Not Dead Yet Fest Fights Toronto Monoculture With Hardcore
Each fall, hardcore and punk fans of varying degrees and localities convene in the city of Toronto for Not Dead Yet, an index of the global hardcore and punk subculture, and a culling of the best and brightest bands found within that bubble. Below is a conversation with fest organizers Greg Benedetto and Sardé Hardie covering the origins of the show and their thoughts on festivals in general. This year's Not Dead Yet takes place the weekend of October 16.
Not Dead Yet kind of grew out of another weekend in Toronto that was centered on the band Fucked Up. Can you explain the lineage of how NDY came to exist, and for that matter when it came to exist?
Greg Benedetto: So, in 2004, Fucked Up played a show on Halloween that was sort of the gig that put them over the wall locally. In 2005, in combination with a Shark Attack reunion, it became an "annual thing" where bands from out of town were included. I believe this was maybe the first time Mind Eraser came up to Canada, too? Anyways, in 2006, in tandem with the release of Hidden World, the band put together a weekend of shows with the likes of Drop Dead, 9 Shocks Terror, Inmates and a bunch more over a few days. The Viletones were supposed to play with Cold World. It was some insane shit: basically taking the Shark Attack gigs and pushing them to the next level.
So, this tradition continued for four years. In 2009, Fucked Up had all but handed off booking the thing to myself and Mark Pesci. At that point, they were full-fledged Canadian Indie Darlings. They were beefing with a shitty indie rock band from Toronto, as they did back then, and we included their name on the flyer and we got in shit for it — maybe there was a cease and desist. Anyways, in 2010, with a full touring schedule, etc., they opted to skip the weekend and did a cover set on Halloween instead.
The next year, after visiting Chaos in Tejas, I realized that I missed not having a thing, so the wheels got turning, and that's how this version started. So, it was basically the same principles put into action on something "new." I started rolling with it with Mark. Sardé had just moved here and helped out with contacts that we didn't have, and then it was born.
Sardé Hardie: As Greg said, the first year I lived in Toronto, Fucked Up weekend was no more, and Greg was talking about wanting to do a fest, so I helped him out with some contacts and ideas for bands initially, and eventually became much more involved with the actual planning of the fest.
There was, I guess, kind of a manifesto or statement of purpose that was posted a few months ago on your Tumblr, where you stated that NDY was started to “fill a hole in the city,” and to combat the “entrenched monoculture in Toronto.” Can you kind of take that apart and detail what you see as Toronto’s monoculture, as well as the hole that you’re looking to fill in Toronto? Break it down for the folks who might not know.
GB: Long and short, I think Toronto sucks on the day-to-day. At least, that's my perspective. The city is incredibly puritanical, and its urban structure lends itself to this sort of provincial attitude. There are main thoroughfares, but the inner grid is designed to be sleepy. Its laws are restrictive against nightlife. The whole downtown was ripe for gentrification, and the process is near complete. On top of that, culturally, Canadians look to the U.S. more than they would like to admit. For something to become popular here, it's almost as if it needs to be signed off on by the U.S. first. Your average Torontonian consumes some pretty safe garbage. Lots of the local bands and local attitudes suck. That's the monoculture.
The city is far more interested in another condo with more unaffordable shit food at street level than creating space for people to live and thrive. I believe this is different than how it used to be. Up until recent years, Toronto and Southern Ontario have been a fertile ground for outsider activity. Outside of all the bullshit, there's a fringe that's always had an incredible output. My favorite legend is that the Bad Brains, before they had any songs of their own, would jam Viletones' Screamin Fist. Toronto's history is as important as most other major centers. Because of this innate Canadian attitude towards our own output, though, our stuff doesn't get repped the same way.
In one way or another, to me, this is a continuation of a long tradition of folks in this city creating their own space. It's increasingly difficult to carve out space in a city where cost of living is rising so quickly, and in that, Toronto is one example of a global trend. I suppose that's it. Toronto is a safe, clean city where it is easy for a lot of people to ignore what's going on in the world. The fact that a lot of shit goes on and gets ignored here is aggravating. Doing something of this scale is the best attempt we can make at taking that space and exposing people to something they're otherwise hiding from.
How long does it take you to plan a fest like this? There’s in the ballpark of a dozen shows each year on it, and then a handful of other events. What kind of planning goes into that?
SH: We are talking about what we want for the fest all year-round. Often, bands are asked a year in advance of the fest, and then the majority confirm four to six months before. Over the last couple years, we have handed off some of the planning of other events, such as the art show and matinees, to others who want to be involved. Because we both work full-time, a lot of the planning happens in the morning before work, or when we get home. A lot of the logistics are figured out pretty last-minute. For instance, figuring out who is available to work doors, etc. We have a really amazing group of friends who are always willing to help with whatever is needed before and during the fest, and they help with a lot leading up to it.
GB: Honestly, we're at the point now where next year we would begin planning before the current year has happened. At this point, it's a bit of a rhythm, too. We're never starting at square one and always looking at the last year and saying, "OK, but what can we do better?" For example, last year, in an effort to consolidate gigs, we largely sacrificed the all-ages night show as a focus. Despite everything running smoothly, we didn't like that. So, we're fixing it. There's also a crew of folks now, like our friends Alex and Dan, who help us figure out if the logistics make sense. Fact is, though, we're as unorganized as we are organized. I would say 50 percent is planned with focus, and the other 50 percent is planned with us yelling at each other about who is stupider.
When you’re planning the shows, it seems like you take a curatorial approach. What are you looking for in the bands you choose for NDY, both in the headlining acts and in the undercards? Do you ever feel like you should “give the people what they want” when choosing bands?
GB: For me, the criteria is good hardcore punk. In my opinion, that casts a rather large net, and that's what we try and pick up on. Is it absurd that we see the merit in both Turnstile's Nonstop Feeling and Barcelona's Extremo Nihilismo en Barcelona? I don't think so. In terms of approach, it's really just listening to a lot of new music, talking and writing to people in scenes all over, and trying to find out about what is going on. Last year, we booked Pure Disgust because a trustworthy friend told us in early 2015 that they were the best hardcore band they had seen in a while. Same can be said this year for a band like Haram from NYC. I like that demo a lot. Their politics are important and urgent. Reports out of New York say they smoke live. That sounds like a perfect fit for the festival to me.
SH: I think we try to have a mix of bands. No one wants to be at a fest where everything sounds the same. Sometimes I'll hear a demo and ask them to play immediately because I personally want to see them! Like Krimewatch. I personally feel like the best lineups are ones without some huge old guy band playing, but a lineup of exciting newer bands that maybe a lot of people haven't heard of, but we think our peers and people attending the fest will like them. It's more like trying to "give the people what they want, but don't know they want yet." There is always a number of bands we want to play, but for whatever reason can't, and then we just try to ask them again for the next year.
GB: And I'd say at this point, where we used to chase "legacy" acts to headline, we're now just after bands people really seem to want to see. I actually like the idea of pulling a band like the Dark from L.A., who few people had heard of last year, over to the fest. They blew people away. That was sick. I think this year that's gonna be maybe Sievehead, or Culprit, or Private Room, or the World, or Dark Thoughts, or Piss. There's a lot of stuff we've dug that I'm looking forward to finally seeing live along with everything else.
The top of the 2016 NDY flyer is shared by two bands that are very popular currently: G.L.O.S.S. and Turnstile. Is there a message you’re trying to send by booking those bands? As the two marquee representatives of NDY for this year, what do you think each one says about the fest as a whole?
GB: Absolutely, this was done with intent. They're even playing the same gig together. In general, I think a lot of people get too caught up in the history of hardcore and forget what it's supposed to be about. Instead, they frame current bands within their own expectations. I've heard punks dismiss Turnstile, and I've heard hardcore kids dismiss G.L.O.S.S. The reality is, they are both hardcore punk bands. One leans a bit more explicitly political than the other, but the sound and passion — even the politics — of both is in the same realm. Putting them under one banner is, at least for me, about strength in numbers. Messages can be more effective when there are more people behind them. That's sort of it for me, personally. We've always tried to book bands that cover the spectrum, so to speak, and I think putting these two on one bill is the best example of that.
One thing that a friend pointed out to me a while ago is the way music fests — particularly within punk and hardcore — have become increasingly similar to conventions, and convention culture, sometimes to the detriment of “normal” hardcore and punk shows. In essence, they become these big social events where people fly into exotic locations, partake in a list of planned events, purchase memorabilia and then hop back on a plane at the end of the weekend. Do you feel like that’s a valid comparison, and is that something that you see as problematic? In other words, does the tourism factor bother you from an ideological standpoint?
GB: I'm generally more interested in a populist version of hardcore punk on the day-to-day. A record from Lima appeals to me because, by virtue of it being hardcore punk, it should shed light on what's going on there and the performers' experiences. That's the angle we try to bring to the festival. As such, I less see it as — and hope it isn't only — a social circle jerk and more an opportunity to commune with people who hardcore punk also resonates with. I know that, for me, I'll see friends who are going to return to Boston, or London, or Mexico, and continue to do their day-to-day version of punk. Locally, the existence of the festival, I think, has only emboldened the scene, too. I guess I see positives and negatives.
If you're the kind of punk that sees fests as social events and are always sitting at home when it comes to an average gig in your town, I'd say you're missing the point of the whole thing. It's an action, after all. Personally, I find inspiration in a communal experience with like-minded individuals, whether that's talking about great new records, sharing a meal or moshing each other in a pit. So, sure, you can come to the fest, buy some tickets, pick up some merch, maybe see the sights, but the best part is the people here from near and far, playing and visiting, all with their own perspective. Get to know some of them before anything else. It's what makes us stronger, or at least offers some respite from the average day-to-day, I think.
SH: For me personally, I don't see it as a problem. I spent most of my youth trying to escape where I lived and see other places in the world. And all the bands I knew would never come to my town or city. Punk and hardcore allowed me to travel and meet new friends who shared my way of thinking, and I think that's great. Being a "hardcore punk tourist" is how I met you! I don't believe in a locals-only mentality. I think a lot of other people feel the way I did when I was younger, especially if you are from an isolated city or small town. The social aspect of these festivals is only an issue if you are antisocial, but I also think it's okay if you are the type of punk who wants to sit at home and listen to records instead of being in a crowded room.
What do you want people to know who are coming to the fest for the first time?
SH: I want them to bring a sweater in case it's cold, and hopefully they go home and are inspired to book their own fest!