Treasure Island Music Festival 2012
A walk through the indie-prefixed music phenomenon

I wandered into the Treasure Island Music Festival this year for the third time in four years. At first, this year’s lineup seemed hit and miss. And, at times, it missed. But at other times, it hit me hard enough so that I would find myself obsessing over the terminology to talk about it for weeks after.

I have elaborated on my experience with a few of this year’s standout moments in the vignettes below.

Day One

Saturday Morning Check-in and The Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia Pirates

Photo: Angel Marie

Upon entering the festival grounds, I’m greeted by the pirates of Dave Eggers’ non-profit organization 826 Valencia. They invite me to marry the sea. Suddenly, I’m being photographed wearing a pirate hat and boutonniere, next to a photo of the sea (my new bride). The pirates awkwardly discuss whether their booth here is actually “good” or “bad” or whatever. I wonder too, but I go along with their ceremony, in the spirit of art. Or maybe in the spirit of ironic anti-art. In time, the goods and bads will crumble, leaving only an infinite, semantic void, upon which the new world will begin. To do my part, I am wearing giant, ridiculous “mom” sunglasses, which serve their purpose remarkably well.

In addition to the two main performance stages, the TIMF features a 60-foot Ferris wheel, commerce, and information stands, including a salon, a massage booth, thrift stores, freecycle centers, and many amazing street food choices such as crab aioli french fries and paella cooked before our eyes in massive, 12-ft-across pans — all with a uniquely Bay Arean (Bay Arian?) feel. Also, the TIMF makes every effort to be green, even going so far as to post a uniformed recycling expert in front of each set of trash/compost/recycling bins to inform disposers of the most appropriate receptacle for their waste items.

At one of the myriad seriously fantastically delicious street food stands that line the TIMF boulevard, I pay $12 for very small tacos and a bottle of water, and I grumble about the promise of “reasonably priced food” on the TIMF website.

K.Flay

Early on day 1 of the TIMF, the lovely, charming, and exceedingly smart Stanford grad and indie hip-hop darling K.Flay takes the stage. K — who sometimes goes by Kristine Flaherty — is a white girl who raps and yet still manages to be uncontrived, genuine, engaging; she also writes and produces her tracks. She is accompanied here by a drummer playing a cyborg kit, with some electronic parts designed to look like acoustic drums. An electro-vox sample repeats “sandwiches” over and over again. K.Flay’s beats suggest overtones of techno, drum ‘n’ bass, and dark trip-hop, with occasional sprinkles of nu-metal. K.Flay introduces the 3rd song: “This is a song about grocery stores, CostCo, and other bullshit like that…We’re gonna get weird, and so should you!”

Near the end of her set, K.Flay speaks a battle-cry for the ages: “Doesn’t matter what the prison, rest assured I will escape.”

The Monday after, I chatted with K.Flay about meaningful and meaningless things on a sidewalk in the SOMA. Check the video above.

AraabMusik

Photo: Angel Marie

AraabMuzik — or Abraham Orellana to his mother — plays the little square pads on his Akai MPC (Music Production Center) like Chuck Berry played the guitar: live and unsequenced. Well known for his MPC how-to videos on YouTube, AraabMuzik’s precise and dazzling finger tapping is a site to behold. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a DJ/electronic musician engage with computer interfaces with the same passion and skill. The MPC is a sampler, drum machine, storage device, interface… that sort of thing, but AraabMusik plays his MPC and connected devices like one might play a drum set or a calliope: with a skillful flurry of strikes, slaps, and taps, often improvising in real time. Listening to AraabMusik is like listening to drum ‘n’ bass or dubstep at the moment when the computer itself says, “Fuck it!” and decides to improvise a drum solo or cadenza. Like Jeff Bridges in Tron, AraabMuzik has infiltrated the computer mainframe and now lives inside it, subverting it from within.

Public Enemy

Photo: Angel Marie

Members of this youthful, post-indie crowd can’t decide whether they like Public Enemy for real or because they ought to. But as soon as Chuck D walks out onto the stage and greets everyone with his signature glowing warmth, it becomes evident why they have been so loved and followed by so many for the last 30 years.

Chuck D is everyone’s favorite uncle — big, safe, friendly, jovial, and with love in his heart. He rambles for a few minutes about the beautiful day (and it is a beautiful day!), about the breathtaking view of San Francisco just across the bay, and then takes the time to introduce each band member individually and with due praise. Soon Public Enemy’s co-frontman, the unsinkable Flavor Flav, appears on stage as acoustic drummer and bass guitar drop the beat. Chuck D and Flavor Flav are an endearing duo. Chuck is earnest and full of love; Flav is crazy but with a heart of gold. They ham it up with their antics, leaping from one side of the stage to the other and riling up the crowd with genuine enthusiasm.

In addition to live drums and Davy DMX on bass, Public Enemy also includes a screaming electric guitar. They are often much more hard rock and metal than I expected, with the DJ sometimes buried in the mix. At one point, Flavor Flav grabs a bass guitar and dazzles the crowd with a funky slap bass solo. As it turns out, Flav fucking rules on bass.

True to form, Chuck D takes a few moments between songs to tell us to be more aware of manipulative, socially destructive forces within our own government. He then announces their upcoming album, appropriately titled The Evil Empire of Everything. He calls BET “a cancer” and criticizes the Urban Radio format for not supporting the community it represents: “It is a travesty that radio stations do not play local music!… Fuck Urban Radio! Fuck Viacom!” But ultimately, Chuck D’s message is one of love and understanding; he encourages us to learn about each other’s cultures and to find beauty and peace therein.

Next, they play a medley of their most popular songs and the crowd shouts along to the songs, arms outstretched and pulsing, generally loving every minute of it. If anyone here was not a Public Enemy fan before, they probably are now. Flavor Flav announces Public Enemy’s nomination for induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and asks us to vote for them: “I’ve been wearing this clock since 1987, and I vowed to not take it off until we get into the rock n roll hall of fame!”

“Yo Chuck, we got about 10 minutes left, so we better hurry the fuck up!” And they launch into a completely unexpected rock medley featuring guitar riffs from The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” They close with a rousing, fist-pumping, head-banging version of “Fight the Power.” In the end, Flavor Flav asks that we unite, put the evils of the past behind us, and build a better future together: “We are all God’s children, and we must build a wall of unity together! Fuck racism! Fuck separatism!”

Girl Talk

Photo: Angel Marie

At the end of a long and wonderful assortment of hip-hop and electronic artists on day 1, at last there is Girl Talk, today’s headliner. Girl Talk — or Gregg Gillis to his friends — is a DJ famous for mashups and ridiculous stage antics. When I first saw him a few years ago at a Yahoo! Hack Day event, he wore only briefs for his entire set. Tonight, he is flanked on stage by a legion of party-loving dancers.

The first track Girl Talk plays is Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” One of my favorite songs of all time. I feel a familiar sadness welling inside me as Springsteen sings, “I’m just tired and bored with myself!” But then Girl Talk mashes up the heavy, heartfelt “Dancing in the Dark” with N.E.R.D. (with The Neptunes)’s lighthearted club/dance track, “Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom).” Suddenly all that Springsteenian ennui is neutralized; I’m liberated from being reminded of my own self-doubt; and the experience of listening to either track turns into something completely different.

By mashing up contrasting songs of contrasting time periods, genres, and cultural backgrounds, Girl Talk strips the songs of any tragedy or misery they might formerly have encapsulated. The songs become motherless children who suddenly realize that they really just came here to dance.

Earlier today, Flavor Flav talked about how music should mean something. But now, I’m not sure if meaning really is the answer. In an infinite universe, how can I rely on fixed, defined points to guide me? While Chuck D. says, “Fuck BET! Fuck Viacom!”; Girl Talk might be saying, “Fuck meaning!”

There’s toilet paper all over the stage; long streams of it extending across Girl Talk’s DJ station and out into the audience.

To quote K.Flay, “We’re in the middle of such a bizarre zeitgeist.” I see meaning and form being mashed up, mixed down, torn apart, deconstructed, and Girl Talk’s mashup music tells this story. I hear the irony train roaring across the artistic landscape like semantic langoliers. Kids destroy icons and signifiers by adopting them earnestly and showing them to everyone — take, for example, the ironic mustache — maybe what they’re really fighting against is the ridiculousness of earnestly pre-defined modes of self-expression. Off the tracks, off the hook, into oblivion, into infinity, the Girl Talk dancers sail freely. The mob rallies around everything and nothing. But maybe that’s better than rallying around or opposing some supposedly-specific thing that might actually mean one thing to me and another to you.

So, this is either the dark path to nihilism or the doorway to infinite consciousness. Dancing here and now to Girl Talk, I’m hopeful for the latter.

In another mashup, Eminem raps “Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got something to say, but nothin comes out when they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish,” as digitally animated slices of pizza, bananas, and spinning owl heads float across the giant screen behind Girl Talk and his mob of gleeful, dancing children of the new era.

Day 2

Aside from a few truly beautiful gems, day 2 — and the indie-prefixed rock and pop genre it represents — seemed a bit like more of the same, a bit too adherent to a pre-defined style.

Joanna Newsom

Photo: Angel Marie

After we’ve torn down all the aristocratic castles, all the walls, all the barriers, buildings, bombs, Viacoms, and urban radio conglomerates, upon the mushroom cloud rising above it all, Joanna Newsom will float with her giant harp, singing an otherworldly tune. She announces that this is an unprecedented moment for her, because it’s her first show where she’s wearing flats.

I lay on the grass of Treasure Island and breathe in her unashamed strangeness and playful dark-/light-ness. Her music sets the scene for sunny afternoon introspection. I hear the people on the blanket next to mine talking about astral projection in a “we don’t usually talk about astral projection, but you know, it might be real” kind of way.

The xx

Photo: Angel Marie

I am crowded and smushed toward a blacklight-on-black stage to hear The xx, London darlings of dark, minimal electro pop, and tonight’s headliners. A couple — who “flew all the way up here from L.A.!” — notice my media wristband, grab my hand, yell, “PRESS! MAKE A HOLE!” and pull me through the ectoplasm of individuals into the inner cytoplasm of the congealed people-mass. This part of the crowd is so dense that I could fall in any direction and probably be cradled and pushed back to center. At last, the lights dim and the three members of The xx walk onto the stage without pomp or fanfare.

Well-behaved in their British blacks, Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft enter the stage and stand dignified and stoic before a giant X, in a pensive cloud of white dry ice vapor. They open with “Angels,” from the album Coexist, and Croft croons with longing about bittersweetness in love. In previous years, the TIMF had ended with MGMT, The Flaming Lips, and other such big, extravagant, let’s all jump around and dance together! shows. The xx, on the other hand, are much more understated, but it’s that understatedness that somehow makes them so sensual.

As I scribble in my notebook, I worry that everyone around me is having a much more sensual time than I am. I close my eyes and try to sway. And then, out of nowhere, a mysterious girl from the crowd starts whispering in my ear: “Heart-touching luminescence, deep and worthy, we breath hope through it… I dreamed about everything I had learned…”

I’m confused, but I want the moment to take me, so I go along with it.

The xx play “Shelter,” from the album xx and Croft sings: “…Please teach me gently how to breath…”

The mysterious girl in the crowd behind me whispers: “…And time was touched by the new era…”

The XX play “Islands,” from xx, and Croft sings, “…I am yours now. So now I don’t ever have to leave…”

In a faraway room, in another place and time, a young man who is also listening to The xx comments on the video for “Shelter” on YouTube: “I closed porn for this.”

So did I, Manualvarez89, so did I. The real, non-jiggling-boobs-oriented power of sex and sensuality bubbles out of The xx, making shows magical and affecting fans in unexpected ways.