As an avowed tent-hater whose music taste generally falls into the category of “stuff Leona Lewis fans might struggle with”, even I’m amazed I’ve never been to All Tomorrow’s Parties before: usually it’s a lack of ability to get my act (or the cash) together soon enough to nab one of the very limited two-person rooms, or to find enough people to do a chalet. This year we somehow managed the former – so six months later here we are. This isn’t a review in the formal sense – attending a festival on a press ticket would usually (for me, at least) involve running about trying to see as many bands as possible and taking copious notes. This is just a blog about what I like to do for a weekend away…
The summer’s festivals are just a memory as we turn off the coast road towards Minehead and see the pavilion roof of the holiday camp in front of us. It’s the second weekend in December when high streets are full of Christmas tat and the grand final of some karaoke and sob-story contest is splattered across the TV and media alike – ATP Nightmare Before Christmas provides much-needed respite. Three days in a holiday camp that’s been reprogrammed to accommodate music fans: the on-site pub looks like a Wetherspoons in all but name, except today you get to eat your low-grade pub lunch to a soundtrack of Fuck Buttons; the TV schedules are wall to wall music documentaries, interesting films and cult TV (plus one unexpected oddity we’ll come to later), and you could probably if you so wished stop any of your fellow Happy Campers at random and ask for – and receive – their opinion on the possible future or not of Sonic Youth. So it’s Friday afternoon, we’ve located our little home for the next three days, now let’s go enjoy some music…
For some reason I always had Friday’s curators LES SAVY FAV down as a hipster noise band for Pitchfork-worshipping boys in plaid, but they’re actually a really good fun live band who mix post-hardcore noise with actual proper tunes. By the end of their opening set singer Tim Harrington is half-naked, hanging upside down from a lighting control stand. It’s about four in the afternoon – the weekend has started. Next up and opening the Centre Stage – a big glitzy show-theatre that reminds us of the big stage at Salford Willows Club – is MARNIE STERN who’s certainly innovative as a guitarist fusing finger-tapping with hard noise, but her voice grates on me after a while and we opt instead for a chance to practice Find The Accommodation in the dark, before plunging into an equally unknown selection of music.
TOTAL CONTROL are from Melbourne, Australia, apparently, and share members with a load of other cool bands from down there of which the best known is probably Eddy Current Suppression Ring; they play assertive first-wave post-punk with a bit of synth. They have an eponymous track (or at least one that includes their name as a refrain) that sounds like Wire. Actually most of them do. And indeed Swell Maps, though I don’t realise this til their brilliant set-ending cover of “Full Moon In My Pocket.” THE BUDOS BAND are mid-way through their set by this point so we go in to have a look – expecting something funk or soul-related from the Daptone Records band we walk in on a full-on psychedelic groove-out involving a saxophone the size of a gas main.
OXES’ live sets are legendary for their paint-blisteringly distorted guitars and crowd incursions – and sure enough the set’s almost over before we even catch a glimpse of the one-third of the band who’s been playing his entire set from within the crowd, using a wireless guitar connection. FUTURE ISLANDS meanwhile are just odd: synthpop with rasping vocals like an alt-rock OMD. We love the way the singer both dresses and dances like a middle aged insurance broker at a wedding.
One band we do know we like is HOLY FUCK – even listening to their line checks is like some amazing kind of avant jazz, and when they start their set it’s just full on. The sublime, melancholy “Stay Lit” and the euphoric “Lovely Allen” are a reminder why this ordinary-looking bunch of Canadians with a name you can’t say on the radio are one of the greatest instrumental bands of modern times.
And the it’s time for more Les Savy Fav. It’s about 1 in the morning and the way this weekend is running is that the curator band will each play two sets, a matinee and a night-time headliner, the idea being that everyone would get a chance to see them at least once. In truth everyone we speak to manages to see all the bands they want to over the weekend, so maybe it’s not sold as well as expected (the Jeff Mangum curated event planned for the weekend before has been shifted to March amid rumours of low sales) – anyway, here they are again. And Tim Harrington appears to be wearing a reptile suit. This is a more indie-ish set than the hardcore-flavoured afternoon one, and the last thing I remember is Tim, stripped to the waist, caked in silver glitter with what looks like a large pillowcase (primary school Nativity play Shepherd style – or was that tea towels?) on his head. And still looks both cool and hard as fuck. Not many people could carry off that look.
Just an aside: the seagulls are bloody enormous here!
Saturday starts with a fry-up closely followed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cock. No, really: as well as the music, each curator gets to select films to be shown in the little Butlins cinema and Battles have selected “Germany In Autumn” (1978) as breakfast (well, midday) viewing. An ensemble piece in which a number of German directors mix documentary footage with filmed scenes to capture the national mood during the late-70s heyday of the Red Army Faction, Fassbinder’s autobiographical sequence is as much about his fucked-up relationship with then lover Armin Meier; both men play themselves, and hide little from the camera emotionally or indeed physically. The film as a whole is fascinating, though. Today’s curators are Warp’s leading experimentalists BATTLES and given that they are from New York, we’re somewhat surprised to see that their choices also include A History Of Newcastle United on the ATP TV channel and “The Toon: A Complete History” in the book recommendations.
Their first set, on the main stage at 2.30pm, does indeed contain battles, specifically with technology: monstrous difficulties leave them almost guitarless and video-recorded guest vocalist Kazu Makino missing half her head on the screens, but if you think of it as an insane live remix it’s… interesting. Signature hit “Atlas” doesn’t so much as explode as splutter into life, sequencers doing their own thing and Dave Konopka looking increasingly stressed as he tries to get a guitar or bass to work, but half way through it suddenly comes together. The set’s clearly a struggle, though, not helped by the industrial hangovers the band confess to, Konopka kindly informing us he threw up seconds before coming onstage. A trooper.
It’s a very electronic kind of day: Anglo-Italian duo WALLS do an hour of absolutely beautiful post-rock-infused electronica backed with great visuals; THE FIELD – a lot harder on the rhythms live than on record – turn the rather cheesy Reds venue into a full-band techno rave – and then it’s time for every electrohead’s favourite uncle, GARY NUMAN.
How easy would it have been for Gazza to take the 80s package-tour dollar and whore out the old hits alongside the once equally innovative likes of The Human League? Here, however, he can front-load his set with the new – probably a sacking offence at “I Heart 80s Live” – and it is immense, the synthpop of old now just the foundation for a heavy, guitar-distorted industrial sound. Commanding his stage and band with the energy of a man half his age, he does dish up one mega-hit in the form of “Cars” (the place goes wild): my companion wonders if the current guitar-heavy version might have lost something of the cold isolation of the original; we conclude that perhaps today’s Numan sees his the personal space afforded by the car as liberation as opposed to self-imposed incarceration. We then realise we are possibly thinking too much about this. When you hear his more recent music though it’s clear this is one 80s star who simply has no desire to be a museum piece for the office-party set. And yes, he finishes the set with the old signature hit – but with its chillingly beautiful verses of understated voice and echoing piano blasting into full-blooded electro-rock instrumental sections, the stunning “Are Friends Electric” sounds as 2011 as anything else we’ll hear this weekend. Then a bit of downtime (and cheaper drinks!) back at the room is accompanied by an episode of “Hill Street Blues”, cheers for that, Battles…
The first and only previous time I saw FLYING LOTUS live – supporting Battles in Manchester at the tail end of 2009 – he was almost too pissed to stand up, and absolutely amazing – twisting instrumental hip hop into a whole load of new shapes. Since then of course Steven Ellison has become a bit of a broadsheet darling with the jazzy “Cosmogramma” but there’s little of that tonight (and he seems quite together on stage as well), with older more techno-flavoured material rubbing shoulders with new tunes. The main thing most people will, I suspect, recall from his set is the bass. Deep, deeper than deep sub sub sub bass that’s somewhere on the line between the lower end of the human hearing spectrum and the “frequencies that are probably dangerous to those with bowel problems” spectrum. Good, but not mind-blowing as I’d hoped.
BATTLES return for their main event set, and “Atlas” is spot on this time, still a bloody strange beast to have been the big crossover single. There’s a brief ripple of disappointment when “My Machines” features the virtual Gary Numan on the screens when we know the real one is, or at least was, here: perhaps there just wasn’t time to rehearse it – or maybe his takeoff window at the local airfield was closing. (What do you mean Numan doesn’t fly himself to all gigs in a little two-seater plane? In my head he does.) That aside though Battles are properly on it this time, with “Inchworm”‘s bounce reviving any flagging spirits. We go and waste 60p on those machines where you roll 2p coins down a track and they hopefully push other coins over moving shelves. I am nine years old for a second; 60p would have been quite a lot then.
UNDERGROUND RESISTANCE – the one-time home of minimal techno pioneer Robert Hood, although I don’t think he’s been with them for a while – have been described as “the most militantly political example of modern Detroit Techno, with a grungy, four-track musical aesthetic and a strictly anti-mainstream business strategy” (Wikipedia) – the phrase “what’s not to like?” springs to mind. They sound like 90s festival music, and/or Gary Clail’s On-U-Sound System circa 1991. Possibly. It’s two in the morning and we’re quite, er, tired at this point. Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai is DJing in the Irish pub, and “Kiss Meets Phantom Of The Park” (in which the glam metallers have to use their superpowers to defeat evil) is on the telly. Make Battles the ministers for culture now and let them curate everything, it would be brilliant…
Sunday morning: not having really taken a traditional seaside holiday since I was 12 or 13 it’s rather nice to wake up to the sound of seagulls. Suppose we’d better go and have a look at Minehead, then. What we find is what we’ve seen from Morecambe to Whitley Bay, a small seaside town just about hanging on: the middle-class eco-minded “staycationers” don’t come to such supposedly downmarket places, and those less well off would still generally rather Easyjet it somewhere sunshine’s more guaranteed. Butlins, meanwhile, does everything it can to keep you within its fence short of actually electrifying it. All winter long they have these weekenders – other weekends the venues echo to the swingin’ sounds of the sixties, or suchlike – but how much of the spoils feed back into the local economy? Apart from some service jobs, not much, I’ll wager. So we do our bit and have breakfast in a friendly local cafe – it’s cheaper than the resort pub and has proper veggie sausages not just those breadcrumbed mysteries, even if the music’s somewhat more conventional.
Back in the ATP parallel universe, Sunday starts with a lecture on Krautrock. Heiko Hoffman is the editor of Berlin-based Groove magazine and he’s introducing a collection of only recently unearthed German TV footage from the 70s of the country’s weird and wonderful artists of the time. There’s Klaus Schulze, basically trying to recreate his studio-made sound in front of a rather bewildered live audience – a precursor of the laptop acts of today. There’s Can, early in 1971, doing something so utterly avant-garde and devoid of conventional tunes it’s truly remarkable that it was televised. And there’s the early Kraftwerk: partly electronic but still very organic, featuring lots of flute and guitar – Hoffman can’t hide his disdain for the band’s reinvention of history in which they emerged fully-formed and all-electronic with 1974’s Autobahn. And we look at the young Ralf Hutter and Damo Suzuki, and wonder if either had any inkling at all that four decades hence they would have each made a full-time career out of music. I have seen both live in 2011 and they’re still right up there.
Today’s curators CARIBOU’s early afternoon performance certainly owes a lot to the Germany of the early 70s. This version of Dan Snaith’s amorphous collective involves a five piece band led by drums and guitars and all dressed in white, plus four-strong brass section, and the jazz-edges deep psychedelic grooves echo the Can we’ve just been watching. I always prefer Caribou in instrumental mode, which at least three quarters of this set is.
They’ve also chosen the most eclectic line-up of the three days: PHARAOH SANDERS does a wild, twisting jazz freakout whilst New Zealand’s CONNAN MOCKASIN do a lovely kind of spacey pop, blissed out instrumental loveliness and full-on prog-outs – which, all lit in warm pinks and oranges in the Centre Stage – is a perfect little afternoon chill-out break. What follows next is a truly incredible hour of music in which seminal Dutch post-punk band THE EX perform with Ethiopian shellela jazz saxophonist GETATCHEW MEKURYA and some of his band, a wonderful journey that somehow incorporates both their traditional musical styles as well as powerful soulful blues. It’s the sort of thing that makes ATP a cut above the average festival line-up wise and we need a bit of a sit down afterwards (and a chip butty from the resort’s chippy, as meat-free options are somewhat limited if you don’t want pizza every night).
I’m taking a few notes, and the entry of ORCHESTRA OF SPHERES says simply “Seriously, what the fuck?” The official programme description, I think, warrants reproducing in full here: “Like celestial sponges the SpheresÃÂ clonga sound draws on influences far and wide: kuduro, psychedelic primary school disco, fire music, kwaito, free improv, south pacific demolition, shangaan electro, zeuhl, mbalax, kosmische quiche, tarraxo, witch doctor haus, orgasmo brain rave, juke/footwork, polynesian no wave prog, quarr, costume rock, inner brain clap, funk puppetrÃË… The Spheres use homemade instruments like the biscuit tin guitar, electric bass carillon and sexomouse marimba to create their cosmic dancing sound.” Yep, probably.
Are SUN RA ARKESTRA the Taggart of big band soul-jazz? Since the death of the legendary bandleader in the 90s the Arkestra has kept his name alive and continued to play to sold-out crowds worldwide, currently under the direction of 87 year old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. Dressed in shiny robes they do a piece themed on “Nightmare Before Christmas” replete with horror-movie screams set to some brain-melting almost free-jazz trip – then follow it up with a jaunty showtune and a speakeasy style festive number. Someone’s blowing bubbles across the crowd. It all works brilliantly. Well done to Caribou though for realising that it is day three of a music fans’ festival, minds are both somewhat wasted and wide open. It’s like an all-you-can-eat musical buffet of the weird and wonderful, and we’re stuffing ourselves.
A brief trip back to the room and there’s a Radiophonic Workshop documentary on the telly, so we watch it while we wait for the hailstones to stop… It makes (purposefully?) the ideal preparation, anyway, for SILVER APPLES. Simeon Coxe is after all to the oscillator what Delia Derbyshire is to the manipulated tape – the architects of electronica. A solo artist since the death of his drumming bandmate a few years back, the silver-haired Simeon and his trademark collection of wires and switches and boxes still have a completely unique sound – so influential (Kraftwerk, Suicide and Spacemen 3, themselves all regarded as influential, carried some Silver Apples DNA) and yet so contemporary. And how often do you get to dance to a dark techno track about finding a purple egg in a ukulele bush?
We walk in on OMAR SOULEYMAN having a Middle Eastern dance party, and reflect on how two decades ago he would have been pigeonholed as “world music” (I always wondered, as opposed to what? Alien music?). Here he’s got a huge crowd dancing to the sound of Syria – admittedly with a great thunderous dancefloor beat on it. After which the venue empties: Four Tet is starting soon in the other one, but FACTORY FLOOR are next in here and it’s pissing down again (and I’m largely held together by a well-known energy drink), we’re staying put. I’ll be the first to admit that the first time I saw the very new band in June 2009 I wasn’t exactly impressed, surmising that they mostly did “sound like things that were left on the Factory (Records) floor sometime in the early 80s”. The second time a year later they reminded me of Section 25 circa 1985 via a 21st century Berlin techno club, and by 2011 when I caught them headlining a Great Escape venue had quietly become one of the best live electronica acts in the country.
Tonight they do it again. They look fucking cool, too: Nik Void looking expressionlessly across the stage from the side, robotically attacking her guitar with a bow; Gabriel Gurnsey also facing inwards and drumming like he’s got four arms; Dominic Butler behind with his table of electronics; lurid geometric graphics projected across them. No frontman/woman and little audience engagement, the music is all – and it’s all that’s needed. This is evil, brutal industrial dance music and they’re in a class of one; wave upon wave of seething noise rushing like high tide over us as the bleeps and rhythms grow ever more frenzied. When it’s over it would be nice to have a minute to take stock and put our brains back in – but Caribou’s headline slot’s about to start in centre stage. And we still don’t know if everyone here will fit in the place and we’re not taking a chance on missing it.
OK, I said Caribou, I meant CARIBOU VIBRATION ENSEMBLE – in which Snaith leads a 15-piece (approximately. It’s late, and my eyes aren’t what they were. Everyone from the afternoon set’s up there along with some who weren’t…) multi-instrumental finale. It’s Caribou but it’s so much more. The sound shifts through Krautrock, jazz and soulful bits as well as the electronic stuff on which he’s made his name; hard bleepcore at one point, and a beautiful psychedelic spiral of digital and analogue, synths and horns. And it strikes me that threads can be drawn from different bits of this set to all the other artists Dan selected – at which point my brain starts to overheat. It’s a fantastic finale to an incredible musical journey today, and a gloriously eclectic weekend.