The accidental success of Kat Kat Phest, and how founder Daniel Anderson is building on it this year

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The Hundred Acre Woods | photo by Ally Newbold Photography
The Hundred Acre Woods will play opening night of Kat Kat Fest on Saturday | photo by Ally Newbold Photography

Think of last year’s first Kat Kat Phest as an accident that went almost as smoothly as the organizers could have asked for.

“There were seven or eight different bands that hit one of us up saying, ‘Hey, I need a show,’ in a four-day period, “ says the Philly-based indie label founder Daniel Anderson about what happened around this time last year. “By the end of it, all four days had a show, and we were just like, ‘Whatever, let’s just make it a four-day thing with some after shows.’”

Anderson started Kat Kat Records in order to help out friends’ bands and put out their records, so requests for help booking shows in the area were not uncommon. That’s why his friend Ruben Polo (also his band-mate in the local four-piece Secret Plot to Destroy the Entire Universe) started helping out with promoting events, which he also does for a living.

For a last-minute festival with mostly touring bands on the bill, the two organizers couldn’t have imagined it would go so well, even selling out the show on the final day.

“[Our band] left for an eight-week tour after that, and off and on, we were just talking about, ‘Who should we get next year? We should do this for real,’” Anderson says. “Last year’s was kind of an accident. This year is a test to see if we can make it go as well when we’ve actually meant to do it.”

So this weekend, DIY musicians and local music supporters will once again gather for Phest 2, which will span five days, feature eight all-ages shows and boast about 50 bands. The all-festival passes, a bargain at $22, were sold out by December 20. Saturday night’s show with local heroes Smoother and Marietta, as well as New York-based Lemuria headlining, was moved to the North Star Bar after selling out at The Fire. But tickets are still available for all eight shows, a la carte style, at the show’s Facebook event page, and they range from $3 to $10…so it’s still a lot of bang for your buck.

Several bands associated with Kat Kat Records will also play this year’s Phest, including By Surprise, Hightide Hotel and Tyler Daniel Bean. But Anderson and Polo don’t make it a priority to put their own bands on the bill.

“If bands deserve to play cool shows and work really hard and are good people, then they play what they should play,” Anderson says.

“It helps everyone [to put on] what’s just a really good show for the community,” adds Polo. “All year, these kids have been invited to hundreds of shows between all of the promoters. Think about the money that they’ve given to people that they’ve never met. Some of them don’t even necessarily like the bands that they’re helping out. They’re just trying to help out. So it’s just really cool, at the end of the year, to have a really affordable festival with really cool bands.”

For Anderson and Polo, running the label and putting on Phest are both complete labors of love that they rarely, if ever, profit off of. The two spent hours crunching numbers to make sure show tickets were as cheap as possible, but that they’d still come away with enough to pay venue fees and touring bands. Having been in the scene playing with bands and putting on shows for 15 years, Anderson and Polo know that staying organized is the only way to ensure everything goes smoothly and everyone has a good time.

“Being in a punk rock band isn’t easy, in the money department at least,” Anderson says. “We’re taking care of the touring bands first, and then hopefully we’ll have enough leftover to throw the local bands. I think we will.”

Aside from writing good music and being good people, the bands signed to Kat Kat have to be willing to work hard, play shows and sell records, the label founders agree. They can’t hold the belief that having the backing of a label will make things easier.

“It’s just like, ‘Noooo,’ It’s an investment, essentially,” Polo says. “Not everyone realizes that it’s work, that they have to do as much as the label. It’s a mutual investment. Everyone should be looking to gain from each other, and not just monetarily.”

“All of the bands that are on Kat Kat Records that have worked really hard to get their name out there, to go on tour, have done pretty well for themselves,” adds Anderson. “We’ve been able to elevate how many people see them and how many people know who they are, which is really cool.”

South Jersey-based punk band and soon-to-be two-time Phest performers By Surprise first got involved with Kat Kat when Anderson approached them in 2011 about re-releasing their 478 EP, which originally came out in 2007. By Surprise worked with Topshelf Records to release their first full-length that same year, but appreciated the opportunity to put their old material out on vinyl, which was something they meant to do but hadn’t had a chance to.

“I love Topshelf. I think they are a really great label,” says By Surprise bassist Dan Saraceni. “But Kat Kat is cool because, ultimately, they just put stuff out that they really like. It’s for their friends, and they’re really cool about releasing just really cool stuff.”

By Surprise has been on hiatus for the past few months, Saraceni said, due to the fact that two of the four members were recently married, and another moved to Brooklyn. They’re all looking forward to playing in Philly for Phest, as it will be their first show since early October.

“We don’t have a lot of fans around here anymore,” Saraceni says about the South Jersey area where they grew up. “Years ago, there used to be a whole, I don’t want to use the word ‘scene,’ but there was, and we had a lot going on. … Now I feel like a lot of it has just kind of dissipated. Philly is definitely a hot spot for all kinds of bands in all kinds of genres. I feel a little bit more included by [Kat Kat] more than others, because I feel, in many ways, you feel like a little bit of an outsider just because we’re across the bridge.”

Anderson said the label plans to work with three or more new bands in 2014, and have “more or less” confirmed a release with a band from Baltimore. He and Polo also hope to offer current bands more all-around help, including booking out-of-town tours.

“Other than that, I don’t know. I’m kind of just flying by the seat of my pants,” he says.

Phest is a true testament to the community that Kat Kat has created, and the organizers hope music lovers near and far will come out to join them this weekend instead of spending more time with family after the holidays.

“There’s nowhere else you can se this many bands for $22, this many good bands for $22,” says Rachel Dispenza, a University of the Arts student who has been interning with Kat Kat since the summer.

“We are your family, because this is a community,” adds Anderson, somewhat jokingly. “There’s no filler at all. Every show is a good show. Every show is a show that I would go to, and that’s saying something.”

Until Monday’s after show, Anderson, Polo and Dispenza will be crossing their fingers hoping that everything goes off without a hitch, but ready to act if anything goes wrong. By way of DIY and Murphy’s Law, something always does, like on the last day of last year’s Phest when the only snafu was a laptop that was stolen from someone’s room at the last house show.

“I still remember the scream,” says Polo.

“I’ve never seen that many tough-guy hardcore dudes just go quiet,” adds Anderson.

The full line-up for Kat Kat Phest 2 and ticket information can be found here.