Peace, love and indie rock rule at Freakout!

The Box Office
Photo by Aaron Thompson

Walking into the Box Office–an otherwise non-descript, beige building on Casino Center Boulevard in the heart of the Arts District–during a Freakout! is like stepping into someone’s basement or rec room. There is the faint smell of food in the background, as if your friend’s mom might be making dinner upstairs in the kitchen. Red tapestries cover the windows and people sit around the room in folding chairs, on old couches, worn carpet and random cushions. Surrounded by colorful, abstract paintings covering the walls and ceiling, musicians perform on a makeshift stage, lit by only a single track light and the swirling colors of a novelty-shop party light.

“The purpose of Freakout! was to showcase sideshow, performance art, dance, experimental, indie, shoegaze, and psychedelic music. The festival is best attended in its entirety to truly experience the ‘trip,’” says Jason Sturtsman, co-founder of the Freakout! series and “The Freakout! itself is supposed to be a piece of performance art. Turn on to art, tune in your mind and drop out from your previous ways of being.”

It’s obvious–by both the setup of the events and Sturtsman’s comments–that the Freakout! shows are intended to recreate the spirit of the late-1960s counterculture. While it’s a valid attempt, there’s a certain element of danger missing–as if the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll has been invoked without the first two facets. But given that the events are open to audiences 16 and over, it makes sense that Sturtsman and his crew play it somewhat safe.

“We started booking shows at the Box Office due to wanting a larger venue for the Freakout! shows that would allow individuals under 21 to experience music and art downtown on a day that was not First Friday,” Sturtsman says, reinforcing his focus on providing youth-friendly programming. “There are very few venues in the city for individuals under 21 to experience music and connect with their friends. There are also few places where young bands can develop before they play larger venues.”

Love PentagonDespite the teen-friendliness, the diversity of performance at the Freakout! events–typically held bi-monthly–offers something of interest to almost anyone. Swing Shift Sideshow often performs its freakish antics, including human suspension, glass-walking and fire-breathing. Bands such as Ambry Underground and The Modern Speed provide garage rock-influenced soundtracks perfect for zoning out. And Box Office owner Cion keeps attendees and performers satiated with a fully-loaded and reasonably priced snack bar.

Though it’s still ramshackle as a venue, the Box Office has become popular enough to yield other events produced by Sturtsman and his compatriots, including hip-hop nights and fashion shows.

“The goal of the Freakout! is to continue to grow the event’s size and to challenge the audience with new art and music,” says Sturtsman. “I would hope that someday we can move it to a larger location downtown or expand it out onto the streets of the Arts District. There needs to be other events happening in the Arts District downtown besides First Friday. I love the neon heart that beats downtown in the Arts District and Fremont East. It feels authentic to me.”

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