Music Tastes Good: Promoter Jon Halperin, on a festival moving forward

Jon Halperin (Photo by Lauren Galvan)
Jon Halperin (Photo by Lauren Galvan)

Music Tastes Good returns for a second year this weekend with a lineup as eclectic as anything you’ll see outside of FYF Fest — and some serious fodder for foodies, to boot. But nobody would have blamed organizers for tossing in the towel after 2016.

As an event staged on the streets of downtown Long Beach, the inaugural Music Tastes Good experienced logistical hiccups typical of a first-year festival. Then, four days later, festival founder Josh Fischel — musician, promoter and something of a civic spirit guide — died after a long illness.

Now, Fischel’s spirit has guided Music Tastes Good into Year 2. “I can hear him. … As we did every offer for this year, I could hear him laughing, and see him smiling,” says Jon Halperin, the veteran promoter and talent buyer who worked with Fischel’s family to carry on the founder’s legacy.

The two-stage festival is headlined by Ween and Sleater-Kinney, who are joined by the likes of Ride, Tune-Yards, Dr. Octagon, Digable Planets, Rhye, Alvvays and Joyce Manor. Two artists will be doing full album shows: Los Lobos (1992’s “Kiko”) and Of Montreal (2007’s “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?”).

The event moves this year to the grassy expanse of Long Beach’s Marina Green Park. There’s value-added “flavor,” too — the Taste Tent features sustenance from 16 chefs, eight apiece from the port cities of New Orleans and Long Beach.

Halperin talked to Buzz Bands LA about moving forward, moving the festival and what’s gonna move him this weekend. [See set times, ticket info and a Buzz Bands LA playlist at the end of this interview.]

Buzz Bands LA: Long Beach, despite having a strong identity/culture of its own (and being home to the best record store in Southern California), has always had to take a backseat to L.A. and Orange County when it comes to being a concert hub. Even though it’s long been on the radar of what I’ll call the music cognoscenti, can MTG be a way to put it on the map — or at least make the name more boldface?

Jon Halperin: It’s hard. Long Beach is within radius clauses [agreements that bind artists to one show in a  certain region during a certain period of time] for both Los Angeles and Orange County. We are the stepkid to “cool” SoCal. We aim to change that. We are grabbing these bands who have never stepped foot here in our lovely city … and let’s hope we can do the same for the peeps in the 213, 818, 323, 714, 619 and 949. The 562 isn’t so bad. I used to come here to see bands at Fender’s Ballroom in the 1980s. In the 1980s and 1990s, Zed’s Records was one of the best record stores anywhere.

Speaking of record stores, Fingerprints is a hell of a record store and does the best in-stores anywhere (Prophets of Rage, Foo Fighters, Cold War Kids, Alt-J, etc.), but let’s not forget other record stores here like Toxic Toast, Dex, Bagatelle, Dizzy, Third Eye, Introspect and The Hub. All these stores are within a few miles from each other. Plus, Ryan from our vinyl village does 45 Revolutions Record Swap here in Long Beach. I double-dog-dare you to go to one of these swaps and not drop $200.

We want Josh to be a part of this fest as long as we do it.

Was it a sure thing that MTG would be back for a second year after Josh’s passing? I know you’ve said he was already imagining a Year 2, but it must have been a huge blow.

It took a few seconds. We were in shock. Obviously, we never expected it. I mean, hell, it was the Sunday night of the fest that he went into a coma.

We connected with his family. We wanted to make sure this is what Josh would have wanted. It was a 100% yes that we not only should, but we had to continue. Truth is, Josh and I started booking the second fest in May 2016, months before Year 1 even happened. It’s like he knew. … Josh’s wife Abbie and brother Zach were absolutely instrumental in curating Year 2. She literally went on his iPod and combed through his record collection. … We want Josh to be a part of this fest as long as we do it.

Did you feel as if he were looking over your shoulder as you worked on this year’s bill?

I can hear him. We spoke 20-30 times a day if not more. … As we did every offer for this year, I could hear him be stoked. I could hear him laughing, and see him smiling. I miss the guy more than anything. We were each other’s work wives.

MTG’s lineup already has a certain degree of speciality. … It’s not like you can see Ween and Sleater-Kinney every six months around here. What else do you feel makes it distinct?

We really want the “WTH” response. We want people to look at the lineup and say, “Really? Digable Planets and Joyce Manor on the same bill? Who are these people?” It’s like, it doesn’t make sense, but then again, it does. We just want rad bands. Even if it doesn’t look right on paper, it will sound right over the weekend.

Follow-up: You know, this would have been the most eclectic festival lineup in the world in 1996 or ’97 — Ween, Sleater-Kinney, Ride, Dr. Octagon, Digable Planets, Of Montreal at their very beginning, Los Lobos, Old 97’s, Built To Spill. Would there have been anybody bold enough to book a conflagration of artists like this back then?

I think you’d have to go to the U.K. for something like this in the ’90s. Maybe Glastonbury? Or Reading? … I mean, we had Lolla and Lilith Fair, Warped, This Ain’t No Picnic, Ska Against Racism. … Everything had its niche here.

If you have to describe MTG as a culinary dish or type of cuisine, what would it be?

I think of it more as a place — like Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. Something for everyone. Myself, I prefer the vegan ramen at Ramen Hood, but maybe you want Egg Slut, or Sarita’s Pupuseria, or Wexler’s Deli. … Take a family of four to MTG, and there is guaranteed something for everyone.

It’s not like there’s a Spotify for food — people are just really dialed in.

I know you have your finger on the pulse when it comes to music, but has MTG taught you anything about rock star chefs?

I’ve been a music talent buyer for 20 years. I knew nothing about the chef world until this fest. I had no idea they had such followings. It’s rad and so well-deserved. They’re rock stars who can tour in a Smart car. I’ve had a bunch of friends flipping out over these New Orleans chefs. It’s not like there’s a Spotify for food — people are just really dialed in. If this fest has taught me anything, it’s that I was a foodie poser.

Are you excited about the change of venue? What went into that decision?

I am thrilled with the change in location. It was so difficult to set up three stages overnight last year. Did you know one of the stages was set up backwards? People didn’t really figure it out, but the signage was actually facing the wrong way. This year, we have all week to get it right. We took a cue from Weenie Roast and did the rotating stage.

People had so much fun last year, but we know everything that went wrong, and are rectifying it. The big difference is that the fest has to look better. More art, more activations. We have to make people feel that they didn’t just pay to sit on the grass where they walked their dog the week before. Last year, it was all about having people walk around the city blocks. … This year, you will have views of the high-rises and the beach is just feet away. It will still feel like Long Beach.

Choosing “must see” bands we booked is like saying you like one of your kids more.

What am I forgetting to ask you about?

You forgot to ask me who I am excited to see this weekend! Choosing “must see” bands we booked is like saying you like one of your kids more. I don’t have kids, but I have records, and you can’t ask me if Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” is better than Big Star’s “#1 Record.”

That being said, I would say not to miss Slaves from the U.K. (Mike D from the Beastie Boys produced their last record; plus, I have a 45 by this band with a 15-second song that repeats itself 15 times, haha); Los Master Plus from Guadalajara (the only band we asked to come back for Year 2), Heaven 17 (they haven’t been in the States in nearly a decade), Dr. Octagon (can’t believe we got them for their reunification show), Ride (duh) … OK, I have to stop, or I will just list the whole lineup.

||| Music Tastes Good info:

  1. Get the set times here.
  2. Stream our “A Taste of Music Tastes Good” playlist.
  3. Ticket info: Weekend passes ($135 for music; $270 music plus Taste Tent; $400 VIP); Saturday only ($75/$150/$225); Sunday only ($75/$150/$225)