Feature Article: Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest
Feature Article: Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest
In a city famous for its festivals,only one brings together rock and hip hop, comedy, extreme sports, and a giant taco cannon for an annual extravaganza on the shores of Lady Bird Lake. Named after a 1982 song by Austin band Big Boys, Fun Fun Fun Fest is the brainchild of legendary promoter Graham Williams and The Mohawk owner James Moody. For ten years, the festival has built a reputation on be ing, well, the most fun festival in Austin.
Since its inception in 2006, FFF has morphed from a one-day, single stage event at Waterloo Park to a three-day, multi-stage festival at Auditorium Shores that employs hundreds and relies on thousands more to make it a success. Its founders have gone on to create one of the most powerful event companies in Texas (Transmission Events) and a sought-after creative and marketing firm (Guerilla Suit).
Despite its devout fanbase and reputation for creating epic musical moments (RUN D.M.C.’s reunion in 2012; Glenn Danzig’s infamous meltdown in 2011, just to name a few), FFF faces an uncertain future. Faced with an ever-changing festival landscape and battles with the City of Austin over space and permitting, the festival’s founders say they aren’t sure what the future holds.
In honor of its 10-year anniversary, we sat down with the FFF team to pay homage to the festival that brought us, among so many things, the Jambulance (a Van Halen-themed ambulance) and a FFF logo made entirely of Luden’s Throat Drops. It’s a team comprised, mostly, of people who grew up in Austin, met in high school as fellow “music nerds” and have since gone on to become some of the most powerful people in Austin’s music scene. We sat down with Graham Williams, James Moody, Ian Orth, Bobby Garza, Bianca Flores, Max Gregor, Neil Maris, Antonio Bond and Alison Narro to discuss their favorite memories, the inspiration behind some of the festival’s famous ideas and all those little moments that draw 20,000 people together for a weekend of fun.
Graham Williams, Ian Orth and Antonio Bond grew up in Austin and met when Williams and Bond were attending Austin High School and Orth was attending McCallum High School. By 16, Williams was already growing a reputation for curating shows and festivals with compelling musical line ups.
IAN ORTH (Creative Events and Brand Manager at Transmission Events; DJ and musician): Graham and I basically grew up together. The way that Graham and I met … I was at Sound Exchange listening to some records. Graham came up to me and said, “If you like this band than you should check out this band and this band and this band.” He had a flier with him and he said, “I am putting on this show — you should totally come out.” I was like, “I don’t know who you are dude, but I’ll totally go.” When I met Graham, I was like 14, and being invited to this show was a total game changer.
ANTONIO BOND (Driver for FFF; owner Transplants Floral Design): W hat I loved about [W illiams’ shows] was there would be all walks music: hardcore, ska, pop punk, crust punk.
IAN ORTH: This was ‘93, ‘94 and at the time, between McCallum and Austin High [School] there was this era of “everyone is friends with everyone.” All the punk rock kids [were] hanging out with the hip hop kids who [were] hanging out with the skateboard kids who hung out with the weird goths.
By the late 1990s, Orth is attending college on the East Coast and Williams is hired to do security at the original Emo’s on East Sixth and Red River streets. Within a year he is the venue’s full time booker. Bond joins him at Emo’s a few years later as a bartender.
ANTONIO BOND: At Emo’s [W illiams] was still just putting together magic. He’ s like an artist putting things together.
In 2006, James Moody opens The Mohawk just a few blocks north of Emo’s at 10th and Red River streets.
GRAHAM WILLIAMS (co-founder of Fun Fun Fun Fest; partner in Transmission Entertainment): I was at my wife, [Audrie San Miguel]’ s store, Prototype Vintage, and [Moody] was there buying something. I overheard Moody talking t o the guy working the cash register. I remember he had a Bad Religion shirt on, and [Moody] was telling him he was opening a club at the old Caucus Club. And I thought, “ This guy is gonna lose money because that location is jinxed.”
JAMES MOODY (co-founder of Fun Fun Fun Fest; partner in Guerilla Suit; owner of The Mohawk): Especially [wearing] that shirt.
GRAHAM WILLIAMS: (Laughs) Yeah. Everyone thought for sure that that place was just cursed. Every year it opened and closed. Obviously, [The Mohawk] took off and became a super successful venue.
In the fall of 2006, Williams and Antonio Bond drive a van to Detroit to pick up some pieces for Prototype Vintage when Willi ams tells Bond about his idea for Fun Fun Fun Fest.
ANTONIO BOND: I had a kidney transplant two years before, and had just started recovering. I was bartending, maybe working three days a week, a part time thing, and doing odd jobs for the Williams family, working at Prototype with Audrie, driving around with Graham… We were driving from Chicago to Detroit to pick up furniture and Graham said, “ I think we’ re going to do a big day. All these bands wants to play at the same time.”
GRAHAM WILLIAMS:I want to say like 10 or so artists just happened to be touring through the first week in Dec ember and needed a show… It was sort of an accident, but it was sort of a dream, too. I [thought] it would great to put something together for the fans, for the people in the scene, music die-hards, record store geeks, those type of people who really want to see a lineup of bands that falls more into their record collection.
ANTONIO BOND: [Graham said,] “ I’ m going to need a driver.” And I love to drive… I said, “ for you? Oh buddy, of course.”
The first FFF takes place at Waterloo Park on Friday, December 1, 2006. In addition to headliners like Spoon, Circle Jerks, and Peaches, FFF adds local bands like The Black Angels and The Octopus Project to the bill.
IAN ORTH: There’ s never been a small scale festival like this that catered to this area of Austinite. Because if you think about it, ACL is massive, SXSW is even bigger than that. In 2006, you really didn’t have anything like that… You could feel that it was the beginning of a new trajectory for the city.
JAMES MOODY: There wasn’t anyone at the time who [cared] about The Octopus Project or Black Angels, discovery bands, the nerdy side of things… [The festival] was a very exaggerated version of Red River. It’ s everything that we do on Red River, amplified.
IAN ORTH:I DJ’ d the very first year. W hen I got on stage and looked out and saw the entire tent was full with about 2,000 kids, my first thought was, “ Who are all these people?”
MAX GREGOR (Production Director at Transmission Events; musician): Everybody was just trying to figure everything out. No one knew how to run a festival at that point. Whoever we had for security behind the stage was awful. Or nonexistent, they may have just not been there.
JAMES MOODY: God, we gave away all the booze backstage. And the fences were falling down.
MAX GREGOR: The fence, right behind the [stage] there was a little gap. That’ s where all the bands were keeping their gear — right within eyeshot of the street. Quintron and Miss Pussycat [were on the bill and] all of their gear got stolen. And they were so pissed off and I was so bummed out and so upset. I remember thinking, “ I’ ve let everyone down!”
GRAHAM W ILLIAMS: The first few years were messy. Let’ s just say that.
After the inaugural FFF, Williams decides to leave Emo’s. He and Moody meet at Lamberts to discuss the idea that would eventually grow into Transmission Entertainment, an event production company that books shows every year in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
JAMES MOODY: [Before I met Graham], I was an Emo’ s regular. I went to over half the shows Graham booked without knowing Graham. So I had already liked what was going on in the scene. But I’ m an entrepreneur, business kind of guy and was recognizing that a lot of the scene wasn’ t being serviced as much as it could.
GRAHAM W ILLIAMS: And I had been traveling because of Fun Fest and … I’ d look at other [cities] versions of the Chronicle and notice there was one group doing all the best shows. Like in LA, Golden Boys does all the cool shows. In New York, Bowery Presents does all the cool shows.
JAMES MOODY: So we met at Lamberts not knowing Graham was a vegetarian. And just started talking about shows. I think he had been in one place for long enough to where, I don’ t want to speak for you, it felt like he was done with that part of his life.
GRAHAM W ILLIAMS: I still loved Emo’ s. It was a big part of my life. I mean I helped build it into this pretty cool place. But you’ ve been anywhere for almost a decade it starts to feel a little less interesting.
Over the next four years, both Transmission and FFF continue to grow. Transmission Entertainment is quickly becoming a major player in the Austin nightlife scene booking for such venues as ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Meanwhile, FFF is gaining a reputation as a destination festival thanks to its well-curated lineups.
GRAHAM WILLIAMS: The next year, [Fun Fun Fun Fest] became two days: Saturday and Sunday.
JAMES MOODY: Then two and half days.
GRAHAM WILLIAMS: And then three days. And then we added a fourth stage: the comedy. ANTONIO BOND: I just remember the first year being able to watch the shows. It was very chill. Then year two came along and … it was completely different. [One year], I clocked how many miles I drove in three days. It was the equivalent of driving from Austin to Phoenix going in a lap – airport, hotel, venue, airport, hotel, venue.
BOBBY GARZA (General Manager at Transmission Events): FFF at Waterloo — it was very small and intimate. It felt like your best friend’ s gigantic party kind of thing. And everybody sort of latched on to that vibe that was in the air.
IAN ORTH: Growing up here, I remember going to this street festival called “ Safari.” it was put on by the Zilker Nature Preserve in the‘ 80s and early ‘ 90s. Fun Fest is worlds away from Safari, but in my mind it was the most Austin thing ever. The way Safari made me feel as a kid, is [how] Fun Fest makes me feel. It made me realize Austin is a unique place and a city that is like no other city. It felt like community and family and everyone doing stuff together.
BIANCA FLORES (Marketing Manager at Transmission Events): [In 2009], I went to the festival by myself. I went like a stereotypical festival goer; I had my backpack on, my comfortable shoes, my camera. And I was like in the front row for everything. It was the coolest and craziest thing I’ve ever been to because of all the different stages and seeing so many acts that are now really big. I saw Neon Indian and Vega that year and I remember like falling in love with Neon Indian’ s music. At the time, I was only listening to the radio and I really love the Jonas Brothers, to this day. So it was crazy… Fun Fest was what started it all. And the next year during South By, I volunteered for a badge. I remember being in line for a show and just saw all these people exchanging cards and I was like, “ If these bozos can do it, I can do it too!”
JAMES MOODY:It started to take on a personality, which was cool… We found a friend, Bryan Keplesky, and started using his [brand] identity, which is when I think the application of a genre-based staging system that was color-coded [began].
As FFF’s popularity grows, so to does the lineup. It’s no longer just a music festival, but includes a dynamic comedy lineup as well as skateboarding, BMXing and wrestling, among other things.
JAMES MOODY: There was no strategy meeting — nothing like that. All this stuff accidentally or organically happened because — even like the comedy stuff — it just started to happen. [In 2010], we just had a skate ramp put in front of the Black Stage. Some guys wanted to do it … just so they could ride their skateboards while listening to Suicidal Tendencies.
GRAHAM W ILLIAMS: [They asked], “ Can we bring our ramp so we can all skate?” W e were like, “ Well that would look cool to have a ramp there!”
JAMES MOODY: So they brought their own stuff and we were like, “ Cool, just don’ t hurt yourself.”
GRAHAM W ILLIAMS: [The sports lineup of the festival] grew and grew and grew. W e started getting spons ors and big skaters and BMX folks from other cities and pros that wanted to be involved. But that was totally by accident as well.
In 2011, FFF moves from Waterloo Park to Auditorium Shores. Also around this time, FFF begins to get a reputation for staging fun — and sometimes utterly ridiculous — stunts both during the three day event and in the months leading up to it.
GRAHAM W ILLIAMS: It was just such a crazy idea to have Henry Rollins [marry] this couple. [They] didn’ t even know [they were] going to get married on stage by the guy they worship. And he did an amazing job. He actually wrote this amazing speech on an iPad, read it to them. They had the band they loved play the wedding song.
JAMES MOODY: Sexy Sax Man played the wedding song.
GRAHAM WILLIAMS: Yeah he jammed with them. JAMES MOODY: And then there was the Shred Sled, which is just a hilarious metal band being pulled around by a golf cart.
That year, Glenn Danzig, former frontman for The Misfits, has an epic meltdown that results in FFF pulling the plug on his se t. His behavior is covered in outlets across the nation.
ANTONIO BOND: As soon as I pick him up, he has the most insane fake cough. He was like, “ They’ re going to have move this inside. I’ m not going to play.” So I called Moody and I was like, “ W e gotta problem.”
Among Danzig’s demands is a Wendy’s chicken sandwich, French onion soup from the Four Seasons, an on-site doctor and space heaters on stage. Finally, 45 minutes after his start time, Danzig begrudgingly takes the stage only to have festival organizers end his set after a few songs (and a of lot ranting).
ANTONIO BOND: [Moody] was like, “ We’re not getting a ticket from this.” And pulled the plug. Meanwhile, another celebrity has Austin buzzing. Bianca Flores (who has managed to go from a fan in the front row to a paid intern running Transmission’s street team) overhears that director Terrence Malick has asked for permission to film a movie he’s making with actors Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara at Fun Fun Fun Fest.
BIANCA FLORES: In 2011, I was overseeing street team and interns and volunteers for the festival and special events … I told them, I was like, “ Hey, just heads up, you might see celebrities or artists that you love. Just keep it chill. Be professional.” Out of all people to freak out, I was the only one [who did] when Ryan Gosling pulled up. All of my volunteers were right there and I’ m freaking out. I’ m tearing up. I’ m like, “ Oh my god! Ryan Gosling’ s here.”… The entire time at the festival, I was like, “ I don’ t need Ryan Gosling!” So I’ m like flipping my hair every time he passes by and giving him ugly looks. I think he knew I was fronting on him.
Then in 2012, the infamous taco cannon arrives.
IAN ORTH: Planning [for the festival] is an ongoing, ever-changing thing. It usually starts with the core team, 18 of us, and just spitballing ideas. Anything goes, no idea is stupid. We’ ve had ideas [for] everything from the entryway is going to be a huge slide that you have to crawl up a ladder and slide in to get into the festival to the taco cannon.
NEIL MARIS (Director of Production at Transmission Events): I was a [production] intern that first year of the taco cannon. It showed up , I was working at W hole Earth cause I was still an intern. So [W illiams and Moody] called and said, “ The taco cannon is here.” And I said, “ Uh, okay.” And they were like, “ You need come figure it out.” … We had to figure out how to transport it —it’ s not the lightest thing — and then how to wrap the tacos, how to shoot it properly.
JAMES MOODY:Well, I mean it’ s dumb, but we [got] more press over taco cannon than we [did] our bands.
NEIL MARIS: That first year it made it onto Good Morning America. It was like, “ Why is this thing on Good Morning America?”
The next year, the taco cannon returns and Ice T plays the festival alongside fellow headliners Snoop Dogg (nee Lion), M.I.A., Slayer, MGMT and The Walkmen. Antonio Bond is tasked with driving around Ice T and his wife, Coco.
ANTONIO BOND: Picking up [Ice T] and Coco at the airport was awesome. I was running really behind, in the middle of rush hour traffic a nd I get there [and Ice T] is just like, “ Can you come in and get us? I don’ t want to walk out to the curb.” So I pull up to the front and say to the [securityguard], “ Dude, can I go in real quick?” And he’ s says, “ No.” And I say, “ Check it out, it’ s Ice T and [the guard is] like, “ Alright I’ ll let you park.” So I run in and I say, “ Hi, I’ m Antonio!” and the first thing Ice T says to me is: “ What’ s up, baby?”
The next year, 2014, is arguably the festival’s most ambitious with multiple headliners and 20,000 attendees. It gets off to a rough start when people spend hours to get into Auditorium Shores. Photos of the line, which quickly spread thanks to social media, show the line to pick up tickets that extends around the park and over the South 1st Street Bridge.
IAN ORTH: I think because our team is so small, everyone feels really invested in it. All the highs are really high and all the lows are low. And everyone on the team feels it. And everyone on the team talks about… we all have our pat-ourselves-on-the-back moments and we all have our how-do-we-fix-this moments.
BOBBY GARZA: W e had some challenges last year with lines and stuff and nobody felt good about any of that. My particular focus is to say, “ Yes, we understand that there was deal. W hat are we doing now to fix it?”
IAN ORTH: The unique thing about our festival is that our fans are comfortable being so vocal with us… I really believe our fans feel like they have ownership in our festival. Graham is hyper-aware of that. It’ s almost like our festival is a co-op. If there’ s any sort of misstep… we hear about. W e hear about it all year long.
The year also marks another milestone for Bianca Flores. After years of asking Graham Williams to book R&B legend Ginuwine, he finally asks him to headline the festival.
BIANCA FLORES: I [called my mom and said], “ Mom, Ginuwine’ s playing!” And she’ s like, “ Oh my god! How did you do that?!” I’ m like, “ Mom, this is what we do!” I was like so mad at her. I was like, “ How dare you ask how Graham did it.”
2015 and Beyond
By July 2015, FFF and Austin Parks and Recreation Department are still deb ating over whether the festival can use part of Auditorium Shores’ off-leash dog park. The city council votes on the issue in August, giving organizers have less than three months to re-organize the event. (Note: We asked the APRD to comment for this story , but received no response.)
IAN ORTH: Most festivals that are annual, have a pretty set footprint and they work within that footprint. And every year people show u p and it’ s the same setup every year.
MAX GREGOR:We’ re faced by a unique issue to our festival in that we are continually getting displaced by the city and continually getting parts of our venue taken away. Every time that happens, it creates a new challenge in that we have to design a new festival from the ground up. It’ s very much a butterfly effect.
BOBBY GARZA: I felt like we really had a responsibility to educate the new leadership on the council. And also interact with the city’ s staff and say, “ Hey, I know there’ s this perception of what our festival is, and it’ s probably not as serious or professional as some other events that happen in the parks, but here’ s what it looks like for us and here’ s my perspective.” When Time Out says that we’ re one of the 50 best festivals in the world and that we’ re the highest ranking festival in Texas, that has mileage not just for us, but for Austin.
In August, the City of Austin and FFF came to a resolution that would allow the festival to use about 1.5 of the two acres. T his November, FFF will once again return to Auditorium Shores with headlining acts including D’Angelo, Jane’s Addiction, Wu-Tang Clan and NOFX. Now in its 10th year, the festival and it’s organizers are still mulling over the future of the festival.
JAMES MOODY: I don’ t know if [Fun Fun Fun Fest] will ever die, but it’ s gotta change because if the environment changes and it chooses not to, then it’ s like killing itself. But I think the brand is a thing that people understand. It’ s pretty cool. W ho knows what it can do? It can go big, it can go small, it could go different, it could leave the state, it could leave the park it’ s in. That’ s the cool thing about a being a boutique [festival]. It’ s like being in a speedboat as opposed to a battleship.
IAN ORTH: W e don’ t want the festival to go away. W e love doing it. It’ s definitely much harder to do what we’ d like to do in this current environment. So there’ s a couple of options on the table for next year. We’ ve already started some talks about what exactly 2016 will look like, but at the moment, we’ re just trying to get through 2015.
JAMES MOODY: I just gotta do what’ s right for those jobs and all that other stuff we were talking about, the brand. It’ s a very Austin event, it’ d be hard to do [somewhere else]. But I think I’ d be open to anything. W e’ ll see.
GRAHAM WILLIAMS:We’ ve always said we feel like it’ s thrived because of the city we’ re in. It’ s sort of built around Austin, but at the same time you never know. Austin could have 3 more Fun Fest-like events next year… W e can’ t control that. But for the most part, we enjoy doing it as long as we can make it work.
JAMES MOODY: Yeah, you keep the band together for as long as the fans are buying records.
GRAHAM WILLIAMS: As long as we’ re not losing our shirt, then we should continue to do it because it’ s something people love. Even during those hard years, where it was tough, or it rained, or where we had to move from a tiny park to a giant park where it was three times the size, which meant three times the cost… The next day [someone would say], “ This was the best weekend of my life. Please never stop doing it.”
Read more from the Nightlife Issue| November 2015