Meet Bumbershoot Festival's Chris Porter

The programming director behind Seattle's favorite music and arts festival speaks with WHERE.

For the last 17 years, Chris Porter has worked his magic to create distinctive, eclectic music line-ups for Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot Festival. Now in it’s 44th year, the festival happens again over Labor Day weekend, Aug. 30-Sept. 1. Porter, a Boston native, spoke with Where about booking bands, the best record store in town and why he always travels with hand sanitizer.

What’s the best part about Bumbershoot for you?

There’s two, actually. One, the biggest part, is how creative I can be with it. This, to me, is really, truly, my art. A colleague of mine, Chris Weber, he does the arts booking, and I oversee all of our programming, but I put together our music program. And to me its like—this is my canvas and I’m putting it together.

The interesting thing about Bumbershoot is we really cast a wide blanket on different genres, different arts disciplines, which I love. If you saw my record collection, it’s all over the map, so I’m into a lot of different things. It suits me well and I suit it well. So I’m able to work with a lot of different people, a diverse group of people and artists and put something together that takes a lot of creativity, takes a lot of tenacity and some good luck, and I’ve been doing it all these years. To me, it’s not a job. I never come to work thinking aw, I don’t feel like coming to work. This is what I do, I love it, so hence, I stay. Just putting together this smorgasbord, so to speak, of a litany of arts and music, that’s usually fun to me, being a music and arts fan.

The second thing that’s really key to me is bringing people together. I used to book clubs in Boston, so the very first one was kind of a smoky, dark rock and roll room that fit about 300 people. I remember standing up on some steps that were above the crowd and looking at one of my first shows I put together. It’s this sea of people—to me it was, 300 people—and I just get a high off of it. Granted, they’re not there to see me, but they’re there for something I’ve put together and helped make happen. It’s an incredibly powerful feeling, and also just a really high feeling. Everybody’s coming together for something fun.

So Bumbershoot is that times 2,000. Still, to this day, I walk around Bumbershoot and get so giddy at looking at all the different types of people, age groups, backgrounds, getting into music and arts and coming here to Seattle. Over the years we’ve had more and more people visiting Seattle to come to Bumbershoot. I love that. I think a lot of people say, ‘I’m going to travel to Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza,’ some of these bigger festivals. And as well they should, but I’m thinking gosh, you know, late August, early September is a wonderful time to visit Seattle, and we have this wonderful event, Bumbershoot. It’s in the city; you’re not out in the country somewhere. You can truly experience Seattle that way.

You’re not going to get such a wide net of different disciplines and genres at most festivals. This is really, truly mean to be something for everybody. And the other thing is besides coming to see your favorite bands, or whomever you’re coming to see, comedians or what have you, to me a big, big thing about Bumbershoot is a sense of discovery. We often say ‘find your next favorite band at Bumbershoot.’ That’s what we want to do. Come see your favs but make sure you go and see some other bands that you might not have heard of. Or see some art, or go to some comedy.

Bumbershoot crowds

What is something about Bumbershoot people wouldn’t know?

A lot of people—they should know this, I’m always amazed that they don’t know this—that Bumbershoot is more than music. Music is the biggest portion of it, certainly. It’s funny: people look at festivals and think just music, and I understand that, but I’m always amazed that people don’t make enough time to look at some of the non-music things. That’s one thing.

A lot of people don’t realize how old it is. This is our 44th year. It’s evolved and it’s changed around. It looked very different in the ’70s, ’80s, to now. Not entirely different—it’s always in Seattle Center—but it’s a very long running festival. We’re really one of the granddaddies of it.

Any tips for first-timers to the festival?

Definitely go on our website and plan your day, because there’s so much stuff. It varies from year to year, but we have six music stages, three comedy stages, a words and ideas stage, which is a spoken word and lecture series; we have a small theater, we have a film festival, and then we often have other spectacles and things. That can be really overwhelming. I say go and plan but don’t plan too tightly. Give yourself some time to explore. Sometimes just going where the wind takes you is super fun, too. I don’t mean to squash spontaneity, I encourage that too, but planning a little bit ahead of time definitely makes for an easier time in the big picture.

Do you get a bigger sense of relief after you’re done booking or after the whole thing is over?

Great question. I mean, they’re both really satisfying. It varies from year to year. For this year … well, I haven’t done it [the festival] yet so I can’t say for sure. Often it is just when the booking is done. Because we’ll have deadlines: our marketing department works very hard and carefully about certain marketing plans and due dates, but sometimes getting answers from acts doesn’t always cooperate with timing. But we try. One of my last headliners that I had booked literally was somewhere between 48 and 72 hours before our May 8 announce party that we had at Neumos. That was cutting it close.

Some years are a little more challenging than others. It’s not one specific reason why. It’s sometimes the luck of the draw, just getting answers from acts. Because they’re being pulled in a lot of different directions, especially the bigger ones. I always call this juggling and putting a jigsaw puzzle together all at the same time.

When Bumbershoot is over, where’s your favorite spot to have a celebratory drink?

That’s easy. I mean, immediately after the festival—this is a bit of a tradition for a half dozen years I guess. I go on the Monday night whenever we get done. I walk over to Solo over on Roy Street. That is my go-to spot to meet up with friends of mine who are from out of town who are visiting and have my celebratory beer or margarita, usually one of the two, and just kind of unwind there.

Where’s your favorite spot in Seattle to listen to live music?

I guess my favorite just to listen and see and really take it all in is the Showbox. I love that it’s such a classic, old venue. It’s an old ballroom, essentially. Always great sounding shows, the sightlines are great, easy to get to and I just have a lot of great memories there of a lot of great shows I’ve seen over the years. Hence, if I had to pick one, I think I’d go with that one.

Where do you like to go out to eat?

There’s a plethora because there’s a plethora opening up about every other week. I’m a big fan of Ethan Stowell’s restaurants. I love Tavolata in Belltown, Staple and Fancy over in Ballard, and a lot of his new things. How To Cook A Wolf—that’s near where I live, if you can get a seat there. The thing is super tiny. So I love those.

You know, it also depends on one’s mood, too. I love a pub. I love going to one of my local places, like the Hilltop Ale House up on top of Queen Anne Hill or Fado, just outside of Pioneer Square, or places like that—Market Arms over in Ballard.

I also like Tango a lot. I’m big into Spanish food. That’s over in Capitol Hill.

I say all that with an astersk because there’s so many new places coming up, in two weeks I may have a new favorite.

Bumbershoot at night with the Space Needle

What is your favorite Seattle landmark?

I have to say the stupidly obvious one. The Space Needle. First off, it just, it’s iconic. Yes, I love the Fremont Troll, the Columbia Tower is cool looking, but I live up on Queen Anne Hill so I have a bird’s eye view for the Space Needle fireworks. Most years I’ll have friends come over and we’ll watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks together. I have this view of Seattle Center, of the Needle, the water, Mount Rainier when it’s clear—I mean, back in Boston I had a view of a gas station and a duplex. Seventeen years later I still get giddy looking out my window

Best record store in the city?

They’re dwindling! It’s hard to say, huh? I guess I’m going to give props to Jive Time over in Fremont. They’ve got such a great vinyl collection. It’s a small store, but it’s really comfortable. They’ve got so much cool product there and I can really spend all day there, as I could a record store that’s twice its size. I think that one is a little bit of an unsung one. I like Bop Street and Sonic Boom—I know the guys who run that—but the one I have the most fun at is Jive Time.

Where do you like to spend time during a Seattle summer?

On my deck, at my condo. Any place with a view. If I want a quiet time, up on Queen Anne Hill. The famous [lookout] is Kerry Park, where everybody’s there and you have the whole thing. But, there’s a park just down the street from there. It’s called Betty Bowen Viewpoint. Betty Bowen was this patron of the arts for many years, and her home was just below this park. But you have this great view of the Olympics and the marina outside of Magnolia. Watching the sun go down there—that’s looking over on that westerly, northwesterly direction—is really nice.

I’m a big sports fan, so I go to Safeco Field. That’s a fav thing for me to do as well. I think growing up in Boston, that’s a big deal, being out at old Fenway Park. Summertime—that to me is just such a quintessential thing, the ballgame.

What do you think makes Seattle special?

While it’s an urban area, it’s an urban city, it’s very neighborhood centric. Coming from Boston—and I’ve said this many times to people—Seattle reminds me of a huge version of Cambridge. That town is very much a little urban area, but all the neighborhoods are distinctive. I love that about [Seattle]. I could be in Capitol Hill to Columbia City to Queen Anne and then over to Fremont and it feels like all these little different towns.

I love that anybody that comes to visit Seattle—I have a lot of friends that use it as a good excuse to visit me and visit Seattle, because they always wanted to and here I am—everybody loves it. I’ve had so many people say ‘I could live here, I get it.’ It’s just this comfortable place where a lot of great stuff is happening, fun stuff. I could fill up my calendar every day with good stuff to do. I think that’s sometimes a little harder in other cities.

Seattle sunset

What’s your fondest memory in Seattle?

Well, I would say when I first touched down in the city, although you’d probably look at me weird. I came here thinking OK, now I know there’s all these Seattle stereotypes—gray, rainy, everybody’s wearing flannel, because it was the ’90s. The grunge years were sill fresh in everybody’s mind, that movie Hype! had come out, showing all of that. I’m like, OK, but I know it’s going to be different than that.

And so I get off the plane, and I’m down the escalator and I see a bunch of frumpy looking kids in flannel. No, no, it’s going to be different than that. So I go outside and it’s drizzly, gray rain.

But I was really welcomed, so that’s a good memory.

I have wonderful memories of the Summer Nights on the Pier series we used to have. I worked on that in a limited way. You’d see this: The sun go down and the water, and the view of Bainbridge [island], and everything is pretty. And you turn around and all the lights of all the buildings are going on, with the wonderful sea air and warmth. I’ll always treasure those times, just going down to the pier and hanging out. That, to me, is a great memory.

Where do you like to go on vacation?

Typically, I’m more about going to Europe. I really love the U.K. and Spain. I’m going to Iceland later this year. I really love any sort of city, going and exploring and running around. However, those vacations you often come back from your vacation and you have to recuperate. So I’d put in a little caveat. It depends on what kind of year I’ve had that year. If I’ve gone through a lot of stress, or if I’m running around, I love having a chill time. I’ve spent a couple of Thanksgivings recently in Hawaii on Maui, and it just—my whole being was so relaxed for days after I came back.

When I go to LA, it might even be for work reasons, but I’ll take an extra day and go to Manhattan Beach and hang out for a day, just to have that chill time. The best [vacation] is if I can find something with a lot of culture happening, but I can have that escape.

What is a must-pack item when you travel?

Hand sanitizer. You catch stuff when you travel, and I’d like to keep as healthy as I can. I always make sure I have hand sanitizer. Makes me sound I’m Felix in the “Odd Couple” now, but I do like to be clean.

What is your favorite way to explore a new place?

Probably two things. A little bit like I was saying about newbies to Bumbershoot. I will plan. I’m a planner big time. I mean, hello, this is my life, right? So I can’t not plan for my own things. I’ll have my bucket list. But if I’m able to, and hopefully I have this—I’m blessed with knowing a lot of people around the world—really taking some cues from the locals. Where do you go? Where is that place? I make sure I hook up with some people, whether they’re friends or acquaintances. If we hang out, that’s even better: they can show me around. But even if they just give me tips, I think that’s the most valuable thing. Yeah, we can look on the web, on all the different recommended sights, as much as we want, but sometimes I still get there and feel like I want to wing it a little bit. And if there’s a local that can help me do that, that’s even better.

What is the No. 1 destination on your wish list?

Australia. And/or New Zealand. We always lump them together: they’re actually really far away, but it seems like it’s close. I have a goal every year and I’m happy to say I’ve kept up with it every year. My goal is to go to at least one new place a year. It can be Montana or Timbuktu, it doesn’t matter. Just some place. I’m not entirely sure what’s going to be new this year yet, but I always do that. So I have a lot of destinations.

What festival, other than Bumbershoot, should people have on their bucket list?

My official answer is: There’s too many to mention. However, I will give props to one that is called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. It’s in San Francisco. It happens at Golden Gate Park and it’s free. A guy, who sadly passed away recently, but his estate is carrying it on, a billionaire guy and he pays for it. I think it started off as more of a rootsy thing, but Robert Plant played there, Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe, a lot of local bands in the San Francisco area. It’s a weekend festival. There’s also another good one there called Outside Lands Festival. That’s sort of a bigger one that can be eclectic as well. It’s an urban thing, yet you’re in this big park so you don’t feel like you’re in the big city.

Bumbershoot act

My Perfect Day

Morning: Cup o’ Joe

I’d start off a sunny, Seattle day with a light breakfast and catching up on a few emails and news. I’d then jump my day into gear with an hour workout at my gym. If it’s a non-workout day, I’d hit one of my fav coffee places—Caffé Fiore in Queen Anne or Milstead & Co. in Fremont—for a delicious Americano and muffin, and a leisurely walk in one of those neighborhoods after.

Midday: A Ballgame at Safeco

I love catching day games at Safeco Field to watch the Mariners. It’s such a great ballpark—no bad seats, great vibe and a quintessential summer experience for me being a huge sports fan. I go to about a dozen games a year.

Evening: Dinner and Drinks

After the game, I’d head to Ballard for a good dinner and cocktails at any of a number of places on Ballard Avenue (Staple & Fancy, MacLeod's, Percy’s & Co., Bastille or Volterra being some of my favs). Then I'd probably catch a show at the Tractor—one of my favorite venues in town.