Frank Falestra is standing at the backyard bar of Churchill’s Pub, tinkering with a lighting board that has a broken switch.
It’s an urgent repair because the switch controls red light.
“Red is important at a rock bar,” he says.
Falestra, better known as Rat Bastard, is hailed as the godfather of Miami’s noise scene and the founder of International Noise Conference, an annual festival celebrating musical nonconformity.
Every year, the festival draws hundreds to three-decades-old Churchill’s Pub, where noise fans and other revelers gather to sing, dance, screech and, sometimes, bloody each other’s noses.
International Noise Conference will kick off its 10th year starting 10 p.m. Wednesday at Churchill’s, 5501 NE Second Ave. The festival continues at 9 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday.
Falestra, 54, expects more than 100 bands to show up. That number is about the same as the last few years, but the fourth night of the festival is new, thanks to funding from the Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge.
Admission to the festival, as always, is free.
“We keep the money thing completely out of it,” Falestra said. “That’s probably why it’s still going.”
There are only two hard-and-fast rules for musicians performing at INC: no laptops, and get off the stage in 15 minutes or less.
The laptop rule is to prevent the show from getting boring, Falestra says.
But the time limit? Artists have flown all the way from France and Australia to perform at INC. And they only get 15 minutes?
According to Falestra, a 30-year veteran of the Miami music scene, that’s all you need to get the point across.
“Usually 20 minutes of anybody is too much,” he said. “Like the Foo Fighters. You wouldn’t want to see them for 20 minutes. Ten minutes would kill you.”
Page 27, a Denver-based noise band, has one of the farthest commutes on the set list this year. Like most of the other bands, INC is the only show pulling Page 27 away from its hometown this time of year.
But member John Gross, 35, said the band is looking forward to the networking opportunities as much as the brief set. The best part for him, he said, is going to the tables in the back of the bar to trade CDs, tapes and records with other bands. “You end up finding a lot of music that you don’t see anywhere else,” Gross said.
The first two days of the festival, which feature local bands almost exclusively, are heavy on different music genres. Thursday is usually the most outrageous night. Sometimes, Falestra says, people get naked.
Many of the bands will play noise sets regardless of their typical musical style. This might include an avant-garde mix of improvisational drumming, playing non-musical objects such as sheets of glass or screaming into a microphone.
Novice noise fans shouldn’t be afraid, though. In spite of its name, INC doesn’t require that every set consist of noise. It’s possible to hear something approaching listenable music at the show.
Although he disdains the pop-punk bands that flood college radio stations these days (he has a particular distaste for Green Day), Falestra said he’s not averse to tossing more mainstream acts into the lineup to keep things from getting predictable.
“I’ll throw a band in there to piss everybody off,” he said. “To the noise people, that’s noise.”
AstroKats, a hard-rock trio out of Coral Gables, plans to branch out into a more experimental sound for the festival. “We’ll probably do something completely different from what we usually do,” said guitarist Lauren Palma, 25.
The band members might switch instruments, they said. Drummer Ryan Rivas, 29, wants to play his theremin, an electronic instrument played by moving the hands around two metal antennae. They also plan to use drum machines, feedback and visuals to bring their set more into the realm of noise.
Derek Guerrero, 32-year-old bass player for AstroKats, compares noise music to Dada, the avant-garde art movement of the early 20th century. “It’s more of a performance than regular music,” he said.
Falestra says Miami has always been a hub for noise music. Churchill’s hosted noise parties years before the “junk noise” wave of the late ’90s. Another noisy city at the time was Rochester, Minn., where Falestra’s friends flocked to events like the Bored S---less Fest.
He got the idea to host a noise festival in Miami in February, “when everyone in Minnesota is freezing.”
The name of the festival — International Noise Conference — was more of a reflection of the multicultural local audience than the bands performing.
That first year, Falestra got 30 or 40 bands to play during three days.
Despite the fact that some previous noise shows had emptied Churchill’s, said owner Dave Daniels, the bar did better than expected that weekend. The next year, Daniels let Falestra do it again.
“We now look forward to it, and commercially it has become viable,” Daniels said. “Certainly I don’t like much of the noise that we will be staging this weekend. Nevertheless, people do like it.”
All of the shows have been rowdy, but they’re usually not crazier than an average punk rock show, Falestra said.
The most common injury is a bloody nose, although occasionally people get knocked out.
AstroKats’ Palma says Churchill’s is the only place where a show like this would fly. It’s “the CBGB of Miami,” she said, referring to the legendary New York City rock bar. Too often, Miami venues focus on bottom line, booking big mainstream acts to get people into the bar and drinking.
By contrast, INC helps the music scene grow and exposes people to new sounds.
The weirdness of the festival is important, the members of AstroKats say.
“It’s like going to a football game and rooting for the third team that isn’t there,” Falestra said. “That’s what noise music is. It’s that third person rooting for the third team.”