Cover photo by Patrick Moran
Flyer by R.M. Livingston
Each summer, RVA musician, journalist and promoter Shannon Cleary takes his passion for local music from the airwaves at WRIR to the streets for the annual Commonwealth of Notions festival.
In the sixth incarnation held in as many years, the festival has ranged from a single day marathon event to a multi-weekend blowout at venues across town featuring everything from hip hop to twee pop, metal to electronica and many other genres in between.
For its seventh year, Cleary has tailored the experience to a slick two-night celebration of all things Richmond at DIY haven Strange Matter featuring performances by:
To explore the history of the festival and the deep ties between WRIR and local music, Dust Up’s Craig Zirpolo sat down with Cleary for a brief chat.
When did you start working with WRIR? How has your relationship with the organization evolved from your early days as a volunteer to now?
If I time-lined it correctly, I would say that I started volunteering with the station in 2009. A friend of mine hosted a late night program called Late Night Flight. As he was preparing to retire from hosting the show, he recommended that I take over the time slot of 1 – 3am on Wednesday nights/Thursday mornings.
After a few quick training sessions, the show was born and I started to use the late night time slot as a perfect blank canvas to envision what the show could become. Since 2009, I’ve gone on to become one of the local music directors at the station, held a chair position on the events committee and volunteered countless hours to getting the message of the station out as being an avenue for underrepresented ideas, thoughts and art to be showcased and expressed on community radio.
How did The Commonwealth of Notions radio show begin? What was the mission statement for that program?
It started off as this gleeful experience. I was beyond excited to just be doing radio and wanted to play as much of my favorite music as possible. Within a short span of time, I came to realize that a lot of my favorite stuff stemmed from Richmond, and the show could be a perfect late night vessel for showcasing these sounds.
As the show started to take on a bit more of a cohesive shape, I would say that it became an extension of my experiences listening to Richmond music. For me, I don’t really know how to just listen to something that I enjoy and just be done with it. I like to learn everything I can and start to figure out the links and intertwining details. And there was a part of me that wanted to start exploring that more on the radio program and celebrate the small details that a lot of people might overlook. This could be connecting artists to record labels, engineers, producers, scenes, specific live shows and so on. I wanted to figure out how to connect the dots with those kinds of ideas throughout the show. And as I constantly mention on the show, I think it’s a crazy thing that I get two hours to program, and I look forward to the opportunity to showcase music from the city.
At the same time, I like the idea of considering the show as being “a mid afternoon local music showcase program with a touch of variety thrown into the mix.” This could be anything from film scores to stand-up comedy to my favorite songs to a song that I heard the day before to a song that makes me think of something and on and on and on.
What drew you to booking a festival that focuses on local music? How does it relate to your goals for the radio show?
It was really soon after I started hosting the show that I decided I wanted to curate a music festival that tied into the radio show. I wanted there to be a physical version of the show that would showcase artists that might not typically share a bill. I wanted to figure out how to throw in different scenes of people and try to just see what would happen. A lot of that probably stems from a desire I have to showcase the diversity of the music scene to the best of my abilities.
Every year is a bit of a different experience with that perspective in mind as it shifts in favor of one thought or another. But the goal that I set is to give a unique opportunity for the bands performing and the audience attending to see a showcase of artists from town that they might not get to see anywhere else. It’s a great way to learn more about the music in town while also supporting a non-profit organization that sets out to showcase these artists through a variety of means.
What do you hope audience members and performers take away from the experience of Commonwealth of Notions? What was present at the first year of the festival that you hope to preserve each year?
I think the biggest thing for me is to try and instill a greater sense of community. I know there is a great support system in place for how music is celebrated in town and that the festival I put together is by no means a sole effort in terms of how music is curated and presented. I like that after having done this festival for six years, I have had the opportunity to work with so many of my favorite artists. This includes performers, friends that have designed the artwork every year and the folks that help keep the venues running that put on shows practically every night of the week. It’s become this weekend in the summer where I get to see a lot of people all in one place, and we get to have a blast seeing a ton of bands that we already adore or have been meaning to check out for quite a while. I think that same feeling has been present since the first year and will hopefully continue this year.
Two days just ended up making the most sense for a number of reasons. It offers a bit more of a focus. It also doesn’t exhaust the audience, and it doesn’t drive me absolutely crazy by the end of the four-day weekends of shows.
Strange Matter has been a home for the festival since 2013. The first time that I hosted one of the Commonwealth showcases there was during the third volume and that was how I reconnected with my friend Clair Morgan. A few months later, I started playing in a band with him and haven’t stopped since. On top of that, I’ve had the luxury of putting together several of my favorite showcases that have featured everyone from Ultra Flake to Sundials to Veery to Naked Pictures to Wolf//Goat to Hot Dolphin to Everyone Dies In The End to Wow Owls! to Shy, Low and the list goes on and on and on and on.
Strange Matter also makes sense due to the wonderful amount of history that exists within those walls at 929 W. Grace Street. You can’t beat it.
You’ve said in the past that you initially didn’t want to repeat-book bands at the festival, but then found that bands change over the years such that booking a band three or four years later is a completely different experience. Are there any repeat-booked bands this year? And if so, what do you think has changed about them over time to make this year different?
That’s definitely something I aspired to do for the first three volumes and the fourth year was when I had changed my mind.
For this year, the one band that is returning that I am super excited about is Sports Bar. They have been long-time friends and they played the first volume of the festival. I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring them back for years now and this year just worked out.
When they first played, they were a trio with a tape and a split release under their belts. They have since put out numerous other releases and they are a completely different band. I know that Brent Delventhal has played as a part of the festival in the past as Warren Hixson and My Sister, My Daughter and I don’t think Mark has ever been a part of it.
All in all, it’s going to be an incredible close to the first night to have them back in the mix.
Are there any trends you see in the local music scene now that you’re hoping to reflect in this year’s festival? Are there any particular acts that you’re especially excited to see/host?
I’m not sure that I could pinpoint a trend. I’d say that this year in particular, I felt like it was really important to explore the opportunities for the festival to expand even further as far as what music there is in town.
One of the things that I am glad that I considered doing this year is having the second night conclude with a dance party organized by the Ice Cream Support Group. I have had a great time working with them on organizing Ice Cream Social dance parties at Flora, and it seemed like a perfect match for how to wrap things up. It’s a way of having two nights of live performances featuring thirteen artists that all call Richmond home and just have the night close on a note that is not only a celebration but an opportunity to highlight a group of individuals that set out to create safe spaces for people of color that identify within the LGBTQ community. And I’d say in the day and age that we currently live, any opportunity to sustain and encourage the cultivation of a more inclusive community is essential.
If you listen to my show, it’s probably fairly obvious that I am beyond excited to have everyone at the festival. I am constantly including songs by Saw Black, Magnus Lush, Black Liquid, Opin, Camp Howard, Sammi Lanzetta, Hot Reader and so on.
I also absolutely adore Young Scum and can’t wait to have them be a part of the festivities.
In an era seemingly focused on podcasting, blogging and other DIY media, what role does an organization like WRIR play in the local music scene and media culture? And what role have they played in your growth personally as a performer, journalist and music curator?
I think the really cool thing to take into account is how blogs, podcasts and so on have definitely taken a key and integral focus in how we share media and yet, WRIR still remains as valuable as ever (especially within our community). The idea of the station alone is kind of a crazy construct when you imagine that it is completely supported and financed by the community and run by the community. As a result, it gives a valuable perspective into how we perceive the arts and the city that we live in.
As far as my own experiences, the opportunity to expose a growing audience to music that they can call their own will never get old. I started doing a show in the middle of the night for like six years, and then I got thrown into a drive time slot. Since then it’s never been the same.
Outside of just the volunteer base, I have developed a number of relationships with listeners and have conversations about music and this city that extend long beyond a two hour radio show. It’s been this crazy thing that continues to surprise me. What started as a late night activity has become something that people identify with me. There are people that I might never meet, but they’ve heard me talk about music during my show.
And when we talk about how the world is turning digital, that is just the reality of things, and it’s something I certainly welcome. But I’ll still find something valuable about meeting someone who talks to me about my radio show as opposed to something I may have posted on Instagram or Facebook. Terrestrial radio feels like a vessel from a time long ago that has remained relevant as a means for all of us to find a vital fiber in how we connect to one another.
Commonwealth of Notions VII returns to Strange Matter on July 21st and 22nd
Doors open at 6:30 pm, music starts at 7:30 pm and tickets are $7 for each night
RSVP to the Facebook event page here