Curators of Cool: Middle of the Map Turns 5
KC's version of South by Southwest festival offers cutting-edge music, film and forums this April, including headliners OK Go, Iron & Wine, Lord Huron, The Republic Tigers.
The Republic Tigers
Back in 2012 Chris Haghirian and Nathan Reusch were preparing to pitch their year-old Middle of the Map Fest, featuring local and national music, films and forums, to Kansas City’s Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund in the hopes of scoring financial support. Knowing they’d only have five minutes to make their case, the pressure was on. “We were going through receipts of tickets sales from the 2012 festival,” recalls Haghirian, “and realized that we had pre-orders from people in 37 different states and three countries. When we told that to the funding committee their jaws hit the table.” The Development Fund has supported the fest ever since.
Now in its fifth year, and having drawn 10,000 attendees to last years event, the festival’s music portion has expanded to four days and will feature more than 120 local, regional and national bands from April 23- 25.
The two co-founders met in 2010 after repeatedly finding themselves at the same shows. As Haghirian tells it, “We met, I can still remember it, and Reusch just said: ‘Hey, uh, you wanna start a music festival?” Exactly 360 days after that conversation the first Middle of the Map Fest took place.
“Nathan has a record label called The Record Machine and the idea was to bring in people from out of town like Daniel Johnston or Two Door Cinema Club and package his great KC bands like Cowboy Indian Bear or Soft Reeds alongside them,” says Haghirian, as they consult their laptops at the Westport Coffee House, passing phones back and forth with texts from bands and bookers.
“We wanted to put together this great package that appealed to the masses and stack it with the musicians who we go out and see every week,” continues Reusch. “And the hope is you’ll fall in love with new people when you’re out seeing a band you know. For somebody to come see a band that they have no idea even existed — and leave the festival feeling that was your favorite moment — that’s what we want.”
In early 2012 the band Fun had been booked to headline the festival and by the time they reached Middle of the Map their single “We Are Young” was at the top of the charts. “It was like winning the lottery,” Haghirian says. “We’ve had pretty good luck guessing talent.”
This year the headliners perform at the Uptown Theater on the first two nights with OK Go and The Republic Tigers taking the stage on Wednesday. Thursday night it’s Iron & Wine, Strand of Oaks and Kansas City’s Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, who recently performed on The Late Show with David Letterman.
On Friday and Saturday Middle of the Map moves into venues throughout Westport: two stages at the Riot Room, Westport Saloon, Record Bar, Ernie Biggs, an outdoor stage and a new addition, the performance space at Mills Record Company.
“When we started this we thought that, since we have friends who own venues, we want to help them and fill those rooms to make this thing happen. We live in venues,” continues Haghirian, who saw 735 music sets in 2014. “What’s important to us is getting somebody to go to a place like, say, recordBar, where they’ve never been before, like the place, the food, and then come back as part of their social life.” The fest has since expanded to include film and other media, forums and the attendant parties that go with this scene. This year’s local music acts include La Guerre (see our profile in this issue), Jorge Arana Trio, Murder by Death and Clawhammer.
Reusch is quick to note the sprawl of Kansas City and his desire to use Middle of the Map as a way to get people from the metro together. “I grew up in south Johnson County and I met people from all over through hearing music. I want somebody from Independence who might not normally meet somebody from Overland Park to come together here. We are very much by Kansas City for Kansas City.”
As the festival continues to expand, the need for resources has intensified. “It costs a fortune to put this thing on,” says Haghirian, “so, naturally, we have to go to sponsors. But we are very selective about that.” Local is important to Middle of the Map. Ink Magazine, Sporting KC, the Royals and Boulevard Brewing Co. have all joined in. Even Applebee’s, headquartered at 95th Street and Ward Parkway, who’ve made a point of featuring local Boulevard taps in all its metro restaurants, became a sponsor. “For all of these people to step up and join our team, we are really lucky.”
Another major force is local radio station 90.9 The Bridge, who recently launched Eight One Sixty, a weekly show featuring local music hosted by Haghirian on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. Both the broadcast and archived shows are furthering the goal of getting area music out to the public. Haghirian notes that music critic Tim Finn recently blogged about the trend to patronize local restaurants and local businesses but how that doesn’t seem to spill over to local music. “Maybe it’s the word “local” so I hashtag KC bands,” he continues, “After all, these are members of the community trying to make a living like the rest of us and Middle of the Map is a way to bring them to everyone’s attention.”
Reusch seconds the sentiment: “There is so much pride in this town right now. We’re hoping people can get as excited about our music as they do our sports teams.
“You can put this on my grave,” laughs Haghirian. “We just want to do cool stuff.”
Middle of the Map runs through April. The film festival is April 8-12, the art, culture &technology forum runs April 16-17 and the music festival is April 22-25. A four-day music pass is $75. More info, including music samples and the full lineup can be found at middleofthemapfest.com.
Guaranteed Blasts at Middle of the Map
The Grisly Hand – This is American music, blending a clear love for classic country with roots rock and a whip-smart sense of humor. Their soulful harmonies take the edge off the ironic lyrics taking them into truly emotional territory. Always a crowd pleaser, always surprising, always evolving, they’re a band not to be missed.
Katy Guillen and the Girls – It’s no surprise that this blues-influenced rock trio were finalists in 2014’s International Blues Challenge. Powered by Stephanie Williams driving drum beats and Clair Adams’ pulsing bass lines, Katy Guillen’s guitar licks make this band soar. How three people can make this much music will astound you and the vocal harmonies are simply superb.
Peelander-Z - These intergalactic alien comic book punk warriors make their shows as much about the audience as themselves. Their last appearance at Middle of the Map packed the venue as audience members found themselves involved in “human bowling” while band member “Yellow” crowd surfed. Their high energy music is infectious and their ability to engage the crowd must be seen to be believed. You’ll leave smiling.
The Philistines – This six piece rock band has an enormous sound that absolutely permeates the audience wherever they play. Their tightly crafted, pop-influenced songs leave ample room for unexpected musical turns and vocal surprises from lead singer Kimmie Queen. Their sound manages to evoke a psychedelic past while feeling fresh and immediate. These guys rock it.