Shortly after graduating from college a few years ago, Jeff Finley, the main mastermind behind the Weapons of Mass Creation Fest 4, a music and graphic design festival that takes place this weekend at Cleveland Public Theatre, began attending indie punk rock festivals. Locally, he went to DIT Fest in Kent and Berea Fest in Berea. And he checked out The Fest, a punk rock festival, in Gainesville, Florida.
"Teenagers put on all those festivals and they were super cool," he says one afternoon from his office at Go Media, the local graphic design company that occupies the third floor of a large building on Lorain Avenue that's currently undergoing renovation. "They seemed so heartfelt and genuine. The attitude and DIY culture was inspiring."
So he tried to get involved and did some graphic design for the festivals. But he still didn't feel like he fit in. "The people who organized and attended those festivals had their own community and club," he says.
At about that time, Go Media had flown a group of its favorite designers into Cleveland for a photo shoot. The idea was to celebrate their personalities and turn them into rock stars. The campaign's slogan: "I am a weapon of mass creation."
"They didn't care about the photo campaign, but they enjoyed meeting each other and wanted to meet each other again," he says.
That inspired him to take that "weapon of mass creation" motto and start his own damn festival.
"I just wanted to combine music and art," he recalls.
He initially planned to have the entire fest at the Go Media offices but when the fire chief came to inspect the place, he immediately shut the event down weeks before it was supposed to launch. Finley had heard about Parish Hall and the indie rock shows they used to have there and convinced the hall's owners at Cleveland Public Theatre that they should host the festival.
"It was super low key the first year," he says, adding that only a handful of patrons attended the festival's various talks and workshops.
"There were more people wearing 'volunteer' T-shirts than attendees," he says. "It was super DIY."
The next year, Finley recruited a guy to book the bands and found another guy to book the speakers. Each year has gotten bigger and better. This year, the festival returns to Cleveland Public Theatre, which will host both the bands and the speakers.
"We will be using every single room in there," he says.
The musical line-up is rather diverse and features bands such as the indie rock act Appleseed Cast, veteran emo rockers Braid and underground hip-hop sensation Astronautalis. The Sidekicks, a terrific local punk band that's about to get a huge break when it hits the road in the fall supporting the Gaslight Anthem, are also on the bill. Other local acts on the schedule include Extra Medium Pony, Cherry Cola Champions, Ohio Sky and Leah Lou & the 2 Left Shoes. All in all, some 50 bands will play on three stages. While you'll need a ticket to get into the shows taking place at CPT, the shows in Parish Hall will be free.
"We want to blend bands you want to see with bands we want you to see that we've discovered," he says. "We continue to mix DIY hip-hop with the indie bands. We're stepping outside of our punk roots and diversifying quite a bit. We're not including jazz ensembles or anything like that."
In addition, a group of local acts will play a Friday-night mixer party hosted by the locally based Cellar Door Records. And because Finley breakdances, he's also put together a breakdancing competition, an annual tradition. An event called Ink Wars is also loosely music-related and will feature a "live art battle" during which artists will have one hour to draw something while a DJ and two MCs provide a live soundtrack.
And then there are the designers and speakers. Depending on which design community you are a part of, you might know all the speakers or you might not know any of them. Ann Friedman and Dylan Lathrop, who have criticized WMC Fest in the past for being a boys' club, are coming to speak.
"It was a mean-spirited article calling out these conference and they included us when we were just small time," Finley says. "We took that personally and we've tried to make our speakers as diverse as our audience. We want to represent that diversity and not just have some white guy up there talking about design. We want to make it interesting."
Stephanie Landes, the creative director at Melamed Riley, and Valerie Mayen, a local fashion designer who has her own clothing line, are also on the panel. "We're trying to expand to include entrepreneurs," says Finley.
"Our tagline is 'defy the hand you're dealt,'" says Finley. "It's really a mantra about facing your fears. In the second and third year, the speakers talked about pursuing your passions and being scrappy and making something out of nothing. Those themes popped up. This year, there's more of that, but we're expanding on it. And, of course, all the bands share that mentality. What I like about the festival is that it's from the bottom up. People are getting together to make something happen."
Advance tickets have been selling fast and Finley says this year's event, which is even drawing a few attendees from outside the country, is likely to sell out.
"We think this is three days that will change your life," he says.
Visit wmcfest.com for more information.