simple box with legs. Luckily, John Neville [of Embarrassing Fruits] has some woodworking experience."
Trekky never spends money on anything it can do itself. After TRKfest, the new stage will probably be disassembled and moved to Trekky HQ for house shows. "I kind of jumped around on it a little bit, and it seems sound," Hackney says without worry. "We're going to reinforce with some extra wood the day of the festival to make sure Lost in the Trees"—a band that recently slimmed down from more than a dozen members to a modest seven—"doesn't fall through."
Hackney doesn't draw any pay from the label. The resources from record sales fund the next labor of love. Instead, he lives as cheaply as possible, in a big house (called, colloquially, The Big House) with Anderson and several other members of the extended Trekky family, including festival newcomer Ezekiel Graves.
A veteran of popular local indie rock bands like Cold Sides, an electronic musician as DataHata, and a post-Fahey art-folkster when performing under his own name, Graves illustrates how deeply involved in local music Anderson and Hackney have been from a very young age. He's only really gotten to know them in the past year or so, but Graves met the future Trekky founders when they were barely in high school.
"Martin and Will interviewed Cold Sides for a fanzine they were going to make, which never came out," he recalls. "I was aware of them from that time, but it wasn't until they moved into the house that I found out they had been huge White Octave fans and had a high school band that sounded just like them. It was fun to go back and connect those dots."
You can hardly speak to a band related to Trekky without hearing similar stories of dots connected, or of Anderson and Hackney reaching out to offer support with no clear impetus other than fandom. "Our association with Trekky is that Will and Martin are just fans of ours, I guess," explains Park of Veelee, who also played Trekky's most recent Christmas show. "We played not too long ago with Bowerbirds at the Cradle, and I'm pretty sure that was solely due to Will's influence. We don't have any official association other than being bros."
Guided by that principle of admiration, booking the festival is simple. "The main criteria," Hackney says, "is whoever we've been hanging out with the most and would want to see."
This is exactly how the label operates, too: "We just want to see the new Butterflies record out there because we love that band and we love those guys," Hackney says of a forthcoming Trekky release. "That's about the extent of our thought process when we're wondering, 'Should we do this record? Of course we should.'"
The Trekky staff fostered this philosophy of openness and generosity as young local-music lovers in the early 2000s who noticed that's not the way it was. "It seemed like there were a lot of little cliques and no one cared about anything outside of their clique," says Anderson, his perception doubtlessly focused by being a kid in the public school system. "We would go to the local music section and check out everything. It's been cool to see those boundaries dissolving over the last few years. That is something I've tried to nurture."
Anderson is understating the case. Trekky's efforts have been a driving force in the integration of disparate local music niches. And for their efforts, they can tap into a vast reservoir of gladly owed favors to make their small, spur-of-the-moment festival happen. At the risk of romanticism, TRKfest is a throwback to decades-past festival culture, where you got a bunch of people in a field somewhere to find out what might happen.
"It's not trying to be another rat race festival," Anderson says over a weather-crackled cell phone connection. "We're not trying to start something like Coachella. We've talked about having it be a whole weekend at different venues, but for our purposes, an awesome summer lawn party works better. We like the spontaneous stuff that can happen—like the dance contest, which was a time-filler the first year that took off in a way we never expected."
Sure, there are payoffs. The odd blend of Trekky and non-Trekky acts means that all the bands get exposed to new audiences—and a band little known in the Triangle, like Charlotte's excellent Yardwork, earns a local credibility boost from Trekky's stamp of approval. But these happy side effects don't seem calculated; like everything else, they stem from the inclusive ideals of Trekky's founders.
"Not that we're saints or anything, but Martin and I just do what comes naturally: be nice, help out. But I think a lot of people in this scene can be surprised at how embracing we are of everything," says Hackney. "That's important to us. We'll never let this get so big that it doesn't feel like a family having a good day together."
"Of course," he adds with a cagey smile, "that doesn't mean we're not going to try to make that family as big as possible."