Los Angeles-based musician Lola Jean, who records under the name Death Hags, is talking about the last time she was at the Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival in Hot Springs. It was 2009, and she was with her former band, Detective.
"Everybody was so nice," she says. "They had really cool volunteers and they took good care of you. I like that festival a lot, the people and the setting make it really nice. I'm from the mountains, so I like nature and I like that it's in a [national] park."
Jean, who grew up in the French Alps near the Italian border and who makes hazy, trance-like dance music, kicks off the 15th annual festival at 6 p.m. Friday at Low Key Arts. She is among the more than 40 acts that will perform at Low Key, Maxine's, The Big Chill and at secret locations across the Spa City during the festival, which ends Monday.
In many ways, Jean is the quintessential artist for Valley of the Vapors, which was started to attract diverse, independent musicians coming and going from the gargantuan South by Southwest Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas. She leaves for a show there the day after her Valley of the Vapors set.
The homey Hot Springs setting, she says, is a "nice contrast" to the South by Southwest crowds.
Anna Mernieks, singer and banjo player in the Canadian six-piece Beams, is also returning to Valley of the Vapors. Unlike Jean, though, she and her band aren't going to Austin but have instead built a small tour around their Hot Springs stop.
"We knew we were going to play Valley of the Vapors, so we planned a little tour around it," she says from on the road between Windsor and Toronto.
Beams, who will play at 11 p.m. Friday at Low Key Arts, makes folk-infused indie rock with gorgeous vocal harmonies from Mernieks and Heather Mazhar. They may also very well be the only band during the entire festival with a member who plays the saw. Their latest album, Teach Me to Love, was released last year.
Sea Moya, a swirling, electronic trio originally from Germany and now based in Montreal, performs at 8 p.m. Monday at Low Key Arts.
"It will be our second time at Valley of the Vapors," says Sea Moya's David Schnitzler. "We're playing some unofficial shows at South by Southwest, and will then head to VoV again."
'SO HEARTILY WELCOMED'
Schnitzler talks about the group's time in Hot Springs last year where, like a lot of bands, they stayed with a host family: "We were so heartily welcomed. They supplied us with food and drinks, and we were in awe of their warm spirit. The whole atmosphere of everyone working there and all the people attending the festival is so nice.
"We had a great time and we are so happy to be back this year."
Along with the organic sounds of Beams and the dancey grooves of Death Hags and Sea Moya, the lineup runs the indie gamut including the atmospheric, heavy rock of Chastity; the experimental noise rock of Dead Rider; the soulful, socially conscious rap of McKinley Dixon; and the trippy pop of The Bright Light Social Hour and VoV regulars Grandchildren.
Sonny Kay is the executive director of Low Key Arts, the nonprofit group behind Valley of the Vapors that was founded in 2005 by Bill Solleder and Shea Childs.
"The thing that's exciting about VoV for me is that it can be eclectic," he says. "We embrace that and enjoy it being a little unpredictable. There's nothing more boring than seeing a show with four or five bands that all sound the same. It's really remarkable to me how many great bands there are this year. It's an incredible weekend in Hot Springs."
Along with Valley of the Vapors, other Low Key Arts programs include Arkansas Shorts — A Night of Short Film; Hot Water Hills Music and Arts Festival; the Inception to Projection filmmaking class and the solar-powered community radio station KUHS-FM.
Bobby Missile is Low Key's artistic director and talent buyer and it's his job to wrangle bands and schedules to fill the festival's various stages.
The crystal anniversary edition of VoV is a bit different from those in recent years, he says: "We decided to shorten the fest by a day this year, as kind of an experiment to try something new."
Just because there will be one fewer day doesn't mean that there will be any less rocking out. Missile and the other organizers have extended the hours each day and now have even more bands this year — about 45 — than last year's 40.
For a sampler of most of the lineup, check the VOV 2019 playlist created by Missile at Spotify.
Along with bands from places other than here, Arkansas-based musicians will be well represented, something the organizers initiated five or six years ago, Missile says: "The festival is designed to bring bands and artists from outside the state to Hot Springs. But all these great Arkansas bands were hitting us up ... eventually we thought, 'Let's do an Arkansas showcase at Maxine's.'"
The Maxine's shows, which are for people 21 and over, are loaded with Natural State groups, including rapper Big Piph, Jamie Lou and the Hullabaloo, heavy rockers Colour Design, indie rockers Adventureland, Modelling, Billy Ruben and the Elevated Enzymes, Dazz & Brie and Fossils of Ancient Robots.
"It's almost like an after-party," Missile says. "When Low Key shows end, everybody goes over to Maxine's to catch the Arkansas bands."
Jamie Connolly is the Jamie Lou of Fayetteville's Jamie Lou and The Hullabaloo. While they're no strangers to Maxine's, they will make their VoV debut at 8 p.m. Sunday after the First Ever 16th Annual World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade in downtown Hot Springs.
"I've heard incredible things about Valley of the Vapors," says Connolly, who sings and plays guitar. "They have a lot of really interesting bands and I like that about the festival. We're playing with Dazz & Brie and Big Piph, so I expect it to be pretty fun."
The band's most recent release, the six-song Femi-Socialite, came out in 2017 and is a nice introduction to the group's crystalline, roots rock. A single, "Settle In," is on the way later this month, with a new album, Dear Francis, planned for late summer, Connolly says.
SECRET SHOWS CONTINUE
The tradition of VoV secret shows continues this year. Bands will pop up to play at odd spots across town and the locations won't be revealed until the day of the show on the VoV's social media accounts.
This year's secret show bands are Godcaster of Philadelphia, Dendrons of Chicago and HNRY FLWR of Brooklyn, N.Y.
We'd tell you where and when they're playing, but (whispers) it's a secret!
"I don't even know where the secret shows are until the day of," Missile says. "We did one in a Waffle House last year, and there was one at the Gross Funeral Home."
Arts workshops are another longtime feature of the VoV festivities, and this year the focus is on video, with a link to Low Key Arts' Inception to Projection summer program. The program is run by Jen Gerber, a filmmaker and executive director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
"We're integrating Inception to Projection with VoV to create a series of workshops to make a music video," executive director Kay says.
Workshops began earlier this month, with the final four set for Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Participants who couldn't make it to the first few classes can still be involved.
"If you're only able to take one or two of the classes, you still have that option," says Kay, who has been Low Key's director for about a year and a half.
The end result will be the making of a video during the March 18 Low Key Arts set by Philadelphia band Grandchildren for a song on their new album. More information can be found at lowkeyarts.org.
At 15 years old, Valley of the Vapors seems to be on solid ground. It probably won't rival South by Southwest in size or prestige, but that was never the goal anyway. It's more about an artistic community inviting artists and fans to come hang out and have some fun in a uniquely Arkansas spot.
"I was once a guy in a band on tour coming to Hot Springs," says Kay, a former member of punk rockers VSS. "There's something about being here in the context of a tour where places become monotonous and repetitive, and then one morning you wake up and you're here. It's a one-of-a-kind experience.
"For musicians who see real dingy parts of America week in and week out, it's a real treat to come here."
Valley of the Vapors
Friday-Monday, various times
Venues: Low Key Arts (all ages), 118 Arbor St., Hot Springs; Maxine’s (21 and over), 700 Central Ave; The Big Chill (21 and over), 910 Higdon Ferry Road
Admission: $120 VIP Pass; $40, Festival Pass; $10 Day Pass (for Low Key Arts shows); $10 for single shows at Maxine’s and The Big Chill
For full schedule: valleyofthevapors.com
Phone: (323) 240-6034
Style on 03/12/2019
Print Headline: Crystal clear