Music: Q&A: Philip Pledger on curating Winston-Salem’s biggest music festival

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Philip Pledger (right) shares a light moment with Jay Dunbar at Single Brothers bar.

Phuzz Phest organizer Philip Pledger sat down with Triad City Beat’s Jordan Green at a wooden picnic table outside Single Brothers in Winston-Salem to talk over drinks about his role as curator of the festival. Now in its fourth year, the festival runs Friday through Sunday, April 6 at venues around downtown Winston-Salem.

Triad City Beat: You’ve played in a number of bands in Winston-Salem. I first met you when you were with Goodnight Man and later talked to you when you were with the Pentatonics, and after that the Estrangers. How did playing in bands set the stage for you to become a curator of music festivals?

Philip Pledger: That’s a good question. I think there’s a lot of nuances that go on with music festivals, a lot of them associated with it being creatively oriented. Musicians and bands, it’s a really complex world in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of logistics that go into it as well, in bringing a positive experience to, not just the bands but also the audience. Having played in bands for a long time, both locally and on tour on the East Coast, it gives you a good perspective on what’s valuable, what’s important, to create a good experience. I definitely feel like playing out of town and having both bad experiences and excellent experiences in other places definitely helped me figure out what kind of festival I wanted to put together.

TCB: When you have played in bands, did the task of booking the show and promotion — those kinds of logistics — fall to you?

PP: I played in the Bayonets [with Caleb Caudle] for three years. Most of those shows were booked by Caleb, or we had a couple booking agents over that time. So I wasn’t as active in those. It was more of an observation as a band member going to places and seeing what works. You start to develop — you can see signs here and there if something’s going to work out well or not. I started booking at Krankie’s Coffee three years ago. That was a nice system because there wasn’t any pressure to meet a show quota: If we didn’t have a show on a Friday or a Saturday, it wasn’t like anybody was upset. It was kind of like a low-stress training ground to figure out how to book good, successful shows. And shortly after I started working there, I started the Estrangers. I book all of our shows, or we get asked to play stuff, too. That probably more than anything has helped me figure out how to go about the process. Though booking a festival is an entirely different animal in a lot of ways, just with the way that booking agents treat you. Booking a one-off versus a tour, it’s very different financially and just the way everything is framed.

TCB: How many bands [are booked]?

PP: I think when all is said and done we’re going to have more than 50. I think we currently have 47 or 48 billed. But then we’re going to have a couple day parties that are going to have eight or nine more. And then we’re going to do a lot of guerilla-style in-stores down at Reanimator record shop — surprise performances. Last year, we had William Tyler, who’s an awesome Merge Records guitar player — he played last year and then went on to get huge international accolades. He played one of the nights and then the next morning went over to Reanimator and played an acoustic set for like a dozen people, which was really cool. So I’m trying to create more of a festival experience and environment where there’s a lot of music to see that’s both on the record and kind of off the schedule as well.

TCB: So what goes into creating a festival of this magnitude?

PP: There’s a lot of different elements. The hardest are fundraising and booking. Booking is a very calculated game of sorts. You have a certain amount of money and you have to figure out how you’re going to spend it. I’ve got a really good group of assistants this year that have stepped up to help me manage a lot of the load. Booking and fundraising are the two biggest challenges. Once the lineup’s out, just trying to promote it as much as possible. Booking is an interesting challenge because it can go any number of ways. You can spend 75 percent of your money on one act; I think that’s what a lot of festivals do. They get that one big name and try to fill out the rest of it with supporting acts that they can afford. I think we try to take a balanced approach to where there’s quality across the board.

TCB: You have at least one international act, Boca Negra, from Peru.

PP: Yeah, they’re really cool. Carlos is a guy who lives here in town, but his band lives in Peru. So he frequently flies down there and does South American tours. But then a couple weeks after announcing the initial lineup we actually were able to add another international band that’s from Brazil. They’re called Boogarins. It’s the same booking agent as a lot of the Merge Records acts. They’re here for South by Southwest, and then they’re basically here for two months until Austin Psych Fest. When their booking agent contacted me about them, I checked out the record, and it was really, really awesome. They’ve been getting a lot of awesome national press. It’s just really cool, ’60s-influenced psychedelic pop. So it’s right up my alley personally, but I think people are really going to like them.

TCB: Can you tell me a little bit about the history and evolution of the festival?

PP: So it started in the fall of 2011. It kind of started by accident. A friend of mine, Anthony Petrovic, who works down at Reanimator, he’s one of the guys behind that. He’s also a local booking agent/promoter. He’s also involved with the festival. He booked two shows, and I booked two shows. And it was just four nights in a row, which was like a Wednesday through Saturday — which from a promoter’s point of view is kind of nightmarish. Trying to get one demographic to come see four night’s of shows is kind of a challenge so we decided to just call it a festival and tried to promote it that way. That actually ended up going really well. People responded really positively to it. After that we just kind of wondered how it would go if we had some time to put together an actual festival with real organization and a couple months of planning. And that’s when six or seven months later we had the second iteration. Since then, it’s just grown step by step each year. I think the first year we had $400 or something like that to work with. And then we’ve just slowly picked up sponsors here and there. We’re just hoping to continue to grow in a healthy way and fill that need I think Winston has for a music festival. Winston has the nickname, we’re called “the city of arts and innovation.” So I feel like we should be doing our part as far as across the state, I think we need to pull our weight in the music category.

TCB: The Triangle — Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Raleigh — as well as Asheville definitely have a reputation as a nerve center of music in North Carolina. Where do you think Winston-Salem fits into that larger, statewide picture?

PP: I think it’s whatever we want it to be, whatever the population can support. Winston’s two hours from Raleigh, and it’s two and a half hours from Asheville. We also have some opportunities here — we might not be able to support the volume of shows that the Triangle does or Asheville does, but I think we’re positioned in a unique spot to really build a good, supportive music culture here to where out-of-town bands can come and have a great show. Winston’s always been a unique spot. It’s been built on really working-class people and I think often times we either don’t give ourselves enough credit or we just have attitudes about ‘Winston never getting better.’ There’s just a lot of emotions involved for people who have lived here awhile and are involved in the creative community. You don’t have to live here that long to realize that there’s a ton of talented people here. I feel like the visual art community is really well respected and there’s really high quality gallery shows happening all the time. And I think the music scene is just going to need some help structurally to get things to the next level. So hopefully Phuzz Phest can help provide that kind of structure in supporting local bands but also giving them the platform to play with bigger bands from other areas but also on a national stage.

TCB: Do you feel like Phuzz Phest and the Winston-Salem scene more generally draws from Greensboro as well, or do you feel that there is a bit of a divide there in terms of interest and identification?

PP: I think it’s always been peaks and valleys. There’ll be years where people from Greensboro come out here all the time to go to shows and vice-versa, and then there’ll be periods of time where it does seem like there’s a pretty big divide. That’s something we’d definitely like to close the gap on. Greensboro has an awesome history of music and they have a great music scene over there, and it’s like 20 minutes away so I think with some effort that gap can be bridged and we can enter one of those good periods again.

TCB: When you book the festival, how do you think about the genres of music and the styles of music in terms of both what you think is good and what people should hear and what you feel people want to hear?

PP: That’s definitely an interesting balance. I think to be successful at all you have to be diverse to an extent. And you have to be open to genres that might not be your personal favorite but I think there’s a way you can look at it, and even if it’s not your favorite band, you can get it and see why it’s really good and why you should support it. And I think that’s the way we’ve gone about booking it. I’m not spending any money on a band that I think is just a cop-out, just to make money. I hope I don’t reach the point where I’m just booking bands just because they’re going to bring in some high-schoolers and bands that I don’t respect. I want to always have a level of integrity to where even if it’s diverse and pulling from a bunch of different genres all of those acts have a certain quality standard to them.

I definitely am trying to diversify this year. I definitely have been wanting to do a hip-hop show for a long time. I’ve wanted to step outside of our normal genres for a while now. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the opportunity to — they just weren’t the right acts to do it. But we intentionally took a step towards more hip-hop this year with Kool Keith, Miss Eaves and Toon & the Real Laww.

TCB: If you could mention two or three acts in the festival that demonstrate the range of different types of music that people can expect to hear.

PP: If we were going to go with the range I would say it goes from No Age, which is a two-piece — at this point they’re kind of punk, pioneers in a lot of ways. They’ve been around for a while now and have put out some really excellent records and they’re really respected within the noise/garage rock/punk community. They were just on “Letterman” recently, and they have a really cool, just straightforward rock mentality. And then in the middle of the road we have Jessica Lea Mayfield, who’s a singer-songwriter in the alt-country community. I saw her probably four years ago at a music festival that the Bayonets played in Bristol, Tennessee, and she was really cool. I think she brings a rare quality in the alt-country community where she’s got a certain edge to her… and more of a rock vibe, but she’s also a great songwriter, and people who like alt-country music love Jessica Lea Mayfield. So it’s not necessarily tied to — it has to have a certain amount of twang or something like that. She’s extremely poppy. Her songs are really easy to listen to. We have punk, garage rock, singer-songwriter alt-country, and then with Kool Keith that’s a totally different totally hardcore rap personality, he’s kind of a cult figure, as far as he’s had a number of personas over the length of his career. There’ve been so many people since booking him that have gotten really excited that have gotten really excited, people that listened to him in high school, whether it was Kool Keith, or Dr. Octagon or Dr. Doom or Black Elvis or something like that, so that’s a totally different genre as well. There’s pop and electronic stuff in there as well. But I think as Winston-Salem it needs to have a quality where it’s working-class bands. Not that you have to be poor and broke playing music, but bands that do what they do with passion and working hard at it is one of the common threads.

TCB: In terms of curating such a lengthy list of bands, how organic is that process versus intentionally taking the time to listen to different kinds of music?… If I were undertaking such a task I think I would probably intellectualize it to an extent to deliberately sit down and listen to bands that other people told me were good. I wonder how much of that do you do versus just you’re a fan of music; you hear music and you decided you want to get this particular band?

PP: I am a music fan first and foremost. And I’ve not booked bands because I simply was not into their music. With that as a preface you also have to approach it with an attitude of fairness and as a business. So trying to strike that balance, there’s not any band on the list that I think you could make an argument that it was just my inner fan boy coming out, you know. If you looked at the top 20 acts that I booked I think you would find a fan base. White Fence, for instance, I am a huge fan of theirs. That might be a risk because I don’t know how much of a fan base they have in North Carolina; they’re based in San Francisco, and they’re huge in the garage rock community. People who know garage rock — like Ty Seagall, the OCS, Sic Alps — people who know those bands know White Fence and I feel totally resonate with that. And I totally resonate with that, too. So I guess you can make the case that that’s my inner fan coming out and booking it. But I think at the same time if you look at a lot of reputable sources for music criticism, you would kind of see that that reflects that they’re worth booking. I think that kind of goes for all of the bands.

TCB: So, in some cases you’re introducing a really quality act that people may not be familiar with.

PP: I think that’s actually probably, unfortunately, the reality for a lot of stuff. I think people look at the lineup, and they don’t recognize names and they think, ‘Oh, you’re just booking what you want to book and why don’t you book something more popular or something like that.’ Whenever people say that I don’t think people understand how much it takes to make that happen because there are so many bands in our culture right now and so many different threads and genre styles of bands. If you wanted me to book Vampire Weekend or something like that the amount of money it would cost to pull off that feat it would basically mean that none of the other bands could be heard because that would be the only thing that I could afford. It’s almost one of those things where before I even book the festival I understand that a large part of the population in Winston-Salem is not going to know the names of the bands that I book. But I have to follow up on that bet with the fact that the bands that I book are going to deliver on the risk that they’re taking by spending the money to be here. So definitely introducing a lot of acts.

TCB: It’s kind of like RiverRun Film Festival [which begins the same weekend]: You might not have heard of a majority of the films, but part of the excitement and joy of it is taking a dive into something that is uncharted.

PP: Oh, totally. That’s certainly the story here. There’s a handful of bands on the bill that have resonated really well with Winston before. But in a lot of ways there’s not that many bands in the grand scheme of things that the general public is associated with that would be affordable for a festival of our size. In some ways, Winston-Salem because we don’t get as many touring acts as maybe the Triangle or Asheville does. We’re kind of out of the loop and left to do our own homework on what is worth going to see. It just goes back to putting quality above everything else, even if it means booking acts that are more obscure but you know are going to deliver the best show possible for the audience.

For ticket information, visit phuzzphest.com.