King Diamond Likes to have FunFunFun: An Interview with FunFunFunFest’s Graham Williams (Part I)

The 7th, 8th and 9th of next month sees the ninth edition of FunFunFunFest, a ginormous three-day mixture of all sorts of extreme music, indie rock, electronica, hip-hop, comedians, extreme sports and air cannons that fire tacos into a crowd of thousands, take over the city of Austin, TX. Last year, I introduced you to Graham Williams, the dude who essentially books this whole she-bang here. This year, we decided another chat with Graham was in order because one of the big coups FunFunFunFest landed was nailing down King Diamond to perform at this year’s edition with the full European stage show in tow. When this rare appearance on North American soil was originally brought to the public eye, it was before the tour that King Diamond starts next week was announced and, as explained, the tour itself basically exists because of their being booked into play at FFFF on November 8th. Hell, it almost happened last year, we learned to our surprise.
Below is part one of a long-ass interview I conducted with Williams about the doings and transpirings as they pertain to FFFF 2014. This part covers booking logistics, the Sick of it All anniversary sets (in which they’ll be playing material exclusively from Blood, Sweat and No Tears and Scratch the Surface) and, of course, King Diamond, not to mention an inadvertent preview of his upcoming tour. Part two is going to see Williams whip out his good sport hat and directly respond to some of the bitching, whining and complaining about the fest that’s turned up on the FFFF Facebook page. Look for that in the coming days before the fest.

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Maybe it’s my skewed perception, but the early bird tickets seem to go on sale earlier every year. When early bird tickets are announced, how much of the line-up is set in stone and how long in advance are you working on this before that announcement?
As far as the early bird tickets, it varies. We could have two bands booked, we could have twenty. Early bird is just a special option we do for the die-hard fans, to give them an option to get a cheaper ticket. They’re the kind of folks who trust us enough that they know we’re going to book something they like and they’re going to get their tickets no matter what. It’s a limited run and we do that at various times of the year, a few months out. It gets people talking and excited and I don’t know, I guess it’s something to do, but it’s not so much around booking. As far as how far ahead we book, that’s getting earlier and earlier every year. Festivals in general are booking more and more every year and it’s crazy just how far out people are starting to do stuff. In Europe, I hear they have festivals booked for 2016 right now, which is kind of mind blowing. I think it’s bands trying to plan out what they’re going to do in advance; a lot of bands plan out around festivals now, which is a really weird way of thinking, but it is what it is. Basically, festivals pay a little more, exposure’s a bit better, you get on a festival there’s a lot more press around it when compared to regular shows. So agents, managers, labels and bands themselves would like to get on as many cool festivals as possible, so they’ll start routing that out in advance and agents will start contacting us, particularly if there’s a reunion-type band who hasn’t done anything in a long time; they want to plan out in advance to make sure it’s worth it so they can maximize a year’s worth of shows. It’s interesting, and it’s the way things have been sort of shifting so you gotta keep up with that. If you don’t start working on it pretty far in advance, you run the risk of missing out on an act who locked into something else further out because everyone else is looking further out.

Does that make things easier for you because you have all these agents and people coming to you with pitches that much earlier?
Yes and no. It’s easier than it was in the old days in that bands are more interested in playing and people know what FunFunFun is so we don’t have to convince anyone of something the haven’t heard of. The flipside of that is that there are so many more festivals and promoters all pushing for the same thing that there’s more competition. And underground music, whether it’s punk or metal or indie rock or hip-hop, wasn’t that popular when we started doing this; only we liked it and now more mainstream festivals are starting to be interested in acts they’ve never heard of before and that the bookers don’t even listen to, but the tickets sell. This year I got outbid for the Replacements, a band you never would have seen on certain events, but with the popularity of different genres, a lot of these artists are starting to have more choices and options and a lot of people are looking for the same acts. That doesn’t happen across the board; there’s still a lot of stuff we’re doing that no one else is doing and that’s what sets us apart, but there are definitely some acts that end up on other festivals and shows that are happening around the same time as we are and the band can only play so many shows.

OK, so King Diamond. I know for a fact that a lot of other North American festivals have been trying to get him to play forever, but the sticking point has been the size of his stage show and money. How did it come to be that you nailed him for FunFunFun? Do you think it might have something to do with his having a heart attack a couple years back and his realising that none of us are getting any younger and he’d basically better do this while he can?
I don’t know so much on the personal motivation side, but I know there were some health issues and he held off from touring for a little while before. As far as I know, his booking agent is someone I work with a lot. I just started booking him a couple years ago; we do a lot of bands through him and he’s a good guy. Whenever you get a booking agent or manager or someone who gets what you do in your corner, it’s great because they can convince or explain to an artist why they should do this over something else. But he was actually almost confirmed last year. They were planning a U.S. tour and it routed perfectly, but it fell through. The cost of them touring is expensive because they bring a full-on, massive stage show. There are so many places you would think they could play, but they can’t play due to the stage show. Long story short, there are two shows on this tour that are in seated theatres – like how weird is it to see King Diamond in seats? – because those are the only places with the stage height and depth to hold their ‘Black Metal Broadway’ show. There’s a castle with a fucking iron gate in front of it, multiple actors and witches getting burned alive; it’s a giant show. Outside of arena rock shows, this is going to be much bigger than what people are used to and most places, like House of Blues that have big stages and stuff, still can’t fit the production and they don’t want to scale back their show. They’ve been doing it in Europe like this for so long and they want to keep it as is, so they’re flying all that stuff over. I’ve been told it was a complicated tour to route because it was very venue specific, production-wise. As far as us, I think they liked it, I think they’ve liked what we’ve done before. King Diamond lives in Dallas, so he probably knows a little about FunFunFun because we’ve been in Texas for a while and we promote heavily in all these other cities. He probably also knows some of the bands on the bill and his agent seemed really into doing it, especially after cancelling last year. I think maybe they were like, ‘let’s do FunFunFun next year and route a tour around it.’ I think it’s done really well; I heard almost all of the dates have sold out, which is crazy, and it’s exceeded everyone’s expectations. It’s been so long; he hasn’t played the states in forever and it was hard to gauge what the reaction was going to be, but I think everyone has been really happy with it. I booked him at Emo’s probably around 15-16 years ago – way, way, way back and that club was a dump then, the PA was horrible, the stage was small. They literally walked in, he looked at the stage and they got back on their bus and drove off. And there was a line of people outside! That’s what happened the last time I booked King Diamond [laughs]. The opening bands still played, but even they didn’t want to get on the stage.

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There seems to be a pretty solid reunion or nostalgia vibe on the Black stage this year with the Blood Brothers, Gorilla Biscuits, Glassjaw, Death from Above 1979, Rocket from the Crypt and so on. Is this in part because of these bands coming to you wanting to play and get the most bang for they’re buck because they’re not doing their respective bands full-time?
Yeah…but it’s hard to say. Death from Above has a new record out and they’re touring. Judas Priest has a new record and are touring, but there are bands you mentioned who play every once in a while or who are doing a string of reunion shows. But yeah, once you get past the head liners, there seems to be a lot of more newer stuff that’s happening right now like Deafheaven, Ice Age, Pissed Jeans and Pallbearer… all kinds of bands that are currently on the road and have records out. But it seems like, especially with the Black stage, there are a lot of older acts that have been around and have some legendary status. Whereas with the more indie rock and DJ stuff, fans seem really excited about whatever the newest, hottest acts are, even though we do have some older acts this year like Modest Mouse and Dinosaur Jr. It seems like in punk and metal, there are new bands people are excited about but usually it takes a while those acts to find their way into our musical selections or radars, so the bands people tend to be most excited about are the bands they’ve been listening to forever, but maybe have never gotten the chance to see and that determines the top of the bill. Like that new Pallbearer record is amazing, but they’re not going to be a bigger draw than King Diamond or the focus band on a festival like this. Ultimately, we want the festival to be different than any night of the week. You can see a band any night of the week, but hopefully at the festival you’ll see some bands that you’ve never seen before or bands you’ll never see again and when we can, we try and make something special happen, like the Sick of it All thing…

…Which is something I was going to ask you about. How much of a role did FunFunFun have in that because they do have a new record out and will be touring it around that time?
Well, it’s the 25th and 20th anniversaries of their first and third albums, Blood, Sweat and No Tears and Scratch the Surface, so they’re doing a special set of songs from those albums and that’s something they’re only doing for the festival. So, how it happened was that some kid posted on Facebook that it was going to be the 20th anniversary of Scratch the Surface and that we should try and get them to do that. So when I went to double check that, I also noticed it was the 25th anniversary of Blood, Sweat and No Tears, so I pitched it to them. The band were a little unsure about doing it because they do have a new record coming out and they’re not a novelty band coming back to do an old record and cash in. They’re still a working band. My point was that this is a festival and there’s only one 25th anniversary of a record. So, they’re going to be touring the new record and I think we might be doing a Night show with them where they do a regular set with the hits and new songs, but just for that 45 minutes or so they’ll celebrate those old records that got the band started. They seemed into the idea of doing something special just for the festival.

Logistically, what do you feel you learned from last year to make this year’s better?
We take detailed notes and have meetings over the couple weeks after we wrap up about what worked and what didn’t. Usually, it’s more about production stuff, there are always a few bands that didn’t hit home or do well or put on a great show and you have to think about that kind of stuff. Most times it’s day-to-day stuff. This year the layout of the park is different and our concern has been production-wise and making sure all the bands have the right stage sizes, that the audience is going to be happy and there isn’t going to be too much sound bleed because we’re having to do a different set-up. That sort of stuff concerns us second most; first most, of course, is selling tickets to make sure we can cover everything. Beyond that, it’s about what we do on-site and making sure it’s fun and interesting and making sure that people will want to come back. We’ve always prided ourselves on not being a typical festival, so we always try to think of what fun unique things we can do on-site that stand out in addition to the bands.

Is there anything brand new going on this year?
Nothing I can tell you off the top of my head, but we are doing a few things differently with art and the layout’s going to be very different, so that’s going to add to things being different. The VIP and back stage section are going to be set up differently and we’re going to have a bunch of funny things and surprises that we’re going to throw in later. Previously, the park we used at Auditorium Shores was along the water. This year we’re only using a portion of that park and we’re having to use the park across the street and close off the street because the area we’ve always done it in is under construction right now and they’re going to be planting all new grass. That’ll be great in the future because it won’t be dusty, but in the meantime our mainstage area is fenced off and covered in sod right now.

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