The scene at FYF Fest in 2011. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
It was less than one week until the FYF Fest, the two-day celebration of underground music that starts Saturday for which he is the architect, and Sean Carlson was bummed that the phone company had thwarted his plans for a caller ID prank. The 27-year-old concert promoter hasn’t even bothered to learn the number for his land line.
What’s the point, he says, if the Man is just going to force him to be identified as a private caller?
“They asked what I wanted my name to be,” Carlson said, remembering when he was giving the telecom rep his account information. “I said, ‘Seymour Butts.’ They said, ‘Are you serious?’ Absolutely I was serious. I think it’s really funny if I call people and the ID that comes up is Seymour Butts.”
Now, clearly, he’s relaxed and able to focus on practical jokes as he again leaves the bulk of FYF’s plotting to Goldenvoice, the L.A.-based promoter responsible for the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in the desert city of Indio.
Just two years ago, however, he had far more critical concerns. His FYF Fest, which will turn 9 when it opens Saturday afternoon at a Chinatown-adjacent downtown park, went off as a logistical disaster. As noted in a Friday Calendar story, after facing water and food shortages in 2010, as well general overcrowding, Carlson immediately issued a public apology to fans. “This was our festival and we had to take responsibility,” Carlson said of the earlier criticisms, detailed in the earlier Times piece.
Fans weren’t the only ones left unimpressed. “It was like a mom and pop operation,” says Sean Woods, superintendent for the Los Angeles sector of California State Parks.
Things got professional -- and quick.
This marks the first time the FYF Fest in its downtown location has expanded to two days, increasingly giving it the look of an urban, mini-Coachella. Scanning the 2012 acts alone, there’s certainly overlap between the two fests when it comes to top-billed FYF artists, including punk act Refused, dreamy pop act M83, the worldly folk of Beirut and hard rock group the Growlers.
With the help of Goldenvoice, Carlson said, “I was no longer dealing with the city, staging and lighting and the tents. I’m looped in, but I’m not sitting there going over budgets for hours and hours. Why do that when I can hire someone to do that?”
The two are feeding off each other in more ways than one. This December’s inaugural S.S. Coachella cruise is likewise a mini-FYF, at least when it comes to its lineup. Acts playing this weekend that will set sail on the two East Coast Coachella cruises include Yeasayer, Simian Mobile Disco, Cloud Nothings, Father John Misty and Warpaint.
Carlson speaks of Goldenvoice head Paul Tollett as a mentor. “You have to keep your ear to the ground,” Carlson said. “Paul is the person who says that to us. Paul says, ‘You don’t know everything. Don’t assume you know everything.’ Paul is constantly talking to people about new bands. He wants the most up-to-date lineup for Coachella. Same with FYF.”
One unexpected beneficiary of the relationship may end up being the city of Los Angeles. The 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park is in the final stages of winning approval for an $18-million renovation, one that will add a concert plaza, permanent bathrooms and dedicated space for film screenings and food vendors.
“All signs indicate we’ll get approval,” Woods said. The Los Angeles State Historic Park has a thriving life beyond FYF. The site also hosts the dance focused HARD events, which are now under the control of Live Nation, and other such events as the Renegade Craft Fair. Woods estimates that the park’s much-needed overhaul will begin in late 2013 and could knock the park out of the entire 2014 festival season.
“There’s no guarantee they won’t go somewhere else,” Woods said of FYF and HARD, “but we have full confidence that this is such an unique venue that people will want to come back. We’re developing relationships and hoping relationships aren’t that easily broken.”
Few may have been more unlikely to bring such outdoor spaces to downtown L.A. than Carlson. A 2003 graduate of South High School in Torrance, Carlson spent a couple of months at El Camino College, where he “hung out with the people who lived in the park next to the college more than the people who went to the school,“ he said.
It’s no surprise he’s easily distracted. The excitable music geek stages a number of FYF events that are only tangentially connected to music, such as the not-quite-annual L.A. Scavenger Hunt. It could even be described as elaborate prank, as past participants having been asked to take photos of themselves making out with a senior citizen or to bring back a piece of McDonald’s arch.