Interview – John Hewer on Keithmas V
– by Connor Fingler
Last weekend I sat down with John Hewer, the man behind the annual Keithmas Foodbank Funrager. With an event that celebrates the birth of the legendary Keith Richards and showcases some of the best local music, it definitely feels like Christmas has come early. For some it has.
All proceeds of Keithmas are donated to the Vancouver Food Bank. Over the years, the event has helped to raise a substantial amount for those in need. One night, ten bands, and one insanely large bottle of Jack Daniels is all it takes to have a great time for a good cause.
Connor Fingler: How did Keithmas get started? Is there a story behind it?
John Hewer: Yes and no. Myself and my friend James started putting on shows under the name Hidden Charms Presents. We just did it for fun and we did for about a year and half when we decided that it would be good to put on a party for all the bands that have performed over the last little while. We started just throwing around a lot of ideas. We had the idea of wanting to do a night, and it didn’t start of initially as Keith Richards. At first we had Petty-Palooza, and then my favourite was Seger de Mayo.
CF: That’s great! Is Seger de Mayo still off the table?
JH: I actually tried to do it last year, but it was just harder getting bands to commit to that. I mean everybody does the Stones, but not everyone is into Bob Seger. It was just a little harder so that didn’t work. Anyways, It was getting closer to Christmas and we just came across Keith Richards’ birthday. At first it never was Keithmas. We were just going to do this party with a bunch of Stones songs but folks began calling it Keithmas because Christmas was right there. I don’t think the first year if it was officially billed as Keithmas, but it became Keithmas and it’s been Keithmas ever since.
CF: Has it been hard putting something like this together? I understand 100 per cent of the proceeds go to the Vancouver Food Bank so has that made it difficult to get bands to play, get funding and get sponsorships?
JH: For the bands, it’s been really good and fairly easy. In fact, this year and even last year, people have been calling me up and asking to play so I’ve actually had to turn down some people. The reason we were doing shows in the first place was to put on shows that we wanted to see. We didn’t star our promotions company looking to book everything that came through town. It was the same with Keithmas. We could have other bands play but I wouldn’t want a whole lot of other bands playing. We pick bands that we like.
CF: Yeah I’m pretty excited to see Johnny de Courcy there.
JH: That was a big one. I had actually asked Black Wizard (de Courcy’s previous band) but they just said it’s not going to work. I don’t know if it’s for them anyways. I had asked Johnny last year as well, but he was kind of busy at the time. Now, his new record is out on Neptoon and it’s great! Neptoon has been a big supporter for us, so Rob (Frith) who owns Neptoon put a bug in Johhny’s ear and I had asked him a few times so Johnny said yes. It’s exciting cause he could be wearing a dress on stage so it’ll be pretty interesting to see what happens.
CF: How has it been attaining sponsorships then?
JH: Sponsorships have been harder. Ever year we want to get a beer sponsor so we can give it to the bands as a thank you. It helps with the party. Getting sponsorships is hard though because we’re not in this full-time or anything, it’s just for fun. We do end up getting enough though. Union is owned by a friend of mine who also runs Exile, and they kick in these amazing guitar pedals which is great.
CF: So how much money have you raised in recent years?
JH: Well, every year has gone up. Last year we did over $5,000, the year before that was around $3,000, and the year before that was around $2,000, so it’s trending upwards. Last year we sold-out too, actually.
CF: Have there been thoughts of moving it to a bigger venue?
JH: Yeah, last year we talked about it a lot. Going from the Fairview to the Owl is easy because it’s only about another 100 people or so, but going from the Owl to the next level is where it gets tricky. There’s the Rickshaw, and then after that you’re going up way bigger. The Commodore would sort of be the dream. Our demographic has changed a little bit. When we first started it was more friends of the bands and more of a younger crowd. Whereas now, because of the press we’ve got the last couple of years, we are bringing in people who have never even heard of the bands.
CF: Has there been a lot of community recognition in regards to the event?
JH: Well, the Food Bank is starting to notice for sure. They’re certainly appreciative of it and they are starting to promote it a bit as well. It’s on their schedule now too and they’re getting behind it. I mean we’re not the only fundraiser around this time so we’re not alone in what we’re doing.
CF: In regards to the bands that you guys have had come play. I think it’s pretty awesome that you have had bands (like the Jolts) who don’t bear any resemblance to the Rolling Stones but still do their own rendition of the songs they cover. Is that something that was intentional or were you primarily looking for artists that sound similar to the Stones?
JH: It was never our intent to mimic their sound. Even when we were booking shows before this, we always did rock ‘n’ roll, but it was a wide cross section. Keithmas used to be a little more alt-country, but as it grew I didn’t want to have 10 bands that were doing some variation of that. We’ve always tried to get a variety. Last year I tried to get an organ jazz combo and we even talked about a mariachi band. That’s what makes it interesting. We’ve got La Chinga this year, which are a ’70s stoner-rock band, and the Jolts,who have always been great because they bring so much energy to the table.
CF: So how has Keithmas changed from year one to year five?
JH: We are a lot better organized. Well maybe just better organized actually. It used to be just myself and James, but now we’ve added Chris Young as well. He’s the owner of Exile and Union so he’s been a big part of it. I think the biggest thing that’s changed is that it’s on peoples’ calendars. It’s exploded in a way. People ask me in June if we are going to be having Keithmas again. It’s a bigger event, so there’s a bit more pressure now to make it happen. It’s kind of taken on a life of it’s own.
CF: Where do you see it in five years then?
JH: That’s the great unknown. I’d like to bring in some more people. This year we involved Timber Concerts and they’ve been helpful in getting the word out. I’d like to partner with some other big people like that to see where it goes.
CF: So how did the insanely large bottle of Jack Daniel’s become a tradition?
JH: Well it’s Keithmas! It’s Keith Richards and Jack Daniel’s, they’re pretty synonymous. The first year or two I just bought a bottle and just handed it around. The last few years we’ve just left it on the stage. It’s become tradition to get up on stage, take a shot, and get riled up. It’s an homage to Keith.
CF: Has he heard about the event?
JH: No, everybody asks. If you can get in touch with him let us know. We tweeted to him and posted to his Facebook. But no response as of yet. That’s the ultimate goal – to have some kind of recognition from him.