I’ve been wanting to go to an ATP music festival for a long time. The festival grew out of the Bowlie Weekender organised by Belle & Sebastian at the Camber Sands holiday camp and was rebooted as the All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) festival curated in its first year by Mogwai. Cool bands would ask more cool bands to play. The line-up is often a wet dream for music nerds like myself.
Sadly, circumstances have prevented me attending before now. This has been due to limited finance and, limited holiday entitlement. Thankfully, times have changed, I’ve paid off some debts and I get more freedom with my holidays that I did in the past. When I saw that ATP was to be curated by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel in December I picked up tickets as soon as I could.
It wasn’t straightforward from there. The festival had to be rescheduled for undisclosed reasons shortly before the initial date in December. This change of dates was a two edged sword. March is a better time for travel than December but two of my friends could not make the new date. This triggered some frantic searching for other people to use the tickets. I didn’t really want to sell the tickets to strangers and the market value of the tickets dropped. Fortunately two friends stepped into the breach bringing their 2 year old son with them.
Despite these logistical difficulties I was still very excited about the event. I counted about 20 bands on the bill that I wanted to see. Below is a list of the bands I managed to see.
The Elephant 6 holiday surprise band
Jeff Mangum (twice)
Mike Watt and George Hurley playing the songs of the Minutemen
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
A hawk and a hacksaw
The Boredoms (twice)
The Magnetic Fields
Olivia Tremor Control
The American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME)
The Apples in Stereo
The Magic Band
The Sun-Ra Arkestra
Secret Surprise closing set featuring Sun-Ra arkestra, Olivia Tremor Control, The Elephant 6 holiday Surprise band, the Boredoms and friends.
Overall, this represents a very good weekend. I saw a lot of bands I never thought I would see, I made some new friends and I had a lot of fun. I will now labour this point in detail.
The Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Band opened the festival on the Friday afternoon. The Holiday Surprise band is basically a pick-up/jam band composed of available members of Elephant 6 bands. They play covers and songs from their individual bands. At times they had more than 10 people on stage. They play an impressive array of instruments including the saw and some form of horn that fits around a large man. They played songs by bands like the Gerbils and Elf Power during a set which culminated in a cover of a Sun-Ra track called ‘enlightenment’. They got the crowd singing along with this track before walking into the crowd while playing their instruments. They then left the concert hall and walked about the pavilion at Butlins as the song continued. This was a great thing to see.
After this set I bought some t-shirts and ate some food. I then got myself into position to see the first Jeff Mangum set of the weekend. For many reasons I never thought that I would see Jeff Mangum play live. He has kept a very low profile for the best part of 15 years and it hasn’t really been possible to imagine that he would return to live work. I have been aware of Neutral Milk Hotel since my friends were blown away by them at a Glasgow show supporting Sparklehorse in the late ‘90s. I had a couple of Olivia Tremor Control records but I only picked up ‘in the aeroplane over the sea’ when it was reissued by Domino in 2005. Since then it has been one of my favourite records. I love it.
Seeing these songs played live was something special. For the most part Mangum played acoustic guitar unaccompanied but at key moments he was joined by other Julian Koster on the saw or Scott Spillane blowing a horn. Like many of the bands on this bill the sound is capable of raising goosebumps. I was singing along to songs like Holland, 1945, The King of Carrot Flowers and two-headed boy. My singing made me happy although I’m sure others would disagree.
After the end of the Jeff Mangum set I watched part of the Raincoats set. I saw the Raincoats at the Phoenix festival in 1994 although I’ve only picked up their records in the past couple of years. I managed to see 5 songs including their classic version of ‘lola’. I then ran through to see the Fall who delivered an aggressive set of classic Mark E Smith. This was the 3rd time I’ve seen the Fall and they’ve been good every time.
After the Fall I watched the solo set by Thurston Moore despite drunken interjections from my friends who don’t like Sonic Youth as much as I do. The set drew mainly from the 1995 Psychic Hearts album. At present, this is the closest I’ll get to seeing Sonic Youth for a year or two.
The next set that I saw was probably the musical highlight of my weekend. I saw Mike Watt and George Hurley play a set of Minutemen songs. For the uninitiated, the Minutemen were an early ‘80s SST punk band whose career was cut short by the death of singer/guitarist D. Boon in a car crash. The Minutemen were more expansive than most punk bands. Musically they were self taught and they played with an almost psychic degree of precision. They sounded like nothing that came before them. Their songs had intelligent political lyrics and off-beat humour. D. Boon and Mike Watt seemed to have their own private language. Watt and Hurley will play Minutemen songs as a duo but they would never use another guitarist on these songs.
I started to listen the Minutemen on boxing day 1991 when I bought their post-mersh volume 3 singles compliation CD from Tower Records in Glasgow. As soon as I heard ‘if regan played disco’ that they were nearly perfect. I susbsequently bought up their entire back catalogue and spent several years trying to play guitar like D Boon. I failed.
Walking into a room and hearing the music of the minutemen is an amazing experience. Seeing Mike Watt play bass is an amazing experience. These songs are fast, complicated and tight. Watt would play all the bass parts and sing the songs. At points where we expected a D Boon guitar break he would pause and look at the other side of the stage. It was really poignant. At a guess I would say that more than 30 songs were played with few pauses of breath. Many of my favourites were there but I could have watched them for 2 hours. At the end of the set Watt thanked the crowd and suggested that we should start out own bands. I’m too old for that sort of thing but the experience was spiritual. I hope I get to see this again.
After that I watched the end of the Blues Explosion set before heading home to catch some sleep before day 2.
We started the second day watching A Hawk and A Hacksaw. They were playing a soundtrack to some old Eastern European film. The music was very relaxing, perfect for a hangover. After that I went over to the main hall to catch the first Boredoms set of the weekend. I was blown away by the Boredoms when I saw them in Glasgow a few years back and the experience was similar here. The main dude, Eye, stood in a circle of 5 drummers, conducting them while 15 guitarists added further colour to the sound. The Boredoms had also bought their strange percurive guitar machine which is always fun. I urge anyone who likes interesting music to see the Boredoms if they can.
Later on that evening I watched Low who delivered the goods as they usually do. They were followed by Yann Tierson who was a new name to me. His electronic music made me think of Blade Runner and Air. I popped out to see a couple of songs by Earth but I was unimpressed so I returned to see the end of the Yann Tierson set.
Scratch Acid were another band I thought I would never see. I have a certain fondness for the Jesus Lizard, the band that Scratch Acid evolved into. Scratch Acid are a good, aggressive, noise rock band and David Yow is a great frontman but they lack the razor-like guitar of the Jesus Lizard. It was great seeing them but the Jesus Lizard are probably better.
On the Sunday morning I started the day by watching ACME – the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. They are an instrumental group who played a few chilled out pieces. They were helped on one song by Julian Koster of Elephant 6 fame.
After that we went for a bit of a wander and we met Scott Spillane, a member of both Neutral Milk Hotel and the Gerbils. He is a really nice bloke. I always feel like I’m bothering someone famous if I go up and start talking to them but Spillane was very genial. We talked a bit about the dire state of American politics, health care in the US and the UK, what he thought various Neutral Milk Hotel Songs were about (he doesn’t know) and the possibility of new Jeff Mangum material. He told me that Jeff has written some new songs that he might record and that there are still plenty of old songs yet to be recorded. He thinks that Jeff sometimes doesn’t want to record because that means a song is ‘finished’ but he thinks we’ll hear something at some point. Really nice bloke.
After that we went to the cinema to see 20 minutes of footage from a Slint documentary by director Lance Bangs. The finished film should be out by the end of the year. I’m really looking forward to it. In the footage we learn that the Jesus Lizard song ‘Mouthbreather’ is based on a comment Steve Albini made about Britt from Slint after he trashed Albini’s house – ‘don’t get me wrong, he’s a nice guy, I like him just fine but he’s a mouthbreather.’
After this I saw the Boredoms again, followed by the Magic Band and Olivia Tremor Control. Olivia Tremor Control were interesting to see but their set was hampered by slightly ropey sound. I then watched the Sun Ra Arkestra before we all had to queue up to see the second Jeff Mangum set of the weekend. The songs were slightly different from Friday with a cover of ‘true love will find you in the end’ by Daniel Johnston and the little known Neutral Milk Hotel song ‘little birds’ from the recent box set. Very, very good.
Sebadoh closed the main festival with an energetic set. I like Sebadoh so it was good to see them. However the highlight of the evening was probably a secret show that wasn’t advertised after Sebadoh finished. A friendly member of the OTC roadcrew told us that Sun Ra, the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Band, the Boredoms and the Olivia Tremor Control would be having a jam in the Reds venue at the end of the night. We ran down after Sebadoh finished and we were not disappointed. At least 30 musicians filled the stage to play the Sun Ra song ‘enlightenment’ bringing a musical symmetry to the event. Beautiful.
ATP is probably the best festival ever.