Five years feels like a big deal, and it is—especially for a homegrown music festival that started as little more than a bigger-ish regional one-night concert at Jay’s Upstairs back in 2001. Well, Total Fest is still chugging along and steadily growing—now 42 bands over two days—while maintaining its original DIY spirit and community atmosphere. Want examples? Everyone behind Total Fest’s planning is a volunteer, doing everything from securing the bands and arranging local housing to hanging posters and working the door. Bands are paid less in hard cash than in humble Missoula hospitality and the chance to network with newfound musician friends; some travel cross-country to blast eager ears for all of 25 minutes. The idea is that Total Fest reflects Missoula’s resilient, collaborative, nurturing and burgeoning music scene, and after five years it’s proven to be setting as much as following those admirable standards.
To help fans navigate this year’s bigger-than-ever schedule, we’ve compiled a catchall companion to our local homage to all things rock.
Who’s new this year? Who’s back for another go-round? And who’s conspicuously absent?
Total Fest founder and Wäntage Records owner Josh Vanek calls this year’s festival “an organic expansion.” That means inclusion of more and more bands from the Northwest and beyond as organizers aim to mix locals with regional acts and, to promote Missoula’s place on the map, new bands from across the country. Fresh blood this year includes Interfuse from Akron, Ohio; Dead Eye from Portland, Ore.; and The Limbs, whose creep-tastic boogie springs from Denver, Colo.
Total Fest veterans like The Lights, Toys that Kill, The Narrows, Mico de Noche and locals Volumen add a certain familiarity to the scene. Volumen (Science Faction) and Toys that Kill (Shanked) are promoting new albums since their appearances last year.
Two bands sadly missing from the lineup are formerly Missoula-based mothers of mayhem The Fireballs of Freedom and fan favorite Federation X. In Fed X’s absence, guitarist Ben Wildenhaus will travel solo and sit in on The Narrows’ set playing slide guitar. As for Fireballs, they couldn’t make the trip because drummer Sammy James Adams “has a real job now.” No worries, though: guitarist Kelly Gately is attending with a promise to “pillage the village.” So, on second thought, worry.
11th-hour comings and goings
Four bands dropped out at the last minute—The Pope, Moto Photos, The Adventure and half-local duo Ex-Cocaine (Michael Casler can’t make the trip)—but organizers scrambled to replace them with first-timers Vile Blue Shades (perhaps the only Total Fest band to be featured in a Salt Lake City television commercial for a check-cashing chain), Belt of Vapors (winner of Spokane’s B-Side’s Battle of the Bands) and Warmer Milks (see below). In all, 42 bands will play 25-30 minute sets on two stages and during Saturday’s Record Swap. The full list is available online at wantageusa.com, but actual show lineups are not posted until the night of show.
Who’s loudest? Most mellow? Most likely to score a movie soundtrack? Most likely to…
Loudest: Honors go to the balls-to-the-wall, foul-mouthed chick duo Lozen. Vanek discovered the Tacoma-based badasses (opening lyrics to an untitled nine-minute song: “Crack of the whip, motherfucker! You best get with it!”) from a fellow record-swapper based in Newfoundland—a roundabout but fortunate connection.
Mellow: Warmer Milks cross psychedelic folk with the outer limits of space music through warm synths and minimalist guitar strumming. It’s too weird for the coffeehouse, but perfectly placed on the chiller end of Total Fest’s spectrum.
Most likely to score a movie soundtrack: Swarm Robbery–the brainchild of one-man-band “Machete John”–got its start recording the soundtrack to a zombie movie called Let Them Eat Brains.
Most likely to fling things: Blöödhag is a notorious edu-rock band that seems to believe some people really don’t know what a book is unless it hits them in the head. The Seattle-based heavy rockers maintain the courtesy of summarizing some of those paperbacks before they start hurling them through the air.
Most prolix acronym: The name seems like its own little word, but in actuality JETOMI stands for something far more glorious: “Jewel Encrusted Titans of Modern Industry.” Aptly robust for a band built on heavy psychedelic riffs pieced together with deeply somber vocals.
Most deceptive band name: Sure, Pure Country Gold has a bit of a twang to its tone, but there isn’t really a thing country about them. Instead, it’s blues with a swanky garage strut, but fast enough that you’d have a hell of a time trying to, say, line dance to it.
Total Fest doesn’t list headliners, but it does register buzz, and this year’s pre-festival darlings are The Bananas. The band disgorges pop-punk in the snotty skateboarding manner of Sacramento, Calif., bands from the mid- to early-’90s. During that time Missoula showgoers fervently consumed 7” records by Los Huevos, Horny Mormons and other groups from that region. The Bananas include former members of Huevos and Horny and carry on the traditional sound with so much persuasive charm that the famed Plan-It X records festival has flown them to Bloomington, Ind., on more than one occasion. Total Fest doesn’t do plane tickets and offers little more than pocket change for playing, but The Bananas agreed to join in the fun nonetheless.
The young and the restless
Total Fest has always made a point of welcoming fans of all ages, but this year organizers are truly putting some money where their mouth is: high school and middle school kids get a two-day pass for $25 (a $10 discount) with a valid school ID card, and kids under 10 get in free. That means rabid groupies of Hellgate High’s own up-and-coming Riddilin Que, making their Total Fest debut, have no reason not to attend.
Total Fest organizers agree this year’s lineup provides more representation of female rockers than ever before. Not that it was a conscious decision, but finding bands like the Melvins-esque duo Lozen, or the brazen three-piece Flaccid Wolf (composed of members from another fem band playing the festival, Everybody’s Debbie) quenched their thirst for new, quality bands. The fact they happen to be girls? It just pushes the gender bracket a little further and, in turn, manifests Total Fest’s dedication to diversity.
The magic behind Total Fest doesn’t just emerge from stage calisthenics and guitar mastery. In fact, some of the real stories happen backstage and after the show when out-of-town bands form the kind of musical connections that make touring worthwhile. Last year, Philadelphia’s Mountain High played the Total Fest stage to virgin ears and brought the house down with their irresistible double drum kit karate kick of sound. Vanek says Mountain High fits in with Missoula’s rock sensibility, which is why they’re back again this year. That love connection also nurtured another bond: Mountain High and ex-Missoula duo No-Fi Soul Rebellion split a 12” out now on Philly’s Hot Dog City Records.
Saturday afternoon’s Record Swap (noon to 2 p.m.) in the Big Dipper parking lot has become part of the Total Fest tradition. It’s a chance to peruse collectors’ stashes and barter vinyl, as well as a loose environment to catch four Total Fest bands. This year’s Record Swap performers are locals razz m’tazz, Bacon and Egg and Duel, and Oakland-based Sorcery Bird.
Who’s your llama?
Last year’s festival posters and T-shirts paid homage to then-recently deceased British DJ John Peel, and this year’s promotional materials feature…a llama? That’s right, the shaggy, long-necked, cud-chewing South American mammal is this year’s unofficial mascot because Total Fest V takes place in the Western Montana Fairgrounds’ Llama Barn. The new venue—the festival’s fourth in five years as it continues to grow—provides more space, less concern about noise complaints and, alas, a statue of a certain animal greeting fans as they come through the front door.
It truly takes a village
Total Fest may be a two-day event, but it takes several months of planning and a score of volunteers—18 people were split into two teams to handle pre-festival logistics and 23 more are working during the show—to make it come together. One new emphasis from this year’s organizers was a huge push for out-of-town promotion: stacks of posters and CD samplers were mailed off to towns all over Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. For such a cost-conscious operation, it was a considerable risk, but organizers are hopeful the effort will continue to grow Total Fest’s already annually expanding audience.