Third Time (Is Still) The Charm: An Interview With Joseph Schafer of NORTHWEST TERROR FEST
Northwest Terror Fest is back and it's bigger than ever this year. The Seattle-based festival is approaching its third iteration and the team behind the event is looking to make it their best year yet. There are a large number of festivals popping up around the United States recently. It's tough to know which ones to choose and attend sometimes. The people behind Northwest Terror Fest have become a leader at curating lineups that both excite and showcase the diversity of heavy music. As spring begins to become summer, almost 40 bands and musical projects will convene in downtown Seattle to showcase a wide variety of both metal and non-metal music.
Acts like Pig Destroyer, Wolfbrigade, and Cirith Ungol headline a stacked bill of unique and exciting performances. The pre-show features uniques sets from Slasher Dave of Acid Witch, Thou playing a "quiet" set, and Austin Lunn of Panopticon performing solo folk material. Elsewhere, bands like Derketa will be playing their first west coast set. There will be after-show parties featuring acts such as Bongripper and Oxygen Destroyer. Other bands like Indian, Thantifaxath, Iskra, and Sutekh Hexen will be playing—among many other talents that do not tour or haven't played live recently. There's much to be excited about for this year's Northwest Terror Fest.
Metal Injection caught up with one of the festival's organizers, Joseph Schafer, to discuss what went on behind the scenes, what he is excited for, and the importance of the festival not only for Seattle's music culture but as a beacon of diversity and inclusivity. Northwest Terror Fest will take place from May 30 to June 1 across three of Seattle's venues: Highline, Neumos, and Barboza. There will also be a special pre-show on Wednesday, May 29th for those who want to get there early. Three-day passes have already sold out, but single-day passes to particular venues are still available through the festival's website. While you're there, check out the festival's full lineup.
This is year three for Northwest Terror Fest (abbreviated NWTF) and it's shaping up to be the biggest one yet. What have been some of the triumphs and challenges in continuing to grow this festival each year?
Schafer: I totally hope it's going to be our biggest event. Like you alluded to in the question, it's not always been a cakewalk to throw an event like this, so maybe it's best to start with challenges and then move on to triumphs. Honestly, any event of this scale is a logistical Rubik's cube, which is something I totally didn't recognize when I was just someone who attended metal fests. Before this, I was mostly a journalist and only very occasional booking agent, so I basically had to teach myself how to put on a fest like this—with some much-appreciated guidance from the Southwest Terror Fest team—from the ground-up.
That goes for most of the NWTF team as well. We have some very talented and seasoned musicians, stage managers, and show promoters, but very few of us had ever done anything with the ordinance of NWTF before. So obviously it's been an uphill battle, albeit one we're totally in love with fighting. That's a pretty "metal" thing to do, right? Totally take on impossible odds?
For an example, think of it this way: Putting on a fest is like putting on a wedding. Except to an extent, it's harder than that, because to have a wedding you really only need three people – the couple being hitched and the person who officiates the ceremony, right? Usually, it's more than that, but that's the bare minimum of people that need to be there, with everything they need at an appointed time. Well, most bands have more than three people, and we're booking 36 of them, in rapid succession, over the course of three—well, sort of four—days.
On top of that, Seattle is way more friendly to weddings than it is to music. People expect this kind of event in a place like LA or New York. Those cities have new metal fests all the time. In Seattle, there really isn't a lot like this that goes on. Seattle may be a town with a rich rock and roll history, but the city itself has basically done all in its power, legally and economically, to totally stomp the arts out. NWTF is our love letter to Seattle, but it's also kind of our middle finger to those parts of the city that want it totally whitewashed, technocratic and bougie. We're bringing the freaks in from all across the country, right to the heart of the city for a weekend, with pentagrams, rainbows and black flags—deal with it!
And that's the triumphant part, right? Seattle's big music fest, Bumbershoot—which is, to be honest way, WAY bigger than NWTF—is in deep debt to the city and hemorrhaging attendees. Its rival fest, Upstream, doesn't seem to have found an audience, to begin with. The other music fest on Capitol Hill, the neighborhood where NWTF takes place, looks like it's in trouble too. We're smaller than all those fests, but last year our attendance grew. To me that's huge. That's a total signal that you can run an event that doesn't serve the mainstream and book a diverse and inclusive roster of bands and make people happy.
You can do the right thing and grow while doing it, and you can do it while playing loud, obnoxious, really diabolical music. We've been able to rally the locals as well as people nationwide and build a community that appreciates beautiful music like Emma Ruth Rundle and pure violent music like Integrity or Gatecreeper. I walk through the crowd at NWTF, and people are kind to each other, they're smiling and loving this wide breadth of sound, the light, and the dark, and losing themselves in the purity of musical expression. When I see that every year, I just never want to stop doing this. It makes all the struggle worth it. Completely.
It's great to see this festival is continuing to thrive even in the conditions Seattle is throwing at you. The lineup itself–as you mentioned–is incredibly diverse and the people who come to it are just as unique and appreciative. Given the changing society and current political climate, have you felt more pressure this year to promote inclusivity than before to truly show how welcoming metal should be?
Schafer: NWTF has yet to have the opportunity to exist in a world without Donald Trump as the president of the United States of America. However, while I think we all want a change in leadership nationally, I like to think that we'll always book diverse acts no matter what ideology is in power.
I want to say this as an individual, not as a member of team NWTF, but I think my comrades will agree with me on this: I want to see women, people of color, LGBTQIA+, and every permutation of humanity playing as loud as they can on that stage, not because it's some sort of signal to the rest of society, but because it's the correct thing to do in-and-of-itself. I don't want to watch three straight days of bands that are all composed of the same sorts of people, or who all sound more-or-less the same.
Metal is a broad church, and we're going to honor that the absolute best we can, so the drive to find a wild and lovable lineup comes organically from within. The people who love this music love it from a really earnest and honest place, I think, and there's a whole bunch of diehard metalheads who want to see people like themselves onstage and rarely get that opportunity — we need to listen to that desire. There's no future for NWTF where society becomes more egalitarian and we relax, and in so doing let our lineup become too generic or too exclusive, or where we book acts that preach supremacy. As Napalm Death one said we need to be Leaders, Not Followers.
The drive and the motivation to make this festival special is incredible and I think it's reflected in this year's lineup especially. You've got everyone from Derketa to Sutekh Hexen, Cirith Ungol to Gadget. Shifting gears a bit to the roster, was there anyone on this lineup that personally got you incredibly excited. Was there a band you weren't sure you'd be able to book at first, but then surprised you?
Schafer: You bring up a few interesting acts on the roster! Obviously, I believe in every band that's coming and don't particularly like to play favorites, but I can share a couple anecdotes. To be sure I felt pretty happy when Cirith Ungol said 'yes.' We've actually been in communication since just before the first NWTF, but scheduling conflicts kept us from connecting until now — something else I didn't realize at the start that in retrospect seems obvious, there are only so many weekends in a year, only a quarter of those occur during the summer, and a lot of bands get a ton potential gigs on the same date! I'm a big proponent of extreme metal, obviously, but I'm also a pretty big fan of the old school stuff.
I listen to a lot of metal with classic, clean singing and fantasy lyrics, which includes bands like Cirith Ungol. There's been interest in our team in having there be a day, or at least a few bands, that play that style of metal, but up until this point that hasn't happened at NWTF. Having Cirith Ungol play at Neumos after four other bands that share some of those classic metal and doom elements is, to me, the perfect way to open us up to another enclave of metalheads that I feel a kinship with, and it's also going to be a great way to bring them to Seattle for the first time. Plus, have you heard their new song, "Witch's Game"? It rips! It's clear to me Cirith Ungol still have that spark that made them special before I was born.
This is sort of a funny answer to follow that up with since, as it turns out they're playing directly before Cirith Ungol if you're going to the Barboza and Neumos stages that day, but I was also over the moon when Dawn Ray'd said yes. I was sort of nervous that they'd never play the states. They're one of the few bands on our roster that I personally haven't had a chance to see yet, but I've been told many times that they're stellar live. And it should go without saying, but I enjoyed their album, The Unlawful Assembly, a great deal. It seems to have a shared lineage with the sort of folkish and atmospheric black metal that is a part of Pacific Northwest culture so they're a natural fit — that sound is like comfort food, to me. Their lyrical themes also strike a chord with me personally, though I would have enjoyed their music if it wasn't part of the package as well.
Third, one thing that makes NWTF sort of special is our Saturday folk set. Each year we book one solo acoustic act in the very middle of our mainstage. I think of it as the seventh inning stretch. It's nice to have a break from the decibels and just have a minute to get in touch with one's emotions, especially when it's bookended by some of our most furious acts. It is stagedive Saturday, after all! The folk set is always a highlight and an audience favorite. This year Dortheia from Windhand is taking that slot. I bet a lot of people who love Windhand probably haven't even heard her solo record, but it's very sparse and beautiful. It sort of gives me the same feeling that Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska record does. Hearing her perform some of that material is a real treat.
There seem to be a bunch of metal festivals popping up left and right these years and I can imagine it's really tough to get a lot of those bands locked in when they're making commitments to tours or other festivals. Those stories about Cirith Ungol and Dawn Ray'd are excellent, but what I really like is the idea of having Dorothia from Windhand doing her solo material as a sort of reprieve from the madness of Saturday's line-up as well as the pre-show which features Slasher Dave doing a synth set and Austin Lunn and Thou doing acoustic and quieter sets–that trio alone is worth the price of admission to the whole event.
The real question I think everyone is dying to know… Will you be partaking the stage diving activities on Saturday? It would be really difficult to say "no" to doing it during Pig Destroyer or Despise You.
Schafer: I've stage-dove at Terror Fest before, and it's likely I will do so again. True story I got airborne during the Himsa reunion last year and then thought my wallet fell out. Turns out I left it in a merch bin, forgot about it, and went without an ID or credit cards for a few days afterward! I also expect to get in the pit and lose my mind when and if Pig Destroyer plays the final breakdown riff in "Terrifyer," which has been my go-to "work harder!" song at the gym for a decade, now. I also need to admit that I'm maybe approaching that time when running a left turn at high speed with a bunch of other dudes in denim vests is no longer in the cards for me. To complicate matters I do have a bullet belt that I don't always wear because the buckle—really just a slightly loosened fastener to keep the bullets togther—is not so tight as I would like!
To be clear there are no barriers at NWTF, which means everyone can bring a camera in, and everybody can mosh or stage dive at their own discretion, which is just the way I personally like it, so long as the pit doesn't become personally nasty, IE someone picking on someone else, or just plain fighting under the guise of horsing around. Nobody wants that shit. this is probably a good time to mention that we have a no-harassment policy and that covers groping and crowd killing as well as other things that ought to be obvious. Attendees seem to appreciate that policy, too. Fests are a party and I want people to allow other people to have a good time at that party. Having a good time always begins with respect, I think.