Friday 7 September 2018

INTERVIEW: Shadow Woods Festival founder Mary Spiro

By: Mark Ambrose

Last September, hundreds of metal fans took to White Hall, Maryland for the third, and what was quite possibly the final, Shadow Woods Metal Festival.  A three day mashup of camping, workshops, and, most importantly, true underground heavy metal of all stripes, it has quietly become one of the most highly regarded music experiences by those lucky enough to have attended.  When I spoke with festival founder, overseer, music writer (at and all around genre veteran Mary Spiro, she was content to lay the Shadow Woods experiment to rest for the time being.  However, in the last year, despite venue changes, date and lineup adjustments, and the myriad headaches of producing a truly independent festival (i.e. NO corporate sponsorships), Shadow Woods IV returns to White Hall Maryland this September 13-16.  Today, THE SLUDGELORD finally presents our interview with Mary from last year’s festivities, as well as her top reasons for attending this year’s festival.

Sl: What made you decide to undertake the massive effort to create a festival like this THREE times, let alone once?

Mary Spiro: Sheer stupidity.  I had attended Stella Natura in 2013.  I had always liked the idea of listening to music outside anyway.  Years ago I had attended a bluegrass festival that had camping and bluegrass in Winfield, KS.  Stella Natura was a nice experience except the year I went it snowed in the middle of it.  Which is still held in September but it snowed in Tahoe National Forest so they lost a day there.  My original idea for this wasn’t something as big as this.  It was more, “Don’t I know somebody who potentially has some property who would let me set up some bands?” or someone with a barn… Just a kind of DIY kind of thing.  Apparently, I don’t know anybody like that so I started hunting around for campsites that you could rent in their entirety.  I just thought it would be fun to get a few bands together.  The tipping point came when I realized I wasn’t going to get this property for a low amount of money.  In order to draw enough people to pay for the expensive property, I was going to have to get bigger bands.  I had done shows in regular venues, but to have an outdoor thing… over the course of eighteen months of planning it just became evident it was going to be a lot more expensive than I’d realized.  You end up realizing you have to get a band that is going to attract a lot more people.  So Midnight was like the Holy Grail band for the first year and we got them!  Every year I feel like the lineup has been amazing.

SL: You said elsewhere that this is an experiment that has run its course.  Has it become too much of a logistical nightmare or do you see it as something you could scale back on?  What’s the future of Shadow Woods?

MS: It’s a number of things.  Superficially, this property is for sale.  If the people who buy it don’t want to host it, that’s a major issue.  Logistically, it is very time consuming and I have a full-time job.  I do this for fun.  I’m not trying to make a name for myself, I’m trying to have fun.  I’m trying to recreate an experience I had at other outdoor music festivals and do it in a way that was appealing to me.  I just literally did it for myself [laughs].  But there’s also another thing… it takes a while for anything to catch on, but I’ve just kind of been amazed that people who live within 30 or 40 minutes aren’t willing to just come out for the day.  They can go home and sleep in their own beds, they don’t have to camp!  And metalheads, American metalheads don’t seem to be very hearty.  They like their creature comforts and hairdryers.  This, to me, seems like backyard camping, while Stella Natura was very rustic.  There were no showers, no running water.  It was rough.  We were in the mountains and then it got cold and it snowed.  And then with the bluegrass festival it was very rustic.  I think it had centralized bathhouses but there were no showers.  And it wasn’t in a very pretty place.  But this is like backyard camping!  There are electrical outlets! 

SL: The setting here is so idyllic, too.

MS: Yeah I’ve come to understand maybe metalheads aren’t all that hearty and just want to go to a fest and stay in a hotel, like Death Fest.  I’ve heard there are some camping fests in the Midwest, like Minnesota.  I guess I was just surprised… We’ve got bands that are singing about nature and trees and shit and people aren’t willing.  Come on, now.  But the local people not willing to come out is just weird to me.  I’m surprised that more people haven’t come, but maybe my expectations are too high.

SL: What do you see as your comfortable level of involvement going forward?  Or are you just focused on getting through this weekend?

MS: I’m hit up all the time by bands who want to do shows in the Baltimore area, and if I like the band I’ll do it, and if I don’t I pass it off to someone more interested.  I’ll still do shows and maybe something like this on a much smaller scale, like on a Friday to Saturday, but it is so expensive.  And I have lost money.  The first two years I’ve lost quite a bit of money so I have to catch up on that.  But on the other hand I’ve had private individuals contribute a lot of money.  So that’s shocking to me that people would be willing to do that sort of thing.

What were your “gateway bands” for heavy music?

MS: So, I’m very old.  I’m 53 years old.  I’ve been listening to music of all kinds for a really long time.  The original band when I was 13 was KISS.  Is that corpsepaint?  I don’t know.  And I got into Metallica when they were popular, when they were coming around in the 80s.  I’ve went along with it, but I also had a family and raised kids and had to scale back my involvement.  In the last ten years… Enslaved, I’m a big fan.  I love Craft.  And I like very unusual bands like Oranssi Pazuzu.  I like anything that catches my eye.

I think something that’s very interesting to me, a lot of people when they go to music festivals want to see all their favorite bands in one place.  The concept of Shadow Woods was always the opposite of that.  This is where you come to learn about new bands you’ve never heard of before that you didn’t know about.  I think that particular strategy is very difficult for a lot of people.  They think, “Why would I go see a bunch of bands I don’t know?”  I think there are a lot people who aren’t willing to discover new music like that.

SL: For people willing to discover, you end up getting a lot of excellent stuff.  I had never heard Sloth Herder or Erlkonig before but you put them on an equal footing with bands like Panopticon or Vastum or Woe and suddenly I’ve found two great bands I would have never discovered before this weekend, even with all the stuff we get at the site.

MS: It’s selfish really [laughs].  These are all bands I wanted to see.  I think what’s also cool is I’ve made lifelong friends.  There are people here who think like me about music.

With Shadow Woods IV on the horizon, Mary also took the time to send me her top 3 reasons to attend this year’s festival:

MS: 1. Discover new music. 2. New music handpicked from the best of the underground. Not necessarily trendy or trending but great bands. 3. The "camp" atmosphere. People unleash at SWMF. They reclaim the wildness of childhood and can do so without judgement because everyone is doing it.

The End

Shadow Woods IV opens September 13 at Camp Hidden Valley in White Hall, Maryland.  This year’s acts include Abigail Williams, Xasthur, Cloak, Wolf King, Imperial Triumphant, Ghost Bath, Heavy Temple and many, many more.