Sahan Jayasuriya
Riverwest Fest

60+ bands, two days, one neighborhood

With the local music festival gearing up for its third year, Sahan Jayasuriya talks to organizers Kelsey Kaufmann and Sean Heiser.

By - Dec 20th, 2012 12:53 pm
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The Hussy will perform at Club Timbuktu Saturday. Photo of The Hussy via Facebook.

Has it really been three years since the first Riverwest Fest? Apparently so. This multi-venue volunteer-based festival showcases some of Milwaukee’s best acts at venues scattered throughout the Riverwest neighborhood. This year’s festival features more variety and venues than ever before. Sahan Jayasuriya sat down with festival organizers Kelsey Kaufmann and Sean Heiser and talked about just how much work goes into planning the event and what’s in store for this year.

Sahan Jayasuriya: Has Riverwest Fest always had the sort of South By Southwest format where it’s a bunch of shows happening in different venues at the same time, or has it just grown into that sort of thing?

Sean Heiser: I think the first year we probably had about six to eight venues, and it’s just grown each year. It’s more or less always had that sort of format…that sort of “show crawl” kind of thing, to use a really gross term (laughs).

Kelsey Kaufmann: I think what’s unique about it though is that everything is within six blocks of each other. Given, SXSW has infinitely more bands and more stuff going on, but I kinda like that it’s all relatively centralized.

SH: We didn’t always have it where there were multiple shows scheduled at the same time, though. This year is notably different for that, I think. Last year there was definitely more overlap than the first year, but this year I think there’s about four shows going on each night until close.

SJ: How is it that the festival got its start? What made you two want to do this, and why Riverwest?

SH: Initially we started it as a fundraiser because the basement venue we were running at the time called the Eagles Nest got shut down due to some code-related issues, so we started the fest to raise money for us to bring the building back up to code. Unfortunately, we just bit off more than we could chew, so that didn’t end up following through like we had hoped. We still would like to have a sustainable all ages venue in Riverwest, but at this point it won’t be the Eagle’s Nest.

KK: The first year it was held at the end of summer in August. The second year I had just gotten back from studying abroad, and so it felt like we would be rushing it if we had it in the summer, and we weren’t even sure if we were going to have another one. A bunch of people came to us and were definitely pushing for it and we just kind of decided that even though we hadn’t been able to do what we wanted with the Eagle’s Nest, that we would still have it just for the sake of having a fest, because its fun.

Click for full size image with the complete Riverwest Fest schedule.

So last year we ended up having it in December, and it ended up kind of working out really well because there’s this two week period before Christmas where there’s not a whole lot of live music happening, so we did it then and it went over really well.

SH: As far as why we wanted to have it in Riverwest, to me, Riverwest pretty much embodies everything that I know about the DIY scene. The first shows I ever came to were here. When I was 17 and wanted to move out, I couldn’t wait to move down to Riverwest. In that respect it hasn’t really changed, there’s just always really been a really vibrant music community here.

KK: And as we said earlier, what other place in the city has as many venues within a six block radius, you know? There’s so many spaces that are really enthusiastic to host stuff and accomodate what we’re doing. And it’s definitely been that way for the last 10 years or so. There’s always been basement shows going on around here, going back to places like the Pierce Street House or the Barely Legal House.

SJ: Definitely. So would you say that Riverwest Fest is primarily a punk/indie/hardcore fest, or has it just ended up becoming that because of the overwhelming majority of musicians more or less falling under that general umbrella?

KK: I think it just has ended up like that the past two years, but our vision for the fest is hardly limited to just that. This year we’re doing a hip hop show at the Uptowner on Saturday. We’ve got some of the more Americana and singer/songwriter stuff happening this year at the People’s Books Cooperative. So we’re definitely looking to branch out of just having a limited variety of bands.

SJ: Can you mention all of the venues that you’ve included this year?

KK: All ages venues we’ve got Jackpot Gallery, People’s Books, Cocoon Room, formerly the Fox Glove Gallery, Club Timbuktu on Friday is all ages on Friday because its an early show, and then Rio West Cantina. Those are all the all ages ones, and then we’ve also got Quarters, The Uptowner, Stonefly Brewery and the Riverwest Public House for 21+ venues.

Milwaukee's Enabler will perform at this year's Riverwest Fest. Photo: Fred Pessaro

SJ: Any particular sets that you’re looking forward to?

SH: I’m excited to see The Hussy. I only saw them once and it was a few years ago, and their act has changed a lot since then.

KK: I’m excited to see Enabler again. I saw them in Chicago when they were on tour with Blackbreath and it was awesome. They’re playing Saturday at the Cocoon Room with Get Rad and No Future. I’m super stoked that People’s Books is a venue again, too. Hello Death, Joe Huber and a few others will be playing there on Friday.

SJ: Obviously the fest gets help from a few local sponsors. Care to share a bit about those?

KK: Beans and Barley has sponsored us since the beginning, same thing for WMSE. They’ve both been really helpful and will be sponsoring this year. Fuel Cafe sponsored us last year and will be sponsoring us again this year. We’re going to be having an afterparty at Quarters on the 27th, so it’s like five days after.

SJ: So its an after-after party, then?

KK: Yeah, man. People need to rest up!

SJ: I understand that the festival is entirely volunteer based?

KK: Absolutely. The people working the door are all volunteers. None of the venues are compensated outside of whatever they make at the bar. Sean and I do this not for profit at all. We just want to get people together and have fun.

SJ: With this festival being in its third year, do you have plans to make more changes to it in the coming years?

SH: I think the main thing is that this fest is never going to change its purpose. Sure, venues will change and bands will change, but the point is having a fest just to have a fest because it’s fun. It’s just a very simple idea, and we’re going to stick to it. Its just going to be me and Kelsey doing it, because we know what works and it works for us.

Riverwest Fest 2012 will be held on Friday Dec. 21 and 22. Check out the above flyer for bands, venues and show times. You can also like Riverwest Fest on Facebook and follow it on Twitter for more information. Tickets and weekend passes are available at Fuel Cafe, Rushmor Records and the Jackpot Gallery, or can also be purchased at the door for each individual show. Check below for a video from last year’s festival.

Brief Candles – Riverwest Fest 2011 from Matthew E. Dwyer on Vimeo.

For more of TCD’s music coverage, head over to our Mil Music Page. Follow Sahan Jayasuriya on Twitter and Instagram.

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