This weekend, thousands of frat bros will leave the sleepy college town of Gainesville, Florida, while a comparable number of street punks, deep-pocketed music fans, and various riff-raff flood its streets. It's a bizarre Halloween switcheroo that happens because the University of Florida Gators happen to take on their rivals in a recurring out-of-town football game that takes place at the same time as a giant punk rock festival known as the Fest kicks off. The few hours when the jocks and their Southern belle counterparts collide with the influx of train-hoppers is always glorious.
Matt Walker grew up in Valdosta, Georgia, and when he got into independent music in the late 90s it was right around the time that legendary punk band Hot Water Music was blowing up about 100 miles to the south in Gainesville. He would regularly take the pilgrimage to see them as often as he could, and when he decided to head to grad school for journalism, he figured he might as well do so at the place he'd previously adopted as a spiritual home.
This week, he released a book called Gainesville Punk: A History of Bands and Music, which explores how the place that produced people like Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, and John Vanderslice went on to incubate talents like Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! and Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music. I called him up to discuss the Fest and how it helped make Gainesville the Southeastern epicenter of punk. Here's what we talked about.
VICE: There's another Florida college town––Tallahassee––that sits about two hours away from Gainesville. What is it about the latter that made it more conducive to breeding so many punk bands, and could things have been different if the dudes from the formative band Roach Motel had chosen to attend a different state school?
Matt Walker: I think it was just a series of random circumstances that came together to make it what it is. Each scene built on the previous one. I think a lot of the earlier bands had some sort of tie to UF, which gave them a lot of free time to learn their instruments and go to shows. And I think in the 80s, there was some momentum building, and it was probably like places like Tallahassee and around the country. It's hard to say. It's possible. George Tabb [of Roach Motel] lived in Tallahassee before he came to UF.
But the combination of Var [Thelin] starting the [scene-defining] zine and record labelNo Idea plus Allen Bushnell opening the Hardback, which was kind of an anything-goes venue for punk or anything else, contributed to the scene becoming bigger than it did in other towns.
Can you talk a little bit about the Hardback––which is now called Boca Fiesta––and about how it shaped the Gainseville music community?
My most distinct Hardback memory was the first time I ever went there. I think it was the first time I had ever gone out of town to a punk show. I went to see this band from Canada called Grade. I remember walking in and being kind of mesmerized by the atmosphere—low, lattice-work ceilings with water from the roof dripping onto the floor, stickers everywhere, the smell of stale beer. I was hooked. The opening band was this absolutely brutal band called Dragbody. At the time, they seemed like really big, intimidating dudes. These days, we have some mutual good friends and I know they're softies. Next was Grade—melodic post-hardcore at its best. The last band, I had never heard of but the crowd seemed to double in size as the band picked up their instruments. They launched into a song and the crowd became like one organism, lurching forward then falling back. It was Hot Water Music.
I think the Hardback was absolutely the CBGBs of Gainesville. It supported independent artists who were looking for a place to play original music. It wasn't about drawing in a big college crowd with cover bands. It was about originality.
Is there a "Gainesville sound," or any sort of through-line or characteristic all these bands share?
I don't think there is. It has the reputation of being, like, beardcore. I think all bands from Gainesville got the reputation that they sound like Hot Water Music, but that's really not the case at all. There are definitely some bands that are influenced by them, but looking through the book, the bands I talk about from the late 90s and early 2000s—Hot Water Music is definitely in there, but bands like I Hate Myself, Palatka, Strikeforce Diablo, As Friends Rust don't sound anything like that. So I don't think you can define Gainesville by any particular sound.
Matt Walker created this chronological showcase of Gainesville punk––much of which isn't available on streaming services like Spotify.
How did being in Florida as opposed to a place like New York City or LA influenced these guys and girls in either aesthetic or ethos?
In the foreword of my book, Patrick Hughes wrote that Gainesville is a sleepy, hot, and humid town where people run a little slower. He also mentioned that it's a little less violent than some other punk scenes. A lot of the kids who come here are tied to UF in some way. They're not street punk kids who are coming into town, they're kids who are pretty well-educated and have things to say and thoughts about various things.
The Gainesville house show scene is an organic entity, too. It always exists in some form and expands and contracts as needed. Most house shows over the years have taken place in the student ghetto near campus, in crappy punk houses that despite being dingy and rundown, are often bustling with activity and creativity because of the groups of people who live there. The bars shut down promptly at 2 AM. If there was a house show happening after hours, people would cut out at 1:40 to try to make it to Gator Beverage before they close to stock up for the show.
I was familiar with the punk house scene in the mid-aughts, but what spaces were important in the previous decades?
In the 90s, the Spoke House was the epicenter of creativity in the Gainesville punk scene. When Fugazi or Green Day came through town, they stayed at the Spoke House. Later on, the Utility House, then Megarock Arena, hosted tons of awesome shows. The 911 house was around for years but unfortunately burned down a couple of years back. The Ark was maybe more than a punk house. It was an amazing place where people lived with purpose and contributed to the scene in numerous ways. There are other places—those are just a few that come to mind. Spoke House still exists but it's occupied by regular college kids these days. I walk by it several times a week at my job. Utility House was torn down years ago. The Ark is now a gym called The Ark Gym, which seems weird. I'm not sure about Megarock.
"The first few times I went to the Fest, it seemed like everybody knew each other. Like, literally everybody."
One thing I noticed when reading your book is that the Gainesville bands that ended up being the most commercially successful seemed to be outsiders in the beginning. Is there more of a pressure to resist fame in that scene than other punk communities?
I think there's a certain level of hazing when a new band comes up, especially if they're really active and working hard and really good. I think there's a little bit of pushback, but then after they prove themselves and that they're not trying to exploit the scene or just make a buck, they're accepted. The older bands are kind of cautious about what the new bands represent and are trying to achieve, but when they see they're sincere, they kind of get a pass.
I think what constitutes selling out or being commercially successful is different now than it was in like the 90s. Like in the 90s, Less Than Jake signed to a major label, and I think they took some crap in the scene. But nowadays, nobody has anything bad to say about them. Similarly with Against Me!, each album went on to a different level of availability, and they got a lot of criticism for moving on from label No Idea to Fat Wreck Chords to a major label. But, in town, the people who were friends with those guys were always happy to see them get bigger.
I feel like I know quite a few people who have no ties to Florida but who either are very aware of or attend the Fest. The community that revolves around that event seems to drive attention towards local music that wouldn't necessarily see an international or even national audience without it.
I've been to every Fest since Fest 5 in 2006, when I moved to Gainesville. The idea of the Fest hasn't changed much, but it's definitely grown. Some of this might be due to the fact that I'm getting old, but at the first few I went to it seemed like everybody knew each other. Like, literally everybody. Now, there are more people and I think that although they have punk rock and the Fest in common, it's not like one big group of friends, but rather a bunch of groups of friends. Although it's bigger, I think the vibe remains the same for the most part. And of course, as I've gotten older, bands I'm friends with have broken up or moved away so I don't always get to see the usual faces I used to see each year.
When I lived there, folk punk was kind of the predominant aesthetic. If someone who once passed through Gainesville and UF was looking to get into what's good there now, who would you point them toward?
I will say I'm a little out of touch with what's going on because I have a two-year-old son and I've spent the past couple years focusing on the history of punk rock, as opposed to what's going on now. But there are still a lot of awesome bands playing in town. I don't know that's there's one driving band or trend that's guiding things right now, but one of the most popular bands is UV-TV. Bite Marks is another good band that has Matt Sweening and Mark Rodriguez who were in bands like Assholeparade, True North, and Palatka. Edmonton is awesome, too; they kinda remind me of Piebald. Frameworks is good––they just went on tour with Against Me! And then there's people like Chris Wollard from Hot Water Music who's band the Ship Thieves is playing around town on the more rock end of the spectrum. So there's still a lot going on.
'Gainesville Punk: A History of Bands and Music' is out November 7. Pre-order it here.
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