Q&A: Ratscape organizer Josh Schleupner talks reviving the festival, the need for new practice spaces and more

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A t-shirt design by Daniel Calhoun.

When I met Josh Schleupner for coffee earlier this week, the music festival he’s helping to organize, Ratscape, was “starting to morph,” he told me. Last-minute confirmations from bands were still rolling in, and he was waiting for some vendors to sign on.

But putting everything together seems worth it to revive Ratscape after a three-year hiatus. With other scape-suffixed independent music fests like Whartscape and Scapescape long gone and DIY spaces forced back underground after the Bell Foundry was shut down by the city in 2016, bringing back the community-minded Ratscape feels necessary–particularly in this political climate. And this year’s lineup, boasting rapper JPEGMAFIA, experimental duo Wume, minimalist post-punk musician Sneaks and hardcore group Joe Biden as headliners, is stacked with a wide range of talent from the city’s hip-hop, indie, punk and noise scenes.

Schleupner, Mike Franklin and Caroline Devereaux are also working to get Baltimore Music Preservation, LLC, off the ground, with the ultimate goal of opening a multi-use space for practicing, recording and playing music. And while Ratscape will help raise awareness for this cause, all the money raised through merchandise and alcohol sales and donations will go toward paying the bands.

Running from July 20-22 in the Ynot Lot and the Windup Space, Ratscape will be easily accessible from Artscape while also serving as something of a rawer antidote to it. I talked with Schleupner about why Ratscape is coming back, the need for new practice spaces, the festival’s underdog status and more.

Baltimore Fishbowl: Let’s start with the obvious. Why bring it back?

Josh Schleupner: Well, it’s taking too long to find our own place. It’s taking so long. In light of the the current political climate too, we were just kinda like, this event was doing, I think, some good for local morale. It was bringing people together. And we just couldn’t wait any longer to bring it back. We were hoping to have to only wait one year. One year turned into two years, and it started to feel like something was missing at a certain point.

BFB: Can you say what the delays were?

JS: Well, we wanted to have a place where we could do things our way. The Hour Haus had a great vibe to it. Doing it there is kind of more laissez-faire, people could do whatever they wanted inside, within reason obviously. It was very relaxed that way.

The Ottobar’s–I guess I can’t really talk shit on the Ottobar, they helped us out when Hour Haus closed in 2015. But it totally was not the right vibe for what we’re doing. It’s a lot colder in there. People have preconceived notions of what a bar is like before they go there. People already have these certain expectations of a bar before they go there. And we were trying to avoid that.

So this year we figured the Ynot Lot would be a good place to do it after we found out that it’s A) free to use, B) easy to access and C) very much about desegregation and integration in the community. So we figured that would be the perfect place to host us.

BFB: Talk a little bit about this group that you have trying to start a space. Preservation is in the name, right? So what are you trying to preserve?

JS: So many practice spaces have been going down, one after another, all over the city–for various reasons, mostly related to safety, health and zoning. I think underneath it all it’s really real estate pressures.

But we wanted to start something that was more clean, something that was done in a way that no one could take it from us. We weren’t renting it from somebody else in another city playing Monopoly with properties. So we figured maybe if we could own a building ourselves, then we would have the ability to keep it open for as long as we wanted to.

And the objective is to have a space that has both monthly and hourly practice spaces set up, discounted rates for kids and a place for younger people to come to organize whatever events they wanna have–as a good way to get people just getting started on their feet.

BFB: Do you feel like there’s a lack of that kind of venue right now? You talked about practice spaces, but what about venues?

JS: As far as venues go, there’s plenty of good venues around town. I think having a place to go see a show isn’t really a problem. However, having a good place to go see an all-ages show is a little harder.

But you know Windup Space is hosting all the after shows for Ratscape, they’ve always been great about all of that. They’ve always been very supportive. And they were the first ones there, right? On North Avenue?

BFB: One of the first, certainly.

JS: Yeah, I don’t think there’s a shortage of places to see things, but there’s a shortage of content, I think, because of the fact that there are so many bands that are displaced. We know at least everyone that was in Hour Haus either had to move into sort of a more cramped space or they just put all of their stuff in storage. And the same thing with the Fox Building, Studio 14–those are some of the main spots around town. So we want to have a place that’s right in the heart of things that can’t be destroyed, can’t just be taken out from under you.

BFB: One, will the proceeds from this go toward that goal? And two, what places are you looking at, what neighborhoods?

JS: The proceeds from this are going to be split up among the bands. We want to make sure that every band gets paid.

We need people to donate. We’re still waiting on some confirmations from pop-up food vendors. If people want to contact us about tabling or contributing in any way, they can do that.

But yeah, anything we make off this is going to go towards paying the bands. Right now it’s more about making sure that all of these people that really want to be a part of this are thanked.

BFB: Do you think given the factors you were talking about before, is it harder to keep a band going or get one started?

JS: Yeah, I mean, if you don’t have a place to play, that’s all. And practice spaces get crowded. Some people can’t even keep their gear in there. I have a space that people do keep their gear in, and we have like eight bands in there. They’re all fighting over time, and it’s too much for a lot of people.

Also hourly is good, too, for people that can’t afford to have their own gear or for people that maybe want to just practice some hours at a time or for people who don’t even know how to play an instrument yet or have one.

Rapper JPEGMAFIA, who came up through the Baltimore scene and is now based in Los Angeles. Photo via Facebook.

BFB: For people who may not be familiar with the bands that are on the bill, how would you describe this cross-section of Baltimore music the lineup offers? 

JS: It’s really sort of all the artists that are working the hardest in the city that I’ve seen, that tend to go either unsung or have achieved some nice, solid underground status. And some people just want to be involved, and I check out their music and I like it and they’re nice [laughs]. Some people are just good, and they contact us and you can’t say no to that. I’m trying to keep our our hearts and ears a little more open this year.

Our headliners are probably bigger than ever this year. We have JPEGMAFIA, Sneaks, Wume and Joe Biden. And Butch Dawson. They’re all taking off in their own ways. I mean, it’s pretty evenly divided, as you might say, it’s maybe even a little more hip-hop than rock ‘n’ roll this year. You’re kind of getting like a lot of the more subversive, maybe abrasive, more challenging music. Things that are sort of against the grain or represent our more unique style here. It’s weird, but it’s good and it’s us.

BFB: When you first started this, I feel like there were maybe more of these festivals, like Scapescape, Whartscape had ended a few years before that. And now there’s kind of dearth of them. Did that contribute to bringing Ratscape back?

JS: To be honest, it was kind off our periphery. We weren’t thinking about it. The other festivals were fine.

I think that there is kind of a negative outlook on festival culture. People get kind of tired of seeing so many all the time. But I think that ours is more community-related. What we’re going for is something that’s a little more grassroots and accessible. We’ve always gone for accessibility, more inclusivity, and so we want to have something that people can afford, something that people don’t have to try that hard to find, something that people don’t have to take the weekend off of work for. Something that can be shared by everyone, really.

BFB: I believe when I talked with you ahead of the first one, you said the mantra was kind of “we’re the rats.”

JS: Yeah, like unsung heroes or the people that are working really hard and maybe aren’t getting that kind of national recognition, because the city tends to see a very clear distinction between established artists and existing artists. Those were some phrases that were passed around during the Mayor’s Safe Arts Space Task Force meetings, which we attended because we wanted to make sure that if we had a space, it would be safe. But those were some terms that were kind of pushed around. For instance, Dan Deacon or Ed Schrader would be considered established artists. Whereas someone like Butch Dawson would be considered an existing artist.

I don’t really think that those things are mutually exclusive. I think being an artist, you exist, and once you’ve established a reputation, then you’re established. Now, maybe in the eyes of business and money, those things might be different. But this is about putting some eyes on people that may not otherwise get them. I think that bringing communities together and helping people support one another can make that happen faster.

This interview has been edited and condensed.



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