Travis Sutherland

Utopiafest Press Art

In the western hills outside San Antonio is Utopia, Texas, a small town with a population of 227, according to the 2010 census. In addition to being known as an idyllic rural community, it has recently been put on the map as the home of Utopiafest, an annual music festival that started in 2009. This year’s festival will take place Friday, Sept. 28 to Sunday, Sept. 30 and features psychedelic/indie rock band Dr. Dog, Texas singer/songwriter Ben Kweller, bass virtuoso Victor Wooten, Widespread Panic’s Jimmy Herring and, coming all the way from Mexico City, electronica act Mexican Institute of Sound.

Utopiafest reflects the size of the town by embodying the saying “less is more,” aspiring to be a smaller scale alternative to bigger festivals like Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun Fest. The producers have capped the maximum amount of tickets to be sold at 2,000. Just like Utopia’s tightly knit community, the small audience of Utopiafest makes it easier for people to recognize each other and turn strangers into friends.

“We want to maintain a feel of comfort and intimacy first and foremost,” said Travis Sutherland, founder and producer of Utopiafest. “Sometimes people get sick of being in massive crowds.”

Utopiafest takes the good parts of a bigger festival while trying to eliminate the negatives. There are no long lines or overwhelming crowds, and, perhaps most importantly, seeing a famous band doesn’t require staking out a spot hours in advance. None of the set times overlap, making it possible to see all 28 acts, 17 of which are local to Texas. 

The two stages are strategically placed between two large hills, creating an amphitheater that resembles a natural venue. The festival encourages interaction with the environment by allowing attendees to camp out on a plot of land only 150 yards away from the stage.

The Four Sisters Ranch is a 1,000-acre plot that Sutherland’s family has owned and lived on for five generations. Having become an Eagle Scout at age 13, Sutherland wandered the West Texas hills as a youth and has since sought to combine his passion for music with his love for the environment.

“I wanted to give everyone the opportunity to experience this land that we’re so blessed with,” Sutherland said.

New additions to this year’s festival include a second stage, an opportunity to pre-camp Thursday, three times the parking space, additional food vendors, upgraded lights, a laser show and more Porta-Potties.

“After last year I kept hearing ‘I had the best weekend of my life!’ from people, so that’s set the bar for me,” Sutherland said. 

Since its inception the festival has steadily grown in attendance and size every year, but Sutherland and his co-producers Aaron and Jamie Brown of Onion Creek Productions have expressed their intent to limit that growth.

“My only goal is to make the land self-sustainable while minimizing destructive tendencies,” Sutherland said.

In addition to the music, there will be a disc golf course with workshops led by professionals. Black Swan Yoga, an Austin studio located on Fifth Street, will offer yoga classes.

“I’m really looking forward to hearing great music and doing yoga out in nature,” said Joshua Whisenhunt, a Black Swan instructor and UT alumnus.

Utopiafest offers a diverse music lineup in a scenic environment.

“This is as close to a perfect festival as it gets,” Sutherland said. “It would really suck for you to miss it.”

Printed on Friday, September 28, 2012 as: Utopian hills come alive with indie music

UTOPiAfest is known for its intimate take on the music festival experience. Taking place in a natural amphitheater on the 1,000-acre Four Sisters Ranch, concert-goers will be able to camp out and listen to a diverse collection of acts that range from Japanese punk rock superheroes Peelander-Z to folksy, blues rockers Dawes. UTOPiAfest is the brainchild of Travis Sutherland and the Fisher family, who created the event back in 2009.

“Long story short, I decided to invite some friends out to play for a Saturday, and invited more friends and family to attend,” Sutherland said. “We ended up having around 200 people, and everyone had an amazing time. From then on my goal was to make the event a little bigger and better each time.” This year’s UTOPiAfest expects to bring in 1,500 people. To accommodate the festival’s growth Sutherland has chosen an eclectic array of bands to satisfy everybody in attendance. Along with Dawes and Peelander-Z there will be Sub-Pop’s Avi Buffalo, Chicago’s Cornmeal and The Giving Tree, Austin favorites The Black and White Years and Suzanna Choffel and the Wheeler Brothers.

Sutherland, along with the help of Onion Creek Productions director Aaron Brown, has been working since January to solidify this year’s lineup. “It was difficult: It took a lot of phone time and a lot of negotiating,” Sutherland said. “Aaron and I, along with a couple other team members, brainstormed a huge list of bands; I think Aaron reached out to almost 200. We always had our dream lineup in mind and we ended up pretty close to it.”

In addition to a single stage allowing every audience member to experience full sets by each band, UTOPiAfest will host a second stage where talented audience members and special-guest bands may perform during breaks on the main stage. This second stage, known as the Cypress Stage, will feature up-and-coming locals Cowboy and Indian, Little Lo and Les Rav.

Along with the live entertainment there will be art displays, yoga, camping and food from Chef Wade Schindler and his Party Thyme Catering crew. Schindler will be cooking up a selection of foods that include tacos, burgers, pad Thai, pizzas and crawfish.

Sutherland just wants to keep UTOPiAfest intimate and minimal. “My main philosophy has been simple and small, and I want to maintain that as much as possible. I just want to keep the focus on the music and the experience and make sure that every person involved has the weekend of a lifetime,” Sutherland said.

Printed on Friday, October 14, 2011 as: UTOPiAfest brings musical diversity to a single large stage