At last year’s Total Fest, a band called Swamp Wolf swooped in to save the day. The Flagstaff quintet was among more than 100 applicants that applied to be in the festival, but didn’t make the final cut. They happened to be passing through Missoula during the three-day event anyway, and when word came down that one of the slotted bands had canceled at the last minute, Swamp Wolf offered its services. Total Fest co-president Josh Harteis recalls that organizers weren’t sure what to expect from the band; they were simply relieved to have a backup. Then Swamp Wolf took the stage and unleashed a set of stunning metallic hardcore and showmanship.
“The singer was [writhing around] on the floor in front of the stage,” Harteis says. “They just rocked it.”
The Swamp Wolf story is quintessential Total Fest. The event, now in its 12th year, has gone from small and largely under the radar to a destination for Northwest music fans looking to experience 40-plus bands from all over the country (and world, in some cases) over the course of one weekend. The nonprofit organization, run nearly year-round by a collection of volunteers, combs through hundreds of applicants annually and has to decline more than half just to keep the event manageable. Despite the increased attention, Total Fest maintains a focus on performers steeped in stage presence, skill and sheer sonic power, if not hype. The feel, both behind the scenes and in front of the crowd, is fiercely independent and DIY.
The all-ages event brings another collection of veteran and newbie bands to local venues this year. As co-president Kari Workman says, “New smells. New flavors.” (And she’s not just talking about the intense barbecue wafting from Dickey’s, which is now situated inside one of Total Fest’s key venues, the Badlander/Palace complex.) To prepare you for all that newness, we’ve put together this Total Fest guide. It’s incomplete only because there are so many bands to talk about and, no matter how much planning goes into it, there remains a level of unpredictability to the three days. After all, that’s how we came to find Swamp Wolf.
We are family
Total Fest began at Jay’s Upstairs in 2002 after founder Josh Vanek decided to put on a last-minute show with just a handful of bands. That lineup featured Bellingham’s Federation X, fronted by Bill Badgley. Missoula fans loved the group’s four-string guitars, tuned low, and its menacing brand of muddy rock. Federation X returns this year with even more of a reputation. Those who missed their original performance—or the one they played for Total Fest in 2008—are surely aware of how its sound has been influenced by another storied Northwest band, Karp.
Lana Rebel is another performer with deep Total Fest roots. Rebel has been part of the Missoula event in various incarnations, including Juanita Family and Friends, Lana Rebel and the Broken Promises, and just plain Lana Rebel armed with an acoustic guitar. She’s a little bit country, but with a dark, sorrowful edge that fits just fine into a lineup of doom metal. This year she’s back for the first time since 2010 and performing in yet another incarnation, alongside guitarist/singer/saw player Kevin Michael Mayfield.
Oddballs of all kinds
We’re not trying to make anyone feel like an outsider, but every year Total Fest has a few oddballs. These are performers who, like Lana Rebel, don’t quite sound like the punk or psych bands that seem to fill Total Fest’s stages.
A few different bands fit the oddball category this year. Thrones, aka Joe Preston, is expected to eschew his usual heavy guitar work for an electronic set. Deaed Language, an Olympia hip-hop artist, weaves in a grizzled Appalachia sound to his politically driven raps. The Funeral and the Twilight return with gothic-rock that will make you want to sip beer out of a goblet. And Benjamin Von Wildenhaus, guitar player for Federation X, plays a solo show of trippy surf guitar that evokes the 1960s cult classic BBC series “The Prisoner,” in which a secret agent is abducted by faceless warders to a creepy village.
Many happy returns
Gay Witch Abortion is not some magical incantation that will turn Pat Robertson into dust—at least we don’t think it is. No, Gay Witch Abortion is a Minneapolis duo that plays heavy, merciless rock. The band intrigued Total Fest audiences last year and returns for a second run.
Another Minneapolis band, The Blind Shake, has toured through Missoula a handful of times, including Total Fest X, and never disappointed. The band’s captivating live act involves no antics or costumes, just a mesmerizing onslaught of shimmying rock trimmed with scuffed-up surf riffs and sludge-filled interludes.
Other returning bands include fellow Twin Cities band Buildings, Seattle’s The Trashies, San Francisco’s Kowloon Walled City, Portland’s Guantanamo Baywatch, Olympia’s The Narrows and, of course, Swamp Wolf.
Finally, Melbourne, Australia’s Dead somehow returns to Montana despite the distance (roughly 8,500 miles). The band is delightfully doom-filled, with humorous song titles such as “You Just Lost My Appetite.” So what’s the Missoula connection? The group’s latest album, Thundaaaaah!, was released by local label Wäntage USA, which makes them honorary Missoulians in our book.
Every year we warn that you’re going to fall in love with some band you didn’t know much about before Total Fest commenced. You’ll wake up the next morning—or, um, afternoon—wondering how you could possibly feel so tied up in knots, until you realize it isn’t the beer that has you wrecked. It’s love. Full-on, unrepentant, boots-to-the-gut love.
Slut River already has our heart’s attention. Anna McDermott’s snarls evoke Polly Watson from Crimson Sweet. Red Fang is another. The band’s “Prehistoric Dog” music video, where it plays among a pile of beer cans before invading a live-action role-play sword fight, serves as a pre-fest valentine.
Who else could make our hearts flutter this year? The Constant Lovers, a Seattle band that used a stick of butter to great effect on its True Romance album cover? Perhaps Seawhores, an experimental outfit from Minneapolis known for its live sets? Or Mr. Dad from that hardcore mecca, Minot, N.D.? Or will it be Tad Doyle’s band, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, whose “Fires Burn Dim in the Shadows of the Mountain” sounds like what you’d hear from the depths of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor? Just beware that love always strikes when you least expect it.
Sound around town
Seems like every year Total Fest incorporates a new venue or two, and TFXII is no different. In addition to the Badlander/Palace complex, Top Hat Lounge and VFW (new to the festival last year), the organization booked the Zootown Arts Community Center and Free Cycles. ZACC’s basement has hosted DIY shows for some time, and opened up for regular all-ages shows earlier this year.
This broad range of venues adds a new challenge to festival-goers who must traverse from one end of downtown to another to catch often overlapping shows. It might require a little bit of planning (see the full lineup on this page), but there’s no reason you can’t catch everything on your wish list.
A long time ago, in the 1990s, Missoula’s own Fireballs of Freedom rocked Jay’s Upstairs, literally. Almost any time the dirty rock band played, the second-floor dive bar bounced like it was a tree house built on one limb.
Back when the Fireballs were still new to the Missoula scene, drummer Sammy James declared to a couple of Jay’s onlookers, “I’m gonna build me a rock and roll wall!” James and the band have been doing pretty much that very thing for nearly two decades. The members moved to Portland, developing a strong following and a deserved reputation for maximum craziness. FOF played Total Fest back in 2005 and was supposed to perform again in 2011, but had to cancel. Now, they return with greased up garage rock laden with “woo-hoos.”
For all the attention heaped on those traveling from out of town, Total Fest offers a chance to discover bands toiling away right in our own backyard. This year there’s a slew of local favorites, including Shahs and Modality. Needlecraft is also slated to play its weird, 1950s-style garage pop. Finally, Mordecai, the young musicians who hail from Butte and sound like the Stooges, return to Missoula. The band has blown away local audiences, but hardly play enough to satiate our needs. Here’s your chance to see them before they get wrapped up in their non-music lives again.
One of many people’s favorite parts of Total Fest is the Saturday show in the Big Dipper Ice Cream parking lot. Ice cream and music go well together, especially after being cooped up in so many bar venues. This year, you can eat your treat to the dreamy guitar loops of Robust Worlds and the fuzz garage sounds of Havania Whaal.
Be sure to bring your records, CDs and tapes to sell or trade at the annual Record Swap. A core group of music fiends help grow this part of the weekend every year. Bryan Ramirez, the Record Swap organizer and brains behind Killertree Records, will be there. Dave Martens, a musician who plays in at least four or five bands at any one time, also often shows up with his collection of LPs and—just for good measure—clothes and knick-knacks. Musician, artist and general curator of curiosities Abe Coley is known to bring electronics. It’s a music-lovers geek gathering that’s as fun to peruse as it is to engage in.
Salt Lake City’s sprawling party band, Vile Blue Shades, has overtaken Total Fest before with anywhere from eight to 13 members playing at once—including three drummers. Over the years VBS accumulated bandmates nonchalantly, sort of allowing any musician who showed an interest to get in on the action. The result is raucous live sets that blur the line between where the band ends and the crowd begins.
VBS broke up years ago, but will come back together for one night of primal jams to help kick off the Total Fest weekend.
Total Fest’s 13 most memorable moments
Featuring toilet paper, Big Business, veggies, Sparks and a band from Down Under
Total Fest I: Local favorite Volumen is among the first to play the first Total Fest and, according to festival founder Josh Vanek, “sets the tone for all TFs to come.” “Volumen is a band that I think only comes along once or (I hope) twice in a lifetime,” Vanek says of the group, which last played live in 2009.
Total Fest III: Big Business plays its first Total Fest. The band had recently put out its first releases and still lived in Seattle, but the members had yet to join the Melvins. Big Business returned for Total Fest two years ago.
Total Fest IV: Due to a summer heat wave, the beer runs dry at the American Legion Hall and attendees turn to a different alcoholic beverage: Sparks malt liquor energy drink. To this day these crowds are considered the most boisterous in Total Fest history.
Total Fest VII: Johnny No Moniker from the Fleshies sings one song from a Badlander bathroom stall. He eventually emerges with a roll of toilet paper that he unravels as he crawls around on the Badlander floor while still singing, of course.
Total Fest VII: The early 1990s are alive and well again in 2008 when Pat Phlymm, formerly of the Missoula bands Poop and The Banned, returns home with his Seattle band, Kled. Phlymm sports tight shorts with the word “juicy” printed on the ass, wears his hair in pigtails and sings in a creepy kid voice while grinning like the Cheshire cat. A man named “Miss America,” another staple of Missoula’s 1990s music scene, creeps around the stage wearing a drawn-on mustache and a too-tight yellow banana hammock. The weird scene freaks out newbies and strangely comforts those who remember Phlymm’s earlier days.
Total Fest VII: Miss Lana Rebel plays an impromptu set in the walk-through space between the Badlander and Palace, before it was the Central Bar and now Dickey’s Barbecue. The spontaneous performance greets arrivals “like a board to the head when they walked into the room,” says Vanek.
Total Fest VIII: Brooklyn’s Japanther spends 10 minutes chopping vegetables and blending drinks on stage before playing its set. The unconventional move turns off part of the crowd while delighting others because of its sheer weirdness.
Total Fest IX: Sasshole reunites for Total Fest having not played since 2005. The almost-all-girl band was best known back in the Jay’s Upstairs days for its sassy stage presence and crass rock anthems—and, most notably, for dumping kitty litter all over the Jay’s floor during one show. (They were forced to sweep it up). During the reunion, the band reenacts the moment with a bag of corncobs and peanut shells that proves much easier to clean.
Total Fest IX: No-Fi Soul Rebellion, famous for its audience participation, brings the entire crowd to its knees—literally. Mark Heimer, who sings to his own pre-recorded beats, walks and crawls through the audience before enticing everyone to get down on one knee, clap in unison and then lay on the floor.
Total Fest IX: Jeff Ament’s former Missoula hardcore band, Deranged Diction, closes out Total Fest with a set celebrating the re-release of its 1983 EP, No Art, No Cowboys, No Rules. The Pearl Jam bassist and his fellow DD bandmates pack the Palace Lounge to capacity.
Total Fest X: The drummer from Unstoppable Death Machines is held aloft by the crowd–along with much of his drumset–and continues to play with a little help from the audience.
Total Fest X: Dead, from Melbourne, Australia, becomes the first overseas (i.e., non-Canadian) band to play Total Fest. They return this year.
Total Fest X: Missoula’s Bad Naked, aka Dane Hansen, plays his usual set of off-key singalong tunes at the Top Hat, wearing barely anything. After lighting off fireworks inside the venue and littering the floor with hot dogs and other debris, he is kicked out of the venue.
Compiled from Total Fest committee members and Indy staff
The Total Lineup
This year’s Total Fest kicks off Thursday, Aug. 15, and runs through Saturday, Aug. 17. Three-day passes run $50 at the door. $15 for Thursday night only. $20 each night for Friday and Saturday. See totalfest.org or the @TotalFestMT Twitter for the latest festival updates.
Thu., Aug. 15
Top Hat: Modality, Skin Flowers, Animal Lover, Sedan, The Narrows, Benny The Jet Rodriguez and Vile Blue Shades. Doors at 7:30 PM.
Fri., Aug. 16
Free Cycles: Shahs, Oll Breds and Towers. Doors at 5 PM.
VFW: Buddy Jackson, Burn Burn Burn, Deaed Language, Mr. Dad and Hoverbikes. Doors at 7 PM.
Badlander/Palace: Mordecai, Collapsible Baton, Media Blitz, Hawks, Norska, Aseethe, the Funeral and the Twilight , Hundred Visions, Helms Alee, Is/Is, Fireballs of Freedom, Seawhores and Federation X. Doors at 7:30 PM.
Sat., Aug. 17
Big Dipper: Record Swap with Robust Worlds and Havania Whaal. Noon to 2 PM.
ZACC: Miss Lana Rebel and Kevin Michael Mayfield, Trashies and Ben Von Wildenhaus. Doors at 5 PM.
VFW: Slut River, Needlecraft, Swamp Wolf, Constant Lovers and Guantanamo Baywatch. Doors at 6:30 PM.
Badlander/Palace: Vera, Dog Shredder, Brain Tumors, Prizehog, Gay Witch Abortion, Thrones, Buildings, Multicult, The Blind Shake, Dead, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, Kowloon Walled City, Red Fang. Doors at 7 PM.
Visit the Indy’s Green Room blog at missoulanews.com for updates and reviews throught the weekend.