INTERVIEW: JOSEPH SCHAFER – Northwest Terror Fest
UPDATE: Due to the ongoing public health crisis, Northwest Terror Fest IV has been postponed to June 3 – June 5, 2021. See the end of this interview for an official message from NWTF about the situation
Joseph Schafer has a cool thing going on. Leveraging his connections in music and journalism, he’s managed to put together one of the country’s biggest metal festivals in the form of NorthWest Terror Fest (NWTF); an annual weekend celebration of loud, heavy, dark music spread across multiple venues in Seattle, Washington. I provided immersive coverage of last year’s NWTF for MoshPitNation (check it out if you haven’t already!) and this year is shaping up to be another incredible experience.
Known unfairly on the internet as one of metal’s coastal elitists, Schafer is in fact a Midwestern man with deep roots in Michigan and the Great Lakes region. “Every good thing in my life has come to me from metal,” he says. “My passions, my best friends, my job, my girlfriend… everything.” In addition to curating NWTF, Schafer contributes to Decibel, Consequence of Sound, No Clean Singing, and other metal websites. We caught up with him over the phone for a conversation about live music, spreadsheets, inclusive spaces, sponsorship curation, more spreadsheets, and what it takes to put on a destination attraction for metalheads.
JG: Let’s start at the beginning, how did you get the idea to do Northwest Terror Fest (NWTF)? What made you think that you could do it and what were the circumstances surrounding the decision that made it feel like a realistic pursuit?
JS: Holy shit… okay… I’m one of “those people” who sees somebody do something amazing and my first thought is “wow that’s cool” but my second thought is “I could do better”. I’m a lot of fun at art museums. Anyway, after college I was writing about music in a semi-professional way and it became a primary part of my social life. As a part of doing that, I got it into my head that I wanted to go to these large music festivals as much as for the social experience as for the bands; even though seeing the bands was a big fucking deal. I didn’t think I’d get to see At The Gates, and then Maryland Deathfest booked At The Gates and I decided “okay, I’m going to fly to Baltimore with money I don’t really have to hang out with people I barely know and see At The Gates. Frequently, those experiences became a significant part of how I planned my year and my finances… stuff like that. When I moved to Seattle, I realized it had a very active metal scene. It’s in a transition phase now, the biggest bands have either effectively broken up, like Black Breath, or are now so big that they’re national headliners and no longer part of the local underground. Like Bell Witch. But when I moved to Seattle, those two bands were like the tip of the spear of what was happening locally. But the thing was, those bands play small venues here, but they were getting booked at big fests across the country. And I thought “why is this band playing to one thousand people on the east coast and then to fifty people on the west coast? And why are my friend’s bands playing for just our friends when they play here where they live, and then have to tour across the country to the east coast to play a giant fucking room? I’m not gonna go all capitalist “I saw a hole in the market” but it did seem like there’s no particular reason why an event like this needs to happen in Baltimore, or why it couldn’t happen here. I talked to some friends, and they felt the same way and we kicked this idea around for… literally years. It was years of us getting together for coffee and usually we’d have a long discussion and all that would ever come of it was a sheet of notebook paper with a list of bands on it. But all of that is the least interesting, least complicated, least difficult part of putting on a music festival.
JG: That’s the sense I got from the event last year; everything I thought was the hard part was really just the tip of the iceberg and there’s SO MUCH more work that goes into it.
JS: I’ve said this in other interviews, but it bears repeating: if you’d told me how much spreadsheeting goes into organizing a music festival, I might never have done it, hahaha! We have SO MANY excel documents! But here’s the thing, a lot of people try this, but I know a lot of people don’t do it like we do. I think a lot of people get caught up in the “listing the bands” part and don’t do a lot of thought about the “how do we source the gear” part. It doesn’t matter who you book if they don’t have the equipment they need to play. This is heavy metal, and some people have complicated gear; particularly drums or other non-standard equipment. I don’t know why I’m giving people free advice, but I think they don’t think enough about logistics.
JG: I’ll edit out anything too juicy, don’t worry
JS: Thanks, it’s okay, it’s not like I’m gonna name anybody because YOU were there, you know what I’m talking about. They’re great people and I love them, but it’s like… YOU helped put together that crazy setup, it was a pain in the ass!! Sometimes it’s like…
JG: Like “what in the hell do you mean you’re not taking the stage without a real human skull?? Get the fuck out there and play your set!!”
JS: But hey, you know what?
JG: You had one!!
JS: Yeah our friend had one and we were able to borrow it. You gotta be that guy who’s willing to go through the phone and be like “hey I know we haven’t talked in like three months and maybe I owe you money–do you know anyone who has a real human skull?” There have been some crazy things.
JG: Has anyone demanded payment in $1 bills arranged in an occult symbol on the floor of their green room?
JS: That’s… oddly specific, but no. Hell, I could have an intern do that, it would be no problem!
JG: Let’s go back for a second. Terror Fest.
JS: Terror Fest, as a brand, did not originate with me or in Seattle. We were approached by a team called SouthWest Terror Fest, which I always wanted to go to but never did. They were trying to franchise out and heard that it was kinda poppin in Seattle. They wanted to do one in Seattle but they didn’t want to do all the work themselves so they offered to tutor us, eventually to pass the whole thing off to us in order to keep the brand alive. And we said that sounds dope! I’m not sure how they heard of me, but I was someone they reached out to to do it. The first year was really a collaboration between our local people and the SouthWest Terror Fest crew and then the second year we had more free reign as they were busy working on Austin Terror Fest. And every year since they’ve been less and less involved until last year. You remember them from last year?
JG: They’re sort of like consultants?
JS: Last year they showed up day-of, looked around and said “nice job!” and then just sorta hung out. There was some advice-giving along the way, but those guys have effectively completely pulled out of NorthWest Terror Fest and also Austin Terror Fest which is now called Oblivion Access. They’ve also expanded away from the brand in some interesting ways, and we’ll always have a close relationship with the Austin guys, but Terror Fest as such is now a Seattle thing and I and some of my close associates run it. That’s how it happened.
JG: There’s so much more to it than just saying “I wish we could book THIS band” but how do you go about picking the bands? Is it like last year where you network with the people at the fest and maybe someone says “let’s come back with my other band next year” but there’s more to it than that right?
JS: Well, yeah, but social media has certainly made it really easy to get in contact with a band. Also there are some very good booking agencies who work with a lot of very good bands. It’s easy to go on a band’s facebook and look in the “about” section where it says “for press information, contact _______” and below that it says “for booking information, contact _____”. The hard part is establishing trust, that you can uphold your end and pay what you said you’ll pay, that the bands have a good experience, and that the audience has a good experience. I mean, metal is a pretty large church, but it’s also pretty tight-knit, and I think people talk. Like, people know who you do and don’t want to play for and I think we’ve established a reputation as a fest where people enjoy the experience of coming AND where bands enjoy the experience of playing.
JG: I feel like that’s true because I’ve talked to bands that played NWTF and later came through here to play at The Sanctuary and they tell me that NWTF is developing a reputation in the touring band community as something you should want to do because it’s such a positive experience.
JS: That’s the harder part than reaching out to people. It’s not like when I was in college, I mean now, you can find a lot of these mysterious super-KVLT-y black metal people “I never leave my hut in Tasmania” or whatever… like these days? There’s a 60% chance you can find them on instagram and just shoot them a DM in ten minutes. Networking isn’t hard. Establishing trust is hard.
JG: How do you figure out billing, though?
JS: Oddly enough, I figure out the headliners first and find support later. That’s usually a result of the fact that bands that headline have fuller schedules and you just need to reach out to them sooner. I’m already emailing with some people for 2021 because I tried to get them last year and they said “nice to finally meet you; we book 18 months out”. And I had to say “okay” and move on. Typically it’s easier to figure out the headliner first.
JG: What else does your team work really hard on?
JS: Budgeting! Hahaha, most people can’t budget their checkbook; I struggle with that, personally, right? But the Fest can’t do that. We need to know after we book “Band X”, who can we get with what remains of our resources? There have been years (and I can’t name anybody) where people have reached out to us and we just didn’t have the ability to make it happen. It’s a weird feeling to have to send that email to someone on that level… It comes down to our venue and how much we would have to charge for tickets. Some people would pay that much, but I don’t want to ask them to!
JG: How do you get the people to come? I get that it’s easier in Seattle where people actually want to see this kind of stuff, but how do you get the word out?
JS: I don’t know if you’ve noticed when you’ve been here, but Seattle actually has a pretty active poster culture.
JG: I did! They’re everywhere and they’re current. Like, the posters on street lights and telephone poles are events that are upcoming or currently happening.
JS: Right, and I’m also a journalist professionally, so I know what a journalist needs to write a good news story so I can reach out to news outlets with the proper things. I go back and forth on the efficacy of social media advertising. It’s still a part of our toolkit, but I used to have more faith in it than I do now… I don’t know why I’m giving free advice to my competition but I suppose I don’t mind. There’s a lot of good fests out there; a lot of opportunities to have a good time.
JG: You’ve announced the lineup for NWTF 2020, the media embargo has lifted… What are YOU excited for this year?
JS: Like… what sets I want to see?
JG: That or bands that you were particularly pleased to be able to book? I mean it sounds like “all of them” right?
JS: It’s all of them, of course. I’d like to begin by saying that I’ve always wanted to book Midnight. I’ve always wanted to book Midnight in part because I’ve got this weird thing about being from the midwest, but also because Midnight is a lot of fun. They’ve got great energy, they’re a fun band, and they do a lot of the things that I personally look for in heavy metal now. They’re a band that for years I’ve been like “man, I wanna do Midnight!” but because of other stuff, opportunities etc. I put that in the back pocket. Another one is Obsequiae. That’s a real special band, I think, and we’ve also wanted to book them for a long time. The Minneapolis folk black metal scene is a real treasure and it’s full of great people. We really enjoy working with all of them and it’s always really special when they play. Another band that I was the only one on the team who was excited about and that’s Funeral Chic. I saw them open for Integrity and it was incredible. I told them on twitter that I will be stagediving in Barboza for their song “Rotten to the Core”. Maybe it’s a little selfish, but I kinda booked them just so I could see that again! By now, everyone knows about Blood Incantation… I’m really happy I booked them when I did! I knew the record would do well but I didn’t know that…
JG: That it would be on everybody’s list?
JS: I mean, that’s always a possibility, but I didn’t think that would happen. This is probably the last year I could get them for a non-headlining slot. We’re gonna try again next year with some people who blew up before we could seal the deal this year, stay tuned!
JG: Growing Terror Fest as a business has required forging relationships with all kinds of sponsors and fundraisers. How did you put that stuff together?
JS: Outreach. It’s all outreach. I’m not made of money, and the sponsors make it happen. I thank all of them always. It’s weird shouting out a giant corporation, but big thanks to Pabst Blue Ribbon for being 110% behind Terror Fest the whole time and we love working with them. Everyone at that company I’ve interacted with legitimately seems like they just love music, and they were like “live music? In Seattle? What kind of bands ya got? Death metal? Sounds rippin, let’s do it!” Love them. Also I believe Terror Fest is the only metal festival in the country that has a cannabis sponsor; shout out to The Reef for taking a chance on us and being super supportive. They’re in the neighborhood and they have metalheads coming in to shop all the time and a bunch of metalheads on staff; they wanted it to happen too and it’s cool. In a weird way I have a kinship with the Decibel Metal & Beer Fest. I mean, I love the guys at Decibel; I write at Decibel, but it’s like they have that fest and I’m like “hi I’m the guy with the weed fest…” Not that I want to be known as a weed guy…
JG: Says the dude who booked Bongripper AND Bongzilla for the same fest last year… …What?
JS: … I’m never booking two “bong” bands in the same year again. I love those bands; I love them both, but like… even I fucked up the names a few times and I booked them. No more “multiple bands that start with the same syllable”. It’s like all the bands that put “witch” in their name or D-beat bands that start with”Dis-”. I’m a huge D-beat fan but please, let’s just stop…
JG: I run up against that a lot in my writing; we have a lot of love for our traditions and all, but you just gotta move on past some of this stuff. If I have to hear another “old school Florida death metal band” ripoff, I’m just going home. Yeah, you guys are really good, but I’ve heard this a million times and I’m going home…
JS: I’d like to agree but, man… if you put an Hm-2 into a Marshall and crank it… you have to be super inept to make chainsaw metal and me not like it. But I’m going to get to see Dismember later this year and that may very well ruin chainsaw death metal for me. It might be so good that I’m like “it doesn’t get better than this! Except maybe Entombed, and they’re not gonna work with Olle D anymore so it’s done.” Here’s a tangent, and you can print it: Wolverine Blues and To Ride Shoot Straight are their best albums and I wish they would only play those songs. This is where I’m at with my own band right now; I don’t want to make death metal, I want to make death n roll with stupid hooks. As was the case in college; it’s true into my 30s: I listen to the most “un-TRVE” music, hahahaha! I realized this about Entombed the other day, that one of their songs is in one of the Tony Hawk skater games, so actually I’ve been listening to Entombed since I was 14 and forgot about it, hahaha!
JG: MoshPitNation has a midwest focus, and the personal connection between you and me is the only real connection between this outlet and your fest, so what I’d like to ask is: Why should my readers fly out to you to see NWTF? What about it reaches out beyond the Seattle area?
JS: Look… our Friday headliner, Repulsion, is from Flint. If you can see Repulsion in Flint then do it! I don’t know when the last time they played a show in Michigan was…
JG: When’s the last time they played anywhere?
JS: They played Maryland DeathFest a few years ago, but this is exactly my point. You wanna come see Repulsion? Come see Repulsion! Obsequiae is probably playing no more than a handful of shows this year and probably not gonna play that many more until the next record comes out because they have families and jobs and lives and small businesses that they run and it takes them a long time to write a record. And they don’t have a lot of time to go and play it! I really tried to get a lot of stuff that you’re not gonna see all the time, you’re not gonna see most places, and you’re definitely not gonna see it all together. And, being as I can say this, you’re not gonna see it all together in a cannabis-legal state anytime soon. I think there’s a lot of people into dark and heavy music who don’t want all the bands to sound the same and who would go to live shows more if they thought the environment was more conducive to them having a good time. By that I mean “basic bodily respect” being upheld. I take personal pride in our festival’s anti-harassment policy, which I believe is the only one of its kind among metal fests. Our post about it last year blew up in a way that I wasn’t exactly proud of, because my intentions were never to start any kind of fuss… I really wanted to tell all the women who come every year as well as our growing nonbinary and trans members of our congregation and the non-white members of our congregation that “we care about you!” because we do! I care about them and I want them to have a good time and I think the genre in general and the community as a whole would be better; everyone would have a better time if we made an environment that is conducive to everyone having a great fucking time. I’ve been to too many shows with femme friends where I go to the bathroom and they get groped and now it doesn’t matter how well the band played because her night’s fucking ruined because she got fucking assaulted. Like, I shouldn’t have to be there to make sure these things don’t happen; everyone there should just have enough respect for everyone else to NOT FUCKING DO IT! It’s basic common fucking decency and it’s ridiculous that I have to put a piece of paper up to remind people of that. People last year were claiming that we were gonna kick you out for your nazi-adjacent-black-metal shirt or whatever and no, I’m not gonna kick you out for wearing an Emperor shirt; it’s about the swastikas and stuff, which all comes back to the same fucking thing! Don’t go out to the fucking rock show just to piss off everyone else because you’re insecure about what a tough “man” you are. This thing is not for you if that’s the way you want to live your life, because that behavior makes things worse for everyone else. That’s not “the party line” that’s just what I think and I think that’s one of the big things that Terror Fest offers that a lot of other places don’t offer; at least not in the foreground like we do. But yeah, I want Terror Fest to be a place where everyone can come and have a good time and be safe with good people who will respect you as a human being!
JG: Well, I don’t know that it’ll win you the Presidency of the United States, but we’ll take that attitude as far as we can! Thanks for joining us!
You can check out the full Northwest Terror Fest lineup below and get more information at https://northwestterrorfest.com/
UPDATE: Northwest Terror Fest IV has had to postpone due to the ongoing health crisis. Please see the statement below from NWTF:
— IMPORTANT INFORMATION REGARDING NORTHWEST TERROR FEST’S FUTURE —
We are pleased to confirm that Northwest Terror Fest will return from June 3, 2021 through June 5, 2021 at Neumos and Barboza in Seattle, WA, with after-parties once again at Highline Bar. All tickets sold for 2020 will be honored in 2021. We will spend this unexpected year of delay ensuring that it will not only be our finest iteration yet, but also the most explosive and enjoyable heavy metal party thus far in the Pacific Northwest.
The lineup will be nearly identical. We can confirm that so far 30 of the 36 bands booked for 2020 have renewed their commitment to NWTF ticket holders, including international acts and Neumos headliners. We are also at work on a pre-fest to be held Wednesday, June 2, at Highline Bar. We are holding off on the release of a full 2021 band list at this time because we hope that many of the remaining bands will return to NWTF when circumstances allow them to make those commitments with confidence. If we’re left with any gaps, we assure you that you’ll be excited by the bands who would fill them. We will suspend ticket sales until the lineup is finalized.
We understand that some of our ticket holders may not be able to attend NWTF on the dates announced, and we will provide refunds on request. We encourage all ticket holders who can responsibly hold on to their tickets to do so until the final pieces of the 2021 lineup are solidified before making the decision to attend or not. The bands that inspired ticket purchases so far are making a good faith effort in these extraordinary times to bring their music to Terror Fest, in some cases from a great distance. Patience with them and with us will be rewarded with the metal thrashing mad weekend we have all been waiting for and – frankly – deserve.
For those people who want to request a refund now, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the circumstances related to COVID-19 some refunds may take weeks to process, but we will be sure that everyone is made whole.
Thank you for sticking with us. We won’t let you down.
Until 2021, #leavenocrossunturned