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Jeffest | © Jeffest / Facebook
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Inside Jeffest: Santa Monica’s Secret Backyard Festival

Picture of Dominic Bertolami
Freelance writer
Updated: 15 March 2018
Jeffest, an annual event highly anticipated by Santa Monica and Venice locals, is one of the neighborhood’s best kept secrets. Hosted by elusive local musician Jeff Gilbert, this eccentric invite-only backyard mini-festival may seem stand-out in the more illustrious corners of Santa Monica.

With handmade backstage passes and keg beer served in plastic cups, this underground—or backyard, rather—concert pays homage to the time-honored local punk rock scene. With a self-appointed responsibility to keeping the culture alive, this community shares one major commonality: to rock.

Backstage passes for Jeffest | © Jeffest

Few know about the origin of Jeffest. Some believe it sprung from the necessity for a venue willing to play abrasive, or “hardcore,” music, or simply good timing coupled with an exemplary site. Founded in 2004, the event boasts an intimate 500 or so attendees, though the numbers continue to grow. But, there is little if any up-to-date information on social media about explicating details on each annual event, and organizers vow to keep it this way. In spite of what seems like poor-planning, Jeffest employs a more organic, word-of-mouth marketing strategy, and has thrived this way for over a decade now.

Jeffest in Santa Monica, CA | © Jeffest / Facebook
Jeff Gilbert makes announcements while bands set up | ©2013 Steve Tracy

On the day of Jeffest, somber folk tunes in early parts of the festival provide a breaking contrast to the punk, metal, and hard rock emanating from the speakers as the day progresses into night. As solo cups begin to litter the passages and spaces in greater numbers, and families herald home for the evening, the festival begins to show its true roots and culture. The music becomes more fervent and the crowd apexes into a fit of arms and bodies thrashing in rhythm to the raucous tunes. At the core of this chaos is tradition—keeping up with the time-honored code of the “mosh pit”; both young and old participate in this vivacious community gathering.

In 2017, Jeffest matched and expanded upon its preceding years of success. For born-and-raised Venice local Ryan King, Jeffest is an annual tradition that began in his childhood. According to him, “not even sure what year it began.” But, as a frequent attendee, King recognizes changes in what he describes as “human limitations.”

“The scene has changed,” he says. “People have become older, and their taste in music has evolved to include a larger range of genres.”

Jeffest | © Sky Stern
Jeffest | © Sky Stern

Amid a gradient of groups showcasing at Jeffest this summer, the most celebrated is instrumental rock band Piracy. Members of the scene-renowned group include John Shippey (guitar right), Jace Mastel (guitar left), Carrick Inzunza (bass), and Sky Stern (drummer)—all born and raised in Venice and have performed in years past. This perfect storm of young talent delivers an unrelenting mix of classic rock, classical music, blues, and heavy metal. Their refreshing take on classic modes and scales updates the genre without losing the authentic feel of decades past. The masterful work of Stern is colorful, precise, and drives this arrangement with an unstoppable force.

According to drummer Sky Stern, it was an old local named “Punk Rock Mikey” who first brought him to Jeffest.

“He approached me when I was playing guitar on the [Venice] boardwalk and invited me to some random house party, which ended up being Jeffest,” Stern said.

Stern feels he owes it all to that original introduction, which initiated him in the elite inner-circle of old Venice punks. As Piracy built a reputation as Venice’s next serious metal band in the coming years, Jeff asked the group directly to play.

“We are the only people this young with the opportunity,” Stern said. “For me it’s always music and skateboarding. I enjoy punk rock because it takes itself less seriously than metal and I like making people laugh.”

Jeff Gilbert and Sky Stern shake hands at the end of Piracy’s set | ©2013 Steve Tracy
Sky Stern performing at Jeffest | © Sky Stern

This summer, Jeffest plans for an equally invigorating event. With momentum from earlier events, the 2018 festival is certain to succeed for Jeff Gilbert and friends. As locals anxiously await the reveal for this year’s lineup, many continue to ponder the secrets and mysteries of Santa Monica’s infamous backyard blowout.

Check out more about Jeffest in the videos below.