L.A.'s FYF Fest moves from punk to pro
Ten years ago, FYF Fest’s Sean Carlson was a dewy 18-year-old so eager to throw a punk rock festival that he forgot to charge for tickets. Did he have even a glimmer back then that he’d be running L.A.'s preeminent indie rock event a decade later?
“No. No,” Carlson said, laughing at the thought. “I didn’t think there’d be a second one. I see this fest as a band I formed out of boredom. I never had a two-year plan, let alone a 10-year plan.”
Well, then here’s to making it up as you go along. Ten years into its ramshackle run of punky positivity (and three years into a partnership with Coachella promoter Goldenvoice), this weekend’s FYF Fest at the L.A. State Historic Park in Chinatown is far and away the most impressive yet.
This year finds major headlining acts such as Yeah Yeah Yeahs and My Bloody Valentine, a well-curated bill of underground favorites and some savvy logistical minimalism (a later 2 p.m. start, fewer but better acts). Fans are hoping FYF has finally moved past the brutal growing pains of the last few years — ungodly lines and insufficient food made recent fests hard to stick around for.
But Carlson promises he’s truly fixed all that for this year. If he has, then 2013’s FYF makes a strong case that it will be around for another 10 years.
Over the last decade, FYF has transformed from a club-hopping Echo Park event with a gleefully profane name (now an acronym meaning "... Yeah Fest”) to a major contender in L.A. festival culture. It landed the year’s only U.S. festival date for My Bloody Valentine, the pioneering Irish noise-rock band that released its first album in over two decades this year.
Attendance is expected to top more than 25,000 fans for each of its two days, and the smaller and better-arranged lineup just feels more like a must-see: an almost-Black Flag reunion with favorite past members performing that band’s songs as Flag; rare sets from soul vet Charles Bradley and experimental Syrian guitarist Omar Souleyman; hipster-favorite R&B singer Solange Knowles and unlikely crossover acts such as MGMT and Beach House.
“I knew we wanted to condense it, to have less bands but more impressive services,” Carlson said. “Last year we had something like 77 bands, this year there’s more like 50. And we’re going to have so many more food vendors, many more vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. We’re doing our best to make it comfy — we want you to wake up Sunday psyched to go back.”
There’s a reason Carlson emphasized that. The 2010 event was a tipping point that almost turned into a fissure for the fest. Its second year at the Chinatown park was, if not a disaster, at least a clear sign that Carlson and his small, devoted team were in way over their heads.
The L.A. Times review of that year chided them for a lack of amenities: “The last two years of FYF have been some of the most frustrating concert experiences in recent memory. … A great lineup means nothing if you spend half your time beneath punishing, shadeless sun unable to meet any basic human needs.” Less than a day after the 2010 festival, Carlson sent an apology email to fans.
After that year, Carlson and longtime fest cohort Phil Hoelting joined Goldenvoice in a long-term partnership (FYF remains an independent company) to allow the principals to focus on bookings, marketing and the creative side; the Coachella promoter handles logistics. Some of the problems (including the interminable lines) were relieved; others, including an inexplicable lack of decent vegetarian food at a punk show, admittedly went unresolved up to this year.
“Criticism always happens. But I was 24 when things blew up, and I hadn’t realized that I didn’t need to conquer the world and do everything myself,” Carlson said. “Goldenvoice excels at production, and they understand my vision.”
Yet despite the grumbling, fans and bands that attended and played for years still rooted for FYF. While other fests with similar snafus might have alienated them, indie and punk fans in L.A. have grown up with Carlson’s fest and seem to really want it to be a homegrown success.
“His excitement for music was obvious, but it didn’t feel like a passive voyeurism; he was actively sharing his passion and getting other people hyped on what he was losing his mind over,” said Randy Randall, founding guitarist of the L.A. band No Age. At seven performances, including 2013, No Age is the fest’s biggest repeat performer. “We have witnessed Sean grow from an ambitious punk enthusiast to a pillar/trend -setter of the professional music industry.”
This may finally be the year that Carlson’s enthusiasm and cachet, and Goldenvoice’s professionalism, meet on equal terms. In learning to pare down to a fest’s essentials with a focus on fan comfort, Carlson is learning some of the same things that Goldenvoice did about Coachella (which had also become an oversold, occasionally difficult event until recently).
He tries to deflect Coachella comparisons — “I’m not interested in ever becoming Coachella-sized. That’s a worldwide festival in Southern California, FYF is an L.A. fest, and that’s two completely different things.”
But the parallels are there, even in miniature.
He’ll have a new hurdle to clear next year when the Chinatown park closes for a year for permanent renovations befitting its role as a frequent concert venue (Carlson said there is a plan in place but wouldn’t comment on specifics).
But now that he’s learned his less-is-more lesson, FYF could be looking at many anniversaries to come.
“For me, it’s all about seeing that 16-year-old kid just sprinting across the field because two of their favorite bands are playing back-to-back,’ Carlson said. “That’s why I do this, to give them that rush.”
Where: Los Angeles State Historic Park, 1245 N Spring St, Los Angeles.
When: 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
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