“This really is more than just slam-dancing, drinking and doing poppers. But it is that too.”
The first time Dusty Hanna went punking in Pittsburgh was in 1994 to see Warpath, a band that’s playing this year’s Skull Fest. Since then a lot has changed, but Pittsburgh’s punk attitude and camaraderie has remained, as represented by the growing notoriety and punk community of Skull Fest.
Skull Fest began in 2008 as a party for Hanna and Jimmy Rose to celebrate their respective 30th birthdays. They called it a fest as a joke, dunking on people who arbitrarily named regular shows ‘fests.’ But when 200 people showed up to Belvedere’s, Hanna and Rose decided that perhaps Skull Fest was something worth sustaining.
Now Skull Fest 10 is approaching (Aug. 16-19), and the original duo has grown into a team of seven — including Krystyna Haberman, Erica Moulinier, John Villegas, Adam Thomas and Greg Collazi — that Hanna cheekily refers to as ‘the punk illuminati.” Despite the intrigue of such a title, the team is incredibly down-to-earth and deeply invested in the wellbeing of the festival and all its attendees.
With a growing team comes a greater diversity in sounds, each organizer bringing their own expertise to the table.
“This year the music spans from bands like American Nudism, who sounds like DEVO, to death metal,” says Hanna.
Erica Moulinier — also known as DJ Erica Scary — had, for several years, helped with the annual picnic on the last day of the festival, but around Skull Fest 7 she booked her first show. Moulinier brought her impressive array of knowledge about post-punk, new wave and goth music to festival, but she also brought something more transformative: Google Docs.
“In the first year I started to work on the organization, logistics … I sort of came in and was like, ‘Let’s make everything really organized,’ and I think that’s helped us and hurt us in a way because we’ve actually gotten bigger because of the organization,” Moulinier explains over the soft whirr of a ceiling fan in her homey Polish Hill office. “The main challenge now is that we are getting to a point where we’re outgrowing our venues.”
This is a matter that Hanna and Haberman both discuss later, sitting around Hanna’s kitchen table as the sun sets on Polish Hill, with Hanna’s dogs Fang and Lord Gnar playfully wrestling at their feet.
“We want everyone to be there,” emphasizes Haberman. “There’s not an attitude of ‘too bad, you didn’t pay.’”
So while the ‘punk illuminati’ is very aware of larger venues like Stage AE that could accommodate larger crowds, the collective considers it against the very spirit of the festival to book a show in a space with that kind of corporate association. They’ll stick to smaller venues if it means keeping it totally DIY.
One DIY way to help mitigate the lack of tickets is by recruiting volunteers to help with the many shows, be it cleaning up or working the door.
“I’ve been asking people for help since the dawn of time,” says Haberman. “We have a huge volunteer group this year, which is great because every year the capacity of the work that goes into making the thing happen when it’s going on is overwhelming. Those volunteers are really needed.”
Collaborative effort over corporate aid and sponsorship is part of the backbone of Skull Fest. The team uses Brown Paper Tickets, an ethical service that allows you to donate ticket sales to various feminist, vegan, anti-racist and anti-fascist causes, and bartenders from various venues sometimes opt to donate their tips to local organizations as well.
“This really is more than just slamdancing, drinking and doing poppers,” says Hanna.
“But it is that too,” he adds with a laugh.
“That’s just the channel we funnel our support for greater social consciousness through; this the form it takes,” says Haberman. “Our agenda is to funnel money to social groups we want to support.”
While some might conceptualize punks as mean, violent, selfish and out to burn the world down, the organizers note the significant difference between rabid celebration (which there will be at Skull Fest) and violence in systemic sense.
“In reality, there are people on the spectrum of punks that come [to Skull Fest] who may fit the stereotype, like punks rolling in broken glass and slashing each other,” says Hanna.
“We’re cool with that part, as long as they’re not hateful in a bigoted way,” adds Haberman.
“Rolling around in glass is part of Skull Fest,” says Hanna. “Bigotry is not.”
Besides giving back and creating a space for activism, Skull Fest is about giving to each other. Not all punks have rocky relationships with their blood relatives, but for many folks, punks are their chosen family. During Skull Fest, many local attendees and performers will open their homes to those visiting from out of town. At the annual punk picnic, friends can get together and share a free vegetarian meal and exchange art with each other. If a show is sold out, there are always other opportunities to hang out with a bunch of friends, new and old.
This year that familial energy will be especially important with the recent unexpected loss of Francesca Araya, a member of the Pittsburgh/New York punk communities and guitarist for bands Lost Tribe and D.O.G. Araya, referred to as Fran or Franimal by her friends, was an extremely well-loved member of the punk family that assembles at Skull Fest.
Behind the abandoned school in Polish Hill, a large group of friends collaboratively painted a mural of Araya and left candles, offerings and mementos. For many attendees, a pilgrimage to this mural will be an important part of their weekend, and a poignant one — the photo projected and painted onto the wall is an image of Fran performing at Skull Fest 9.
“I think for a lot of people, going to her memorial will really be a way to see her again, at least in spirit,” says Moulinier.
“I’m glad there’s a place for people to come together,” says Haberman. “Every time I go down there, candles are lit, people are tending to it, someone’s been there. All of us take a little time to clean it up.”
“You can feel her down there,” Haberman adds. “She was very loud and very strong and very funny, and her presence is so strong.”
As the weekend approaches, Moulinier, Haberman and Hanna reflect on what keeps people coming each and every year from all over the world.
“I honestly think people come back to Skull Fest because it’s so much fun,” said Moulinier. “It’s super DIY, and we really are seven people doing this fest without any sponsors or advertising. It’s based on word of mouth that people come here.”
“As much as people party their asses off, it’s honestly a time for people to relax,” says Haberman. “People can really just be themselves.”
Meg Fair is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact them at email@example.com.