Imagine for the sake of argument that you despise modern-day music festivals in general. Crowds of obnoxious dudes? Corporate-branded stages? VIP sections for even more obnoxious dudes? Nope, forget it. What used to be a sacred gathering for fellow outsiders has increasingly become a magnet for well-adjusted party seekers with money and a vague desire to be seen.
OK, now stop imagining. If the above scenario resonates with you, then consider a trip to Athens for the recently revived Popfest. True, the four-day event coincides with Wrecking Ball ATL’s punk/hardcore/metal extravaganza, but for introverted misfits that may balk at that festival’s hefty price tag, Athens offers a welcome alternative.
Founded by Mike Turner of HHBTM Records, Popfest got its start back in 2004 as a local event with modest ambitions. The idea then was simply to celebrate his recent move to Athens, bring some friends together, and create a hub for his label’s far-flung roster. “There wasn’t any real thing to it beyond throwing a big show,” Turner confesses.
But by 2010, the festival had become an underground sensation capable of attracting international audiences. Fans from all over the world flocked to the Classic City to catch cult favorites like Mission of Burma, the Wedding Present, Dan Deacon, and Roky Erickson, as well as to watch scrappy newcomers ignite the blogosphere with breakout performances.
Still, as the festival grew, so did its attendant costs and paperwork. So Turner, who felt that the Popfest was starting to lose its focus, decided to postpone the event indefinitely in 2011. “[I] never thought I’d do another one,” he admits.
But in the summer of 2015, while Turner was in the UK with HHBTM band Eureka California at the Indietracks Festival, a former Popfest fan walked up to him and asked when the festival was coming back. Jokingly, Turner replied: “August 2016, it’s gonna be huge.”
What started as an off-the-cuff quip, however, quickly began to manifest into reality. By the end of the day, bands were making inquiries about performing and people were pressing him for specific dates so they could plan their trips. “So I was like, well, maybe I should do it again,” Turner says.
Once the seed was planted in his head, Turner drew up a list of dream bands to reach out to. “I told myself, I had to get one of three names to perform; otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” he reveals. “Within three emails I had one of the artists — Daniel Johnston — and from there I just started working on the rest of the list.” After whittling down the dream roster from 100 possible names to 20, Turner filled in the rest of the slots with locals and bands who asked to join in.
This year, Athens Popfest features over 50 bands, and most of the action happens at two venues – the Georgia Theatre for the big headliners, and Little Kings Shuffle Club for afternoon shows and Wednesday’s opening bash. Meanwhile, The World Famous, just a stone’s throw from Little Kings, offers two evening gigs and dead-good pub grub. Best of all, though, full-access tickets for all four days cost less than $60 a head, and only $12 for each night.
So who’s playing? The headliners alone should give you a sense of the festival’s incredible scope. Turner’s aim has always been to present bands often overlooked by the ordinary festival circuit, and to introduce unsuspecting audiences to incredible music they’ve never heard before. Between legendary outsider Daniel Johnston, mercurial spellcrafters His Name Is Alive, and rock hooligans Deerhoof, attendees can expect a crazy wide array of cult favorites and upcoming stars. Personally, I’m unbearably stoked for some of the newer acts, like righteous college rockers Ought, the lightbulb-swinging Bastards of Fate, and metallic funk platoon Guerrilla Toss.
Now, after the Shaky Knees incident, a few of you may be wary of local representation. If such is the case, consider this: almost 40% of Popfest’s bill enlists local talent, with Elephant 6 stars Elf Power and Pylon contemporaries Love Tractor at the fore. And I don’t know if you’ve been to Athens lately, but the scene still bubbles with creative folk. Have you ever heard of Tunabunny? If not, you need to see Tunabunny, and witness pop mischief in motion. Failing that, there’s always Antlered Aunt Lord, the amoebic collective headed by Jesse Stinnard (also of Tunabunny) that deconstructs their own songs every time they play. And definitely check out Casper and the Cookies, the power pop dream team fronted by of Montreal ex-pat Jason Nesmith. Rising stars to keep tabs on include the psychedelic surf outfit Outer Sea, scuzzy torchbearers Hunger Anthem, the lively Dead Neighbors, and the dramatic Feather Trade.
Most importantly, though, Athens Popfest is all about community. All the sponsors for the festival are local businesses, like Southwestern staple Barberitos and New West Records. Each guest will receive a guidebook that resembles a DIY music zine, replete with gushing band bios from handpicked writers. There will be no VR videos or tech showcases or big brands trying to extend their tentacles into the millennial market. Save for the occasional curious but unaware student, most folk you’ll find at the festival come here because they care deeply about music, and have for years.
So if you wanna hang – be it for one night or all four – don’t be afraid to look around and mingle with your fellow concert-goers. Chances are on the night you find your new favorite band, you’ll also meet a few new friends.
Athens Popfest runs from August 10 – 13. To order tickets, check the full schedule, look at lodging options, and more, visit their website.