Local Event Producer Jeff Stein Hopes Jackson Stays Wild

The curator discusses the lasting inspiration of Burning Man, the importance of protecting Jackson and the fate of the local music scene.
Jeff Stein specializes in creating unique experiences. (Courtesy of Jeff Stein)

Jeff Stein is a skilled curator based in Jackson who specializes in creating unique experiences.

Stein is an event producer for his own Nomadic Events spanning many years here, including as an artist in residence at the Center for the Arts in 2019. Most recently, Jeff was the director of arts and entertainment for the Natural Selection Tour and the festival director for the new Stay Wild Festival.

Following the conclusion of The Natural Selection Tour x Stay Wild Festival in Jackson, which featured acts of multiple musical genres as well as films and educational experiences, Jeff Stein joined us KHOL for a live interview in-studio.

The following interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. This conversation was recorded on Tuesday, Feb. 8.

JACK CATLIN/KHOL: So, the Natural Selection and Stay Wild Festival was a big undertaking, with many different musical acts covering all kinds of genres like Shakey Graves, The Librarian, Perel, Kishi Bashi, DJ Skratch Bastid and more. How did you land on this diverse group of artists and what was that curation process like?

JEFF STEIN: The whole approach to the curation was to try to use a blend. A mix of some established artists. People like Shakey Graves that are these incredible headline-level acts. He has played here before but it was years ago, and now he’s at a level that getting someone of his caliber is not normal. So we wanted to have a couple of those big “wow” acts.

Another part of the approach is that we wanted this to be a wide spectrum. We get a lot of certain types of music here in Jackson, and part of it with Stay Wild was we wanted to expose people to new stuff. To stuff they haven’t seen before. There was a hope that there would be acts that people had not heard of, which is not always a traditional approach to booking. But I think that there is a certain amount of trust that we’re trying to build. We’re trying to help expose people and give them an opportunity to see something they haven’t seen before. So this mix of established artists, [and] some up-and-coming artists like Saint Sinner, who I think is going to become just an absolutely massive act in the future, as well as some acts like Perel, who is a rising star in the Berlin House and Techno scene. And then people like The Librarian. She is not a rising star in her realm of Bass music. She’s a legend already and it’s incredible that we can bring some people that just don’t come into our orbit that are extremely well-established, [and] that are extremely well respected. We just don’t always see that here. And that’s sort of an exciting thing to do because it’s fun to be able to share our special place with these people.

A number of these acts have never been here before. To see their faces light up when they fly in. You pick them up at the airport and they’re like, “I had no idea. Those mountains are crazy. I thought we were, like, crash landing.” So there’s sort of a mix. You know, diversity is a huge part. We had hoped to also have some genres that we see very rarely, like Red Fang. And Red Fang is this incredible metal band out of Portland. And we were so close to having them. Literally, the day before their show, I woke up and I thought, “oh, wow, it’s the fourth day of the festival and things are going so well, you know, maybe we’ve gotten over the hump.” And then I open my email and it says, “we are sorry to inform you that Red Fang is going to have to cancel.” But the excitement that grew around that, that’s the juice. To see that our community is excited about supporting stuff that we don’t always get here because I think that opens the door to the future if you can build that trust and see that support.

KHOL: So you were quoted in the [Jackson Hole] News&Guide, saying, “our goal is to inspire and educate as we also celebrate this special area we call home.” Specifically to Jackson Hole being showcased to a larger, broader audience. Can you expand on the specialness of Jackson Hole and how great it feels to share this with a much larger audience?

STEIN:  I mean, I think that for all of us that live here and have the privilege to have lived here, we all recognize how powerful and special this place is. And I think that the next step of that is realizing how fragile it is that we live in a very special place. We literally live inside a national park, you know, and we’re surrounded almost 360 degrees by these incredible mountains. And these environments are becoming a lot more visited. We can’t stop people from wanting to come and visit, and that’s not the point. But I think that, for a long time, the focus was simply on, “how do we get more people here?” “How do we get more people to see and experience this place?” And that’s all fine and good. But now, again, we’re at a point where we have to take on a level of responsibility for also protecting it.

That’s where I see Stay Wild as being a really incredible opportunity. I have to really give thanks and tip my hat to Visit Jackson Hole and the Travel and Tourism Board, because they were the ones that gave us a huge grant that made the festival possible. I think that within that, there’s an opportunity here and there’s an opportunity to turn Stay Wild into a festival that is new and unique.

Yes. Do we want to bring people here and share this place? Yes, absolutely. But the point is not greater impact. The point is greater respect and protection of not only this area, but of all areas, [such] that people should be able to go back to their home environments and say, “wow, what can I do to help protect this place and stand up for this place within my community, within the greater region?” I feel like we here in Jackson have a very similar situation as [in] many mountain towns, which is our summers are just absolutely bonkers and everyone’s just trying to keep up. Everyone’s trying to deal with the influx of tourism and all the visitors and all of that.

And then winter is more of the time that people kind of go inward and have more time for themselves. But I also think that is a really perfect time for us to say, “what can we be doing to try to help protect and preserve this place?” Because if we don’t pay attention to that, things could change very quickly. My hope, and I think a lot of our hopes with Stay Wild, is that it can grow to become a benchmark festival for this place and one that helps define our collective ethos. Like. you look at other mountain towns that have done this. Telluride. You look at Park City. You look at other places that have, whether its film festivals or music festivals, and those have become these very iconic events. And a lot of them have done very, very cool things with the environmental programs or environmental initiatives that stem from that. And my hope is that we can do that here in Jackson with Stay Wild.

KHOL: So Jeff, you’ve done a ton of events in Jackson over the years, like the Contour Music Festival and Intergalactic Ball. You have said, “the common thread through this journey is that the focus has always been a desire to share art, music and culture in hopes that it can be a transformative force.” Can you touch on how the live music scene here in Jackson has evolved over the years and where you see it going in the future?

STEIN: When I started doing stuff here, like I mentioned, I came back from Burning Man. I had the fire in my heart and already there was, like, tons of house parties. There was this desire to be like, “well, let’s expand on that just a little bit.” I started throwing parties that were house parties but in other venues. I started building collaborative relationships with different restaurant spaces and bar spaces and things like that. So back then, I like to joke that I’ve gotten to throw a party in like almost every feasible venue in Jackson from back in the day. Throwing 50-person dance parties at Koshu, which now is now Bin 22, and doing bigger events at places like the Q Roadhouse and things like that and watching it evolve.

I feel like the scene evolves in parallel with the desire. And there has to be a group of people that want it. I think, like any place, that ebbs and flows because being an event producer is not this glamorous thing. People have this idea that, “oh you’re throwing parties. [That] is so easy, you must be making so much money,” and that is just absolutely not the case. It’s absolutely, to a degree, a labor of love. You know, when everyone goes home, you’re still there at 3:00 in the morning. Cleaning up. Dealing with all the things. And I think that we’ve seen, again, these ebbs and flows.

And there were these high points where we started seeing a lot more venues. We started seeing venues that were investing in the idea of doing shows that weren’t just 100% safe. When I was here in the early 2000s, the Mangy Moose was kind of the pinnacle. It was the epicenter of music. We were getting all kinds of great acts that were coming through there. And then that went through a period where that sort of stopped. And then they were just booking standard mountain apres bands, if you will. And there was a period of time when myself and Dom Gagliardi and “Cutter,” Brian James, there was an opportunity for us to actually become partial owners of the Jackson Hole Playhouse. For about a year and a half, we just went nuts. We were throwing these crazy parties in there and bringing acts from all over the West Coast, and folks are coming and supporting that. And out of that grew the opportunity for Dom and some partners to start the Pink Garter Theater, and Dom and Ethan Oxman had an incredible run for many years where we were getting really awesome musical acts that were coming to the theater.

At the same time, I was still and still have been throwing shows more on the underground deejay side in other venues. I guess what it all comes down to is we need to have business owners that have the spaces. There has to be a desire there. They have to want to support it. And if they don’t support that, then the scene dies and we are seeing that in some degree. COVID basically cut the legs out from the Pink Garter, and it’s currently in a state of unknown.

We were super lucky that we had the opportunity to throw a whole week’s worth of shows during Natural Selection in that space and kind of bring it back to life, which was a joy. My style is, sometimes, if you’re going to do it, you might as well overdo it. So I brought in a world-class sound system that’s really designed for probably up to 10,000 people and stuffed it into the Pink Garter. And then we brought up a whole lighting and visuals crew that just had absolutely incredible production levels for that space. And it was a real joy to get to be in there again. And I hope that there is a future there. If someone can potentially step in, that space is going to be available for, I think, lease or purchase. So it’s my personal greatest hope that we can find a way to keep that as a venue. It is such an incredible one.

The Wort and The Cowboy are starting to do a lot more music in those spaces, which I think is really exciting. The Cowboy is primarily more country and honky-tonk, but in The Wort, the Silver Dollar Bar, they are expanding the offerings, and those are both incredible spaces. We would love to do some shows there next year if that was an option. The main point is that having a venue is hard and having a venue in a ski town is really hard because there’s a lot of variables you can’t control. You could have a great act, and if it dumps, people might not go out that night. I mean, there’s just a lot of challenges.

So I think that you really have a two-part recipe. One is that you have to have business owners that have these venue spaces that are compatible with doing music. There has to be a desire for them to take that risk and there has to be a desire to help support our local music scene. Otherwise, it’s not going to happen. And the second part is that there actually has to be a desire from the community. You have to show up and you have to be willing to pay that ticket. Even if it’s more expensive. There is a real cost to bringing in these acts outside the middle of nowhere where we live. I really hope that both [of] those things can work in tandem. I feel like we’re at an interesting crossroads. We do have a couple of amazing spaces, the Center for the Arts being, I think, the greatest one. This is an amazing facility and venue for shows, and I just think people need to show up for them. And then when other shows happen, whether that is at The Pink Garter or any other space in town, if you want to see a live music scene here, then you need to be a participant.

Listen above for KHOL’s full conversation with Jeff Stein.

This coverage is funded in part with an Arts For All grant provided by the Town of Jackson and Teton County.

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About Jack Catlin

Jack is KHOL's music director. He says all music is in some way connected no matter the style and his mission is to provide listeners with a unique and memorable experience each time they tune in to KHOL or see him DJ live.

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