All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival
Butlins, Minehead 9th-11th March 2012
Round the corner by Dunster Castle after a quick spot of “checking out the Quantocks” (I hadn’t shoehorned a completely unnecessary Half Man Half Biscuit reference into an article for a few weeks) we see the white pavilion roof of Butlins gleaming in the afternoon sunshine. And it feels like home. Previously turned off the whole festival-in-a-holiday-camp thing by a single visit to a decaying Pontins with more than a whiff of the POW encampment about it (and a food court I still see in my nightmares, seemingly matter-transported from a 1970s motorway service station); mind changed by December’s All Tomorrow’s Parties where I gritted my teeth because of the great line-up and surprisingly found Butlins to be very much not Pontins and actually quite nice, I’m becoming quite an advocate for the place. Whether it’s regular families in the school holidays, groups of people probably much my own age but with very different cultural milestones at the 80s Extravaganza weekender, the older crowd for the 60s special, or fans of the more leftfield music presented here at ATP weekend – it’s basically about doing the stuff you like alongside loads of other people who also like what you like. We’ve even got a room that’s not stuck way down the far end of the resort this time, not that that really mattered. We try and help a scruffy, forty something Japanese bloke with a scraggly beard and battered leather jacket understand the chalet block naming system (alphabetical and seasidey – we’re in Marine Drive, he’s in Paradise something or other), he looks vaguely familiar but I can’t quite place him. We’re all family of sorts here.
Even since we were last here three months ago there have been changes for the better – the rubbish faux-Irish pub’s been stripped out and there’s a shiny new faux-Nando’s which actually acknowledges vegetarians exist by way of a few halloumi and falafel meals. (That they have run out of both by the end of the weekend is not unexpected – as the newsagent’s unsold piles of Mails and Expresses next to the space where the tiny pile of Observers were also shows, they’ve not quite nailed this demographic yet). But the halloumi is amazing, and soon we’re watching a man with a white Captain Birdseye beard playing an equally white sousaphone while about twelve other people with a small orchestra’s worth of instruments stir up some big rousing indie melodrama; yep, we’re home.
The man with the sousaphone is part of Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise, a loose line-up gathered from alumni of the Elephant 6 Recording Company, founded in the 90s by Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum (and others) who is the curator of this year’s event. Other people on stage are from bands such as The Olivia Tremor Control and The Apples in Stereo (who will be playing later in the weekend) and Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t (who sadly won’t, and are mentioned here purely because it’s one of the most ridiculously brilliant band names ever). Between them they pioneered the whole “big sound / deep squad system” alternative pop thing years before the likes of Arcade Fire, and even before Broken Social Scene, although it’s only fairly recently that “legendary” status has been conferred on Mangum (his wilful elusiveness for much of the past decade probably helped) et al alongside due recognition for this.
Mangum’s curatorship has even extended as far as some rather specific requests, such as Robyn Hitchcock performing his lost classic “I Often Dream Of Trains”. It’s an absolute treat and a performance that will remain in my top picks by the end of the weekend – the line in “Trams Of Old London” where he sings “On a clear night you can see where the rails used to be” is a real shivers-down-the-spine moment. And this is why we’re here; not so much for Mangum’s own music but for his exemplary taste. That said, his reading of Neutral Milk Hotel signature single “Holland 1945” in his own solo set shortly afterwards is incredible; I swear he does the whole thing without stopping for breath, and his second set on Sunday sees a queue round most of the resort to get in. It’s still a tricky one to sell, though: this festival was originally booked for December and rumours abounded that its postponement was down to poor ticket sales. Running two weekenders consecutively in a recession wasn’t a great idea, and the Battles / Caribou / Les Savy Fav line-up was always going to be more popular. The advantage for us as punters and for ATP’s business being that on return from that one I’m sure I’m not the only person who wanted to go back as soon as possible.
Jeff Mangum is just a couple of years older than me but grew up a world away in Louisiana so it’s fascinating to compare musical reference points: like a lot of American 90s alt.rockers he has a taste for Peel-championed late 70s to early 80s British DIY proto-indie, so we get three in a row: two effectively playing their younger selves through a thirty-year filter and one mutated almost beyond all recognition… Young Marble Giants’ minimal pop is beautiful, in some ways a time capsule with Alison Statton’s crystalline voice exactly as it sounds on those old records (also, I hope I can look half as good as she does at 52) and in other ways simply timeless: four twentysomethings playing this exact same music at Indietracks would not sound remotely retro. The Raincoats are next doing their first album in full; now when I was about 14 or 15 and starting to delve deeper into post-punk indie I remember listening to The Raincoats and finding it all rather tuneless and impenetrable; I can’t say I’ve bothered with them since but given that my music taste these days comprises a large number of things that my 14-year-old basic-punk-and-indiepop self might have considered tuneless and impenetrable I figure they’re worth a go… nope, sorry. Still tuneless and impenetrable.
Of course the same could probably be said of The Fall if you were hearing them for the first time, but ever since said Teenage Me bought a seven inch of “Cruiser’s Creek” they’ve been part of the fabric of my life – never a favourite band, but always there to be seen once or twice a year. This is a pretty decent performance – not amazing, not dreadful (and they’re more than capable of both) – with “Wolf Kidult Man” and “I’ve Been Duped” highlights. What’s interesting watching them at close quarters (which I’ve not done for a while) is the obvious love and affection between the grizzled Mark E Smith and the much younger Elena: it’s oddly touching. (Except when he sticks his unnervingly large tongue out at her, which is a bit “eurgh”). We’re still thinking about this as we head over to watch Thurston Moore – a man whose entire career has been spent with his wife and creative partner next to him on stage, but now going it alone. Never much of a Sonic Youth fan I was still rather more sad than I’d expected to read late last year of his split from Kim Gordon after thirty years; I think maybe because back in those teenage dreaming days I was never interested in the idea of a “hunk” from the photo-story comics, the idea of meeting a scruffy skinny artistic boy and making amazing music together for ever seemed far more romantic – that and the fact that they were one constant in a world which had changed immeasurably since the 1980s. I don’t know who’s in Thurston’s band these days; we’re sat at the back and quite glad of this when he unleashes a glorious but ear-shredding sheet of noise within seconds of walking on stage. His tunes are still OK (actually that’s mean, they’re pretty good) but the guitar-mangling sounds he creates in between are still the best bit, outstanding and unique.
They’re still ringing in our ears the next morning, as we stumble upon a scene which could have come with a subtitle “you know you’re at ATP when…” – two tiny, immaculately vintage-clad Japanese hipsters filming a very large seagull with expensive looking cameras. “You know you’re at ATP when…” moment #2 follows shortly as we find ourselves sitting in a dark room at midday watching the lives and loves of peasants in the Carpathian mountains, courtesy of Sergio Paradjanov’s 1964 film “Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors”Â as sound tracked by neo-classical alternative folk band A Hawk And A Hacksaw. (I won’t pretend I had any idea what was going on here but it was an interesting start to the day).
On Centre Stage there’s an array of equipment like I have never seen before in my life. Five full drum kits face in towards each other, flanked by rows of chairs with guitars resting against them, seven or eight each side. At the back, a behemoth mutant guitar thing with six necks hangs like a fucked-up rock’n’roll Christmas tree next to a rack of what looks like sheet-metal. I think Boredoms are going to be quite loud…ÃÂ They’re not, at first. Bandleader and perennial constant Yamantaka Eye stands centrally, raising and lowering his hands slowly, the guitarists (and eventually drummers) responding to his signals with “high” meaning loud/fast and “low” almost silent. He looks a little more relaxed here than he did yesterday when we were trying to help him find his chalet…ÃÂ The noise gets louder, wilder, Eye shrieking and thrashing at the racks while the drummers (taking their command from regular Boredoms drummer Yoshimi P-We, sitting stage front with her back to us and looking wonderfully calm and serene amid the riot) create something which sounds like the Apocalypse might sound, if indeed the Apocalypse was made of heavy metal and acid psychedelia and post-rock and brutal noise all mixed in together. There are no songs as such, although it definitely has movements. After an hour even my hardened ears can’t take any more and we retire to the seats, but we had to be there in the middle of it. Another half hour and it all winds down leaving a hall of people stunned and generally capable of little more than gasping “fucking hell”.
Outside it is about four o’clock in the afternoon and there are people sitting outside the on-site pub. I wouldn’t know how to even tell them what they just missed. Someone tweets that they found a Butlins employee cowering in the toilets, hiding from “the worst music I have ever heard, if it is even music”. Result! After which, The Apples In Stereo, who do that very US/Canadian kind of hippie-collective indie rock, seem really quite dull.
Things are getting a little hazy at this point. We go and watch Yamantaka/Sonic Titan (yes, a different Yamantaka) and not for the first time today (and it’s only about 7pm) I have no idea what I just watched only that it was great. This seemed to involve Japanese people in corpse-paint doing heavy theatrical psychedelic prog. Blanck Mass, who’s better known as half of Fuck Buttons, does some incredible amorphous electronics of which the first twenty minutes or so is the beat-less shifting textures of a single note, before building to beats and bass drones; Yann Tiersen does some decent enough electro-spacepop with robot voices and synth riffs half-inched from Kraftwerk or Numan. Earth are a little disappointing compared to the excellent Manchester (Ruby Lounge) gig at which I saw them just two days earlier; there (when I was stone cold sober) their slowcore repetitive space-drone blues was intoxicating; here (where I admit I am somewhat intoxicated) it’s rather dull. Odd that. Veterans Scratch Acid wake us up, David Yow is still one of the most equal-parts-terrifying-and-amazing front men ever, the drummer’s in a neck brace, and they’re just really brilliant live, American post-punk proto-hardcore at its best.
It falls to Demdike Stare to see us off into the night. From darkest Lancashire and taking their name from one of the Pendle Witches (the first musical artistes to do so since Chumbawamba’s Alice Nutter, there’s a pub quiz question in there somewhere) the mysterious duo perform in shadow, making dark as fuck doom-electronics, like techno with the beats way way down in the mix if they’re even there at all. Possibly the best day of music I’ve experienced since last ATP: thanks Jeff.
Sunday’s weather is as misty as our brains, but American Contemporary Music Ensemble start our day off with an atmospheric classical show, the main act of which is a performance of Gavin Bryars’ well known 1971 composition “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. The repeated loop with its evolving orchestral colouring is hypnotic, meditative and almost trance-like; definitely spiritual whether one shares the faith of the vagrant whose field-recorded words form its backbone or not. After which we find ourselves drifting towards Boredoms’ second performance; the Centre Stage is a lot busier today despite the festival’s famous music quiz taking place elsewhere. Yamantaka Eye starts the set with a minute’s silence for those lost in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which shook his country and the world a year ago today, then leads the set with, it seems, with even more ferocity than yesterday’s.
We return from a cobweb-blasting coastal hike and ride on the West Somerset heritage railway steam train (because it’s there, and everyone likes feeling like they’re six years old and Thomas The Tank Engine is real… don’t they?) in time for the last of the Elephant 6 bands Olivia Tremor Control whose sonic template runs from big ensemble indie to really freaked-out psychedelics; most of the Elephant 6 collective are onstage at some point, and white-haired sousaphone man is eventually seen down in the pavilion concourse still playing. Sun Ra Arkestra were one of the surprise highlights of the December event and they’re back today: yep, it’s a bunch of really old men in sequin cloaks playing big band jazz, what’s not to like? Well, I’m not overly fond of big band jazz to be honest and without the festive spirit of the December show it’s not working for me. Oh well.
Anyway, we’re off to see Rafael Toral… and arriving shortly before his set begins the venue is looking decidedly empty. The bar staff look slightly worried; three days in they’re more than aware that the music is a bit on the unusual side this weekend, so what exactly is it that’s so out-there even this crowd don’t want to know? The programme says “Riddled with paradox but full of clarity and space, it’s been described as a brand of electronic music far more visceral and emotive than that of his cerebral peers. To organize exploration of such territories, Toral launched the jazz-inspired, alien-sounding Space Program, a long-term research on performing possibilities, in 2004.Space Collective 2 (duo) is performing at ATP, a core unit of electronics and drums featuring Afonso SimÃÂµes (Gala Drop, Curia), one of the most requested free-thinking drummers in Lisbon.” I have to admit me and the other half genuinely laughed out loud at that last sentence, but we’re still here. Toral’s half hour set almost defies description in any conventional sense; it’s mind-bendingly abstract, sort of like the electronic equivalent of mad sax improv but with science lab style oscillators taking the role of the sax, and really rather good. Some more conventional music next, in the form of the stunning Magnetic Fields whose delicate, intelligent and witty musings on life and love just about survive the occasional incursion from someone sound checking loudly downstairs. I’ll admit it, I’m pretty tired. One last band before we call it a night then? Yeah, why not.
And that band is a revelation. That band is Group Doueh, from Western Sahara, who had been playing for a couple of decades before being picked up by the Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies label a few years back. In a nutshell, band leader Doueh grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix alongside the traditional music of his environment; his band comprises his wife – a powerful and engaging vocalist – and their sons, and he can switch quite happily between playing a tinidit (a three-stringed ukulele-lute type thing) and swinging an electric guitar behind his head like his hero. The whole thing ends up like the very best pan-global mash-up, which sounds like everything from pulsating Krautrock to the jangly Zambian pop well known to 80s Peel listeners to campfire folksongs, all at once. It somehow seems fitting to end the weekend dancing to music we never even knew existed half an hour ago. For a festival we’d never even really intended to go to until a brief period of January depression left me needing something to look forward to that wasn’t six months away, it’s been one hell of a weekend.
Will we be back in December then? I’m not sure. I know a lot of my friends, my serious music fan friends, really love The National who have been named as curators – but this could mean a weekend biased towards the sort of beardy new Americana which is admittedly very popular but not really for me. We’ll see, though. I’m not about to try and second-guess their taste, and early confirmations include the decidedly non-beardy-Americana likes of Boris and Tim Hecker. Watch this space.