Last week, Graham Williams got the call no promoter ever wants to take.
On the line was the booking agent for Devo, the art rock favorite set to headline the last night of the fifth annual Fun Fun Fun Fest. The news? Devo had to cancel because of an injury.
Williams, who almost single-handedly books the three-day underground music jamboree at Waterloo Park, jotted down a list of possible replacements and took stabs at Iggy Pop and the Stooges, My Morning Jacket and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He worked at home, rather than at the offices of Transmission Entertainment, the booking and promotion company he co-founded in 2007. He spent the night and the next day chained to his keyboard, as wife Audrie San Miguel occasionally stood by his side, holding a bottle and giving him water through a straw as though he were a boxer in the ring.
Two days later, Williams looked haggard but at peace, having booked cult favorites the Descendents for their only U.S. reunion show so far.
"I honestly don't see how people get so stressed out," said Williams. "I'm sorry; I deal with way more stressful stuff than most people, but I don't freak out about it."
Such is the Tao of Graham Williams. The 32-year-old music scene veteran is possessed of an almost preternatural calm that has helped make him one of the leading tastemakers in Austin music.
As Transmission's booking guru, he fields touring bands at the Mohawk and Red 7 as well as a range of venues from the Parish to the ND at 501 Studios . He books Fun Fun Fun Fest as a celebration of the best in indie rock, hip-hop, electronica, punk rock and underground comedy, a smaller, hipper, more esoteric alternative to the Austin City Limits Music Festival. And as a booker at Emo's for nearly a decade, he was instrumental in defining the identity of one of Austin's best-known clubs.
Williams does as much as any other individual to define the sound of Red River Street — the incubator for Austin's bleeding edge of cool. If you've washed up on the street's rock-soaked banks in the past 10 years, you've probably caught a Williams-bred show.
"He stays humble and does what he does and lives his life," said Cody Cowan, general manger of the Mohawk and a close friend of Williams' since middle school. "It's not about fame or power or chicks or booze or drugs. He doesn't really buy into a lot of the materialism and the sort of eclectic cult of personalities that you see in Austin."
Williams is a lifelong Austinite who spent most of his childhood in the Clarksville neighborhood. Growing up in the '80s, he developed a fondness for the then-burgeoning world of hair metal. His first concert was Mötley Crüe's "Girls Girls Girls" tour at the Erwin Center.
But his tastes began evolving by middle school, as Williams' older sister brought him along to alternative rock shows by Fishbone, Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His first club show, the cheeky Philadelphia punk rock of the Dead Milkmen at Liberty Lunch, changed his perspective forever.
"The first time I saw a band in a club, it was like a whole other world," Williams said. "I still remember how weird that felt. All of the sudden I could talk to the lead singer of the band after the show and ask them questions. You could actually be a part of it."
Confronting a dearth of all-ages clubs in Austin, Williams took to organizing do-it-yourself punk shows in venues ranging from Elks lodges to suburban four-car garages.
"There were very few all-ages clubs in town, except for Liberty Lunch and the big clubs, so if you wanted to see a smaller band, everything was 21 and up, or at least 18 and up," he said.
As Williams threw DIY shows, he also anchored Direction, a punk rock outfit following the straight-edge ethos — a no-drinking, no-drugs approach to punk. Williams drank and smoked in middle school but had dropped both by high school.
"I didn't know what straight-edge was," he said. "I'd never heard of that. I just didn't want to drink or smoke. I had just been doing it to look cool, but I never liked the way it tasted."
The Emo's of today — an occasionally dirty, sometimes rambunctious but ultimately cozy venue — looked very different in 1998, when a 20-year-old Williams first joined the security staff.
Then, said current general manager Jason Sabala, Emo's periodically resembled a punk rock OK Corral, where fights were common and overzealous bouncers only made the atmosphere more troublesome. "If something could be handled diplomatically, something small like a patron mouthing off, security would see it as a free pass to start a fight," he said.
So Emo's tapped into Austin's straight-edge community for security, with Williams and Cowan among the hires. Williams' security tenure was short-lived —mercifully, since the job also meant cleaning Emo's notoriously foul bathrooms. Within a year, his job description expanded to include booking. That began a relationship with the club that lasted nine years, as Williams booked and occasionally managed Emo's, guiding the club into the 21st century. He launched a series of matinee shows, targeted to teenagers, which helped cultivate a new generation of regulars. His efforts helped Emo's nab nine Austin Music Awards for best all-ages venue — a clean sweep for the category, which was created in 2002.
"Graham put a stamp on it because he harvested a new generation," Sabala said.
Williams also expanded Emo's offerings, pushing the club to feature more hip-hop, indie rock and electronica. The formula was effective enough that when Frank Hendrix bought the club from Eric "Emo" Hartman in 2000, he largely stayed out of Williams' way.
"Emo's, when I first bought it, was a crusty punk rock club, and that's pretty much all it was," Hendrix said. "I brought more money to the table, which allowed Graham to spread his wings with the booking."
Free Week — the annual answer to the January touring doldrums in which Emo's throws nine days of free shows featuring local talent — was one of Williams' out-of-the-box ideas. Today, Free Week is a tradition that's expanded to clubs along Red River Street.
But a few years of diligent work sapped Williams' resolve for Emo's. He also grew tired of saying no to bands that wanted him to book them in larger venues — a move he was uncomfortable making as long as he was on the Emo's payroll.
"I kind of treated it as if it was this apartment that I didn't own, but I painted and added a second floor and spent all this money and time and work making it the best it could be — but I still didn't own the house," Williams said. "At some point you've got to do something for yourself."
He had a clearer idea what "something for yourself" might mean after 2006, when he founded Fun Fun Fun Fest with Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League, almost by accident. Spoon, Peaches and the classic punk rock outfit the Circle Jerks, among others, approached him hoping to play Emo's in the first week of December. The venue was already booked solid.
So he enlisted League, with whom he'd thrown a series of sponsored shows and screenings in Waterloo Park that summer, to help run the first Fun Fun Fun Fest. Named for an optimistic anthem by the Big Boys, it was a small affair, consisting of one day, two stages and a dance tent. But it was warmly received, with the devoted music fans that patronize the clubs on Red River Street turning out to sip coffee and watch the Octopus Project even in temperatures that dropped into the 40s.
That first year served as a handy model for Williams when he departed Emo's in 2007, founding Transmission Entertainment with Mohawk owner James Moody, Michael Terrazas of Club de Ville and Lamberts, and Chris Butler of Super Alright Media.
The Transmission Entertainment model, Moody said, was a fairly simple one — the lean company would book shows at a number of Austin rooms, with an eye toward building up smaller touring acts and local bands. That, Moody said, would allow the agency to serve a niche that, in 2007, was largely neglected by the still-young C3 Presents, which was more focused on large-scale concerts.
"Graham didn't have his sights on Ferraris or lake houses. It was more, 'Oh, we can we do this and make both money and music, maybe not a lot of money but enough to do it," Moody said. "Because it's not easy to make money."
Williams had hoped he could continue to book shows at Emo's through Transmission, but that dream was scuttled when Hendrix tapped C3 Presents to book national touring shows at the club. The two had a falling out, and Williams said he and Hendrix no longer speak.
But, he said, public perceptions of a feud between Transmission and C3 Presents — or Transmission and Emo's — are overblown, as the two have largely settled into a comfortable equilibrium, with Transmission focusing its energies as a talent incubator.
"We're not looking to make a million and do the biggest shows possible. We're looking to do the best small shows and build from there," Williams said. "If somebody said — not that this would ever happen — 'We want you to book this Creed tour,' well, I'm not going to book it, even if it will make us a million dollars. Because I have no interest in diluting the brand and doing something we don't like."
Williams and Moody both talk a lot about "the brand" — Transmission and Fun Fun Fun Fest's never officially codified but widely understood image. Transmission has forged a unique identity, from the company's focus on booking what Williams calls "the cool shows" to its oddball sense of whimsy and humor; Fun Fun Fun Fest has evolved into a carnivalesque atmosphere that includes a mechanical bull, air sex championships and a lineup announcement that came in the form of a purposefully ridiculous news conference.
That, Williams said, ensures that while Transmission may expand and grow, it will continue to cater to a narrow, devoted niche. Even if Fun Fun Fun Fest expands to a bigger venue than Waterloo Park and its 10,000 capacity — which it probably will next year, as the park becomes the launching pad for the construction of the Waller Creek Tunnel Project — he doesn't see the festival becoming a behemoth on the scale of Austin's other great outdoor festival.
"People always tell me, 'God, I hope Fun Fun Fun doesn't become like ACL with 60,000 people.' And I can say for sure that it's never going to become that big," Williams said. "Because there aren't enough people with good taste in music to ever have that many people show up. And we're never going to book bands that draw those kinds of numbers. The Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago is like 18,000, twice as big as us, and that's honestly as big as you can get."
Though the festival lost money last year, plagued by a second-day rain that hurt walk-up attendance and beer and merchandise sales, it's on track to experience its biggest year yet in 2010. Programming was added to Friday night for the first time, with "Weird Al" Yankovic headlining an evening of comedy and music.
"I book it around the kind of bands I would want to see, the kind of experience I would want to have," Williams said. "Even though I don't get to enjoy it and I don't get to ride a mechanical bull or whatever else, I set it up around that. So hopefully I'm appealing to the people who are the pickiest. Because I know I am."