BreakFEST 2019 Highlights: Doll Skin, Hawthorne Heights, New Found Glory & More

David Bean
New Found Glory

When the second edition of one of the more unique music festivals in America took place on Sunday (June 2), it opened its doors with a choice perfect for an event being held this close to Nashville: those in line could queue up for either an autograph from the headlining act, or a biscuit.   

BreakFEST, founded by pop-punk band New Found Glory's Chad Gilbert, was created to be a celebration of three of the bassist's biggest loves: music, breakfast, and Franklin, Tennessee. Gilbert had spent much of his adult life in L.A. before his move a few years ago to the city sitting roughly twenty miles south of Nashville, but it wasn't long before he had begun making his mark on the area's entertainment offerings. First came his near-monthly (as schedule allows) "Movie Gang" series of film screenings at the historic Franklin Theatre, featuring new classics paired with custom giveaways, like calling on a local chocolatier to create Baby Ruth fudge to be given out during a Friday night showing of The Goonies. It was only when someone connected to a former stove factory expressed interest in holding an event with Gilbert that he was allowed to bring a longtime dream into reality.

"The Factory is just a place I go," Gilbert told Billboard during a break from the festival. "I'm here all the time. I get my coffee here, I get my doughnuts here, I just hangout here all the time. One of the managers here is a fan, and he mentioned that he'd love for me to do something here one day. I said, 'Well, I had this idea a long time ago for a music festival called BreakFEST, and your building seems like it'd be the perfect place for it.' We tried it last year, it went great, so we brought it back."

"In our kind of music, it's just all about our environment," he continues. "There are so many [music] festivals, and people love going to them, so to me it just became a question of how to hold one that feels really exclusive to a certain area. Every year, if this continues to grow, people won't just be taking their vacations to see Nashville; they could plan their whole weekend just around the Franklin area. It felt important to me to highlight all of the breakfast locations, all of the coffeeshops, because today it's so entwined with the music. There are so many bands that have started their own coffee companies - the guys in Underoath and Anberlin have one [King State], the guys in Bayside have one [Legal Speed] - where that kind of stuff is just so connected with indie and punk rock's DIY attitude, where you can have that mentality with coffee as well."

Still, on paper the festival is unlike any other you're likely to find catering to a rock audience. A punk festival, held on the stage of a music hall within an indoor shopping complex, with a schedule that runs from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon; much of the festival's identity would seemingly run counter to the music it is celebrating, although Gilbert argues that isn't the case at all.

"When we saw all of the young kids show up last year [with their parents]," Gilbert explains," it had us encouraging punk parents who find they can't really attend many shows anymore to come out and experience this with their whole family. They can bring their kids, because it's early in the day, and we have breakfast already lined up for you."

Billboard was on-hand to experience BreakFEST 2019, and these are our picks for the highlights of this year's event.

If the coffee doesn't wake you up, Doll Skin will

While BreakFEST wears its love of pop punk on its sleeve, to have the word "pop" near the name Doll Skin feels slightly misogynistic, as if the band being all female demands a signifier being placed on their music that may be more palatable. Trust us when we say that the Phoenix-based Doll Skin are one of the loudest four-pieces working the roads today, as the sensation of the balcony shaking at 9:20am under the power of bassist Nicole Rich and drummer Meghan Herring on "Mark My Words" - the first single off the band's forthcoming Hopeless Records debut Love Is Dead And We Killed Her - made everyone realize that no one was taking it easy on this Sunday morning, no matter what their stage time may be. Closer "Puncha Nazi" just acted as the exclamation point on the set.

Speaking to Billboard under a shade tree outside later, Doll Skin's members all sounded pleasantly surprised that their set was as well received as the event's organizers promised it would be.

"I kept being told, 'People do show up [for the openers],'" stated lead singer Sydney Dolezal. "New Found held a signing right before our set, and people showed up for that, and then people were showing up to do the breakfast thing. It was nice to see a line of people actually waiting for us to start at that time in the morning."

When asked how the format of this particular festival may differ from those back home, Dolezal explained with a laugh, "There aren't a lot of festivals in Phoenix geared toward younger fans. There's a lot of fests featuring harder rock, or "radio rock", but I think every bigger-sized city should really offer something like this. You know those radio stations that have the super low voiceover? Like the guy growls, 'the Big 98...'? Any radio station that has a guy with that voice, that is the audience [Phoenix] festivals are built around. We have nothing breakfast themed."

Mae in June

After hard-charging sets by H.A.R.D., Jetty Bones, and Microwave, Mae reminded the audience that there was a pretty well-balanced representation of rock on the bill today, as their melodic indie rock resulted in the first fan requests being yelled throughout the venue. The popular emo band proved to be the perfect choice to handle the noon time slot, as they seemed to hold a roomful of folks facing impending sugar crashes in the palm of their hand, including a performance of "Embers and Envelopes" off of the band's 2003 Tooth & Nail Records debut Destination: Beautiful that had the band noticeably surprised to find a lunchtime crowd singing along so loud that it drowned them out at times.

An embarrassment of riches

While the shops within the Factory complex enjoyed the influx of business that BreakFEST brought with it, perhaps none saw the concentrated crowds that the neighboring Luna Record Shop did throughout the day. Whether being visited by new fans searching for an album by the last act to play the stage, or just those happy to stretch their legs outside the music hall holding the festival, Luna was never short on business.

Also helping their commercial cause was the placement of a satellite acoustic stage within the doors of the record shop. Throughout the day it hosted a variety of local acts still on the rise, such as Nashville indie-pop duo Brave Holiday, but the question on everyone's mind at BreakFEST was who the surprise guest would be to close the small stage at 2:00pm.

While it was a name that was mentioned by several in attendance as a possibility, as he currently lives and owns a recording studio in Nashville, it still came as a bit of a shock when former Yellowcard lead singer Ryan Key appeared. With an audience (including Gilbert) growing in numbers until it spilled down the hallway, Key showcased some of the tunes he's been performing as a solo acoustic act recently under his full name, William Ryan Key. 

If anything, as the audience numbers grew for Key's appearance, it felt a bit unfair for The Early November. With set times running a few minutes over here and there throughout the morning, the band was still in the middle of their set on the main stage when a large chunk of the crowd began running down to Luna. Despite having one of the first "extended" sets of the day - they performed eight songs, instead of the average four that had been seen the majority of the day thus far - by the time closing number "I Want to Hear You Sad" came around, the post-hardcore's appearance felt a little anticlimactic.

Hawthorne Heights enjoyed a break from the nightlife

Perhaps no other performer on the day enjoyed the concept of BreakFEST moreso than Hawthorne Heights' frontman JT Woodruff. Stepping away from the merch table, which had been setup inside an empty storefront for easier fan access, the singer expounded to Billboard about the immediate benefits he had witnessed from the early morning start time.

"What I've noticed immediately, just from interacting with the fans in the merchandise area," Woodruff explains to Billboard,"it that these people are just now starting their day. At a normal show, you're catching them as they are ending their day; the show is the last thing they are doing before going home. You're seeing a bunch of people [this morning] who are happy and chipper, and they know exactly what they are doing, and are cognizant of their surroundings; they haven't gone over to the dark side yet, gotten aggressive after a busy day."

He continues, "I think rock and roll has flipped the script here. We might have to run shows from 9-to-5 from now on, and just ask the fans to work third shift."

Whatever the shift, the members of Hawthorne's work ethic wasn't lessened by the hour, as they played a seven-song set that offered glimpses at key moments throughout the band's career. Nothing showcased this strategy more than their final two songs of the night, in newest single "Just Another Ghost" (from 2018's Bad Frequencies) being played alongside the first single of their career in "Ohio Is for Lovers" (from their debut 2004 album The Silence in Black and White). Perhaps Woodruff's advice to the crowd early in the set in "don't be afraid to move around," worked in the band's favor, as a crowd on their second wind met both songs with the same volume and dedication to reciting the lyrics right along with the screamo band.

New Found Glory remembers that it's all about having fun

Festival founder Gilbert didn't have a moment to rest throughout the day of BreakFEST. Whether it was signing and interacting with fans; helping build and breakdown the acoustic stage; or singing the praises of the area businesses in attendance to all that would listen; this was his baby, and he was going all out to celebrate its second birthday.

But now that everyone was at the tail end of the early evening, it was time to have a little fun, and New Found Glory's setlist definitely reflected that. Beginning with a cover of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger", complete with lead singer Jordan Pundik performing in Apollo Creed boxing attire, the eighteen-song set list was filled with surprises. These included both those planned (the covers ranged from Frozen's "Let It Go", to Sixpence None the Richer's hit "Kiss Me"), to those that weren't exactly rehearsed (a fan proposed to his girlfriend onstage after "Kiss Me", followed by the band playing the opening riff to Metallica's "Enter Sandman" upon her answer of "yes"). 

At the end of the day, when asked about other artists potentially copying his work and replicating a BreakFESTesque festival in their own respective cities, Gilbert tells Billboard with a laugh, "Tell them not to steal my ideas."

He continues, "Seriously though, It's a lot of work, but it's like any other type of work you do: if you don't love it, it's going to suck. If you love it, it'll be worth it, especially when it feels like it's paying off."

On Sunday it paid off.

Festivals 2019