When Sonoma winemaker Jeff Bundschu and singer-songwriter Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats got together and dreamed up the Huichica Music Festival a decade ago, they hesitated to use “festival” in the title.
What they envisioned had little in common with industry giants like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza — huge events that defined the term. Huichica was chill. Very chill.
“When Eric and I first started this, there was a lot of hype in both wine and music, and in my mind it was getting away from what constituted quality,” Bundschu said.
A decade later, Bundschu has partnered with like-minded new friends in Washington and will launch Huichica Walla Walla on Sept. 13-14. The two-day festival, pronounced wah-chee-kah, is the third under the brand umbrella and comes with four pretty simple tent poles: curated music, wine and food set in an amazing agricultural setting.
“We had this open space and a pretty strong commitment to this mandate that said we don’t need to be crowded anymore,” Bundschu said. “The last thing you want to do is wait in line and have to step over 50,000 people to get to where you want to be. That intimacy is pretty much a mandate to what we’re doing. That means it’s probably always going to be small. It’s kind of going against the world in the 10 years I’ve been watching it. Butts in seats are everything to festivals. That’s how you get ticket sales, that’s how you get sponsors. So this is definitely the opposite of that.”
Bundschu was introduced to Walla Walla through Mumford & Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road festival. He was amazed at the way the town welcomed the event and saw many parallels to his beloved Sonoma, the beating heart of California wine country.
“It’s a neat little stand-alone kind of great ag town with a punk-rock kick, so to speak, which is my favorite thing on the planet,” he said.
While in Walla Walla, Bundschu met Trey Busch, co-founder of Sleight of Hand Cellars. The two hit it off immediately and quickly began talking about the possibilities in Washington. Everything fell in place when they met friend of a friend of a friend Cheryl Hansen, a wheat and cattle farmer with a bucolic piece of property nestled in the foothills of the Blue Mountains alongside the South Fork Coppei Creek.
“It’s an agricultural setting that’s the star of the show as much as any of the acts, not that the acts aren’t going to drive it,” Bundschu said. “The fact that they’re going to be set in this canyon along a creek that many people won’t get to see again until we do it next year makes it pretty special.”
Johnson also thinks the lineup, programmed by (((folkYEAH!))) Presents, is pretty special. When he started the original Huichica with Bundschu (Johnson was not part of the Walla Walla organizing group), he had a certain type of band in mind — not unlike his own.
“We don’t always get invited to every single festival,” Johnson said. “You get invited to some of them, so it was like, you might as well make your own. I know a few bands who have sort of done that. I’ve got a platform, I’ve got a willing partner here, it was just something that seemed to make sense at that moment. I also have this tendency to wildly and blindly blunder into things, too. That’s the other part of it.”
The former Seattle resident released his first Fruit Bats album, “Gold Past Life,” with North Carolina’s Merge Records in June. He’s on tour now and scheduled to play two solo sets at Huichica.
He’ll be joined by indie-rock heroes Yo La Tengo and Robyn Hitchcock on both days of the festival with the Allah-Las, Destroyer, Waxahatchee and others. You won’t have trouble finding Johnson during the festival. If he’s not on stage, he’ll be in front of it.
“There’s something about the way that the festival works that encourages a hang among the bands,” Johnson said. “And there are blurred lines between the bands and the audience, which I always kind of like. We have our own backstage space, but it’s not a fortress or anything. You wander out, and watch somebody and go back in.”
When they started Huichica, megafestivals seemed to be the future. But many became so top heavy they toppled. Huichica, alternately, continues to grow, leading a flowering trend toward quality over quantity.
“It’s a great time for festivals right now, I think, because of the fact that the big ones have become too big,” Johnson said. “Some are doing well, some are falling apart. It’s kind of a Wild West with it right now.”
Huichica Walla Walla, 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13, to 11 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14; Stella’s Homestead, 2194 South Fork Coppei Creek Road, Waitsburg; $75-$675, camping and parking available for purchase; wallawallahuichica.com