How One Man's Made #WVmusic Sing

Jun 1, 2016

Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from Ona to Tyler Childers, Rozwell Kid to Qiet and beyond.  But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day is coming up (not to mention A Change of Tune’s second birthday), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene. 

Today, we're chatting with Huntington’s own Ian Thornton, a 30-something who has become a sort of father figure to the West Virginia music scene, and no wonder: he’s played here, he’s booked shows here and he’s even put on a local music festival that’s grown exponentially over the last 7 years. But we’ll let him describe what he’s done and what he hopes to do for West Virginia music.

Ian Thornton is the founder of the Huntington Music & Arts Festival as well as Whizzbang Booking and Management. You can catch him as part of William Matheny’s band on June 26 as part of FestivALL’s presentation of Mountain Stage. Hear his musical friends on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. For more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic.

Interview Highlights

On his start in music and his father (the namesake for Whizzbang Booking and Management):

I guess it ultimately goes back to my dad. Huge music buff. Couldn’t snap his fingers in rhythm, but he could tell you everything about the Kinks or Dublin Bagpipes or folk music. The guy was incredibly intelligent on a lot of fronts. That’s where I got a love of music from the get-go, getting into the Beatles or the Stones or Buddy Holly. 

Then I got my first instrument in high school [as a] freshmen, hanging out with friends and playing music. But I really started taking part in the music scene with The Love Coats, which was my first band that was really doing stuff in Huntington. With them we saw moderate regional success. We weren’t huge or anything, but we did well in our area.

I was in another really cool band called Desolation Row, [where] we were a little heavier. [Then] AC30 came from a band called Whirling Dervish, [which] lost a couple of members, added a couple of members and turned into AC30.

On wanting a career in music at a young age:

I knew I wanted a career in music since middle school, [but] I didn’t know how. Everyone wants to be in a famous band. Who doesn’t want to play Wembley or Madison Square Garden? Always carry day jobs, that’s the thing about music. You always need some other income. If you depend on music from the get-go, you’ll be in a lot of trouble, [and you'll] be really hungry.

On opening a bar in Huntington:

We got ahold of Shamrocks, my brother and I, in ’08. The Love Coats had broken up already, and I was still in love with playing shows, meeting bands and that whole atmosphere. The Shamrocks venue was actually where I played my first rock'n’roll show, [which] was called Marley’s Doghouse at the time, and it came up for sale. None of us had ever been in the bar business or ran a bar, we kind of jumped in with two feet and I took over the entertainment and booking side.

That’s kind of where it all started with me learning how to book shows, talk to bands, and handle events of that nature. It was a long process, a lot of learning, but we caught our stride and were doing really well there for awhile.

It was a good venue, cool room. Dirty dive bar. Smelled terrible, concrete floors. That was the essence of it. I was going through Myspace, trying to find bands in the area. Most venues have to field so many emails about bands wanting to play, being picky-choosey. [But] at that time, I was like, “Please play this bar. We have to have music.”

I was putting really funny bills together. Which is something I’ve liked to do since then. I’d put a country act with a metal act, or a punk rock with a hip hop. At first it was out of desperation but I really like the eclectic style. I like more than one style of music; I think people like more than one style of music. If you limit yourself to only one, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

That first year was rough. It was slow going. But eventually we started catching some tread in the area. The thing about Huntington is there isn’t a lot of choices for live music. Today, we’re down to the V Club. There’s other places that will do music, but I wouldn’t call them venues. Like they’ll have music in their bar.

With Shamrocks, we were hitting a niche. We took the role of the dirty dive bar, and I like that. That’s what rock clubs are: musty and dark. That’s where the best things happen, I feel. We caught on with a lot of the scene, and people who couldn’t really get shows in Huntington. We were more open arms.

On the sustainability of #WVmusic:

If people aren’t getting behind it, and you aren’t having that thriving force behind it, it’s hard for people to sustain it. People get older too. That’s a thing with bands: it’s a lot of fun when you’re 22 or 23, but you get older and have to get more serious about your life, [so] bands take backseats. From our heyday, there’s only a few left [like] Sly Roosevelt and Deadbeats and Barkers. I think music scenes go in ebbs and flows, a lot of high points then it kind of drops off. Recently we’re on another upturn. People are getting inspired again, and you see bands popping up.

Ian Thornton began the Huntington Music & Arts Festival on a wing and a prayer. Now, it's grown to a full week of music, arts and collaboration in Huntington.
Credit Courtesy of Ian Thornton

On the goal of the Huntington Music & Arts Festival, which was started nearly 7 years ago:

There weren’t any festivals in town promoting our local scene other than two bars. And the problem with that is you’re cutting out 90 percent of your potential listeners. Not everyone wants to come to a bar and a show that starts at 10:30 at night. You’re limiting yourself to people listening to your music. I wanted to bring those bands out of the bars and to the forefront of Huntington. A daytime family-friendly event where they could enjoy some of these bands that I felt were doing really good and that I could get behind. You could have fun and still go home and get to bed at a decent hour if you needed to.

The first year… the event went well, but it was a hard thing to get together. I had never done it before, and I jumped into it. I’m a really particular person because "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” and I’ve been burned in the past. I wanted to take it upon myself to have a successful event, [where] I have to do a majority of the work to pull it off. I’ve probably put more work on myself than I should at times, and I’m getting to a point where I can rely on people. I can finally delegate some stuff out. I’m learning... [laughing] I’m slowly giving up!

On the process behind picking acts for the Huntington Music & Arts Festival:

When it comes to picking bands out, I try to see as many shows as I can throughout the year. My main concern is if a band is active, they’re actually doing something. I want them to have something to promote. I guess it’s kind of like Mountain Stage: you’re not just picking people to pick people. You’re [looking for] a working band, aspiring to do something positive, promote your music and do things. [So] that’s what I like to look for: bands on the rise, or are actively doing it.

It gets a lot tougher because I have to separate friends [from work]. I have to treat the Huntington Music & Arts Festival with a level of responsibility and can’t let everyone on it.

Like Of the Dell, those boys are a perfect example. They were hounding me last year, [and I would tell them,] "You guys are great, and I love you, but you’re just not ready." Now they’re more than ready for a spot this year. They’ve hit the game hard and have over 25 original tunes [now]; they’ve put the work in and you can see it.

Ian Thornton (far left) enjoying a break from a festival with his #WVmusic friends (who happen to be members of Tyler Childers & the Foodstamps and Ona).
Credit Kaci Tallman

On being the manager and founder of Whizzbang Booking and Management:

Essentially what I’m doing is selling a band. I’m trying to sell a band to a venue who’s never heard of this person, or me, so if you’re just doing to make a little dough, it’s a half-hearted attempt. I refuse to act in that manner. So when it came to picking the roster, those are all people I have a lot of faith in, and I really enjoy their music personally. I could listen to it, and I listen to it often. I think that makes my job easier because you’re more sincere about it. I think sincerity is a big proponent of this sort of thing because if you don’t believe in it, how can you get someone else.

I try to rely on my credibility, that I’m passionate about what I do.

Ian Thonrton began Whizzbang Booking and Management in the Spring of 2016.
Credit Courtesy of Ian Thornton

On being friends with (and managing) Morgantown's William Matheny:

I’m incredibly excited about William. He’s one of the first ones I’ve contacted back in the Shamrocks days, and to this day I’ll stand behind the Born of Frustration album. We hit it off early, and I’ve been a huge fan of his for so long. At Shamrocks, I would only let sound guys play local music in-between bands. I don’t know how many times I’d only play Billy’s record back there.

From a managing sense, Billy’s incredibly intelligent. He’s been in the scene for a long time. He knows what he wants. In terms of managing, I only truly manage Tyler, Ona and Of the Dell; the rest I help out [with], give ideas, talk back-and-forth. I primarily book those acts. [But] William is a force of his own. He teaches me things. He asked me to join his band, [which] I think he and Bud [Caroll] came to the conclusion because Adam Meisterhans plays bass on a majority of the record [and] he wouldn’t be able to make all the gigs. So they invited me to play, and I jumped on it to play with a guy I’ve been a huge fan of for years. It’s kind of fun to be that involved in something and separate yourself to pitch it too. We’re a nice couple; we make it work.

On working with Bud Carroll over the years:

Bud and I really hit it off! I knew who he was early on, [but] we weren’t really friends in the early Shamrocks days. [But] The Love Coats opened up for American Minor, we started talking and we’ve been incredibly close ever since. He’s been integral to the early days of the Huntington Music & Arts Festival. [Our band] AC30 was a really fun run, and we never really broke up; we kind of just stopped playing. Hopefully we play again. We’ve got some songs recorded that I’d like to get out there.

On being called a "father figure" in the #WVmusic scene:

It’s been a main goal of mine to treat bands well from the get-go, and I think that stems from me having a musician background to begin with. And I think when you treat people well, you get it in return. Ultimately when it comes to taking on the roll I have, it wasn’t intended by any means. If you told me 8 or 9 years ago that this would be where I was, I don’t know if I’d believe you or not. It’s a matter of doing it, really. It just became a passion of mine that kept going. When it comes down to it, people can talk all day, but until you take the effort and step forward and take the responsibility on, nothing’s going to change, nothing’s going to happen with it. I didn’t really see that getting done at the time.

So I just felt it upon myself, I had a great opportunity with a rock venue. One thing just kept leading to another. I was earning the respect from a lot of bands with the venue treating them right when they weren’t being treated right at other places.

I do get joked about with that stuff every now and then. All the Ona boys call me dad, and in return the Foodstamps starting calling me mom. [Laughing] So I have the whole thing there.

It’s a matter of wanting to do it, and actually enjoying it. Nothing I’ve done is for recognition or anything. The main goal is promoting WV/Tri-State music. I would put our scene against the Seattle boom in the '90s or the Austin boom. I think we’ve got, per capita, just as good of stuff as anywhere in the nation. If I have to be the one to push it, that’s what I’m going to do.  Until I can’t do it anymore, or for some reason it gets pulled out from under me but so far so good!

Ian Thornton on public transportation in D.C. as he accompanied Ona to their Sirius XM The Loft performance.
Credit Max Nolte

On the highlight of his #WVmusic journey:

Huntington Music & Arts Festival. If I had to be proud of something, it’d be that. It brings a lot of people together. That thing takes months and months of planning, phone calls, hitting the streets and getting sponsorships myself. But then it’s over in a flash. You get there at 8 in the morning and before you know it, the last band is hitting the last note. It kind of shoots by. I did all this stuff and now it’s over. But it’s such a thrill. It isn’t just a Huntington thing; it’s West Virginia-Kentucky-Ohio. Seeing these bands so happy and being together with other bands their friends with or love, and seeing them all onstage in one day, or it’s a whole week at this point. We’re growing this to something I think will be something Huntington pushes. I think it will be one of their attributes, and that’s my goal. People coming around to see it, filling up the hotels and businesses. Doing what we can to make Huntington a great city.

It’s obviously a grandeur idea, but like how SXSW is. All different art forms are expressed, people come from miles-and-miles, countries away. I mean, it’s Austin, TX. But I think we can do that on a small scale. And we’re finally getting noticed some of the people in Huntington…. We’re not just a bunch of rock n rollers renting out the amphitheater playing guitars loud. This is a serious thing; we all take it seriously. We’re here to promote it and show what your city has to offer you. All you have to do is buy a ticket.

On the future of the #WVmusic scene:

I think we’re on quite the rise, I think some great things are about to happen. I’m seeing new bands pop up; new bands I really dig. You know, I preach Tyler Childers and Ona heavier than anything. I’m closer to those guys. I believe in them more than anything. I’d risk life and limb for both of them. I think seeing them doing things that are quality and getting recognition across the country, literally. Even other countries at this point. I look at their sales and the attention they’re getting, and it’s inspiring. All it does is keep increasing passion. It’d be one thing to keep beating a dead horse, or run into a wall, but if you get behind something and it catches on, it does nothing but invigorate you, and make you want to push harder, get more acts doing things.

When I came into the scene, it was really funny. The Love Coats were the only pop-rock band around, so there was no one to play with.  What we did was learn 3 hours’ worth of music, basically do our own shows because it was a really heavier scene. 

The '90s Huntington scene which was a little before my time was huge with bands like Chum doing huge things. We were a heavier scene, and it was starting to wain off when I started coming up to it. It’s transitioned now, I don’t think you put your finger on just one thing or another. We’re eclectic and I love it. Being eclectic will bring more music than being stifled. Seeing new bands pop up across genres is really inspiring, and I think we’re on a rise personally.  There’s great things happening, past couple of years, and great things to come.

On advice to young West Virginians looking to get into music:

I would say just love what you do, and be passionate about it. And be ready to work hard, because that’s what it takes. And don’t put money as your ultimate goal, I know bands that do that and nothing good comes of it. If you love music, love music. If you love what you do, love what you do. Believe in what you do and push for it. You will reap benefits from hard work. Love what you do, practice, hone your craft and just believe in yourself. Network, meet other bands, become friends with other bands because nobody can do everything on their own. It takes that networking and comradery to make a music scene to help build everybody. It’s not a one-person thing; it’s a music scene for a reason. So you go watch other people’s bands so they’ll watch your band. You have to be a part of it.  You can’t just jump in and expect anything. Work for it, earn it.

On his hopes for #WVmusic in the years to come:

I hope that we become a focus of the national music scene, and I hope we can set a bar because, I hate to be the guy to beat on West Virginia, but we have a stigma about us. [Laughing] Hell if they even know West Virginia is a state. It’s constantly a thing we have to battle. I’d like to have such an impact that people will be like, “We have to do what they’re doing in Huntington. A small city, but look at what they’re doing. Look at how active they are and in sync with each other." I want to build a music scene that can be admired from the entire nation, not just West Virginia or the surrounding areas.

Music Featured in this #WVmusic chat:

Ona- "American Fiction"

Ona- "World at War"

AC30- "Round and Round"