by Andrew Hertzberg (@and_hertz)
When Sam Potrykus was 16 years old, he went on tour with his brother, hitting up over forty states across the country. At the time, he never could have imagined that tour would be the beginning of a life that includes running a music website, a monthly newspaper, co-founding a non-profit organization, and curating a music festival now in it's ninth year.
I live in Chicago where there is no lack of underground music, but the sprawling nature of the city makes it hard to pin down a fully independent music community the way Sam and the rest of the people behind Boston Hassle have. It is for this reason that the upcoming Hassle Fest is so interesting to me and why I wanted to interview Sam to learn more about the history of the website, the festival and the organization's goals for the future.
Like a lot of people in the DIY community, Sam was inspired by Ian MacKaye and Fugazi. “It was deeper than just the music, it was the ethos and philosophy that kind of inspired me to fall in love with DIY.”
“Musically it was just second to the philosophy, that's what I learned while I was still in high school and touring cemented everything. Basically we were across the country and kids are throwing house shows in San Francisco the same way they were throwing house shows in Boston.”
After moving from the suburbs into the city around 2008, more opportunities arose. “I started volunteering at Boomerangs. It's this radical thrift store that benefits the AIDS Action Committee. I would volunteer evenings while my brother worked and clean the floors. When they offered me a job I decided I should start looking for apartments and that's how I found the Whitehaus.”
Through the house show scene, Sam grew closer with musician, DJ, and Hassle co-founder Dan Shea. They both grew up in the same suburbs but it was in Boston when they were on their way to a warehouse show that Sam heard some of Dan's demos. After hearing that, Sam asked if he could join the band and “have been in touch every day ever since.”
Sam recalled the first Hassle Fest (then called Homegrown Fest) in 2009 at the Church of Boston (now closed), which Sam described as a “ridiculous club down in the Fenway. Some bar, a sports bar, but they had a stage. They had tribal tattoo art on the walls. Just awful ugly aesthetic.” The headliner was then little-known Philadelphia singer-songwriter Kurt Vile.
That year, Sam was a volunteer and Dan Shea was the booker for the festival. “I was just like 'Dan, can I help you do this, can I volunteer for the fest?' After that, even the second one, he and I were 50/50 sharing the workload.” Behind his brother, Dan was the biggest inspiration and role model for Sam to get more active in the scene. “It's kind of funny to talk about him like that know since we're partners in this non-profit. I remember distinctly being 'this sounds great, let me be a part of it' and there was no looking back after that.”
Things changed drastically for the second Homegrown Festival. “In 2010 we went to a DIY venue. There was a hall space that now has a yoga studio in it. These guys were opening up a recording studio and in the interim of that I asked if we could do shows. Essentially we were lucky to be given this huge beautiful space right on center street in [Jamaica Plain].”
2010 was also the year Sam started making the The Boston Counter Cultural Compass, a monthly listing of shows on an 8.5”x11” piece of paper dispersed throughout the area's venues, cafes, and campuses. At the same time, Dan was running his own blog online. The two eventually decided to collaborate.
“[Dan] was focusing on national and international bands, I was focusing on local - why don't we put our efforts together to make one blog that has everything? We came up with the name Hassle because it was such a hassle to do everything in the city. But then we decided we can't be called The Hassle if we're trying to get grants. That's where BRAIN ARTS came from, like fighting “the brain drain” of Boston.” BRAIN ARTS would officially incorporate as a non-profit in September 2014 and is considered the umbrella of which Hassle and Compass fall under.
The early years of Homegrown Fest brought a range of challenges, beyond lack of permanent place. Sam's been brought to court for doing shows at his house. The Fire Department showed up to Homegrown Fest 2. And then there was year three.
“I personally lost a couple thousand dollars [that year]. It's hard to think about that third fest. It was so sad I almost quit the whole thing that day. I'm still a furniture mover and I was doing that at the time. I had literally saved every 20 dollar bill I could for years. I had to give those 20 dollar bills to all these bands.”
Despite the setbacks, Sam and everyone else continued throughout the following years, with the festival evolving and changing venues all over Boston from the Elk's Lodge in Cambridge to the Brighton Music Hall.
This year, the fest finds another new venue at ONCE in Sommerville. Friday night's headliner, like Ian MacKaye, is an artist Sam finds to be a source of inspiration. “Dan Deacon is definitely a hero of do it yourself and creative all ages programming.” But he's just as excited for the artists lower on the bill with plenty of Boston locals showcased.
“Ed Balloon was a recent discovery for me this year, that dude's just incredible, he's blending funky pop and stuff with hip-hop, with a rock band. He kind of bridges the gap between Xiu Xiu and Dan Deacon and then you get into Brandie Blaze and Pink Navel. The people in Solo Sexx are incredible. They're community activists and are another group that we really love working with here.”
Saturday has a long block of post-metal, hardcore punk, sludge, and grindcore in the afternoon with bands like Sea, Rejiem, and Goolagoon, a Spongebob-referencing powerviolence band. Kay from the Providence duo Mar, who helped redesign the Hassle website this year, is another example of the collaborative nature of everyone involved with Hassle. “All the hard heavy music you see represented there... [are] people that are open minded, who want to mix and mingle with other genres, and want to step outside their comfort zone which is why they're perfect for Hassle Fest.”
While the day moves away from metal and hardcore, it continues to get weirder and weirder, culminating with Ohio proto-punks Pere Ubu. “I really wanted Pill from New York but then Ono and Obnox jumped at the chance to play with Ubu because they're old homies. Buck Gooter is one of my favorite bands of the now for me. They were a must.” The night's rounded out by Trinary System featuring Roger Miller from Mission of Burma and Sunburned Hand of the Man performing for their twentieth year anniversary.
One other name on the lineup jumped out at me. When I asked about Houston's Ak'chamel, The Giver of Illness, Sam didn't want to give too much away although he wasn't quite sure what to expect either.
“That's Hassle Fest right there: giving a chance to the weirdest band out there and saying sure. Maybe we'll regret it and they're terrible or they don't show up or they start a fight, but otherwise we get to see some people that would never have a chance to perform in Boston otherwise.”
This was my experience with Hassle Fest in 2015. One of the main reasons I went was to see Ono, a legendary Chicago underground act who rarely leave the city. I wanted to see how a new audience would respond to their avant-garde noise-gospel. Everyone at Brighton Music Hall that night was entranced by the band. That weekend included other amazing sets by Flipper, Obnox, Screaming Females, Olivia Neutron-John, Cloud Becomes Your Hand, Unicorn Hard-On, Dream Crusher, and more.
With thousands of music festivals to choose from across the country, Hassle Fest is one of the few that continues to retain a unique identity of its own. The diversity of the artists, the two-stage set-up that allows for bands to play continuously (and critical time management skills from Sam and the production team), the who-knows-what-the-fuck-is-going-to-happen-next vibe of the festival, among other reasons are what is bringing me back from Chicago to Boston this weekend.
“What's successful to us is to have a wild, diverse lineup and to do it for the proud few who recognize it's something special and recognize it's a risk to do,” said Sam. “My dream act is to book the band that I don't even know yet.”
While music is the main focus of the festival, visual arts play a marked role as well. Emma Leavitt is the Creative Director of BRAIN ARTS and she curates all of the flyers for their shows. “It's really important to me that the visuals match the vibe or aesthetic of the show,” she wrote over e-mail.
“This year the Hassle Fest Art Installation is going to be a self contained visual echo chamber room that we are calling "STATIC". Static refers to a state of non progress which we hope to convey by a constant looping surveillance camera video feed mixed with the heady visuals of local analog video giant Chris Konopka.”
“The chamber is a statically surveilled space which captures the current moment of time and produces a rolling feedback echo that can be designed by a person or multiple people,” explained Chris. “When a person enters the echo, they become a modulation point of their own moment and any movement they create is fed back into the chamber, organically creating variations of itself. This sense of fleeting realization is what can keep one ensconced in the loop forever by constantly looking for an echo to reaffirm their own sense of reality within the ripple of time.
“We hope to provoke not only engagement and wonder,” wrote Emma, “but also a certain amount of anxiety as the viewer feels entrapped 'in the loop.'”
Hassle, Compass, and BRAIN are run by dozens of volunteers with the shared dream of creating a financially stable organization. I reached out to some of the volunteers over e-mail who shared a bit of behind the scenes of what it takes to run a DIY non-profit.
Saritha Ramakrishna is a grant writer and Hassle correspondent for social and political coverage. “Last year was a really big year for us since we received a Boston Cultural Council grant supporting the Boston Compass and of course the $15,000 Live Arts Boston grant through the Boston Foundation.”
“Hassle Shows and Festivals brings in the most revenue for the org but it's also our greatest expense,” explained Molly Dower, accountant and treasurer for Hassle. “For example with Hassle Fest coming up we're budgeting 85% of the ticket revenue to be paid to the bands with the remaining 15% going towards the venue and other costs. Then we have other projects like our Black Market that brings in enough revenue to not only cover its own costs but also cover the printing the Compass.”
“Boston is a tough city to book affordable all-ages shows and events,” continued Molly. “We constantly are exploring different venues for our shows because there aren't many places that are all-ages and affordable to rent for an evening while keeping admission cost between $5-15. Having our own venue will open up a lot of doors for our org because it's a physical landmark of the Hassle instead of us just living online or in our paper.”
Sam echoed this sentiment. “All the effort we have is to opening this space because we know the sustainability of having our own space, will ultimately lead to longevity for the whole experimental scene in Boston. The goal is to keep doing good stuff and to keep kids of all ages engaged.”
For Sam, Hassle and BRAIN continue in the lineage brought on by Dischord Records, Bad Brains, Fugazi, and those early tours across the country visiting punk houses. It's also a lineage that is constantly changing and evolving. “The new sort of punk is bands like Downtown Boys and Priests and Moor Mother Goddess, radical queer-identifying bands. That's the new punk, standing up for the under-represented in the world, taking a stand against the patriarchy and the fucked up system that we're all crushed by.”
“'Diversity' is a hollow word these days, but I also think it's imperative that new kinds of voices continue to make strides in making art and music,” wrote Saritha. “A word we like to use a lot, and one that makes me excited to be involved with this kind of work, is 'participatory.' I think that as audiences/seekers of culture, it's easy to conflate endless choice with a notion of participation.”
Having multiple names for the website, newspaper, and non-profit isn't ideal for branding, but there is a purpose behind the idea. “I think its important that these things have their own identity,” Sam said. “If there are people out there that hate Hassle because they didn't book their band or something, the Compass really does serve all people. I don't think of it as an exclusive thing, it's a curated thing put together by the dozen volunteers that put it together.”
Beyond the festival, beyond the website and newspaper, Hassle and BRAIN ARTS are working within their community by hosting panels and fundraisers for other organizations. Recognizing these intersections of broader issues and how they relate to the arts is vital in DIY.
“Culture is something that influences and interacts with our individual and social values; it's nebulous and messy at times but there's such a connection between art and progressive ideals and activism,” wrote Saritha. “Artists, musicians and DIY audiences should care about affordable housing, racial justice, income inequality, etc. and I think that finding more ways to build those connections in would be amazing.”
One of the major goals for Hassle and BRAIN ARTS is creating and sustaining their own truly independent venue without relying on others. Sam also wants to work with people in other cities and help people create similar organizations like BRAIN ARTS. Essentially, it's the next logical step in the progression he saw from that first tour as a teenager.
Through the lost money, the long hours, the constant fires to put out, and a never-ending stream of emails, one question drives Sam with one simple answer. “How are we going to establish something in Boston? Just don't quit on it. That's all.”
Hassle Fest 9 is this weekend at ONCE Sommerville on Friday and Saturday. The next Black Market is December 10th and an art exhibit is planned for December 14th. Boston Compass will release their 100th issue next June.
Some of the interviews have been edited for clarity and grammar.