from Bootleg Magazine May 2007
Kenyatta Sullivan has been involved with WE Fest, or, the Wilmington Exchange Festival, since before its inception in the mid nineties. He helped found the band Pandora’s Lunchbox in 1990 and formed a second, The Majestic Twelve, several years ago. He could pass for Jeff Tweedy, a head full of messy black hair and a voice that is genteel southern and a tough Texan.
I spoke with him in the low light of The Cellar downtown last March and again at his home near the beach. On both occasions he talked openly and at length about his life around music while smoking a cigarette or two. Sullivan is passionate about what he does, passionate about his family and life’s opportunities.
The annual festivities begin Thursday May 24th and last until Monday May 28th at the Soapbox in downtown Wilmington. Three floors of music and entertainment all for a buck a day. That’s right, a shit load of music for a DOLLAR a day. That means more cash in hand to spend at the bar or buying merch from something new you discovered.
W.E. Fest is several days of do-it-yourself, volunteer-run entertainment that always takes place during the week of Memorial Day Weekend. Only indie-label and unsigned bands are allowed to play W.E. Fest; no major acts allowed.
How long have been involved with music in Wilmington and what are you known most for?
I don’ know if I’m known at all. I’ve been involved in Wilmington music since 1991 when I started my first band. I had fan ‘zines and was part of the scene, went to shows. I started Pandora’s Lunchbox in 1990, 1991. The scene was vibrant, different back then. Very few bands left Wilmington to. Bands expect to tour now.
What did you learn from your experiences with Pandora’s Lunchbox that has helped with WE Fest?
Dealing with clubs, learning how to get around having to deal with clubs. That’s when I became part of the underground, for real, as in corresponding with people all over the world. Trading things with people all over the world, realizing how much wonderful stuff was out there that people didn’t have access to. This is pre-Internet underground. I think it’s hard for people from this new generation to realize how hard it was to find something that you really liked. There were very few choices in your local scene. There weren’t that many local bands, not many choices on the radio. It was hard to hear an unsigned band in another part of the world. It’s different now that it’s hard to grasp how hard it was to make friends with somebody in a band in D.C. It took maybe a year, because you’re dealing with the mail, before you got an idea of how much was out there that was just genuinely unknown.
How did the underground music scene influence WE Fest?
The underground, the one thing that defined it for me (back then) was that all of us were different. The one thing we had in common is that we were interested in experiencing things that were new to us. But we were all very different, we had different political opinions, we like different kinds of music and we ended up cross pollinating and exposing each another to things that we individually believed in.
What was the catalyst for W.E. Fest?
I was talking on the phone with Jehn Cerron who didn’t even play W.E. Fest until 1999, performing what I think is the single most memorable set by any musician. Jehn is about five two and gets up onstage with a series of repeat pedals and she builds her voice into these huge soundscapes by using the repeat pedals and then she whittles them down into songs in real time. It is breathtaking. After the set, one of the regulars, a punk rocker with twelve inch Mohawk walked up to me and said Kenyatta, I just heard the voice of god. Jehn and I were talking on the phone and she said when are we gonna get together? All of us fucking lunatics in our little corners of the world who are convinced we’re important. That was the impetus.
(After the conversation Sullivan’s previous band, Pandora’s Lunchbox , played the Philadelphia Music Conference. They stayed at one of the organizers’ house, Rick D’Angelo, who was fed up with the whole thing. He said he’d move down to Wilmington and do W.E. Fest. He still lives here, in Oak Island doing real estate. That was the beginning.)
It was very Little Rascals, C’mon guys let’s put on a show. I know a band from the Netherlands! It’s gonna be great! If you don’t get it, fuck you. The first year it wasn’t very well attended so I thought I sucked. I can’t ever do this again. I was in bed for a week. Then the press started coming in. People from fanzines started writing about it. Bands started calling and mailing thank you notes. Saying this is the best thing I’ve ever been to. This is the best thing I’ve ever been to because of this. I actually made real friends. I am booking tours now because of the people I met. People went from not being to get a show to playing up and down the east coast because they had all of these other bands who had in’s at all these clubs. Bands booked a whole a tour from the people they met. That’s what W.E. Fest is supposed to be.
What’s attendance like and when do shows begin?
I would say that we’ll have over the course of the week, 700-1000 people. But who knows really, you just don’t know. We have nights where we couldn’t squeeze another person in the door. The music starts in the evening at eight usually and runs until two. We may start a littlie earlier. There are certain artists that have a specific crowd who’d want to see them at five or six. The bottom line is that everybody who plays, plays to a good crowd. We’ll have at least six bands a day, some extra on Saturday. Bands come and play for free. Everyone volunteers their time, pays their own way, from organizers to the artists which is why we can keep it so cheap. Because everyone volunteers we can keep it so dirt cheap it keeps it high quality, the essence of DIY. W.E. Festival isn’t for everybody. If you’re a cooler than thou hip indy kid you’re not gonna like W.E. fest. We don’t judge you by your t-shirt. For a buck you can discover a lot of music. That’s the goal, to discover things that will have real meaning in your life. The Soapbox has opened their doors, all three floors, for all five days.
Do you think that e-mail and the Internet, has taken some of the excitement out of discovering new things?
Some people do but I don’t know that I do necessarily. It’s just different. I think there are things that have been lost. There’s a personal aspect that’s been lost. It took so much effort to do it back then that it weeded out the weak, the people who really didn’t care, who weren’t willing to make that kind of effort to experience new and different things.
How much time goes into preparing for the Festival?
Months. I try and start before January. Right now I’m waiting on confirmations, fan ‘zines for the kids, getting films locked down. It takes months and months to put together. We’re talking three stages of event, five days. That’s a lot of people and stuff to coordinate, a lot of events for a dollar a day. Some people don’t understand that it’s the idea that we’re going to get together and show each other what we’re doing and get drunk. The thing that’s really a whole lot different is that I’m dealing with a lot more managers than I’ve ever dealt with before. As a whole there’s a whole glut of would be management where a lot of people think they know what they’re doing and have no idea. That’s a mess. I’d say to any band don’t let anyone be your manager unless they have an established track record. Don’t sign anything even its from your friend. Have a lawyer look at it. A lot of people are calling themselves managers and they have a clue to what the job entails. A lot of people who contacted me for W.E. Fest are really bad at it, are clueless. And some of them are becoming known among people who book as people they will not deal with.
Are bands generally enthused about playing the festival, even though they foot their own bill?
Yeah. Next year we have to start not letting bands who played before play again. We have a huge recidivist rate. One band who played, broke up, but are coming this year to hang out for five days. We encourage bands to come play and not leave, hang out for a few days. The best part about W.E. Fest is about how bands work together over time. Get to know each other, share booking contacts, help out with shows here and there – all kinds of stuff. There’s so many ways bands can help each other. That’s how you build communities. The guys in the Dismemberment Plan still say that the W.E. Fest show was one of their best show ever they ever had. They played at three o’clock in the morning in a basement with three kegs. It was fantastic, everyone was up there with the band, exuberant, excited and into it.
In the loosest sense, what is WE Fest or if it had a mission statement what would it say?
That’s changed over time. When we first started there was a clear cut indy versus major kind of battle going on. You were on one side or the other. A lot of the bands that most every day kids think of as underground are no where near underground. There’s an upper tier of indy music that has all the resources, kinds of management that major labels have. They just don’t have a major label but for all practical purposes they have those things. So the distinction isn’t the same. But I think it’s all been nebulous what we do. For me, the best part of WE Fest is what happens afterwards, what bands do after.
Is there still a crowd for W.E. Fest?
That’s the big fear. We don’t attach ourselves to any one click. It’s very hard to get people from these various clicks to come out because why do they want to mess with those other people? They don’t like those other people. We’re looking for the one or two of you that are real, that are individuals that genuinely have your own opinions and don’t let other people tell you what to think. If we can get a room full of people who actually believe something then that’s fantastic. You will be exposed to something different every night, not just different types of music but different ways of playing music.
Do you plan to continue the DIY aspect of W.E. Fest?
I don’t foresee us accepting any corporate sponsorship because we don’t have to. And if WE Fest does stand for something is that you can do this over and over again and you don’t have to kiss anyone’s ass to do it. Our job is to make sure that everyone who pays their dollar leave thinking ‘I can’t believe that was only a dollar.’ And also that the bar makes money because it makes it easier next year. That the bands that play and all the people who travel feel glad they made the trip. We really focus on the bands as opposed to the festival. It’s the bands that make the event not the other way around. They’re doing us a favor by coming here. We’re not doing them a favor by filling a slot.
It’s a community service in a sense, exposing people to things they wouldn’t normally see.
That’s what we thought in 1996. We wanted to expose our town and our scene and our community to all the fantastic things we were finding in the underground. I remember on the very first day of the first WE Fest and I saw this girl, a five foot three hard bodied blonde walking down the street like she built it, wearing nothing but thigh high leather boots and a G-string with electrical tape on her nipples and she’d written with magic marker down her arm Fuck You I’m From Syracuse. I was, like, we win. You know, we win. She was the dominatrix who traveled with 99 Cent Special. She’s in California now.
Why did you pick Memorial Day weekend for the Festival?
We chose it because it was arbitrary and no other event was going on then. We worked around all the major conferences. We were supposed to be an option. An option where you didn’t have to spend all this money to be considered. We took all the money out of the equation. Where nobody got in because they were somebody’s brother. A lot of those events, that’s how they work. This year we’re letting people do showcases – Trekky Records from Greensboro, Organic Entertainment is doing a showcase, Eskimo Records.
What else will the festival have besides music?
Small press, fan ‘zines, indy comics. Traveling art. The Big Art Show is coming down from New York. The Yard Art people. All forms of indy culture, cross pollination, where the filmmakers are meeting the bands and the visual artists are meeting the people who are writing about them. Everybody getting to know one another. And beer. Beer is a big part of We Fest. We like beer. We started off doing microbrews but I don’t about this year.
Is the live streaming going to be a go?
Yeah, it looks great. If you’re home you can watch it or if you’re parents won’t let you go to a rock show, which we understand. Listen to your parents.
Is W.E. Fest for everyone?
It’s not for the people who don’t give a shit. People who don’t give a shit - stay home. The people who do give a shit, you will be in a room with a whole a lot of other people who love music, who love saying fuck you to the man, who love building things as opposed to buying things. People need to be exposed to this. But it’s really for people who are interested in seeing things that are interesting and different. And a lot of people aren’t. A lot of people they just want to listen to their 311 record again. And that’s fine. Good for them. But they aren’t going to have any fun at W.E. Fest.