Recess Fest co-founders Casey Malone and Zach Reader peel back the curtains, Part 1 of 2
Talk about your exponential growth. In just its first four iterations, Charlotte’s Recess Fest has grown from a one-day, 14-act event to a four-day, 70-plus act multiple-venue beast. Just last summer the third annual fest was a three-day affair with 35 bands; even the math-impaired can see that’s it’s doubled in size in just one year, and that’s impressive growth, people. This weekend, buoyed by Saturday night’s Archers of Loaf headlining show at Tremont Music Hall, Recess Fest is leaving an increasingly impressive, largely homegrown footprint in the region.
Founders Casey Malone and Zach Reader, both 24, were roommates when they conceived the idea. They were inspired by the notion of a summer break, re-capture-your-inner-kid fun fest filled performing arts, random fun and music. With some help from local venue owners and their own booking experiences at local house shows, as well as contacts made in their own bands — they both play in the dark soul-pop Blossoms, and Malone also plays in the free music sextet Great Architect —they decided to give it a whirl.
Shuffle’s John Schacht forwarded these local music scene heroes some questions, and their lengthy and reflective answers show their commitment. After all, despite being the biggest metropolis in both Carolinas, Charlotte’s always lagged behind the Triangle and, in recent years, been surpassed by Asheville, as a touring stop for up-and-coming hip acts and veterans of the indie scene. Rather than lament their status and kvetch about it, Malone and Reader have started a ground-up festival that, perhaps down the road, may wind up drawing in those acts on a regular basis. A well-regarded local scene – musically, it’s been here – known out there in the rest of America is one way to accomplish that.
Be sure to read part 2 for a glimpse at how Recess Fest gets booked, and Reder and Malone’s top picks at this year’s fest.
How’d you guys come up with it? What motivated you to give it a shot?
ZR: Casey and I came up with the basic ideas behind Recess in early 2010 while exploring a semi-secluded area of a train yard that seemed perfect for hosting an outdoor festival, or at least some kind of no rules, all-day party. After a little more serious brainstorming, we realized trying to pull something off in that kind of environment, without approval, could go terribly wrong and from there we decided to seek out multiple-venue support for a festival of similarly epic proportions. We just wanted so bad to help make the music community here more exciting, and I think the fact that we were both so sick of having to travel out of town for cool music festivals was possibly what motivated us most.
CM: Initially it was to be more outdoorsy and the idea itself was inspired by a train yard-turned-skate park that used to be behind our house. One afternoon we were hanging there and thought it would be a really great idea to book a bunch of bands, local and not, to come and play there. Seriously, the name we had in mind initially was Field Day, no shit. When we found out that was taken we brainstormed and Zach came up with the idea of Recess fest, sort of like time out of mind, and work, and any adult responsibility for everyone involved — except us. I think we were motivated to do it just based on the support from close friends and knowing and wanting a lot of their bands to be involved with it. The first year was a huge troupe of touring acts from Baltimore. It was like 10 people staying at our house, but those 10 people made up something like five of the touring bands that were playing.
ZR: The Recess Fest name comes from a few important things that I think should highlight an event like this. Recess and Fest flow really well together making it easy for people to read, say, remember and share with others. We also wanted to have a field day type, (sports) balls-out, carefree feel tied in between and even during the shows, so that’s where Recess comes from. In years past we’ve hosted coinciding egg-on-spoon races, double-dutch tournaments, a pizza-eating contest, dunk tank shenanigans and Super Soaker/water balloon fights. A big focal point of the complete experience of the festival is to show-hop as much as possible. The city should be your playground this weekend and everyone should definitely be making rounds at all times. We hope people will think back to what recess meant to them in grade school and remind themselves that it’s still okay to take a break from work, life, monotony and wild out with a bunch of other people looking to do the same over four days of almost every kind of live music one could want.
Was there a specific moment when it went from, “That’d be cool” to, “Holy shit, this is happening?” And what role did hosting/booking your own house shows prior play in this?
CM: I think getting to know certain people — Daylon Brumfield when he was at Snug Harbor, Jonathan Hughes and Neil Harper at the Milestone, and of course Bo White (of Yauhaus) — kind of slowly taught us the status quo for something like this, or just booking shows in general. We had been putting on shows at our current home and our previous ones, respectively, for close to two or three years, so we kind of fostered some connections, and well, balls, to help us think that it would work and to make it more of a seeming reality. I think it didn’t really hit me very hard until we did the winter one, which was like RF 1.5. I just remember that one seeming a lot more legitimate and it honestly sort of makes me think back on the first one as a learning experience, or trial run.
ZR: All the elements, ones familiar and not yet known alike, involved with booking a festival are terribly exciting to me. The first “holy shit, this is happening” moment I can recall lasted pretty much the whole day of the first Recess we did. We’d poured weeks and months into planning and promoting to make it the best we possibly could with our relatively amateur resources, and to see the crowds of strangers and friends growing at each show throughout that day made me realize we could probably do this again. We actually did better than breaking even by the end of the day and were able to get all touring bands paid and then some, and to that we toasted — “Holy shit!”
Did you try and model it on any regional/national festival models you’d attended?
CM: I know Zach is a huge fan of Whartscape in Baltimore, and I’m sure that has had a lot to do with how we have chosen to grow with the festival. Incorporating performance art, and different types of sets, like round-robins and things like that. I think I had some major realizations after being a part of that first Hopscotch Fest (as a member of Black Congo NC) and just remember thinking that we could generate that same energy here in Charlotte with the support of the community and our friends. I think Recess Fest has always been about trying to help foster a greater sense of community in town. I feel like each year we have been sort of bleeding things together a little bit more. Punks at indie shows, folk dudes at punk shows. It’s a lot about wanting to mesh different groups of people for one solid cause. Not to say that this is something huge, but in comparison to other fests, we actually care a lot more about the feeling of events and the fest itself as opposed to just packing three days full of so many bands. Recess Fest is definitely a stepping stone to what we would both like to see happen more often in Charlotte.
ZR: I’ve never been to Bonnaroo or Coachella or Pitchfork’s fest, but inspiration for Recess came largely from my times at Whartscape and eventually Hopscotch. I don’t think I’d previously ever had more fun at a musical function than my first time at Whartscape — Baltimore’s Wham City collective (headed by Dan Deacon) and roughly 80 insanely awesome bands of all kinds stirring up the youth all over the city across four days, while the country’s largest free arts festival, Artscape, was going down at the same time. Seeing how well they’d incorporated other creative outlets — visual arts, comedy, special/rare artist performances, and even musician-performed comedy sketches — also sparked our incorporation of the Post All Bills flier show, Etch-A-Sketch art show and short film contest we’ve previously hosted. The Hopscotch festival was awesome to experience for the first time, right after we’d launched Recess, because there was finally a big, musically important event happening so close to home and it was perfectly organized and executed. Inevitable and lasting inspiration definitely comes from something like that.
How has it been setting up logistically?
CM: I think it’s always sort of a whirlwind until it’s over. Zach has handled a lot of the groundwork as far as booking bands and lining things like that up. It’s always a total pleasure to meet new people in the community and find out that they are actually on the same page as us, though. It’s a lot of back-and-forth emails and people dodging you at shows because they know that you need some sort of answer from them, not going to call anyone out on that, though. I personally really enjoy it, but it’s very nerve-wracking. It’s always really hard to assemble things in advance, or rather be prepared for things. Zach can probably provide some more insight into this, as he usually handles speaking with the bands and things like that, but neither of us are very removed from it. We sort of like the idea of going into a bar that we want to do an event at, and having a beer and getting the gist of the atmosphere first-hand. I love imagining things happening in a place.
ZR: Recess Fest is definitely still an effort to help improve that stinky problem of Charlotte not being known so much as a music city. A still-driving force in all the work put into this festival is remembering that a gigantic city with tons of identities pretty much can’t survive as any kind of music headquarters without a nearly all-encompassing music festival. I like to think that if we can keep growing on all counts and keep tapping into new communities, eventually we can instill enough faith and devotion, and receive enough reciprocated support to make the Queen City a shiny crown on the musical map.
What were the goals that first year and how does it look in retrospect?
CM: I think the goals the first year were kind of just to “make it” or live through the event. I feel like we retain some of the same goals, down to the very basic ones. Just trying to come out on top and not lose a ton of money is a personal one. Growth has always been in mind, and adding different things each year. For instance this year there is a huge presentation/opening night thing at Petras with a ton of performers doing plays, monologues, stand-up comedy and even a couple of bands closing out the evening. I think the main goal has always been growth. Internally and externally. We want this to have a positive impact on the city and sort of mushroom as years go on. I never thought when we did RF 1 that we would even make it to a second, let alone a fourth one.
ZR: I think our goals the first year were to really just test the waters and learn as much as we could about how an eclectic festival would feel and what it might go down like here. We’d made some fun band acquaintances over the years, both personally and from each of our other musical endeavors, and figured it was time to take charge and get them all here to get the biggest bang out of our resources at one time. The first Recess happened in July 2010 and we hosted about 14 bands in one day. Our second and third installations showcased roughly 25-30 and this upcoming fest will feature over 70 performers. It’s luckily happened almost naturally, but we think it’s important to keep increasing everything to be proportional to whatever sense of demand there is. I’m also really attracted to making an event a true event — something of a blowout, over the top in a most awesome way.
I’m going to guess there were some pretty insane moments the last few years. Did you ever think, fuck it, let somebody else make this commitment?
CM: I don’t think we have really come to that yet, so probably pretty fucking lucky on that end. I know we have probably both felt that way towards certain notions, or past performers, but overall I think we are both probably equally surprised to tell you that it has been about as smooth sailing as one could expect doing this.
ZR: There surely have been “fuck it” moments or even days, just as you’d expect with any big, risky endeavor. But most things we take on honestly don’t feel so uncertain or stressful because typically everyone involved wants this to happen as bad as we do and they help make it all mostly breezy. Also, based on my 14 years of living here, I feel pretty confident that there might not be a someone else who has enough time to pick up the pieces and put them back together with the right mentality and passion if I, or we, were to actually say fuck it. I skipped college and now scrape by working two shitty hardly part-time jobs so I can be extremely available for this, because I want this more than to be able to fine dine, have clean new clothes or even make sure my car insurance gets paid on time. I’m having so much fun with this role I’ve taken on and I never really saw any of it coming. Planning Recess helps bring out my inner child, which I never want to fall out of touch with, and I genuinely feel a great sense of purpose in life now, being involved with this.
Speaking of…do you feel any competition with Treasure Fest?
ZR: It has been somewhat of a challenge adapting to Treasure Fest happening at all, especially so relatively close to ours. Even though there are some promotional conflicts (many people still think Recess and Treasure Fest are the same thing, or don’t understand) and occasional lineup similarities, it has to be seen as a good thing on the grand scheme. I can’t act like I’m not happy about Charlotte having another pretty rad weekend of live music and people coming together for it. As a festival organizer interested in some of the same goals, Treasure Fest also serves as some sort of template for me too. I think we can learn equal amounts from each other before, during and after each of our fests, and I feel grateful that we can be civil and supportive of each other, rather than be competitive, in our efforts.
CM: I can say personally that I don’t feel direct competition but I do sort of worry that it has sort of spread the audiences thinly. Not so much as attendance goes but I do worry a bit that, like, “Hey, there really is only room for one of these things.” So, just kind of weird like that. I want Recess to be special and I think that after two years of Treasure Fest it still very much is. Also very different, we always try to include many different acts of many genres and try to keep an interesting dynamic.