Sean Carlson: The Man Behind FYF Fest

Sean Carlson.

FYF Fest has evolved from a chaotic cluster of concerts in Echo Park to a two-day Coachella-esque music festival in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Now in its fourth year at Los Angeles State Park, formerly the site of artist Lauren Bon's "not a cornfield," FYF Fest brings thousands of concert-goers to this space that was once one of Los Angeles' "brown fields," a railyard depot. This year marks the largest FYF Fest yet, featuring reunited bands like 90's hardcore act Quicksand alongside local, national, and international acts like M83, Refused, Converge, James Blake, The Faint, Beirut, and more.

To get a brief history of the evolution of FYF Fest, Artbound caught up with Sean Carlson, the festival's founder to learn about where FYF came from and where it's going.

Describe that very first FYF Fest for us.

I was on tour, I was 18, and I went to a show in Gainesville, Florida. The show was multiple different venues that were all walking distance from one another and you'd pay ten or twelve dollars and you could walk in and out of the venues. So you had access to see 21 different bands throughout the night: it was a great idea. And so I came home to Los Angeles. I was bored, I was young and so I set up the first FYF Fest. It wasn't meant to go nine to ten years, like it's gone now. It wasn't meant to turn into a big festival in a park with traveling bands. It was just local bands, everyone played for free and I think there was 25 to 30 bands, 10 different comedians, 50 different artists that showed their work and it was just an idea to bring all these different people together. Twenty-five hundred kids showed up to Echo Park and it was a really good vibe, and people were excited and it was wild and fun. And so that was the first year [in 2004]. It just started naturally and it wasn't the idea to do a music festival or to do anything as it is now. It was just meant to facilitate boredom, I guess you could say, because I was young and I wanted to do something that contributed to the same exhibit and play in a band.

So when you were on tour, who were you touring with? Was it one of your acts, or a band you were in?

No, I didn't play in a band. I did a zine for a number of years and right when I graduated high school, I decided I wanted to travel across the country [in 2003] and so I told my dad I was driving his car to San Francisco, which wasn't true, and I drove his car across country with a group of friends. The zine I did was called the Black List, and we sold them in front of shows every night to cover gas and food, and we survived off like $3 to $5 dollars a day, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was before gas had hit high prices and the oil prices went up. I think it was a $1.30 a gallon across the country. So we drove across the country for five weeks and spent time in a number of different cities. It was a great experience. The zine I did for a number of years, from when I was 15 until I was 19, so we used the zine as a way to travel across the country. We didn't play in a band, but we were able to make enough money to cover all of the expenses.

Ninjasonik and Japanther performing at FYF Fest. 2009. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Ninjasonik and Japanther performing at FYF Fest. 2009. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

Right around that time was pretty much before Facebook, before all these digital communities really exploded. So what was that like for you, you were making a very tangible, a very non-digital thing and that's the thing that gets you to build community across the country.

Well, I mean, I think in one sense it's great because it connects people but there's also so much on there [online] that's pointless. I don't need to look at a photo of what someone ate that night. I don't care about that and I think that's where these websites have gone, it's an overload of, for lack of a better word, crap. And so this was at a time when I think Friendster was just starting, I didn't own a cell phone until 2006 and so we didn't have cell phones and we had a Thomas Guide to the country to get around and we had just phone numbers of people that we knew in cities and if we didn't know someone, we would just show up to the show and we'd ask around until we found someone to stay with. It was at a time when it wasn't weird to go up to a random person and be like, "Hey, do you think me and three friends can sleep on your couch?" People would be cool with it, and so that's how we got across the country.

What were the different venues, I remember going to it: it was the Echo, the Echoplex, what else were those original venues?

It was the Echoplex, before it turned into the Echoplex, it was a wedding recital room and then it was at Echo, Casa de Pablo, and Sea Level records.

Lightning Bolt playing FYF Fest. 2009. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Lightning Bolt playing FYF Fest. 2009. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

How has the festival evolved?

It just grew naturally. We did it five years at the Echo and the Echoplex and all those venues and so by the sixth year, I was no longer inspired to do it, that size of a room, I wanted it to expand. It felt natural to go to the park, it was an ambitious step but it was the right step.

So how was that, going from kind of a grassroots thing, making it in all local venues - what was that step to make it into a giant concert?


How many bands were at the first one?

I think there was 30 or 32. It was at the same time, it was not un-organized, but you slowly learn. It's trial and error; you can't grow unless you fail. And it's not even failing but understanding your mistakes and being able to look back on your mistakes and changing them. That's exactly what we did, so the very first two years in the park were a little bit rough because it was a new location and you have to bring in outside infrastructure to build in there and so now we have a very good idea of how to, like, what to do in the park and run it. And it goes over very well.

How do you get bands to reunite and what's your process of choosing acts?

It's not us bringing them back together; it's them already knowing that they're going to re-ignite but it's us being able to provide them the right environment and show. Like Quicksand is one this year that hasn't played in a very long time and it's very exciting. They did two shows in New York this past week, and they did Fallon and so it's very exciting that it's their first proper show on the West Coast is at FYF. The Descendants last year, they never broke up, but they weren't active for a number of years, they played the festival. That's what the goal of the festival is: to get this band that hasn't played in a long time and to play to their audience, so it feels exciting. It feels fresh and new rather than a band that tours the country three times a year.

Randy and Dean from No Age at FYF Fest. 2008. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Randy and Dean from No Age at FYF Fest. 2008. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

Who are the ones that really stood out to you, the ones that were really a big get for you personally, those ones that you've always wanted to see?

You know, I never really have that mentality, I mean the smallest bands at the festival, I'm excited about. Like the Descendants were a band that were my favorite band growing up so that was definitely exciting, but as for the rest, there's never really one that's, "Oh, I have to have them." It's like, I'm excited that Refused is playing, but I'm also excited that Suicide of Western Culture is playing. I look at all of them and they are all equals because each one of them makes the festival what it is. The smallest band, the biggest band. Granted, the biggest band is going to sell the most tickets and it's going to make people the most excited, but the smallest band really adds vibe and people go and they remember seeing Jay Reatard early at a festival or they remember the third year of FYF, Matt and Kim opened the festival. And kids remember that, they saw them with 40 people and that was a moment that they had. And so it's difficult for me to pick the ones that are the most exciting or the ones that make me go like "Awesome!"

There seems to be some thematic through-lines between the bands on your lineups. What are some of the elements that you look to when picking bands?

There is a million different things: "Is this going to work in a festival setting? Is this going to go over? Is the audience going to get it?" Those are the questions, but it's really, "Do I like it?" Like it's a mixtape that I'm creating.

I'm interested in community-building and the way that art and music can bring people together. With FYF Fest you've built this kind of community that gets together every year and connects musicians and music lovers from all over the world. Were you interested in community building when you built up FYF? Is that something you learned from the zine years?

I mean, it kind of came naturally, I don't really think about these things. I just really feel like my job is to do FYF. It's like, I want to make this the best thing I possibly can. I want everyone who goes to be happy that they put that money and their time into this, and that they're entertained and got something out of it. And that's my goal, really with the festival. It's to build something out of it. I wanted to build community, I want people to look at it and when they think about Summer, they think about FYF.

Sean Carlson | Photo: Tod Seelie.
Sean Carlson | Photo: Tod Seelie.

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