JJ Koczan is the man behind The Obelisk and that should be a leitmotif strong enough to have a chat with him. But he’s also a Roadburn collaborator, leaving his American land to visit Tilburg every year, making him the perfect fit for our “Roadburn Pilgrims” feature, because, damn, that’s a hell of a pilgrimage between the USA and North Brabant, right? Read his thoughts, memories and prospects on the festival below!
So, how did you become aware of Roadburn’s existence?
I’m not sure, exactly. I guess it probably would’ve been around 2006 or 2007 that I started seeing the name around, but that definitely galvanized in 2007 and 2008 to the point that I wanted to get over for it. At the time, I was working at a magazine in New York called Metal Maniacs, and I must have seen a review in there or something along those lines, or read about it online and seen the lineup. That kind of thing tends to grab attention. From there it was really just a matter of getting the money together to go, which I’ll admit took a bit of doing.
I find it curious that you, as an American, have such a vivid interest for RB. It is generally seen as a European event, with many people flying in from Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland or Iceland. Being the US always stacked with numerous gigs, tours and festivals, what did attract you in Roadburn so much?
I’d imagine that just like there are people in Europe who only care about European bands, there are people in the US who only care about American ones, but that’s never been my point of view. Honestly, Roadburn being a European event as much as it is – they bring in artists from all around the world, US included – has always been part of the appeal for me. I love traveling, and for as long as I’ve been a fan of heavy rock, metal, doom, etc., I’ve appreciated many European acts as a part of that. For me, it’s less about the divide between nations than how easily music crosses it. Roadburn being in Europe has only made going more special to me over these years that I’ve been lucky enough to be there.
What was your debut Roadburn edition? Do you remember the first gig that you had the chance to witness there? What are the best memories that you keep from all of it?
My first Roadburn was 2009 and I’ve been fortunate enough to go every year since. I don’t remember the first set I watched there, but I recall very clearly that it was the Saint Vitus reunion that finally sealed the deal that I knew I had to make the trip. Neurosis also played that year, one of the best sets I’ve ever seen from them. There are so many memories of the fest, seeing and hearing things that I’d never be able to otherwise, but my best memories are of the last few years, getting to be a part of it behind the scenes in a small way with the Weirdo Canyon Dispatch zine, working with Lee Edwards from the Sleeping Shaman and Becky Laverty in Roadburn’s communications, as well as Walter and a host of great writers – Adrien Begrand, Kim Kelly, José Carlos Santos and others – and photographers like Paul Verhagen, in putting together the daily publication for each morning of the fest. Downing crazy amounts of coffee with Lee as we fold papers in the morning and just talking about music and laughing at how lucky we are to be there. Those are my best memories. That’s not to say that sets like Elder’s in 2013, Ancestors, Colour Haze, Los Natas, Conan’s in 2012, Sleep’s that same year, YOB’s every time, Godflesh, Wo Fat, Gozu, Winter, Wovenhand in 2011, Church of Misery, Wino, Triptykon, Enslaved, John Garcia and so many others aren’t special – they most definitely are; even when you see a band somewhere else, it’s never the same as seeing them at Roadburn – just that my warmest memories of the fest come even more from how much it’s come to feel like home.
As an American, does the festival’s location make everything even more special? Not only the venues, but the city of Tilburg, the Netherlands, etc…
The most honest answer I can give here is “probably.” At least for me it does. Roadburn was the first European festival I went to, and as I alluded to above, the travel aspect of it is definitely an added appeal in everything but the cost. I have to think that even if Roadburn was happening in my backyard, it would be special, but the way the venues are laid out in that corner in Tilburg, the way the 013 is kind of tucked away off the main drag, it gives a cozy feel to the fest that I think for sure helps the vibe. I can’t claim to know it from one end to the other, but from what I’ve seen, Tilburg is a nice town, and I’ve very much enjoyed the time I’ve spent there, limited though it is outside the context of Roadburn. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in Eindhoven and Amsterdam as well at various points over the years and have been suitably astounded by the beauty of the Netherlands countryside as it speeds by my train window, the sectioned off farmlands, gorgeous bridges, small neighborhoods and so on.
The Obelisk has become a pivotal online publication for psych/stoner devotees and perhaps was through it that you got closer to Roadburn’s HQ – but this is just me supposing stuff. How did step in as a festival’s collaborator?
That’s very kind of you to say about The Obelisk. I’m not sure about “pivotal,” but I appreciate the thought. I guess that was what did it. The first year I went to Roadburn, I was just getting The Obelisk going, so I covered it for BrooklynVegan instead. From 2010 on, it’s been on The Obelisk. Walter has been very kind to me and supportive over the years. The way he runs that festival, it is his art project, and he is someone from whom I’ve taken much inspiration, both in how I approach what I do with my own site and in the sheer dedication he shows to music, not to mention the raw work ethic. When the Weirdo Canyon Dispatch was first being discussed, I was immediately interested. I think having experience editing a print newspaper has helped a lot in making the ‘zine a reality, and while I wouldn’t call myself a collaborator – I’m not picking bands or anything – I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to be as involved as I am and to be able to work directly with Walter, Becky, Lee, the 013 crew and the stable of writers for the ‘zine, who are such an outrageously talented group of people that I’m embarrassed to even email them.
You are one of the editors of Weirdo Canyon Dispatch, which is a lovely idea that is quickly becoming a collector’s item for Roadburn’s attendees. How did it start and how did it become a real thing?
I’ve had to laugh the last couple years seeing issues of the ‘zine around the floor of main room at the 013. “Hey, I think I folded that one!” etc. I can’t take any credit in making it happen though. That was Walter. He approached me with the idea probably late in 2013 and as I said, there was no way I wasn’t going to take him up on it. I hear we might be getting more pages per issue this year, so look out.
Can you name your favorite gigs ever that you saw at Roadburn?
Mühr doing their Messiah album in full at what, to-date, has been their last show ever? YOB playing Catharsis in full? That Vitus show in 2009? Neurosis? Seeing Solace wreck the place? The first time I ever saw Fatso Jetson? Hull in the Batcave? Conan in the Batcave? Godflesh? The Heads? Elder in the church? Ancestors? Sleep in 2012 so loud that earplugs didn’t matter? That’s barely scratching the surface. I’ll spend the rest of the night thinking of incredible, once-in-a-lifetime sets I’ve witnessed at Roadburn, and how lucky I’ve been to be there to see them. So I guess thanks for asking.
Will you be there next April? Any gigs that you’re really eager to watch?
I’m very happy to say I will be there in April. I’ve got my eyes on Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth, who I missed when they came through here on tour, and Neurosis’ anniversary sets, but I’m also very interested to see Peter Pan Speedrock, Death Alley, Diamanda Galas, With The Dead, Mondo Drag, CHRCH, Converge’s Bloodmoon set, Astrosoniq and many others.
What are some of your wishlist requests for future editions of Roadburn?
Ararat are number one and have been for the past couple years. I was lucky to catch Los Natas at Roadburn supporting their Nuevo Orden de la Libertad album, which was their last, and I’d love to see Sergio Chotsourian’s new band, and Roadburn seems about the most likely place that would happen. There are many others I’d love to catch at Roadburn, but that’s definitely my number one pick. Whether they get there or not, I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to go Roadburn every time I have and every time I will hopefully continue to go, and I thank you for taking the time to do this interview as well.