Interview with co-founder, Danny Clinch. A weekend of great music, art and surf

How does one build a festival? It certainly contains hours upon hours of manually constructing the obvious items like stages, security gates and lounge areas, but before that, it all starts with a simple vision.

This weekend in Asbury Park is the first Sea.Hear.Now festival. For co-founder (and acclaimed photographer/director) Danny Clinch, the vision was a melting pot that consisted of many of his dearest passions; music, art, photography and surfing — all riding upon the crest of New Jersey.

With the festival circuit now booming in North America it was imperative for Clinch and his partners, Tim Donnelly, Tim Sweetwood and HM Wollman, to create an experience that was not only drastically different from the rest, but also contained a profound takeaway for any attendee. When the last notes of headliners Incubus and Jack Johnson ring-out and you store your board for the night, the impact of your Sea.Hear.Now experience may very well stoke a spirit that not only allows you to feel proud of the environment you participated in, but ultimately spurs a creativity of your own. Whether in the form of Brandi Carlile’s heartfelt lyrics, Rob Kelly ripping a cutback or Clinch’s jaw-dropping images, there’s artistic expression everywhere.

I recently had the chance to chat with Clinch on how the big wave that is Sea.Hear.Now came to be.

The first Sea.Hear.Now festival is right around the corner. How are you feeling?

It’s super exciting. My favorite time of year on the Jersey shore is September and October. The fall here is amazing. This has been a tremendous learning experience for me. It’s a whole new thing. With this festival, I’m helping creatively, I helped book the bands and all the way down to going over to the site and determining where the porta potties are going to go.

It must feel like Field of Dreams.

Yes, it sure does.

Do you remember the moment when you first thought of doing this Sea.Hear.Now festival?

Tim Donnelly and I have been kicking around the idea of doing something like this for a while. A few years ago, we did a small art, music and surf gallery on the boardwalk in Asbury Park. Tim pulled it all together and it was a great opportunity to celebrate the creativity in this area. He came up with this “Sea Hear Now” title one day. It just came to him after seeing something that Ram Dass did called “Be Here Now”. That was when we first formulated that idea. Then, we had super-storm Sandy. We wanted to do a fundraiser for people in the area that we knew who had been affected. We hit up a bunch of friends and put on this event at the Paramount Theatre, which included My Morning Jacket, Steve Earle, Joseph Arthur, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. We raised a good amount of money and it was also how we first dipped our toe in that water. We were very inspired by that. Shortly after, Mumford and Sons had this idea of going into communities that were hard hit. They came to Seaside Heights which is where I’m from. I saw this amazing collection of artists Mumford and Sons brought with them like — Alabama Shakes and The Flaming Lips. They had a great demographic and made the experience very memorable. Afterwards, Tim and I said to each other, “Man, that really worked.” That’s when we knew we had to do this.

We are also now feeling a cultural shift in New Jersey. Many of the tanning salons are now becoming yoga studios and juice bars. We’ve been inspired by this and even took a page from what Jack Johnson has done with his plastic free initiatives. We want to do what’s right for the environment and the ocean here.

We ended up going to a few different places and shopped our idea around. It wasn’t the right fit for some people and wasn’t the right timing for a few others. Eventually, I met Tim Sweetwood who puts on Shaky Knees in Atlanta. He helps develop new festivals for C3. We pitched to him. He thought it was a cool idea and came to Asbury to look at the site. We pointed out all the key points like the north side of Paramount Theater and Convention Hall, toured the boardwalk, and discussed the history of great musical events that have taken place here. They loved the idea and decided to partner up with us.

It’s crazy to think about. We first had the idea around 2012 but solidifying with Tim Sweetwood was just a little over a year ago.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Photo by: Danny Clinch

So, when you get the green light to proceed with throwing a festival, then what do you do? What is the art of building a festival?

The first thing we had to do was make sure Asbury Park was up for it — confirming the mayor, the board and the fire chief would approve. They were into the idea right away. We got their commitment and we then started to book the lineup. It was imperative that the bands were in line with what we wanted to do — musicians who surf, musicians that make art and musicians with a connection to Asbury Park. I knew we would compromise to some degree, but we got lucky that Incubus and Jack Johnson who are headlining, are avid surfers. Interesting enough, both bands have artists as well. Then we got G.Love on board, he’s a big surfer, as is Ben Harper. What we also had to think about when building the lineup was — who are we trying to attract? Ideally, it’s music loving families — young and old. Mom and Dad may want to go see Blondie or Social Distortion, but then you’ll have the 12-year-old kids who want to go see Milky Chance or Highly Suspect. So, Tim Donnelly and I knew many of the bands we wanted to play. Tim has lived in the Asbury Park area for 10 years, he knows the bands that would perform well here. This aspect was incredibly fun. As was the idea of brining surfers in. I grew up a lifeguard on the Jersey Shore and Tim who is a journalist, was a writer for Surfrider Foundation.

I’ve always thought there is a true creative connection to surfing and music. Surfing is a big part of this festival, correct?

Definitely. With Expression Sessions, the surf component here, we aimed to get the strongest surfers on the east coast to join us. There will be surfing contests. This will be in-between sets and probably during a few. Whoever makes the most out of a certain wave will win a cash prize. The point is, once we knew we had the necessary people on board and many of the artists on the bill, we had to think about — how do we treat the fans? That’s the most important component. To add in things like having a surfboard shaper onsite and yoga in the mornings, makes for a unique experience. We will also be bringing my Transparent Clinch Gallery as a pop-up on the festival grounds. It will contain some of my photography, plus Chris Stein from Blondie, Ian O’Neil from Deer Tick, the artwork of Brandon Boyd from Incubus, the twins from Brandi Carlile’s band and Jack Johnson and I are working on something. You’ll get to see entirely different sides of the musicians.

Jack Johnson. Photo by: Danny Clinch

The concept is so unique and different from most other festivals. In addition, many musicians on the bill have created waves of their own this past year via really beautiful and moving music. Brandi Carlile comes to mind. This was my immediate reaction when I first learned of Sea.Hear.Now.

You hit the nail on the head. Our lineup does not look like anyone else’s. Though this is mostly about musicians who surf, and surfers who love music, the point was everyone needed to fit the vibe and spirit. Frank Turner and Social D have played Asbury a ton. We also have some locals on the bill. I agree about Brandi. She’s done so much amongst the LGBTQ and then there’s the fact that she’s just a bad ass rocker. Her music is incredible. I did her last video and told her we were doing this festival and I’d love for her to be apart of it. I went to explain myself and before I could finish, she said, “I’m in. If you’re doing it, I’m in.”

Given it’s late September, we are beginning to realize we are the last festival of the season. We’re finding that, yes, our festival does not look like the others, but we also got some people who did not tour this summer. They are starting to ramp up now and figured why not start it off with a fall festival. We think Sea.Hear.Now can also be attractive to those who did not go see the festival circuit. Our site is very flexible. Regardless of selling out, it will feel comfortable, people can walk on the beach and go in and out during a certain time.

Ben Harper and Brandi Carlile. Photos by: Danny Clinch

Will the stages actually be on the beach?

Yes. Our footprint will start in the Grand Arcade — where the left side is the Paramount and the right side is the Convention Hall. The area on the beach where Anchor Bar currently is, will be the backstage area for the second stage. That stage faces north and is about 30 yards off the building. If you go six blocks down, there’s the main stage, which will face south. They face each other but won’t be playing at the same time. Then, at Bradley Park in front of the Paramount building and on green space before the lake, that’s where my pop-up gallery will be, plus another stage and food and drinks.

As an artist yourself, if you take a close your eyes moment, can you capture what this Sea.Hear.Now journey means to you?

It’s a great way of self-expression for me and my partners. Although it’s sometimes promoted as “Danny Clinch Presents” this is teamwork. Tim Donnelly, Tim Sweetwood, and HM Wollman, all four of us have been on the phone together every week for the past year, not to mention the thousands of emails. This is truly the culmination of a lot of hard work. It’s giving back to the community. Equally as important, it’s reinforcing the idea that music, art and the ocean are things that help you in your life. They are there for you to get through hard times and in times of celebration. We just want to get a community of people together to celebrate good art and good music, while sticking your toes in the sand. That’s what makes me proud. When I close my eyes, I envision being three quarters of the way through Jack Johnson’s set and it’s been a great, safe and fun success. I see me, my family and my partners in a group hug, high-fiving saying, “Wow, we did it and it was so cool.”

For remaining tickets, wristband activation and late night show info visit:

*all photos courtesy of Danny Clinch/Sea.Hear.Now

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