When the Food Truck & Rock Carnival makes its way to central New Jersey next weekend, it’ll be the first of its kind. Co-promoters John D’Esposito and Stan Levinstone got their start booking Old Bridge, NJ’s long-since-closed Birch Hill. Since then, they went their separate ways, with D’esposito booking the Bamboozle, then splintering off to book Asbury Park’s Skate and Surf fest. Their years of knowledge about the scene led them to reunite with the goal of booking a family-friendly festival. Headlined by bands like Slash, Godsmack, Black Label Society, Clutch and Anthrax, the festival will also include some Birch Hill bands, like local legends TT Quick and Prophet alongside bands like Kix and Skid Row. There will also be tribute bands and comedy. We spoke with D’Espostito about his vision for the Carnival, how he hopes to get kids into rock music, and his thoughts on destination festivals and the decline of Mayhem.
What differentiates a festival from a carnival?
Being a guy who came up in the festival scene and being a little outside the box sometimes is better. For us, the proper setting to put this on was a carnival atmosphere more than it was your traditional festival – we have amusement rides, we’re catering to that first experience for a father/son/family to go to a music concert that’s not you know, Yo Gabba Gabba! Or Sesame Street. We lose so many kids now to all this technology, so it’s good to see some good old fashioned instruments being played and introduce them to rock and roll early.
So, you’ve done Bamboozle in the past, right?
Yeah. That was mine for about 10 years and I walked away two years ago.
What led you to walk away from that? Was it a financial thing or?
I just didn’t agree with LiveNation. It was a bad partnership.
Are you involved with Skate and Surf now?
Yes. We control and plan and operate Skate and Surf.
So basically, Skate and Surf was Skate and Surf then it became Bamboozle and now it’s back to being Skate and Surf?
Correct — in laymen’s terms. This looks like Bamboozle too, a little bit, but for me the thought process in this is much deeper than Bamboozle. There we were playing to kids and pop culture and flavor of the month and here, we’re playing to credibility — an intense audience and musicians and music fans so the stage is much bigger here for us in terms of amusement rides, the atmosphere we’re building around it that’s not like your normal concert. From “Drown the Clown” to 40 food trucks, to twenty of the best, possibly more, micro-brews around, I mean, our beer lineup alone is a beer festival. And it’s a good one because you’re getting 20 quality beers.
Sounds pretty great, not to mention the bands you have playing. Why Clark? Like why did you choose there?
I started off booking at a club called the Birch Hill. My friend and partner in this event Stan Levinstone, I used to call him Hairband Stan. He would book Dokken and Winger and Slaughter, and we we’re trying to bring in Staind and Kid Rock and Godsmack and Limp Bizkit. Our worlds were colliding and to come full circle 15 years later and be able to present a Birch Hill stage and put out that lineup that has Slaughter and them, what makes us unique. We’re playing to our demographic, we’re playing right into the storm.
Just looking at the booking, it’s got some Starland-like headliners like Anthrax, Clutch and Black Label, not to mention bands that played back in the Birch Hill days.
If you go deeper, Edgar Cayce, TT Quick, Eddie Trunk, Don Jamieson, these are guys that were influential guys in the scene — you know, Bon Jovi would look up to these guys. You know, Prophet. You go down that lineup and it’s long overdue.
And you also have a day of like tribute bands as well. What was your decision in doing that?
There’s also going to be 20 of the best area bands that we’re scouting through right now, but we wanted that stage to be diversified so we can make it appealing to the families and the average person. For us, the first night we want to make it family-friendly, put a lot of people in there and we picked the four best tribute bands for what we were looking for with Journey, Ozzy, Queen, and Judas Priest. Those were the four we wanted there. We knew with Clutch and Slash and Godsmack and STP, that we needed something unique from that kind of world and something that’s not around. That’s why we went for Rage Against the Machine and Schism (a Tool tribute band) because the show we’re going to be able to put on — the stage is going to have the video screens, it’s going to have the cameras, it’s all going to have the images of Rage Against the Machine flashing – It’s about the presentation.
What are you looking for in local bands?
I think for us, this is an opportunity to put these guys in front of 20 to 30 unique eyes every minute. You can’t guarantee them everyone’s going to pay attention to the Carnival stage, But if we put it in the free part, put them on all day long when families are there, we will. We’re requiring each of them to do two covers, but we want them to do it their way. Do a tribute so that the average person walking by is not afraid of the local bands. They’re actually learning about you. What we’re looking for are hard working bands that are committed to the scene because every 20, 30 people that they meet that they engage, that’s 20 to 30 people who are coming to their next bar or next club or next event that they have and it’s just growing. It’s supporting artist development because it’s forgotten art.
It’s hand to hand combat. It’s like one person at a time really.
Well you can always play in front of a lot of people but what is the retention? And that’s why for us, it’s like you’re going to have a better chance of retention playing a tribute or a cover at a carnival then playing all originals and potentially having people be like ‘what is that?’
So anyway there are a lot of one day and two day festivals that are happening like Rock Allegiance the Carolina Rebellion. What are your thoughts on starting your own standalone festival in 2015?
We all came up in this. While I was doing Bamboozle, and doing 60,000 kids, those guys were just starting theirs. To me, were all going to be unique in our own way. There’s no way that Rock on the Range looks anything like the Food Truck and Rock Carnival. We’re so much different than that and like Rock Allegiance, we have a couple of the same bands, but we chose to go the Jersey route, which was TT Quick, Skid Row, Edgar Cayce, Prophet. Not many fairs or carnivals in New Jersey offer free admission. We’re going to charge it in parking and hopefully that will cover the cost, but we have almost over $100,000 dollars of talent in a carnival that’s free. When you talk about all the best tribute bands, they’re not cheap. They’re not going to say ‘oh, let’s play a carnival for free.’ They’re going to be like ‘what is this?’ And it was like ‘oh my god,’ what a lineup. Let’s do this. They were also going to present it the right way, so you have to understand all the comedy, all the wrestling. That’s all free.
How are you going to have the free and paid tiers?
Half the site is free with the rides, the food trucks, and the side shows, and then the concert’s a fenced-in field. Its two fairways, left and right. Two main big stages. Massive main stages. Then in the back corner of it we’ll have the Birch Hill Stage, which will be all the bands that played at Birch Hill. It will be all the eighties bands put in this Coachella-sized tent.
So, I guess if you come to the festival for free, you can at least hear some of the bands playing, right?
Yeah, you know, that’s what we want. What I was thinking when I built this was, I’m tired of having to always go to Six Flags with my kids. My kids need to see one of my shows. I hope this becomes that first experience. When you look at our Facebook, people are reacting to the fact that they can bring their eight-year-old. They can bring their kids. That’s where we’re seeing positivity.
What are your thoughts on the Mayhem Festival ending this year?
It was a big bunch of mish-mosh, long overdue. I’ll say how it is, no thought or reason, it was terrible. The fans spoke. You can’t just drop in a bunch of bands and call it a tour. Those days are over. Its lifestyles now. People are making conscious decisions. We can’t program them anymore. That’s why when you build something like this, have to be different, or we’re not going to survive. I want to blow people’s minds so every year they have that unique weekend that they’re like “this is the experience.” It’s the experience that’s going to win and the bands win by us winning in that way. If it’s just a headline show, then, yeah, play PNC [Arts Center, in Holmdel].
That makes sense to a degree. Do you think that the industry is going more towards destination festivals like you hope this becomes and the Rock on the Ranges of the world?
Yeah, because you get your value, and you get your experience. And until the centers and venues keep up with that, festivals are stores. We’re Costco. We’re Home Depot and Lowes in one. And that’s what made us so successful. We came out of the box with a very affordable ticket. But honestly those bands have all played the market. This is about the experience. Build the experience and the people will respond to that, and I think that was evidenced in Bamboozle, and I think we’re seeing history repeat itself.
The Food Truck & Rock Carnival takes place in Clark, NJ from September 18-20. You can pick up tickets here.