It’s 6 in the evening, and Travis Pangburn is sitting in the administration shack at the Kootenay Country Music Festival, finishing his supper.
With his short hair, square jaw and black, trim beard, he looks very much like he could be playing in one of the bands he’s brought to Castlegar.
He’s happy with the way things are going with the festival, the second time it’s been held.
“This is what I want to see for all the communities in the Kootenays,” he says. “I want them all to have a big festival that they can rely on in many different ways, and mostly for artistic inspiration. Because if you don’t have an artistically inspired community, I think it falls flat.”
The music festival is just one of the events run by Pangburn Philosophy, his Vancouver-based company. In fact, it’s just a small part of it.
In the last two years, Pangburn Philosophy has become a very big deal indeed.
Reason and Science
“I describe myself as a philosophical producer,” says Pangburn. “There’s a philosophical reason for why I choose the certain promotions I choose.”
That philosophy, he says, it to “let art and science inspire.”
After graduation, Pangburn says he was listening “to the heartbeat of the intellectual web.”
“I knew that soon it was going to be start becoming popular to think again,” he says of his decision to start the Science and Reason tour. “Once that happens, there is a need for intellectual discourse.”
“I found that producing very large-scale events that could have massive impacts on people’s lives, changing people’s lives in one moment in that live event, concert, lecture, debate — this prospect really inspired me to create Pangburn Philosophy,” he recalls.
Pretty big thinking for a kid from Kaslo who graduated from Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University) in live event production and theatre just a handful of years earlier. Up to then, he had worked for other promoters, learning the ropes.
To turn his ideas into reality he had to get hold of the right speakers.
Working the phones, talking to agents and managers, Pangburn connected with some of most recognizable names in modern popular philosophical debate — people like University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, evolutionary biologist and renowned atheist Richard Dawkins, and neuroscientist Sam Harris — giving them a global platform to air their views.
He started by renting the Chan Centre for the arts to hold the first event. Since, he’s taken the tour around the world, selling out venues with conversation and debate.
Controversy on stage
“This will be the WOODSTOCK of live speaking & debate,” shouts promotional material for an upcoming event at London’s O2 centre. “Harris has mentioned that he strongly disagrees with many philosophical positions that Peterson holds and believes that some of those positions are dangerous.”
Like an impresario at a boxing match, Pangburn’s descriptor adds: “British author and political commentator Douglas Murray will be tasked with refereeing this heavyweight bout, whilst providing his own insight into the contentious issues that will arise.”
Combative men with controversial opinions, with deep academic credentials and libertarian leanings to free speech, the people Pangburn puts on stage have become a lightning rod in the politically fraught world of academia and public discourse.
Some see them as brave intellectual warriors. Other accuse them of, to varying degrees, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, intolerance, and intellectual dishonesty.
But for Pangburn, that’s not a bug. That’s a feature.
“There’s an idea that people with fundamental differences, like Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, that things can’t be civil, that we can’t have a discussion without someone getting triggered, because the trigger culture has gotten out of control,” he says. “There’s so many examples of people trying to de-platform people because they don’t like some of their beliefs.
“I kind of like to go at the problem opposite. I like to give the platform for the ideas so we can go to war with each other’s ideas, and figure out what’s useful and what’s not.”
Changing lives — including his own
“I think what really drives the authors and celebrities I work with to want to work with me is the philosophy of the business, and my philosophy and my striving to make change in this world,” he says.
Pangburn Philosophy’s productions, he says, can be an antidote to some of the ails in modern intellectual discourse.
But being on the cutting edge of today’s belligerent culture is not for the faint-hearted. Pangburn has to hire security for his celebrity thinkers when on tour, and he himself has received death threats. He says he’s considering hiring security for himself now.
“There are aspects of this — I never intended — one of my biggest fears is being famous to some degree where I go out on the street and people can recognize who I am and come after me or my family.
“But at the same time it comes with the territory of what I am doing. I can’t be a silent leader necessarily. I like to be as anonymous as I can, but I like to do my podcast and put my voice out there, doing interviews and conversations. It’s just something I love.”
Once in a while, he gets to go back to Kaslo, and he remembers his roots there.
“I’ll always have place in Kaslo and the Kootenays and I see a lot of opportunities as an investor in the Kootenays,” he says.
He’s established a two-person office in Castlegar to build his local concert festival business.
“I think there’s a lot of room for people who really want an opportunity to do something great,” he says of the region. “Growing up in Kaslo I saw so many people that I thought ‘How is that person not already famous?’ I’ll mention Jill Holland, my drama teacher growing up. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have her until I moved away from Kaslo and saw so many teaching programs, and worked with other directors and producers.
“There are these gems in the Kootenays and even though it’s a small place, and there’s not a lot of people here, there are people here who can change the world.
“That needs to be recognized and I will be doing a lot to recognize that.”