ATP: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Curated By Godspeed You! Black Emperor, or: Lift Yr Skinny Wrists Like Antennas to Lemons
December 8th, 2010 | Published in Articles
Thoughts on the weekend of the 3rd, 4th and 5th of December; at Minehead Butlins. Your intrepid reporter had better things to do than carry a camera around, hence his report is decorated with everyday tales from in and around a lemony chalet.
I massively resent ATP, for various reasons which are both reasonable and petty; and though the line-up curated by Godspeed looked good, I just couldn’t do it. Eventually though, the thought of the Country Teasers playing to a crowd that didn’t involve my beaming face, was just too much for me. I HAD TO GO. I managed to find someone in London selling two tickets in a four-berth chalet, gathered a glamorous companion to my side and left for the wilds of Minehead Butlins.
Well, to be fair, before that we hung around for several hours as we waited on news from our chalet-mates: a boiler belonging to one of them had chosen that morning to break and leak everywhere. Excellent timing. What with the snow and ice as well, things looked bleak. Eventually we decided to leave of our own accord, and hope that something in London resolved itself to our advantage. This tricked the cosmic scales beautifully and just as I got into my car, I got a message from the Londoners saying they would be leaving soon. Onwards!
Glamorous companion picked up, we left the white roads of Southampton behind; to find that the further afield we travelled, the less snow there was. We arrived at Minehead Butlins near 5pm, and parked up inside; despite the fact that our tickets where still on their way from London. After about an hour and a half of desperately trying anything we could to open a bottle of cider (tyre pumps don’t work), we had a wander around the site; eventually deciding on a delightfully quaint little pub called “The Sun and Moon”. After much musing, we decided on the minestrone soup; and after more musing, we decided it would be better called “spaghetti hoops with peas”. It was about this point that our chalet-mates arrived, and we finally breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t a Gumtree scam.
We checked in and then trekked through the rain to our base for the weekend. It was a modest affair: two rooms, one bathroom and a front door that refused to be locked – though one of us would later master this skill. More importantly, as we perused our palace, we noticed a slight fragrance of lemon; well, I say “slight” – it was more akin to being buried alive in a giant lemon. It transcended mere “cleanliness and freshness”, and became: “what the hell are they trying to cover up?!”. Maybe they’d actually carted out heaps of faeces in wheelbarrows, before adjusting the pillows and dousing the place in LEMON-NESS. Anyway, it was late now, and we’d already missed Growing, Black Dice and J-Fo (Josephine Foster); we decided to wander down for White Magic. They were ok, nothing to get too excited about. This, plus the cancelling of Daniel Higgs’ performance (airport-strandedness), meant that all we saw was a two minute burst of “BRRRRRRRR” bass from Tim Hecker; which we weren’t in the mood for. So we returned to our chalet and went to sleep.
Not the best of Fridays.
We awoke the next morning with hope in our hearts and, after the expected amount of festival dithering, I went to visit the Flower/Corsano Duo. Who were truly ecstatic from the off; just going from peak to peak. I haven’t given much notice to them in the past, mainly because I couldn’t get excited about Mick Flower’s shaahi baaja – a Japanese/Indian (there seem to be some confusion…) banjo-type thing that’s played on a table-top. But I saw them a few months back, and it was a revelatory experience. Frenetic and colourful, but with a meditative, trance-like quality. The propulsion seems to come more from the shaahi baaja, than the drums; which dance every which way under corsano’s hands and feet. Playing largely unencumbered by effects, Flower explores trilling drones of notes; whilst Corsano is a blur of invention and obscene technique. It was interesting to hear his drums given the “pounding” treatment from the PA, but the pay-off seemed to be a big loss in detail and dynamic. Nevertheless, Flower/Corsano were a joyful noise. Someone close to me said, “This is shit…”. But they were quite wrong.
I had to miss the end of Flower/Corsano’s set, to immerse myself in the splendour of Bardo Pond: I had high expectations of them, and I wasn’t disappointed. They made a real wall of noise – to the extent that, stood next to the main speakers without my earplugs (ugh), I damaged my already damaged hearing for the rest of the weekend. I may even have been wearing them, I forget. It was loud. They played a couple of my favourites off the “Lapsed” album, filling my ears with heavy psychedelic sludge and noise. Already the first two bands of the day had made up for Friday. With my ears reeling from Bardo Pond, I caught some of The Dead C; a band I’ve always liked. But I just couldn’t get excited about them at ATP. I won’t deny that I prefer them in song-mode, and here they seemed to be doing their more experimental thing. Its possible I was just stood in a bad spot, since I could only really hear one of the guitars properly – the feed-backing one, which to be fair was indeed feed-backing very nicely – but I struggled to find any reason to stay. Hey ho.
I think it was around this point that we again visited our watering hole of choice: “The Sun and Moon.” We ate delightfully, and chatted with gay abandon. Next up we went to the centre stage, to watch Scout Niblett. Clad proudly in a fluorescent safety jacket, Ms Niblett charmed herself into our hearts; if I was brutally honest, I’d say that maybe only one or two of her songs were really good, but her charisma brushed this kind of petty criticism aside. She was dwarfed by the massive stage, but filled it with more enthusiasm than I saw anywhere else that weekend; stretching her arms up in a triumphant gesture. She played some guitar songs, before being joined by a drummer (who was surprisingly under-amplified); later she spent an eternity getting to the drum kit herself, sitting down and fiddling about for ages before suddenly asking, “Any questions?”. That was my quote of the weekend. After Ms Niblett, I faced a dilemma: John Butcher or Tindersticks… Up to the day itself, there had been no question in my mind that it was John Butcher; but as the hour approached, I realised how important Tindersticks are to me. So, I fudged it and watched some of each: a reasonable solution, but one which inevitably leads to regret. The Butcher that I saw was masterful coaxing of his sax, and manipulation of feedback from a mic and amp; parts of it sounded as if he was scraping the sax. I can’t really elaborate on that, but that what my brain recalls. I look forward to his medieval adventures in Southampton. Tindersticks have often been the listening of choice when I’ve been living in grim times; but I’ve only seen them live once (at the recording of the Bloomsbury Theatre live album, if you want me to show off – did I mention my backstage pass…?) and that was before their first two albums had become nailed to my heart. So I felt I had to see them, even though it meant missing alot of John Butcher’s set. On reflection, they weren’t staggering. Its been a long time; years have passed. They were an inverse Niblett: they had some great songs, but there was something somewhat colourless and unengaging about them. They played a song I didn’t recognise, and whilst it was quite a beautiful song, it seemed to be shorn of the drab, bedsit glamour that Tindersticks had always excelled at – they felt like a full band version of David Gray. But they treated us to some old favourites; and when they played “Raindrops” for their last song, I won’t lie to you dear reader, I was close to tears. Such a beautiful song.
After this, we went along to Borbetomagus, which I’d been really excited about; but for whatever reason, I just wasn’t feeling it. This is the trouble with a festival like this: on paper the line-up looks incredible, but in the flesh you find yourself becoming blasé. Bands you would normally consider travelling two hours to see, suddenly become less important than getting some food or having a nap; and instead of making a special effort to see the one band, you see them as part of a package of bands and they become susceptible to changes in your mood. If I had driven to London to see Borbetomagus, I would have been mentally prepared to see them, and excited to see them; instead of which, I walked into their venue after seeing Tindersticks play and thought: “I don’t really want to hear this now.” Which is my loss, and the band’s. Its not healthy.
On the way back to our chalet, I spotted Daniel Higgs, and got his attention with the immortal words: “Excuse me, Mr Higgs?”. I guess you had to have been there. He had no idea when he was going to be playing. The suspense… I think this was the night that we watched a fox chase a rabbit around the chalets – that’s the kind of crazy shit that happens in Minehead Butlins. Inspired by this, we decided to have a very un-rock’n’roll early night. Whereupon I was again entertained by a strange ‘pinging” nose which emanated from somewhere near the bathroom.
We awoke for the final day of ATP-ing, and started our travels with a trip to Marissa Nadler. In the past, I haven’t been overly fussed about her songs; but for some reason, in the context of all the hubbub, I really enjoyed her set. Quiet, very obvious singer-songwriter fare, but delivered with hushed assuredness. Next up was Francisco Lopez, who sounded like he might be interesting. He was. We arrived to find a quadraphonic set-up, with the audience encouraged to sit in the middle, blindfolded. We couldn’t get seats in the middle, nor could we get a blindfold; but we could hear well enough from the side, and I simply closed my eyes. Lopez deals with field recordings, often processed beyond recognition. If I was to make any criticism, it was that some of it was TOO processed – it would have been nice to have just basked in the unadulterated sounds at times. It was surprisingly clanky and industrial; with some really expertly timed cuts, jumping from speaker to speaker. We could feel this from where we were, but in the middle it must have been quite an experience. There was a long section of rain and storm sounds that really did evoke the experience of those states; the sheer power of natural forces. I would have liked more quieter sections, but it seems a petty criticism in the light of such a tour de force. The best description I could give you, is that is was like watching a film without any visuals. A really staggering performance. After this we caught some of Mahjongg, who were pretty awful: dreary indie-dance type blah with vocals that didn’t help. Before we left, they did a more overtly techno track, which was quite acceptable. It had handclaps. I like handclaps.
After pretty much giving up on Land of Kush, who despite sounding interesting, were drowned out by chatter and drinking around us; we paid a visit to uncle Charlemagne Palestine who WASN’T playing a piano. I suppose this was always going to be unlikely. Instead, he made a very beautiful drone using a laptop, and later wine glasses and his voice. His singing was ecstatically unfettered and joyful; just the opposite of any stereotypes of academic dryness often associated with this music. Unfortunately, I had to leave him early to try and catch some of Rangda’s set. This plan was derailed by a queue to end all queues, so instead I made my way to the Reds stage for my fated destiny: the Country Teasers. The truth is, I had built up such expectations for this, that it was unlikely to ever live up to them. But to paraphrase that annoying quote from that annoying film: they had me at the soundcheck. Mr B. Wallers simply sung some lyrics about a truck driver, and I was in love. Who needs Tom Cruise? I’ve seen Mr. Wallers play in his Rebel incarnation several times, but they very rarely play as the full Country Teasers band – apparently because this involves one of the guitarists flying over from the US. So this was a rare treat. They opened with “Spiderman in the flesh”, which halfway segues into the lyrics from Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh” – a recognisably famous and “safe” use of racist and homophobic lyrics; and therefore a perfect platform on which to build their second song: “Women And Children First”, which is probably their most offensive work. Opening gambit (if memory serves): “Women and children first / now the jews and the niggers / line them up against the wall / now pull your fucking triggers”. I think alot of people would by this point have been wondering what the fuck was going on… It was a good solid performance, and like I said, I had built up ridiculous expectations for it; but they played “Idiots” which was unexpected, and ended with “It Is My Duty”, which has always been one of my favourite songs. Despite my apparent lack of hyperbole about their set, a telling point was when they started playing “Success” and I immediately forgot myself and announced “Oh my god!” to anyone who could hear, like an excited nine-year old. Its rare I do that.
I ran from this excitement across to the Crazy Horse stage, passing Cluster along the way, to see Sick Llama; mainly out of “genre” solidarity. (I don’t approve of noise as a “genre”.) I’d never heard any Sick Llama, and to be fair I wasn’t knocked flat; it was a nice spew/sprawl of sound, but anything like this after Francisco Lopez was going to be judged harshly. We escaped, and made our final visit to the quiet haven that was “The Sun and Moon”; here we dined elegantly, like grown-ups. We also discovered, finally, that Daniel Higgs would now close the festival, at 2-15am. This would be a long day. It was about this time that I committed one of my true regrets of the weekend: I went to see Keiji Haino, decided I was tired and not feeling it, and left. Eek. I really regret that now. He was the worst victim of my “festival-itis”. If you find a beautiful jewel, its amazing; if someone says to you, “Next week I’m going to give you a beautiful jewel”, you look forward to it and prepare for its enjoyment. If someone says, “Next week I’m going to give you a suitcase full of beautiful jewels”, you inevitably find that upon opening said case, some jewels get overlooked or neglected – despite their apparent beauty. Haino’s set was one of those jewels. I just wasn’t in the mood for it, and I suppose I had half my eye on Mr Higgs. We returned to Pacific Wharf, Delta 5 (our chalet), and napped/faux-napped our way through Emeralds, Wolves In The Throne Room and Daniel Menche.
Eventually we dragged ourselves over towards ATP-land, and saw some of The Sadies; which at the time I enjoyed (surfy/garagey pop with a clean rockabilly/americana sound), but looking back, I think it was just a bit of relief for my ears. We went up to the main Centre stage to see Deerhoof. This was the one venue where you could really get a feel for the more standard Butlins fare: I could well imagine watching the Sugababes there. Deerhoof were predictably great. Fun songs, a great guitarist, and a drummer smashing the hell out of a tiny kit. What’s not to like? They covered the Ramones’ “Pinhead” and also The Troggs’ “With A Girl Like You”, and finished with my favourite Deerhoof song. Predictably solid, and I feel like that’s almost a criticism. After Deerhoof people started to drift away, and thus missed possibly the highlight of the festival for me: Daniel Higgs. I knew nothing about his music before this, and went along purely on the recommendation and bubbling excitement of my companion; but I’m now fully converted. He sat before two mics and played long, cyclical droning songs on a banjo and a shruti box, accompanying them with his articulate vocals. The whole thing was rambling and spontaneous; in the best way. He may as well have been sitting in my living room, playing a few songs for me; he was so relaxed and natural. A very honest performance. Full of humour, yet also unafraid to make unashamedly spiritual and loving statements. In terms of stage presence, he reminded me a little of Will Oldham – you couldn’t help but be charmed by him. He finished his set, and the ATP weekend, with an acapella rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, from the Wizard Of Oz; gathered his instruments into his arms and left the stage a gentleman. One of the most engaging performances I’ve seen in a long time. Its very rare, that you come across anything that seems to evoke the spirit and resonance of old blues recordings; but Daniel Higgs truly did that for me. It wasn’t any kind of backward-looking, museum piece; but a living, breathing performance that tapped into the same magic.
We walked back to the chalet for the last time, and slept the sleep of the just.
I opened the door into my room in Southampton the next morning, and smelled the reassuring aroma of lemons. I had memories in my brain, and chalet stench on my clothes and belongings.
Looking back I was genuinely surprised at how many people were there at the weekend; I have no idea of the statistics, but it was ALOT of people. I was also surprised that people could be bothered to queue up for an eternity to see Neurosis (to the extent that it was “one in, one out”), not to mention the fact they played TWICE. The whole thing was very civilized and good-natured, and even the security people seemed to be 99.9% non-annoying. One of the nicest aspects of the festival, was the extent to which people made the effort to make it a fun event. The fancy-dress theme for this year was “Seventies dad/science lecturer/paedophile”; and many, many people – particularly the males – really went to town on their costumes. So many funny beards and glasses! I think it shows real dedication to grow a ridiculous moustache – enduring weeks and months of looking very silly – just for this weekend. Some of the more paedophile-leaning costumes were real works of art. I bet there were lots of people happy to change their clothes and shave their faces on Monday morning!
Oh, what were Godspeed You! Black Emperor like?
I didn’t see them.