An Interview with This is Hardcore Fest Head Honcho, Joe “Hardcore” Mckay.

Next Thursday, the eighth annual This is Hardcore Festival kicks off at the Electric Factory in Decibel‘s spiritual hometown of Philadelphia. This year’s line up is probably the most diverse and judging by what we’ve seen in advance to the weekend, 2013 promises to be the biggest in the fest’s history. We caught up with organiser Joe “Hardcore” Mckay for a little history of, and behind the scenes look at, what’s become one of the most popular hardcore fests in America.
What was your original motivation in doing the This is Hardcore Fest?
Well, Posi Numbers Fest in Pennsylvania and Hellfest, which was in Syracuse and later was in New Jersey, had both fallen out in the year before the first This is Hardcore. So, there was an obvious gap and at the time Philadelphia was instrumental – specifically R5 Productions – in trying to keep some kind of thing going when Hellfest fell apart with shows at venues all over the city. I think that showed that Philadelphia could do a festival.

Did you go into doing the fest with promoting experience already under your belt?
I’d been booking shows since I was a teenager. I started booking smaller shows when I was 16 and by the time I was 18 I was booking bands like 25 Ta Life, All Out War, E-Town Concrete and some of the heavier stuff from the end of the 90s at halls in my own neighbourhood. By the time that came around, I had done five years of my own band’s tours, I had roadied for another band for a year, I’d booked US tours and had a pretty decent and active social network just from touring and from knowing people for a long time. It did make it easy when I started making phone calls. Locally, around 2004, I started getting more involved because I started touring a little less and booking more shows in the Philadelphia area. So, it kind of all converged. If there was still a Posi Numbers and Hellfest, it would have been something like where I felt something was already going on, but with neither one of them in place and me doing my thing, it all kind of came together.

In doing shows vs. fests, did you find the organizational and logistical side of things drastically different?
I was doing single shows and tours coming through, but the scary thing for me in jumping from one to the other was that, at the time, I didn’t want to label it with one specific genre in mind. Posi Numbers was all about positive stuff and Hellfest had its intent, but was around when metalcore started to get really huge. I wanted it to be more of an umbrella where more things fell underneath it and no, I didn’t know there was a pulp record called This is Hardcore [laughs]… The hard thing for me was calling it This is Hardcore, keeping it hardcore, but at the same time, not limiting it to one thing. Through the years, something I’ve tried to do is to keep it open to a lot of different bands.

I’m sure you also know there’s a Dutch electronic music film documentary called This is Hardcore.
Yeah, yeah! Someone showed me that, the Dutch rave thing. But the hardest thing in transitioning was in the first two years, the Saturday and Sunday shows were like 12 or 13 bands each and the Friday show was eight or nine bands, so it wasn’t that difficult. It was when I started realising that we needed to have things like extra food and catering, giving the people more things to do [on site] and that kind of stuff. Now, we’re at the point where not only do we have to book the fest, but we have to make sure there’s other stuff to do because kids come and they don’t necessarily want to watch all the bands. I’ve definitely gone from being a show promoter to someone who feels like they have a three-ring fucking circus on his hands [laughs].

At what point did it start to shift towards that three-ring circus?
The first time we had a sell out at This is Hardcore was the first Saturday of the first one. But in 2008, it got to where it was really super-packed most of the weekend. I had actually shifted the fest one weekend forward. A lot of people wrote me saying that they couldn’t come to the fest because of college and the fest coinciding with the first week of school. We moved it one weekend back and, boom, that was it, sell outs ever since. It also helped that we had two or three years of no problems and everybody loving it; we had increased the numbers of bands and had a positive name attached to the fest. Things started to align. The weekend was easier for people to attend, more bands wanted to be involved and we had established ourselves. Once we did that, and that was the year we had Sheer Terror, Ink & Dagger, Kid Dynamite and the Cro-Mags that was a slam dunk and since then it’s been crazy. This year is the most successful year I’ve had with not selling out so quickly that people can’t get tickets. That sounds like such a backwards mindset from what we’re supposed to do. At first, it was like, “We gotta sell this fucking thing out.” Now, we’re at the point where everybody swears it’s sold out, but we’ve released tickets in increments, we’ve done a lot in terms of moving the venue and adding a fourth day so more people can attend. At this point, I kinda miss when it would just sell out so I don’t have to worry about anything [laughs]. Ticket sales are really good this year. I’m not worried about it. But there’s that thought where you’re like, “Hmm, I wonder how tickets are selling?” But it also brings us back to our roots because now we’re going to flyer and all that stuff we never had to do once we would sell out in the first 36 hours.

Are you at all surprised at consistency of fest’s success?
Yeah, I’m overwhelmed. Next year I think we’ll only do three days. When we put together the line up with the kind of money we have and to get the bands we have, it’s kind of surreal to take it to this. But I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen it where Hellfest went to having Public Enemy the year they imploded. You won’t see me reach for the stars like that. I have intentions of going back to three days. I was joking around with a friend who books Behemoth about having three days of hardcore and having Behemoth play on Thursday at a different venue, before it gets out of hand and we’re too big for our britches. I never intended for it to get to this. I’m really happy it’s got to be this way and a lot of it has to do with me not being greedy. There are a thousand ways festival promoters cut corners on taking care of bands…you see the stuff they do, whether it’s selling through merch stores or allowing bands to only sell merch for three hours or limiting the amount of merch they can sell or taking percentages. That’s another big thing: between 2008-2010, we spent on bands in 2009 what we spent on the entire fest in 2006. Incrementally, we’ve tried to put more money into paying the bands so we can get cooler stuff. This year’s the same thing; we take care of the bands as a first priority. Not just booking them, not just giving them guarantees, but feeding them, getting hotels, making sure bands that don’t get to play often get flown in and anything that can make the reunion stuff easier. For the older bands, I want to give them a reason to not say, “Why do I want to leave my house?” [laughs] It’s probably not the smartest business method on my end, but I want to try and treat everyone right. I’m getting tired of seeing ticket prices at what they are for the kids. If I was 18 years old, trying to come up with money for tickets…before it gets out of control, I’d rather slow it down, have it be solid and if we’re not the coolest, greatest, best thing that’s ever been created, then I’m sure someone else is. We sold tickets after only announcing 15 bands; people want to come because of what This is Hardcore has become. It’s been eight years and there are kids who don’t go to hardcore shows for more than two or three years anymore. I don’t ever think This is Hardcore is more than a vehicle for some bands to play in the summer, some labels to release records and for some kids to converge upon Philadelphia to hang out and see a lot of bands. I won’t use the term institution, but I just want to keep the goodness that we do going along. Like, this year, we’re giving away free pizza during Bane, we’re going to have a lot of fun shit to do outside during the fest for the kids who don’t want to see every band. I was literally on the phone with a guy who wanted to run a karaoke tent – I was like “What the fuck am I doing? This is crazy!” I just want everyone to enjoy themselves because there are fests in every major city.

Yeah, but I think sometimes what gets promoted as a fest is just a big show with a bunch of bands. There is a difference.
Yeah. Hardcore in Philly is big for a lot of people. The last fourteen tour dates and different tour packages I’ve done here, the Philly show has been the biggest show on the entire tours. We just did Comeback Kid’s ten-year anniversary in a room twice the size of what they normally do. We did the biggest show on the Nails tour. So, the local scene really supports here and we do have that on our side. I’ll talk to people and they’ll talk about a fest and having like 300 people there, whereas we have that once a month or more here at regular shows. But you need those sort of regional fests for the younger kids who can’t come into something like This is Hardcore. My intention was never to be bigger than anyone else. If you asked me the reason we moved to the Electric Factory, aside from having kids complain that we sold out too quickly, was that the venue we worked before with never seemed to be 1000% on board with us. It was always uncomfortable to be there all weekend with the heat and the crowds and we had to move somewhere. Electric Factory is not only a great room, but we didn’t want to go through Ticketmaster, we didn’t want a barricade and they were very easy to deal with. Every year around this time, I was always waiting for the Starlight Ballroom to call me and be like, “No fest. There’s a problem. We’re not having this.”

Do you have a day job outside of This is Hardcore and promoting shows?
I am a union cement mason and when I’m laid off from that, I work with George from Blacklisted and we rehabilitate houses. I wish to god in some way I could just do This is Hardcore, but I don’t think the stars will align that way, plus it would be a really fucking boring year. Emails and phone calls are cool, but I could never do that full time. It doesn’t seem to work for me as a person. Maybe one day; maybe we’ll get to be like Dynamo in Europe or something, but I would also never want to rely on This is Hardcore for my only income. If I’m trying to make money and book This is Hardcore I’d have to make some decisions I’d rather not have to make.

Last year you moved the fest from the Starland Ballroom to the Electric Factory. Was the switch pretty seamless?
Yeah, it was. You have locals are always like, “It can’t work. That’s the worst venue.” But then: it’s not a tunnel of hot, sticky doom; I don’t think I saw security grab anyone for moshing once; the stage is perfect; the bar was like in the whole balcony; it was air conditioned; last year we had seven food trucks, this year we’re going to have twelve, there’s a huge parking lot. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities and expands what we can do as a festival. It helps that it’s a venue; they have 200 shows a year and the guy who owns the place has been booking shows since the 1960s. They’re concert people. Their mentality isn’t “Hey, there’s a kid around the corner smoking weed, let’s kick them out” or something like that. They’re laid back and it was so much more fun to be there. Their biggest complaint last year was “You have 50 people on stage behind Gorilla Biscuits. You gotta watch that” [laughs]. It’s a completely different world.

Tell us about the This is Hardcore book?
Robbie Redcheeks is a friend and photographer from Philly and he worked on book with someone that never materialised. He said he wanted to do a This is Hardcore book and I was like, “Well, let’s do it, but not just with your pictures. If it’s about This is Hardcore, shouldn’t it be about everybody?” Robbie’s stuff is on the cover and he’s got some of the best pictures in there, but being inclusive and covering all six years from the first venue, it was important to have everyone involved. Then, I got my friend Tony, who works with Megawords Magazine and does a lot of artwork in Philadelphia, to lay it out and it was pretty retarded how quickly he did it. It took me longer to figure out who took what picture and what year it was from than it took him to knock it all out. And without the Kickstarter program, there wouldn’t have been a book. The investment money to do it just isn’t there because it was expensive, but it’s really fucking cool and it looks great. I collect hardcore books – I probably have over 50 at this point – and my favourites have awesome pictures, but they don’t really look that good; they’re smaller and a lot of the time it looks like a ‘zine made into a book. The one thing we did with the This is Hardcore photobook was to make the pictures stand out. There’s a very limited amount of text, a couple things from a couple different people and friends.

deciblog - this is hardcore book-cover-300x225

Was it designed to be an overview of the entire history of the fest, or at least the first six years?
Having a book talking about how great This is Hardcore was/is wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Instead, I wanted to make a really cool photo book, something you could put on your table for your friends to check out when they’re over – something that people are going to look at and say, “Wow, that looks great!” The pictures make the fest look cooler and sells it a lot better than descriptions and people talking about their experiences.

It’s the total a picture is worth a 1000 words thing.
Oh man, especially with this generation now! Putting out a book about anything is a nightmare. If it’s not written in 140 characters, I wonder if anyone if going to pay attention. It was important to be visually stimulating. We’ve been using the same photographers for years and they’re a very big part of This is Hardcore and when you look at the pictures they’ve taken over the six years, it’s like, “Holy shit, that was as cool as I thought it was!”

Have you encountered any negative reactions to Gwar headlining one of the days this year?
A little bit, but I’m not concerned. When I was a kid, Gwar was directly related to the hardcore scene. Dave Brockie is in American Hardcore – not that kids are smart enough to know that Dave Brockie is the dude from Gwar. But a part of what is hardcore punk is being “Fuck you, I’ll get covered in blood and walk down the street after the show” and I think a lot of that is gone in hardcore today. The new generation is very aesthetically stuck in a commercialised world and is very about looking a certain way. It’s like has come alive. At first that site was tongue-in-cheek, but it really is something that you see too often. You’ll have five or six different types of kids and no one wants to stick out, no one wants to be silly or have fun or smile. When Gwar plays to their usual crowd, the kids show up, shut up and have fun and I miss that. Gwar was literally one of the bands that got me excited about going to shows when I was a kid. It’s what me and my friends did; we’d all get together, wearing white shirts, and hop on the train together to go see them. Some people are going to be like “Holy crap, this is great!” and some others are going to be, “That’s not a hardcore band,” meanwhile they’re listening to stuff my 16-year-old daughter likes – pop punk bands that have mosh parts.

A couple years ago, there was a promo video that had a segment in it where you were acting out having flashbacks about pushing people off the stage and apparently that’s become one of those This is Hardcore “things.” What’s the story behind that?
The Starlight Ballroom had a very deep stage, but it wasn’t so wide. There’s a social etiquette that comes with getting on stage and if you’re from the sticks or somewhere, you probably don’t really understand that when you get on stage with a band, they’ve got microphones in their faces and cables across the stage and whatever. And what’s become the cool thing is stage moshing where a kid will get on stage, do his cool move, but get tangled in the cords. It’s like are you that fucking retarded that you get on stage and can’t see the microphone cables? So it became a matter of safety, but then people would ask me about physically throwing people off the stage and how safe is that? But it’s supposed to be ‘get on stage and get off,’ don’t just stand there and knock dude’s microphone into his face. As the bigger bands came to the fest, we ended up on stage, policing, keeping people from tripping and knocking shit over. And it was something people would film and people would make GIF’s of me kicking people and throwing kids off the stage. I can say I was a little high strung in those situations because I was a responsible if someone did something stupid, but that became one of the legacy things of This is Hardcore at the Starland Ballroom: Joe on stage throwing kids off, kicking people off.

Are you still involved in managing the stage in the same way?
I get on stage now and then. The cool thing about the Electric Factory is that there are a lot of different ways those guys work and as the production’s gotten bigger we have stage managers and all that. I just try to give the bands more room and space. I was on-stage for Gorilla Biscuits last year, but if things get out of control I’ll get on stage to keep things moving. I’ll be on stage this year handing out free pizza during Bane with a couple people dressed in costumes, it’s going to be fucking hilarious. That’s another thing: we’re giving away $500 worth of pizza during Bane and somebody’s going to complain that they won’t be able to mosh during their set. I can’t win, man [laughs].

Do you already have plans and aspirations for next year’s fest?
Absolutely. Now with Sound and Fury fest being RIP, I have this dream of not doing this in the dead of August anymore. It would be awesome to not do this at the hottest point of the year, but that might screw up everything. There are bands who couldn’t play this year who we’re working on for next year and bands we’re looking to confirm by September.

Who’s on your booking bucket list?
I’d love to do Hatebreed. We talk about that every year, but a lot of those “professional” bands like them and Sick of it All depend on being in Europe for the summer festival circuit and I get it. The days the stars align, Hatebreed will play. We were going to do Rancid this year, but with that French-Canadian fest, they decided not to do it. I had Flag confirmed, but they’re not going to do it now. I have a lot of dorky bands that no one else would give one single fuck about I’d love to see play. I love Starkweather, we had them play in 2009 and I’d love to have them again. The day will come that I’ll be on stage headbanging when Crowbar plays and if someone doesn’t think they’re hardcore or doesn’t like them, that’s their problem. They’re one of my favourite bands. Burn would be cool because younger kids missed out. Crumbsuckers would be cool because… how the hell does Europe love them but hardcore kids in America don’t? Then there’s stuff that’s not really big like No Innocent Victim, Disciple, Face Down…I’d love to do a Hellfest night. We joke around about getting Poison the Well to play, but have them only play old stuff. A dream band that can’t happen would have been Carnivore, but that can’t happen. They’re the band that got me into hardcore.

For multi-camera videos of all the sets from TiH 2012, go to their Vimeo page here.