Growing Pains: Looking Back at Fun Fun Fun Fest 2014, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Words by Morgan Davis

Photos by Ashley Bradley, Nathan Edge and Carlos. J. Matos

Fun Fun Fun Fest 2014

Photo by Carlos J. Matos

Before we begin, no, I don’t hate Fun Fun Fun Fest. I worked behind the scenes at music festivals for close to a decade, specifically at FFF’s Pacific Northwest analogue, Sasquatch Music Festival. I’ve also reported on a variety of festivals ranging from the good (Coachella, MusicFest NW) the bad (Olio) and the ugly (Bumbershoot) and I will happily say that FFF is up there as one of the best festivals in the country, mainly because of how well it “curates” a festival experience rather than throw shit at a wall the way Bumbershoot has done ever since the first time it vomited Sheryl Crow on hapless concert goers. But if there was a pervasive negative feeling at FFF this year, it was largely because it seems clear the festival is still trying to behave like a minor regional event rather than the hip, tastemaking, Southern-style Coachella it has become.

Take FFF’s major news “event” this year, which was its disastrous Friday will call snafu, a debacle that left thousands of paying guests outside the fest. Festival goers will forgive a lot of sins, whether it’s bad sound or bad food or unfortunate weather, but not being able to get into a festival (or getting refunded for the mistake)  they paid good money to attend isn’t one of those sins. The Friday will call situation was made worse by Transmission’s weirdly passive aggressive apology, which blamed the “new” venue they moved into last year and “unexpected demand” rather than taking ownership of the will call failure. Like I said, I’ve worked a number of festivals, and neither of those explanations makes much sense. If you didn’t expect the bulk of your will call guests to arrive on day one, then you’re either naïve or misguided. Likewise, if this didn’t happen at the “new” venue when it was actually new last year, why would it apply now? There are plenty of legitimate reasons for why the hold up happened. It could have been the RF wristbands Transmission utilized, which caused a similar debacle when Sasquatch utilized them a few years back. Or maybe there were network issues clogging up the terminals that were used to check people in. It’s not like Transmission would have been the only ones struggling to get decent service during FFF.

Whatever the reasons, Transmission’s handling of the situation did more to prove how much they’re struggling with the festival’s growth than any other element of the festival. FFF’s publicity has always centered around treating the event like a festival for true Austinites, from the involvement of local businesses like Frank to the eclectic line-up to the punk aesthetic of the posters and handbills. Transmission wants you to view FFF as a friend you only get to hang out with one weekend a year and it wants your experience to be memorable, exciting and easygoing. Transmission has always had a strict no refunds policy, and that’s kind of been an anomaly at an event where a Taco Cannon looms as one of its signature elements, but in this instance that strict no refunds policy was impossible to ignore since Transmission chose to honor that commercial safety net over the festival’s alleged “fun fun fun” ethos. What kind of dick friend would force you to pay up for a party they locked you out of until it was dying down?

Sky Ferreira

Photo by Carlos J. Matos

There were other signs that FFF was bursting at the seams this year, though. On Saturday, some of the stages inexplicably swapped locations. The Frank food truck in the “homie” area was so overwhelmed they started giving away their food for free when I ventured over. The sound at the Orange stage was the other big complaint of the weekend, suffering from nonstop bleed due to its lower volume, culminating in a sound fiasco climax that had the drums and guitars more or less entirely absent from the mix during headliner Neutral Milk Hotel’s Sunday night set. This isn’t to say that any of these things “broke” FFF, but it’s clear the festival is suffering growing pains and may need to rethink its approach to ticketing, staging and food (side note: why the fuck was no one selling coffee? It was the Austin equivalent of sub-arctic weather every night of FFF!) before the event does suffer a catastrophic setback in the next few years and permanently loses its edge.

I started with the bad because honestly, other than that fuck up of an apology, none of this is that big of a deal. On a personal level, I’d even go so far as to say that the most annoying thing at FFF this year wasn’t any of those issues above but the new crowd FFF is attracting, which seems to lean a little too heavy on heckler bros smoking bad pot. Which is frankly a little odd because FFF, from a booking perspective, has done very little to woo these people. Yes, Ginuwine performed what one friend called “karaoke of his own songs,” and 2 Chainz was on hand to be the least important element of his own show, but the scenes that were best represented this year were arguably emo/post-hardcore and metal.

The Blood Brothers

Photo of The Blood Brothers by Nathan Edge

My Friday more or less started with the Blood Brothers, who only recently reunited this year and thus had me a little skeptical going in. But the band ended up setting the tone for the weekend’s post-hardcore sets, hitting the ground running even though the crowd at the Black Stage was initially disappointingly sparse. Cody Votolato’s guitar could have been higher in the mix, but the Black/Blue stage (on Friday, Black was next to the entrance, then it swapped with Blue for the rest of the weekend, giving Saturday and Sunday’s Black stage shows much better sound) had this issue for most of the weekend, and otherwise the Blood Brothers sounded excellent. By the end of the set, the crowd had filled out more, just in time for “hits” like “Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck,” and it was great to see kids that had probably been toddlers when the band was first around lose their shit to the songs.

That would be the norm for the hardcore crowds, and while I’m sure the fact that the hardcore scene is big on crowd interaction in general is most responsible for this, it didn’t hurt that the hardcore bands that played FFF were especially well suited to sounding great on the festival’s stages. Hot Water Music, for instance, played one of the weekend’s most rugged, muscular sets, sounding less like a band than a conquering army. This year’s big metal acts, like Judas Priest and King Diamond, were equally brutal and their extravagant stage set-ups only added to the effect. Still, even on the smaller stages, bands that leaned towards emo and hardcore sounds fared better, like the emo poet guitar army that is The World Is a Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die. TWIABP graced the Yellow stage, which was a dank tent that at least didn’t have walls this year. The band’s orchestral approach to emo worked weirdly well in the tent since the sound hit you like a wall and never left.

The Yellow tent was also the “comedy” stage and some of the weekend’s best moments came from these performers. Silicon Valley stars Thomas Middleditch and Kumail Nanjiani played back to back sets that were ferociously off the cuff. Middleditch in particular excelled with an act that seemed almost entirely free form and improvised, with a significant chunk of it devoted to tangents resulting from an attempt to do some FFF “matchmaking” with two people in the crowd and from the near endless stream of hecklers. Nanjiani’s set wasn’t quite as funny, but it was arguably more relevant to the festival since he dealt not just with a pot enthusiast heckler, but also a heckler who interrupted him to ask if the stoner was a friend of his named Steve something or other. Anyone who has been out to Austin’s Moontower Festival is probably unfortunately familiar with the rising culture of hecklers at comedy shows, who have a habit of derailing acts, and while it was frustrating that Nanjiani even paid these dudes any attention, his bold focus on making these idiots feel as humiliated and awkward as possible was rewarding.

Fred Armisen

Photo of Fred Armisen by Ashley Bradley

Fred Armisen, by contrast, didn’t fare quite so well. The Portlandia star was significantly late to his own set (he nearly knocked over Ovrld’s own Ashley Bradley as he rushed to get onstage) and performed a kind of Rutles-esque musical routine (complete with bad British accent and a moonlighting J. Mascis) that mostly seemed to confuse a crowd that was unfamiliar with his musical history. I didn’t stick around long enough to properly judge Armisen’s set, but like Nick Offerman at Moontower before him, the issue seemed to be less with Fred than with the crowd’s expectation for him to do stand up or sketches. Except Armisen doesn’t come from a stand up comedy background. He was a drummer who made a funny SXSW interview video series and got plucked from obscurity by Lorne Michaels. This set was more his “thing” than sketches or stand-up would have been.

Armisen’s set aside, Saturday seemed to be the strongest of the days in general. Glassjaw, METZ and Iceage all did killer back-to-back-to-back sets at the Black Stage while Nas put on the best performance I’ve ever seen him do at the Blue Stage. It helped that Nas was focused on performing Illmatic in its entirety and thus didn’t awkwardly force in lackluster new material, but there was no denying that Nas performed with the attitude and boldness of a man two decades his junior. Frequently taking pauses to talk about what his mindset was during the making of Illmatic (at one point he even giddily bragged about the fact that the album forced so many of his musical heroes to listen to his record after all those years of him listening to their work), Nas’ love of the album was infectious and he held court over what was almost certainly the most respectful crowd at the festival.

King Diamond

Photo of King Diamond by Nathan Edge

Though he didn’t stick to the album format himself, King Diamond held equal sway over his crowd of devotees, and had the benefit of the most imaginative stage show at the festival (except for maybe Flying Lotus’ cerebral 3D visuals). It was a little jarring to see Diamond’s legions of corpse painted fans walking around all weekend in their make-up and often incongruous outfits (shout out to the guy in corpse paint, khakis and Birkenstocks) but once the show began, it was easy to see why Diamond inspires such a passionate following. Featuring an incredible set-up featuring ample Satanic imagery, a mic stand that doubled as a creepy, wooden cross and a burlesque dancer who also doubled as an evil looking old woman for one song, Diamond’s show was by far the most extravagant and theatrical event at the festival. That he managed to pull it off with nearly no production failures is kind of a miracle.

The success of Diamond’s far more intensive stage show made the failure of Neutral Milk Hotel’s orange stage set all the more irritating, though. I missed NMH when they came through Austin earlier this year, and though I knew seeing them at FFF was basically a compromise no matter what, I was still disappointed in the awful sound treatment the band received. When the Jeff Mangum kicked off the chords of “Holland, 1945” only to be met with the limpest full band entrance I’ve ever heard, I knew the set was going to be a failure. It’s not that you expect a tremendous amount of volume at a Neutral Milk Hotel show, but the soundcheck taking place all the way down at Blue for Wiz Khalifa was clearer. To make matters worse, the loudest element in the mix was almost always the accordion, leaving the drums and guitars to sound like they were only coming through the stage monitors rather than the massive speaker towers on stages left and right.

NMH wasn’t the only band to suffer sound failures on the stage either. When I caught Dinosaur Jr. earlier in the weekend, J. Mascis’ guitar sounded like a series of wet farts rather than anything like a guitar. Likewise, Modest Mouse (already a hit or miss live act) spent their entire set sounding like Modest Mouse getting played through a boombox with a dying battery.

Dinosaur Jr.

Photo of Dinosaur Jr. by Carlos J. Matos

One friend I was with suggested the Orange stage’s sound issues may have been the result of sound ordinance but if that’s case, why would Blue and Black be so fucking loud at the same time? It seemed likelier that either Orange’s placement or the sound set up it had was the culprit. But whatever the cause, fans who had bought passes planning on mostly camping out at that stage got the rawest deal of the weekend.

Which circles back to the question I indirectly raised at the start of this piece: has FFF outgrown its current form? And if so, what needs to be done to ease its growing pains? Transmission seems to think the main problem is its new home at Auditorium Shores, and granted there does seem to be little that can be done to give the stages more wiggle room at that location. But where else can FFF go? Is this a case where the festival might be better off moving to Austin’s outskirts, as Sasquatch has done with its location far outside of Seattle at The Gorge? Transmission and Austin have a year to figure it out and as I’ve already said, FFF is one of the better musical festivals in the country, here’s hoping it does what it has to do to only get stronger and better.

Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.