How you feel about the San Diego Indie Music Fest largely depends on what you make of the name. The San Diego Indie Music Fest is an event held in San Diego that celebrates independent music. The San Diego Indie Music Fest is an event that celebrates indie music from San Diego.
Both definitions are right. Or wrong. It just depends on whom you ask.
Let's start with Alicia Champion and Danielle LoPresti. A logical choice, considering they founded the Fest back in 2004. Both are musicians. Both run their own record labels (Champ Records and Say It Records). And both share an all-encompassing idealistic vision for what the SDIMF was, is and could be.
“This festival is about way more than just music,” LoPresti says. “At its very core, it's passionately dedicated and geared toward honoring individuality and inspiring people to discover their voice. It's about celebrating and supporting independent music, art, business and thought.”
But not everyone completely grasps that vision. For many locals, the name “San Diego Indie Music Fest” conjures images of an event featuring local indie-rock bands like Grand Ole Party, The Sess, Transfer and The Muslims. They would be mistaken.
“When people look at the lineup, you just see this look of confusion,” says Tropical Depression singer/multi-instrumentalist Jordan Thomas. “They see names like ‘Hectic Watermelon' and ‘A Band Called Pain' and it's, like, are you serious? There seems to be a consensus with people I've talked to that nobody is really familiar with any of the acts.”
That, Champion says, is precisely the point.
“We're trying to educate people that ‘indie' can mean everything. Yes, it is garage rock. But it's also jazz, classical, hip-hop, heavy metal and a lot of other things.”
She ain't kidding. This year's lineup ranges from West African drumming (Mamady Keita), “Latin rockabilly” (Cuban Cowboys) and a band that “performs music for belly dance and other festive occasions” (The Middle Earth Ensemble) to a teenage Native American flautist (Evren Ozan), a seven-member “progressive soul” band from Hawaii (LAWA) and that one dude from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (James Marsters, aka “Spike”) doing his folk-rock thing.
“How many people buy only one or two styles of music?” LoPresti says. “Some people do, but most people I know buy a lot of different kinds of music. If people like music, they're going to be pretty open-minded to different kinds as long as it's good.”
The festival will also host more “conventional” out-of-town acts like L.A. blues rocker Beth Hart, New York glam rockers Semi-Precious Weapons and San Francisco alt-poppers Scissors for Lefty.
“I think a lot of people get more excited when they know it's not just San Diego bands,” LoPresti says. “And when they come and they discover a whole bunch of bands they didn't even know existed in San Diego, it's just an added bonus.”
Roughly 28 of the 63 musical acts playing the festival hail from San Diego—among them, Josh Damigo, Rhythm and The Method and Donnis Trio, as well as Champion and LoPresti (both with main stage slots opening for Hart). But, for local scenesters, many are head-scratchers, like Hectic Watermelon, Middle Earth Ensemble and Podunk Nowhere.“We want to expose our audiences to these fantastic, relatively unknown bands,” Champion says. “But then we do also solicit headliners to draw crowds because a lot of people don't know who the meat of the festival is.”
But the meat, as it were, isn't just on the seven music stages. The Fest also aims to spotlight independent businesses, artists, dancers, films and even “cutting-edge” nonprofit organizations.
“People come for the music and entertainment, but they can't walk away uninspired,” LoPresti says. “We're just weaving this thread of radical thinking and outreach and activism throughout the festival.”
It's nothing if not ambitious. More than 1,000 acts entered submissions (through online booking site SonicBids) to play the festival, but a limited budget and rigorous selection process—which considers quality and diversity of music—meant only a small fraction got the green light.
“I can see where they're going with it, but, at the same time, you also expect to see at least some San Diego indie-rock bands on the bill,” Thomas says. “I don't want to come off super-negative—I think it's awesome that there's an event bringing thousands of people to North Park—it just seems like there's a lack of outreach to all the talented musicians who are already here.”
Last year, Thomas did something about it. A Boston native who moved to North Park four years ago, he convinced his friend and boss Gustaf Rooth, owner of Planet Rooth Studios on Ray Street, to let him host a show at the gallery on the same day as SDIMF.
“We got a great reaction,” Thomas says of the show, which included Tropical Depression, Apes of Wrath and others. “A lot of people came by the gallery and said ours was the best stage.”
Problem is, they didn't have an official “stage” connected to SDIMF. And when people filtering between the gallery and the festival began to cause confusion, the situation came to a head.
“Most of [the North Park businesses] love us to death because we bring in a lot of people,” LoPresti says. “And then you have this little art gallery....”
LoPresti says the trouble began when Rooth first advertised the show as being affiliated with SDIMF and then, when confronted, demanded an official stage. The request was denied, LoPresti says, due to time constraints and liability issues, among other things.
“I went over and confronted Gustaf and we got into it a little bit,” LoPresti admits. “It was a little ridiculous. But, you know, God bless him. A little drama spices up the punch.”
In that case, this year will be spicier. Thomas plans to hold another show coinciding with SDIMF that includes notable locals like The Sess and Swim Party.
“I understand that they can just be a festival of independent music taking place in San Diego,” Thomas says. “But the motivation behind what we're doing is to represent San Diego indie music.”
The two factions represent diametrically opposite approaches to event promotion. When I talked with LoPresti and Champion in North Park—inside swank North Park restaurant Hawthorn's—the two had been up since the crack of dawn working on a list of “200 massive to-dos” that included negotiating a labyrinth of city codes.
The pace is so hectic that, during the second SDIMF in November 2005, Champion collapsed on stage with a stress-induced seizure that sent her to the hospital.
Thomas is a tad more, uh, relaxed in his approach. When I talked to him over the phone, he had just woken up at the crack of 11 a.m. His show doesn't have an official name (“We've talked about it,” he yawns), and whereas LoPresti aims to “blow people's minds,” Thomas says he simply wants people to have fun.
“We're not really trying to take on the Indie Fest,” Thomas says. “I don't have the time or energy to fuck around with people. We just want to have fun and showcase some of the local talent that we have here.”
After 30 minutes of discussing SDIMF and his Planet Rooth show, Thomas started to lose interest in the conversation. “I don't know, man,” he finally sighs, then laughs. “I'm a little fucking high right now.”
In the end, the difference between the two events is really just a matter of semantics.
“We started with ‘San Diego Indie Music Fest' because that's what we know; we're musicians,” Champion says. “But we do fantasize of one day just calling it ‘San Diego Indie Fest' because it's about the indie culture and all indie ideals.”
“But music is still at the heart of it.” San Diego Indie Music Fest (featuring more than 70 artists, bands, films, art projects and vendors) starts at noon on Saturday, March 29, in seven North Park venues on and around University Avenue between 28th and Ray streets. www.sdindiemusicfest.com.The Show on Ray Street (featuring The Sess, Swim Party, Tropical Depression, The Gift Machine, Hialeah and River City) starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 29, at Planet Rooth Studio Gallery, 3811 Ray St., in North Park. 619-297-9663.
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