ATP has always been an underground event, taking its cue from a Velvet Underground song and the initiative of several cult Scottish bands (Belle And Sebastian kick-starting the party with 1999’s Bowlie Weekender and Mogwai curating the first ATP in 2000). In its 10 years, however, it has become a respected brand and global phenomenon, with its own record label, gigs and festivals taking place in America and Australia and a well-received movie being assembled jigsaw-style by Tarnation creator Jonathan Caouette from thousands of fan videos. Behind all this is founder Barry Hogan, whose own open mind and good taste – not to mention his trust in that of others – has seen everyone from Mike Patton to My Bloody Valentine headline the event, always inviting the most diverse array of bands imaginable. It’s been dubbed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore as an experience equivalent to ‘the ultimate mix-tape’, and part of the appeal has always been the surprise of seeing unheard-of bands alongside the more familiar faces.
So it made sense in 2002 that the festival should broaden its horizons from musician curators to the legendary creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening. His Los Angeles ATP took the festival’s already outstanding tradition of taking place in a holiday resort to another level, by holding it alongside and aboard the retired ocean liner the Queen Mary. As Groening reminisced in this year’s programme (a gorgeous, glossy book given to everyone for free), it was a weekend to remember, with the venue almost as important as the performers.
For many, much of the appeal of a modern festival lies in the rough and ready debauchery of the campsite, where your proximity to other revellers practically guarantees free-for-all madness. ATP is a more refined affair, with chalet accommodation and many of the facilities of the Butlins resort it takes over included in the ticket price. This means a typical day might start with a proper shower, bowl of cereal and dip in the on-site swimming pool, as opposed to dowsing yourself with a bottle of water, forcing down crisp sandwiches and queuing for half an hour to use an overflowing portaloo. Winding down might involve a massage, game of 10-pin bowling or 2AM cinema screening of ‘Drag Me To Hell‘, followed by a nightcap fresh from the fridge in your own temporary living room, while the festival’s own TV channels tempt you into staying awake ’til morning with 2 channels of 24-hour cult TV and film. Much preferable to freezing in a field while some idiot periodically repeats irritating quotes from movies and shows you thought you’d forgotten about.
Of course, all of this would mean nothing without a worthwhile line-up, so it was just as well that Groening had used his imagination in selecting this weekend’s guests. By his own admission, it was, ‘quite an adventurous line-up’, with everything from African funk to Japanese noise, as well as a few safe bets and current indie darlings. Friday kicked off with the lush 12-string instrumentals of James Blackshaw. Bewitching a sparse but appreciative crowd of the early-arrived, the slightly limited dynamics and repetitive nature of his playing was made up for by its sheer soothing power. Broadcast followed him nicely, their psychedelic 60s spook-hop building to an unexpectedly intense freak-out which rattled the ribcage and induced near-epilepsy with its accompanying visual assault. Next, Built To Spill and Cold Cave dished out well-worn Americana and too-trendy electro respectively to small crowds of hardcore fans and bemused first-timers. Then the weekend’s oldest and most distinguished band took to the main stage to well and truly rock everyone in attendance. Iggy And The Stooges and their 40-year-old material still have the raw power to incite moshpit- mania and unbridled adoration, with a wildly diverse crowd unified in their appreciation for a band of over 250 years of combined age. Iggy remains wildly energetic, and if the danger of the music and his early performances is understandably absent, his warmth and connection to the crowd certainly aren’t. Inviting stage invasions and teaching the audience his dance moves, he is still the ultimate frontman, and an inspiring presence for the duration of his band’s 90 minutes. Long may he continue to rock!
Many are exhausted after the Stooges, but there is still a sizable gathering for Toumani Diabate, an African kora-player par excellence whose extensive band get everyone dancing instantly. While to some the music itself is generic, the enthusiastic performances of the band keep an up-for-it crowd entertained for the duration. Afterwards, Japanese girl-punk trio Shonen Knife come out in their cute matching dresses to utterly charm all still awake (it’s approaching midnight). Their 20-plus years experience is evident in their mastery of their instruments and musical style – breakneck Ramones-rock played with maximum energy and for naïve laughs through their off-beat lyrical obsessions. Songs such as ‘BBQ Party‘ and ‘Sushi Bar Song‘ (with glorious crowd-echoed chants of ‘Pig out!’ and ‘Su-shi!’) are simple, guilty pleasures, perfect for a Friday night sing-a-long. Liars round out the night with one of the weekend’s most aniticipated sets, starting slowly but building to a crunchy, complex stew of aggressive indie-rock that thrills as many as it turns off.
Saturday begins with Danielson and his high-pitched, jangly American indie. Endearing without becoming twee and rocking without losing their warm appeal, the band are tight and focused while the yelps and Mercury Rev-esque vocal stylings of frontman Daniel Smith keep the main stage’s audience intrigued and entertained. Lightning Dust are perfectly suited to the near-pitch-black darkness of the centre stage, opening up with a somewhat misleading synthesized beat giving way to Joshua Wells’ soft organ and Amber Webbers’ beguilingly warbled voice. As the songs are impressively fleshed out by more electronic beats, acoustic guitar and backing vocals, the set flits from barely-there two-minute slithers of beauty to extended freak-outs that almost sound like The Knife at their darkest, not least due to Webber’s voice being similarly tremulous to Karin ‘Fever Ray’ Dreijer’s. Deerhunter and Hollywood indie goddess Zooey Deschanel’s She & Him take to the main stage thereafter, with the former’s earnest rock and the latter’s syrupy country-folk being pleasant but not exactly earth-shattering.
The Residents, on the other hand, are a deliciously disturbing live presence, otherworldly in their intensity. Looking like the decrepit cannibal Grandpa from Texas Chainsaw Massacre flanked by a couple of flies with human bodies, their mixture of ‘spooooooky’ storytelling and Tom Waits-y death-blues has an enraptured audience under an unbreakable spell. Speaking at length of ghosts and ‘the mirror-people’, frontman Randy has more performance power in one of his hands than most bands do in their entire line-up. At times reminiscent of Primus, but mostly unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard, the band’s current incarnation in a 40-plus-year career gives the audience the most memorable set of the weekend, one to inspire debate and fevered nightmares. Next of note were The XX, one of the most-hyped bands around at the moment. Coming on (literally) like a pared-down, sexed-up version of The Cure, their mixture of breathy vocals, fluid guitar and deceptively basic songwriting makes them an acquired taste, and the divisively subtle album is merely rolled out and played louder live. This pleases their many fans no end, but leaves the uninitiated wondering what all the fuss is about. Later, James Chance has a late-night crowd boogying with wild abandon to his frenzied, squealing sax-punk, a fitting end to an epic day.
Sunday seems like something of a comedown, with the exception of The Boredoms repeating their previous day’s early-afternoon performance of ‘Boadrum’, their infamous percussion-centred odyssey. This goes down well with the crowds, being more accessible and entertaining than its pretentious concept may make it sound (so I’m told, anyway, as this reviewer’s Saturday night revelry led to him missing it). Later in the day, much-loved Mazzy Star chanteuse Hope Sandoval takes her new outfit The Warm Inventions for a spin, but seems to put most of her audience to sleep, the remainder reduced to occasional heckles of “boring!”. It’s a shame that her new songs don’t do her voice justice, as it remains a thing of delicate beauty.
Spiritualized then take over the main stage, with gospel singers and a huge band set-up to perform their shoegaze opus ‘Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space’. Jason Pierce’s songs remain slow-burning but hypnotically profound, stretching out into extended jams that initially enthrall but lose their lustre as the formula is repeated over two hours.
Joanna Newsom is next, appearing perhaps even more beautiful than she sounds as she shines in the spotlight of the centre stage. It is startling to see her beneath her huge harp, holding the whole weekend’s crowd (who formed the three days only queue to see her) in a spell of entranced wonder. She is at her best when her songs require only her voice and her instrument, sounding like a medieval maiden as her songs both soothe and surprise. She becomes more formulaic when her band chime in and she moves onto the piano, with an unflattering similarity to Kate Bush and even Tori Amos. However, her songs still reward the patient, sprawling out to over 10 minutes and taking many unexpected turns, even when their lyrical content threatens to become clichéd.
For many this is the end of the weekend – there are also late-night performances by the annoyingly screechy Raincoats (forced to start late due to la Newsom’s lack of punctuality) and a reportedly impressive Coco Rosie, as well as a repeated set by The XX. While the order of the bands could have been better arranged to avoid an anticlimactic ending (perhaps impossible due to touring schedules), one of the best things about the weekend has been the organisation; there has been hardly any overlap in sets, most people being able to catch a significant portion of every performance. This leads to new discoveries, rekindled love affairs with previous faves and plenty to talk about and investigate further.
All Tomorrow’s Parties, as with many festivals, is about keeping an open mind and enjoying yourself with like-minded individuals, but the more comfortable living conditions and mini-holiday feel help enhance the atmosphere and increase the potential for fun to be had. While this weekend’s line-up may not have pleased everyone overall, there was definitely something worth checking out both new and old for those willing to take a chance. If ATP can continue to happen four times a year in the UK (the other weekends this year are being curated by alt-rock legends Pavement, post-rock mavericks Godspeed You! Black Emperor and returning favourites Belle And Sebastian), hopefully it can continue to offer such a unique experience to discerning music lovers.
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