The Nightmare Before Christmas – All Tomorrow’s Parties

It’s taken a decade, but this weekend Em and I finally went to All Tomorrow’s Parties. Despite being a music lover, I have never been to a festival; as I’ve said many times before, I’m into records rather than live music; a side-effect of growing up in the extreme South West of England (someone said to me the other month that “nothing good, or bad, ever comes further south or west than Bristol”; they were only half joking, but they were more than half right).

Why did it take so long? ATP seems like the perfect festival for someone like me. The problem is that I’m such a fussy bastard that it took probably my favourite musician of the last decade to be curating one night of The Nightmare Before Christmas (and two artists I like a lot curating the other nights) to sway me. But, predictably, now that I’ve been I want to go again, and can see it becoming an annual fixture. Em is probably both relieved and irritated by this – she’s been saying we should go for years.

So, belatedly, I loved ATP; despite my misgivings about such a homogenous (bearded, jumper-wearing) crowd of corny indie fuxxors, it was actually nice to know that, even if there was a certain amount of mental out-cooling going on, everyone was there for the same reason – because they love (a certain type of) music dearly. And, you know, I wore a big jumper most of the time, and had a moustache (now shaven in order to prevent divorce proceedings); I keep a blog, and used to write about indie and postrock and electronica for a webzine, for heaven’s sake. I’m the biggest corny indie fuxxor hipster in the world Exeter. Maybe.

The Nightmare Before Christmas was curated by Battles, Caribou, and Les Savy Fav, who each took charge of a day, playing an opening set in the afternoon, a closing set late in the night, and picked all the other acts in between, spread across several venues and including a cinema (with lectures and films), a book club, a TV station, and anything else they cared to conceive (Caribou curated a smell, a free Sunday Supplement magazine, and some nightingale song which was played in the massive empty space at the heart of Butlins).

Over the three days we saw about 15 different acts (only three of whom we’d seen before), attended a book discussion (on Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, which I managed to talk about without having read it…), a lecture on krautrock, watched a short film about a plastic carrier bag on the festival TV channel, ate pistachio gelato in the ice cream parlour, played copious games of air hockey, went bowling, ate pizza in a popular international restaurant franchise on-site while the usual dinnertime muzak was replaced by Suicide’s audaciously terrifying Frankie Teardrop, bumped into old school and university friends and people who run excellent music websites, stood behind the mixing desk alongside the great and good of alternative music in 2011 (and the little guy from Mogwai too), and had a fantastic time.

Bands seen on Friday

• Les Savy Fav
• Marnie Stern
• Wild Flag
• Oxes
• No Age

Les Savy Fav’s afternoon set was great fun; Tim Harrington, like Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon, climbed inside the steel girders that held the lighting rig above stage, and dangled from them by his knees while still (sort of) singing – I’ve got a couple of records by them but had no idea he was such a nutter.

Marnie Stern was disappointingly fiddly and disconnected live; Oxes were a guitar-wank bore, but Wild Flag were great rocking fun and No Age were a storm of guitar-scree-obliterated punk pop fun.

Bands seen on Saturday

• Nisennenmondai
• Walls
• The Field
• Flying Lotus
• Cults
• Battles

If Friday was all about guitars and no bassists, Saturday and Sunday were about drummers. I’d never heard of Japanese all-girl trio Nisennenmondai before, but they were the awesome surprise package of the festival, churning out intricate, dazzling, bewitching krautrock-esque grooves. If they come within 100 miles I’ll rush to see them again.

Walls disappointed a little considering I love their album so much, but The Field more than made up for it, turning Butlins’ weird nightclub-style venue into a proper synth-rave. A lesson, synth-warblers – adding a (fantastically powerful and tight) live drummer makes you 100x better.

I didn’t get Flying Lotus anymore live than I do on record; the 15 minutes of his set that we caught consisted of him talking (albeit charmingly) about his weird jetpack dream and then trying to spill everyone’s drinks with outrageous bass. I just didn’t get any sense of tunes or point, so we went to see Cults instead, who bemused for the first three aimless guitar-led tunes, and then slowed down, played some beguiling hooks, and became considerably better.

Battles, shorn of Tyondai, were maybe not as dazzling as when we saw them four years ago, but were still a technically impressive spectacle, and left the crowd joyously psyched, sweaty, and satiated.

Bands seen on Sunday

• Caribou
• Toro Y Moi
• Four Tet
• Caribou Vibration Ensemble

Despite having been buying his records for a decade, I only managed to see Caribou live for the first time last November, when he played the Thekla in Bristol, an excellent, atmospheric venue on a boat. If you’ve seen him, you’ll know he plays live with a four-piece band, turning his solo-assembled records into a visceral, electronica / jazz / krautrock hybrid. His opening set on Sunday saw the regular band swollen with a second drummer and a four-piece brass section; it was a short set, but terrific.

We skipped most of the jazz on offer, as we were both pretty knackered, but we caught Toro Y Moi in the afternoon; they were more song-based than I expected, reminding me of Wham! as they might sound if remixed today and played to you while you were underwater in a swimming pool. I’d not heard the album, but I’m intrigued to now.

We saw Four Tet seven years ago at The Cavern, Exeter’s tiny underground indie venue, and, for many reasons, not all of them musical, it sucked. He sat at a laptop and essentially destroyed music that I loved for two hours. At ATP it was very apparent that he’s been DJing regularly at big clubs for the last few years, though; much more open, much more communicative, much more focused on making people move their bodies rather than stroke their chins. We stood behind the mixing desk and the sound was incredible; he played at least a couple of tracks I didn’t recognise, hopefully a sign that a new album isn’t too far off.

The Caribou Vibration Ensemble, a 12-piece band featuring the aforementioned Caribou regular live crew, plus second drummer, plus brass section, plus the legendary Marshall Allen on additional sax, plus James Holden on enormous modular synth, plus Four Tet on electronics, was simply astonishing. I don’t really know how to begin to describe what it is that they do – a monstrous, jazz-inflected psychedelic kosmische rave-up that had the crowd moving as one (bar the handful of stock-still beardy miserablists at the back), arms in the air and smiles on their faces. I have no idea what it must have been like to see Miles Davis live in the early 70s, but I can only think that the Caribou Vibration Ensemble is the closest you’ll get today. If they ever play live again I’m going to do my damndest to get there.

Butlins

Butlins seems to have acquired a weird amount of cultural capitol over recent years, no doubt part in due (for my demographic) to the success of the ATP events there, but also spreading beyond that – friends of my brother were there the other week for an 80s weekender to see the likes of Madness.

The place itself is weird, partly caught in a time warp and partly sadly contemporary. The information point sign in the main pavilion said ‘infunmation’. There were foul-stinking hot dog stands in every corner of every venue. A toyshop was open in the weird little shopping boulevard. The Spar shop sold out of copies of The Guardian by lunchtime on Saturday but was left with enormous stacked piles of The Daily Mail. There was a Burger King, a Pizza Hut, a Soho Coffee, and a billion slot machines, penny-push machines, air hockey tables, and so on and so forth, underneath an enormous tent stretched out between three giant warehouses. Everything was hideously expensive. The staff seemed strangely both bewildered and completely unfazed by 5,000 bearded postrock fans descending on them for three days; in some areas it was clearly business as usual, and in others they’d made strange concessions to their clientele’s demographic – we ate in the Pizza Hut on Sunday evening and Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop was playing. Bizarre. I’d not go there for a regular holiday, but we’ll definitely go there again for ATP. Next time we’re getting a proper self-catering chalet, though.

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