Distorted Joy: Fuzz Fest 4 at The Bling Pig
When Chris "Box" Taylor says "fuzz" is a "feeling," he's not being emo. He means it quite literally.
Fortunately for music lovers, he's not selfish with the joyous sounds of distortion.
If you live in Ann Arbor and you're into rock 'n' roll, you've likely crossed paths with Taylor, either by attending his annual Fuzz Fest, the long-running dance party The Bang!, or having witnessed one of his many bands tear up the stage at Woodruff's, The Blind Pig, or the now-defunct Elbow Room in Ypsi. Whether opening the blast doors with longtime cosmic rockers Mazinga, transporting you to "Sleeping Mountain" with his band Blue Snaggletooth, or simply whipping up a guitar frenzy as a member of Scott Morgan's Powertrane, Taylor carries that fuzzy feeling with him everywhere he plays.
I distinctly remember walking into Woodruff's in Ypsilanti the opening night of the first Fuzz Fest in 2014. The moment I stepped over the threshold and into the bar, each throbbing bass note rattled my marrow, and each kick of the drum was like a blow to the chest. The music was alive, and neither the thick boots on my feet nor the sturdy jacket on my shoulders could shield me from the penetrating soundwaves.
Meanwhile, as the four members of Bison Machine blasted away at their instruments in a blur of sonic fury, the psychedelic light show above turned my gray matter every shade of the rainbow.
This was an all-out assault on the senses, and it was glorious.
On June 1-3, Fuzz Fest 4 will take over The Blind Pig. With 33 bands preparing to descend upon Ann Arbor, with The Overhead Army on psychedelic light duties, it's a damn shame the students will miss out on what promises to be the kick-off event of the summer.
Fortunately for Pulp readers, Taylor was kind enough to take some time out from organizing this massive undertaking to give us a sneak preview of what we can expect once the amps are stacked, and the bands hit the stage.
Q: Can you tell us about the inspiration for Fuzz Fest and how it's changed over the last four years?
A: The original inspiration was two things: Anthony from Disinformants had put on YpsiFest, which had two stages, and my band Blue Snaggletooth had played this festival at Small's (in Detroit) put on by Scott from The Amino Acids; that one had three stages, and I loved how one band would finish and the other would start right away -- there were no breaks between bands.
I told my wife after I played those gigs that we should do something like that out here. She said you should call it Fuzz Fest. At the time, we were at Woodruff's (in Ypsilanti), which was the perfect place because it had the right amount of space and storage for all of the equipment. Eleven bands is a lot of equipment. And the first year was really successful. Everybody had a good time; there was a good turnout.
Ann Arbor just doesn't have any good real rock festivals. Rock-n-roll festivals. There's Sonic Lunch down in Liberty Plaza. Stuff like that, and bands that play at Art Fair. It's more family entertainment, where I'm definitely trying to go for something more rock-n-roll. It can be all different kinds of rock-n-roll, from psychedelic rock to thrash rock but it's all rock music.
Ann Arbor's got the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, and the Jazz Festival. There are all these festivals going on in Detroit all the time. Especially in 2014, there were just so many music festivals going on -- Metro Times Blowout, Hamtramck Fest, Berzerker -- I was just like, man, we gotta have something here, so people in Washtenaw County can enjoy a music fest, too, you know?
The second-year we moved to The (Blind) Pig. It's a little more difficult logistically, but it still works out overall. I try to get bands to share gear and to make it not Gear Fest (laughs). People really seem to like having it there, and The Pig is really the only other legitimate rock venue that could host an event of that size without me having to go rent my own space somewhere. We looked into doing that, but it was just a giant pain in the ass. I've been in and around the music scene four years, and there's not a real deal (rock) music festival in Ann Arbor.
Q: Which is a shame given the local rock legacy.
A: Totally. There's been tons of great music to come out of Ann Arbor. People always complain that there's no "rock shows" at The Pig; we will give them three days straight! (laughs) You can't complain about that!
Q: You talked earlier about the different types of rock music. Is there one that defines Fuzz Fest or does it just span the spectrum from rock to thrash and metal?
A: People have asked and the only answer I can give is that you know when you hear it. You hear it in that certain tone of the guitar.
A: It's distorted, but it can be everything from ambient tones all the way to something harsh and aggressive. It has some sort of effect on your brain. You know it when you hear it, that's for sure. People associated with guitars and pedals and all that, and that's an element of it for sure. A big element. But it can vary in instrumentation. Fuzz can mean something different to everybody. I've definitely had people complain to me, "That's not a fuzz band!" or whatever. OK, according to you! (laughs) It's definitely subjective.
Q: Traditionally, it's been all Michigan bands in Fuzz Fest, correct?
A: Yes, but this year I've expanded it some to include a few out-of-state bands. I've got a band coming in from Columbus, Ohio, called Lo Pan. They're definitely in the underground rock vein. Our Bang! buddy Dustin is coming from Portland to play. His band is Skin Lies.
I think those are the only two out-of-state bands. I've had a lot of out-of-state bands want to play. The problem is it's not a huge festival -- I never get more than 100 people a night -- and when we do Fuzz Fest, The Blind Pig has to take the capacity down from 400 to 300 because of the two stages. If I could get 200 or 250, I'd be really happy. If I could do that consistently, I could have bigger out-of-state bands.
Q: How are you changing up the fest this year? Taking any new approaches or trying anything new?
A: I tried to get some sponsorship, but it's just too much of a pain in the ass (laughs). I pretty much coordinate the whole event by myself. Jeremy [Wheeler, who also does The Bang! and The Overhead Army] helps me out by doing the poster, and I have people to help me stage-manage and lug gear around during the event. Jeremy and some other people from The Bang! help out with the light show, too, but otherwise, it's just me! I've got a family and two jobs, and I don't have time to deal with Pabst Blue Ribbon (for sponsorship).
Q: The show seems to have quite a few moving parts. How much crew do you have running around on a given night?
A: Three dudes usually. Me, my buddy Jim, and Jeremy, in particular, was a HUGE help. He manned the lights.
Q: I remember at the first Fuzz Fest you were using an old psychedelic light set from the 1960s. It was pretty impressive. Is that still a part of the show?
A: Yeah! The first year we did Fuzz Fest a guy saw the poster and somebody told me to contact him. I did and he said that he had all of these lights from the thing he used to do back then and he told us we could have them. I told Jeremy and we drove out there to pick it up, and it was a ton of old light-show stuff. The coolest part was the old clock faces that are really big and you can use the oil lights in.
We've kinda shied away from the oil lights at Fuzz Fest because it can be really messy and you have to have a really good space to operate in. It was really good at Woodruff's but we're kind of limited at The Pig.
Q: For me at least, that light show the first year really added to the atmosphere. I was pretty blown away.
A: It was awesome because we had all of this space to run the light show and do the oils and not have it be a clusterfuck.
Q: Watching the guys work the lights was almost as fun as watching the bands -- they were obviously having a blast!
A: Yeah, it was totally awesome! I just wish we could do it at The Pig more but it's tough since we're kind of crammed into a corner. I really wish Ann Arbor had a bigger venue! (laughs) I've had offers to do (Fuzz Fest) in Detroit, but I'm not doing it in fucking Detroit -- I wanna do a festival here in Ann Arbor! It drives me crazy -- why don't we have more stuff in Ann Arbor?!
Q: Detroit has a lot of great history, too, but it's nice to have something of our own.
A: You know, there are some great house venues (in Ann Arbor). Far House and Third Death Star are great! Ann Arbor's
got stuff going on, but we don't have a big rock-n-roll festival. I would do it in Ypsi if there was a bigger place. Don't get me wrong, because I love The Pig. The Pig has gone out of its way to help me -- especially the last two years. They definitely let me do what I want, it's just the setup of the place makes it hard a little bit.
Q: Well, you obviously have a good connection there from the Bang! days.
A: Yeah, and they really appreciate the festival in the summertime, when the students are gone. It gives them a little business to fall back on when things slow down for a few months. It's kind of a (Washtenaw) county thing, too, in that sense. (But) I'd rather have it in April because the students are here and I can get that extra 150 people I want.
Q: Back to the light show for a minute: Will the psychedelic light show aspect remain a part of the show?
A: Yeah, we're still doing that. We're just incorporating other aspects of it. We still have the overhead, we still have the liquid light projector, but it's automated so we're not dealing with those big clock faces -- if you drop one of those it's just a big fuckin' mess. Like I said, we're kind of scrunched up in the corner there, so that makes it kind of hard to do the clock faces. But we still have that type of light show going on; we have the overheads, we still have the op art stuff going on, video projectors, and the liquid light projector.
Q: I can see there's a lot to juggle. There has to be something rewarding in the end for putting on such a complex show.
A: I like the feeling of accomplishment when it's over, and I like the positive response from the crowd when they encourage me to do it again. That helps, you know. And I love seeing the bands! I've had really good experiences with the bands there. They always let me know how much they appreciate it.
Q: Are there any bands this year that you're particularly excited to see?
A: I'm excited to see some of the bands that I haven't seen and only followed online because I'm working all the time now and I'm a family guy and I don't get out to as many shows as I used to! (laughs) I'm excited to see Gruesome Twosome and The HELLGHiLLiES -- they're the first band on the second night. I'm excited to see Child Bite since I haven't seen them in a few years. LoPan -- I'm really excited to see them! It's gonna be a good show! Friday night is gonna be crazy because it's kind of the metal/stoner night and all of those bands use huge amps so that will be really interesting.
Q: Have you separated it into theme nights this year?
A: This is the first year I've done that a little bit -- just with the Friday night lineup, though. Otherwise, it's all mixed. I wouldn't say it's a grab bag. Some of my criteria are -- are you touring or playing gigs regularly? Are you releasing music on a regular basis? A lot of bands have contacted me that have never played a show, or maybe they play once a year at somebody's house or something. I'm sorry, I'm not gonna book you.
But sometimes there are bands that contact me that only played a couple shows and want to play Fuzz Fest, so I book them. I take a chance on some people. Booking is weird; hundreds of people have contacted me about playing.
Q: Your band Blue Snaggletooth has been a fixture in the past. Will you be performing in any capacity?
A: Nope! We played the first one and the second one. It's a little easier like this because it's one less thing to worry about.
I want people to come out and appreciate the fact that this is going on in Ann Arbor at The Blind Pig -- hopefully, The Blind Pig isn't closing! It's a good thing!
Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.