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Interview with North Jersey Indie Rock Fest Organizers Frank DeFranco and Neil Sabatino

// Feature, Interview // September 22, 2017 // Adam

I decided to start N.J. Racket the Thursday night before the inaugural North Jersey Indie Rock Festival.  It was an impulsive decision, and I had no idea the depths of what I was getting myself into. If I had, given my attitude at the time, I probably would’ve been too intimidated to even try.  At the time, I was completely unaware of the story of what went into putting the festival together or even who was behind it.  The festival, even in its first year, was an impressive undertaking with twenty bands from Sniffling Indie Kids (SIK) and Mint 400 Records (M400).  A year later, I would find myself at the Tick Tock Diner interviewing the owners of those two labels, Frank DeFranco and Neil, having already worked closely with them for several months as a sponsor for the second annual event.

DeFranco and Sabatino conceived the notion for the festival because they felt that North Jersey was being and had been underrepresented in Jersey’s indie scene.  Cities such as Asbury Park and New Brunswick had such strong localized cultural communities, whereas in North Jersey, the community is dispersed among several cities and counties.

Having enlisted the help of one of the Jersey City scene’s longest-standing figures, “Dancing” Tony, SIK and M400 hooked up with 4th Street Arts, who provided them with a suitable venue, Cathedral Hall.  The only catch was that they would be responsible for all the repairs and upgrades the space needed to safely host the event.  Throughout the course of the entire summer, DeFranco and Sabatino worked on the venue, removing church pews, shoveling out garbage into dumpsters, sanding the floors, and moving furniture.  “Putting the show together, booking the bands, that was the easy part.  The hard part was building a church,” Sabatino said.  “My back was sore for weeks after.”  Evan Pope, the drummer of Kult of Mary and The Maravines (both signed to M400), recounted, “You had a bunch of artsy types swinging hammers and shit.  It wasn’t pretty.”

Eventually, the cathedral was built, and with the exception of a minor bathroom issue and the sweltering heat, the festival ran without a hitch.  “The first year we wanted to keep it self-contained and just kinda raise interest,” DeFranco said.  “Just baby steps.”  However, to take the next step in year two, it was obvious that the circle needed to be expanded.  DeFranco and Sabatino decided to make an effort to be more inclusive and recognize the world outside of SIK and M400.  This led to the invitation of Bar None Records, Killing Horse Records, and Little Dickman Records to join the 2017 festival.

DeFranco said of the inclusion of the other labels, “Chris and Amy (Little Dickman) are great people to talk to about music, and they’re all about networking and meeting new people.  A lot of the Asbury Park stuff is self-contained too – oh, Grilled Cheese Time!” (We were at the diner, remember.) “So yeah, I’m really excited for that cross pollination.”

“As a small label, you can really only do so much, but to be able to have five small labels be able to work together really benefits everybody,” Sabatino said.  “It’s not cutthroat like it used to be.  People are willing to support each other.”

The expansion to involve five labels and feature twenty-four bands is a significant step forward for an event whose prime goal has always been to highlight the abundance of talent present throughout the entire state.  The festival also provides a great opportunity for newer and smaller bands to get exposure by playing a large event with more established artists, because there are no ticket sale requirements or any kind of pay-to-play rules that would otherwise limit a band’s potential.  DeFranco and Sabatino have always viewed the festival as a true DIY event rather than a money-making venture and are concerned relatively little with the financial aspect, compared to simply creating an enjoyable and positive experience for the audience and performers alike.

In addition to the inclusion of Bar None, Killing Horse, and Little Dickman, an effort has also been made to feature other people and projects involved in the support of local music, such as You Don’t Know Jersey, CoolDad Music, and Signal to Noise (just to name a few), of which DeFranco said, “What I thought was really cool about getting them involved is that there’s actual care into what’s said about these bands.  It’s not just a quote from the band, here’s a song, ta-da!  There’s actual thought and care put into everything these writers are doing and that’s what makes it so special to me.”

Also expanding from last year will be the table vendors, specifically art vendors.  This year, Jonathan LeVine Projects will be one of the sponsors of the event, and having such an established and well-known name involved adds legitimacy in relation to the greater art world.  LeVine is a fascinating and unbelievably accomplished individual, whom I have had the privilege to also interview at the Tick Tock Diner (neither time was the location my idea).

I asked DeFranco and Sabatino what their plans are for the Indie Fest in the future.  Although acknowledging the opportunity for growth, they both replied that their only focus right now is working hard to make this year’s festival the best it can be, and that they will take the future in stride.

A year into N.J. Racket, I still feel new to the game.  A year ago, I had never met Frank or Neil, or had any idea who either of them was.  Lately, we’ve been in contact almost every day, and besides the festival, we’ve worked together on a handful of other projects.  In this time, I’ve only grown to respect them more, having experienced their work ethic and level of focus firsthand. After working with them, I’ve become all the better for it.  I don’t recall the last thing in my life that I felt as much anticipation for as this festival (Actually, yes, I do.  I was seventeen and it’s a story that isn’t appropriate for this blog), and I could not be more thankful to Frank and Neil for allowing me to be a part of it.

The Second Annual North Jersey Indie Rock Festival will be held at Cathedral Hall on Montgomery Street in Jersey City on September 23 at 11am, featuring twenty-four bands from Bar None Records, Killing Horse Records, Little Dickman Records, Mint 400 Records, and Sniffling Indie Kids, complete with table vendors, arts and crafts vendors, food, and drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic).  Tickets are $10 advance or $12 day of. Kids under 12 years old are free.

So come out and support all these crazy-talented artists and enjoy the positive and uplifting environment these two guys have put together.  I sincerely hope I see you all there.

Written by Adam

Adam gave man-birth to N.J. Racket and is as close to an "editor-in-chief" the site has. He's a god awful photographer.