Interview: Third Times A Charm For This Year’s Caterwaul Fest

Well, Memorial Day Weekend is coming fast upon us. For fans of a certain type of, “Independent-minded, iconoclastic, noisy,” music, that means one thing: It’s time for Caterwaul Fest. Taking place May 24 – 27, in Minneapolis, Minnesota at several iconic venues such as Palmer’s and Mortimer’s, the fest, now in its third year, has become of gathering of some of the best underground bands existing today.

This year’s fest features such acts as Brainiac, Oxbow, Whores., Part Chimp, J. Robbins Band, Couch Slut, Thrones, CNTS and many more, over the course of four days. In addition, this year’s fest is being sponsored by Three Floyds Brewing, who know a thing or two about the intersecting of killer craft beers and killer music.

With all that in mind, we sat down with Caterwaul’s organizers, Conan Neutron (Seismic Wave Entertainment), Rainer Fronz (Learning Curve Records), and Melanie Thomas, to get the scoop on all things Caterwaul.

Their answers follow.

(Tickets And The Full Schedule Of Bands Can Be Found Here.)

Each year, Caterwaul seems to get bigger and better. How do you keep the momentum going from year to year, fest to fest?

Conan: We are trying to make the best possible experience for everybody with the most wonderful music possible. Growth is far less important than staying true to our values and maintaining our integrity. I mention that because it seems like some events and festivals are so obsessed with growth that they put the quality at risk to justify it. Everything so far has been sustainable, and the growth has been natural as people figure out what Caterwaul is and what we do. The goal is to keep it consistent, enjoyable, and affordable. There is a sweet spot with all of it and we are constantly trying to balance going for the bigger fish and making sure it is an experience that the average person can enjoy and attend.

Rainer: I think we are constantly making small changes to how we are doing the fest. Honestly right before each Caterwaul, I would swear I’ll never do it again. Afterwards I cannot wait to dig into to the next Caterwaul. There are always little ideas of ways to improve the event. Start times, food options, vendor areas, pushing artist boundaries and many other things to make it challenging and rewarding for both us and the attendees.

Why do you think it has become so successful?

Conan: It is a labor of love, accent on the labor. But also the love. Also, as much as these kinds of bands are huge in our world, to the world at large it is a small but thriving niche. Our goal is to represent and celebrate a community. If we were trying to make lots of money It would look a lot different and might even be easier.

Rainer: Caterwaul has slowly built up a steady momentum in 3 years and generated a nice buzz in what’s left in the underground alternative music world. The cavern between the DIY underground and the mainstream underground today is vast. Caterwaul exists as an event that caters to the blood sweat and tears community of rockers. You can reach out and touch and feel what is happening. You are a part of Caterwaul. The artists that play are in the crowd watching the other bands. It is a community that interacts and shares. That is why it is successful.

Melanie: I have always hated music festivals and anything more than three bands on the bill kills my soul. Caterwaul is a different animal and to me, is more of gathering of awesome people, also with 40+ bands playing! There really is a pretty tight-knit community that seems genuinely delighted to be in our space for four days and immediately make plans once the thing is over to come back next year. There are tears!

What were some of your highlights from last year’s fest?

Conan: Shawn from Child Bite crowd surfing during the Chat Pile set. A moment in time to rival the best of the grunge era! The gleefully topsy-turvy and perfectly appropriate Flipper set with Shannon Selberg of Cows on vocals that closed last year! One of my favorite bands of all time, and who everybody in heavy and weird music owes a huge debt to.

Hands Up Who Wants to Die’s set was a standout for me, I love their new singer Rory and what he brings to the band. Rainer was adamant at their inclusion, and after hearing them we agreed, but they are a band with their own built language and universe and I was blown away by their live show, as were many others. The exact right band at the exact right time and a notable example of the kinds of bands folks should know that we also showcase at Caterwaul.

We do that a lot, and people that only show up for what they already know are doing themselves a disservice.

It was a real treat to provide a stage for Totimoshi to reunite as well, they are such a great band and it’s been so long since they played. A sizable number of folks that had never seen them at all or weren’t familiar got to be exposed to them and I thought that was a lovely highlight.

Rainer: Last year was very hectic. Highlights for me were seeing Elephant Rifle absolutely destroy the small stage in Mortimer’s on the Friday night. I had never had the pleasure of seeing them live. Wowzer, it was sick. Seeing Brad use the entire room as a stage was the best way to start the fest. Later that night after being punished by all the bands, Tongue Party pulled an amazing EDM set. It for sure left some people speechless, expecting the usual TP blistering set. I was super stoked. It was needed after the onslaught that happened before them. Those Hile brothers are so talented. Their normal bass player was out sick and they made magic. A nice groove dance party to wrap the first night.

My final highlight is getting to see Vincas. Chris McNeal is my dude. I love Vincas. They are a band that should be playing massive clubs. They are so damn good. Flawless dark southern swamp rock. Looking in the audience and seeing the look of awe of people seeing them for the first time and jaws hanging open is always a highlight for me.

Melanie: Standouts for me that haven’t already been mentioned were The Art Gray Noizz Quintet, Heet Death, and Chief Tail. Heet Death absolutely made my day. They’re a mix of glam, doom/sludge and garage rock and they’ve got the look. It takes a lot to get people to dance in the middle of the afternoon after being up until 4 am. I will always cherish the memory of thinking “Oh man, we need to make this band a lot louder” and wielding the power of running the festival for good and making that happen.

In terms, of booking bands, how did this year’s fest compare to previous ones? Was it any easier? More difficult?

Conan: Easier and more difficult. The more difficult part is that we have to say no to so many bands that are great. There just isn’t enough room. We also must balance repeat performers with unfamiliar faces. I suppose it is always a bit of a crucible, but aspects of it are enjoyable.

Saying “no,” isn’t one of those aspects, but to keep the ship sailing we can’t bring everybody on board.

Rainer: Booking the festival is not an easy task. It is a struggle to push the envelope trying to find new young bands while sticking to what is familiar or reaching outside your comfort zone. Next year we are implement a dart board with a list and we will be blindfolded for booking. Joking… not joking? Like Conan said, saying no is the worst part. Or “maybe next year”…

Melanie: We are in an enviable position of having over 200 bands ask us if they can play, so it really gets easier and easier every year! We didn’t actually take submissions this year and are limiting the number of returning bands so that every year is not the same as the last. That being said, we have a lot of friends in a lot of excellent bands, and it’s difficult to find a balance there without dinged feelings.

How do you decide which bands play the main fest, and which ones do the “afterparty” shows?

Conan: Loud bands playing inside can be daunting for the ears for hours at a time, so one of the things with how we have it is that if it gets too overwhelming, you can take an ear break. It has as much to do with sequencing as anything else, as well as outside loud sound curfews. Sometimes we just think a band in a packed good sounding room just seems really awesome and we want to provide that experience. There is a science to it. It is about feeling as much as anything else. The break between venues helps a lot with a listening reset too.

Rainer: The primary reason we have the indoor outdoor situation is because of the sound curfew in MPLS. Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial kick off of summer here, so spending the weekend outside with some wicked rock is perfect! Since the inside of Palmer’s holds like 25 people, we move to Mortimer’s. (We have a shuttle – Bitter MN Bus). And being inside for 10+ hours of loud music would be punishing. Outside gives you a nice chance to walk away from it and refresh.

The venue change adds a different vibe of a rock club, dark compact and sweaty. The bands selected for the night shows are selected for the club setting because… no good reason, I guess. Would you rather see Couch Slut at 4 pm in the sun or at 1 am in a dark club?

Does booking something like this get any easier the more you do it? Why or why not?

Conan: We were not strangers to this kind of thing when we started, but we’ve certainly honed our skills. I have self-booked my own bands’ tours by choice my entire adult life. This is different, of course, but you have an idea of what the artist needs. Every band has a unique cadence with how they want to operate and when they are ready to hear certain information and be asked certain questions in regard to production. It can be a challenge, but we have operationalized a lot of the information that needs to be front-loaded for everybody to be set up for the best time possible. Everything is a work in progress.

In short, I think it does get easier. It is still a time suck though, and in a lot of ways the booking of it is just the beginning.

We are far better with division of labor than when we started though. That helps quite a bit.

Many times, we ask certain bands if they want to play and they can’t, and who knows? Maybe they can next year. That is the advantage to building something to last, you can plant seeds that grow into beautiful things.

Rainer: I would say parts of booking are difficult. Like we both said earlier, saying “no” to bands sucks, but not everyone can play. Even worse is saying no to bands who are your friends or on your label which is often one and the same. There are several things that help make booking and pulling it off easier.

We are also lucky that Palmer’s and Mortimer’s have great back of house staff. Twin Town Guitar helps us out with gear and Josh from Asbestos Worker is like superman working the stagehand duties the entire weekend. It’s the little things like that that make the booking and pulling Caterwaul off a lot easier.

How did you get Three Floyds to sponsor this year’s fest? Are they making a special brew for it?

Rainer: Three Floyds is a great craft brewery. The sponsorship seemed natural. I ran into Cory, their beer rep for the Twin Cities, last summer at the Gel show and we talked about working together for Caterwaul. It seemed like a perfect fit. I love their beer. Cory and Three Floyds/War Pigs loves loud music. Hopefully we can continue the relationship for future Caterwauls. The exclusive beer didn’t happen this year. The timing wasn’t available to develop a beer for Caterwaul. Like we say to bands, “There is always next year!”

What do you get out of putting together a fest like this?

Conan: A sense of accomplishment for representing an underrepresented community of music lovers and creating a sense of belonging and something to look forward to where you are not being viewed as some kind of resource to have value extracted from.

At best, it is an alternate way of existing for a fleeting period of time beyond corporate walled gardens, doom scrolling and diminished expectations.

Rainer: Relief when it is over, excitement when bands are playing. Still the crippling anxiety I had last year. Hopefully I won’t get shocked by my pacemaker this year.

Melanie: Getting involved with Caterwaul in 2020/2021 single-handedly saved me from crippling depression while Portland was shut down during the pandemic. I don’t think people realize how much work throughout the year goes into something like this, and I got into this right when I needed a massive, ongoing project.

Do you plan to keep doing the fest for as long as you possibly can?

Conan: I would say so. It is such a delicate balancing act and such a massive financial risk without even the hint of a safety net. It causes some degree of worry, and it really is quite stressful, but the work is worth it. I think…

Let loose the wild wail of Caterwaul!

Rainer: I think so, It is a ton of work, with the reward of seeing a lot of bands in one place, with is awesome. I sometimes think it’d be cooler if I could just go to Caterwaul, but it probably wouldn’t be as sweet. (laughs) But yes, I guess Conan, Melanie, and I will keep it afloat as long as we are not in financial ruin after Caterwaul 2024.

Melanie: It’s a massive endeavor, with so much possible financial doom! But every year when we pull it off, I’m ready to start planning the next one.

Flipper closed out Caterwaul last year, and looking out from behind the stage and seeing so much genuine happiness on everyone’s face was quite emotional for me. Rainer, Conan and I were all watching in different places and texted that maybe there were some happy tears happening and we needed to share that really neat moment together.

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