Rob Mair discusses the long-standing Gainesville punk festival with Sal Medrano and John Maiello.
by Rob Mair
It’s a glorious early Sunday afternoon in Gainesville, the sun is shining, and Fest punters are in high spirits outside the Volta coffee shop. Suddenly, the tranquillity is broken by a strange person with a sandwich board proclaiming that ‘The End Is Near’. Such doomsayers are relatively commonplace in major cities, but not, it would appear, in this central Florida student mecca.
They’re certainly attracting lots of attention – and more than a couple of concerned looks – as they stroll around yelling at the clouds. However, my drinking companions – Rebuilder’s Sal Medrano and Dead Bars’ John Maiello – are finding the spectacle hilarious. This might be because Medrano has the prophet of doom on payroll, employing them to drum up interest for Rebuilder’s closing set at The Fest. Going by the commotion that’s been created, they’re doing a stand-up job.
Not that Medrano isn’t still fretting about ending the festival. His band take to the stage at 1:10am at the rebranded Downtown Fats (formerly Rocky’s Piano Bar), closing the festival out with their brand of high energy, sincere pop-punk. “We’ve got this ‘The End is Near’ campaign because I’m so afraid no-one is going to be at my show,” he says. “I’m not playing sandwiched between The Eradicator and Wolf Face [like Dead Bars]. Those are Fest bands – everybody loves them. Dead Bars are a Fest band. We’re not on the flyer. And I see those things and I get worked up. I’m like ‘Does nobody like my band?’
“So I was like, ‘We’ve got to do something’. We’ve got these posters everywhere that say ‘The End Is Near’ and we’ve put them up all over the place. I need to make it special, and I need to make it stand out more, because I don’t think I’m in a position where I can just play, and everyone’s just gonna show up.” Medrano might have his doubts, but there’s no denying he’s a marketing whizz, and this will pay dividends later in the evening when Rebuilder play to a packed Downtown Fats.
It’s been something of a slow build for Rebuilder in terms of The Fest, but they’ve used every tool at their disposal over the years, buying a table at the flea market one year, and becoming renowned for their Blink182 album cover sets. Now they’re reaping the rewards, even if Medrano isn’t entirely sold on the timeslot just yet: “You know, I would love to come on right before Spanish Love Songs, but you play the cards you’re dealt, and my cards are that we’ve got to close this whole thing,” he laughs.
“I think Tony [Weinbender, Fest figurehead] sees this slot as an opportunity,” counters Maiello. “Like, ‘This band rips and is gonna fucking kill it’. Fest has to end a certain way, and that’s with everyone raging and partying. That’s why you’re doing it and why Tony asked you. He won’t do a chill band at 1am. You save a ripper until the end. Seize the day.”
My original intention had been to sit down with John and Sal to discuss why they keep coming back to play The Fest. This is Dead Bars’ sixth year and Rebuilder’s fifth. They’re the up-and-coming bands looking to gain ground on the absent Iron Chic, Red City Radio, The Menzingers and Off With Their Heads – Fest favourites who return year after year – meaning there’s a chance for them to lay down a marker.
Yet, over the hour, it also becomes a discussion about the challenges bands face at this level – and in particular DIY bands – as well as a group therapy session as they try to unravel the messy and complicated world of punk rock politics.
There’s no denying, however, that closing a three-day booze-filled festival is both an enormous opportunity and a considerable challenge. Dead Bars found themselves in this position two years ago and embraced the opportunity to send everyone home happy with a beer-stained set of raucous sing-alongs. Rebuilder, it turns out, will repeat the trick this year, despite Medrano’s reticence.
Now that they’re both fully established in the Fest family – even if Medrano doesn’t necessarily see Rebuilder as a “Fest band” – it’s opportunities like this which keep bringing the bands back to Florida. Rebuilder travel some 1,200 miles down the Eastern seaboard from Boston, Dead Bars some 3,000 miles across the country from Seattle. For the groups, it’s a good chance to hang out, catch up with friends and watch some bands.
Just sitting down with them for a brief period, it’s also clear to see just how popular and well-connected they are. In just a short space of time, numerous friends, fans and bandmates will say hello. The pair take time out to talk to everyone. There’s no denying they both love the environment, the ethos and the camaraderie that underpins the festival, which is one of the key reasons for their continued presence: “I feel like if I was an audience member and I came here without a band, I mean, sure, I’d have fun, but I would be like ‘Man, I’ve come all the way down here, and I’m not playing’,” says Medrano. “I’d get sad. You see all these people play – all your friends are playing – I’d be like ‘Why am I not playing?’
“Also, when we’re not playing, I barely keep a schedule now, almost on purpose,” he continues. “Someone will be like ‘Are you gonna go and see Spanish Love Songs or whoever?’ and I’ll be like ‘I have no idea when they’re playing’. I look around, see which venue doesn’t have a line and walk in. If it’s cool, I’ll stick around for a few songs and then go and see something else.
“That’s why I love it,” continues Maiello. “You get here, you’re in the middle of this city, and you’re going to all these bars and restaurants – some of these places aren’t even gig venues normally – but you know the bands that are playing are going to be awesome. Every group has something to offer, which is amazing. And every one of these bands appreciates this world and this community. And if they’re not into that, they don’t get asked back to play. You have to be down with what’s going on.
“I also really appreciate the curated shows. You can totally tell thought has gone into where to place bands. I know, just from years of talking to Tony, that he goes into this with the mindset of ‘What would I want to see as a fan’, and then ‘What would that experience look like?’ Everything after that – the economics or making money or whatever – that all comes after.”
Unfortunately, economics is front and centre, especially for DIY bands travelling long distances to play Fest. While the experience of three days in Gainesville is undoubtedly positive, the biggest challenge can be making it to the city without shelling out a fortune on flights or losing money on an expensive tour to Florida.
“I’ve seen bands do packages around Fest, and that works, but when you’re just Dead Bars from Seattle or Rebuilder from Boston, what I’ve noticed over the years is it’s kind of the same show moving across the country,” says Maiello. “You might have friends in a band from Reno, and you’d meet up in Oklahoma, and then suddenly you’re playing every single show on the way to Fest. It becomes this sort of mini-tour – which is actually really cool for friendship and stuff…”
“But friendship doesn’t fill the gas tank,” interjects Medrano. “And that’s the reality of it. It’s like [Jon] Oddo from Dead Bars was saying the other day; we played Orlando, and it was almost like a band trade show.
“John will tell you, last year when Dead Bars toured down to Fest, the first thing I said was don’t tour to Fest,” he laughs.
“It was a long tour, and there were some great shows,” says Maiello, “But if you’re following the headliners, you’re either one city ahead or one city behind – or even in the same city on the same night. And there’s only so many fans of the genre in any one city. The fans have to make a choice, and the odds on them choosing the Dead Bars show…
“And that’s totally fine,” he continues.” We wanted to get out there, and we like being on the road, but I think you have to treat Fest as a party, maybe as a showcase, and then go home and work on stuff and then book a different tour.”
The idea of treating Fest as a showcase is an interesting point, as speaking to Maiello and Medrano, it appears not much business gets done over this weekend. It’s certainly not like SXSW, where agents and managers are looking for the next best thing. Instead, it’s a chance to do some low-key networking and catch up with friends from other parts of the industry.
This may be due to the musical niche we live in, but at Fest, it’s easy to see this as a scene rather than an industry. Label bosses at Big Scary Monsters and Wiretap will have drinks with editors at The Alternative, but nothing feels high-pressure or business orientated, more a chance to gossip, discuss which acts are making waves, and a sly opportunity to sneak in a beer or two between sets.
“I’m kinda shocked there isn’t more industry stuff going on here,” says Maiello. “Like, we’ve been a band for six years, and we’ve sold out a couple of shows here, and we’ve picked up lots of fans along the way, but I’ve never had a conversation with a label person in their capacity as a label person. I’m sure they’re around.
“But then Fest isn’t SXSW. I’ve seen a bunch of friends – Wiretap Records, Red Scare – they’re all here. Like Rob [Castellon] from Wiretap, we talked about meeting up, but it’s not like a formal thing – it’s a case of ‘I’ll see you if I see you’. I don’t think anybody is scheduling meetings.
“I was joking that after this I might set up a little popup merch stand and say we’re open for business. I’ve never seen anybody do that. We’d use it to sell merch – because we don’t wanna take stuff back – but I can also message all the label bigwigs saying ‘For your future cash cow come to the corner opposite Loosey’s and find me’.
Indeed, it’s this hustle – which sits rather nicely alongside Medrano’s ‘The End Is Near’ publicity stunt – that highlights why Maiello and Medrano make for entertaining company. They’re happy to discuss ideas about how to push their respective bands to the next level and to bounce ideas off each other, but they also never lose sight of the fact that they’re in the entertainment business.
Of course, it’s not all smoke and mirrors. Hard work has underpinned their success, but they appreciate that they should have fun along the way. Medrano will conclude that Dead Bars and Rebuilder work hard at this because they’re the underdogs, while Maiello sees Fest as the ideal place to be in such a position. “Maybe we will only ever have 300 fans, but they are all here at Fest,” he says. “And that’s pretty fuckin’ cool.”