Clad in a Hell Garbage t-shirt and casually name-dropping obscure noise acts, Verge Bliss seems out-of-place in the button-down utopia of downtown Decatur. Yet it’s here that we meet to discuss Bliss’ ambitious new project ATLAntiFest. The two-day noise and experimental music festival is a first for Atlanta, but before I get the chance to inquire about the details, Bliss asks if I have met her infant son Struwwelpeter. The affectionately named machinery is her newest project, a music box turned cyborg. She shows me a video of the device whirring and pulsing, and explains that “It’s got three different beeping mechanisms. For two, the signal is sent through a fuzz/octave up. There’s a piezo under the music box mechanism. There’s a keyboard from a Radio Shack kit. Everything but the piezo is run through a First Act delay pedal attached to the outside.” This sort of mad scientist rig seems appropriate for the full-time Emory researcher and musician, but it’s also evidence of Bliss’ dedication to noise-craft and proof that her upcoming festival will be a sensory challenge to even the most seasoned noise veterans.
After a few minutes of discussing Struwwelpeter, we move on into even more complex specifics of how one sets up a two-day, 50-act noise festival in a city notoriously indifferent to experimental artists and the noise community. ATLAntiFest, which will be held at the newly named Beltline Fairgrounds on Dec. 9 and 10, is a round-robin style festival which features a mix of well-established harsh noise, grindcore, and electronic acts, as well as some notable locals such as Dialogue and Hip to Death.
How did your interest in noise develop?
I started playing shows as Dendera Bloodbath with the autoharp and the keyboard and doing the darkwave stuff, but there weren’t many bands to play with so I ended up in Florida a lot. The noise scene in Florida is huge and because there weren’t a ton of bands playing the same kind of music I was, I ended up on bills with a lot of noise acts, people who were just doing crazy, off-the-wall stuff. Acid Majik, for example, they would get out a Moog and a drum kit, and it would end up on the floor and everyone would feel bad for a half hour because it got dropped. So that was how the interest developed.
How did that initial interest evolve into the idea for a fest?
It really happened when I played the International Noise Conference [INC] in February. [INC founder] Rat Bastard is a really cool person, and some of my other friends had noise fests throughout the year, but I realized there wasn’t anything like that in Atlanta. If I was going to be more serious about noise in Atlanta then I wanted to do that and bring a lot of my friends together.
Atlanta’s really central in the southeast and I have a lot of friends hitting me up all the time because it’s a good stopping point on tour, but it’s not a great place to play shows for touring bands, especially for more underground acts. Outside of indie, garage, and punk, there’s not a lot of cohesive things going on. If you can get in, playing Eyedrum is great but it is way over on Forsyth Street and not a lot of people want to go down there. I wanted to do something where all my friends could meet each other and hopefully spark more tours and fests, have people think more seriously about noise music and not see it as a colossal fuck-around.
The concept of an “antifest” has been around for 20 years. Is the idea behind this fest more related to genre or ethos?
In my particular case, I called it AntiFest because it fit in with the word Atlanta. I thought about ATL Noise Fest or something like that, but AntiFest is catchy and marketable. A lot of antifests exist because there is that grindcore idea of rebellion against festival culture which has existed in the past. In Atlanta, however, the better marketing you have for your event and the more organized and well-rounded it is, the better you’ll do, and I didn’t want it to be a flop.
I invested quite a bit in using this venue, which used to be No Man’s Land Skatepark, but now they’re calling it Murphy Park/Beltline Fairgrounds over at 880 Woodrow Street. I knew it would be a good space for what I wanted to do. I would be able to split people off and have bands set up on the stage, but since a lot of noise acts literally play on the ground, I wanted to have a space set up where we could do that, to have it run smoothly and have as many acts as we possible could, because I knew there would be no way to have everyone on the bill. Overall, it’s primarily called AntiFest because of the noise factor, and in that sense it is anti-music, but I’m still incorporating all these other aspects which make festivals (hopefully) successful.
You played INC earlier this year, were you inspired by it specifically?
I definitely borrowed a lot from the INC format. We’re going to do ATLAntiFest in a pseudo round-robin style so you’ll have bands setting up and tearing down constantly. The first few acts will be set up and then you can just knock ’em out, so there won’t be a break in the music. That’s somewhat counterintuitive for a lot of band setups. When I was in a rock band, sometimes you’d have up to 30 minutes between sets, for tuning, et cetera. We’re not going to be doing that, especially since people only usually play 15 minute sets for noise sets.
You have 50 bands on this fest, and it’s also fairly diverse, there’s a few acts that are dancey, even pop. Was that intentional?
Year one, book your friends. Don’t try to have a lofty goal that alienates everyone who loves you. You might have a killer lineup, but no one’s there to watch it. If you get your friends involved, you get a better turn out, not to mention having more help.
Who else has been helping set this up?
Amos Rifkin [A. Rippin’ Production], as well as some of the people that work with my label Clandestine Ritual, and a lot of the performers. I did a Kickstarter, but even though I don’t think we’re going to make the goal, it looks like we’re going to sell tickets at the door.
Has funding been an issue for the fest so far?
My expectations have been realistic. Funding isn’t a problem, but if I want to keep doing it, I’m going to have to recoup costs.
So you’re planning to do this next year, too?
I have to! So many people want to play that didn’t find out about it until after submissions have closed, but I had to have a cut off and a submission form, simply because of the format. If you have someone fill out a submission form you get a pretty good idea that they’re capable of following directions.
So is that the most difficult thing you’ve faced while setting this up?
Yeah, I try to put a positive spin on things, but if people are harassing me constantly about things that I told them about on an email two months ago, that’s exhausting. I’ve had 15 to 20 of the performers ask when the fest was going to be, even after I sent them the acceptance email. Although I suppose part of it is a form of small talk in a way.
Do you see a lot of excitement for what you’re trying to do?
People are really excited that there’s going to be something like this, but I wouldn’t say a lot of people. Dasher and Coathangers are playing a show during the second night of the fest and there are already as many people RSVP’d to that as to my fest. Do I think there’s a lot of crossover there, though? Probably not.
I’m assuming one of your goals is to educate those who attend the fest this year. How do you think it will be received by someone who’s going to a noise fest for the first time?
I didn’t plan the order of the shows too much, but I tried to put the bands in an order so that if you don’t like something, walk outside for a few minutes and see if you like the next act. I don’t have a block of harsh noise because I thought that would be kind of alienating.
So building a culture in Atlanta that appreciates noise is important to you?
Yeah, I’m hoping this will spawn more projects. For example, Laremy Wade, who will most likely be running the sound for the event, who’s in Blue Tower, hasn’t been doing noise lately.
Because there’s not an outlet for it?
I don’t know. All I know is that he’s playing in a punk band now, whatever the case. But, there’s a lot of people in the noise scene who are minorities or transsexual, who have all sorts of different backgrounds.
“…that’s the reality of the world we live in. If you want a safe space you can order takeout in your house, and even that’s not a guarantee.”
So you feel the noise community can be a place of acceptance for artists in a way the punk scene doesn’t always exhibit?
It’s funny because it’s really polarized. On one hand you have acceptance of a lot of things, but on the other hand there’s also the Boyd Rice school of using Nazi imagery and getting in people’s faces. People do these things and it’s hard to know whether they actually espouse these ideas or are just trying to get a rise out of people. Power Electronics is notorious for the rape culture atmosphere, and its all just smoke and mirrors, people saying controversial things.
Do you feel like the confrontational aspects of it has limited the reach of the noise community, especially in 2016?
Yes. I have a good friend from South Carolina who did back out of the fest. We talked about the logo of the fest and how there were guns in the background. I mentioned to him that Florida harsh noise is notorious for their imagery of serial killers and dead bodies, but it’s all noise. I’m not going to exclude people who don’t do that, but I’m also not going to censor people for doing that either.
Has that balance been difficult to negotiate? Or do you feel the reality of the noise scene is that you have to be open to uncomfortable things?
It’s more the latter. You have to be ready for that environment. Like, I wouldn’t bring my daughter to noise shows just because you don’t know what to expect. Yohimbe from Richmond, who is an amazing performer, she gets naked on stage every time and that’s just part of her act.
So even though you’re trying to make this an inclusive fest, it’s not the place to go if you want to feel completely comfortable.
Right, that’s the reality of the world we live in. If you want a safe space you can order takeout in your house, and even that’s not a guarantee. I’ve been in abusive relationships and even when you think you’re setting up a space that’s going to be a good place for you to spend your life, that’s not always true. And that’s the case whether you’re white or black or trans or intersex or a cis male. I’m hoping to bring visibility to a lot of things, but that’s a de facto part of people from a lot of backgrounds playing a show together. I want to encourage it, but you can’t force something like that.
ATLAntiFest goes down December 9 and 10 at Beltline Fairgrounds. Doors open at 6 p.m. Admission is $15 for a single day pass and $20 for a two-day pass. All Ages. For full lineup and set times, visit the Facebook event page.