"Philadelphia's a real city," hollers Pat Troxell, trying to make himself heard over the Beyonce tune blaring through the diner. "If I could live anywhere in the world right now, it would be right here." The 28-year-old underground-rock promoter is putting his money where his mouth is, along with his friend and partner, 33-year-old Cliff Shumaker, who moved to Philadelphia two years ago with the dream of turning his DIY record label, Phonographic Arts, into something bigger. Now that the two are working together, it’s happening. Phonographic Arts has been producing a furiously busy calendar of live shows since late last summer, and recently moved its primary performance venue from South Philly’s Little Bar (now closed) to the Level Room in Center City. This weekend, Shumaker and Troxell are throwing their first full-scale music festival; dubbed Liberty Fest, it will encompass the Level Room’s main stage as well as Emoda Gallery in their South Philly neighborhood.
“I always knew I’d end up here,” Shumaker says. “It’s such a gritty city. I love it … Center City’s weird because it’s not a real neighborhood, but I really like working there.”
“Yeah, Cliff really likes looking at the tall buildings,” jokes Troxell, a Lager in one hand, a chicken wing in the other.
Shumaker rolls his eyes, but the fact is, he does love the city with the passion of the recently relocated. Take the 76ers, for instance. Cliff doesn’t just go to almost every home game; he has a Tumblr devoted to the team, 7sixersyo.tumblr.com. “If we can hit our free throws, and Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner remain patient with each other,” he muses idly while checking his phone for messages, “we should cruise through the first two rounds of the playoffs. And then suffer heartbreaking defeat in the Eastern conference finals to the Miami Heat.”
He cuts off the basketball chat when an email pops up. “Another band just asked if they could play Liberty Fest,” he tells Troxell, sounding equally excited and disappointed. See, Phonographic Arts doesn’t like turning away bands, but in recent weeks it’s become necessary, as more bands from around the country have reached out to them in hopes of playing the festival. But the lineup for the massive three-day event (Fri., April 6 through Sun., April 8) is already finalized: 37 hardcore-punk and garage-rock-centric acts, most of them local. And tickets are vanishing fast.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, considering Phonographic Arts has been regularly presenting shows in the city for just nine months. Then again, that nine-month labor of love has roots that go back quite a bit farther.
It all started in a small apartment in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. Cliff Shumaker was deeply involved in the city’s underground music scene: working the door at a neighborhood bar/venue called the Mink, singing in the first lineup of the post-hardcore band Black Congress and, later, playing in the hardcore band My Luck.
In 2008, Shumaker released a 12-inch album for his friends’ garage-punk band Balaclavas, and he named the label Phonographic Arts. He then entered the DIY publishing game under the same banner, printing five small-run chapbooks and zines by Houston writers and artists, including a one-off music zine called Glue Wave .
After stumbling later that year upon a Craigslist rental ad offering an affordable space, Shumaker moved to Cleveland to open a boutique record store in the city’s Tremont neighborhood. Seeing it not as a new venture but as an expansion of his existing mini-empire, he named the shop Phonographic Arts, too. “I sold a lot of noise tapes,” he recalls. More tellingly, he also presented several in-store shows and concerts at DIY spaces around the city, including a double-bill with so-called “shit-wave” band Psychedelic Horseshit and Outer Space, the experimental-drone project of Emeralds’ John Elliott. “Bands were contacting me all the time looking for places to play,” says Cliff, “so rather than wait around for someone else to book them, I did it myself.”
The Phonographic Arts record store celebrated its one-year anniversary in October 2009 with a weekend concert, and then Shumaker hopped on board as a roadie touring with one of the bands on the bill—Austin, Texas, metal outfit Iron Age. During a gig in New York City, he met Philadelphian Jonathan Yates, owner of the South Philly record store Beautiful World Syndicate. Following a late-night talk about music that ranged from Krautrock to death metal, Yates offered Shumaker a job in Philly.
“Cleveland’s really depressing,” Shumaker says. “I was sick of it, and had always loved Philly. It was a no-brainer.” He relocated one month later.
Meanwhile, Pat Troxell had grown up in the Philly burbs, where he attended Upper Moreland High School with Richie Charles, who would go on to local music fame as a member of the punk band Clockcleaner. “I remember Pat as an enthusiastic young fellow riding a skateboard and wearing a crimson ghost on his T-shirt,” Charles says, “so he was on the right path early.”
Young Pat commuted into the city every chance he could to catch punk shows. Then-thriving West Philly DIY venues like Killtime and Stalag 13 were his stomping grounds, and he frequently saw now-legendary local hardcore acts like Frail and Ink & Dagger. “Going to concerts in Philly when I was really young shaped the way I think about music now,” says Troxell, who realized that presenters like R5 were doing more than just putting on shows—they were building a community, giving kids a safe place to hang and supporting local musicians.
When those venues shut down, Pat felt lost. “I remember it perfectly,” he says. “In March 2004, it was snowing in Philly and I completely lost my shit. I was totally bummed out. Killtime had just closed, and everything was going downhill.” A Department of Licenses & Inspection crackdown on the DIY scene in Philly made it easy for Troxell to decide to move to Austin when a friend offered him a room for $100 a month. He jumped on a Greyhound bus.
“My friends all went to college, and I went to Austin,” he says. “They got degrees, and I learned how to book shows.” Within three days of arriving in Texas, Troxell got a job at the indie venue Emo’s; subsequently, he became one of the first employees at the nightclub Red 7. At the same time, his housemates started booking shows—noise-rock, avant-garde bands, everything—at their warehouse, 423 Tillery St. “It was modeled on Killtime,” Troxell says of the space, where they hosted bands like Miami sludge- metal giants Torche and Chicago punks Los Crudos. “Anyone could come, bring their own beer, and see a show for $5.”
Troxell’s Philly-inspired venture into Austin concert promotion wasn’t his only connection back to his hometown. Before long, he moved into a big house on the University of Texas’ frat row along with a dozen other transplants. They called it Fort Liberty. “All the kids from Philly lived there,” he says.
The house became their new DIY venue—and that’s where Pat Troxell met Cliff Shumaker, who was then living in Houston, for the first time. Troxell sat in as drummer for a week-long reunion tour with Shumaker’s band My Luck. They hit it off, and talked a lot about Troxell’s nostalgia for home. “We both realized we wanted to eventually be in Philadelphia,” Troxell says. “That tour really sealed the deal.”
But first, right before Shumaker left Texas for Cleveland, Troxell headed to Baltimore, where he worked briefly at the Ottobar club before finally returning to Philadelphia in late 2008. He worked construction jobs until he landed a gig delivering beer for Franklin Distributors, where he still works. He also started an indie-rock band called Creepoid—and in August 2010, Shumaker released the band’s Yellow Life Giver 7-inch on his Phonographic Arts label.
Shumaker promoted a few random shows in South Philly in 2010, but Phonographic Arts really started taking off after he recruited Troxell to join the effort. The two undertook planning an ambitious show schedule, which launched at Little Bar in August 2011 with a concert headlined by Florida punks Merchandise.