Tony Weinbender started the annual punk rock festival in downtown Gainesville in 2002. This year’s event at the end of October — the 15th edition of Fest — will again draw bands and fans from around the U.S. and from around the globe.
For one long weekend each fall, Tony Weinbender has the punk-rock world at his fingertips. As organizer of the annual five-day music gathering known as Fest, he orchestrates hundreds of bands so that thousands of fans can have a blast the last week of October.
“My number one concern and priority is to create a festival I would want to attend and to think about the attendees above anything else,” Weinbender said. “I take a lot of pride in this thing. It’s my job. I want this to be fun for everyone.”
Weinbender is passionate about Fest, which celebrates its 15th year on Oct. 28-30 in downtown Gainesville. (There is also a Pre-Fest event Oct. 26-27 in Tampa’s Ybor City entertainment district.)
This year, the Fest 15 lineup will include 360 bands playing at a dozen or so downtown venues, as well as stand-up comedy and some pro wrestling thrown in for good measure. Best of all, Fest will return to renovated Bo Diddley Plaza to stage concerts for crowds of 5,000 or more.
We recently sat down with Weinbender at a corner table inside his favorite downtown haunt, Loosey’s, to better understand his love affair with Fest -– and with Gainesville.
A native of Virginia, Weinbender visited Gainesville in the mid-’90s while performing sax and vocals with a college punk band called Swank. They played at the old Hardback Café and met members of Hot Water Music and Less Than Jake when those bands were rising in popularity.
In 1997, Less Than Jake offered Weinbender the opportunity to join them on The Warped Tour, a traveling punk rock festival now in its 22nd year.
“They said, ‘Look, this is sort of a big deal. We need an extra roadie,’” Weinbender said. “My band [Swank] was all broken up and I was in college and I didn’t have class for the summer, so I was like, ‘Hell, yeah. I’ll go on the road for the summer. I’ll go on Warped Tour!’”
Weinbender put college on hold and did two Warped Tours around the U.S with Less Than Jake. He also toured with the band in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Although Fest was still a few years away, Weinbender was already doing his fieldwork.
Eventually, Weinbender returned to classes at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., only to get another phone call from the 352 area code. He discovered that Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie Fiorello was starting a record label called Fueled by Ramen and run by John Janick.
“Vinnie told me, ‘I need somebody to come down and sort of co-manage this thing with John,’” Weinbender said. “I went to my professors and advisors in college and went, ‘Look, I have this opportunity. I have to leave school.’
“And they were like, ‘Well, what are you going to do when you graduate anyway? You’d intern at some record label anyway, so just go down there and do it.’ So that’s why I moved to Gainesville.”
Weinbender worked at the record label for a year and a half before “I quit—slash—got fired.” He considered himself pretty much unemployable. He worked for Gator Moving & Storage and restaurant jobs at Bistro 1245, The Top and Leonardo’s 706.
Although the money paid his bills, Weinbender got tired of being a server. Friends suggested he get back into music in some capacity. While at James Madison, he had worked at the campus radio station and helped organize a music festival using restaurants, coffee shops, a ballroom and other small Harrisonburg venues. They named it MACROCK, and it’s still going strong.
“We had gone to the CMJ Music Festival in New York and were bummed,” he said. “I said, ‘You know, we can do better than this, something that is more relevant to us.’ We came up with the idea of doing our own little music festival at JMU.”
A few years later, a similar idea popped into Weinbender’s head in Gainesville — an idea that would become Fest.
Only 25, he already had experienced running multiple venues and organizing volunteers. He already had many bands interested in performing, such as Tiltwheel, Vena Cava and Toys That Kill from California.
“That was our talent the first couple of Fests –- by just making a list of friends –- and that’s who we invited. And then those bands recommended other bands. That’s pretty much how Fest is today,” Weinbender said.
The first Fest in 2002 attracted 60 bands on four stages for two days. Not bad for the inaugural year, but the event experienced exponential growth from there.
Last year, Fest 14 drew 388 musical acts over three days at 20 venues in downtown Gainesville. Last year’s event included 8,195 wristband holders. Of those attendees, 85 percent were from outside Florida and 14 percent were from outside the U.S.
And all of this occurs on an otherwise quiet fall weekend in Gainesville. That’s because of the annual Florida-Georgia football game in Jacksonville.
For Fest 15, Weinbender is getting nostalgic. In this milestone year, he has reached out to “alumni” bands that played Fest early on but not necessarily in recent years.
“Our big major bands are bands that have played Fest but haven’t been here for a while,” he said.
Those headlining bands include Dillinger Four, Propagandhi and Gainesville’s very own Less Than Jake. Fest is also reuniting some old Gainesville/No Idea Records bands such as Small Brown Bike, Twelve Hour Turn and Gunmoll.
“It’s going to be fun to see a lot of people who haven’t been here in a long time,” Weinbender said.
Weinbender is expecting an even stronger turnout this year because Halloween falls on the Monday after Fest, not during the event for the first time in three years.
“For a lot of my friends who used to come to Fest, they’re like ‘I’ve got a kid now. I’ve got to celebrate Halloween.’ And I’m like ‘You’re kid’s 3. Can’t you just tell them Halloween’s in July?’
“We’ll still act like it’s Halloween during Fest. People will still dress up this year. We encourage venues to decorate for it.”
Weinbender said that Fest enjoys its status as an independent underground music festival and that he answers to no one except the fans. Don’t look for any fancy corporate hospitality tents or special treatment for bands.
“Over the years, we’ve had bands that come through who really get it and appreciate the way we run Fest,” Weinbender said. “They’re an integral part of it. Bands don’t get artists’ wristbands; bands get the same wristbands you get. They’re out going to the shows just like you are.
“I think it’s awesome that we kind of force them to do that. We tell them ‘You need to go out and enjoy yourselves.’”
For the first nine years of Fest, Weinbender juggled jobs while running the event. He was the publicist for Gainesville-based No Idea Records and for his own Southern Lovin PR. He also continued to wait tables at Leonardo’s 706.
He had saved up about $7,000 and his rent was only $300 a month, so Weinbender decided to devote all his time to Fest 10.
“I gave myself a modest salary, but I’m still drinking PBR and driving the same old beat-up truck,” he said. “My fiancée has a really good job, but it’s never been about the money for me with Fest.”
Weinbender, who got married on June 11, has no fulltime employees but has two main helpers, Sarah Goodwin and Sara Sarasvati Seixas, as well as a dedicated army of about 500 volunteers to help run Fest. Most volunteers are from the Gainesville community.
“Everybody else works normal jobs but comes together to make Fest happen,” he said. “We’ve got nurses, we’ve got teachers, people who work at screen-printing companies, people who work in kitchens. … Then their roles change on Fest weekend to stage manager and head of security, crowd-control manager, changing bands and registration -– things like that.”
Weinbender said Fest volunteers are a special breed.
“These people really have a heart for it, a love for it,” he said. “At Fest it’s like, ‘Oh, can I help you and hang out?’ A lot of these people have never been an active part of doing a show. One thing I always tell volunteers is, ‘If you get anything out of this experience, other than a pass, you should feel proud of the work you did.’”
Fest has earned its reputation as one of the premiere events for punk rock music. Still, Weinbender gets requests that make his head spin.
“One year we got an email from an agent wanting us to book a Celtic dance troupe from Ireland. They’re like, ‘This would go over great at your festival,’” he said. “Last year we got approached by this guy from Earth Harp Collective. He was on America’s Got Talent. Why would our festival want Earth Harp Collective?”
According to Weinbender, punk rock will always be at the heart of Fest’s success. He said Fest is to independent punk rock fans what Comic-Con is to sci-fi geeks.
“Honestly, our core audience is just real, solid music nerds — they want to see as many bands as they can and make new friends,” he said. “I did a Podcast the other day and this guy tells me, ‘I haven’t been to every Fest, but if you show up, there’s a thousand of your best friends you haven’t met yet.’”
Is it possible that Fest might someday outgrow Gainesville?
“We’ll never let it outgrow Gainesville,” Weinbender said. “To outgrow Gainesville we would have to start booking bands that appeal to more of a mass audience, and I don’t have any interest in that. There are plenty of other festivals out there with those bands.”
The return of open-air Bo Diddley Plaza this year will make Fest 15 even more attractive. Before the renovations began, almost 5,000 people descended on the plaza to watch The Descendents perform in concert during Fest 13.
“Having the plaza back allows enough breathing room to make Fest enjoyable for everybody,” Weinbender said. “It really expands things out so that not everyone is cram-packed into one little place.”
The band lineup for Fest 15 was announced in May, but Weinbender will wait until August to announce each venue’s daily schedule and other events. You can bet it will be a weekend to remember.
“I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to make this something awesome every year for attendees -– to not cut corners, to not phone it in,” he said. “ I want that to be kind of a legacy. I want Fest down the road to be something that people look back at in punk history and say like ‘What was awesome in the 2000s? What was good in punk rock music?’ And I want Fest to be one of those things that people talk about.”
— Noel Leroux
For further info, visit the The Fest 15 website