The Man Behind The AthFest CD Behind The Party

Matt Thompson, Flagpole Magazine, April 2001

Wander through the hordes of gutter punks, besotted college kids and too-cool-for-you townies on any given weekend night in Athens, and you'll hear the strangest sounds. I'm talking diversity, be it a jam band at the Georgia Theatre, a roots-rock outfit at the Caledonia or a hardcore punk group at Tasty World. More often than not, picking one particular gig is an incredibly difficult decision and that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

Local musician and record label executive Russ Hallauer recognizes this peculiarity of the local scene and once again has captured a "snapshot of Downtown" with this year's installment of the AthFest compilation on his Ghostmeat label. The fourth edition of this compilation disc, in conjunction with the now-five-year-old AthFest - the Athens Music And Arts Festival - showcases a wide range of Athens music.

This year's compilation marked a drastic change in the way the disc was compiled, as Hallauer had a staff under him to help pick out the tracks from the over 90 submissions.

Hallauer first came to Athens with his band Sunbrain in 1995, moving here from Clemson by way of Little Five Points in Atlanta, when his wife Cecilia got into the doctoral program in philosophy at UGA. He fell into the Athens music scene by playing out with Sunbrain and, later, The Lures, working with bands through his co-op label Ghostmeat, and, most bravely, doing a stint in 1997 with Flagpole's weekly live music calendar "A Is Playing At B On C."

The first AthFest compilation was released through Ghostmeat in 1998. In addition to seeing both the AthFest CD and Ghostmeat grow, Hallauer and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their son, Owen.

The label exec recently took the time to talk with Flagpole about the past, present and future of the Athens music scene and how AthFest fits into the whole thing.

Flagpole: Was there anything specific that brought you to Athens?

Russ Hallauer: When we were in school in Clemson - I don't know if you know anything about Clemson, there's not much to do - when we wanted to go do something music-wise, we usually drove down to Athens. God forbid, we drove home after Athens, which wasn't the smartest thing. We'd come to Athens, to the 40 Watt specifically a lot, because none of the bands we liked came anywhere near Clemson. When I got here, it confirmed it was definitely a good place to be as far as Ghostmeat and the band was concerned.

FP: So, what was the music scene like back then?

RH: Kindercore, which is huge now, didn't exist when I got here. Elephant 6 didn't exist and Ghostmeat didn't exist [like it does now]. The whole alternative country thing was just kicking off. I was kind of amazed there was very, very little punk-pop in Athens. There was more a residue of the whole jangly pop left over from the R.E.M./B-52's stuff, and I was kind of amazed there wasn't more of the harder stuff.

FP: What were the "big name" bands back then?

RH: I can't remember; it's been a long time [laughs]. That's a good answer, isn't it? I remember the big clubs as far as the music I played were the 40 Watt and the Atomic. Shortly after I got here, the High Hat opened, which is sorely missed. I think it was '96 that Tony Eubanks at the High Hat gave me the club for Saturday afternoons, and we did these "Ghostmeat Presents" free shows every Saturday afternoon in the summer. That was great. We put a tip jar in front of the bands, everyone walked in free and was drunk by four o'clock. We had like Six String Drag and Sunbrain and Luxury. That's when I really started becoming involved in Athens music.

FP: Do you think the scene is in better or worse shape than when you got here and why?

RH: I guess what I would gauge my answer on is the AthFest submissions I've got the past four years. The production quality, the tightness of the bands and all that has improved dramatically. It's hard to say: is that just the submissions or is that indicative of the scene over all? In my experience, people are definitely taking more care and putting more into what they're doing. It's hard to say it's better, but it's easier for me to do an AthFest CD than it was four years ago. It's definitely more diverse. There might be less of a definable scene because of that, but I think that's a good thing.

FP: Why is not having one sound for the town a good thing?

RH: I think that anyone who says there's an Athens sound, they don't have their ears open. We could sit down and go through these 90 submissions, and if you could tell me what the "sound" was, I would be amazed. We've got techno to country-rock to hardcore punk rock, just everything. It's like 'Oh, Athens has this legacy of a particular sound,' but I would be very disappointed if I got 90 submissions of people trying to do 'Shiny Happy People' or whatever the hell jangly pop thing they thought Athens was supposed to be.

FP: But on the flipside, some people say Athens is getting too segregated musically. Do you see that?

RH: It's kinda starting to look like Atlanta. There's no one helping anyone out in Atlanta, because it's such a big city, there's this club for these people and there's this club for these people. I see it headed that way, and that's something I think that should try to be avoided. When I moved to Athens, it was different. Everyone knew everyone. That falls to club owners, record label owners as well as the people paying at the door. It's easy to do, you mix up bills. Some of the best shows I've gone to are bills that didn't make sense. Some people are like 'what the fuck's going on?' but at the same time I think it encourages the crossover you're talking about.

FP: On this year's comp, you had a rule, more or less, that no one who was on last year's CD could be on this one, and only Slackdaddy and Five-Eight have been on previous CD's. Why?

RH: We'd done it long enough that we had to put some guidelines on it for us to be careful, that we're representing the town as diversely as we can. That's something that'll be instituted from now on. There are so many bands in town that we have to give us some rules. The more we do it and the more it becomes this thing that people are looking to us for, the more we have to put these guidelines.

FP: Unfortunately, the increased scope of this year's compilation resulted in a foul-up concerning the Five-Eight submission. The tune included on the compilation is an outtake from the trio's latest album, The Good Nurse, and not "The Funnel" as listed.

RH: Somewhere between the mastering and the manufacturing, the wrong song was pulled off their CD. Without pointing too many fingers, it was too many hands in the cookie jar. The band, as always, is being super cool about it. I know I'd be pissed off.

FP: Where do you see the music scene going right now?

RH: I hope it's not heading towards the Atlanta schism. That would be my biggest fear, and it might be inevitable. We have to be real protective of the music scene. We should further explore what's here and explore the diversity. I would love to see more kind of a community feeling out there at night, which is still happen. Maybe I'm just nostalgic, but it doesn't seem to be happening as much. We also need to be looking at the younger folks. Kindercore, Ghostmeat and E6 have all been around for a while, and there's gotta be stuff brewing. We need to encourage that.

FP: How does the AthFest CD fit into that?

RH: As diversely as possible, we give you a snapshot. If you walk downtown on a Saturday night, that's what you'll see... and we put it on a disc.

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