If you’ve witnessed a stacked bill at The Middle East Upstairs in the past year, thank Jason Trefts. The 33-year-old booker behind the venue’s schedule and owner of booking company Illegally Blind has been curating consistently solid lineups of Boston garage, indie rock, and psych, including the annual Boston Fuzzstival. He’s been at it for a mere two years and yet it’s already impossible to imagine the city without him. Just look at this week’s upcoming Boston En Masse festival to understand why.
The three-day festival brings a colorful mashup of local acts to the forefront thanks to a dizzying bill order. On Wednesday the 18th, concertgoers of all ages can crowd The Middle East Upstairs to see Rick (of Pile), Skinny Bones, Dent, Jaw Gems, Littlefoot, Milk, W00dy, and So Sol perform. On Thursday the 19th, Guerilla Toss, Mal Devisa, Lady Bones, Anjimile, Ursula, and Harmoos take over Great Scott. The following evening, Friday the 20th, IAN, STL GLD, Abadabad, Radclyffe Hall, Gracie, Horse Jumper Of Love, Peachpit, and Castle Danger fill Great Scott’s walls again with melodious thunder. For the first time in months, if not all year, Boston’s finally getting a bill where genres contrast one another by slotting electronica next to folk wails as if the two were usual companions.
“It’s interesting how you can take a band like Guerilla Toss—such a big band, everyone knows who they are—but find out just how many people haven’t seen them live because they only go to shows at Great Scott or the Middle East,” says Trefts. “In building this lineup, I’ve had a lot of musicians in town say they haven’t even heard of three or five of these bands. I can’t expect everyone to put in the time to learn about all the bands here—everyone is busy being in their own bands—yet hearing that still surprises me.”
Above all else, Trefts emphasizes community and shifting structures, a lasting mark of his graduate studies in sociology, challenging Boston’s music bubbles to rethink their shapes. Put simply, Boston En Masse is whatever goes. “It’s my pet project,” Trefts explains. “I think these are all great bands in the city, but they may not know who each other are. Let’s put ‘em in a room and do musical introductions. They’re playing shows with bands they may not normally play with.”
There’s a distance of reality present in the festival that mirrors that of his own booking company. Over the years, Trefts loses money from it while stress increases, but perceptions paint the company as a vibrant and surefire success.
“There’s no one showing me what to do; I’m just doing it,” he says. “These mini festival events help allow Illegally Blind to stay bare-bones but depend on thought. Working at The Middle East was physical work. Illegally Blind is just time spent thinking. What would be a good show? What’s a good band? I don’t claim for it to be anything special. If anything, I want to show people that it’s not that special, that it’s possible for them to create something and do something for themselves. In a way, it’s showing myself this social experiment of how stuff works if you keep at it.”
Growing up, Trefts lived everywhere from Beijing to Saudi Arabia because of his parents’ work as international schoolteachers, each remote location denying him access to concerts, radio, and basic modern Internet. “When I was a senior in high school, the internet started happening,” he recalls. “It was 2000 and Napster was huge. It took me four days to download a song. I listened to hip-hop a lot then and I remember downloading Trick Daddy’s ‘Naan’ because imported magazines talked about him. When it finally finished downloading, I remember hearing how bad it was. I wasted four days on that! I was pissed.”
By the time he moved to Boston at age 18, he got a glimpse of the city life before relocating to Seattle for college. Come 2011, he returned here for good. By then, he caught on to the way things work. “It’s 75% style and 25% technique,” he explains. “In Boston, we have a lot for people that are good at technique. If those people can go out and make friends, you get that style where you lift the curtain at some point and you see it differently. You stop regurgitating and start wanting to innovate. As we make it a friendlier place for people and make musicians want to stay here, we get innovation. Those are bands like Guerilla Toss or Pile; they’re special and people love them because they change it up.”
Even with all the stressors piling up on his back, Trefts isn’t looking for help. He doesn’t need sponsors, he doesn’t want staff members, and he isn’t trying to start a business. Boston En Masse is proof that he can pull off major loads as a single unit. “It’s about being more effective and more of an authentic thing,” he explains. “How can I make Boston a better music city for people? How big can I get it while still keeping it out of the capitalist’s hands? You have to battle the inherent narcissism of art. If there was a hurricane in Boston, you don’t want to be the person who thinks, ‘Oh shit the show is cancelled,’ before thinking about what the hurricane means to the people. You have to get people to remember that life is first and music is a part of it – and I have to remember that myself, too.”
BOSTON EN MASSE. WED – FRI 11.18 – 11.20. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM AVE., ALLSTON. 6PM/18+/$12. ILLEGALLYBLINDPRESENTS.COM.