How founder Chad Johnson brought back the DIY punk-meets-Christian hardcore Furnace Festival
Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama, once blasted coal and ore into steel for nearly a century, helping fuel the industrial revolution and America’s appetite for skyscrapers and automobiles.
On Sept. 23-25, though, it was the scene of another type of metal blasting: Furnace Fest, a three-day gathering of hardcore, punk and metal bands and their fans, held in a creepy, decommissioned steel mill ringed by towering blast furnaces and connected by a network of allegedly haunted underground tunnels.
Headliners Mastodon, Sunny Day Real Estate and Thrice anchored a lineup of 99 bands — 33 each day across three stages — culled from the past, present and future of heavy music. But the event’s pairing of secular and Christian hardcore bands has been its calling card since the fest’s initial 2000-2003 run. Festival founder Chad Johnson says they simply “embraced the awkward and opposing tension” that was normal to them growing up as DIY punks living in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
“The community at Furnace Fest has always been incredibly supportive of one another,” Johnson says. “Part of what makes the festival so unique is that it was birthed in the duality of opposites — the Christian, very committed, very serious followers of Jesus, coupled with God-free, straight-edge atheists.”
The concept grew out of the regional scene and Johnson’s own Takehold Records, which put out records by Underoath and Further Seems Forever. Bands that would dominate Warped Tour in the years that followed were Furnace Fest regulars, playing to thousands of fans with little security, no barricades and few rules. Perhaps inspired by the site’s history, Underoath brought out a fire breather; some attendees burned Bibles during a set from Most Precious Blood; Dillinger Escape Plan turned their own instruments into pyrotechnics — a performance guitarist Ben Weinman dubbed one of the band’s 10 craziest shows.
Johnson and co-conspirator Johnny Grimes brought back the event last year after an 18-year absence and sold out 10,000 tickets, creating a huge demand — and expectations — for an encore in 2022. Following in the fest’s tradition of convincing bands to reunite (including Hum’s set in 2003), this year they hosted Sunny Day Real Estate's first major performance in 12 years, Avail's second show in 15 years, and Blindside's first show in 20 years.
AP recently reached Johnson by phone in Birmingham to get the scoop on Furnace Fest 2022 and the event’s wild history.
Furnace Fest was unique in combining secular and Christian hardcore bands on the same bill. Had you seen that done before?
I don't think it was very common back in those days, at least not in the Bible Belt, [but] it just made sense. Our friends were running a venue that was not a Christian venue at all, and ours wasn't necessarily exclusively Christian, but it primarily featured Christian artists. So, we ended up partnering, and that's really where I think the idea for Furnace Fest came about. On a Tuesday night, it was Living Sacrifice, Stretch Arm Strong and Blindside, and then on a Wednesday night, it was Hot Water Music, Avail and Ann Beretta. It just became extremely normal for those two worlds to coexist.
The Dillinger Escape Plan’s 2002 set is legendary. What do you remember most about it?
Dillinger was a 10 out of 10 in terms of potential for bodily harm, but somehow everybody survived. What made their set so crazy is they lit a [guitar cabinet] on fire during “43% Burnt.” It was weird to see something on a wooden stage on fire; kind of like, “Huh, I don't know how the Fire Marshal would feel about this, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be OK with it.” But as the promoter, I assume the band knows what they're doing, and I was very relieved when they brought out a fire extinguisher and put it out.
The closest thing I think we had last year  at Furnace Fest was Knocked Loose. That was pretty outta hand. As a promoter, there are times in live music, and especially live heavy music, where you fear for the audience. And as somebody who actually likes other people, I want everyone to have an epic time. I don't want anyone to get hurt. And there's times where you're just like, "Oh man, this is looking sketchy."
Turnstile were a big highlight last year. Their merch booth had a huge line all day, but they were originally slated to perform just a short set. What happened?
Andrew W.K. had to cancel at the last minute, literally the day before, [but] the idea to put Turnstile in that moment was so perfect. You had all those glowing balloons overhead, and to this day when I see that footage or pictures from it, it gives me goosebumps. The energy and the excitement and the anticipation were so palpable, and it was right before Turnstile completely blew up. The album [GLOW ON] was out, they were already on their way, and everyone knew every single song, but they hadn't yet blown through the ceiling. So, it was one of those really special moments that we all get to share.
When Brendan Yates’ microphone went out on the first song, “MYSTERY,” the whole crowd just carried the show until they got it working again.
Yeah, we were like, “It doesn't matter.” Like, dude spinning around and giving a full-body, explosive performance, even with a microphone that's going out, is plenty, because we know every single word, and we know exactly what our role is in this performance.
Do you have any gut feelings on who might be one of the breakout bands this year?
I think it's possible there's gonna be a few. I think Drug Church is a band that's on the edge. I think Koyo is a band that's on the edge. Belmont is another one. Fiddlehead. There's so many that I feel are maybe already further along, but I just see them going way higher.
2021 was the festival’s return after two decades. What brought it back?
The short answer is that a friend who's also now a business partner in this effort, Johnny Grimes, a local scene kid that came to a bunch of the shows I promoted 25 years ago, pulled on my heartstrings with the thought of [a 20-year reunion]. “What if there are people at Furnace Fest that you'll never get to see again, apart from this reunion, this celebration?” If I'm being completely transparent as a Christian and how I see the world, even though eternity is absolutely a part of how I view things, there's something about the temporal nature of life here and the opportunity we all have been given. So that was it, to be completely raw with you. Now, having been there, I can't believe I almost turned that down. Had he not [made his pitch], I don't think I would've signed on for it, and I would've been so wrong to not do it.