Tony Weinbender

Tony Weinbender started The Fest in Gainesville, Florida back in 2001 with just about 60 bands. Now in it's eleventh year, The Fest (you might be familiar with it) has over 300 bands and is the biggest it's ever been. News Editor Kira Wisniewski chatted with Tony about how Fest today compares to Fest of yesteryear, must see bands at Fest 11, his bike accident emergency room adventure at Fest 10, and the fact that there will never be Glenn Danzig at Fest.

How does the Fest 2012 compare to the Fest 2001?
[Laughs] Well, big differences. Besides just the bands, it’s just way bigger. When we first started Fest it was just this small little idea. I think we had like three or four venues and about 60 bands, who were really just a collection of bands that I had become friends with after years and years and years of doing shows and playing shows in Virginia. And then when I moved here we decided to do something down here. The biggest difference is the size. There are people traveling from all over now. Bands wanting to play. For Fest 1 we were begging bands to play and a lot of our friends couldn’t play because it was like "Wait - what? Come to Florida? For a fest?" Because back then there actually weren’t a lot of fests. We didn’t have the capacity to even promote it beyond our little world back then. I was talking to a guy today at one of the venues who’s not that familiar with the Fest and I told him that he should stock lots of Magners Cider because a lot of people from the UK come. And he was like "What do you mean a lot of people from the UK come? How do you promote over there?" And we don’t really, we just have word of mouth from people coming to Fest and then going back and telling people they had a good time. It’s like how it’s been since the first Fest. People come and have a great time and go back and tell their friends and the next year more people come. And it’s been the same every year - it just keeps growing and growing.

Did you ever envision this would go on for eleven consecutive years?
No. No way did I ever think that. I honestly don’t even look beyond this year. I just do it one year at a time and keep doing it as long as it seems like people are into it and the bands are into it and mainly that I’m still into doing it. If it ever becomes too much of a pain in the ass or if I’m not happy with the ethics that are involved or the caliber of the friends that are playing I’ll stop doing it. I don’t know if I’ll be doing this next year or ten years from now. I just want to focus on things one year at a time. There’s no way I thought that I would be doing it this long. I don’t really think like "oh by the time I’m this age, I’ll be doing this." I’m 36 years old now and I don’t think I really am on a 36 year olds life plan.

As you mentioned Fest just keeps getting bigger and bigger every year, but as you also mentioned you don’t really plan beyond the current year - Do you think Fest has the potential to outgrow Gainesville?
I think that we’re at that moment now, honestly. I felt that way last year at Fest 10 and this year we’ve added a few more venues with some new spaces that have opened up and so we’ve been able to expand the capacity. And I’ve purposely didn’t promote super heavily this year so it wouldn’t sell out super early, does that make sense?

Yeah, but kind of a funny standpoint as a promoter.
I mean we will sell out this year. We’ve sold more passes at this point then we did last year. Last year we sold 3250. Our goal this year is to sell 4000. That’s what we’ve calculated our capacity at. Because then you also have to calculate the 360 bands this year and every band member gets a pass and every band that’s out of town gets two roadies. Then there are sponsors and press people and everyone that volunteers to work - which is huge - all get Fest passes. So the numbers add up quickly, but we can probably have around 8,000 people here this year.

And it works out in Gainesville because one -it’s my home. I love this town. It’s really harbored the community and the scene we have here. Secondly, all of the venues are in really close proximity to each other; if not almost touching. You don’t have to trek all across town in a car or a bus or whatever, it’s all right here. Gainesville also works well because it’s the weekend that the University of Florida plays Georgia and that’s in Jacksonville, so it’s like a mass exodus of college kids and normal people, so we’re able to bring a lot of people here that weekend.

It’s funny though, because actually today I was thinking that Gainesville doesn’t really have many legit venues. We really use every kind of space we can, but there are only like three legit music venues and they’re not even really that big venues. The main three big venues, they don’t do shows every night. When we go in to do Fest, it’s kind of like we really are running this thing. It’s not like we’re in a city where we can go to somewhere and it’s like, "Oh, you guys do shows all year long, here’s a big ass show, run it." We run it. We run it with the help of our volunteers. We’re bringing in full sound and doing pretty much everything except selling booze.

Can you talk about some of the new venues?
One of the new venues is called Stereo. It used to be called Abbey Road and before that it was called Brick City. It’s right across the street from the Florida Theater. We’ve actually used it a couple years back. It holds 800 people. And it actually used to be a 1000, but for some reason they are going with 800 now. Capacity issues fluctuate so much in this town; it’s very strange. It’s a great space. Attendees that have been here in the past when they figure out "Oh, that’s that place?" They haven’t really done shows in this space. They’ve been doing like hip hop or dubstep or DJ Aoki or whatever, but it’s really built for a rock club. That’s what it was originally designed to be. So we have that and I’m excited to have that back. We’ve had Dillinger Four, Paint it Black and Minus the Bear all play there, so it’s cool to have that back. Plus we’re putting in really good sound for the weekend.

Boca Fiesta, Warren from Against Me!’s burrito/taco/gringo Mexican bar - they have a shared common space the call "The Backyard" it’s an open air area that holds about 400 people and they share it with their friends that have a pool hall next door called Palomino. And this year we’re going to have bands play inside Palomino; kind of on the floor like a DIY house show style with like a local PA and then outside Boca Fiesta they have this really nice stage, it has a really nice overhang over it, and they have great sound. So we’re able to put some bands at night out there as well. So that’s an additional venue we’re using.

So those are the two new ones we are adding this year. But by adding those we’re able to up the capacity.

I’m sure during the actual event you’re running around like mad, is there a band(s) that you MUST see this year?
The list is massive of bands I really want to see. Especially this year. I mean, last year we did mainly alumni bands, so we weren’t able to have a lot of new bands play. And this year we have looooots of new bands. I almost wish I wasn’t putting it on the festival and I could just attend the damn thing.

But I’m really interested in seeing Crusades, Mean Jeans, Broadcaster, Code Orange Kids, From Ashes Rise - I saw them play once outdoors at a festival and it just didn’t feel right, so I’m really excited to see them play in a club. FYP - I haven’t seen them since I put on a show for them when I was like 16 or 17? It was at a Traveltown Lodge in Virginia. It was the place we had like middle school dances at. For me personally it’s pretty amazing to have FYP play, to have Braid coming this year, to have Lagwagon play. To have Propagandhi - we tried to have them play for years and years and it just never worked out. We had them play a Harvest of Hope Festival we put on a couple years ago and they were wonderful to work with and it took a lot to to figure out the logistics on how to get them here. But I’m super stoked that they are playing. I’m excited that Grade is coming back. Those are really good dudes and I’m stoked they’re trying to play music again. I mean the list is just endless of awesome bands. I mean, I put this festival together from the viewpoint of "bands that I like." Not putting a festival together thinking, "Oh, I should have these bands because people like these bands and they will bring people and I will make money." There’s definitely bands that are way bigger that have asked to play, but I’m just not that into, so I don’t want them to play.

Do you personally listen to and pick every band? Or do you have like a team that filters through bands?
I personally pick every band. We used to have an application process but I just stopped that after Fest 9. It was just too much. We had too many applications coming in. It was close to 600. Which is too much to listen to. We need that time to work on other things for Fest. It doesn’t mean that I still don’t get emails from bands and booking agents and record labels and that takes up a lot of time throughout the year. But I also enjoy that, because I really love music. I’ve always loved music. That’s why I sacrifice the majority of my life and probably a lot of things normal people would do for music. Still listening to a new band and that kind of chill you get from realizing "Wow, this is really, really good." The first thing in my head goes "I want to help this band. I want them to play Fest because I think people will enjoy them and it will be awesome for them."

We do get some suggestions from bands that have played Fest for a while and will say "Hey, there’s this awesome band from our area - you should check them out." Or friends will say, "Hey, have you heard this band yet?" But I really pick it all. There’s really no rhyme to it either. People have asked "What makes a band be able to get on Fest?" And the first thing I always say is I have to like it. Then we do some research to see if they’re good people, I ask bands in the area "Hey, this band’s from your area. I know you, how are these guys or these girls? Are they involved in our world/our scene? Or do they that outside band that really doesn’t get it and is just trying to blow up?"

What would your suggestion be for a young, up and coming band who would want to play Fest 12?
I would just not be worried about trying to play Fest 12. [laughs] I would be more worried about doing something active within your own scene. Helping other bands that are touring, and playing as much as you can. Traveling, touring, fucking it up, sacrificing. Writing good music - don’t write what you think people are going to like, write what comes from your heart.

Switching gears a bit, I recall hearing something about you and a bike crash last year during Fest - tell us more.
Yeah. It sucked. I was in a bike crash. We bike a lot during Fest here in Gainesville. Sunday night I had been at the comedy show - I was curious how Fest would take a comedy show, but it was really nice. It was in a really nice venue, there were seats and it was packed! Everyone was super nice and respectful. - I watched all of Kyle Kinane’s set and then I had to leave.

So I rode my bike down over to Loosey’s which was a venue I was supposed to take care of - checking with the stage manager, checking in with the owner. Then I was going to bike down Second Avenue which is right off the main strip of University down towards where No Idea is and then cut over to where the Holiday Inn is so I could meet with the security, because I decided for Fest 10 I wanted to really enjoy something so we threw a party. The idea was to throw a party after all the shows were done on Sunday night at the ballroom of the Holiday Inn where all the attendees were staying, where we have our registration, and where I stay for the weekend. So it’s the perfect idea, I’m going to bike back there and check in with security just to brief them and make sure they’re on point.

We have these roundabouts in Gainesville and I don’t think the majority of people that attend the University of Florida know how to work a roundabout. This specific roundabout is right in front of No Idea. So we watch all year, our office has a little porch balcony on the second level, so it’s great to take a little break from phone call and emails out there, and we constantly see accidents happening at this roundabout.

So I’m going and I kind of notice this car riding my ass and when I went to take a right out of this roundabout - I just felt this big push from behind. Like someone physically pushed me off my bike and over the handlebars. But I guess what had happened was the car clipped me. And of course I wasn’t wearing a bike helmet and I’ve never really worn a bike helmet, which is stupid, I know. So I flew over the handlebars and I get up and it feels like someone just hit me in the face with a bat and I was just disoriented and in shock. I was just like "Where are my eyeglasses? Where is my bag?" So I get my glasses and my bag. I do remember two people around me, but I’m not sure I even know who they were. And I just get on my bike and start riding toward the Holiday Inn to get to this meeting. I really just thought, "Well, when I get there I can just put some ice on my face."

And then I got to the traffic light and I feel warm wetness coming down my face. That’s when I realize I’m bleeding really, really badly and I can feel my right eye just swelling at a rapid rate. So I looked over and luckily a friend who I know was nearby - it was Eric from O Pioneers! So I hollered at him to come over and I can tell from the shock on his face that it must have looked really bad and he asked me what happened. And I was like "I just got in a bike accident and I have to get to the Holiday Inn. Call Cam." Cam has been my right hand man and bud and has been helping me with Fest for years. So he calls Cam and I go to Holiday Inn and they didn’t even recognize me because my face was so swollen and I was bleeding. Cam showed up instantly and it was kind of a blur from there. At that point I was still thinking I could do the meeting and the shitty thing was that I was the one that planned the party and my staff was all like "I’m not working that shit." So no one really knew what was going on with this party. I was going to take it upon myself and my friend Gabie, who works at the hotel, she was going to help me organize the lists. So Cam put me in a Holiday Inn shuttle, not even an ambulance, and makes me go to the hospital. So I give them passcodes to my email and my computer and all the lists, set times and the bands playing. Because at that point it was all mystery bands that were playing. It was all bands we were friends with doing cover bands. The party went on, but meanwhile I’m in the emergency room. It turns out I just had a really, really bad concussion and my right eye completely got swollen shut.

Did you have to get stitches?
No stitches! No stitches at all! The blood was just small cuts on my head. I was just really concussed. The worst feeling was waking up the next day and realizing I missed the end of the Fest. Did everything go okay? I didn’t have my phone or anything. I had no vehicle. I can’t even really remember the next day how I got in touch with someone. And when I finally made it to No Idea there were all these stories about how everyone was concerned, how there were all these weird rumors, but also that the party was figured all out and it all went fine. And I was like "Man, I should do this more often. You guys did all the work."

Well, if you surround yourself with good people they can handle it.
Exactly. And knock on wood this won’t happen to me or anybody this year. I firmly believe in karma in a sense that for every good thing something bad will happen. Things were just running way too well that weekend. Something bad had to happen! I’m just glad it happened to me instead of someone else. It wasn’t too terrible, I just had a horrible, horrible shiner and people had to pick up slack when I wasn’t there.

So perhaps aside from wearing a bike helmet while on a bicycle, do you have any protips for first time festers?
Yes. The big thing is to not try to see everything. Sometimes it’s just kind of nice if you’re in a comfortable place to just stay and see the next band you weren’t expecting to see. Check some new stuff out, and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. Try to get some sleep. Friday night everyone goes so big and you stay up super late and you party and rage. Then Saturday comes and they try to do it all again and by Sunday people are just worn out. You need to be drinking water and eating the right foods. Don’t be eating just greasy, gross shit because it’s going to make you shit. These venues get so packed that all the bathrooms in these venues get disgusting. And make new friends. That’s one of the cool things I hear from a lot of people about Fest. They come here, some people even come by themselves, and everyone is just so friendly. It’s just a festival of people that love music. It’s not a festival with people trying to camp out with hula hoops. Or people that are trying to be scene or anything like that. It’s a community of music from around the world. This is the weekend that once a year we all get together and have fun. Some people even call it the punk rock family reunion. So basically try not to do so much, but try to enjoy as much as you can.

We’ve done a food guide for Fest, do you have any secret Gainesville gems that folks should try to seek out?
That’s one thing about Gainesville we have a lot of independent restaurants between downtown and midtown. Personally for me, when I go out of town for a music festival, besides trying to find good cheap eats, I like to treat myself at least once and pay for a nice meal. Not something on the fly, it’s nice to take yourself away from it all and eat good food. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, I think Reggae Shack is the raddest option. It’s just crazy, spicy good Jamiamica food. There’s also this nice restaurant called The Top. They have a huge huge menu. They can cater to anyone’s palate. And the decor in there is amazing. There are crazy knick knacks everywhere. I personally eat at Loosey’s a lot. I like their menu. They have the best burger in Gainesville. And they have a huge, laundry list of toppings. We have this really amazing pan asian restaurant called Chopstix. They can make anything vegetarian. It’s on a lake. It’s near the Paramount hotel. And it’s affordable, you can get a huge entree that two people could easily split. There’s La Tienda which has very authentic Mexican food. Those are my picks I’d say. Try to explore and eat other things besides Five Star Pizza. I’ve eaten my fair share of Five Star during the day, but if you’re going to eat pizza eat Big Lou’s. And don’t eat at any chain places! You can eat that shit at home. Support the local economy here, if you eat at Taco Bell that money isn’t going back to Gainesville.

What really sets Fest apart from other fests?
There are a lot of fests I really support like Best Friends Day, Rad Fest, Awesome Fest, and Treasure Fest. It’s not like one of those fests where: There's a big of field, there’s a band, there’s a bunch of people in a field, but they don’t talk or interact. And with Fest, there’s no backstage or tent, the bands hang out with each other and go see other bands. Some of these bigger festival overseas and stuff, bands come in to play the show and leave. It’s just work. Our fest started with people that put on shows in that small club show or house show or basement show where everyone is involved and everyone is a participant. Our volunteers are pretty much attendees. The people running the show aren’t pro people that we flew in, they’re all part of the scene. The people working the door will be attending the festival the next day.

Clearly this is your job but this is a passion project for you. So to sum it up, in the most simplest terms, what is it that you love about Fest?
In the simplest terms is that we have created something that really helps bands. This is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was in a band and started doing shows in my small town when I was 16. Because I wanted to see shows and I would help bands come through and then they would help me when I was on tour and this was like ‘92. I think that same ethic still exists with Fest in 2012. We are able to help bands. We can have young band showcase what they have - I shouldn’t have said that; I hate the word showcase - but to have new bands come and play and people get excited and I see it ripple down. I see bands play Fest and then they go on tour and their shows get better. I see bands play Fest and then get to play overseas because people came to Fest and want to bring them to their town. Our attendees are the greatest attendees out of any festival. They are all part of a scene and help get these bands shows when they get back home. I like to see good things happen to good people. And if people [in bands] are jerks we don’t ask them back. There is no room for egos at Fest. There will never be Glenn Danzig at Fest. We might have a Danzig cover band, because I still like the music, but there’s no Glenn Danzig’s. There will never be a Mike Ness at Fest either.