Sheer violent chaos flying in the face of all reason and musicality: It was fucking beautiful.
Now in its fourth year, Greg Lowenhagen and Grayson Currin’s Hopscotch Music Festival has upped its private sponsorships (I’m pretty sure Lenovo was the improviser in residence) and taken its place among the heavyweights of the music festival circuit. Although Hopscotch hasn’t yet enlisted the homeless to be hotspots, there was a fake Hopscotch party Twitter account, so you know it’s at or near the top. The event was full of promise, and because Action Bronson hadn’t canceled yet, there was still a chance to hear Earl Sweatshirt duel Bronson in a sandwich condiment-only rap battle. What follows is my (Matthew Horne) and my colleague’s (Matthew Phillips) take on the marathon that was Hopscotch 2013.
After picking up my press pass, I commenced chilling for a bit as I figured out my schedule. I quickly found I would be missing about 10 acts I had hoped to see: Wold, Pig Destroyer, Richard Youngs, John Cale, Angel Olsen, Earl Sweatshirt, Survival, Evoken, Inter Arma, and David Grubbs. From what I can tell, at least half of those sets were excellent, and were it not for very slight preferences and sheer exhaustion, I could have seen any of them instead. Hopscotch is set up as mostly night shows, with a few side events during the day; this, coupled with the facts that the venues can be up to 10 blocks away from one another and that some of them get filled to capacity, meant that while you see a ton of good music, you miss a ton too. It ended up being fine though. By the end of the weekend, I had seen so many sick shows I could barely process it. The festival covers so much ground and enlists so many excellent performers that it’s impossible not to self-curate an excellent experience. (MP)
Boyzone: I’ve seen Ryan Martin and Jeff Rehnlund perform as Boyzone far more times than I can recall, often at Ryan’s house. I generally know what’s going to happen: the noise is going to be harsh; Ryan and Jeff will wrestle; Ryan will probably throw Jeff into the audience; and the set will likely end when something gets unplugged mid-smackdown. Despite this, I couldn’t fucking wait to see their set. That Boyzone were at Hopscotch (basically headlining), at King’s, opening for Wolf Eyes and Merzbow filled me with the warmest of thoughts and a lifetime of shit-eating grins. Boyzone performed for 11 minutes, the longest set of theirs I’ve seen, essentially their entire discography. All of the aforementioned events occurred and more. When Ryan threw Jeff, the crowd was a little too sparsely positioned to handle the heave, and Jeff smacked his head on the concrete ground. At some point, the duo walked away from their rigs into the crowd and lit firecrackers on the floor. Somehow, the sole to one of Jeff’s shoes started peeling off, so he threw the shoe at someone in the crowd. The music was pretty erotic as well. (MH)
The Dreebs: The first band I saw at Hopscotch was also the most inexplicable. I’ve been trying to describe The Dreebs’ sound, but everything that comes out is unsatisfying. Let’s break it down into basics: they’re a Brooklyn three-piece with a guitarist, drummer, and violinist who sings. Jordan Bernstein uses extended techniques on guitar, creating a sound both noisy and clean. Shannon Sigley pounds the fuck out of her drums, going more for big beats than space-filling groooves. Adam Markiewicz alternates between plucked and bowed violin, and his vocals get damn-near operatic. Sudden silences break up their songs, so you never quite know what’s coming. There are moments of great beauty and ungodly cacophony. In short, they make music that is unlike anything else being made right now. Go see them. (MP)
Pharmakon: The Dreebs and Pharmakon (and later Wold, whom [yes, I know] I missed, because they played at the same time as Merzbow and Wolf Eyes) played in a room with high ceilings and a huge space behind them; it felt more appropriate for a chamber ensemble than Pharmakon’s one-woman show. This probably killed the intensity of her set for some people. Instead of being down on the floor with the crowd, Margaret Chardiet had to get down from the stage and walk through the room’s vastness (if you ask me, she would have been better at Slim’s — a narrow shotgun bar with a floor-height stage and less room to move). This limitation did very little to affect my experience, because the first time Chardiet stepped off the stage, she singled me out in the crowd, walked over to me, and screamed in my face. She did this for a number of others too later on, though I think I was the only one who screamed back. It’s a weird thing, okay? Fight or flight reactions start firing off; adrenaline surges, too. I spent the rest of the set processing its initial moments and otherwise riding the adrenaline high. Later, when I talked to her before Wolf Eyes’ set, she said she was “glad it did something for [me].” (MP)
Grouper: Within the Duke Energy Compound, Liz Harris’s set nestled itself into the seated Fletcher Opera Theater. Many complained the set put them to sleep, harsh’d their vibe, and was an overall affront to their partying sensibilities. But this set was essentially the same as every other time I’ve seen her play, very much so in the ethereal spirit of her recorded material, so what gives, people? She played all of her platinum hits, intertwining them with tape-hiss and a projection of what looked like the moon shining on water, which you could barely make out on the back wall. The venue (and really every Duke Energy-affiliated space) had no freaking intimacy; I was sitting in the third row, and I still felt like I was barely there. (MH)
Mike Shiflet: As a big supporter of Shiflet’s recorded work, this performance was disappointing. The portion of the set I saw featured none of his signature guitar work, focusing primarily on synth drones. This is not to tow the party line of the anti-drone music noise crowd or to cop to the dismissive posture that all drones are boring; they’re not, and Charlemagne Palestine’s performance later in the weekend proved even the slowest-developing music can work live. Shiflet’s set just lacked the textural complexity and intensity of records like his recent Merciless, and at a prime spot (preceding Merzbow’s solo set) on the first night, it felt like the wrong venue and time for low-energy music. Perhaps the set would have made more sense in the Long View Center (a church hall) or another seated, spacious venue. In a crowded bar, especially as I anticipated the arrival of Merzbow, Shiflet’s set leeched some energy from the crowd. (MP)
Merzbow: I saw Merzbow perform three times at Hopscotch, though I could have seen him up to five (I believe). It’s a common misconception among those unfamiliar with his extensive catalog that Masami Akita is a one-trick pony, making nothing but cacophonous static via laptop. Over the years, Akita has used many different setups, and his improvisational layout was entirely new to me: a film canister nailed to an electronics-filled handle and strapped with springs, the output of which he processed through a huge effects chain. One obvious result of such a minimal instrument is the inability to vary pitch (except via processing), which meant he mostly acted as a percussionist in the improvisational groups. Regardless of his role, he is without a doubt the most relentlessly focused musician I have seen live. The mere look in his eyes reveals an extremely thoughtful and skilled performer who listens as much as he outputs. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this show was just how many people stood watching it. Of course, few of the audience’s members will have the opportunity to see him solo again, so some were just checking off a bucket list. Others were there because they knew his work and wouldn’t dare miss it. But the most interesting group were the festival-goers who attended the show solely because they knew his name or skipped Marnie Stern because they were curious. What once shocked and appalled the common music listener about Merzbow’s music is now exciting. (MP)
Wolf Eyes: I don’t care what you have to say about it: Wolf Eyes is one of the best bands in the game right now. This set was a fucking ripper. It’s not so much that Aaron Dilloway and Mike Connelly weren’t excellent lineup members, it’s just that Crazy Jim Baljo so totally understands how the band works and adds an extra layer of instability between Young’s unhinged vocals and Olson’s synth squalls. His guitar work’s shambolic logic is the secret ingredient no one knew they needed. It frees up Young to only subtly tweak backing tracks and focus on vocals. Olson, too, can work on a more subtle level. No sax here; instead, Olson strapped on a noise box like a guitar and tweaked it from the hip, allowing him to jam more easily. They played both new and old stuff, and all of it killed. My co-writer said after the set that they “insisted” on something. Might I suggest it was the following: “Wolf Eyes are finished fucking around.” Sounds fell right into place, and yet they lost none of their horror or immediacy. The performance was both effortless and polished. While the set that followed was a great antithesis to the order at work in Wolf Eyes’ individual performance, this was the best of the night. (MP)
Wolf Eyes and Merzbow: This was one of the more ridiculous things I’ve ever seen. You know that feeling where something is so absurd and amazing that it drives you to laughter? That’s what this set was all about. The most audible sound in the mix was Nate Young’s vocals, followed by Baljo’s guitar. But it was mostly just a phantasmagoric audio spectacle, teeming with madness and discordance, sheer violent chaos flying in the face of all reason and musicality. It was fucking beautiful. (MP)
While walking down Fayetteville Street Friday night, you were equally likely to cross paths with Cary dads on the First Friday Gallery Walk, a 16-year-old debutante being introduced to the civilized world, Merzbow, a Raleigh bro earnestly saying “#yoloswag,” someone who bought a ticket to see A-Trak perform, and an awesome street performer looping the sax part to “Careless Whisper.” It was a bizarre night in Raleigh, and shit was crowded. Although Thursday was bumping, it wasn’t until Friday when I realized Hopscotch had leveled up beyond what it was a year ago. By 3 PM, most venues were at or nearing capacity, and the day shows hadn’t even ended. You had to commit to venues and bands if you wanted any chance of seeing entire sets; I struggled with this. I spent much of Friday catching just snippets of Merzbow/Thurston Moore/John Moloney, Mykki Blanco, Whatever Brains, Pere Ubu, etc. And I was fine with this. Most everything, save Thurzbow, stunk, and I had a blast listening to Dan McGee of Spider Bags talk about noise music at a not-Scotch bar anyway. (MH)
Tom Carter: Performing the guitar-hero set of my dreams, Carter kicked things off during the Three Lobed and WXDU’s day show at King’s with his solo electric guitar. The Charalambides member shredded in all of the right ways, dancing between restraint and a squalor that probably put a smile on Merzbow’s face. If Carter had any lingering maladies from his 2012 hospitalization for pneumonia, they weren’t apparent to me. (MH)
Magik Markers: I have a low tolerance for live noise-rock, preferring INC-length sets (no laptops, no droning, no mixers). I’m not exactly sure for how long they played at King’s, but I self-imposed a 10-minute set. From what I caught, Magik Markers were blistering, evoking all of the typical adjectives one might throw at the genre. I also saw a trio that was much more confident and competent with their instruments than the stories I’ve heard of the Markers’ past, with Pete Nolan taking breaks from machine-gun drumming mid-song, etc. (MH)
Caught on Tape Duo (Thurston Moore/John Moloney) and Merzbow: Thurston Moore still shreds. Their later set with Merzbow was equally excellent, if more freewheeling and unhinged, but John Moloney (Sunburned Hand of the Man) held everything together during both performances. Moore did his trademark whammy-bar improv, while Akita scraped the hell out of the aforementioned springs over the film canister. Moloney made plenty of noise in his own right, but he mostly just made sure things didn’t get out of control. Putting Moore and Merzbow on stage together is one of the most impressive uses of the “improviser in residence” idea. They’re curating once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and this one was unforgettable (MP)