The CMJ festival is a curious thing. While coming home one night on the 1 train, I overheard two confused-sounding middle-aged men next to me trying to determine what, exactly, the fest is. “I’m pretty sure that CMJ stands for College Music Journal. I think they’re like the Billboard of college rock, or something,” one of them said. He wasn’t that far off the mark — CMJ, or College Media Journal, publishes lists of the most played songs on college radio stations across the country. And every October, the organization hosts the Music Marathon, a New York City-wide series of panels and showcases that allow music biz bigwigs to scout out the #buzziest of #buzz bands. However, CMJ also functions as an excuse for smaller venues across the city to host a plethora of non-official events, many of which curate much more interesting content than the festival-approved showcases.
Indeed, there were a multitude of official and unofficial events, pre-events, after-parties, after-after-parties, and so on. Below, I’ve highlighted some of the most memorable moments and performances during my CMJ experience. To optimize my time, I spent Friday and Saturday nights at the Pitchfork/285 Kent-curated concerts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — two events that, in my assessment, possessed some of the most impressive single lineups of any of the official or unofficial events that happened during the fest.
Most Revelatory Performance: Traxman
When I wrote about Traxman’s most recent album, TEKLIFE Vol. 3: The Architek, my observations mainly derived from headphones-based listening — from spending time alone with the album in my own, private headspace, mostly staring at a Word Document on my laptop screen. The record can certainly function in that mode of listening; the intimate, emotive samples that Traxman often employs have the ability to resonate on a very personal level, while the harsh synthesizer barrages that occasionally crop up only become even more hallucinatory when they’re cascading out of a pair of headphones directly into one’s ear. And yet, after seeing Traxman perform at CMJ, I’m left with the lingering notion that The Architek — and, indeed, much of footwork music — simply must be heard live in order to be fully engaged with. The producer’s set was absolutely massive, composed of highlights from The Architek such as “Blow Your Whistle” and “Buddha Muzik,” as well as a few choice cuts from fellow Teklife producer DJ Rashad’s exceptional new album, Double Cup. There’s a incredible crispness and an unbelievable clarity to hearing these sounds explode out of a PA system that simply can’t be matched when one listens to these tunes on headphones. Traxman’s music is sparse enough that it requires a substantial physical space in which to breathe, in which to float, and finally getting the chance to experience it in such a way was truly illuminative.
Most Unexpectedly Danceable Performance: Huerco S.
Over the past month or so, Huerco S.’s Colonial Patterns has lingered in my subconscious — I find myself drawn to listen to the album at the strangest, most unexpected times. Whenever I do finally spend some time with it, I seem to always find myself drawn further and further into its fractured depths. Which is to say: it is an exceptional record and one of my favorite electronic releases of 2013. But it’s not an eminently danceable work; driving rhythms occasionally crop up, but they’re always glimpsed through a dusty, cracked lens — a fact that made Huerco’s live performance a bit of a surprise to behold. For the most part, the producer dropped deep, straight-up house cuts, a marked contrast from the experimental murkiness that defines Colonial Patterns. Huerco delivered a thoroughly enjoyable performance, but it definitely veered toward more of a DJ set sort of vibe. Which is fine in its own way — his set certainly demonstrated some of the influences that he obliquely mediates throughout Colonial Patterns — but I would have loved to witness a live exploration of the fascinating aesthetic that he has carved out with his latest work.
Best Remix of Mariah Carey That I Heard from the Street: Saint Pepsi
Tragically, I wasn’t able to get into Saint Pepsi’s set at Glasslands, one of several debut New York performances by the producer during CMJ. After unsuccessfully attempting to sweet-talk the bouncer, I ended up just mingling around outside the venue for a little while, catching aural snippets of his set. One of the tracks that I was able to hear from outside was his recent flip of Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” It’s an ecstatic, joyous remix, and I would have loved to have been able to dance to the song inside the venue — but, alas, I was instead alone in a cold slight-drizzle on Kent Ave. However, the producer seems to be on the fast-track to greater recognition, so I’m sure that myself — and many others — will be able to get our live Pepsi fix soon enough.
Most Endearing Performance: Kelela
Kelela’s recent debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, isn’t a perfect release, but it’s a strong enough first effort with some consistently impressive production. I was excited to see her perform for such a packed space, hoping that the energy of the crowd would fuel a live performance that might reveal new depths to the music on the tape. Unfortunately, the set fell slightly flat — her live vocals simply could not compete with a seemingly ever-present, much-too-loud backing vocal track. Still, it was difficult to truly walk away with negative feelings toward Kelela, for she just seemed so utterly awestruck to be performing in such a setting, repeatedly thanking the crowd for their support. It was a strikingly genuine display during the disorienting, sometimes disenchanting few days that are CMJ. Although she seemed rather nervous and her voice wasn’t quite as present as it could have been, her attitude on stage succeeded in making me hopeful for future offerings.
Best Acts That I Hadn’t Listened To Before CMJ: Homeshake/Perfect Pussy
Disillusioned and forlorn after my inability to see Saint Pepsi, I wandered over to 285 Kent (funny how all roads seem to lead to that venue) to see what was happening there. I had class the next morning, so I couldn’t stay for long, but I was able to catch a band that I had never heard of before, the Montreal-based group Homeshake. I was skeptical at first — their perhaps intentionally out-of-tune, guitar-centric sound seemed awfully like your average slice of Pavement pastiche. But I suspended my apprehensions, and soon enough I found myself getting into their melodic earwarms and weird contrapuntal guitar figures.
My other guitar-based epiphany of CMJ was Perfect Pussy, a noise-pop/punk band from Syracuse, NY. I’d heard about them through word-of-mouth but had never actually listened to their music before the festival. Their performance, however, was definitely one of the highlights. With an incredibly assured live presence for such a young group, they plowed through a series of extremely aggressive yet satisfyingly hook-laden tunes, and the rest of the audience seemed just as floored and invigorated by their commanding showing as I was.
While I certainly believe that some aspects of CMJ are problematic, one can’t deny the astounding number of talented up-and-coming bands that perform in the city. Of course, this is New York, so on any given night of the week and during any time of the year, there are an incredible number of new bands performing in an infinitude of venues and DIY spaces. Still, there’s a certain excitement, an energy — a unique intensity — to the experience of live music spectatorship during the CMJ festival that offers a fine contrast to the apathy and misanthropy that can sometimes haunt many of these New York locales.
If you’ve read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, you know that Hermione uses a little contraption called a Time Turner so she can be everywhere at once and help Harry and Ron save everyone who needs saving. I’m still wishing I could’ve borrowed that piece of magic for a few days at CMJ, because maybe I could’ve used it to see all the bands I was dying to see, the ones I didn’t know much about but still wanted to check out, and the ones I might’ve heard and loved completely by accident. I’m not a wizard, but CMJ is a monster, at least as far as music festivals go. I couldn’t see everything, but I wrote down as much as I could, and when I went back and put all the pieces together, I ended up with something like a journal of all my favorite moments. Here it is, and I’ll let you read it.
Kirin J Callinan
I wandered around for an hour or two, wondering if my black jeans and leather jacket and gigantic circular sunglasses made me look like a member of The Velvet Underground. In retrospect, I doubt it, but I felt like I needed to live up to my personalized sparkle badge, like I somehow needed to look cooler. In retrospect, I don’t think it really mattered.
After drinking a free beer, eating a free panini, and flipping through lists of shows kept in my special CMJ notebook, I decided on Cameo Gallery. I rushed over there, assuming I was running late, but I arrived about 10 minutes before Big Ups started, so I hadn’t missed anything. I found a spot on one of the benches along the wall and sipped a beer while continually checking Twitter and watching everyone else. I noticed a girl sitting next to me purchasing something related to Arcade Fire on her iPad, probably just pre-ordering a copy of Reflektor but possibly purchasing tickets to one of the Arcade Fire shows later that week through a secret means I hadn’t heard of yet. I tried to figure it out without staring too much.
I wish the room had been packed for Big Ups. I wanted to see everyone freak out and cause a frenzy in keeping with their post-hardcore energy and angst. Sometimes Joe Galarraga speaks in rhythm, sometimes he yells and thrashes, but usually it’s all about existential dread. I just wanted everyone to feel it and mosh. Nobody did.
Later, I watched Kirin J Callinan change from plain black to a glittery jacket over a white turtleneck to a set of patterned pajamas, and I of course heard him sing too. He’s got a voice that ascends and dives and ascends again, sounding like the earth cracking wide open. When he speaks, it’s deep and low like he’s telling an insane secret, even if he’s just explaining where he’ll be selling records after the show. I watched his set with fellow TMT writer Miles Bowe, and neither of us could say much more than “what the fuck incredible amazing mind-blowing.”
Still later, I followed a friend to 285 Kent, and he instructed me to follow him in through the back if the regular door looked like trouble. We didn’t sneak in, but we only stayed long enough to hear the DJ play one Kendrick Lamar song, then a bunch of other songs we hated. We kept talking about how everyone was refusing to dance and how they were all the worst. Maybe we’re all the worst.
I only want to talk about Perfect Pussy.
When I told my boyfriend, Matt, about Perfect Pussy, I described their sound as noisy and cathartic, as fucking great punk. Since I’d seen them once before, maybe I should have warned him about the likelihood of physical injury at their shows, but I guess I just figured that punk shows somehow necessitate bruises, like some sort of unspoken rule. I don’t know, maybe I was just too stoked to see them for any sensible thoughts to cross my mind.
I noticed a weird sort of glamor as soon as Matt and I walked into The Flat, which was the tiny bar where Perfect Pussy were playing. I also noticed brocade wallpaper and beaded fabric along the ceiling, as well as a chandelier hanging over the middle of the room. Then I thought about how a mosh pit might literally break the place, which was clearly not built for punk shows, since the stage was really just a space at one end of the room marked by equipment and a few tapestries hanging on each wall.
I wanted to get as close as possible, so Matt and I scooted through the completely packed room to scout out a spot as close to the front as we could manage. We only stood there long enough to hear Meredith Graves thank everyone a few times, because once Perfect Pussy started to play, nobody stood a chance. We all thrashed and careened as Perfect Pussy played every song off their demo tape, I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling, and I watched both people and tables get knocked over; one dude crowdsurfed into empty space and crashed onto the floor. Somehow, none of this felt at all like rage or violence, but more like a shot at ecstasy or transcendence, as though somehow, sheerly by experiencing this rush of buzzed melody and poetry and chaos, we all might break out of our bodies as bursts of energy and light.
Matt made sure he stuck close to me throughout the entire set, slightly in front of me if he could. As we were walking home and I was rambling about how much I love Perfect Pussy, Matt mentioned the show’s danger and that, even though he knows I can hold my own in a mosh pit, he still wanted to make sure I didn’t get beaten up. This, however, made me like the show even more and made me want to see Perfect Pussy again as soon as possible. Is that twisted?
I woke up late, then spent 40 minutes, maybe an hour, trying to buy tickets for one of the Arcade Fire shows. Ticketmaster told me over and over that demand was too high and that I should try again later, and I wondered if I should’ve just pre-ordered the album like the girl at Cameo Gallery so I could’ve maybe gotten tickets through that weird pre-sale.
I intended to see a bunch of bands that afternoon, but Matt and I didn’t eat lunch until three or four, and we both might’ve dozed off until evening, but I can’t remember for sure. We did end up leaving and wandering to some shows and seeing some bands we didn’t really like, but I don’t want to call them out and ramble too much. Boring punk just bums me out. I do want to talk about Speedy Ortiz, because I like how noisy and emotional their album sounds, but I started to feel dizzy and nearly passed out after they played only a couple of songs. I sat outside through the rest of their set and eventually walked home pretty pissed off and with a bad case of the chills.
Baby’s All Right had just opened, and they had free tattoos and free rum drinks.
Every show needs free tattoos and free rum drinks.
I couldn’t decide if I wanted a skull or a shark or a bird, and I couldn’t decide where I wanted it on my arm, so I sipped a rum and coke and watched Eagulls while I thought about it. For some inexplicable reason, I’d pegged Eagulls as a chilled-out campfire band. Obviously, their loud mess of dark garage took me by surprise, and they reminded me a little bit of Brooklyn’s DIY punk stalwarts, The So So Glos.
By the time I finished half of a second rum and coke, I’d decided on a skull tattoo, but I was too late, since the list of hopefuls ahead of me had gotten out of control. I didn’t really mind, because if I’d been getting tattooed, I might’ve missed Omar Souleyman, one of the few non-rock shows I saw throughout all of CMJ. His songs made me feel like I’d been transported to a dance party elsewhere, far away from New York. I’ve never felt that way in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.
I meant to see Joanna Gruesome that night, and I’d been meaning to catch them every other night too, but Matt and I didn’t make it to Shea Stadium until well after their performance. We did catch a bit of Pity Sex, and earlier Matt had asked me if they were as bad as their name; I just said they sounded a little bit like My Bloody Valentine (and didn’t say that they’ve also got an emo streak that reminds me of American Football). We stayed for Born Gold too, and I mostly paid attention to his light-up jacket and wondered if it’s washable or if he just wears it for every single show and doesn’t think about how gross it might be.
Later, Matt and I wandered around Bushwick with our friend Logan and Shaun from Weekend. We walked past the space where Arcade Fire had played, observing groups still hanging around outside, all dolled-up in feathers and glitter. We got lost for a bit, then kept drinking for hours.
I tried to get a free tattoo one more time, but it would’ve taken forever. I could’ve stayed at Baby’s All Right and watched whoever was playing while I waited for my name to be called off the waiting list, but I went home instead. I knew I wanted to see Weekend later that afternoon and Hop Along later that night, but otherwise I’d decided that CMJ was over, at least for me.
At Muchmore’s, I ran into friends. I drank free beer. I talked about Perfect Pussy again. And I saw Weekend. I know the guys in the band weren’t sure how well they’d play, something about bass amps, I think, but I got lost in the whole set, caught up in noise and emotions. Afterward, Matt and I both described the show as moving.
Back at Baby’s All Right, I passed on free rum and just listened to Hop Along’s loud, pictorial songs, which broke my heart, just a little bit.
I’m still not sure if I did CMJ right. Maybe I should’ve seen more bands I’d never heard of before. Maybe I should’ve seen a band I thought I hated, to see if they could prove me wrong. Maybe I just should’ve seen more bands and written the most comprehensive CMJ feature ever. I’m not too worried about it though, because I saw some great shows and made some new friends and shared all of it with someone I love, and honestly, that’s all I ever want.