Interview with Evan Harting of Maryland Deathfest

Evan Harting is one of the two co-founders and organizers of the annual Maryland Deathfest, the biggest heavy metal festival not only in this area but in all of North America. I thought he would be a great subject for the first interview on DCHeavyMetal.com and he was cool enough to speak with me on the phone for a bit on Tuesday the 24th of April 2012. You can download and listen to an mp3 of our 20 minute conversation (here) or you can simply read the transcription below (my words are in bold, Evan’s are not). Extra fun if you read along as you listen! We covered a lot of subjects like which bands he is most excited to see this year, what the food options will be like, what he thinks about people downloading music online, what happened with the pepper spray at last year’s fest, what the future holds for the event after this year and even what Morbid Angel might play during their performance. I hope you all enjoy it and if it is received well I want to do more interviews in the future.

Hey what’s up? This is Metal Chris from DC Heavy Metal and I’ve got Evan Harting here on the phone. He’s one of the promoters and creators of the Maryland Deathfest which is coming into its tenth year and is starting Thursday, May 24th over Memorial Day weekend up in Baltimore, Maryland at Sonar and I’ve got him here to ask him some questions for DC Heavy Metal.

First I wanted to ask, how did you and Ryan Taylor get to start up the Deathfest? How did you guys come up with the idea and how did you guys meet each other and just how did it get going?

We actually met in high school. We became friends through just being into the same kind of music and going to the same shows. Then eventually we started working in the same places. We were both cooks at the time. We were working at this place in Perry Hall, Maryland, when the blue prints for the fest came up and it just started from there. In 2001 we went to the Ohio Deathfest. I think that kind of got the gears moving a little bit and got us thinking about doing something similar on the East Coast.

Do you guys have any other day jobs you’re doing or are you just kind of doing this full time or are you doing promotions or what do you guys do otherwise when you’re not doing the Deathfest?

Well the Deathfest is definitely our main job, definitely our main focus throughout the year, but we do have other jobs sometimes. It really depends on the part of the year and how busy we are during the fest. Every once in a while I’ll do other shows and stuff but definitely the fest is the main thing and other jobs kind of we’ll work a few months out of the year but that’s basically it.

Cool cool, so Deathfest is definitely the main priority. That’s cool man. So as far as this year’s line up, you know this is the tenth show so it’s sort of like the big anniversary and I know you guys have an awesome line up. I mean you guys always have really good line ups but this year you guys really pulled out all the stops. Which band, personally, are you most excited to be seeing this year at the fest?

Well it’s kind of hard to say because part of how I book bands is also bands that I want to see. I would say most of them but if I had to pick out a few of the top ones I would say Electric Wizard, Sargeist, Church Of Misery, Bethlehem, Tsjuder, Confessor, Godflesh and Napalm Death. I mean I’ve seen them a few times before but they’re definitely one of my favorite live bands so they’re always good.

They’re playing the same day as the Nasum reunion thing or whatever is going on and I know Nasum announced that they were going to have guest vocalists on some of their sets that they were playing at different fests around the areas this year so I was wondering do you have any idea if Barney [Greenway, vocalist of Napalm Death] is going to be doing some songs with Nasum because that would be kind of awesome.

I don’t know if it’s… I thought I read something about a guest vocalist as well. I don’t remember who it was. I don’t think it’s Barney but don’t quote me on that I’m not sure.

Well I know they’re going to have different surprise guests come out so I was like, they’re playing right around the same time. I know you haven’t announced the times yet. What day do you plan on announcing the times for the actual running order?

We’re working on it now. Within the next couple of weeks we’ll announce it. It’s just that stuff changes at the last minute so we just tend to wait until kind of late to announce the set times.

Is it going to be the same kind of set up as it’s been the last couple years where you have the two outdoor stages facing each other in the middle of Saratoga Street or do you have another set up this year for the stages?

Yeah, it’ll be the same. Yeah that seemed to work out the best the same way we did it last year. We thought that worked out pretty well.

Now one thing I wanted to ask is, you know the big parking lot that everyone parks in, that’s now a metered lot. Baltimore City has changed that this year and you’ve got to pay to park there now. So do you know if that’s going to be lifted at all for the Deathfest or what people are going to have to do to park there?

I’m not quite sure yet. We’ve been trying to see what we can do it’s just that that’s completely separate from our operations. You know that’s the city and what they do. I’ve talked to the head of security at Sonar who is in close with the city and he’s trying to see if something can be done but it’s not going to be easy. But also I figure they’re going to have a hard time coming in to the parking lot and towing cars and giving tickets anyway. All the meters I think it’s until 6 or 7 you have to put a certain amount in, but after that it’s a flat rate of $7 or something like that.

Now usually Sonar has a small garage that you can park in for free now. That’s something they’ve been advertising on other nights when they have shows. But I’m going to guess that’s probably going to be blocked off as part of the back stage area for the Deathfest.

If it’s what I’m thinking of they have been advertising the parking lot that’s kind of on top of the venue…

Yeah, yep.

…when there’s like other shows going on but during the fest we kind of use that mainly as the staff parking lot because there’s so much staff that even including myself I park up there. Usually it’s pretty full.

Another thing I was going to ask you know last year after Ghost‘s set there was that big incident with the pepper spray or mace. I know somebody tried to start a fight with one of the security guards or something. So I was wondering are they going to be walking around with pepper spray and stuff again this year or is it the same security guards or what’s going to go on with that stuff this year? I’m assuming something has changed.

I mean that definitely never should have happened. I just heard kind of through the grapevine what happened from different people. From what I understand this guy was picking a fight with one of the bouncers and attacked him or something and then the bouncer used the pepper spray on him but since it was outside the pepper spray kind of floated around and got some other people at the same time. And they definitely should not be using that at all unless completely necessary. And that’s never happened before so, I certainly would not expect that to happen again.

What’s going to go on with food this year? I know they had vegetarian options last year and so is there going to be more of that kind of stuff cause you know a couple of years ago I had gone and there were a few different food vendors. And that last year I think, or maybe two, there was only like one actual in the fest vendor selling food. Now is it going to be the same kind of thing set up this year or are there going to be more options or what’s up?

Well in the past when we had a few different ones, that was when it was up to me and Ryan to hire food vendors from outside. And now the owner of Sonar, he owns a restaurant in Hampden, and he has wanted to work out a deal with us regarding the rental and everything so he would be the only food vendor. So that’s why it’s been that way for the past year or two. But we definitely have gotten like a lot of feedback regarding the limited options that were available and we talked to him for a while about it and it’s going to be his stuff again but there’s going be at least three different sections, like three different types of food.

Different kinds of menu styles or something right?

Right. He’s supposed to be able to give me some menus that we can post online but I don’t know we’ll see about that. Either way he knows that we need a much more extensive list of options for people.

There’s a few places you can walk to around that area too. So that’s one thing too is that it’s in a nice part of the city where you can actually walk to a couple places and get some food too. Now I wanted to ask, what’s the official photo/video policy of Maryland Deathfest this year?

People can bring in cameras and do whatever they want but if someone’s bringing in a huge professional video camera then that’s when we’ll tell them they gotta relax but otherwise we don’t care. Regarding press passes we don’t give them out to anyone. Obviously there’s a couple that we work with and we give it to them but other than that we do not. People ask us constantly like oh we have this web blog or whatever this little magazine can we have a press pass and we always say no because otherwise we’d have thousands of people in the press pit and back stage and stuff and that’s just ridiculous. So yeah we have our movie crew and maybe a couple of others that we have every year that are shooting pictures from the photo pit but that’s it.

So there is going to be a Maryland Deathfest: The Movie shot again this year also?

Yeah, this will be the final one.

Ok. Because I know there was an issue with some of the footage last year or something.

Yeah, it was a bunch of drama that I didn’t quite understand or have the time to try to comprehend but having something to do with one of the guys stealing some of the footage or a laptop with a lot of the footage on it so a lot of it wasn’t recovered. I don’t know. But it’s part of the same crew that’s coming this time and [we] decided it would be worth it since this is the tenth year to do a final one from those guys.

Yeah the line up is pretty incredible this year too.

Yeah. Hopefully it’ll end up looking pretty good.

Here’s one thing I wanted to know, now you’ve got Morbid Angel headlining I believe Saturday and that’s going to be with David Vincent. Now I saw them when they first got back together with David Vincent back in, I don’t know, 2004 or somewhere around there. All the songs they played were from Domination and earlier. Now do you know if they’re going to be doing that kind of thing again, or are they going to play some of their songs in the years he was gone or do you know if it’s going to be a heavy focus on the new album because, heh, because I know a lot of people were not impressed with their new album, heh, to say the least.

Yeah, heh, I’ve gotten a lot of comments about that too. Actually, when I’m out at shows and stuff like that a lot of people ask me, they say that they’ve heard that we have a contract with Morbid Angel to where, they can’t play any new songs and, heh, I don’t know where that started but that’s definitely not true. However, from what I understand, they only play one or two songs off of the new album and then mostly old stuff.

So probably Domination era and earlier.

Yeah. I ran into Dave Witte last night actually and he said he saw them not long ago and he said he was very impressed with their live show now and he thinks people will be stoked.

Now do you know who is drumming for them when they’re going to be at Deathfest?

It will be Tim Yeung.

Ok. Do you have any idea who’s going to be drumming for Suffocation?

Um… Oh I’m drawing a blank on his name right now. Um… Dave Culross I think.

Now here’s another one that I thought was kind of weird on the Fest this year was Anvil. I mean I know they’re a pretty big band they just don’t seem to fit with the other bands on the bill. So how did you guys decide to put them on because they seem kind of out of left field.

Kind of, but not really. They’re just an old school, legendary band. They’re not quite to Metallica status or anything but they’ve been around for a long time and have influenced tons of bands. There’s some people that think that it’s crazy that they’re on this but I think there’s also a lot of people, a lot of old school heads especially, that will appreciate seeing them.

And they’ll be playing on one of the bigger outdoor stages right?

Yeah.

I remember last year when Neurosis was getting ready to play a thunder storm started to roll in. Is there going to be kind any of preparation for that or what happens when we get another thunder storm like that this year or if there’s a longer one? Are we just going to have to just push stuff back because I’m sure there’s noise issues at a certain point where you just can’t keep having the outdoor stages play.

Our outside stages are going to be slightly different. They’ll have a slightly more boxed in feel to them but that doesn’t affect a whole lot as far as that’s concerned. It can rain all night long and that’s fine but if there’s lightning then that’s when we can’t because it becomes an issue.

Yeah, a safety issue there.

So basically we just have to hope for the best, really, and the noise curfew goes until 11 o’clock so we cannot run any bands past that point.

Outdoors at least.

Outdoors, yeah.

Cool, now one thing I always thought was really cool is every year you guys seem to get a few of the local bands from sort of the DC, Baltimore and Philly area and even just the Mid Atlantic region in general and I thought that’s kind of cool how you guys get these big bands coming from all over the world and doing these exclusive appearances and you still have some local bands. You’ve got like Coke Bust on there this year, Extermination Angel, Dying Fetus, they’re pretty big but they’re a Maryland band too. Is that something that you guys really try to keep is some of the local bands coming in too?

We don’t want to lose that feel completely you know? Even if the fest continues to grow we kind of want to look out for some of the local acts and some of the little guys. There’s tons of bands from around the area that are awesome and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t help showcase that.

It’s really cool that you guys do that and I’ve always noticed that every year. Now last year Sonar had some sort of snafu where they lost their liquor license and were closing and that happened about three weeks before the fest was supposed to take place last year. I know you guys were kind of scrambling at the time to try to find another venue and I was thinking it was going to be Bourbon Street, which is just across the street from Sonar. Well that venue is closed now so I was wondering do you guys have any other kind of back up plan in case something ridiculous like that happens again or they lose their liquor license or something?

Well last year it was an issue with the liquor license because the liquor license was still in another guy’s name and there’s just a lot of drama regarding that but this year it’s not going to be an issue. In the long run of what’s going to really happen with Sonar I don’t really know. I can’t say but I know for sure it will be around during the fest and even after for a while at least.

Have you been to some of those festivals over in Europe like say Wacken or Hole In The Sky or any of these big festivals they have over there. Has that influenced the way you guys try to run Deathfest at all if you have?

The only kind of bigger festival I’ve been to, overseas, has been the Obscene Extreme fest in the Czech Republic. I’ve been to that a few times. It’s all outdoors in the middle of the woods. I’m actually pretty good friends with the guy who organizes that and he’s now coming to Maryland every year for the fest. Ryan has been to a couple of others because you know over the years he’s been traveling to Europe a lot more than I have. At least the past few years he has so I think he’s been to a couple more but I don’t think it really affects too much how we do this because I would say that Deathfest is probably most similar to those in the States but in Europe I think it’s not that similar. Most of those fests are all outdoors and there’s camping and all that stuff going on and it’s pretty different.

Have you ever thought about trying to make Maryland Deathfest bigger like something like that? Maybe move to a larger location or a field or something where you could do that?

Well it’s not so much try to, but it would be like, well this is happening because there’s so many people trying to come. We definitely have been looking into those options. We don’t have anything set in stone yet but we realize that it may happen actually pretty soon here so we’re exploring what kind of options we can use. But we also don’t want to have it lose the indoor deal as well because the good thing of having it at Sonar is we have a stage inside and there’s the lounge area, stuff like that. [I] think that having part of it inside is really cool and certain bands in that kind of setting is just perfect. So if we were to move it somewhere else I think it would be important to have an indoor… at least like tents or something to give more of an indoor kind of feel.

Like a club kind of setting.

Right.

Now here’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you. What do you think about a lot of this, you know the peer-to-peer bit torrents and the other mp3 downloading because I know on one hand a lot of the bands and the labels obviously they don’t like a lot of that. They don’t want people downloading their music for free. However on the other hand, a lot of these bands at Deathfest nobody in America would even know some of these bands if it wasn’t for the availability of their music online.

Right.

So where do you fall on that line because I’d imagine lots of bands on Deathfest probably wouldn’t even be able to come over here and play that just because people wouldn’t even know who they are. But now we’ve got like Electric Wizard headlining and stuff so what’s your take on all of that?

I don’t know I kind of fall in the middle. I can see both sides of it. I think having at least some of your music available online for free is great and it gets your word out there. If you’re in metal to make money then you’re doing something wrong anyway. But that’s kind of the way it’s becoming now. More and more people are just downloading for free so if you want to make some money off of your releases it’s going to be more difficult. When I talk to bands they say that most of the money they make is made off merch now. There’s only so much you can really do about that because one way or another people will find a way to download your music free. I personally like to do both. I like to check out a band first by like downloading it and if I’m really into it I’ll go out and buy it next time I see it at a store or something like that.

Yeah you’re starting to see a bit of a resurgence in vinyl from some of that too because you can’t really download the vinyl experience you know whereas a CD is kind of easily copied.

Oh yeah, I definitely see vinyl coming back big time.

Anyways, speaking of free stuff, I know that you just put out the list of all the vendors and who are going to have tables and booths so I was wondering, what if you’re not one of the vendors? Are you allowed to hand out flyers, stickers, CDs of your band if you’re just walking around? Is that ok or is that not cool or what are people allowed to do as far as that goes?

Yeah that’s fine. People can feel free to promote their band and show or whatever. There’s nothing we can do about that and it’s no big deal. Every once in a while someone will come and set up a little table and try to like sell stuff and that’s when we’ve crossed the line. If you’re going to sell something then that needs to be worked out in advance. If you want to give stuff away, feel free.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years too is back when you guys started the fest it was mostly a bunch of grindcore bands and you’d have a few bigger death metal headliners like say a Suffocation or Zyklon or something like that. And now it definitely covers a lot more genres. You’ve got black metal and sludge bands and doom bands and there’s still some death and there’s thrash and there’s old school bands coming back and so like you were saying earlier a lot of the bands are just the stuff you like. Now is some of the line up changes just how you and Ryan’s tastes have evolved over the years to maybe expand more or is it just you’re now a bigger fest and you can get different genres or maybe you’re getting out of some of the death and grind metal some and you’re just more into some of these other genres now? How has that progressed and why?

It’s actually all of those things. The first couple years, actually a lot of it was brutal death metal and then some grindcore and goregrind and stuff. That’s what we were mainly into at the time and that’s just what we decided to book. But as the fest has matured over the years I feel so have we and our musical tastes as well so we’ve decided to expand not only our tastes but the bands that we get, the genres that we get at the fest. The more that we do that the more that we realize that no one wants to see one genre of metal all day long. You know you gotta mix it up. Even from a fan’s perspective I wouldn’t want to go to a fest and see all brutal death metal or all doom or something it gets boring.

Yeah well even one day is one thing. You start making it four days, that’s a lot. Haha. That’s a lot to take in.

Oh yeah, definitely. So I think people definitely appreciate the mix of genres as do we.

I think it’s kind of cool that some of these bands get to play on a bigger stage that they wouldn’t necessarily get to if they were just touring around the area you know.

Yeah definitely.

So that’s always something that’s really nice too. Not only do you get to see Electric Wizard this year but you get to see them on a big outdoor stage so that’s pretty cool. Is there anything big you’ve got planned for say, the next year? I know you guys are working on this stuff always pretty early and you start announcing bands usually about a month after the fest for the next year. So do you have any kind of stuff in the works already yet you might want to leak or anything? Maybe you’re adding an extra day or add an extra stage or I don’t know, change the venue, anything like that?

We have a little bit in the works and a little bit that we’re brainstorming on right now but it’s nothing that we can really say at this point. Basically we’re going to have to decide, you know after this one we’re going to have to decide if it’s too big to hold at Sonar first of all and then just kind of take it from there.

You guys want to keep it in Maryland though or…? Like you wouldn’t have any plans to move it somewhere else is what I’m asking.

Everyone knows it as the Maryland Deathfest so we definitely would not plan on moving it.

Alright well thanks man. Thanks for your time. It’s been cool getting to chat for a little bit here and thanks a lot. Have you ever checked out my site DCHeavyMetal.com?

I have a couple times briefly, yeah.

Ah cool man. I’m trying to cover everything in the area from Baltimore to Northern Virginia you know and get the word out. Deathfest is definitely one of the biggest metal events every year as far as festival things it’s pretty much the only one in this area. This was the first interview I’ve done for the site. I thought it would be really cool to talk to one of you guys as the first interview. Thanks a lot for doing this man and I guess I’ll see you in about a month.

Alright, I appreciate it man. I’ll see you soon.

Ok take it easy.

Bye.

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