Author Mike Davis argues in his book The Ecology of Fear, which I quote at every party and in every article even when it’s not at all relevant, that Los Angeles is a place of extremes. The weather, the wildlife, the sprawl, the earthquakes, the wildfires, economic disparity, the short shorts, and even the tornadoes are more dramatic than most places in the country. Thus, logically, it makes sense that FYF Fest went from being the single most badly organized festivals we’ve ever attended to the most pleasant in only 365 days.
It feels weird to care more about a festival’s logistical news than its musical line-up, but after last year’s disastrously organized FYF, Kiersten and I were happier to read announcements of more portapotties and food trucks than we were to hear that Death from Above 1979 and the Descendents were headlining (What is this, Warp Tour? Where’re the Extreme Sports BMX jumps and the Mountain Dew promo booths?).
FYF used to brag about being the biggest “real” independent festival in LA proper, but for 2011, it teamed up with gigantic West Coast concert promoter/organizer Goldenvoice to solve its organizational issues. Lines were nonexistent, food sold by real local businesses was plentiful, there was less dust, water was sort of available, the sound was crystal clear, and the staff was so friendly it was weird. And most importantly, stages were all named after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters. Cowabunga, dude; selling out rules!
What’s lame for us writers/photographers is that a well-organized festival gives us nothing to complain about, so, instead, we’ll just have to talk about the bands. Sigh.
We perused a handy guide/flow chart making the rounds on Tumblr a while back about “How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation.” It was complex, but the gist of it was: disconnect your Internet and never leave your house. Evidently, local natives Fools Gold did not get the memo, because they’re still offensively mixing West African guitar work with Hebrew lyrics and USA indie-rock. The results were slightly underwhelming — but it was the first set of the day. There was some nice guitar picking, but we left before their signature saxophone even got picked up so that we could go interview Future Islands like the professionals we are.
Way less lame than actual purity rings, babyfaced boy-girl duo tranced out the FYF tent (a.k.a. Splinter’s Den) with ethereal, childlike (yes that is code for Björk) vocals and electronic beats off of this weird/awesome lit-up, copper-pipe-instrument thing. On second thought, that “instrument” might have been a high-tech meth lab, which would explain why everyone was dancing and sweating. Whatever the case, Purity Ring did a great job for how steamy-hot it was inside Splinter’s Den.
Sailor Jerry Brand Rum
The best decision FYF made this year was to let all us media types into a special VIP section so that our feelings of self worth would be validated. We strolled on over feeling super-important, staring at the younger, hipper, wealthier non-VIP concert attendees through the chainlink fence. We stumbled upon an area with swanky couches and a chalkboard that said “Media Lounge.” As it turns out, the makers/promoters of brand name alcohols really appreciate just how difficult the work of a music journalist is, so they decided to express their appreciation by constructing an enjoyable place for us to rest, filled with women who wanted to talk to us about Sailor Jerry Rum.
We learned a lot about this rum: did you know that its founder, Sailor Jerry, was actually a sailor? Also, he was a tattoo artist — a mentor, in fact, to patron saint of Los Angeles and the most beloved person in indie rock fashion, Ed Hardy — which is why Sailor Jerry Rum set up an Airstream trailer offering FYF performers complimentary (permanent) tattoos (if Future Islands got matching face tats, now you know why). One woman at the “Media Lounge” offered to buy us drinks, which were made with her company’s rum. We accepted, of course, and then she asked us if we could run a photo in our piece that had the Sailor Jerry logo, which was a request that was in no way connected to the complimentary alcohol we had been given. In fact, we just took this picture because we thought it was aesthetically pleasing and also of great interest to music lovers everywhere.
If a Future Islands interview happens and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
With complimentary drinks in hand in lieu of actual questions or forethought, we were ready to interview Future Islands (who tried, unsuccessfully, to get their own complimentary drinks). Just about the first thing we did was take pictures of singer Sam Herring’s awesome shoes. We lost these pictures, which is fitting considering what comes.
Then we launched into possibly the greatest interview in music-journalism history, covering a wide range of topics, gaining insight into the band’s work, and defining the role of music in society today. We saw bassist William Cashion about eight hours later, and the first thing he said was, “Hey.” The second thing he said was, “That was an awesome interview, man.”
What was not awesome, though, is I pressed the wrong button on my recording device, and did not record a single word of that interview. Like the Holy Spirit, this awesome interview exists only in our hearts, but my heart is pure, so it’s probably not too inaccurate if we just tell you what we remember:
• The new album is, according to Sam, really really good, and really beautiful. I told the band that I work out to In Evening Air (I skip a few songs on the elliptical machine, I admitted), and Sam and William said the new one might not be as good for workouts. However, it might: Amid a startling revelation, William, revealed that he likes to work out to Cluster.
• I made a self-deprecating joke about how I mainly write for film and don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to music. William and I talked about film. He likes Italian Giallo films. Kiersten does, too, so they bonded over that. Also, she thought his mirrored wayfarers were pretty cool, and they high-fived about that. We think we also talked about Sharktopus.
• They really like Tiny Mix Tapes, especially because of this news article: http://www.tinymixtapes.com/news/fun-fun-fun-fest-announces-full-lineup-…
• Sam is gregarious and laughs and smiles a lot. William plays it cool and then chimes in with one-liners and obscure knowledge. Gerrit didn’t say anything.
• They like Baltimore. I told them that I’d been there and talked about the Aquarium, because I knew that Kiersten hadn’t been there, so I could regain the cool points that I lost for not really knowing much about Giallo films.
• We told them how last year, there was a girl wearing no pants at the festival, and that we were hoping this year could top that.
Cass McCombs performed for a surprisingly enthusiastic crowd, and his slow, sad, understated songs sounded a whole lot better live than on his most recent album, Wit’s End. So good, in fact, that we stuck around for the whole set (which included a couple of snail-paced epics that touched the 10 minute mark) to see if he played our all-time-favorite, “AIDS in Africa.” He didn’t.
We also stuck around because Ryan Gosling was on keys, and as we reported in last year’s coverage, we really identify with Gosling on a deep, personal level. Especially now that he’s dating Eva Mendes. But when Gosling took off his sunglasses, it turns out he wasn’t Ryan Gosling at all, but just some talented musician with a passing resemblance to the actor. It was the festival’s biggest disappointment, perfectly complimenting the crushing depression of Cass McCombs’s tunes. (Quick note: This reminds me of the time my wife swore UP and DOWN she saw Elijah Wood in the entourage at a Wiz Khalifa gig. She didn’t. -Gumshoe)
While actual future islands will all eventually sink under the sea because of global warming, Baltimore’s Future Islands are on the rise. This band’s show in the scalding Splinter’s Den tent was one of the highlights in a festival full of highlights for many reasons, not least of which being that frontman Sam Herring sweated his way through his white button-down shirt and split the back of his pants wide open by dint of his spectacularly enthusiastic stage antics and did not even give a fuck. Herring growled and crouched and lept and just basically sang his heart out on songs from Future Islands’ TMT-approved In Evening Air and the band’s new EP. His winsome pathos was only highlighted by his bandmates’ stoicism — Gerrit Welmers just played his keyboard and William Cashion just played his bass like it was no big thang, even when, toward the end of the set, about two-dozen audience members jumped up onto the stage and started dancing dangerously close to Welmers’s fancy equipment. Splinter’s Den didn’t seem to have any security; fortunately, Baltimore neighbor Dan Deacon was in attendance and was nice enough to step up and protect the band’s stuff (if you’ve seen his live show, you know he’s a world-class expert in crowd control). It was a cathartic dance party.
The Olivia Tremor Control
FYF 2011 had a lot of blasts from the past: The Dead Milkmen, The Descendents, DFA 1979, and that old guy who wet himself by the food stands. But the only two senior bands we cared about were Guided by Voices and The Olivia Tremor Control. Neither one let us down. The member-filled OTC mostly looked like Silicon Valley techies, and their playing was impressively technical. There were violins, guitars, keyboards, multiple vocalists, percussion, and a brass section, but despite all the goings on, the band sounded coherent. It was weird to hear the experimental tape manipulations of their albums translated into straightforward orchestral rock, but watching nearly a dozen masters of their instruments have fun onstage was undoubtedly more entertaining than watching knob-twiddling.
No Age had the only time slot at the festival with (basically) no competing acts, which I’m guessing is FYF’s way of saying thanks to the duo for its huge contribution to LA’s independent music community (especially The Smell, an affordable, all-ages venue No Age runs). The drummer/guitar two-piece looked kind of lonesome on a huge stage, so some of the more adventurous fans in the crowd were more than happy to keep them company, surfing through the crowd to wash up onto the photo pit at the front of the stage. Security sent them back into the sea of fans after they landed, where they jumped right back up to do it again.
Los Angeles Hair 2011:
After the crowd surfing of No Age, security was on edge for Four Tet. Get ready, one guard told everybody in the press pit: This is a crazy crowd! We laughed at the image of fans moshing violently to melodic electronica by a lone guy in front of a laptop. Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden didn’t provide much visual spectacle, but things to look at would have taken away from the pure physical pleasure of his beats, which drew mostly from his recent-ish There Is Love In You. We can’t remember a festival set ever sounding so pristine — if the bass weren’t pummeling my body, we would have thought we had headphones on. Nobody moshed, but you could feel the entire crowd melt and vibrate every time Hebden switched up a beat.
We’ve never seen so many young women holler, sob, moan, and scream as when Christopher Owens, Chet White and company took to the stage. One group of female friends was pleading with a security guard to deliver their handwritten (with stars and hearts on thick envelopes) letters to the band. One young woman sighed to her friend, “I’ve never seen anyone more beautiful!” We’re not sure which bandmate was the object of affection, but it was clear: Girls love Girls. And they have pretty good taste, cause Owens and White put on a classy show, with floral arrangements gracing each mic and a trio of cheerful backup singers (who mostly just danced and looked happy, because there weren’t that many songs with parts for them).
Broken Social Scene
Canadian, late-era U2 without the grotesque wealth.
Guided by Voices
Robert Pollard wasn’t drunk when he came onstage, which we blame for his set’s semi-rocky start. Thankfully, he got to work quickly enough that Guided by Voices gave ones of the greatest performances of the fest. The band’s set was dense with moves that were all cliché rock ‘n’ roll bravado:
raising guitars in the air,
swinging mics around like nunchuks,
and Robert Pollard repeatedly making a duck face.
Despite the band’s years (and years and years) of practice (demonstrated by the contrast between the completely unintelligible drunken slur of Pollard’s onstage banter versus his totally clear singing), nothing seemed mechanical. Guided by Voices were excited to be playing music, and with a set that drew nearly half its songs from the most crowd-pleasing entries in their catalogue like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, they were happy to share the joy.
Dan Deacon has something to prove. He lives in murder-heavy Baltimore, he performs right inside the crowd, and he breaks down apathetic hipsters and bends them to his will like a skilled Dom. The huge crowd gathered for his FYF set didn’t deter Deacon and his personal security team from setting up his table of electronics and lightbulbs at ground level, with his back to the stage, within inches of fans. He started off his set establishing dominance, ordering everybody to make some personal space, point skyward, do this, do that. When the music started, though, Deacon just let the frenzy happen as fans crowdsurfed and got crushed against his table.
As we watched from the spacious safety of the photo pit behind Deacon’s back, it was a sight to behold how masterfully he reeled everyone in after giving them so much slack. Suddenly, with only his commands, he carved a circular performance space 20 feet across out of what was just moments ago a can of sardines moshing, and everybody in the crowd followed the moves of an interpretive dancer in the middle.
We had climbed onto the stage for a better view, and from there, Dan Deacon as Moses parting the human sea would have made an amazing picture. But we were too busy watching in awe to concentrate on anything else, especially the fact that we had overstayed the three-song limit, after which media gets kicked out of the photo area. A security guard asked me firmly, “Are you taking pictures, or watching the show?” I told the truth, which is always against my better judgment. “Watching the show.”
“Enjoy,” he said.
A few moments later, we noticed William from Future Islands was standing right next to us onstage watching the show. He leaned over, “Dude that was an awesome interview!”
We jumped off the stage and bandmate Sam came over excitedly. He’d seen us at Future Islands’ set and wanted to know what we’d thought. We must have answered correctly, because he looked over his shoulder and pulled a bottle of contraband Jim Beam out of his pants, which were not the pair he’d ripped earlier. Wanting to contribute something, I opened up the lunchbox I had brought into the fest (thanks to my “medical disability”), which was full of bananas, fruit snacks, and juice boxes. It turns out, Sam really loves bananas.
[Photos: Kiersten Tarr]