Pumpehuset, Copenhagen, DEN - 21/4
author PP date 09/10/13
This year, Rockfreaks.net will be sending yours truly alongside Tim 'TL' Larsen to Tampa and Gainesville, Florida to provide you with full coverage of what is quite possibly the premiere punk/emo/indie/garage rock festival on the planet with more than 400 bands playing this year, The FEST. Having been in the running for 12 years in a row, the festival has grown synonymous with stacked lineups of amazing small and medium-sized bands mostly from the punk rock and related scenes, plus an all-out party atmosphere where everyone's open-minded, keen to make new friends, and to party their lives out for a late fall weekend in Florida. It's the party that everyone's talking about across the pond (and even on this side, too, from what we've heard), so we grabbed the opportunity to talk to founder Tony Weinbender over Skype for what turned out to be for more than an hour about everything you ought to know about FEST. So whether you're an experienced FEST-goer, or this will be your first time this year, there's plenty of material to read through here. Or listen, if you'd prefer an audio version instead.
RF.net: Were you also the founder originally?
Tony: Yes, it's only been me. We've been up for twelve years. I live in Gainesville, Florida, which is where we host FEST at. I kind of came up with the idea because I moved to Gainesville from Virginia, which is about twelve hours north of here. That's where I grew up and that's where I went to college at. I moved down here for a job in 2000, and after working at this job for about a year and a half, I hated the job. Or I shouldn't say I hated the job, I loved what I was doing, I just hated the other person that I worked with. And so I was still like 25 or 26 or something like that, and I was like "you know what, screw this, I'm not gonna work here anymore." I had no plan, no backup plan. I started just kind of like being really broke for a while, donating plasma and selling off my musical collection. And then I ended up working and waiting tables at some restaurants. I moved furniture for a while. I just did whatever I could to get by.
And then some friends who knew me from Virginia who lived in Gainesville, we were hanging out on a back porch, drinking one afternoon. And the guys said: why don't you do a music fest in Gainesville, because I had started a music fest when I was in college called Mac Roc in Virginia. I didn't really want to do that type of festival, because that was more of a music conference. We organized as a backlash from going to CMJ, which is a college music journal conference in New York City, which is a really big industry thing. They send all the college kids there that work in college radio, all the record labels are there, and all the bands are playing these VIP showcases that you have to be on a special list for. And they're giving out free drinks to try to woo all the college kids into liking this band. And so kind of from that, we decided that we didn't like the bands that were playing that they had chosen at CMJ, we were like: "where are all the bands that we like?" Hot Water Music, Get Up Kids, Avail, or even like Superchunk at the time. And so we started our own music festival when I was in college in Virginia.
So then when I moved down here to Gainesville, all my friends who had played that festival like Hot Water, As Friends Rust, and a bunch of other people were kind of "why don't you do that down here?". And like I said, I didn't want to make it a conference, but then when we realized that we could just make it one big party, and start real small, it didn't seem so daunting. All I was doing was waiting tables at two restaurants, so I kind of needed something to put forth passion into. And so I did. I just started from the ground up, and the first year we did it, we had like 60 bands over two years, and I think we had four or five venues. So it was really small. But looking back on it, it seemed like the hardest thing in the world to pull off. Because I had come from doing it in college where we had... we didn't have college money to do it, we still did it on a shoestring budget, but at least there were a lot of people who were working with me on it. And then when I started in Gainesville, granted I had a lot of friends that wanted to help, but they had never done anything like this before, or been experienced in working with doing something like that. Hell, many of them had never even put on a house show or anything. So it was really interesting to start off and then look back twelve years now and see the magnitude it's grown, and how also we as a group of people in Gainesville who never had any formal training on how to do any of this, can pull it off. I'm the only one that works on this year round as a full-time job now, and that just started last year.
So then there's two of us, and then we have our friend Gabie, who handles the hotel bookings. She handles a couple of hotels, and then I tell her that I need rooms reserved for certain bands. And this year my friend Jen started working at a travel agency, so now when I need flights booked for bands, I send them to Jen, and Jen works out all the details for the flights, which saves me a lot of time this year. Other than that, there's nobody else who really works on this year around. Like I said, we just got two new interns, so they've been helping me with some stuff. But mainly it's our friends pull together weekends. I got a lot of friends who will head up venues and stage manage. Like I said, they've never had formal training, that's not what they do all year round.
But FEST training - last night we had our first alumni volunteer sign up, so if you live in Gainesville, you volunteer for FEST like a shift, and you get a pass for the whole weekend. So you work like 8 hours, and you get a $130 pass, it's kind of a good deal. But mainly what you get out of it is the experience of being able to work in that environment. A lot of these people have just been to shows, they've never first on had anything to do with before volunteering for FEST, anything to do with organizing shows, helping put them on. And so last night was our alumni volunteer sign up meeting, and we had a little over 100 people show up for that meeting alone, which was really awesome, because it's not publicized. We just kind of emailed them and said "hey we're gonna do this on the sneaky-sneak mystery thing for you, we're not gonna let everybody know this meeting is happening, but because you guys have been great volunteers in years past, you can do this." And last night, to start the meeting, I was like "how many of you guys volunteered last year?" and almost everybody raised their hand. And then I was like "so who here thinks they've volunteered the most years", and like four people raised their hands and said they'd been there for eight years. So you're right - you volunteered eight years in a row. I know that, because I recognize your face.
So it's cool, because these people are just as much a part of FEST as we are. Without the large volunteer staff we have running these shows, we wouldn't be able to do the FEST. We definitely wouldn't be able to do it as big and have as many bands. If we had to hire out everybody to run all the shows, we would have to cut our bands down drastically, because it would cost so much money. And like I said, it's a really good learning experience. I've had people who have worked their way up through the volunteer ranks, where they now get paid weekend at FEST, because they work the whole thing for me, doing specialized jobs. I've also seen people who have volunteered for FEST use it on resumes to go on and work for bigger production companies, because of the experience they had, like "Look, for four years, I stage-managed main stage at fest".
RF.net: Yeah, you learn a lot in the process, I'm sure.
Tony: You do, you learn a lot. And It's a good environment too, because the bands are still... they're not snooty. They're still on the same level as attendees, and they appreciate all the work that volunteers do. They appreciate all the work that we put into it. So I think we have a very unique situation here where you're not working for the band, you're more working with the band.
So FEST was more of a synonym for a party, and that's just kind of like what we all said. So when it was time for me to do it, I'm like: "I'm gonna call it the FEST". The party, you know? Kind of at the back of my head making a bold statement as well, saying you know, out of all the festivals there are, this is the FEST. It's kind of funny at 12 years now, it still is the party, and I still think that we are the FEST. We pull off a festival that's very unique to what everybody else is doing, but at the same time too, we've influenced a lot of people to be able to do their own festival where they live. Like Pouzzafest and Awesome Fest out in California. I think it's definitely an influence when they come here. Even Poison City's Weekender in Australia. I've never been to that, but I definitely think that Andrew learned some stuff when he came here for FEST and took it back with him. And that's kind of how I came about it, I guess.
Gainesville is a really small cool town. It's a college town - University of Florida is here, which is one of the largest universities in Florida. But other than that, it's a really, really small town. You can walk from one end of downtown to the other very easily. It's like twelve or thirteen walking blocks, it's nothing. And then we always organize FEST during the Georgia Florida weekend. It's when the University of Florida plays the University of Florida at American football, which is like an hour and a half away from here. So all the college frat boys sorority ding dongs, they leave. So we don't have to worry about that. So it's kind of like we open up the city for everybody who loves the same music, who has pretty much the same set of ethics and a DIY attitude, and just likes to have a really good time, come to this city, which is really in the fall it's the most beautiful weather here. It's almost like springtime in rest of the US. People are still able to wear shorts and go swimming during the day, and at night it might be chilly enough to put on a hoodie or a button-up shirt or something.
Gainesville itself has a lot of cool features. We have a lot of independent, really good restaurants. A lot of places are really vegetarian/vegan friendly, all the venues are very unique. They're not all big rock clubs. Each venue has its own different feel. Drinking and eating is really cheap in Gainesville, especially during FEST time. If you're coming from Europe, you've got some money to play with then. Your countries are doing for the most part better than ours. Like a Pabst Blue Ribbon is normally $2 for a 16 ounce tall boy. Average meal is around $5 to $7. It just works out.
As far as the vibe itself. I recently did an interview where I compared - it's kind of weird - I compared FEST in a lot of ways to a convention. Because you have these sci-fi conventions in the States, and you have comic book conventions, and you have conventions about classic cars, and you have conventions that are based around The Big Lebowski movie. There's one about that called The Lebowski Fest, where all these people come together to celebrate the one thing they love. I think that's a really good vibe of what that's like, because you can go to an outdoors festival, and everybody is kind of like sharing the same space, and loving the same band, but there's not as much interaction between the people. Here, you see people from all over nerding out and talking to each other about bands and where they're from. Everybody is so friendly, everybody is so nice. That's the one thing that the city of Gainesville comments about the fest. They're shocked at just how pleasant everybody is. And how nice everybody is. A lot of that is because we have people from the UK, and from Europe come over. And Australia and New Zealand, and Canada. Everybody from these places usually is polite and has a good sense of how to be an adult, you know? It's wonderful.
I think that what we put on is truly a music fan's festival. Especially coming from Europe. A lot of the people who come over love coming because they get to see bands that they would never get to see in Europe. They get to check out a lot of new bands in the states. Now granted, more and more, since FEST 3 to FEST 12 over the last decade, more and more bands from the States and from our world - indie/punk and DIY and whatever, our family - have gotten a lot more opportunities to come to Europe. And they tour Europe a lot more. So it's not as special as it was, but I think there's still something special to be said about being able to see a band that you normally see to play in front of like 30 to 100 people, play to a 1000 capacity room packed, full of everybody going nuts. It's the one time of the year where you're like "I love this band, we all love this band, this is awesome".
I get goosebumps for some of the bands that I'm friends with, or bands that I went on a limb for to play FEST because I really like their music, and I'm like: "Nobody knows about this band, but this band people need to know about, so they should place". And that's a lot of the new bands that play FEST every year. But seriously, I get these weird goosebump feelings of joy, like happiness for them, happiness for the people that are enjoying the show. It's not as much as I'm happy like "oh look at me, I did this great job", it's more like, "this is awesome, this is really what makes all the hard work year round worth it". It's just to see the utter happiness involved in one room, you know? Not to get weird and hippie and stuff.
RF.net: No, but I get it. There's a big difference especially from an outdoor stage to a small club venue, especially when everybody is more likely to know the band in the small venue as well.
Tony: Exactly. And our big stages aren't even that big. You're still right there with the band. You're still connected. We joke around that bands that play FEST are treated exactly the same. They get the same rider. We get these contracts over from booking agents, and I always have to tell them, it's cool that you just sent me five pages full of stuff that bands want, but everybody gets the same thing. There are no dressing rooms. There are no showers. They get a pass to enjoy bands for the weekend. Their pass looks exactly the same as attendees. They get PBR to drink. And we hook them up with a hot meal. And there's water, of course, so you don't die. But that's it. We don't have time nor patience, nor interest to having to baby or coddle anyone. There's not gonna be this big VIP tent backstage with press people and XBOX and Red Bull, and stuff like that. It's just you're out there enjoying the bands just like everybody else. That's the point of it. And I think that the bands that come play FEST really do get it. And a lot of them lose money getting here, and a lot of them stay for four days of FEST because they wanna attend it, and see other bands play, just as much as they wanna play. FEST fans buy a lot of merch, so I think that's why they come, too.
But I've battled with the city politics for the last - not punk politics but actual city politics - for the last two years just trying to get them to help us a little more. Setting on wasted space that we could use. It would also be nice if, you know, they're handing out grant money to other things that are organized in the city that aren't even a quarter of as big of an impact than what we do. But I think because we're involved with punk rock and stuff like that, there's always a bunch of people who are like: "oh this is awesome, we will help you, this is a great idea" when you talk to city council people. Then they send it up the hierarchy to the mayor and to the city lawyer, and they're like "eh, I don't know if we wanna touch this. Let them just keep doing what they're doing, and making us a bunch of money".
RF.net: That's kind of weird though, because surely it should be in their self-interest to have you expand? Because that'll bring more people, and that'll bring more money to the local businesses, and in the end also to the government there I guess.
Tony: Well yes, a big thing in Florida, I don't know if you have it there, but when you book a hotel room or a bed and breakfast, anything like that. You have to pay sales tax, your state sales tax on that. But you also have to pay a bed tax, which is an extra tax you have to pay. And that tax money goes straight back to the city. And that money that they collect from the bed tax, they're supposed to reinvest that into tourism. So we collect a ton of money in bed tax from attendees staying in all the hotel rooms everywhere, and that money goes to the city, and the city is supposed to reinvest that into better ways to get more tourists to come to the city. And what better way to invest in more tourists coming to our city is to give us some of that money, so we can make the price of the overall ticket cheaper, and possibly be able to invest into a bigger space to hold more people. But two years now, I've been barking up that tree, and I haven't gotten past the first notch in climbing of it yet, let's put it that way. But who knows? Maybe by FEST 13 they'll open their eyes and give us some love.
First year when Paint It Black played, they decided that they were gonna have a secret mystery show of their own. There's a giant empty parking lot right across from our main venue. And Dan Yemin comes up to me and he's like: "Hey man... I think we're gonna try to like play a secret show out at that parking lot at the end of the night when Dillinger Four's done." And I was like what do you mean you're gonna play, it's a parking lot, how are you gonna play? And he's like, we're gonna rent a box truck, and we're gonna play on the back of the box truck, and we're gonna get a generator and a little PA. And I go like damn that's a horrible idea. The cops are gonna be over there, and you're gonna get arrested, and then you won't be able to play tomorrow. You have to play tomorrow. And then he's like "well I mean, come on, it'll be cool, kids will be stoked!" And I'm like, do whatever the fuck you want, I don't care. You didn't tell me. I didn't know about it.
So after Dillinger Four's done, everybody leaves this venue, and right across the street there's a truck, and you have Paint It Black be like: "hey everybody come over here." And you can look at it on YouTube, I don't know how many people are out there, at least a thousand people in this parking lot. And of course within the first 20 seconds of them playing, the generator goes out. And they have no power. And it was kind of like this wah-wah-wah moment. You have a thousand people standing in this parking lot, stoked. And of course here comes the Gainesville Police Department, GPD for short. They could've been a lot shittier about the situation. But their downtown officer units ride around on horse back. And so here comes these cops on these horses, rolling up on the situation. And they're just like what are you guys doing, you gotta disperse, disperse, disperse. And there's people of course joking that there are pigs on horses and all this stupid shit like that, but for the most part, the cops could've been a lot more dicks about it. They could've fined Paint It Black, probably could've arrested them. But they didn't. They were just kind of like "oh you idiots, get out of here. Keep going, move." And it was cool. So that was pretty crazy.
Paint It Black also ended up the year before that, or year after that...I wasn't there. But it was upstairs in somebody's apartment. And I guess there were so many people up there that the floor was caving in, and showering down on the tenants below. Cops came to try to break that up, and I guess they let Paint It Black to play a song or two more, as long as everybody sat on the floor Indian style. That's on YouTube somewhere too.
I'm trying to think of other wacky and crazy... I mean every show is wacky and crazy, but those stories are some old stories that really stand out for the most part. I wasn't there, but Frank Turner left - the first year he played FEST - he left the venue, he was playing last on Sunday night, he left 8 Seconds, which is that cowboy bar he played, and went across the street to the parking lot, and tried to just play. And I guess there were like a shitload of people in the parking lot for that, and cops came up, and still allowed him to play like a song or two, before they shut him down. So for the most part, our police force in town, we work very closely with them. Because we wanna make sure everybody is safe, and that's their main priority too, they wanna make sure everybody's safe. They say that for the most part, we've had 12 FESTs and we've never had a fight at a show.
RF.net: That's quite impressive with that many people, especially.
Tony: I mean I've seen some fights, but it's usually domestic like boyfriend and girlfriend drunk screaming at each other getting into about something. But it's never like two dudes or two chicks being like, "FUCK YOU, I'M GONNA WOOP YOUR ASS". It's never like that. It's more like that everybody is here to enjoy themselves and to have fun. But GPD has never had to experience that. Once in a while they'll rope on people that...in Gainesville you can't openly drink in the streets, you can't have an open container, so they'll come up to people and say hey, you can't do that here, so you need to pour your beer out. And for the most part, people are like, oh, I'm so sorry, and they'll pour it out. But every once in a while you get someone who is a little drunk and yahoo about it, and they'll be like "NO!" and they'll try to chug their drink. And the cops will be like okay now you're just being a drunk, and then they'll go process them. They usually don't even give them a ticket, they usually just handcuff them, walk them over to the processing unit downtown, so everybody sees them in handcuffs. And then they run them, to make sure they don't have any like warrants out for arrest or anything, and then they give them a warning. I think a couple of years ago Chicken from Dead To Me was one of those paraded in handcuffs right in the middle of downtown in front of like 300 or 400 people. And afterwards we were like "hey Chicken did you get a ticket?" and he was like "No, the cops were being really cool about it man. I was being a dick, I was trying to drink the drink and I wouldn't give it up". Really, that $1 tall boy PBR, you're worried about three pours of that, versus agreeing with the cops? For the most part, I think we have a really good bunch that come, and that's a part of the experience as well, you know? Being in a friendly city that's open and happy that you're here.
That was also the end of tour, and I only had to sell merch one of the days, and the next day I had off. So Tony Foresta (Municipal Waste) and I woke up in some nice little bed and breakfast. And these nice little ladies got a meal for us, and we just immediately started drinking beers at breakfast. So it was a great, great day.
RF.net: So experience-wise, I mean it's two I guess opposite experiences in terms of festival, because Groezrock is kind of big and open outdoors, and then FEST is mostly in smaller venues. How would you think that the experience compares? Which do you then prefer yourself personally, and why?
Tony: Personally I prefer the festival that I put on, that's why I choose it that way. I like having my choice as an attendee, that I am not stuck in one giant field. You get a better sense of the actual town, and you get to explore other things that aren't shows, you know? You can go off and go shopping here. You can go eat in a nice restaurant. You can even leave the whole festival at FEST for like half the day and go float in natural spring water for a couple of hours, down like a river. You could go swimming, you could drive an hour and a half and go to the beach. I like that freedom as an attendee. And I like that kind of festival format.
Also, some bands don't work well outside. I always go after FEST, there's a festival in Austin, Texas called Fun Fun Fun FEST, and it's good for me because it's the weekend after FEST, so I get to go there and just relax and see bands. They have a lot of the similar bands that play FEST, but they're also able because of their sponsorship value. They bring in big sponsors because they are in Austin, Texas, which is the musical capital of the US. The city helps them out a lot. But they do it in a big giant park, kind of similar to Groezrock. I'd say it's probably the same size, except it doesn't have camping. It has about the same size of land and the same amount of people, but it doesn't have camping. There are certain bands that I love seeing, but then the first year I went From Ashes Rise played. I never got to see From Ashes Rise, and I'm so excited to see them. And then I go and they're playing at three o' clock in the afternoon outside. It's sunny and hot. It's not where I wanna see From Ashes Rise for the first time. So that was kind of a bummer, so then I got From Ashes Rise to come play FEST, and then I got to see them how I wanted to see them.
I still enjoyed myself tremendously when I was at Groezrock. It's just a very different vibe, though. I think that in the camping world, there's probably a lot of communal hangout, getting to know people and meeting people. But I think that's one of the things that I think is a strong draw to FEST, is that you come to Gainesville and while you're here for those days, you're gonna make new friends. And they're probably gonna be from the other side of the fucking world from you. And those people keep in touch with each other. And you're gonna have interactions with bands. At Groezrock the bands are just all backstage with catering in their little dressing room areas. They might come out in the field to kind of like explore or something, but for the most part everybody's backstage. So you're not connected in any way with the artists that are playing.
And that's how I like it, how I like our world to be. When it starts becoming a disconnect between me personally and the bands I book, or me personally and the fans that we have, is the day I'll stop doing it. Because that's not the punk I grew up on. That's not the reason why I'm still here, 36 years old still doing this stuff. I grew up on house shows and putting shows on for people, and people helping people. And that's how the industry was. There was no industry, there was just a family of people, and then you found out about other good people further hours away in other towns because they were helping each other. It was a network, it was a community. I think also Europe is very much that way. The United States is getting back towards that, getting away from just towns having promoters that put on shows, and just this thing between promoters and booking agents, and there's no contact between anybody within that town and the band. It's very disconnected, and it's gotten that way, but I think in the last couple of years, it has turned back around. I see more and more bands that we're friends with on a smaller level be able to do their own DIY tours in the States. And the same with bands when they come over from Europe, it's really hard, because it's so big, and also it's just that people are not as responsive as a whole to new music from overseas.
And that's one thing we as a festival have really tried to change since the beginning. We always try to have a lot of bands from overseas play. And we've seen a lot of these bands, not just because they played FEST, but because they are good people, because they work really hard, because they actually write good music. It's hard getting successful in the States when they're from overseas. And I think that's something that we really try to make FEST as much of an exposure opportunity for bands, and also having fans be able to be exposed to a lot of new music. It would be really easy for us to trim this festival down from 400 bands to like a 100, and just have 100 really big awesome headliners. But then what separates us from any other festival? What's the point? I'd rather pay the $100 and go to another festival, then, and not have to fucking work and not have to do anything, and really enjoy it, you know, than work all year and put on a festival, if that's what I'm gonna do, just another cookie cutter festival the same as everybody else is doing.
Check out part II of this interview over here - but do also take note of the time in the SoundCloud player if you re closing your current tab, so you can resume listening on part II.