Maybe you have to be there to really understand it, but the seventh incarnation of Austin, T.X.’s Fun Fun Fun Fest (FFF7, for short) was unlike any other music festival in America this year.
Actually, maybe you don’t have to be there because this kinda says all you need to know about FFF7: For 2012, the festival debuted its Taco Canon. Yes, the festival’s organizers arranged for a large air gun to shoot soft tacos, nestled in FFF-branded T-shirts or bandanas, across thousands of festivalgoers. In many ways, the Taco Canon encapsulates the madness, fun, and absurdity of the FFF weekend.
But even if you couldn’t catch any flying tacos (dude, it was hard), there were half pipes full of extreme skaters, rollerbladers and bicyclists tearing shit up, in addition to a small WWE-like wrestling ring that folks volunteered to wrestle one another in. Then there’s the music which, over all these ephemeral thrills, is FFF’s true focus.
Notably, it focuses on reintroducing quiet legacy acts who haven’t played a festival (or at all) in some time. Moreover, FFF strives for genre diversity with a zine-reading record store clerk’s aplomb, emphasizing hardcore, punk, metal, and other ear-shattering genres with an entire stage dedicated to them: the Black Stage.
So, it’s not hard to imagine festival co-founder, booker and organizer Graham Williams being full of humor, candor, and more than a little piss and vinegar. In light of this year’s honor, Consequence of Sound’s Paul de Revere sat down with Williams and talked about what acts he wants Fun Fun Fun Fest to book in the future, that wild debacle last year with Glenn Danzig, and Val Kilmer’s crazy appearance this year.
FFF Fest is a singular festival in that one motivation is to get legacy acts that sometimes haven’t performed in 10-20 years and give them a large festival stage to perform on. You were one of the few festivals to score reuniting acts like Run-D.M.C., Braid, The Promise Ring, etc. this year. What’s the motivation behind that?
Yeah, I guess we do that more than others or least make it a big part of the fest. For us, it’s just about having that reach and presenting everything that is great about underground/progressive music, old and new. We never want to just become known as a nostalgia fest that only has old bands, as that defeats the purpose of FFF and doesn’t respect what bands like Superchunk, Run-D.M.C., Negative Approach, etc. all meant when they started. They were the underdogs and they were new and misunderstood. So we wanted up-and-coming acts, artists that have been touring a while and reunions.
Regarding the old-school bands, it’s great that they have their day in the sun now, but it’d be crazy if we didn’t have new bands which, in a way, are the next Run-D.M.C., X, or Superchunk. For us, it really is about that spectrum that is independent music. Some look at it as being a punk fest. And while it might be that in spirit, there are four stages of bands in the park and only [the Black Stage] leans punk. But compared to other fests that are so specifically one thing, it just seems that way. We really want it to be a balance of all things cool. We want it to be our playlists on our computers or our record collections at home, but live.
Who are some dormant legacy acts you’d like to score for future festivals, or ones you’d like to bring back from past FFFs? You guys have mentioned wanting to bring back Tom Jones or Neil Diamond doing old jams to the festival stage, getting Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Cure, New Order and A Tribe Called Quest out of limbo, Jawbreaker, Karp, etc. Who are some others you’d like to have on, returning or first-time?
Well, all that you mentioned. Though Karp is tough, as a key member died. I’d love to have Iron Maiden but it’s way out of our price range. Fugazi is a dream but unlikely. I think they’ll play again at some point, but don’t know they’d do something like FFF. The band kind of walks to its own beat, but maybe. A guy can dream. Born Against, Verbal Assault, or other hardcore bands that were small, but [that] I loved growing up and were important within a specific scene. There is a lot of cool comedy that would be epic, like a Mr. Show reunion live, Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle…and Carrot Top.
Are King Diamond and Venom already confirmed for next year, FFF8?
They’re both on the shortlist for bands to reach out to for the Black Stage [next year] and ones we tried for this year, but it didn’t work out. We don’t have anyone confirmed for 2013 yet. But [I’m] working on some stuff. Maybe we’ll get ’em next run.
Have you thought about going more of an All Tomorrow’s Parties-type route and having legacy bands play full records in sequence? Or commission specific works from them? Is that something you guys would consider doing?
Yes and no. We had X do Los Angeles this year and Bob Mould do Copper Blue. Part of me thinks that whole concept– while I loved it when it started, and ATP really kicked it off, I feel– has kind of been done to death. But on the other hand, people still enjoy it and some bands enjoy doing it. Plus, I think lots of bigger indie bands did it with ATP’s Don’t Look Back series and similar events, but not as many punk, metal, and rap acts, who are just recently starting to follow the concept more over the past few years. So FFF can kind of dip into that world a bit more than some festivals who don’t do a lot of that genre.
We’ve asked some bands to do it in the past and some have even come to us with the idea of doing a record beginning to end. I think it’s more about who is receptive to what. Some artists think it’s an insult to be asked to even do it. Maybe they feel they have a whole body of work and that asking them to only play a small part of it doesn’t respect what they’ve done and are still doing. On the other hand, it’s a fest and your fans pay a lot to see a classic band that hasn’t played in awhile and they come on stage and play mostly stuff people don’t like — it’s a bummer, too.
There was a lot going on this year at FFF. Terence Malick was shooting his new as-yet-title movie starring Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara, which involved people following them around, gawking or pointing. Another one of the actors in that forthcoming movie, Val Kilmer, cut off his hair with a knife, screaming crazy shit on stage with The Black Lips. Has this level or kind of visible insanity ever happened with an FFF before? Is this a regular thing or was this year special in that regard?
Yeah. I mean, there is always unique stuff happening at the fest, whether it’s funny/weird or funny/stupid stuff that we come up with around the fest, on stage, in the audience, online, etc.
This Malick movie seems like a big deal with the celebrity cache you got this year. Do you think the festival has reached a new plateau of popularity?
That particular level of notice from media was bigger than usual, since press is usually focused on the music at the fest… But it was more funny and noticed by [FFF] fans, where this year I noticed more mainstream press like People talking about the Val Kilmer thing.
On the topic of insane, unpredictable things that happened, you guys had to deal with the Danzig fiasco of FFF6 last year. Now that some time has passed since then, is there anything you can disclose about the backstage chaos that ensued with that? Would he ever be welcome to FFF again? What reaction did you receive from that whole debacle?
Danzig? No way, we’d never have him back. That was a nightmare. If the original Misfits got back together, I still wouldn’t do it. He’s unstable and out of control. Lots of artists are but this was another story overall. I mean, he’s like the Morrissey of punk/metal. He surrounds himself with all these yes men and it really is an Emperor’s New Clothes situation. So I guess it’s kinda nice that someone called bullshit and did it so publicly, even if we didn’t intend for our statement to be anymore more than shutting up a few vocal people online.
All the stuff that happened after, from Ted Leo doing a secret Misfits sets dressed like Danzig to all the T-shirts people made, to Slayer posting a can of French Onion soup on the Facebook page with over one million followers saying “Thanks FFF fest! We got everything we needed!” and on and on. All of that stuff more than made up for how bummed we were that it happened. [It was] just good seeing a lot of people support us and recognize that we wouldn’t do something to damage a show or artist in that way and respect the fans of the fest and the bands too much to pull anything like that.
How did the Run-D.M.C. reunion come about? The group’s set was so genuine and touching, paying tribute to Jam Master Jay and his kids who were behind Run and D.M.C. on stage, Run attributed the group’s reunion directly to FFF. Did you approach them or vice-versa? What was the pitch? How do you make that kind of pitch?
That was a big deal for us, personally and to the outside world. That was my first cassette tape in second grade. They’re still one of the most important and influential bands in the history of music. It was like getting The Clash to play a show, if Strummer were alive. I really believe it was bigger than some people even realize… I wonder if hip-hop would exist, at least on the grand scale it does now without them before? Like, would it have continued to be a small underground movement like punk and hardcore was in the ’80s or would it have fizzled out? I’m curious, as they legitimized it and were the kings of it
Anyway, “How did it happen?” Well, we were still trying to find that one “holy crap!” artist that we have every year that really gets people talking and us excited as well like Slayer last year, or the Descendents reunion the year before. I came across [Run-D.M.C.] on a booking agent’s roster online. I thought for sure it was a misprint or maybe it was just that the company represented their name for branding, T-shirts, speaking appearances, etc. I hit up their agent… and he said that, in fact, he had signed them earlier this year and that they felt with the 10-year anniversary of Jam Master Jay’s death, this was the year to do something, if the concept made sense.
So we offered a good guarantee and said that we wanted to work with the Jam Master Jay Foundation on fundraising. Plus, we wanted them to headline and stand out and not just be one cool act on a big list of bands. It didn’t hurt that, apparently, Chuck D is buds with D.M.C. and put in a good word for us with him, since Public Enemy played FFF last year and had a good time. The agent said Fun Fun Fun Fest having rock, indie, punk, hip-hop and DJs made a difference, too. On one hand they were a little confused by the fest, since it had so many bands that they hadn’t heard of on it. But on the other hand, they really got the concept and knew that the artists on FFF were just like Run-D.M.C. in ’83.
And you guys seem to strive towards diversity like that in your festival bookings. What other outsider genres not usually represented in the major festival circuit would you like to book at FFF in years to come?
I don’t know. We’re all about bringing new acts and all, but not exactly attempting to break an entire genre. Most fests, some even naively, overlook so much great music that is appreciated by people in the scene, but the fest bookers don’t realize it. So for us, we book it like a reflection of our music community and underground music in general. FFF has more in common with a cool record label, zine or collective that is all about different music within the same music. [I’m] not sure bringing in a whole new sound that many of our fans don’t already like gets a whole new fanbase or exposes everyone to something new if they don’t really watch that stage.
We always strive to be different from what other fests are but that only goes so far. If the fans of the indie, punk, etc. scene expand, we do too. And we often book some acts that are progressive and interesting, because we think kids will like Os Mutantes or Omar Souleyman, but it’s not like we’re trying to break into another world. If we had a full jazz stage, most FFF fans wouldn’t care as much and it’s not like we’d sell more tickets to a new audience, as our fest itself is somewhat specific in a way, even with all the different stages.
I’m personally not that into festivals that try to throw everything into the mix and hope it sticks, with no regard to what fans want. I’ll see ads for festivals with a ridiculous mix of bands, nothing matching or making sense… “Come see Metallica, TV on the Radio, Nickelback, Wiz Khalifa, Willie Nelson, Mumford and Sons, Robert Plant, Phish, Green Day, Enrique Iglesias and Aziz Ansari!”… Fun Fun Fun is totally different, I feel. We book different genres that compliment each other, not total opposites.
FFF also seems to stand out because of the non-music aspects of its experience: comedy, variety acts, extreme sports, the wrestling ring and the Taco Cannon, which got a moment of mainstream TV exposure on Good Morning America. With all of those differing bits of stimuli, what’s the broader festival experience you wanted FFF attendees to leave with this year, and for years to come?
[They’re] a big part of the fest. In a way, it’s another stage. It’s what makes the experience unique and more fun that just seeing a bunch of bands, which obviously is the main motivation to go. But we want people to come back and have had so much fun on site, it’s a memory all year. We’re always wanting to do things that reflect our personality and makes the fest seem alive: poster art, skate contests, comedy, shooting food from a gun. All this reflects our personality, as in part reflects people that go to the festival’s personality. I’m sure some people from other worlds would come and see it and not get it or think it’s funny at all, but we don’t do the festival for those people. It’s all about funny, stupid stuff that nobody else would do.
There is a definite element of comedy throughout the fest and all the non-music stuff is very “punk” in [the way] it just doesn’t follow any other model. The Taco Cannon was a crazy idea we wanted to do last year, but didn’t have the time or money. We’re constantly thinking of stuff we think is funny and seeing if we can pull it off. It’s a careful line we have to balance on of funny/matching our brand and not slipping into ridiculous/terrible.
Will the festival evolve/change from this year out? How has it over these last seven years? Will FFF stay at the Austin city park venue Auditorium Shores for the foreseeable future?
It’s a very local festival in that it reflects Austin and the style, local businesses, local companies, and employees and the like. However, it’s promoted nationally and appreciated beyond Austin for sure. Sixty percent of our ticket sales are from outside Austin. We do have a good amount of local acts, especially many of the opening acts, but it wasn’t really founded as a local fest for local bands. It started around a number of touring bands that needed a date in Austin and all the venues in town were booked, so it happened almost on accident.
People come to see it because it has so many great artists they’ve been wanting to see under one “roof” and most of those will remain touring/fly-in acts, but yeah, we’ll always have a strong element of local acts, as well as local food vendors, poster artists, comedians, vintage clothing stores, etc in the mix, as we want it to be about the city and its [music] scene in general. I hope it stays at Auditorium Shores, which was always a big concert spot back in the day. We’ll stay here if the city allows us to.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but FFF seems like a smaller, more indie answer to Austin City Limits, which takes place a few miles west and a few weeks before FFF. Was this festival designed or did it evolve as such? In that context, what’s your broader vision for FFF five, 10 years down the road, business-wise? Do you foresee ACL expanding to two weekends next year cramping you guys’ style at all?
Hard to say if two weekends of ACL affects us or not, but probably not. It’s a pretty different audience, for the most part. As for us being a smaller ACL, only in that we’re three days and have a bunch of stages in a park in Austin with bands are we really similar. But for the most part, I think we’re everything that ACL is missing and maybe ACL is everything that FFF is missing to their fans. But that’s by design. We book all the bands that aren’t playing ACL. It’s for a different music fan.
Most people in the Austin scene don’t go to ACL, believe it or not. The bulk of their audience are older parents in Austin (like my folks, that go every year) or more mainstream college kids in UT Longhorn T-shirts. So for kids in the scene in Austin, they know that they can just buy tickets to the after-shows that C3 and ACL produce at their venues at night after the fest and see the same five bands they want to see on the festival for cheaper.
We book what we know our fans want to see and what we want to see. We book the festival like our dream lineup every year. There is some crossover when booking with ACL. I’d say maybe 10 to 20 percent of the bands we book, they book too, but not too much.
Not trying to pick on you guys but I wanted to bring up an interesting technology flub this year: the embarrassing, accidental drunk text that went out as a push notification after the festival’s first day. Any chance we can get the story behind that?
[Laughs.] The “drunk text” was a joke. That’s awesome if people thought it was real, and I’m sure some did. I should actually let that one keep rolling, but no, we set up [push notifications] through the app to alert people with information like lineup changes, set times shifting, Taco Cannon launch times, etc. as we do with Twitter. But [we] thought it’d be very “Fun Fun Fun Fest” if we sent [notifications] in between informative ones to make it fun and keep people watching their app updates. Again, we want the fest to have a voice, like it’s your drunk friend with a big mouth and good sense of humor. All our Facebook posts and a lot of our Instagram and Twitter updates are the same way.
When our marketing head was saying we could pre-program the [notifications] to go out whenever we wanted with funny messages, it was our production guy, Max, that said “Oh man, we should do an ‘accidental’ booty call text,” so [James] Moody — my partner — typed that in immediately. He did accidently send it twice back-to-back, but that only made it more funny. We pre-scheduled an “apology” for the morning after, too. My only worry was that people might get woken up and annoyed, but in the end, I think they probably laughed and fell back asleep, if they weren’t still raging at an after-party.
Photography by Jeremy D. Larson.