Do you have any kind of framework or guiding principles to how you’ve organized Reverb Fest?
I've been to lots of music festivals at venues as small as someone's living room and as big as the entire city of Gorge, Washington. And I appreciate the experience each type of fest can offer, but as a promoter I much prefer the smaller side of things. I am inspired by a few fests that are unfortunately no longer, like Phuzz Phest in Winston-Salem and Treasure Fest & Recess Fest in Charlotte. These fests were tethered to their community and weren't lorded over by corporate interest.
What was your thought process behind the collection of bands you booked?
I've been talking with of Montreal for the past couple years and was able to confirm them as the headliner several months back. They proved to be a great band around which to build a fest, because they are so leftfield and hard to categorize. When I confirmed Beach Fossils for the third Reverb Fest in 2015, it was like, "Well, maybe let's take this fest in a dreamy lo-fi direction." But with a headliner like of Montreal, you can go in literally any direction, and I'd like to think this year's lineup is fairly diverse. Other than that, I try to find bands that sound fresh and exciting to me. Bonus points if they are releasing new music close to the date of the show.
What role do corporate sponsors play in organizing the festival? It’s easy for punk and indie fans to criticize them, but I imagine the sponsors can make an event better if they do it the right way. In your opinion, is there a “right way” to sponsor?
At the risk of sounding like a shill, I've mostly only worked with Pabst Blue Ribbon. They support the local music and arts scene heavily, and by my estimation do things "the right way" if there ever was one. They have sponsored Reverb Fest for the last three years in a row. They don't want to make any decisions on my behalf. They just seem to think what I'm doing is cool enough to support financially. Obviously, marketing is marketing, and presumably their goal is to use events like mine to increase brand awareness, but it seems pretty harmless to me. They put money directly into the budget for DIY events like Reverb Fest. I've seen them sponsor shows that like 12 people attended. They support the arts scene from the top all the way down.
This is the 5th year of Reverb Fest, so clearly you have a bunch of experience organizing festivals. What have been the biggest challenges?
If I'm being honest, this year's Reverb Fest has been by far the most difficult and outright frustrating event I've ever organized. For as many mistakes as I've been making, I've also been screwed over to the point where it feels like the fest is being sabotaged. I know that sounds awfully dramatic, but I've been waking up in a sweaty panic for the last couple weeks.
To answer your question less vaguely: The biggest challenge was finding a new venue on two months' notice when another venue cancelled on me. For anyone who hasn't been keeping score, Charlotte has lost a small handful of large (and small) venues over the last couple years, so this task proved to be nightmarish. Thankfully, Neighborhood Theatre came through for us.
The other biggest challenge? My own shortcomings as a person. My head is typically floating in space and I had to make myself hunker down and re-learn how to communicate effectively and accept help from friends. I had a band cancel on me because of multiple miscommunications that were entirely my fault. I've been promoting shows for over a decade and am still constantly making rookie mistakes. In the past, when folks have complimented me and said that throwing a festival must be hard, I'd kind of shrug it off and say it was pretty easy. But this year I raised the stakes a little bit, and there is more money involved, and naturally when you do something you love for the fifth time, it can be harder to channel your passion than it was the first few times, so you have to make yourself remember why you love doing it. And I'm desperately counting on catching that feeling on the 29th.
A lot of Charlotte music fans can’t believe our city doesn’t have a major music festival. Most of the other Southern cities that, fairly or not, we view as competitors have one. Raleigh has Hopscotch. Atlanta has Shaky Knees. Charleston has High Water. Even Birmingham has a festival now (Sloss Fest, which actually boasts a killer lineup. Vince Staples!) What do think this city needs to do in order to host a big festival? Do you think Reverb Fest could grow to become that festival, or is there another way to make it happen?
Hell yeah. Vince Staples played at Hopscotch Fest last year too. As far as Charlotte goes, it's tough to say. Festivals aside, Charlotte has been that skipped-over city for a very long time. Chapel Hill is still riding waves of being an indie rock mecca in the 90s. And Asheville has mountains.
It's easy to see why there'd be apprehension about hosting a big music event in Charlotte. High profile bands are ridiculously expensive to book, and so the risk is massive. You could probably open up three Jamba Juice franchises for the money it takes to run a fest like Shaky Knees each year. And Charlotte is a banker town. So how much faith do you have that Charlotte would buy enough tickets to cover your costs? Let me put it this way: I work at a music venue in town where we almost exclusively work with independent artists and book live music every day, and while many of the shows are attended nicely, we are never half as busy as the brewery across the street with the cover bands & board games. I'm not bitter; I love Charlotte so much and I wouldn't want to work anywhere else. But it's easy to see why things are the way they are. That said, Charlotte could host the next big fest, sure. All it really takes is for a few extremely motivated and smart people to make something happen. It's risky though.
Can you share your thoughts on a couple of the bands that are scheduled to play Reverb Fest this year? The bands that caught Cream Puff’s attention were Zack Mexico, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, The Coathangers, and Blame the Youth.
Those are all great picks. Unfortunately, Zack Mexico had to cancel. And Charlotte folks should definitely put Blame the Youth on their radar.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers have come through Charlotte a few times and have played at The Thirsty Beaver Saloon, which they called the best honky tonk in the South. Lots of love to them. Check out their new song "Keep the Home Fires Burnin."
I saw The Coathangers play at Snug Harbor for Shiprocked! a few years back and it was too perfect. They were switching instruments constantly, invited Shiprocked! DJ Scott Weaver out on stage to party with them during their set, and it was a great backdrop for their swampy punk pop. Favorite album: their self-titled from 2007. Favorite song: "Parking Lot."
Are there any other bands you think people should be paying attention to?
I am probably most excited about Boulevards, who will be playing the late show at Snug Harbor. I play his album Groove! all the time and have missed several opportunities to seem him live. He has a new album coming out soon on Captured Tracks. He mixes funk and synth pop flawlessly.
Reverb Fest 5 takes place Saturday April 29th at Neighborhood Theatre, Snug Harbor, The Station, and Lunchbox Records. (Tickets here)
In the meantime, we've shared a couple of videos from the bands Phil discussed.
Zack Mexico (they cancelled, but check this video anyway)