Billy Kearins is absolutely not a self-proclaimed beard aficionado. He is, however, as of 2012, the founder of Coast Projects (COAST). What started as an experimental artist collective flourished into a lifestyle brand and concert promoting outfit. On the eve of his third annual COAST Is Clear Music & Arts Festival — Dec. 5-7 in Bahama Village — Billy explores his stranger-than-any-fiction path to developing his brand, the musical talents on hand for this year’s celebrations, and even the ways he would spruce up downtown Key West. Festival tickets are available at CoastProjects.com.
Kevin Assam: Just how many glorious beards have you cycled through at this point?
Billy Kearins: Wow, hitting me with the beard right off the bat. Bold. I was pretty late to the facial hair game. I was one of those kids who didn’t grow until late in high school and really didn’t have facial hair until my mid-20s. Ever since it was an option, it’s been almost a constant in my wardrobe. Throughout the past 15 years, I usually do an annual shearing where I get it down pretty short and let it go until I need to clean up my act. I don’t trim or tidy it. It’s all or nothing because I hate shaving. I actually think I look better without it.
KA: Did your father or other close family figures sport beards around you while growing up?
BK:Is this an article about beards or a music festival? (laughs) My dad had a solid ’stache in the ‘70s, but that was before I was around. I came across a few photos in a dusty album in the basement. Maybe it sparked something for me to aspire to subconsciously. I also have a weird Uncle Bruce who always wore a full-on outdoorsman beard — even to this day. My family always says I ended up like him, which is entirely cool with me.
KA: Behind your beard and slub tee is a very academically educated individual. Was your college experience disappointing?
BK: What makes you think that? I always liked the Mark Twain quote that says — and I’m probably butchering the actual line — “Don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.” That always rang true to me because I did get a really good education — Phillips Andover for prep school, Boston College, where I studied marketing, and then Copenhagen Business School a few years later for post-grad work in entrepreneurship. Even though all of that theoretical knowledge gave me a base, I learned far more by putting myself out there and learning through trial and error. If I’m into something, I get way into it and teach myself or meet people who can show me the ropes. Five years ago, I didn’t know the first thing about putting on a concert and now we put on some of the biggest shows on the island. None of those schools showed me how to do that.
KA: That’s a robust lineup of institutions not many have access to. How did you find yourself on that Greyhound to Key West after undergraduate studies?
BK: I should note a lot of financial aid and scholarships got me through those institutions. I spent a full ten years after graduation paying it back. Copenhagen Business School was free because I had residency in Denmark. During my senior year at Boston College, me and a few of my other friends who also didn’t have access to their parents’ credit cards decided we wanted to enjoy a week in the sun. We piled into a late ‘80s Jeep Wrangler and drove straight south from Boston. Thirty hours later, we made it to the end of the road, split a hotel room five ways at Blue Lagoon — now Ibis Bay — and soaked up the sun and a fair amount of beer for a few days. On the way back, we vowed to return after graduation. I was the only one who returned. They became lawyers. I think they regret it.
KA: When you did return, what was your take on the financial landscape of Key West as it related to your ability to sustain a livelihood where you would be your own boss?
BK: Within a year or so of moving here, I quickly made my way up the ladder at Fury Catamarans, which at the time only had two boats. I started sailing their big “cats” in my early 20s. That’s coming from essentially zero prior boating experience. Remember that I said that I go all-in on things that interest me? I was fried a few years into that. Long days at the wheel got me thinking of other things I wanted to do. I got into boat building on my days off and had a hand in building some of the biggest boats with a couple of friends at Robbie’s Marina on Stock Island that still run out of Key West. That experience led to me wanting to physically create things as a way to support myself. I started a small skateboard building company and taught myself to design and screenprint shirts. That ultimately was the basis for the COAST brand. There are huge gaps in there, but this is already a long-winded attempt at condensing it. Let your imagination wander. The true story is stranger than any fiction.
KA: Is “Stranger Than Fiction” one of your favorite films?
BK: It is not. “Almost Famous” is my favorite film. It’s about ‘70s rock ’n’ roll and learning on the road — supreme facial hair abounds! Although, “Old School” would probably be my favorite with Will Ferrell. And Rayland Baxter’s “Strange American Dream” is among my favorite new songs. He’s playing at the festival next week — strange, right?
KA: What brings Rayland to the 3rd Annual COAST Is Clear Music & Arts Festival?
BK: I met Rayland when he played the Key West Songwriters Festival in 2017. He was playing a show at the San Carlos Institute with another friend of mine, Langhorne Slim. We all met up around the corner at Green Parrot. One thing led to the next and I got in touch with him — and Slim — after Irma to see if they could come down to play the first COAST Is Clear Festival. They both agreed and since then Rayland has played a couple of other shows at COAST. Last year, we spent Christmas together in Key West. He helped me move out of our old space on Stock Island during that last week of 2018. I count Ray as a good friend. It’s a huge bonus that he’s an amazing artist with his heart in the right place. That’s really why he’s down here for the festival.
KA: How does COAST differ from other brands with a strong local presence and, sometimes, roots, including Salt Life and Lost Boy Creations?
BK: COAST is purposefully ambiguous. It’s a place and a pace. It has broad appeal and can mean just as much to someone who spends his or her entire life in and around the water as it does to someone who is landlocked but loves to cruise around on a rusty bike at a slow and effortless clip. I know nothing about Salt Life other than lots of people in Florida have its stickers on the back of oversized pickup trucks. Regarding Lost Boy, I like what Matty is up to. There’s a bit of symbiosis between our brands beyond operating in the same neighborhood. We’re happy to have him on board for the arts market during the festival weekend.
KA: Why create the COAST Is Clear Music & Arts Festival three years ago?
BK: At the core of the festival is a celebration of the end of hurricane season — when the “coast is clear.” Officially, that day is Nov. 30 or Dec. 1, but wanting to keep it on a weekend, we decided it will always be held the weekend following the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, which this year is Dec. 5–7. The impetus for starting it in 2017 was Hurricane Irma and wanting to raise funds for relief in the Lower Keys. I didn’t want to do something right away because there wasn’t much to celebrate. But waiting a few months and being confident another hurricane wasn’t heading our way, we felt better about getting folks together to celebrate in the wake of a disaster. We still use the festival to raise funds. This year we will have donation boxes at most events raising money for Key West Cares, which has been at the forefront of the relief effort in the Bahamas since Dorian hit in September.
KA: Tell me more about the musicians and strong beards that will be part of the lineup. Will we discover any tracks to add to our Lizzo and Sufjan Stevens-inspired playlists?
BK: I’m really stoked to get Justin (SUSTO) down here to play a couple of solo sets. SUSTO’s an indie-folk rock band playing huge stages and festivals around the country including Newport Folk Fest this summer and previously opening for The Lumineers and Band of Horses. I met him at Songwriters in 2018. He is good buds with Rayland. They seem excited to share the small stage down here. No big beard for Justin but some punk rock knuckle tattoos that say ACID BOYS. Beyond SUSTO, Tim Reynolds and TR3 are playing Thursday at Green Parrot. I grew up listening to him with Dave Matthews so that’s another one I’m looking forward to. Electric Blue Yonder has rad sound that I always enjoy listening to — trippy space folk with a cool aesthetic to boot. And then, Chris Kasper is a fantastic songwriter who has toured with Amos Lee, The Wood Brothers and my buddy G. Love. We’ll round it out with a bunch of my favorite local performers and their bands — Jerrod Isaman, Cayman Smith-Martin, Turner Harrison and Sam Carlson. It’s always cool to see them play in a proper concert rather than in the corner of a bar.
KA: The color palette and artistic direction for COAST involves the use of clean lines, mellow hues and minimalist geometry, especially in your promotional designs. It all feels very soothing. How do you maintain this airiness to your look?
BK: Down here, designs — especially promotional pieces — tend to be loud, cluttered and “texty.” As if the goal is to yell at everyone everything all at once — and that doesn’t always work. I design with “less is more” always in my head. People’s eyes and brains naturally move to something that doesn’t require as much focus and makes their imagination wander. Our concert posters have a lot of simple shapes that tell their own stories. This year’s COAST Is Clear poster has an ocean, the coast, a waxing gibbous moon accurate to Dec. 6, 2019, a “red sky” signifying good sailing weather and a dark square that is halfway behind the horizon. That red sky and dark square, when combined, is meant to be the hurricane flag setting for its annual hibernation. Maybe not everyone would pick up on that, but it does pique the imagination and say more through shapes and colors than with words. And that’s kind of the goal of art, isn’t it?
KA: How will the festival be breaking new ground art-wise? It’s not going to be just roosters on surfboards on oil, right?
BK: (laughs) Hope not. We are tiptoeing into the arts-end of the pool as this is the first year we added “Arts” to the title. We have a curated local arts market taking place at the Key West Lighthouse on Friday and Saturday (Dec. 6-7). We have a Bahama Village art walk on Saturday and I’m slated to have my own photo exhibition at our shop opening on Thursday. I’ve been experimenting with photography for the past few years and recently Billy Currington — who played the huge Dorian benefit at Sunset Pier in September — gifted me a really nice camera. He prefaced this by saying I should do more with my photos. So, for the past couple of months, I’ve been teaching myself to use this insane piece of equipment and I’m hoping to have ten new images to show at the exhibition. I’ll have some of my older photos on display as well. The series is called “Edge of Old Town” and it’s mostly street photography exclusively taken in Bahama Village. I’ve been trying to shoot in the mornings and around sunset because the lighting is better.
KA: Billy Currington just gifted you a piece of expensive photography equipment? No strings attached? Are your kids allowed to touch it?
BK: Yeah, no strings attached. He kept telling me he had something for me. I figured it was a t-shirt. When he told me to meet him on his tour bus right before he left town, I brought a couple of COAST shirts to reciprocate. Then he handed me two big bags of brand new camera equipment and I was like, wow — here’s a couple of t-shirts. My son was with me at the time and when we got off the bus, the first thing he said was, “Can I have your other camera?” So, now he messes around with my old Canon. Since there’s really no way to repay (Currington), I figured doing a photo exhibition — even if it’s just an experiment — to let him know I put the gift to good use was the least I could do.
KA: Should Duval and parts of Bahama Village become pedestrian-only sections of the city?
BK: Absolutely. You pretty much read my mind. Sections of Duval Street should be closed to cars all the time. I don’t understand who benefits from cars driving on Duval except maybe delivery drivers and cabs. I lived in Copenhagen for five years and it has world-class urban planning and design. Loads of the busiest commercial streets are pedestrian-only after 11 a.m., which is after morning deliveries arrive. It makes for an entirely safer and more social setting for people. There’s been so much money spent on making it easier to get around in the car and they should have spent it on biking infrastructure. They widened the boulevard for vehicular traffic and even in the Village they just connected Angela Street to Truman Waterfront and put in loads of vehicle parking. I could go on and on, but Key West can and should be the most bicycle-friendly city in the entire country. Its climate, pace of life and topography all lend itself to that. I do my part. I ride my bike pretty much everywhere.
KA: Businesses, especially some of the art galleries, claim that sales and in-store traffic decline during pedestrian-only trial runs because persons are no longer confined to the sidewalk. Do you buy that?
BK: I love the idea of Mall on Duval but I think it could use help on an aesthetic level. Festival-style metal barricades with police officers at each intersection and randomly placed plastic chairs and tables spread out over a few blocks do not look appealing or provide a comfortable atmosphere. There needs to be a bigger investment to spruce up the curb appeal and make the whole thing seem more cohesive. Considering that, I can see why it might not be working for everyone. I’m sure the numbers don’t lie. But, I do think that if there was a collective effort to make the street and the overarching concept more refined, everyone would end up benefiting.
KA: Will COAST be throwing its support behind any candidates running for political office in 2020?
BK: I think everyone knows where I stand politically even without being too vocal. I chip in a couple bucks a month on a personal level to a wise old man who thinks healthcare is a human right.
KA: Will you be there to help us escape in boats and handcrafted vessels as the sea levels continue to rise? Could we all wear COAST merchandise as we sail into the unknown?
BK: Women and children first. Free t-shirts for all as we sail into the mystic. ¦