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"We like to joke that the first No Fun Fest sold out to a roomful of musicians," says Michael Bernstein, one-third of the noise trio Religious Knives and a four-time performer at the sprawling, multi-night, multi-stage annual festival of the strange and atonal. "The biggest difference is that last year, there were people I didn't know in the audience." For the past three years, No Fun's reputation has grown both in New York City and internationally; as the festival prepares for its fourth go-round, organizer Carlos Giffoni looks back with a mixture of incredulity and pride.
"I started doing shows in 2000, and after Wolf Eyes sold out Northsix, I saw that the audience was there and thought, why not put on a festival?" says Giffoni, an affable South American expat who first got into noise music as a teenager in Miami. He considers himself the curator of No Fun Fest, and says that every year he starts with a list of 50 bands, from dream reunions to international sensations. "My goal for this festival was to get Incapacitants to play," Giffoni says. "They're Japanese bankers who have been playing noise music for years and are legends in the Japanoise scene. They're also the reason the fest is in May this yearI scrapped the original March date because it conflicted with a Japanese bank holiday."
This year's No Fun Fest, highlighted by appearances from Merzbow, Thurston Moore, and Pain Jerk, also includes bands from Germany, France, and Belgium, as well as Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. While Giffoni strives for diversity in his lineup, he does have some limits: "I don't want rock bands to play. But within the noise genre, there are a lot of different sub-genres; harsh noise, ambient, drone, psychedelic. What I mostly look for are bands who work hard to create music that is interesting, personal, and meaningful."
"Hardworking" certainly describes Trevor Tremaine, who plays with No Fun Fest band Hair Police as well as "about half a dozen others." He credits his prolificacy to "a totally incestuous scene. It's really specialized, and it's also a scene that doesn't have a lot of passive spectators. It can be strange to go to a show and see people who aren't band members or their friends." Like Bernstein, Tremaine has noticed a lot of new faces at recent shows and past No Fun Fests. "People are more drawn to noise music because it's really a reaction against boring bands and weird rock hierarchies," Bernstein says. "Noise is really a product of political frustration and musical boredom. Kids also come to the scene because it is still pretty small, and they want to be part of something."
"I'm not worried about noise getting huge, per se," says Giffoni. "But it is gratifying to see the guys who run Load Records, or the guys in Lightning Bolt, have the ability to work on this full-time and not have day jobs." As for Giffoni, he works a regular gig as well as planning the fest and running No Fun Records, a workload driven by genuine passion. "Noise is very personal music," he says. "The normal rules do not applyharmonies and tones may or may not be there. It's a crazy mix of punk and jazz and new wave and industrial. I'm really excited by the range of bands playing the fest this year." He laughs. "At the end of the day, though, it's kind of a selfish endeavor, because these are all really just bands I want to see."