LOCKN’ Festival co-founder David Frey has spent the last few decades making the music scene a better place for everyone. As a promoter, he’s booked thousands of shows and helped invigorate the festival scene with his other biggest claim to fame, the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, an event that featured bands like Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, and a little band out of Vermont called Phish. With his credentials firmly established, Frey has the freedom to work on projects that he cares about, and LOCKN’ is clearly a labor of love for the industry veteran.

Our own Rex Thomson had a chance to talk with Frey about his past, the state of LOCKN’ and the craziest possible on-stage mash ups possible. Enjoy!

Live For Live Music: You have a great “Everything happens for a reason” origin story for your career as a promoter. I understand it all started for you thanks to your band’s equipment getting stolen…is that correct?

Dave Frey: Yeah. We had a van and all our equipment got stolen out of it. A local club was having a benefit for us and nobody was doing anything to promote it so I gave away some tickets at the local radio station and did fliers and stuff like that. The show ended up selling out.

The night of the show the guy who booked bands for the club wasn’t there, but the owner was. He asked me if I could book his club for a week or two until he found a real booker. And I just never…I just never looked back I guess.

L4LM: Do you ever look back and wish you had stuck with the music career?

DF: No, not really. Like everything, it all comes down to talent, timing and luck. I wouldn’t say I was THAT talented, but I was capable. I certainly hadn’t had the timing or luck yet…there’s also lot of perseverance involved in making it as well.

I like playing, I still do it for fun and to make my kids laugh. But I found I really enjoyed putting together shows as a promoter. That’s how I got started on this side of the business. Then I transitioned into being a talent agent. When I moved to New York, I got into the talent agent side for a while. Then I went back into promoting and got to work with Ron Delsener and Bill Graham. Then I became a manager and represented a few bands…I still do that.

And then I got the call from my old buddy Pete Shapiro and he said he wanted to start something…and Lockn’ came from that.

L4LM: You dropped a couple of amazing names with Ron Delsener and the Bill Graham a moment ago. How did you manage to work the two of the biggest promoters in the country?

DF: I guess, like I said earlier, you just persevere until timing and luck arrive. I think it’s the same in any profession. That’s what happened to me, anyway. I was working really hard. It was all I was doing, all day. I was just persevering for awhile and then Ron Delsener noticed me and gave me a job as the junior booker, booking all the smaller bands for the clubs.

And then…some of those little bands got big REALLY fast. That was bands like Nine Inch Nails, the Black Crowes…hell…GWAR. GWAR was pretty big in New York. That was my job. When I worked for Ron, I booked about 500 shows a year.

That’s more than I could cover myself. I mean…that’s more shows than there are days in a year. There were nights when I would hit 2 or 3 shows in a night. Blues Traveler, Phish…those were bands I was booking at that point as well. I got them early.

L4LM: Those last two bands you mentioned, Blues Traveler and Phish, they were part of the beginning of the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) Festival you helped found, right?

DF: Yeah, I was working for John Popper and Blues Traveler at that point. There was a meeting where we called together five bands that we knew who hadn’t been able to book fair sized summer tours. We just said “Listen…there is strength in numbers. Let’s try going out together.”

It was all very organic and it actually all did start off with one big meeting. We got together in the old Bill Graham offices after Bill had passed. We were shuttering the offices and getting the building ready to sell. It was a sad time, but we all got together in the back room. Trey (Anastasio), Chris Baron, John Bell, Col. Bruce Hampton and everybody else and we all just said “Yeah, let’s do this!” It all came out of that one moment.

But when it came to who was going to be liable, or who was going to write a check if the thing lost money everybody said “Oh, well that’s not us.” That ended up being John Popper and I. That is how we ended up owning it.

L4LM: Let’s talk Lockn’. The fest is built around the concept of never letting the music end. Are you just anti-sleep?

DF: No, definitely not. It’s more…we…and this goes back to H.O.R.D.E and what Pete [Shapiro] used to do at The Wetlands. We would have these back-to-back sets where Traveler and Panic, or Traveler and the Doctors would put their gear up at the same time and it was seamless. It would be say Spin Doctors for a hour, then Blues Traveler for an hour…and that would go on for six hours. That happened at Wetlands all the time. Pete would always encourage that.

That carried over to when we started H.O.R.D.E. That first year we just put everybody on the same stage, but the second year we started carrying a second stage. So the music would go between two stages, but we never had two stages playing at the same time. It’s a personal preference. It makes the event more music-centric, to me.

If you don’t like the band playing, it’s hard to escape them. If you aren’t digging a band there isn’t another stage to run to and check out something else. Invariably there is a band you like less than the others though, and that’s when we figure people will go get a beer or hit their camp sites perhaps.

We only have one band at a time, and I think the bands appreciate it too. If they’re playing this nice mellow song and they get to a real quiet part, you won’t hear, say, Primus rocking out over the hill, y’know? It’s more respectful I think. That’s just something we like and that we are going to continue.

You don’t find that at a lot of other people’s shows. There’s these conflicts you get when bands are playing at the same time. You can only check out half of one or half of the other. Also, it makes it so we have fewer bands. We don’t have 150 bands like some festivals. We only have 25 or 30 bands, tops. So it’s a lot more focused on the music, purposefully.

We’ve been told that we should capitalize on the interest we’ve garnered and book a whole new slew of late night acts to draw in another huge segment of audience, but that’s not what WE want to do. We want to focus on rock and jam bands and let people really focus on the bands without any distractions.

L4LM: You folks have managed to consistently top yourselves each year. Do you ever worry about making something so wonderful it can’t be beat?

DF: Oh yeah, we do. But we have to just keep trying to raise the bar…or sometimes you have to realize there are different kinds of bars. This year is a very different year for us, and not intentionally. We have a lot of alumni bands who have different plans this year.

Widespread Panic decided they wanted to play this market on their own, and not be with a bunch of other bands. String Cheese decided they wanted to play somewhere else. We’ve heard from some people who have said, “Hey, it’s not the same as it was.” And we’ve said, “Nope, it’s not. But we still hope you’ll like it, because these are still bands that we like a lot.”

For all the hits and misses you have when you do something like this, in the end Pete and I are basically working towards making the shows that we’d like to see. The hope is that other people will want to see that show because…well…that is what makes it work. And that gives it a distinct personality.

There’s a lot of festivals that have pretty similar line ups, and if you switched the names around people might not be able to tell. I think our show stands out, because we’re booking it. It’s just us. And that gives it a flavor, a personality that you just might not find at other shows.

L4LM: This year you are bringing the kings of the jam band world, Phish, to the farm for two nights. How long has that been in the works?

DF: Four years. It was a hard get. Phish rarely play events that aren’t Phish specific and we’re happy to have them with us this year.

L4LM: Any hints you can give us about possible Phish-y collaborations?

DF: Not yet. We’re letting that come from them, and they’re still thinking.

L4LM: Speaking of collaborations, one of the hallmarks of Lockn’ is the incredible combinations you’ve pulled off, like Fogerty with Widespread, Carlos Santana as one of Phil Lesh’s Friends and the incredible Joe Cocker set that I’ve listened to a hundred times. How much fun is it to make your musical mash up dreams come true?

DF: When it happens, it’s great! The thing about it is…it always starts as a suggestion. You just gotta ask. Some of the best collaboration ideas I’ve ever had and pitched to bands has gotten an “Absolutely not!” and then a click. But, like I always say…if you don’t ask you don’t know…that’s what I always say.

Then somebody says yes, and it’s gets wild. Widespread Panic says yes to playing with John Fogerty and I’m like “Great! Now I gotta go talk John Fogerty into it!” That wasn’t easy either. Hopefully it is a signature thing that we can keep continuing. It’s so satisfying when it happens but for all the times it doesn’t happen..from our stand point..it’s just really challenging.

People say “But you only book one show a year…” We try and really curate every little detail that we can.

L4LM: One last thing on the topic of collaborations…I know you don’t want to spoil any potential future surprises, but do you take suggestions?

DF: Sure. All the time. You got one?

L4LM: Oh yes! Our site ran an April Fools joke announcement of a GWAR-Sting Cheese set that had people disappointed to find out it wasn’t real. So maybe we could get that to happen?

DF: It’s funny because I was GWAR’s first promoter in New York and I got to know Dave really well before he passed. They’re really very cool people. They might be into it…they live in Richmond. They might be into it. They really haven’t played much as GWAR since Dave passed. They host the GWAR-B-Q where they get a lot of metal bands and meat. It’s barbecue and metal.

L4LM: That sounds incredible!

DF: Yeah, they get like 5-7,000 people who come out to it. I think if we ever got it to happen, String Cheese would have to be in effigy because they’re gonna end up decapitated or put through a cheese grater or something…

L4LM: A String Cheese grater! That’s perfect! You just figured out the big finale!

DF: It’s something I would have liked to see. I know Cheese likes GWAR, and I think they liked the idea because they reposted the link, I believe.

L4LM: Beyond the incredible line-up, Lockn’ has, from what I’ve heard, the most amazing VIP upgrade values available. With so much competition for festival dollars, how important is providing upgrades like these?

DF: I think all of it is important, no matter what ticket people buy. I seldom get to see any of my own show until I watch the playback afterwards because during it I am concerned with everything that happens from the lip of the stage forward making the customers experience as good as it can be. We’ve been really challenged these last couple years with growing pains in areas like parking, and then the bad weather last year that forced us to stop the show for a bit.

The VIP part of the festival is run by CID and we are partnered with them. Basically, 8-10 percent of our audience goes VIP, depending on the year. The big draw for it seems to be location. You’re basically camped right next to the music.

But again, to us, all of it is important. We work to make forest camping special, to make car camping special and so on. I think we had to do a lot of stuff that ended up being a little more cookie cutter than we would have liked last year, but that was all due to the weather. We had to rebuild the festival in like 16 hours, and our amazing crew pulled it off somehow, but that meant we had to let some other things go, sadly.

I think the customer experience is really the most important thing, whatever level, and we try our hardest to make it the best possible.

L4LM: Any message for the thousands and thousands of eager fans counting down the minutes to the first notes of Lockn’?

DF: Well…the only message I have is thank you! We’re looking forward to seeing you all and we hope you all have a great time!

L4LM: Thanks for taking some time to talk to us and for the magic you’ve helped create over the decades. We can’t wait for Lockn’!

DF: Thanks so much!

[Photos by Dave Vann and Sam Shinault as indicated]