Pop Quiz: Treefort co-founder Eric Gilbert

Eric Gilbert, one of the founders of Treefort Music Fest, was inspired to name the event by, you guessed it, the tree fort he helped build as a kid with his father, Dan, and sister, Janet, in their West Boise backyard.
Eric Gilbert, one of the founders of Treefort Music Fest, was inspired to name the event by, you guessed it, the tree fort he helped build as a kid with his father, Dan, and sister, Janet, in their West Boise backyard.

When Eric Gilbert was a kid, he and his buddies would race through his West Boise neighborhood, riding bicycles and traversing through acres of empty fields that once surrounded his family’s home. They played cops and robbers, explored “outer space” and made up other games about imaginary worlds of fun that would eventually bring them to Gilbert’s house and his backyard fort.

“It got a lot of use,” Gilbert says, wistfully, wearing a wide grin. At 38, it’s clear that he’s still close to that kid.

The simple yet sturdy wood construction still stands on its own between two trees in the backyard of his mom, Barbara. He and his dad, Dan, built the fort when Gilbert was 7 years old. (His father died in 2013.)

The fun Gilbert experienced then playing in his fort inspires the fun he’s having now, helping to build Treefort Music Fest. This year’s festival will take over Downtown Boise from Wednesday, March 23, through Sunday, March 27.

When Gilbert, fellow Treefort co-founders Lori Shandro and Drew Lorona and others were brainstorming for a name back in 2011, Gilbert’s thoughts went home again.

“We talked about it being childlike in nature and fun, and it didn’t take long for me to come up with it,” he says. “Once it came out, I recognized the subtle references to Boise — the City of Trees, Fort Boise. It was a natural fit.”

The idea of a fort as something you build also worked as a subtle metaphor. The “fort” notion became a hook for other community members to grab on to and create their own “forts” during the festival. As Treefort has grown, other people have created “subforts” for yoga, indie film, performing arts, technology, literature, kids activities, craft beer, food (new this year), stand-up comedy and more.

Now celebrating a milestone fifth year, Treefort is becoming part of life in Boise.

The evolution happened quickly. The event went from winning the Mayor’s Award for emerging arts organization in 2013 to becoming the city’s official Cultural Ambassador in 2015. It also received its B Corp designation from the nonprofit B Lab by meeting rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.

Treefort roots

Gilbert’s path to Treefort began at the University of Idaho. There, he planned to become an engineer like his dad, and music was a hobby. Then things started to shift.

“I interned at Micron after my first year, and it went well, but it just didn’t make me happy,” he says. “I decided to figure out what my passion is.”

He switched his major to English — poetry specifically — and took music classes on the side. Then, “One day I woke up with more music credits than anything else. So I switched majors.” Gilbert graduated with a degree in music theory and music history.

At the same time he was studying piano technique in class, he was also playing in bands. And he started getting his feet wet in the business side of music by organizing on-campus concerts.

Gilbert did a semester exchange program in Vermont and met his wife, Lisa Simpson, who came back with him to Moscow and earned her master’s degree while Gilbert finished up his bachelor’s.

“I was definitely a nontraditional student,” he says.

The couple stayed in Moscow for a few years and then moved to Hailey to found their band Finn Riggins. The Wood River Valley town became their base as the band toured the country, playing about 200 gigs each year.

The decision to do music full time changed their lives and connected them to a broader music scene. Finn Riggins signed with Tender Loving Empire, a label out of Portland, and with Gilbert’s expertise in booking his band across the country, he was soon helping other bands find gigs through his Helibase Booking. In 2009, the couple moved to Boise, aiming to be part of a local music scene.

By the time Shandro and Lorona met up with Gilbert, they all were trying to boost Boise’s music scene in their own ways. Shandro and Lorona wanted to open a music venue called The Duck Club. Gilbert was booking bands that inspired him to play locally and to connect Boise to the outside world.

When the trio combined forces, the result was the music festival. Instead of a venue, The Duck Club became the presenting entity.

You wanted to change Boise’s music scene. Is that happening?

I see the most tangible evidence of change when I talk to local bands and realize how much more motivated they are to play better, record better albums and have better shows.

I think that’s spilling over into other creative realms, too. We’re part of a group of people in town who are helping to raise the bar and are asking more of ourselves, mainly.

I feel like there was a low-expectations thing in Boise for a long time. We’re continuing to expect that we can do better.

How surprised are you at how the “fort” thing caught on?

I’m thankful that any of Treefort caught on. We didn’t set out with the idea that there’s going to be all these forts. It just happened. We said, “Let’s build a festival that helps build the music scene and helps build community.” And since then, we’ve been open-minded. That opened the door for people to come to us with ideas like yoga and story. I see their authenticity and intentions for each fort. So, I’m not surprised when the forts resonate with the community. I’m definitely blown away that so much parallel programming is happening around town, and it has been able to sustain at the levels we’ve been seeing.

What fort do you still wish existed?

With some recent discussions I’ve had, it seems like some sort of heightened art walk, or visual artfort of some sort, could be cool, if the right leader wanted to take it on.

Favorite Treefort moment?

This is maybe not a favorite moment, but certainly a defining moment: In the second year, our biggest headliner to date, Animal Collective, canceled five days before the festival. I remember being calm. I thought, “This festival isn’t about any one band.” Dan Deacon was going to be here anyway, so we asked him to step into that spot. Ticket holders didn’t flinch. Dan’s set was transformative. He flipped the show from the stage onto the crowd, and there was like this dance battle that was something I’d never seen in Boise. It was just cool. I love that moment. Dan gave this speech about towns like Boise, and how this is where it’s at.

What advice do you have for young musicians?

It’s not just about the instrument you play. You have to have a sense of the world around you. Understand why a good sound person matters. Understand how to book a show. It’s good to take lessons, but just get out and jam with people. Then be realistic. Don’t quit your day job, as they say. Get out of town when you can, to keep yourself real. It’s easy when all your friends come to your shows and tell you it’s great. Don’t just support your own band. Get out there and support others.

Treefort has helped launch bands like Hollow Wood. What bands are you excited about now?

Electronic indie-rockers Transistor Send had a couple really good Portland shows recently. Magic Sword does fantasy synth-wave that appeals to metal fans, too. It’s doing really well on an international level. I really like Thick Business. Their singer Sarah Pincock is amazing. She’s got this huge voice in a tiny body. And Clark and the Himselfs. He’s a one-man-band, and it works. He toured with Built to Spill, and crowds all over were really into it.

How do you see Treefort growing?

We’re growing through collaboration. The whole fort thing took awhile to take hold, but now people really want it, and they get it. Collaboration between forts is becoming interesting and is increasing. This year, we’ve got a new fort for food, so there will be collaborations between Foodfort and Hackfort, Food and Filmfort, Hack with Film, Film with Storyfort and Story with music. We’ll have another “Band Dialogue” that gets the musicians collaborating with each other in a different way. And musicians are spending more time here, enjoying the festival and seeing other things. It’s a good chance that is where things are really happening, not just on stage.

Are you a dog or a cat person? Wine or beer?

Cat. Beer.

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?

Engineering of some sort or possibly law. When I was really little, I wanted to be an ocean explorer, so maybe that.

Besides music, what do you do for fun?

These days, board games, basketball or hanging with my daughter Vera.

What three movies would you most like to watch on a long flight?

This may seem like a dodge, but the truth is that I very rarely want to watch a movie I’ve already seen. So I’d prefer to see three movies completely new to me.

Who or what inspires you?

Lately, my daughter Vera, Bernie Sanders and all of the amazing and proactive people in this community who I’m lucky enough to collaborate with as we create a future together that inspires us.

Who is your biggest influence?

In college, I really got into David Byrne and people like that, who come from a high-art perspective that challenges the audience. I got into his philosophy before his music. He was an art student, and he applied art aesthetics to the music, like John Cage and Philip Glass and others in the New York art and music scene. He (Byrne) was an artist who was aware of his limitations and made them work for him. I guess I can relate to that.

With all your music biz experience, what most surprised you about Treefort?

That we’ve been able to maintain its authenticity and kept it personable and approachable for this long. It is definitely a challenge we take seriously as we continue to grow, but I do think it’s something that sets us apart.

What’s your favorite place to take out-of-town guests?

Down to the Boise River.

What is on your bedside reading table?

“Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson and “How Music Works” by David Byrne.

What is on your current playlist?

Treefort 2016 artists. I’m currently working on the schedule, and I fully immerse myself as I figure out the grand puzzle of making it all work together. (Click here to link to Gilbert’s 2016 Treefort playlist.)

What is your guilty pleasure?

Watching football.

What motto do you live by?

The Golden Rule and don’t take tomorrow for granted.

Treefort 2016

Treefort Music Fest is Wednesday, March 23, through Sunday, March 27, at venues throughout Downtown Boise. A five-day general pass is $159 until March 1. Then it goes up to $179. Passes for those 20 and younger are $129 for entrance into the all-ages venues. The Zip Line ($299) gets you to the front of the line.

▪  Treefort pass holders get in to other forts on a space-available basis with their wristbands. Priority entrance is given to individual pass holders for each fort.

Click here to go to the complete schedule for 2016 Treefort Music Fest.

See a photo gallery from Treefort 2015 and link to more.

The other forts

Alefort, March 25-27: Brew fest will feature local and regional breweries in a tent near the main stage. It’s for ages 21 and older, and you pay with tokens.

Comedyfort, March 23-27, Liquid, 405 N. 8th St.: Stand-up showcases and shows with local and regional talent. Headliner: David Huntsberger. ($10 Thursday/Friday and $12 for Friday/Saturday shows without Treefort pass.)

Filmfort, March 23-27, The Flicks, 646 Fulton St., and The Owyhee, 1109 W. Main St.: A selection of local, regional and international indie shorts and features, plus talkbacks, Q&As and more. Filmfort-only passes: $20.

Foodfort, March 25-27, inside Alefort: Farm-to-fork focus with tastings, forums, discussions and more.

Hackfort, 8 a.m. March 23 to 11 p.m. March 24, The Owyhee, 1109 W. Main St.: Tech innovators will converge for Open Source Software Competition, keynote speakers. Hackfort-only badge: $20

Kidfort, March 23-27, multiple venues within Treefort: You’ll find creative activities for kids, from dance and music to hands-on arts and crafts.

Peformance-Artfort, March 23-27, various venues throughout Treefort: You’ll find street performance, live painting, acrobatics, dance and more. Find the Performance Art Tent inside Alefort.

Storyfort, March 23-27, The Linen Building, 1402 W. Grove St.: Readings from regional, local and national writers, poets and storytellers, including New York poet Eileen Myles, “Cocktail Stories” with the Modern Bar’s Michael Bowers and others.

Yogafort, March 25-27, Rose Room, 718 W. Idaho St.: Yoga and music with Los Angeles-based Marti Nikko and DJ Drez, trance dance with Boise’s Jeff Clark and a Hackfort crossover with Chicago’s Lizzi Cutler. Yogafort-only pass: $55.

Watch “The Beards of Treefort 2015”

Watch videos from past Treeforts at