This article appears in the July 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
The captain, JK McKnight, is thinking about his ship. “The ship,” he wonders. “Does it mean anything to anybody but me?” It’s a late-March evening, and McKnight has invited some friends to the one-bedroom loft cottage where he lives off River Road. He refers to the others gathered here as his “event trust” and admits that nickname is lamer than “Camp Captain,” which is what he’s nicknamed this place. He has mounted the replica of a four-mast vessel to the loft’s railing, and a skipper’s spoked wheel dominates the mantel above the fireplace. The ship in question is the logo, “the mascot,” for the Forecastle Festival, a music event he started 10 years ago and named after the part of the bow used to quarter sailors. Last summer it pulled some 30,000 people to Louisville over three days. This is what’s on McKnight’s mind, tonight and always.
He recently returned from a five-day trip to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, a music-movie-interactive-everything festival where he attended a bunch of panel discussions and concerts and pumped his head with so many ideas that they practically blast from his ears like water from a blown fire hydrant. The group on the leather couches — people with experience at Maker’s Mark, Fourth Street Live and the venue Headliners — includes Eric McCauley, who is here because he’s a huge music fan. “I just want to hook Eric up to some probes and see what gets him excited,” McKnight says. One suggestion is that McKnight should post thoughts on Forecastle’s website, which would be perfect if people wanted to read a weekly manifesto. A sampling of other conversation topics: giving a contest winner Forecastle tickets for life, a Forecastle iPhone app, Forecastle’s YouTube content. Holly Weyler, McKnight’s girlfriend, is on the carpet banging out notes on her MacBook. When one guy actually says, “You should be all over QR codes” — those weird-looking icons your smartphone can scan — the water surges from the captain’s ears.
One of McKnight’s dozen or so fedoras hides the curly shrub atop his head, a few white hairs mixed in with the brown. He turned 30 a couple of weeks ago, celebrated with a party at Headliners, and is going through, he says, “a transitional year.” AC Entertainment, the company that throws several music festivals, including the country’s highest-regarded, Bonnaroo, presented McKnight with an offer he couldn’t refuse and hired him as its first management employee not living in Knoxville, Tenn. By the February press conference announcing the partnership, there wasn’t enough time to pull off a Forecastle Louisvillians have come to expect. So this year, scheduled for July 15 at the Wharf at Waterfront Park, it’s going to be about “eight times” smaller and called Halfway to Forecastle, which has traditionally been held in the winter. The 10th-anniversary bash will happen in July 2012. “I don’t want to say Halfway is a placeholder,” McKnight says, “but it could be perceived that way.”
Soon, Weyler chimes in. “JK told me to keep time, and we’re way over,” she says. Before moving on to discuss potential Halfway headliners, he shares a story about a South by Southwest panel with two Microsoft executives. “They said you have to stop working nights and weekends and get a life,” says McKnight, who’s been doing Forecastle full time since 2005.
“I’ll be happy when you apply that to your life,” Weyler says.
“I think I’m actually solving a lot of problems in my head when I’m sleeping,” he says. “The past two nights I’ve woken up at 5 a.m. and figured out something that had been on my mind.”
Weyler lives with McKnight at Camp Captain and is used to “JK time,” of course, knowing that he keeps a blanket and pillow near his computer so he can curl into a ball beneath his desk at 4 a.m., then open his eyes three hours later and get back to work. When Weyler jokingly offered to build him a cot up in the loft, he said, “It’s supposed to be uncomfortable.”
On his front porch a few days later, a crisp March breeze rolls in from the field that McKnight refers to as “the tundra.” In the gravel driveway is the 1991 Toyota Previa that a friend spray-painted in 2006 with Forecastle imagery: the festival’s name, waves, a setting sun’s orange sky. Its license plate reads CAPT JK, and the sliding door is missing a handle, which is fine because he wants to replace the minivan sometime soon anyway with a biodiesel vehicle that feeds on restaurant cooking-oil waste. He rents this house, where he’s been living since January 2010, from Christy and Owsley Brown, who own all the acreage. Christy Brown and McKnight became friends after going on a mountaintop-removal tour together, and when she caught wind that he was looking for somewhere to live, she emailed and asked, “Do you like greenery?”
With Ray-Bans hiding his eyes, McKnight says the first Forecastle, at Tyler Park in 2002, featured “a PA on a stick” and six bands. “And I think Stephen George and I were in two of them,” he says. (George, the former LEO editor, vaguely recalls smashing a bass guitar and dragging its remains to McKnight’s parents’ home nearby.) McKnight estimates that maybe 50 people showed up, but photos put the number at half that, maybe. He paid the total cost of $1,000 out of his own pocket.
The next year McKnight added an art component and the crowd grew. It swelled some more the following July. “It started to gain momentum, and he just wouldn’t let it go,” George says. “I think he had this idea for Forecastle all along, but nobody really knew what he wanted to do because he would never fully share what his vision was.” The venue changed to Cherokee Park, then to the Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center, which was the first time Forecastle sold tickets. Investors came on board in 2007, the same year the riverfront became Forecastle’s permanent home. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., as part of an “activism” element, spoke at the festival in 2008, when it expanded to three days. McKnight partnered with concert juggernaut Nederlander the following year. “I’d taken it as far as I could on my own,” he says. “It’s strange when it goes from becoming something that’s so sacred to you, so grassroots and so pure, to every other person feeling like they own part of it.” Last year’s budget was more than $1 million and put some 100 bands onstage at Waterfront Park, including headliners the Flaming Lips, Smashing Pumpkins and Widespread Panic.
McKnight had emailed AC Entertainment’s founder, Ashley Capps, a few times over the years and reached out again last fall, setting up a meeting in Knoxville. “I wanted a partner that had built something like I had built,” McKnight says. “Going there was like venturing through a mountain and coming across this village of JKs.” He made a presentation, chronicled Forecastle’s history through stories and photos. “JK talked about how Forecastle had evolved over the years and shared a lot about his vision for what the festival was and what it could be in the future,” Capps says.
Says McKnight: “One of the things I like about Ashley is that you can come up with any idea — as crazy as you might think it is — and you can propose it and it can happen.”
He was put in charge of a new sponsorship department not long after that meeting and began to split time between Kentucky and Tennessee, where he started spending three or four nights every other week in a Knoxville bed-and-breakfast called the Maplehurst. Breaking the news that he’d need to put the 10th Forecastle on hold was not easy. “I was pretty nervous but thought people would understand why we couldn’t do a normal Forecastle this summer. Five months just wasn’t enough time. I had to put the brakes on it,” McKnight says. “I was hoping that the news networks wouldn’t plaster ‘Forecastle cancelled’ everywhere, which is what a lot of them did.
“You wish everybody could see your big picture. But it’s human nature. People get used to something being every year, something growing, something being exciting, and they don’t think beyond that.”
McKnight’s parents both say their son, born John Kelly, is “a bit of a loner.” A story his mother, Ellen, recounts took place when McKnight was in pre-school. During free time, while other children stacked blocks or played with LEGOs, McKnight would turn on a faucet and stare at the steady stream. Though he always liked water — he’d eventually swim and dive competitively — his teachers couldn’t figure it out. His father, Kelly, prefers a funny story from when his son was in second or third grade and he took the boy to his first concert: the Grateful Dead at Freedom Hall. The marijuana smoke buzzed the boy to the point that, when they returned home and it was bedtime, he proceeded to walk directly into a wall.
The house McKnight grew up in was on Windsor Place. His front yard was Tyler Park or, in his words, “Frederick’s smallest park,” a nod to its designer, Frederick Law Olmsted. Musically, he first loved the Beach Boys, then Guns N’ Roses (Slash’s guitar solos in particular), Nirvana and Pearl Jam. (A signed Pearl Jam gig poster from his first date with Weyler hangs at Camp Captain.) He picked up a guitar before he was a teenager and soon could play by ear. By 18, about the time he graduated near the top of his class at St. Xavier, he was recording albums. There was a band called Jake and the Rubberband — Stephen George was in that group — and, later, the Vixen Red, who put out a CD titled Sunrise and Nightfall and the Equestrian Sea. In 2004, he released a self-titled album and cooked up a publicity stunt to play a coffee shop on Bardstown Road for 28 straight days. He lasted a little more than two weeks.
After two years at three different schools — College of Charleston in South Carolina, Bellarmine University and the University of Louisville, where he was briefly on a pre-med path — McKnight dropped out because he says he had extinguished all the music business, poetry and fiction classes at his disposal. Moving in with his parents after being on his own in Charleston depressed him, though, to the point that he found himself listening to the Who’s Quadrophenia on repeat. “I felt totally disconnected. It was the loneliest year of my life,” McKnight says. “The first Forecastle was a way to bring my friends together, and that was it. That’s how pure the original thought was.” In succeeding years he wouldn’t focus on the festival until his neighbors went on vacation each spring. That’s when McKnight would watch their four dogs and start planning, in their house, without distraction. “Mention Forecastle and his brain switches and he’s in JK world,” his father says. “You might as well not talk to him because his mind is off somewhere else.”
McKnight did plenty of odd jobs to get by early on. “I figured out ways to subsidize everything,” he says. “One year, I looked at bank statements and realized I’d lived the whole year off $4,000 or something.” He’d move back in with his parents, then in with some buddies. On 23rd and Rowan streets, he, a friend named Drew Wilson and another guy lived rent-free while fixing up a dilapidated Victorian mansion and surviving on a steady diet of Miller High Life and Ramen noodles.
One of the things that ultimately turned Forecastle into a full-time gig was the death of Wilson, McKnight’s best friend, who was fatally injured in a rock-climbing accident in 2005. “I felt like I didn’t have anybody anymore with their arm around me, nobody guiding me at all,” McKnight says. “It felt like something pushed me into the forefront at that moment, and I had to accept more of a leadership role in my life. I just decided to go for it.”
McKnight says he “learned how to cut up cities” while working as a field coordinator during one of U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth’s political campaigns. That’s coming in handy on this May afternoon because he and some volunteers are hanging hundreds of the 4,000 Halfway to Forecastle posters that McKnight had printed up, with the top-billed acts of Big Boi, from OutKast, and Pretty Lights, an electronic artist. There’s also a planned DJ after-party at the Ice House downtown. In all, McKnight is hoping to sell some 5,000 tickets. “In a perfect world,” he says, “there would be a poster in every window.”
Years ago, it was Guitar Emporium that gave McKnight his first sponsorship check. He once worked there, too, so he stops in to chat and drop off some posters. He does the same thing at Leatherhead, where Lynn Boone wrote him his second check, then got on the horn and told other Bardstown Road businesses to follow suit.
Inside Old Town Liquors, McKnight strikes up a conversation with Lynn Fischer and hands her a couple of posters for the party she’s hosting to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her brother’s mayoral primary victory. “Good to see you out still doing this work,” she says to McKnight. Mayor Fischer, it’s worth pointing out, put McKnight on three of his subcommittees and on his transition team. Over the phone, Fischer says he organized shows at Vanderbilt University — including Bob Marley’s final performance in December 1979 — and made it a point to meet McKnight. “JK looks at the world in a different way,” Fischer says. “He has a very broad imagination and is not constrained by thinking about why things won’t work.”
“You are about to see inside something very few people have seen inside of,” McKnight says. It’s June, around dusk, and he’s upstairs in the greenish-carpeted loft, opening a trunk that contains memories from his days when he still had time to be a musician, when he was playing bars, community centers, Summerfest in Milwaukee. There are microcassettes and CDs and notebooks filled with lyrics, poetry and short stories.
He had to rescue most of this stuff several years back from the studio he had in the basement of Distillery Commons, which flooded. A guy who ran a repair shop also rented space there. “All of my stuff, it was in this chamber, submerged in a mixture of water, gasoline, oil, sewage,” McKnight says. “We went in there with gas masks on to rescue everything.” He ran clothesline in his parents’ back yard, hung it all out to dry and was able to save almost everything. He interpreted it as a sign that dedicating his time to Forecastle was the right thing to do.
With a bottle of Pacifico beer in hand, he makes his way to the front porch, which is where McKnight prefers to be interviewed. From here, you can see the lonely metal glider in the yard where McKnight likes to sit and think. His girlfriend’s dog, a mutt named Dexter, brings a toy to McKnight, who tosses it into the grass near the unlit Tiki torches. On this night, once he gets talking, he prefers standing to relaxing in one of the wooden chairs. When asked about a fedora hanging inside on the nub at the end of the staircase’s banister, McKnight says it was Wilson’s, which seems to get him thinking about Forecastle and life. “Holly has really helped me try to find a balance,” he says. “Throughout my 20s, my priorities were always about work. I was aging like a president and had blinders on, which on one side was good because it was that drive that got things as far as it did as fast as it did. But at the same time, what you lose is that whole part of being human. You have to be so careful. Because there are people that never stop. I don’t want that to be me.
“I have a totally different life now than when I was 20,” he adds. “A lot of people have the same expectations that I’m just going to continue down the same road indefinitely. I love Forecastle. But sometimes it feels like you’ve built a castle around you. Eventually you’re like, damn, I built those walls really high.”
He checks the time. McKnight was supposed to meet his family at Cliftons Pizza at 9 p.m., which was about 10 minutes ago. That’s JK time. They’re going to discuss their RV trip down to Bonnaroo, where his girlfriend, father, some friends, his sister and her husband, and maybe even his mother will be among the 80,000 in attendance. In the car on the way to Cliftons, McKnight says he has a 70-page formula — part of which came to him in a dream — for Forecastle’s 10th anniversary. But he also mentions a folder on his computer’s desktop, this one titled “future.” It contains other festival concepts, four book ideas, a film script loosely based on Forecastle.
“There are so many other things I want to do. With Forecastle, there’s a danger in holding on to something so tight and thinking that if you let go it’s all going to go to hell,” McKnight says. “It’s kind of like raising a child. Eventually he becomes a man and moves out and does his own thing.”
When asked if he could really envision a Forecastle he’s not as involved in, McKnight says, “I can now. I totally can. And I couldn’t have done that maybe even a year ago.”
As the car parks in front of Cliftons, McKnight talks about how this story should end. He decides spending some time with him at Bonnaroo would make the most sense. “It’d be a nice conclusion because I haven’t really been to a festival on that scale, never in my whole life,” he says. “It’ll really open my eyes to what’s possible.”
Photo courtesy of: John Nation