Call it the accidental music festival.
In late 2004, Goner Records co-owners Eric Friedl and Zac Ives heard that King Khan & BBQ Show were touring. Things snowballed from there.
"We were just trying to do a show," Ives says. "We did not know it would appeal to anyone outside of Memphis to the degree it did. King Khan & BBQ Show were doing a tour. We had a record from them and a record from King Louie. So we put them on Friday night and King Louie on Saturday night. The Black Lips were touring with King Khan & BBQ Show, so we put them on. Then we added local bands, and people started calling and wanting to come from all over the country and from Italy and England. They wanted to come to Memphis."
Friedl recalls, "As a joke, somebody said, 'You should call it Gonerfest!' and we were like, 'Sure! Great!'"
So in January 2005, Gonerfest 1 invaded the Buccaneer, a favorite hole-in-the-wall in Midtown. "Having a show at the Buccaneer is like having a party at grandma's house," Ives says. "It was so crowded, you couldn't get to the bar. You had to go outside and walk around to the back door to get to the bathroom. It was nuts."
After the initial, unexpected success, the pair held a second Gonerfest in late 2005, headlined by Memphis surf legends Impala and including many of the acts that would become festival staples over the ensuing years, such as Human Eye, the Limes, and Leather Uppers. In the age of the mega-fest, when Lollapallooza, Coachella, and Bonnaroo attract hundreds of thousands with mixed bills of indie rock, hip-hop, electronica, and revered classic acts, Gonerfest has quietly become a kind of gathering of the garage rock tribes; a showcase for the best of a certain strain of rowdy, primitive, punk-tinged rock-and-roll from all over the world.
"It's grown every year," Ives says. "Memphis has a mystique. I think we realized that, after the first show, it was an excuse [for people] to come to Memphis."
Unlike Bonnaroo's massive stages and vast field of tents, Gonerfest takes place in Midtown clubs like the Hi-Tone, Murphy's, and the Buccaneer. "When you do a show at a space that is this small, where sometimes there isn't even a stage, you take away some of the barriers between the people who are playing and the people who are watching," Friedl says. "You're going to be standing right next to the guy who is going to be onstage next."
Ives says that, even as the festival expands, the intimate vibe is something they don't want to lose."We've filled up the Hi-Tone, but we've never felt a need to get into a larger venue."
Gonerfest has become an international phenomenon, with acts from Puerto Rico, Denmark, France, Serbia, Austria, and even as far away as Tasmania braving long flights to play. "Eddy Current Suppression Ring came right when they were getting really popular in Australia," Friedl says. "They knew a lot of people from Melbourne, and they brought a big crew that year. And then those people went back to Melbourne and told their friends."
Japanese bands, such as the legendary Guitar Wolf, which will open the festival this year, have always been popular. And then there was Red Sneakers from Osaka.
"We just drove up to the store the week of Gonerfest, and there were a couple of Japanese dudes with their bags and equipment sitting out front of the shop. They were ready to play Gonerfest," Ives says. But the Sneakers hadn't actually been invited to play, and hadn't contacted Goner, so Ives had to tell them there was no room for them on the bill. "But they were there when Jay Reatard decided he was too sick to play at Murphy's on Saturday afternoon, and so they got to play, and they were amazing. That's just sheer willpower."
For both Friedl and Ives, the best part of the festival is the temporary community that springs up every fall in Midtown. Photographer Don Perry has organized an exhibit of the best images from the past festivals, which is on display at Crosstown Arts. The collection of images, capturing the drama of live performance and the fans' sweaty ecstasy, acts as a sort of yearbook for a decade of rock-and-roll. "We bring all of these great people together for three days — bands, fans, the fans who are in bands," Friedl says. "It's really cool. Everybody is here, because they want to be here."