It started, like so many things, in a small room. A tea room to be exact. Thirty or so bands and an untold number of fans crammed into the tiny confines of the old 11:11 Teahouse over three days, united by the spirit of DIY camaraderie and artistic exploration. The ground rules, such as they were, were simple: embrace musical diversity, assume creative risks, and, above all, have fun. Viewed in the lens of the current day, it would hardly seem remarkable — just another local music festival in an ever-expanding glut of local music festivals. But in 2007 it was a unique endeavor, navigating a uncertain course through uncharted waters.
Founded by all-around jack-of-music-trades Randy Garcia, Nophest was named after Nophi, a record label Garcia started in 1999 when the internet was just beginning its sea change of the music industry, and replacing an “F” with “ph” seemed like an actual clever idea. At the time he was organizing the inaugural festival, Garcia was an emerging entity in the Atlanta music scene — a resourceful, motivated musician and DIY entrepreneur who felt more at home amongst the scene’s weirdos and outsiders than he did amongst its entrenched cliques and trend chasers. For that reason, he wanted to create a festival that was egalitarian in nature, offering equal access and opportunity to artists regardless of their genre, renown, or cool factor.
The results were immensely successful. Over the course of six years, Nophest grew from a tiny teahouse fest into the largest multi-venue independent music festival in the city. By its peak in 2012, the lineup had expanded to 80 bands spread out across four days. For one long weekend that August, every club in the East Atlanta Village — the Earl, 529, the Basement, Eastside Lounge (now Union EAV), and Joe’s Coffee — were all united under the Nophest banner, with Garcia and his merry band of friends and volunteers at the center of it all.
But that degree of expansion took its toll. In addition to organizing and running Nophest, Garcia was continuing to operate his record label, recording bands out of his longtime home studio, and performing steadily in several bands ( local favories Swank Sinatra and Gun Party chief among them). Keeping up with the enormous amount of communication and details it took to keep the festival running smoothly was proving to be too stressful and time-consuming. Faced with the monumental task of repeating the success of 2012, Garcia decided to scale back the festival for one final run before pulling the plug. “In a nutshell: I got burned out,” Garcia replies when asked why he brought Nophest to an end. “By 2012, it was completely overwhelming — and in spite of the popularity of the festival and the amazing fun we were having, it was exhausting. That’s actually why I decided to hold the ‘final’ one at WonderRoot and send it off in proper DIY fashion.”
Time, however, has a funny way of cycling back and stirring old memories to life. Now approaching 40, Garcia finds himself in a place where he once again has the time and the energy to commit to such a massive undertaking. While others experiencing the existential dread of oncoming midlife might opt for, say, a new convertible or a new wardrobe, he thought it better to channel those thoughts and emotions into creating something more constructive. As a steady presence in Atlanta music, Garcia has witnessed firsthand the scene’s ongoing evolution into a more welcoming and inclusive space, as well as the many barriers and hurdles that remain for marginalized people and voices. By reviving Nophest, he hopes to help tear down the elitist attitudes, negative stereotypes, and cultural misconceptions that pits different segments of the population against one another. “When I put Nophest to rest in 2013, I became more interested in the scene as a tool for sociopolitical change,” Garcia reveals. “Lately, I’ve spent more time in punk/queer/trans/feminist/antifascist circles than in bars and clubs, and I’ve come to adopt a personal notion that art is our greatest weapon in the fight for human rights and equality. This is what excites me and this is what I want our scene to represent.”
With age oftentimes comes caution and restraint, but any thought of Nophest 2017 being a pared down version of the original quickly fades when you look at the poster promoting the event. Featuring over 70 bands across four days, the lineup mirrors the ambition of the 2012 event — a far-flung mix of rock, noise, punk, electronic, folk, surf, avant pop and who knows what else, representing a broad spectrum of the Atlanta music scene. There’s also a fair number of Nophest veterans performing — Garcia isn’t above a little nepotism now and then — which has helped provide the festival with a surprising air of continuity from years past. And although four years is an eternity in the music business, enthusiasm for Nophest remains as high as ever, at least among those who know it best.
“The best thing about it is that it’s still making an impression,” says John Breedlove, whose long-running noise-punk duo, Hip to Death, will perform at Nophest for a remarkable seventh time on Saturday. “I dig the diversity of the fest itself. The lineup has different feel every year… Randy’s done a good job of spreading the love around town, so to speak. And the name alone — Nophest — is cool to me. I feel like an outsider all the time and that name sort of sums it up.”
Originally the festival was to be held at WonderRoot, but when the arts organization began slowing down programming in preparation for their impending move, Garcia was forced to look elsewhere. On the recommendation of a friend, he took a tour of Little Tree Art Studios in Avondale Estates and found it to be an ideal space — safe and inviting, comfortable yet intimate — for the kind of event he wanted Nophest to become. With the location secured, Garcia turned his attention to finalizing the lineup and securing a vendor for food and beverages. For that he found a willing partner in My Parents’ Basement, who offered to sponsor the event and allowed for the use of their food and alcohol permits.
But Garcia’s work still wasn’t complete. Early in the process, when he was still weighing the ideological ramifications of bringing back the festival, he made the decision to donate the proceeds from Nophest to charity. After considerable research and some input from friends and colleagues, Garcia selected RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization. “The lives of many people I love have been profoundly affected by sexual violence,” says Garcia. “RAINN provides support, education, consultation, and advocacy to mitigate the damage done by sexual violence — while also taking measures to prevent future instances. Furthermore, RAINN uses 93% of all funding received as outlay for their programs. I thought this would be the best use of proceeds from the festival.”
These sentiments are echoed by Verge Bliss, an Atlanta noise artist and founder of ATLAntiFest, who has worked with Garcia and Nophest on several occasions in the past. For the revived event, Bliss has been brought on to curate tomorrow night’s experimental showcase, which features the likes of bouquet and dialogue, as well as her own project, Dendera Bloodbath. She points out that far too often known abusers are booked by promoters who are either unaware of the abuse or choose to look the other way. As a result, victims are further silenced, which only continues the destructive cycle of violence and shame. “There’s definitely some scene policing that happens here at the local level,” says Bliss. “I’m very proud to say that most of the people I know do not hesitate to speak out about sexual assault, even if it is very deeply personal and has hurt that person badly. I think Randy’s decision to donate the proceeds to this organization really reinforces that here in Atlanta, and I hope it will influence some other scenes where rapists continue to get booked on shows and further their careers while their victims are silenced or cut off from valuable industry contacts.”
Filled with rekindled vitality and a renewed sense of purpose, you’d probably think that bringing back Nophest would be enough for Garcia to earn himself some needed rest. And if you were to ask him if he intends to continue the festival into the future, my guess is that his response would be a hearty “yes.” But as it turns out, Garcia has even bigger plans up his sleeve. And now that he’s built up his resolve, made new industry connections, and gotten back into the organizational discipline of being an event promoter, he’s only grown more determined to see his next vision through.
“The new concept I’m working on requires a TON of logistics and equipment, so I’ll certainly be easing into it,” Garcia reveals after some prodding. “It’s going to be a much more interactive concept that brings together multi-disciplinary and overlapping fields like digital media, film, gaming, and the like. I guess it will be sort of a nod to pop culture conventions, but with a Nophest built right into the middle of it. It’s going to probably kill me, but at least I’ll die doing what I love.”
The Nophest Music & Arts Festival kicks off tomorrow and runs through Sunday at Little Tree Art Studios in Avondale Estates. Doors open at 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Full schedule available at nophest.org. Admission is $10 for a 1-day pass or $25 for a 4-day pass. All proceeds go to benefit RAINN.org. All ages. Safe space.