Exclusive Interview: Ken Hays, Founder of Gathering of the Vibes Festival

Exclusive Interview: Ken Hays, Founder of Gathering of the Vibes Festival

The uplifting 4 day annual music festival that celebrates the spirit of The Grateful Dead while channelling positive vibes from around the nation

Thursday, June 20th, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Tess Gruenberg

In 1996, Ken Hays founded Gathering of the Vibes, a music festival that celebrates the music of The Grateful Dead by showcasing a diverse mix of musicians and fostering a community of people who love music. Sparked by the death of Jerry Garcia, Hays organized a memorial for Garcia and the spirit of the Grateful Dead, aptly named Dead Head Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe. It was met with such amazing energy that they decided to continue this tradition. Changing the name to Gathering of the Vibes, Hays, from there on out, would devote his life to creating an environment where the Dead Head and music lovers of the world could come and enjoy music together. The community of this festival, otherwise known as “The Vibe Tribe” has created a tradition and collective love for this annual celebration that knows no bounds.

Past acts have featured: James Brown, STS9, The Allman Brothers Band, Crosby, Stills and Nash, all founding members of the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Cliff, Primus, Damian Marley and Nas.

The Gathering of the Vibes is celebrating their eighteenth year at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT on July 25-28. The line up includes: Phil Lesh, Gov’t Mule, John Butler Trio, The Roots, and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, and many, many more.

Check out the exclusive interview with Ken Hays:

The fact that you’ve been honoring the Grateful Dead spirit for years with such a huge celebration illustrates the deep connection you much have with this spirit. Can you take me through your history you have with the Grateful Dead. What makes the spirit of The Grateful Dead so unbelievable?
Well, my first show was Brendan Byrn Arena in New Jersey in November, 1985. I subsequently attended 350+ Grateful Dead concerts. After my first Dead show, I was musically captured and then when I found out The Grateful Dead allowed their fans to record their concerts live, I was really intrigued. On a musical side, the sound was such that it was so crystal clear. You could pick out Phil Lesh on bass and Bob Weir on the rhythm guitar and every band member sounded so clear. That was the first time I really tuned in to really hear the individual musicianship and the collective of the band. With Jerry’s vocals and guitar work weaving in and out, it was incredibly inspiring. I started collecting live concerts tapes and it was amazing to me how each show was uniquely different. The jams would take you to places far and wide. After Jerry died, and when Mayor Giuliani said no to a gathering in Central Park, similar to that which they had in Golden Gate Park to celebrate the life of Jerry Garcia and the music of the Grateful Dead, myself and a bunch of friends got together and said alright let’s do this ourselves.

What was the exact moment (if there was one) where you realized that you wanted to continue this tradition of memorializing The Dead Head spirit?
During Dead Head Heaven, moe. were performing the main stage during sunset. Bob Kennedy and I were looking at these 3,500 beautiful faces and all the tents as the sun set and we said, ‘We have to continue this thing.’ It was clear that the Dead Head community wanted to continue to have the opportunity to come together and celebrate life.

You have a serious diversity in your line up and you have had that diversity ever since you started. Does the vibe of the festival change every year because of that? Or does it stay the same?
I think it does. The core is with the jam community but it’s important to keep mixing things up and bringing in new blood and creative energies and artistic art forms of all type.

Describe ‘The Vibe Tribe’ in one word.
Love. The love that Vibe Tribe has for live music and for spending time with friends and family is unparalleled.

Why do you think people have this undeniable connection to celebrating music together? Starting from Woodstock, how would you say the music festival scene has evolved?
The music festivals around the world are all thriving. We live in a very unsettled world and with huge stresses. To be able to get away and to take a step back and to reflect on all the good we have to offer both individually and collectively is so important because it’s really easy to get sucked into the 24 hour news cycle and to not see the beautiful things we have to celebrate. If we celebrate them together, that’s when the magic happens.

How do you differentiate yourself from the commercial festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Lollapallooza?
Honestly, what differentiates Vibes from almost every other music festival out there is our demographic. Last year, we had over 2,000 children under the age of 15 that camped out with their parents at Seaside Park. We have tons of cool interactive kids activities. To see these kids tuning into something other than video games is something that the Vibe Tribe take great pride in. A camping festival brings on a totally different dynamic. Bonnaroo is a right of passage for most kids, and that’s okay, that’s almost a beautiful thing. It’s something that they’ll never forget. One of those Kodak moments. Bonnaroo’s demographic is 18-25. We’re 25-35. We all rise and fall together in the festival business. We all support each other.

Why do you think this demographic is so important?
For parents and their kids to all be on the same level together and playing together is incredibly meaningful and it’s something we take really seriously. We don’t underestimate the power of those bonding experiences because those are the positive vibes that we’re looking for.

There has definitely been a rise in popularity of music festivals, especially for college kids. Why do you think that is?
It’s a great value to see so many bands at such a reasonable price point. There’s a lot of negativity in our world and we all need to take a step back and listen to the music.

When did you start feeling that it was necessary to start adding in the electronic music scene in the lineup?
From the beginning, we’ve had an incredible sense of diversity. Jerry had a love of all music, his first love of music was Blue Grass. Diversity is king. To have James Murphy from LCD do late night sets on Saturday is amazing. I mean these guys were the seed in which the EDM scene started to blossom. To get kids engaged and inspired with music of all types is incredibly powerful. That’s what we’re trying to do. Bring positive vibes, share them with friends, take them home and spread them even further.

How has the rise of technology affected the Gathering of the Vibes?
Back in 1989, the first online social media was established in San Francisco called The Well, which was made up primarily Grateful Dead fans. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg thinks that Facebook was the first social media platform but it wasn’t. It was The Well. Thousands of Dead Heads would communicate and trade stories. The Gathering of the Vibes has an incredibly active message board. If we have a year where we screw something up, people will call us out on it. I’m all about transparency and honesty. I really don’t like an ‘us vs. them.’ We’re all in this thing together. It’s important for us to grow and better ourselves together and technology has helped that.

Why was 2000 your favorite festival?
It was the first time a member of a Grateful Dead performed and that was Bob Weir. It was a nod that we were doing the right thing. It was extraordinary. All of us in attendance knew that there was more to come.

Whats new for the 2013 Vibes?
We have a silent disco on the beach until sunrise every morning. We also have a larger Ferris wheel. Nothing radically is going to change. We’re encouraging more boaters to come. Seaside park is gorgeous. We’ve got a really good model that always requires tweaks and changes to keep it fresh and creative. Based on ticket sales and where we’re at, it looks like we’ll have a full house this year so I’m looking forward to welcoming everyone to Seaside Park.