Holy Shit! One Dude (Basically) Books this Whole Thing! An Interview with FunFunFunFest’s Graham Williams

The 8th FunFunFunFest kicks off next week in Austin and though it may not strictly be an extreme music fest along the lines of the usual multi-day extravaganzas featured in this space, it is one of the largest fests I’ll have the opportunity to write about and still offers a shit-ton of metal and hardcore alongside the indie rock, electronic/dancey/DJ stuff and hip-hop. As well, wander around the site at the massive Auditorium Shores and you’ll stumble across pro skaters and BMX-ers, wrestling, enough food trucks to give Eat St. three seasons of content, hot dog eating contests, an air-cannon that fires tacos into the hungry crowd and stand-up comedy, this year featuring sets from Doug Benson, Kyle Kinane and the almighty Patton Fucking Oswalt! That says nothing of “Black Stage” appearances by Slayer, Flag, Judge, Gojira, Melt-Banana, Quicksand, the Locust, Narrows, Retox, Code Orange Kids and so on. And then there are the “Nights” shows in which more and more bands take over the venues of downtown Austin until the wee hours.
Last year was the first year I made the trek down for FFFF and to say it’s an overwhelming experience – the heat and the dust didn’t help, although who the fuck am I to balk at 90 degree temperatures in November? – is to suck back an understatement with a “No shit, Sherlock” chaser. I figured I’d try and get in touch with one of the people responsible for putting this whole thing together, specifically whoever is responsible for organising the Deci-baller friendly “Black Stage.” What I discovered is that basically one dude, Graham Williams, essentially puts this whole thing together! Don’t ask me where he found the time to speak to the Deciblog for 45 minutes a few weeks ago, but he did and here are the highlights.

I’m going to assume there’s not just one person booking the whole thing. So, where in the organisation are you and what’s your title?
Umm, I actually do book the whole thing.

Oh, really? Ok.
I’m also one of the owners of the festival and we also have a company called Transmission Events that does shows all year around and FFFF is our big end of year thing. We book a bunch of clubs in Austin like Red 7 and Mohawk and we do a lot of stuff at ACL Live. We book all year around and I’ve done that most of my adult life. I ran Emo’s for about a decade through the late 90s and early 2000’s. I left in 2006-07 and started Transmission and I had just started FunFunFunFest around that time.

So, the company and the fest run in conjunction with one another?
Basically. The fest was around about a year longer. I started the fest then a year later we started the company and booking a bunch of different venues. This will be the fest’s 8th year.

What was the original goal for FFFF? What started the whole thing?
Honestly, it started by accident. Like I said, I booked and managed Emo’s at the time. I had a weekend where I was booked up with a bunch of different shows and I had a bunch of bands coming through. I remember specifically I had Bouncing Souls one night, Cannibal Corpse the next and a big mix of punk, indie rock and hip hop and DJs all happened to be coming through Austin at the same time. I hit up a few of the clubs to see if anyone was available and no one was or could do the shows. It just seemed silly that Austin, supposedly the music capital of the world, had all these great bands and no one could get a show in town on December 1st. I had done a series of outdoor events with a local movie theater and we had done a thing earlier in the summer at this place called Waterloo Park down the street from Emo’s, so we decided to just put together a show for all these bands that needed to play. More and more bands got added, more and more bands happened to be routing through Austin that weekend and needed to hop on something that weekend, I’m not sure why, happenstance I guess. Long story short, we ended up making this festival out of necessity for all these bands needing a place to play. The first year was small and really cool and everyone loved it and we decided to keep doing it and it’s grown every year since into something bigger. The first year was just two mainstages and even those were pretty small; one was a bit more indie rock, the other was a bit more punk and hardcore stuff. There was only a little bit of metal that year. And then we had a small little tent with some DJs in it for the dance-y stuff. It was pretty small; maybe 3000 people. The first fest was one day and it was very cold on December 1st as a cold front blew in that day. For the next year, we moved it back a month, expanded the whole concept and what we were doing and it’s where we’re at now.

At what point did you start including the comedians, skateboarding, wrestling and all the “cultural” stuff?
After we added a day and moved it back a month, I wanna say it was the third year we added a fourth stage that was a mix of comedy and singer-songwriter stuff, anything that didn’t work on the big stage. It would have been weird to have an acoustic act between two rock bands or hip-hop or something. We were also starting to do more comedy stuff year-round at some of our venues and there were a lot of cool comics we wanted to have, but we thought it would be weird for a comic to get on stage while someone is sound checking drums behind them. So, we decided to make a smaller side stage for fun, cool stuff that wasn’t typical music stuff like wrestlers, hot dog eating contests and shooting tacos out of a cannon. Just stuff we thought was fun and funny and we thought added to experience. We started doing more skate and BMX stuff the year after that. It started pretty small with a local guy who owned a ramp. He had a skate shop and wanted to set up for some of his riders and then it got bigger and now there’s this crazy ramp and all these pros who fly out for it every year and ESPN covers it and stuff. Another guy handles that part of it actually. I don’t do any of the skate stuff just because it’s so massive and I don’t really know that scene very well. In only know the old people like Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, the Bones Brigade… there’s a non-profit group called Project Loop that’s based in Taylor that’s just outside of Austin and they help organise everything there and they do a good job.

I’m trying to imagine one person booking all that music and comedy. I can see if it was that much work but focussed on one genre of music, but the fest covers a pretty broad spectrum.
I’m just into a lot of different stuff. I came more from the punk, hardcore and metal scenes. I grew up in those scenes, so I guess that’s where the vibe of the fest comes from and I guess that’s sort of at the heart of everything and the way we present ourselves and market it.

At the same time, to keep abreast of all that stuff I’m assuming you have some kind of knowledge of the indie and hip hop scenes because you’re not just putting on name bands, there are up-and-comers and pretty unknown bands playing.
There’s a little of that. There are definitely agents I work with year-round who might have an act I’ll take a chance on because I trust them, but for the most part 80-90% of it is me. I think even though I grew up in metal, punk and hardcore, that got me interested in a lot of different music and in working at Emo’s for so long, I dealt with a lot of different genres. I guess I always believed, and still do, that underground music has like this big umbrella that encompasses all of it. It’s interesting how many bands share members from bands that are completely different musically who’re on this label which is the same as these bands they tour with. I like that idea. When I go to a show, I might be at a punk show, but I’ll see so-and-so from Spoon or so-and-so from Black Angels. It’s not like everyone’s tied into their little scene and they never leave. I think there’s a bit more crossover in every music scene than most people realise. I think labels and band members know that and obviously there a lot of people who are into one thing more than they are another, but the idea of the festival was always to present that and show that this is independent music and that were all sort of in the same scene. Everything may be separated by stages because a lot of people are going to stay at the one stage for a good chunk of time to see what they’re into, but it’s always pleasantly surprising or affirming to see two guys in Slayer shirts who are so excited to see Slayer also being excited to see Del the Funky Homosapien or De La Soul. And how often do you get to go to a show where you get to see those artists in the same setting? There are a lot of people who go to FFFF who are into everything, but I think most people are into two out of three or four stages. I always liked the concept that progressive music is progressive no matter what genre it comes from and that what FFFF has always sort of been about. It’s not so much about throwing a bunch of sets together that don’t match; instead it’s matching everything up by stage and putting it together so that everyone can be a part of it and check it out.

This sounds like something you work on all year.
Pretty much. Like I said, we book shows all year so there are times when I start focussing on it a lot more starting during the spring up until late summer. That’s kind of the busiest where I’m working on putting all the final pieces together. We start looking at some of bigger names a year out and those who are planning tours way in advance. After the new year is when we start focussing because that’s when people start planning tours and whether they can do the festival.

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Logistically, what’s the biggest nightmare for a fest this size?
Well, the actual nightmare I have three or four times a year leading up to it is that no one’s there. I’ve always had this reoccurring nightmare that we’re at the fest and we’re pushing back the doors waiting for people to show up and we’re telling Fugazi, who’ve reunited for this one show, “Sorry there’s no one here, I promise they’ll show up!” That’s the nightmare, hoping that people show up, but there are layers of that – hoping it doesn’t rain. We had a rain year that sucked and it washed out a day. We didn’t have to cancel, but it was nasty. That kind of stuff. But as for how the festival runs, it’s pretty smooth. I mean we’ve gotten better at it. Every year we’ve learned more and more and made our small mistakes that we’ve been able to fix. Our production team and our marketing team does such an amazing job getting the word out, branding the festival, doing amazing art and keeping the stages moving smoothly on-site. It takes a lot of planning, but we have a pretty good sized team that works around the festival all fall and during that weekend; we’ve gotten it down pretty nicely, I think.

I noticed that there seem to be fewer bands playing the black stage. Is the set up going to be different than last year?
We did like three bands less a day because instead of doing the double stage, we’re doing one big stage with bigger sound and bigger production. I always liked the two stage model because the bands could bound back and forth and there was very little set change and it lessened the gap of time between music so fans didn’t have to wait to long for something else to start. But at the same time, production-wise there were some complaints about there not being enough time between sets and that it could throw of the whole show. So I think production-wise, it’ll be smoother for bands to have a good amount of time between sets to make sure everything is set up correctly and the way they want it. Plus, we could go a little bit bigger if we struck it from two stages to one and that was the idea.

Last year it was Run DMC’s reunion for the show. This year you’ve got Judge playing. How much do you have to do with these bands getting back together to do these one-offs?
It depends. It’s probably in thirds. A third of the time someone hits us specifically because they thing FFFF is a cool option. A third of the time it’s us reaching out to a band, manager or agent and really just pushing to make it happen. Like this year, Television was a long shot. I saw that they were doing something in Australia and was shocked. We got in touch with Tom Verlaine, hit him up, he hit us back and said he was down. We got lucky there, just from being persistent. But the other third is because reunions are popular these days, so agents, managers and bands kind of plan it out. They’ll look at Coachella all the way to FFFF or whatever they use as their beginning or end for festivals. It’s up to us to be on top of things and make sure we’re part of that reunion. It sort of depends on the situation, but I think we take pride in trying to reunite bands and bring some classic stuff back to life because that’s what we grew up on but we definitely don’t want it to be like ‘old man fest’ where everything is nostalgic. I know if I was going to a show in the 90s or whenever and all the bands that were playing were older acts, I wouldn’t be nearly as excited as if it was all the bands I was listening to and just recently bought records of. I recognise that there are tons of kids who are listening to something different than what I’m listening to regularly and we want those acts to be on the fest and be represented just as much, if not more, than the classic acts. But we don’t want the fest to be just about kids; it’s got to be something that’s all about progressive music from modern stuff to the things that kickstarted the movement so many years ago.

After you made the early announcements about Slayer and Flag playing, does stuff like Jeff Hanneman passing away and the continuing legal whatever going on in the Black Flag camp make your heart jump into your throat and be like, “Oh no!”
It has in the past. In those two cases, Jeff had actually just died when we booked them and that was just coincidence. They played a couple years ago and Jeff had been sick for a while. When they played before, he wasn’t with them either. They happened to be planning a tour that happened to be coming through Austin the same weekend and their agent was looking for a venue. We were like, “Well, you could play a venue, but you’re going to be going against a festival that they’ve played. Why don’t we add them to the fest?” and we kinda rearranged things to add them because it seemed silly for them to be playing down the street for $40 when we have a big stage and they had a really good time playing last time. Jeff was already out of the picture, sadly, when they were planning that tour. And the Flag/Black Flag drama has been going on since before Black Flag even got back together. It’s a long thing that, considering and knowing the back story, would happen no matter what. If anything, it’s just silly, in my opinion. But that said, I figured it’d be really fun; I’ve gotten to see it and it’s incredible and it’s literally some of the best members of Black Flag, minus Greg Ginn of course, together on stage just playing those songs the way you want to hear them. It’s an incredible show and people go nuts. I’ve already seen it two or three times this year. But none of that stuff freaked me out or stood out too much. Of course, it’s horrible that Jeff died or when anything like that happens, but I don’t think it affects us too much. There have been times when things like that have happened; an artist puts out a terrible album that went in some crazy direction and is doing some out-there stuff live that people aren’t into after I’ve already confirmed them. Then, it’s just, “Well, hopefully people won’t hate it.” We have had bands cancel last minute because of health problems or whatever. Devo cancelled a week before they were supposed to play one year when their guitarist had surgery and was out of commission for a few months. Luckily we were able to get a replacement, but that was a pretty scary moment; that’s more the stuff I’m worried about happening than just drama because that’s something I can’t control.

Over the course of the weekend, do you get to see any sets or are you too busy running around?
I watch a good amount. I used to do a lot more. There used to be four of us running the festival at one point, doing everything from buying ice to running stages and it was a mess because it was such a small group of us and the fest was growing faster than we were. At this point, we have enough people. That said, there are still things I miss because I’m meeting up with folks or just because it’s a festival that’s pretty much every stage has something to my tastes and I can’t watch everything. It’s not so bad anymore, but I still get pulled in a lot of directions. Now, I make my list like everyone else and tell everyone that unless it’s an emergency I won’t be responding to texts or calls or whatever during Judge, for example.

You mentioned staff; how many staff and volunteers does it take to keep things running?
We have a good amount of volunteers, but we have a lot more paid people. Volunteers, you can only rely on so much because it’s a festival and they’re not being paid and their investment only goes so far. We have to hire a massive staff of security people from security companies; we hire a lot of people in-house. Like I said we run a lot of clubs, so we have a lot people who already understand what’s going on. It’s hard to hire from a random company and expect them to hire a bunch of people who understand why people are stage diving. We have a lot of our own people working the stages and bars. And then we have police, EMTs, staff and security that add up to probably another 100 people a day that handle everything else.

OK, here’s my usual, final go-to question: what bands are on your booker’s bucket list?
For sure, I have one. That whole staff does. We’ve got a dream list and I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve been able to cross a lot off my list and bring a lot of those acts back for a second time when it’s been feasible. Some of the dream list is unattainable, whether it’s some obscure band that will never reunite or someone who’s way too big for us to ever afford, but I’m always surprised at what we end up doing. I mean, the Run DMC thing still blows my mind that we pulled that off because anyone else with a lot more money and sway could’ve gotten them. Every year we kind of go through the list and update it with new acts. Sometimes it’s a giant legend like AC/DC or Iron Maiden, or sometimes it’s getting a band back together like Jawbreaker or some punk or hardcore band we listened to growing up. Aside from the unattainable and reunion bands, there are still a lot of great bands that still tour that we’d like to have and it’s just a matter of timing.