Now in its fourth year, Greg Benedetto’s Toronto hardcore festival is bigger than ever
By Tom Beedham
Now in its fourth year, local promoter, musician, and DIY venue operator Greg Benedetto’s annual Not Dead Yet festival has swelled incrementally to a program more than twice the size of what it was the year of it’s inception, this year featuring 16 concerts and a community art show, all spanning Nov. 18-23 at various venues across Toronto. If it’s the underground event people say it is, it’s one that operates through deep-rooted channels connecting opposing ends of the earth.
“It makes Toronto seem big to the outside world.” Benedetto told Long Winter while taking a break from working on the festival last month.
“There’s bands here now from Japan or England. This is the first year where it’s not just North American bands,” Benedetto enthused. Denmark and Belgium also have bands in town with Puce Mary and Not Afraid on the festival bill. “They’re coming here to Toronto for a reason, and I think it broadens the world and makes people take the whole thing seriously I guess.”
The cross-seas involvement in this year’s festival speaks to a larger community that’s invested in supporting a common interest, and according to Benedetto, that is specifically the sense he wants the festival to convey.
“There’s sort of this weird abstract community of people that are always talking about who’s coming and who’s touring when,” Benedetto extolled. “It’s all friends and people I’ve had relationships with and built relationships with over the years … It extends beyond the borders of the city. There’s people working toward the same goals with the same principles in Hamilton, in Los Angeles, in Japan, in London – there’s people all over the world who have the same focus and the same goals and want to bring the same spirit to things.”
That sense of community is an inspiriting force that by comparison holds a funhouse mirror up to the corporate festival models, exposing the latter’s rigidly enforced set times and special guest spots as vehicles for venue-hopping and social media gamification, while reflecting back events that are free to be flexible, engaging, and altogether more compelling.
“I think there’s going to be a fundamental difference between Perfect Pussy playing Not Dead Yet and Perfect Pussy playing North by Northeast,” Benedetto said, immediately calling to mind the technically marred Horseshoe Tavern performance that eventually led to Perfect Pussy bassist Greg Ambler snapping his instrument in half and walking offstage mid-set at NXNE this past June. “I want the band to feel the palpable difference.”
He wants the audiences to feel the difference, too.
Last year that meant committing the entire festival to an all-ages mandate for the first time, but this year, half of the 16 concerts are once again restricted to those of legal drinking age.
“I think overall everything should be all-ages; people shouldn’t be segregated by their age,” said Benedetto. He explained that 2013’s experiment went well, but especially with bands like Japan’s Forward travelling from different continents for this year’s festival, operating the same way as last year’s fest just wouldn’t be sustainable.
In order to provide a program that still engages the under 19 crowd, Benedetto says that this year he’s tried to stack the all-ages events with emerging artists he’s already observed younger crowds getting excited about.
“Glue, Big Zit, La Misma – you can tell: you go to a show and you see shirts and patches kids have made – all those bands are playing Soybomb,” he said. “I’m trying to be a bit smarter I guess about how the all-ages work so I can pay bands well and also allow and encourage the engagement that I want from the all-ages [shows] and the younger scene.”
Other special events like the locally-geared Wednesday night “pre-gig” showcase at S.H.I.B.G.B’s – the open practice space Benedetto and his band S.H.I.T. operate as an ad hoc concert space – and the Sunday matinee gig and merch market at The Shop under Parts & Labour (where chef Matty Matheson will be serving plates of food “on the cheap”) are similarly all-ages affairs.
Long Winter: What was the spark behind the original Not Dead Yet fest?
Greg Benedetto: I’ve used this narrative before, but that’s because it’s true, funnily enough. Before they did the Long Winter thing, Fucked Up used to do a weekend of shows. They started playing [annual] Halloween shows, and then the third year that there was supposed to be a Halloween show, they did a weekend of shows for Hidden World. That one weekend stuck in my head as something that wasn’t just about Fucked Up – it was a community thing and they kind of facilitated it. You went and there were records that were there, ready for the festival. The festival was a big deal. Bands came from all over to play it and there was just a vibe. I remember the first night was I think at the El Mocambo upstairs and it was a Thursday, and I think it was actually Halloween. I could be wrong. Either way, it was because it was around the same time. Everyone was dressed up and there was just this crazy, wicked vibe. There was a huge line in front of the El Mo and it just seemed like something big was happening. And it was cool to see people from all over sort of engage in that. That must’ve been… 2006 I think that was. They did that for a couple more years and in 2007 I filmed it and we made a DVD. Then in 2009 I had sort of been booking shows for a bit on my own and they’d been in the sort of [Chemistry of Common Life] period I guess and I helped book the weekend that year. So it was Fucked Up, myself, and Mark Pesci.
In 2010, they decided that they didn’t really want to do it. I think things started changing [for Fucked Up]; whatever, they can give that side of the story if you need it. In 2011, I went to Chaos in Tejas and on the flight home, I was like, “You know what? I miss this thing happening in the city. So I’m just gonna try and do my own thing.” So the first [Not Dead Yet] was in 2011 and it wasn’t nearly as big as the first Fucked Up weekend, but it’s slowly grown to be something altogether bigger, I think. So the spark is weirdly tied to this whole thing.
So Not Dead Yet was less of a thing where you were already promoting shows with Stuck in the City and you felt that a festival would be the next natural progression.
Yeah, it wasn’t like that at all. It wasn’t like any sort of “Oh I’ve been doing shows; I should do this.” It was “I want this to embody a spirit that I felt at one point”’ and I think that’s probably a more organic way of going about achieving something. This isn’t a thing for any purpose other than getting people to come to the city and enjoy the city. I think it helps bolster the hardcore punk community here, absolutely. I think it’s sort of a gateway for kids now. They hear about this thing, they know it’s happening, and it’s a signpost in the year.
Can you talk about some of the effects you’ve felt either the festival or the series have on the community (either locally or more generally)?
It’s kind of one of those things where there’s no measure. I don’t keep metrics on this stuff, but I think it’s important. I feel like to a degree it’s allowed a community to come up around it. It makes Toronto seem big to the outside world. Having played out in my own band and going to hardcore shows all over the world for years now, Toronto is a big community, but [the festival] gives that sense of bigness and I think the fact that it’s not based around any one band or one thing, it’s this community thing, It doesn’t give credence to any one thing. It’s a community holding in that sense, so it’s easy for younger kids to take stock in it and be like “this is something that represents what’s going on here.” And that’s what I mean about it being a gateway. Young kids who have some trepidation about going to shows and are just getting into stuff, they know Not Dead Yet’s coming; they know it’s something not to be missed. At least I think that’s the reputation that a lot of the younger kids give it. As a result it becomes that sort of gateway – it becomes that sort of flashpoint – where somebody can come to a show and be like, “Woah. This is crazy. There’s 400 people in Soybomb at three in the morning.”
There’s bands here now from Japan or England. This is the first year where it’s not just North American bands. They’re coming here to Toronto for a reason, and I think it broadens the world and makes people take the whole thing seriously I guess.
Are there any important relationships that have contributed to the festival’s evolution over the years? Any other scenes or promoters or concert series that have inspired what Not Dead Yet strives to provide now?
There’s obviously the debt to Fucked Up. That’s something that I think is inherent whenever I’m asked to talk about the festival. Timmy Hefner who did Chaos in Tejas has been a huge support just in terms of whether it’s goading me into doing something foolish that might pay off or just talking about the brass tacks of it and being behind a soundboard. I’ve become close with the New York’s Alright festival, which started after Not Dead Yet in New York City.
It’s the same sort of thing. There’s sort of this weird abstract community of people that are always talking about who’s coming and who’s touring when. There’s sort of this broader thing that we’re all playing into.
The real debt outside of all of that, though, is to the bands. The good majority of it isn’t with booking agents; it isn’t with… I used to have a policy where I wouldn’t work with booking agents. Now unfortunately some of my friends have become booking agents. But it’s all friends and people I’ve had relationships with and built relationships with over the years. It’s that community aspect. This is the sense I want the festival to convey. It extends beyond the borders of the city. There’s people working toward the same goals with the same principles in Hamilton, in Los Angeles, in Japan, in London – there’s people all over the world who have the same focus and the same goals and want to bring the same spirit to things. So the bands abroad and then the bands locally facilitate it. It’s not just me, it’s not any of that stuff. I’m just sort of tying things together, I guess. There’s a lot of people involved, always.
Have your goals for the festival shifted since the first year?
For me there wasn’t a goal beyond the fact that I wanted it to feel a certain way. I wanted people to be excited about it. And that’s still it. When the bands play I want them to be like, “Wow, that was a crazy show.” And when people go to shows, I want them to go, “Wow, that was a crazy show. I had a lot of fun.” I want people to look forward to it. And that’s been… year one the goal was pull it off. Year two was “year one was fun, let’s make it a little bit more fun.” And that’s it. That’s been the goal: what can we do to make it more enjoyable. There hasn’t been much of a greater goal beyond the fact that I want this to be an embodiment of what I think is a great music experience. That sounds really sort of silly, but I don’t feel that any other festival in the city really provides that in the same format that we’re doing it in. This year there are 16 shows over five days, which is a lot of shows.
What was the first year’s program like?
There was a Thursday night show, a Friday night show, a Friday night afterparty, a Saturday matinee, two Saturday night shows, and a Saturday afterparty. And I don’t think there was a Sunday night afterparty.
So it’s more than doubled in scale.
Yeah. It’s more than double the size, but it’s changed incrementally over the years. But that’s the thing, I’ve only been growing it…
Last year people weren’t able to get into some shows. At Hard Luck! Like there was a big crowd outside of Hard Luck last year. So this year there’s shows at Magpie, across the street. We’ll see if that works. Maybe it’s gonna suck. But the logic is just that we’ll build it big enough to hold last year. And I don’t know if that’ll be the case next year. It’s just sort of do it and see what sticks, but I don’t want it to be a festival that’s for journalists and booking agents and PR people. I mean it’s kind of innate doing a hardcore punk festival, but I’ve been doing shows long enough to work with bands that are known to play other festivals and see what their shows are like at those other festivals, and loathe their shows at those other festivals. So it’s like I want this to be a platform where that energy can exist. I think there’s going to be a fundamental difference between Perfect Pussy playing Not Dead Yet and Perfect Pussy playing North by Northeast. And I want the band to feel the palpable difference. Because we cater to two different crowds.
Last year Not Dead Yet offered a full festival of all-ages events. How did that go?
It went well. I mean, throughout the year I do my best to… I would say less of my shows are becoming all-ages – not any profound amount; I would say 80 per cent of the shows I do are still all-ages. But I think all-ages shows for hardcore are different than all-ages shows in general. Just because if you’re getting into punk music when you’re a teenager – if you’re a punk when you’re a teenager – you’re saying ‘Music is my primary interest.’
It’s your main identifier.
Yeah. So it’s important for those kids to be able to find it and interact with it. And I think in that sense youth is also a great time to engage in a certain politics that are inherent in punk music. So I always try and make things all-ages. Last year, some of the bigger shows it ended up… it was all on principle, really. Because there’s a big cost to do all ages.
You have to hire extra security…
And the venue’s not keen on it, generally. The guys at Hard Luck and Sneaky Dee’s have always been great to work with, but it just makes it harder on everyone if something’s all-ages. And I looked at what was going on and it seemed that for the kids that are the teenagers in Toronto, it’s way more important to them that Soybomb is all ages than the $20-25 show at Hard Luck. And when you’re 16/17 it’s less about like… I don’t expect a 17-year-old to be up front psyched that Forward are playing. To know a band like Forward is a bit of learning. They’ve never played Toronto, I guess they had a new record a few years ago, but it wasn’t like something that I saw kids here being like, “Forward has a new record!” Whereas anybody who had been collecting records for a while or had been involved in DIY hardcore punk for a long time or had any understanding of Japanese hardcore understands the importance of Forward. But it’s the Soybomb shows – it’s the shows where you can go there, you don’t need to know anything, and it’s a good time – and that I think is how a lot of kids gravitate towards a thing, how they find bands and stuff. So I tried to program it differently in a way where the bands I knew that young kids in Toronto knew, like Glue, Big Zit, La Misma – you can tell: you go to a show and you see shirts and patches kids have made – all those bands are playing Soybomb. So I’m trying to be a bit smarter I guess about how the all-ages work so I can pay bands well and also allow and encourage the engagement that I want from the all-ages and the younger scene.
[All-ages] works and it doesn’t. I think overall everything should be all-ages; people shouldn’t be segregated by their age. Especially in punk music.
Why did you choose to work with the venues you’re working with on this year’s festival? If they’re venues the festival is returning to, why?
I think it’s changed a bit, but when I moved to the city when I was a young teenager, Sneaky Dee’s was like the spot for punk shows and stuff like that. And to a degree it still is. And then the guys from Sneaky Dee’s own Hard Luck and that sort of… Funnily enough, the first year I did Not Dead Yet, I did it in the room that is now Hard Luck, and it was previously called the Poor Alex Theatre. So there were two venues the first Not Dead Yet: there was the Poor Alex Theatre, which is now Hard Luck, and there was Hard Luck, which is now a clothing store. Previously there was a venue called the White Orchid where the after parties for the first Fucked Up weekend were. The guy who owned Hard Luck bought the Poor Alex, moved in there, and then he sold the Hard Luck to the guys at Sneaky Dee’s. So it’s like this tangled web of history there.
But location, proximity to other venues, I think last year we introduced Wrongbar as a venue for the Limp Wrist show – it went off great. This year Cold World is playing there.
The Garrison is new this year, Magpie is new this year, they’re closer to Hard Luck than Wrongbar and sort of in-between Wrongbar and… like the Garrison has sort of become this pretty strong staple of a music venue in this city over the last few years. Shaun [Bowring, Garrison owner] held the book at Sneaky Dee’s when it was known as the spot in the early 2000s. Magpie has been facilitating for a lot of DIY shows lately. So it’s like everything’s sort of related. The USW Hall, where the matinee is on Sunday, is a great place for all-ages shows. I’ve done shows there in the past. At Parts & Labour, Matty [Matheson] the chef and Scott are close friends and they’re old hardcore heads and they were keen to do something there. I think what’s happening at Parts & Labour on the Sunday – in terms of what’s going on in hardcore in the broader context – that show is a really huge show for Parts & Labour and I think it’s going to be really, really cool to see how crazy that will get. It’s going to be stupid.
We’re shutting down the restaurant upstairs, but we’re going to do a bit of a merch market where the bands can sell their merch and stuff, and Matty’s actually going to do plates of food on the cheap – vegan stew and stuff. So it’s going to be a bit of that community vibe where people can hang out upstairs and chill and eat good food on the cheap and downstairs there’ll just be a crazy hardcore show. I’m excited for that one.
I want to talk a bit about S.H.I.B.G.B.’s. You opened it with S.H.I.T. in… June?
In April. We got the keys in April and the first show was two weeks after. To call it a venue is a stretch, but…
Why would you say that?
So I play in a band called S.H.I.T. We had been looking for a practice space and I had always been surfing Craigslist to see if something exactly like what I found came up and one day it did, in January, so I saw it, negotiated it, and we built a practice space into it. So the idea was that we were gonna get this practice space and let’s subsidize it to subsidize other things. And that’s sort of what’s become of it. It’s an 1800-foot cinderblock basement with one room and two washrooms. So you come in, it’s a basement, there’s a room in the back – that’s our practice space – and there’s two washrooms. And there’s a walk up to go out back and there’s a little deck right on the railroad tracks. It’s probably the scariest, noisiest patio that any normal person would be on, because when those trains come by there’s like a grade right there, too, so they seem like they’re 12-15 feet tall, like monsters. But the venue itself is just a basement. That’s it. A basement and a PA.
That’s why I find it funny when people are like, “Can we soundcheck?” It’s like, “Yeah, you could, but there’s no point. We’ll put a mic in front of your face and turn it up as loud as it needs to be for people to hear it.”
My understanding was that S.H.I.B.G.B’s was sort of the first all-ages, punk-dedicated venue to crop up after Siesta Nouveaux shut its doors in 2012. Having formerly promoted shows there, did you experience any difficulty in a sense relocating a scene that rendezvoused in the city’s east to its west?
Hmm. To be honest – not really. Like, we did the first show on less than two weeks’ notice. I think it was like 10 days. And like 150 people came. Our band actually hasn’t played the venue on less than 10 days’ notice yet, and it’s our venue, and I think that’s actually really cool. And we’ve never had a bad show there.
But yeah, relocating the scene? Absolutely not. I think punk music is by nature very amorphous. It’s a community, not a space. That’s why you can’t kill it.
It’s an idea. It’s a community. And it’ll float around as it needs to and just form around certain bands that embodied the spirit people were looking for. There’s no rules, there’s no, “Oh, a show has to be here to be a punk show.” It’s like a spirit. People will choose to attend shows at certain venues based on what they feel like that venue embodies, plus the kids project certain politics onto the venues, which is absolutely incorrect. Not to say that there aren’t politics to the spaces – there inherently are – but for example there’s an event happening at this space this week that is more of an art show combined with a show, and I saw a kid complaining that the show was a little bit more expensive than a normal show there – and I was like, “Woah, woah, woah, woah. We’re holding this event at this space, and that is more about the politics of the space than you projecting a fare price based on it being at that space.” But yeah, no, in that sense, all the problems and critique that come with punk music came as well.
Why aren’t you holding more of the fest out of S.H.I.B.G.B.’s?
I would love to do a festival at S.H.I.B.G.B’s, but…
Do you think it’s more important to continue to spread this across the city?
I think it’s more important to spread it across the city. It would be great if there was this utopia that was all our rules, all our bands, all the time – but that doesn’t exist. We participate in the broader community of Toronto. And I want it to feel like something that sort of takes over the city to a degree. And in the case of not doing it at the venue, it’s like… S.H.I.B.G.B’s is a sort of DIY, underground spot. Its survival relies on an understanding in the community. To that it is sort of precious. There’s one day where we’ll be talking about S.H.I.B.G.B’s hopefully with the fondness that we’re talking about Siesta Nouveaux.
No one talked about Siesta Nouveaux when it was around. Things get eulogized because they’re dead. I wrote something about Siesta Nouveaux closing.
But yeah, this space is precious and I don’t want to bring in outsiders. I don’t want to say that I know everyone on a first name basis, but I’m very, very particular about what goes on in this space, I’m very, very particular about who plays there, and I’m very, very particular about how things happen there.
The majority of the people that attend Not Dead Yet, I’d say that 50 per cent of the people aren’t from Toronto proper. They’re not people that come to shows here on a regular basis, they’re not people that are participating in the local community, and S.H.I.B.G.B’s is a space that is for the local community. So I don’t want to risk souring it for the benefit of this broader thing. They’re two sort of separate, yet related entities. So there is a show there on the Wednesday [of NDY]. Die is a band from the UK that we’ve been in correspondence with for a long time and we’ve talked about playing together for a long time. And because they’re coming over for Not Dead Yet, we were like, there’s no real way for S.H.I.T. and Die to play together during the festival itself, but now we’re playing together on the Wednesday at our own spot. And it’ll be more of a local show then and I hope it’s sort of treated as such. Like I want that to be a S.H.I.B.G.B’s show, you know what I mean? And then we’ll get into the big stuff after that.
What’s your favourite Not Dead Yet memory so far?
At the end of the Sunday night last year, Left For Dead played, ended around midnight. And you’ve sort of come down off the festival, right? At least for me, I’m experiencing unparalleled stress for five days straight. And a crew of us – a bunch of friends from Toronto, a bunch of friends from Texas, friends from Chicago – somehow we ended up with a giant box of fireworks in our house. So we went to a park, grabbed a case of beer, grabbed the case of fireworks, and just shot off fireworks for an hour. And that was a wicked release. I’m trying to think now where I can go and get fireworks. I feel like I want to make that a tradition.
There’s gotta be a convenience store or something with a case in the back.
Somebody’s gotta have ‘em.
But! The truth is, that was not the first thing that popped into my head, and it was not the first thing that popped into my partner’s head, either. In the second year, Rival Mob closed it out on Sunday night at the Hard Luck and for some reason, after the festival, my girlfriend was – my friend Doug plays bass in Rival Mob and he has really long hair, and I came out of the show, and everything was sort of done, and she was just braiding his hair. And that’s the first thing that pops into my head whenever somebody asks “what’s your best Not Dead Yet memory?” The hair braiding is pretty funny.
I think both of those things speak to the entire festival.
I saw a lot of great sets at Not Dead Yet over the years, and it was really cool to do a Left For Dead thing last year. It was really cool to have Iron Age play last year. Limp Wrist was phenomenal. Somehow a video of Limp Wrist from last year fell into my web surfing yesterday, and I watched it again and I was like, ‘Man. What a fucking cool show.’
But the thing is, is that when there’s like 70 bands playing in a weekend it’s all sort of a blur. My own band playing last year was awesome. But I think it’s more about the community and hanging out with friends, having people hear like… Hoax are coming back this year. They played the first two years, they didn’t play last year because they were sort of taking a huge break, and I don’t even know how much they’re going to play after this. They’re going to stay with us, just like they did the first two years, and I’m looking forward to that. More than them playing, I’m looking forward to having my friends here. That’s the best part of the festival.
What are your goals and dreams for Not Dead Yet in the future?
At this time of year, every year, my constant refrain is “I’m not doing this again next year.” It takes up a lot of time, it takes up a lot of energy, and I keep telling people I just wanna get a dog and sit at home. But I dunno. My hope is that nobody leaves the thing going, “Meh, it was okay.” That’s it. I want people to leave psyched on Toronto, psyched on the bands they saw, ‘cause this is an element where I’m like, I’ll hear a demo from a band or play with… [S.H.I.T.] played with this band called the Brass in Vancouver. I thought they were fucking awesome. I got a copy of their tape and then they played the show in Vancouver. And I was just like, “I’m just gonna ask this band to play.” And I did, and they’re coming. And that’s a long way to come to play a show on a demo. But I want people to find out about new, other good hardcore bands. I think the Big Zit sets this year are gonna be really cool. Because that band… I got their demo tape like a year ago when I first heard it, and only now are people starting to talk about Big Zit, so I feel like that’s going to be a really cool set. And I want people to see bands, find out about bands. I’m starting to hear friends be like, ‘Yo, have you heard this new Big Zit band?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah man.’ So that’s sort of a fun part. But yeah! I dunno. I want people to leave having enjoyed it.
What can the city do to make its music scene (or scenes) stronger?
Avoid engaging the Canadian music industry; stop thinking that a PR person is what’s going to make your band – that a booking agent’s what’s going to make your band; think of your band bigger than the music that it actually is – like if you want to be a songwriter, all well and good, I’m not going to tell someone how to approach their art, but I think if you want to make the city more vibrant, think of your band bigger than just some songs. and I don’t mean take fuckin’ press photos, I mean engage the community and do something that makes the city better; don’t think about what’s great for your band. And there are a lot of people in this city that think about that – that think about emboldening the music community, but I think it needs to be more on an artist level, and I think in general we need to move away from this idea that “I need government funding to be a musician here.” Americans don’t do that. And I’m not saying we should be more like Americans, I’m just saying that you should just do your thing; don’t ask somebody to give you money to do your thing.
Wrapping things up, obviously you’re pretty busy getting the festival together right now, but what’s next for you? What’s next for S.H.I.T.? Are you gonna go hibernate?
I’m going to Disneyland.
No. [Laughs] I’ll decide if there’s another one and I’ll start working on it immediately, probably. S.H.I.T.’s doing SHITMAS again in December I think.
Is S.H.I.T. playing other shows?
Between now and then we’re not sure yet. We might be hibernating for a bit. We’ll see. It’s been a busy year. Our third record is coming out next weekend. So we’ll do our SHITMAS thing at the end of December, and… Right now I’m looking forward to having a pretty clean slate. I sort of charge through the year heading for the end of November, and then in December I try not to do not all that much.
Anything we can look forward to with Stuck in the City?
There’s like one show in December, but business as usual I guess. We got the venue, the venue needs shows to stay open, so something’s gonna happen there. There’s stuff on the horizon but nothing like… Stuck in the City is…not changing, but I’m exploring different kinds of – not different kinds of music; I’m focusing less on a sound and more on a politic I guess. Which I’ve always kind of wanted to try and do, and to a degree I have, just not so much outside of punk. Like I just did a Vatican Shadow show and hopefully in the new year we’ll have Pharmakon back, and there’s a lot of stuff like that. I dunno. Stuck in the City is sort of like this… again, it’s amorphous. There’s no rules, it just exists. And one day maybe it won’t. Hopefully it won’t. We’ll see. I don’t know that if I stop everything I’ll sit at home bored, but I would never be bored at home. I have a fantastic partner and a lot of great records. I would never be bored at home. The only thing that’s missing is a dog. But yeah I just sort of fill my time and this is the first year where I feel I couldn’t possibly fill it anymore. Now it’s a matter of scaling it back to a reasonable and efficient amount of things to do.