Primavera Sound 2015 “As the light of the clouds converged with the sea’s reflection, I could swear that I was staring at the edge of the earth.”

An art installation with the debris of human history. The new ruins of the 21st century and a monument in memory of the 20th. Such is the vision Johnny, Patti Smith’s archetype of youth rebellion in “Land,” experienced during this year’s Primavera Sound festival. So she let her audience know during the final song of her headlining set, in the most transfixing of the many monologues she intertwined with her music that afternoon. It might not be the best choice of words; instead of rousing the crowd, revealing the world Smith currently lives in — closer to poetry readings and vernissages than the CBGB and art squats she frequented in the 70s. However, it provides us with the articulating metaphor we needed to make sense of a festival as gargantuan as Primavera Sound.

Its most recent edition marked Primavera’s 15th anniversary, finding the festival ready for some introspection: an eye on its own history while trying to juggle with the challenges its present size entails. Having started as an event devised by a bunch of Catalan friends looking for a way to lure their favorite bands to town, Primavera has grown into a multinational venture, arguably the most prominent festival in Southern Europe. A decade-and-a-half is a lot of time, indeed. To give some perspective, 15 years after Woodstock, the entirety of its roster was either dead or retired.

In a similar time span, Primavera has transformed in more ways than mere vegetative growth. In 2010, the festival celebrated its first decade boasting the reunited Pavement, Mission of Burma, Circulatory System, and Beach House. This year the headliners were The Strokes, Interpol, The Black Keys, Ride, and ‘Don’t Look Back’ sets for Patti Smith and Underworld. That’s an undeniable, albeit not exactly radical, aesthetic shift. Yet, one wonders whether it’s a byproduct of trying to appeal to the widest segment of consumers possible, or perhaps something owing to the evolution of Primavera’s target audience.

The answer to that question may hold the key to it all. One of the festival’s most peculiar features has to do with its core audience’s age, approaching the senior-by-American-standards average of 32. Running from one stage to the other, one wonders what this audience was doing 15 years ago. Then entering their twenties, they were likely getting used to having immediate (and for all practical matters free) access to any music ever made, be it downloading leaks for albums months from hitting the shelves, getting promotional material in their own email, or cherry-picking through decades-deep music catalogs. Primavera’s audience is primordially composed by the first generation of music consumers whose habits are inherently online. They possess no handed-down nostalgia for specific eras or scenes, yet cherish a bond with the past configured through their own musical explorations. This is something Primavera understands well, allowing two very different persons to see American Football, Tori Amos, and Einstürzende Neubaten, or Tony Allen, The Julie Ruin, and Voivod, without ever alienating their concurrent festival experiences. To once again quote Smith’s recitation, more than a haphazard narrative, Primavera offers its audience a weekend through the rhythm of generations rising from the dust; a mutable and ephemeral construction we can traverse with the sentimental memory of a broadband connection as our very own Ariadne’s thread.

However, unlike the ambition of Primavera Sound, there was no grand design behind TMT’s idea of sending two writers to cover this year’s festival in Barcelona, taking place at the end of May. One of them is a Spain-residing veteran with 6 editions under his belt, the other an American who finally found a way in after a failure to do so in 2011. The combination could have turned into the an indie-rock version of a buddy-cop movie, but instead gave us two complementary perspectives on an event too large for any one person to handle. And believe us, we tried.

Short history, long memory

If we agree Primavera Sound is Europe’s first festival aimed at internet-native music fans, then one can predict the importance of reunions and “legacy” acts in its line-up. While it is possible to argue bands like The Strokes or Interpol, nearly 15 years removed from their most important work, already depend on the veneer of nostalgia, Primavera has always pampered its audience with unpredictable plunges into the past. For instance, this year’s opening show went to a supergroup of Arthur Russell’s friends and collaborators, who gave us a chance to revisit the late composer’s Instrumentals. A little known project bridging Russell’s minimalist singer songwriter facet and his interest in experimental/serialistic music, Instrumentals was first performed in 1975, including several of the musicians in Barcelona, as a potential soundtrack for Buddhist monk Yukio Nonomura’s art. Nevertheless, despite involving talents the size of Peter Gordon, Rhys Chatham, Ernie Brooks, Peter Zummo, or Nick Colk Void, the performance did not live up to Russell’s standards. Correct to a fault, the band tumbled over the melodic details that make Instrumentals so enduring, replacing any hint of charm with a workmanlike vehemence that may have been apt had the show taken place on a dance floor or club, instead of a seated auditorium. The hour-long tribute, while respectable, would have likely given people unfamiliar with Russell’s work something to shrug off.

Another band visiting Primavera in commemorative mode was Einstürzende Neubauten (EN). The German industrial legends are celebrating three decades of activity with a retrospective tour through Europe. Though they brought a workshop’s worth of power tools and metal scraps — all of which were used as instruments/sound sources through the concert— the setlist focused on the band’s last two decades, only including “Haus der Lüge” from before 2000. Sure, if by 1989 EN’s psychopathic edge had already morphed into a more sophisticated type of intensity, by the time F.M. Einheit departed in 1995, the quintet had completely abandoned any literal attempt at invoking industrial holocausts. That’s the version of the band we got to see, with Alexander Hacke’s bass as the sole melodic anchor, N.U. Unruh generating sounds from the strangest bits of hardware imaginable, and Blixa Bargeld leading the revue.

Known to some as Nick Cave’s longtime guitarist/foil, Bargeld’s own idiosyncratic style is implemented by Jochen Arbeit, who performs with the flair of the most accomplished untrained guitar-stylist, rarely strumming a chord the conventional way, preferring to play the instrument as a noise generator — at a point using a dildo to attack the strings. That’s the takeaway lesson from EN’s set. When we see them do a song only with Bargeld on vocals, Hacke on bass, and Unruh folding, ripping, and stretching a tinfoil sheet to provide a sonic bedrock, it’s clear industrial music is all about textures, and the inevitable juxtaposition of the mechanistic and the organic, rather than doing butt rock with a drum machine as most bands in the scene are wont to do.

Cementing Primavera’s idyll with reunions, Ride, an iconic band from the shoegaze/britpop era, decided to kickstart their reunion tour with their Barcelona performance, just like Pulp did back in 2011. With their reputation as the third arm in shoegaze’s classic triptych ensured thanks to Nowhere (1990), in theory Ride were summoned to extend Slowdive’s enchanting reunion show at Primavera 2014. Thing is, by the time Ride dissolved in 1996, they had been a run-of-the-mill britpop act for quite some years. That was the burden the Oxford group had to push against during their Primavera show, with their more atmospheric tracks hampered by a bludgeoning lack of subtlety, and their noisier cuts cleaned-up to unearth hooks and melodies from beneath the layers of distortion. The result was a bright-to-the-point-of-asepsis sound that, except for “Vapour Trail” and a bloodless feedback-interlude in “Drive Blind,” was far too prosaic to live up to the band’s promise; revealing instead the lineage one could extend from The Stone Roses down to Oasis, via the sometimes-adventurous, sometimes-populist work of The Verve and Ride themselves. (JR)

Out of time and place

An urban park designed for these sort of events, it is easy to underestimate Parc del Forum’s enormity when the place is most empty, giving off this sense of it being an incomplete city of some kind. The first act outdoors that took our notice was Ocellot, which opened up the Pitchfork stage Thursday. What’s interesting is that if I heard this act in 2011, I would have found them somewhat interesting. However, their sonic debt to mid-2000s Animal Collective just shows how much the sound has aged. While there were bits of jammy elements to it, it didn’t fit in this time and place.

Place took a weird turn when I walked by the ATP stage and noted a grassy knoll jutting out like a cliff overlooking two industrial plants. I wondered the purpose of this stub before turning to the Ray-Ban stage and listening briefly to Hiss Golden Messenger. However, it also felt out of place. The blues rock just didn’t jive well with what most of the crowd here wanted, sounding something like what you’d find some lazy afternoon at an American festival. It didn’t help that MC Taylor engaged in awkward banter about North Carolina, which seemed a universe away from Catalonia.

The first band that seemed like a fit was Exassens, who opened the adidas Originals stage. But as the most unnecessary intro indicated, it was more because they were Catalonian. Their brand of post-rock was something that worked the crowd, and while familiar-sounding to anyone who has listened to anything in that genre, still seemed enjoyable.

Twerps was probably the first act to struggle on stage. The cavernous Pitchfork stage must have felt overwhelming to them. While smaller than the Heineken and Primavera stages that are standard fare at big festivals, we saw a few acts buckle under the lights and pressure of being on such vast grounds with a powerful name attached to it, and this group was no exception. Their jangly kiwi-pop by way of Melbourne was classic, but they were out of their element.

The first act that really popped out was the opener to the ATP stage, Yasmine Hamdan. Admittedly, the Lebanese chanteuse’s vocals seemed overwhelmed by that stage’s size and the various instrumentals bouncing off of it, but she held her own. What made her stand out, though, was her flexibility: At some points she was gliding along to some mid-2000s indie rock, other times she was going with a latter-day Spaghetti Western sound. She even played around with post-rock, eventually shedding her traditional dress for more normal attire in the process. It’s a modernized Lebanese sound that works, and she is someone to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Of course, the problem with having such a large lineup is that you tend to miss out on a lot of acts, but you may also find yourself in a period where you’re just running through different performers because there’s nothing interesting going on, all of them being placed badly. The miasma stage on the first day happened just after the sun began to fall in with the skyline. One of them was Viet Cong, who despite having the most pointless controversy surrounding their name, really had nothing to go for it other than to beg the question of whether a garage rock was still relevant. (ZP)

Long history, short memory

Aside from Ride, this year’s Primavera’s big reunion coup was finally nabbing The Replacements; a task twice as difficult to pull given the ‘Mats’ distaste for flying. Over a year into their reunion tour, the alt rock originators jumped the pond for a very limited run of European dates — which eventually capped-off the Minnesotans’ tenure for the time being. Absolutely essential to understand the evolution of contemporary alternative/independent music, the Replacements at the same time are the perfect band for Primavera to book, and an uncomfortable match. On one hand, they are one of the reasons this whole thing exists, but they’re also an act built on nostalgia. The latter would seem to contradict our hypothesis on Primavera’s core audience, given how the ‘Mats yearn for a time unknown to today’s twentysomethings, when college radios and fanzines were the only way to consume “underground” music, and (classic) rock was a synonym for vital youthful expression. Hell, what’s ‘left of the dial’ even supposed to mean for someone who has never touched an actual radio dial?

Nonetheless, the Replacements are one of the easiest bands to form a sentimental bond with: their songs are a perfect encapsulation of the teenage experience; despite their punk roots, they’re an outstanding pop band at heart; and youth job opportunities are as fucked up today as they were during the Reagan years. For those still unconvinced, as soon as the band gets on stage, we can all feel they possess a special energy — given an extra push by a spotless back catalog and something that ain’t exactly band chemistry, but a sort of star quality that makes sense when “I Will Dare” or “Can’t Hardly Wait” start blasting from the speakers. The Replacements no longer are the raucous bar band they once were, though they look the part and are sloppy enough; neither do they drunkenly self-destruct on stage, but that’s not the sort of mystique one looks for in reunion shows. Sure, they mock-cover Joy Division, Paul Westerberg fumbles the lyrics and keeps the roadies picking up his mic stand, and that’s alright. What we are all here for, you know it when a few thousands join in for the chorus, is that killer closing spree of “Bastards of Young,” “Left of the Dial,” and “Alex Chilton.” The songs that guarantee a great show to celebrate a teenaged-festival, but also the type of music one needs to hear when one type of nostalgia begins to be replaced by another.

Roughly as old as the ‘Mats, Swans are anything but a reunion act. Playing Primavera for the fourth time in five years, Gira and his crew have no intention of reveling in the past, with at least half of their show devoted to unreleased material, never playing anything older than 2012. Swans’ relationship with Primavera is special — I’d go as far as saying their 2011 show started the band’s imperial phase, after a hesitant first comeback record. Swans know this, and have in fact released several live recordings from past Primavera concerts. All that made their 2015 turn noteworthy, advertised as a rare 3-hour indoors show. The catch being Swans played Barcelona, on this same tour, barely half a year before, and their repertoire in both turns was identical. One is entitled to ask what is so special this time around, then?

Being an old Swans fan who never expected to see them live, let alone so frequently, I’m not the one to complain. Yet, it is hard to ignore that they have been touring way too much. That does not affect potential enjoyment of one of their shows, but I have some qualms. That their recent Primavera show was announced as a longer-than-usual extravaganza, yet another sign of the risk of Swans’ shows becoming an endurance test instead of a creative act.

American Football’s is the exact opposite case: a recently reunited band basking in a newfound appreciation for late-90s emo — they were joined in this year’s Primavera line-up by Mineral and Brand New. No doubt booking American Football is another concession to the sentimental education of the segments of Primavera’s audience that were getting ready to leave their teenage years by the turn of the millennium; however, it’s also an example of the internet allowing a somewhat obscure band to endure, flourish, and (perhaps like Swans themselves, or Neutral Milk Hotel, who played Primavera last year) find a new audience — no matter if a decade or so “late.”

It’s a bit incongruous to hear these songs about emotional turmoil performed by happy-looking middle-aged men. I can imagine a 16-year-old’s life being shaken-up by finding American Football’s self-titled album at the right moment, but graying family men may have a harder time getting into it. That’s not a knock on the band, who have all the right in the world to be as happy as they want. God knows there is no one, true way to get into a band. Hell, there may have been some people in the audience who discovered American Football via a meme, and took a genuine liking to their melancholic guitar work. The internet is the most curious beast, you know. (JR)

When things grow too large

The size factor came ringing back as Thursday night reached an uncertain climax. At the Heineken stage, one of the two main stages, Antony & The Johnsons entered in a choir gown, playing with L’Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya (or OCB) on several different songs. That he could fill the area all the way past the front screen some 80 meters away from the stage was impressive. However, it was clear that, in spite of his vocal sophistry, beautiful accompaniment, and somewhat compelling art film, people seemed more interested in just being there than actually listening to the music. Recently I had spoken to Circuit des Yeux about the issue of crowds talking during a performance, yet this was far more prominent. It became an issue even in the crush, for the amount of noise drowned out his eloquent yet soft vocals, despite ample amplification. It was ruining the performance, and seemed to indicate he was better suited for a more indoor setting.

Frustrated, I wandered back to the Ray-Ban stage, a 10-minute walk from the Heineken stage, to catch Aussie breakout Chet Faker. At first he was impressive, dropping some beats that sound like Bibio’s lost potential with smatterings of Ratatat (who we’ll get to later). His slow jams for the slow were impressive as well, even cobbling together a solid cover of “No Diggity.” However, it became a little apparent that even a presence and sound as vast as his was still too small for the big stage, as he was slowly losing steam and even getting out of tune midway through his set. There’s a definite future for Mr. Murphy, but he needs to strengthen himself in this environment.

Eventually, around 1:30 AM, we hit something essentially equivalent to a headliner with James Blake, the first (but not last) person in this festival being chased by the ghosts he created. The beacon of dubstep is trying his hardest to step away from the brand, becoming something of his own character. At times, his voice and sound varied from the soulful to the mourning, pushing what he could do in different directions. I’ve been hard on this guy, but seeing him live helped me understand that he’s attempting to be more than just a figurehead to a movement that isn’t really his anymore. It may only be a matter of time before people start seeing Blake as something more.

Closing out the night, we meandered over to The Suicide Of Western Culture, a Barcelona-based name appreciated by many around Europe, at the adidas Original stage. The strains of electronic acts with word Fuck in their names are apparent here, combining the frantic pacing of Holy Fuck with the bombastic energy of Fuck Buttons, all the while sounding enjoyable, danceable, and nonrepetitive even at this time of night. This was one of the few acts we saw that was too large for its stage, rather than the other way around. There was a good vibe going even as we left at 4 am, leaving the DJs to the partiers. (ZP)

Why you gotta politic?

I will say this much: Maybe it’s my later age, but the idea of being up until 6 AM just to see the whole festival sounds really unappealing. Then again, the sun sets much later in Spain, so make of that what you will.

With the line to see José González obnoxiously long, and the line for the Heineken Secret Stage (which seemed like the ideal Tiny Mix Tapes stage: Obscure, tucked away, and next to a giant yacht perfect for smuggling copious amounts of marijuana) proportionally so, we wandered in and settled out first set on Brazilian hard rock act by way of Amsterdam Fumaça Preta. Their actions set the tone for a spell: Talking in Spanish and vague bits of Portuguese, their frontman made a blunt political statement by proudly wrapping himself in the Spanish flag, as if to bait the Catalonians into causing a ruckus. It didn’t really work, if only because they were saving their energy for His Royal Majesty Felip VI (more on that later). At the same time, the loss isn’t too surprising: Their twinge of hard rock just didn’t hit right.

Walking around, I thought I saw Ex Hex playing but later found out it was Nuria Graham. She played well, reminding me in many ways of Tennis. Then, after grabbing some food, I pulled back to the same stage to catch what I thought was DIIV but turned out to be Ex Hex instead. I heard mutterings among the Anglophones that the political machinations of Meredith Graves had something to do with the switch-up, but that proved false, as the band played the next day. Meanwhile, Ex Hex themselves had vibes reminiscent of the Dum Dum Girls, but without the Pretenders-like uniforms. It was 80s style girl-rock with some very strong guitars going on, but nothing too special.

It seems Catalonia was missing from the scene today, with the Ray-Ban stage occupied by one Sr. Chinarro, who played a lovely mix of Spanish folk. Interestingly, this guy happened to be who inspired Dan Bejar to created his Five Spanish Songs EP (which are all covers of his work) back in 2013. I mention this because I was heading by this stage to hit up the ATP stage, which was to feature The New Pornographers. Sadly, neither Bejar — who is currently prepping for the press peppering him on why he hates Taylor Swift, the poor sap — nor country chanteuse Neko Case were on hand, leaving the core band. I last saw this band 10 years ago, right when Kathryne Calder joined as the prodigal niece. With that said, she has grown into her position well. Her voice, while lacking Case’s vibrant air, was still powerful and forceful. It helps that the band took on a more rocking approach, stepping away from the poppy nature that they’re known for save for “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” which they no doubt did for shits and giggles. Things got weirder as the set took a turn into the early back catalog and frontman A.C. Newman deciding to sing Bejar-led “Testament to Youth and Verse.” With all due respect and effort, it felt like Sammy Hagar singing “Hot for Teacher:” It just doesn’t sound the same. (ZP)

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