AMERICAN BABYLON: Snapshots of a DIY Festival

By: Jess Kwiatkowski

When you think about North Carolina, you probably think about Charlotte, Asheville, and Raleigh. Some of you might even think about Charleston and Myrtle Beach, even though those cities are actually located in South Carolina. It’s okay; it happens more often than you think. The “Old South” possesses its own connotations for the world at large, and perhaps those biases come to mind as well. What you do not think about is a little place called Rocky Mount, NC.

In this nearly abandoned place, where entire city blocks are up for sale, Ryan Patrick O’Doud has taken up residence to fight the good fight that is establishing and maintaining a regional, eclectic DIY scene. I introduce him simply as an artist who previously powered an entire house show via solar panels attached to his van, and whose mathematically-driven electronic music, as Bitter, Inc., blends the existential questions of a generation with sharp anti-capitalist satire. In May of 2017, he took a leap of faith and brought American Babylon into the world.

When I asked Ryan what inspired American Babylon, he reminisced about the now-defunct Port Shitty Antifest in Wilmington, NC, where I first met him, and which had taken place the year prior: “In June 2016, I worked sound and managed the schedule while my then-partner Murphy did most of the booking and entertaining. I loved the DIY spirit, the willingness to work cooperatively, and especially the cross-pollination between artists. I found the experience so inspiring that I decided I wanted to try to organize a multi-day fest myself. Rocky Mount, which is a tabula rasa, seemed ideal to co-create a new type of culture.”

American Babylon, a seven-day festival featuring a vibrant arrangement of regional musicians with a thick underlying theme of community and cooperation, took place at a single house in that small town called Rocky Mount. Pilgrims to this event were invited to sleep in the various rooms of the house or pitch tents in the yard. Having personally made the trip from Charleston with now Grand Rapids-based band, Another Man’s Trash, we opted to set up outside with other acts including the folk-punk  Pokin’ Holes, and southeast phenomenon The Emotron.

While there are plenty of “scenes” in North Carolina and the surrounding states, Ryan and Bitter, Inc., along with many of the American Babylon acts, are part of what he calls the “Outsider scene.” Since we cannot focus too long on the individual bands, Ryan gave me a general description of the sort of people that he works alongside; “The Outsider scene, which is what American Babylon is primarily focused on, is one of the most generous and forgiving groups of people that I have ever met. Most of the acts are in it primarily for self-expression and the stage high. Money doesn’t seem to be the primary mover for these people. They want to make art. They want to have an opportunity to perform. All of us seem to be a bit off from neurotypical too, so there’s a healthy community of strangers and weirdos working together. It’s a really great thing to be a part of.”

It suffices to say that each performance brought its own unique energy to the warm kinship which illuminated the entire week.

My party remained for the first half; relocation to Grand Rapids, unfortunately, prevented us from witnessing the climax of American Babylon. On any of those given nights, roughly twenty to thirty people remained for a space of days while others left this, frequently described as, magical place to attend their personal obligations.

During our time, food donations rounded out by dumpster diving provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the visitors. I took my turn cooking for everyone on the first afternoon, but only a few rotations passed before one artist, James, dedicated himself to preparing our provisions. Fruit smoothies, tacos, stews, and plenty of rice fortified us, and there was always a vegetarian option. Drinking and merrymaking overlaid the event, and early afternoons before the shows featured artists plucking instruments into song and coaxing tales into tapestry. Burning incense perfumed the air. The yard where we stayed accommodated up to twelve tents at a time, hackneyed in their alignment yet navigable.

Campers, like myself, assisted in various odd jobs to upkeep the property. From cleaning counter tops, to collecting beer cans, to sweeping and mopping, everyone pitched in. As a result, despite crowds sometimes surging to upwards of 60, the house never looked much worse for the wear as the days progressed.

These illustrations arrive at expense of sentiment. It is easy to write how, in a botched train hop, more experienced punkers carefully bandaged up our friend by picking the gravel embedded in her knee and washed the wound before wrapping it, yet their easy, chuckling rapport confounds a journalistic observation. Likewise, the reading of an ad-libbed book that took a whole morning to complete and filled the yard with gales of laughter is near intangible in its hilarity.

Other scenes include the first night of the event. Many of the artists caroused late into the night, but Ryan had taken his leave to get some rest. We all followed him into the stage room, where he laid down, and we sang his praises on guitar. It made him smile, but as the night wore on, someone finally pointed out that he needed real sleep without being surrounded by acolytes.

On the third night, Ryan received his first stick-and-poke tattoo from Blake, a member of performance art group Dumpster Cookies. The process of finding the thread, distilling the pen ink, and finding a needle in the haystack of pleasantly inebriated attendees took an hour on its own. Dirt, of Pokin’ Holes, played guitar; I was responsible for holding the ink, and Blake carefully prodded a design into tattoo. Again, my narrative falls short to express the lively fraternization of these memories, but take my word: each experience overflowed with ecstatic conviviality uncommonly captured among artists.

American Babylon did not occur without hitches, yet we all rose to meet the challenges. A moderate issue became band dropouts as several confirmed acts suddenly could not make it. Under Ryan’s direction, musicians collaborated with each other and utilized those freed spaces as a canvas for unique, experimental sets.

Every day of music began at 4pm and lasted until midnight. For ninety percent of those sets, every single participant returned indoors to the blacked out and dimly lit room where Ryan and his co-conspirators set the stage. The missing ten percent caught a handful of people resting for short intervals. Sometimes dancing; sometimes cross-legged on the ground and swaying, everyone’s fierce appreciation for this singular event forged deep and impactful relationships. I say so on personal experience, and any of my party, and those friends that they made over those first four nights at American Babylon, would attest the same.

By the time headliners rolled around, a workday’s worth of music carried the audience over the edge into a frenzy of dancing, arms ’round one another, laughing, singing along, and accidentally partying to the most thorough support of an impromptu collective that I have ever witnessed.

For Ryan, the experience of orchestrating such a huge event catalyzed his own artistic ambitions. He said, “American Babylon was transformative for me. It taught me that I could put something grandiose together and pull it off. It also taught me that if you envision something and work towards it in earnest, it can manifest. This unwavering belief in manifestation has allowed me to organize other fests, tours, a magazine, and several albums under the Bitter, Inc. name. American Babylon exceeded my expectations. I look forward to doing it every year until I croak.”

As we prepared to take our leave from Rocky Mount on a humid Thursday morning, like only the south knows, the imprints of our tents were overlapped by the weekend bands happily staking out for the latter half of American Babylon. Heartfelt farewells and wishes for safe travels ushered our departure. The glow of that experience remained luminous within me for months afterward. Even now, the inspiration of that dedicated collective is an uplifting thought when making new connections flounders due to self-interest.

It is 2018 now. American Babylon: END TIMES revives from the ashes burned by Bitter, Inc. and JC Meyers on that last Sunday in May of 2017. It will be just a 3-day festival, but the essence remains the same. He explained the leaner mechanism of END TIMES for these reasons: “In the first year, a few artists cancelled last minute which created timing issues. Also, the sheer quantity of acts- over 80- made it difficult to pay everyone. In the end, we did make a decent amount of money, and every act received a check, but the funds were split up in so many ways that people received $16 each. We also wanted to focus our energies more effectively. This year, it is a 3-day process with 33 bands. It’ll be tighter, and each performer will walk away with a little more money.”

The invitation to sleep in an open house, to play with old friends and carouse with new, to provide a haven for women, LBGQT, and POC artists, maintain the anarchistic spirit, and to, as Ryan O’Doud might say, “DO A GODDAMN THING!” is extended to all– so I hope to see you there. American Babylon: END TIMES takes place at the Rocky Mount Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church, June 7-9, 2018.

Preparing for END TIMES is just one of many projects for Ryan. Aside from publishing a monthly zine, ISSUES, Bitter, Inc. will be embarking on some mini-tours. Bitter, Inc. features Ryan O’Doud on vocals and Echo Redmond also on vocals and live sound manipulation. When I asked Ryan about the future of Bitter, Inc., he answered with plenty of big plans. “In April, Echo and I are touring to New England and hitting several cities on the way including Portland, ME, Norfolk, VA, and Burlington, VT. We are recording and performing songs from our upcoming fourth album (debuting at END TIMES): A Love Song (To the Apocalypse).

We have another tour in May. We’ll be recording in Echo’s uncle’s place in Chicago; after that is END TIMES. This summer we are planning on doing a full US tour. Echo arranged for Bitter, Inc. to perform with a film installation artist named Amanda Beech. She’s going to record our performance in LA and edit it into some of her installations throughout the globe. It’s a great opportunity.

To summarize, we’re working to get better at everything we do. We’re booking everywhere we can. We’re traveling, recording, and performing as much as possible. We love to make art for the people, and we hope to see you at a show sometime.”

On a final note, Ryan generously named some influential and inspirational artists in his region. Some of these will be playing American Babylon: END TIMES. Others, like Ryan himself, will travel into Grand Rapids or the surrounding areas over the next year. “There are so many great acts in and near the state as well; The Emotron, Cann’d, Vehicles at High Speeds, JC MEYERS, Happyslap!, Poking Holes, The Waking Life, Damiyana, Resurrection Failure, Devil’s Night, Weapon YZ, FratMouth, Pray 4 Triangle Zero, Joules, Strange Cousin, Herculean Locusts, Carl Kruger Duo, Tongues of Fire, Rumbletramp, Spookstina, Provisional, Dendera Bloodbath, and more. Too many to name, and I apologize if I left you off.”

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