Bass Coast is a camping festival that happens in the picturesque Nicola Valley, about three hours northeast of Vancouver. A DIY endeavour founded and run by women with no sponsors or corporate presence whatsoever, it's a unique fixture in a region already known for its plethora of outdoor festivals, from small gatherings like Diversity to huge undertakings like Shambhala. Bass Coast sets itself apart with its family atmosphere, emphasis on local acts (many of whom come back year after year) and its all-encompassing social and artistic vision.
I went to Bass Coast for my second time in 2015, unsure of what to expect (these camping-in-the-woods festivals usually aren't my cup of tea). And though I didn't necessarily fit in with the throngs of people wearing elaborate robes or animal horns, by the end of the weekend I was completely converted. I wasn't the only one. Coming back to Vancouver on Monday afternoon, my entire Facebook feed was all Bass Coast for a solid two days. There were reaffirmations from Bass Coast regulars as well as ecstatic reveries from newcomers. Everyone, no matter what their background, seemed to agree there was a special feeling to the festival that's hard to put your finger on.
For Western Canadians who are into electronic music, Bass Coast has become something of a sacred pilgrimage over the last six years. Representing the West Coast's long obsession with reggae, dub and all things bass, it's a must for hippies and heads alike. They come from Vancouver Island, Alberta and dubstep hotspot Nelson, as well as Vancouver and Squamish, where the festival was originally conceived. And with capacity capped at just 3,000 people, there's a familial atmosphere to Bass Coast that feeds into the good vibes. Even if you don't know anyone when you show up, you will by the end of it. I've never been to Freerotation or Labyrinth, but people talk about Bass Coast in the same reverential and awestruck tones, and it's hard not to think of it as the West Coast's version of those influential favourites.
Graham and Thomson were inspired to start Bass Coast after their first trip to Burning Man, which blew them away with its dedication to art in all its forms. They sought to create something similar, something that was about more than just music and dancing. They came about it almost accidentally.
"We decided to go camping one night in the woods and bring a sound system," Thomson explains. "It was when Facebook was first starting. We called it Festival Shmestival, made an event on Facebook and did barely anything. Nearly 300 people showed up. We had mud wrestling and we had topless mojito bars. I still think it's the best party we've ever thrown. We knew instantly, as soon as we were there, as soon as the first moment of the party started, that the magic we'd felt at Burning Man had happened at a party in our own backyard. We haven't looked back since."
Thomson wanted to start something more than an impromptu campout, so she and Graham set out to secure all the permits and licenses needed to put on a real festival. "This was at a time when it was all underground raves and there was no such thing as insurance. There were no permits," Thomson says. "And we took a lot of flack for making it legit, but for us, it was never just a party in the woods. It was an arts festival experience that we wanted to grow."
In 2009, Bass Coast found its first home in Squamish, a small city between Vancouver and Whistler where Graham and a few other like-minded artists lived. It's an area of stunning natural beauty—the drive from Vancouver up the Sea-To-Sky Highway is in itself an experience to behold. It was going along that same stretch of road that Graham and her partner Andor Tori (now Bass Coast's head carpenter) coined the festival's name.
The site at Squamish was more rugged than what you'd typically want for a festival—the river was so fast and dangerous they weren't even allowed to have alcohol onsite. But even its unforgiving aspects fit the enterprising nature of the festival. Bass Coast began modestly, with only 450 people showing up for the first edition. But from the very beginning, it was just what Thomson and Graham had hoped for.
"The first few years of the festival, there were a lot of friends. I'd walk around and know almost 90% of the people onsite," says Thomson. "It was really exciting because everybody could feel the underlying potential of what was going to happen. There's this indescribable feeling when you walk around Bass Coast that everybody tries to pinpoint and nobody can—and it's been there since Festival Shmestival."
By 2012, Bass Coast had grown to the point that people were sneaking in past the gates. Graham and Thomson began looking for permanent staff. To complicate matters, a new noise bylaw prevented music from being played past midnight, though Bass Coast usually went until 7 AM each morning. As soon as the 2012 festival was finished, Thomson and Graham went on the hunt for a new venue.
"We looked all over BC, and we had a huge list of criteria," Graham says. "It had to have swimmable water, it had to be close to some amenities, be an inspiring location. We went around and checked out all these different places. We felt like we could make [Merritt] our home. It's an inspiring venue and the river is safe and relaxing, and it's easy to access from all over BC and Alberta."
"When I came onboard with Bass Coast, in my mind I was picturing a Squamish location," says Paul Brooks, the festival's director of communications. "Andrea and Liz said 'congratulations, welcome aboard! You have the job! First things first—we're moving to Merritt!' People were upset about the move. It was very challenging, marketing the festival to sell this location."
The new site presented some problems. First off, there was the fact that Merritt—the self-proclaimed "country music capital of Canada"—didn't exactly appeal to electronic music fans. And then there was the matter of size. This had once been the site of a country festival that had hosted 40,000 people, while the first Bass Coast there barely broke 5% of that number. Graham describes 2013 as Bass Coast's "awkward teenager" year, with stages and vendors too far apart and a poor grasp of the site in general.
"We needed to watch where people flowed," she adds. "The next year we made some major changes in the layout—we moved everything into the forest, tried to make it more of a village and tried to maintain that unique, boutique feeling."
In the next two years, they pulled back the scale of the site, packing everything into a forested area that feels remarkably similar to the old Squamish location, just a little easier to navigate (and with a much nicer river). And just like that, they got back the Bass Coast atmosphere.
"With everyone's schedule, it's hard to connect with people that I genuinely would really love to spend time with," says DJ and producer Michael Red. "Bass Coast is my time to run into all sorts of people. I can walk around and catch up with someone who I haven't seen in ages, and it's the perfect setting for that because, honestly, it doesn't make sense to say 'let's grab a coffee or a drink' because there's these other things attached to it. You gotta make time. But that kind of time doesn't exist at Bass Coast. You have the freedom to chat with people as long as you want to. And when that naturally comes to a close, you move onto the next thing, and it's amazing."
Red, based in BC's Sunshine Coast, is a good example of a Bass Coast regular. He's played the festival every year since its inception, and he's part of the LiGHTA sound crew—the once-dominant DJ group who ruled the bass music scene in Vancouver during the heyday of dubstep. He's one of those well-loved local DJs who brings his all to Bass Coast, playing special sets he might not get away with anywhere else.
"At other festivals, you play the hits or the surefire dance floor killers," Red says. "I think it's actually part of the element of playing at Bass Coast—the time to pull out the weirdness and to test the waters, still in a festival setting."
The best sets I've seen at Bass Coast have come from locals. In 2012, East Vancouver junglist Taal Mala veered from vintage Aphex Twin to Wiley. This year, Librarian tore up the main stage, going heavy on grime-influenced sounds. (Her sets are among the most popular at the festival, and there's even a word for those unlucky enough to play at the same time as her: "Librarian'd"). Max Ulis, a prominent Vancouverite and Bass Coast staple, broke the rules and stretched his 5:30 AM to 7 AM set all the way past 10 AM. It was a first for Bass Coast, but you'd never know it from how the dance floor stayed full well past sunrise. The next day a fellow journalist was excitedly describing Ulis's Sunday morning set as "church" to anyone who would listen.
Earlier in the weekend, Edmonton selector Dane MacDonald played a storming 4/4 set—not exactly orthodox for Bass Coast—and left everyone talking about it for the whole weekend. This underlined the increasing open-mindedness of the festival's audience. It was a move buoyed by the inclusion of Vancouver techno and experimental crews Subversive and Bonz.ai, now among the local regulars of Bass Coast who might not have fit into the festival's bass music style just a few years ago.
The performers are selected from a pool of regulars and international headliners. They're curated by specialized bookers like Ulis and Lorne Burlington (from Calgary), who are both respected DJs with a solid understanding of what their crowd wants. Bass Coast also accepts applications from would-be performers, meaning that even if you aren't part of this intimate circle, you still have a chance to get in on it.
"Every year there is new music that continues to be created on the West Coast, and every year the festival wants to present these new ideas to the audience," says Burlington. "Our goal is to hopefully educate people that all they need to do is look to their own community to find talented artists. The locals for me always seem to top the list of sets, because everyone wants to shine amongst their peers and step up their game."
The headliners tend to rave about it too, which Brooks puts down to what he calls the festival's "mature vibe"—or "people knowing their boundaries."
"When dBridge played in 2012," Brooks says, "he played his really amazing deep drum & bass, and then at the end he said 'would you mind if I played some techno?' And then for the last 40 minutes of his set he played slamming techno and everybody was going off. To know that dBridge was so comfortable he could share his passion for techno with people after playing a drum & bass set... in some drum & bass circles, people would be like 'what is this garbage?' But you could tell that people were headsy enough to get into that. People still talk about that set to this day."
Something else Bass Coast has had from the outset is fantastic art direction and an immersive atmosphere. The stage designs are both visually imposing and, often, awe-inspiringly simple. This year's main stage was composed mostly of fabric cut into zig-zagging shapes, strung up over the field and lit up with a few lights—but to see it in action was something more than its simple composition could explain.
"Every year you come, it doesn't look the same," says Thomson, who helps oversee stage design. "You don't know what you're going to see when you get to the site. And I think that's a huge asset, because it creates that sense of wonder—what it's going to be like this year, what it's going to look like this year. As compared to knowing what you are going to and getting the same visual experience. There's no innovation in a visual experience that stays the same."
There are installations littered throughout the site, some big, some small. Highlights on my visit included a giant spider's web made out of rope that was difficult to get into and even harder to get out of, as well as a cash register that triggered constantly-looping melodies based on which buttons were pressed. It had passersby entranced every single time I walked through the festival's main drag.
And while installations at a festival are nothing groundbreaking, the way Bass Coast goes about it is unique. The final year at Squamish wasn't just notable for its marquee attendance—2012 also marked the start of Bass Coast's art grant program, where proceeds from ticket sales are recirculated back into a fund awarded to applicants.
"We donate anywhere between $10,000-$15,000 to artists who hand in applications during January and February," Graham explains. "If you have a project idea, or you have an art project that already exists, you can apply for a grant from us. Some are financial, some are just tickets, it depends on the scale of the art you're doing. We received over 600 applications and this year I accepted just over 40. It gives artists an opportunity not only to collaborate but also gives them a place to exhibit their art. Some of the artists onsite this year said that, of all the places they have ever exhibited, this had the most walk-through traffic and interaction, double what they've ever seen before."
"For some people, it's where they launch their careers," she goes on. "And for some people, it just adds a bit of funding to a project that already existed. It's very expensive making a great art installation—this is just another means of funding for artists in BC who desperately need it."
This kind of compassion is common at Bass Coast. For those unable to afford the $280 ticket price (which does include free camping), the festival offers an instalment plan. If you can't make that, then there's a volunteering program with all kinds of roles to be filled that allows participants time off at the festival.
"There's no separation between the role that a volunteer has and the role of a performer on the main stage," Thomson insists. "When you come and volunteer at Bass Coast, you are part of the incredible collective of artists. Belonging to group of people where there is no hierarchy is fulfilling."
"Everyone is so invested in the overall experience, they all put in way above the number of hours they need to for their tickets," Graham adds.
No matter who you ask, at any level of involvement, people just seem to glow when it comes to Bass Coast. It's a feeling that the crew are keen to keep alive as the festival gets bigger. Every small change is taken very seriously. One recent change was the decision to include a bar for the first time. Because of the dangerous river at the Squamish site, Bass Coast developed an alcohol-free culture. Walking around the site, you don't see too many people wobbling around intoxicated. This year, however, the crew built a 75-person bar next to the Slay Bay stage and made it the only licensed part of the entire site, meaning that even if you did imbibe, you couldn't take your drink outside and disturb people on the dance floor.
There was trepidation around officially including alcohol as part of the Bass Coast experience—especially from some seasoned festivalgoers—but it went down without a hitch. The bar even had little bit of the Bass Coast charm: when the security guard who controlled the entrance wasn't ecstatically dancing, he required a high-five for entry and exit.
"What's happened is it's filled out," Red says. "It's grown in a very organic and natural way, like how a tree grows, expanding its roots and its branches. They reach further and further every year, embracing and catching, picking up all these different elements. There's a trust that's been built, so it's just foundations laid on foundations."
"Bass Coast is a very loving, generous and accepting community," Thomson says. "You don't find litter, you don't find aggression, you don't find any of those things that you might find rampant at other festivals, because the tone isn't set to be an environment like that. It's a creative, safe, artistic environment, and everyone on-site is participating."
Community is what gets people coming back. Attendees at Bass Coast tend to be lifers, people who look forward to it every year and buy tickets before a single performer has been announced. That's because, for its regulars, Bass Coast is about more than just music—it's about seeing old friends and making new ones, about finding a space to lose yourself in that's both beautiful and close to home (very few people fly into the festival), and won't cost you a month's salary.
And while you're there, you've got everything you need. There are yoga sessions and workshops on everything from meditation to polyamory. This year, there was even a pop-up coffee shop that served fancy sandwiches and espresso drinks, as well as a whole food court, all flanked by elaborate tent villages where people host breakfast BBQs and their own small parties. For a certain group of dedicated music lovers in Western Canada, Bass Coast is a home away from home. And for others, it's just home.