An Interview with Armstrong Metalfest Co-Founder, Jesse Valstar

Decibel has a good number of readers based in western Canada. That’s a true story based on a small amount of empirical research because I’ve met some of them! They’re real flesh and blood people who live in real houses in real cities and towns just like most of the rest of us. I approach this point somewhat (or very) snarkily because the western part of Canada is often forgotten about in metal circles and when the metal circuit is concerned. And it’s not just me; that British Columbia and Alberta are hotbeds for metal slips many minds, which is the sort of thing that happens as, naturally and automatically, our minds jump to Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area and/or Los Angeles when we think “west.” Living in an area that can be a pain in the arse to access also means that many touring bands’ impression of western Canada is the den of iniquity/shithole that is east downtown Vancouver. But there’s a vast, untapped market of metal fans champing at the bit and a growing festival culture catering to that crowd. The Armstrong Metalfest is one such event and has grown from its initial, humble beginnings seven years ago to be a regular mainstay, with its south-central BC location making for a popular summertime destination for fans and bands alike. We tracked down co-founder Jesse Valstar to get the low-down, learning that many of the cities’ business owners are old-school rockers and what a “beer helmet march” is in the process.

First off, can you give us some background and history about the Armstrong fest? What was its original impetus and inspiration and how has it changed over the years?

Jesse Valstar: Well, Armstrong Metalfest has quite a bit of history! It was started back in 2009 as a backyard party originally called Armstrong Open Air. It was a free, single-day event where we invited eleven local bands in the area to come play and told them to invite all their friends. All the bands chipped in to make the event happen. After the first year, there were a lot of people asking if we were going to do it again. [Co-founder] Bretton Melanson and myself were both nineteen at the time and we were fairly ambitious so we said, “Hell yeah, we are!” and immediately started planning for the next year. For the stage for the first year, we used a flat deck trailer and built a tarp roof over it. So, for the second year we decided to up the event to the next level and add an extra stage – meaning a few more flat deck trailers! The second year was a hit! We had sixteen bands over the one day and everything ran fairly smooth. It was tough because our volunteer count was pretty low, so we had a small group of people doing a lot to keep the machine in motion. After the second year, Bretton’s parents said we would have to find a different place to have the event because it had outgrown the farm. We had to make a move. We had the brand of Armstrong Open Air, so that meant we had to find somewhere in Armstrong to hold our event. After a good while of searching, we had the opportunity to book the fairgrounds in Armstrong. That was a very big deal to us, so we went ahead a jumped on it. Booking an actual event at a real place was a lot of work as compared to having a bunch of friends show up at a buddies’ farm, but we did it with a lot of help from the fire and police department in asking the right questions and making sure we put together a safe event for people to attend. There was a little bit of concern raised from a few members of the community about the potential for things to go wrong. As well, there were a few people who were concerned about heavy metal and the people who come with it. I attended a meeting with representatives with these groups and assured them that we have our event under control, that I am a member of the Armstrong community, that I would not bring an event to my home that could potentially be destructive, and that heavy metal rules and the people are awesome! The event was no longer ‘open air’; we changed the name to Armstrong Metalfest because the music is inside an arena and all the camping is outside the arena. The first year at the fairgrounds went amazing! We had added an extra day of music and had twenty-six bands! We didn’t have any problems and everything ran smoothly. Over those next few years, we gradually increased our band count to thirty-two and have held steady at thirty-six bands over two days! Over those years we have had bands such as Suffocation, Cattle Decapitation, Cryptopsy, 3 Inches of Blood, Thor, Into Eternity and Holy Grail, to name a few!

The scene at the Armstrong Fairgrounds when metal takes over.
The scene at the Armstrong Fairgrounds when metal takes over.

For those not in the know, where in the heck is Armstrong, BC and with the location being where it is, do you ever find yourselves having trouble booking bands not wanting to go too far off the beaten urban path in order to play?

We have not had too much trouble getting bands to come out, or people to show up! It’s actually a great location for Canadian metal heads in the west. Armstrong is only six hours away from Calgary and four hours away from Vancouver. Any bands who have ever been on tour in Canada know that the next show is almost never very close.

What sort of atmosphere does the location/town/fest offer and how do you feel it’s different from other fests you’ve attended or heard about?

The location’s great; it kind of feels like Wacken with everything you need from the town being walking distance from the fest. The town really gears up for the festival. It’s the one weekend a year where store owners and employees bust out their old metal shirts and rock them all weekend. In fact, the breakfast place closest to the fest grounds, The Brown Derby, actually [has employees] dress up in metal gear and serve fest patrons bacon and eggs! The atmosphere of the festival is unreal: old friends reuniting; new friendships being made; a constant stream of music the whole weekend. We also have a few side events that happen during the fest such as the beer helmet march, where people build helmets out of beer cases and march through the campsite and at the end. Judges award the most creative helmet two free passes to next year as well as the Vinny Cup, which is basically the Stanley Cup of our beer helmet march. There is also Thrash Wrestling, which is the local Wrestling Establishment. They put on a few shows throughout the night with high flying action and entertainment.

Mr. Valstar, sans beer helmet
Mr. Valstar, sans beer helmet

What’s the booking process like for you guys? I noticed this year the line up is almost all-Canadian. Are you finding it difficult to attract non-Canadian talent to take part or are you deliberately keeping things geared towards your fellow Canuckleheads?

This year we went with a pretty mathematical approach to booking the bands, meaning we wanted good representation of local bands from Western Canadian cities. We focus way more on actual band submissions than anything else. I personally checked out music from every band that applied in our submissions time frame this year. It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed every minute of it. We can’t have every band that applies, unfortunately, but it is a great experience for me to check out new music that I otherwise may not have found before. We do get a lot of submissions from non-Canadian acts, but it just worked out this year to have mostly Canadian bands on the bill. Another thing we do is try to have a nice balance of all the metal genres. Our fest attendees have a broad taste in music, so we try our best to provide satisfaction for all their metal cravings!

What do you feel you’ve learned most about putting on a fest like this over the years and what are some of the challenges you’ve faced in keeping the ship running?

Every year we learn new things. It can be something simple, like staffing volunteers in different areas better, moving the stage at a different angle to get better sound or it can be learning what to do better with our budget. We are always learning. Personally, I have learned that you can only plan for so much. There will always be some things from the total unknown. Having a solid foundation of volunteers and staff helping out with the festival makes confronting the unknown much easier because you know you will be able to handle it as a team.

What improvements have you made in putting this year’s version together? What mistakes have you attempted to avoid?

We have moved the stage this year so that we will increase floor space and have way better sound! The line-up has a wicked balance of all the genres of metal. We have also increased the prizing for this year’s beer march. We have staggered our side events so that they will not conflict with any band’s shows. We are trying to avoid putting too much pressure on the stage crew to switch over sets by increasing the amount of time they have in between the later acts.

Look along the left. Yup, a hockey arena. As Canadian as ever. Photo by Chris Geistlinger.
Look along the left. Yup, a hockey arena. As Canadian as ever. Photo by Chris Geistlinger.

How long had you been working on this year’s version and what bands/events are you most excited about for 2016?

We have been working on this year’s version of the fest since September of 2015. Band submissions generally open October 1st, so we need to do prep work beforehand! This year is one of my favorite line ups we have had yet. Thrash wrestling is ramping up for a couple pretty big shows for us and I am very excited to see what they have in store! Also, I have been working on my beer helmet…. Armstrong Metalfest is going to rule this year!

Who’s on your booking bucket list?

Devin Townsend, Sacrifice, Slayer, Red Fang, Mastodon, Cannibal Corpse, Abbath, Obituary, Blind Guardian, and… well, why the hell not… Iron Maiden. A guy can dream right?

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