Tue 18 Sep 2012
Like A Death Of The Heart
Jesus, Where Do I Start?
This past winter Sarah and I ditched our computers and went backpacking across North America. We visited sixteen cities, doing a mix of tourist and offbeat cultural activities – we saw loads of live music, in DIY venues, bars, parks, festivals and large outdoor arenas and stayed with and met friends we’ve made through this blog. It really was an amazing adventure.
For the past five years I’ve written about bands from North America, purely based on what I’ve heard recorded. It never really crossed my mind how many people may be going to see these bands play live. When interviewing bands I would regularly ask what the scene is like in their home town – a question I no longer have to ask. I now have perspective on all of this and it feels rather strange. For the past month I have struggled to listen to music with a critical mindset and during the month I spent in New Zealand after the trip I didn’t attend a single live show. Only in the past few days have I started writing about music again and comparing all the amazing aspects of the music industry I witnessed in North America with the music industry in New Zealand.
My first introduction to live music in the USA came the night I arrived in Los Angeles and was a band who in my mind had a rather decent following. I remember asking my friend in LA if the show would sell out. In 2009 Screaming Females toured with The Dead Weather and they’ve received good press ever since – I remember seeing them in Nylon magazine. But perspective can be a weird thing. I saw Screaming Females play to a crowd of about 70 people in a performing arts centre that didn’t even have a permanent PA. I’m sure Screaming Females could draw a crowd twice that size in Auckland, Wellington or Melbourne.
The first licensed music venue we went to was in San Francisco, a place called The Rickshaw Stop. Again we were debating whether to buy pre-sale tickets, but decided against it. Luckily we got there early, Lotus Plaza had just released their latest album and plenty of people had noticed. But that wasn’t the case with every show. We saw Xiu Xiu in Seattle touring their latest album Always. The show was in the smaller downstairs band room of one of the city’s most well-known indie venues, while a hardcore punk festival roared away upstairs. Lotus Plaza drew about 200 people; Xiu Xiu about 60. Both shows cost $10.
One thing that excited us both about North America was the price of shows. In New Zealand it would cost upwards of $40 to see bands like Lotus Plaza, Best Coast or Jolie Holland. In the USA and Canada we never paid more than $15 for a show. You often didn’t pay to go and see bands without any press or buzz to back them up. One show we attended in Brooklyn, to see an artist who I blogged about on EMJ a year or so ago, was free. After each act the venue passed around a bucket and the artist received whatever the audience donated. The artist we went to see got about $3.
We saw a lot of bad bands too, in venues much like the one mentioned. Bands and solo musicians who made us realise the depth of talent in New Zealand is pretty good.
Some of the best music we witnessed was free. We saw Death Cab For Cutie and Calexico play in Chicago, at the same downtown amphitheatre that recently hosted the Lollapolooza festival. Die-hard fans could pay $25 to get up close , while everyone else could watch for free from behind the paying crowd. Those watching for free were even given a big screen to view the action up close. I’ve never seen anything like this in New Zealand. We also discovered a music venue in Brooklyn, New York had a similar philosophy. One night we arrived at The Knitting Factory to discover the Fruit Bats gig we were hoping to attend had sold out, but to our surprise and good fortune the venue had a glass wall behind the bar,which was in a separate room that pointed directly at the stage. Live music from the band room was being plugged through the bar PA. It wasn’t the greatest viewing platform, but we got to see and hear Fruit Bats for free.
In several cities we encountered music festivals that were free to the public all weekend long. In Montreal we arrived in town the same day the Montreal Jazz Festival started and in the city’s downtown area music of all types decorated the air. It was a truly eclectic festival, Norah Jones and the Dirty Projectors played at venues in the city and Chromeo headlined the main outdoor stage late on the final night. The city really was alive with music, a crowd of approximately 100,000 came out to see Chromeo. Similarly Chicago Blues Festival happened the same weekend we were there. The three-day-long festival showcased the best African-American blues musicians from across the country and ended with a live performance from Mavis Staples. At both events you could buy alcohol, despite them being in very public places, and we saw no signs of intoxication or violence.
But without a doubt the most exciting festival we attended was the Pitchfork Music Festival. We made a special trip back to Chicago for it. The festival really was an incredible experience, we’re already planning to go back next year. I’ve talked already about the cost of shows in North America, well this three-day festival cost just $110. As someone who is used to New Zealand festivals, with long lines for just about everything, boozed-out jocks pushing through the crowd and girls seemingly more interested in taking duck-face iPhone photos, I’m not really a festival fan. Pitchfork Music Festival had none of these annoyances. I was able to enjoy every artist from wherever I felt like standing and was easily able to move from stage to stage without missing large chunks of the festival.
The venue was perfectly chosen and laid out. It was just metres away from several forms of public transport – we got there by train every day – and there were plenty of trees to provide shade from both the rain and the searing Chicago heat. Two stages were at right-angles to each other, which meant clashing crowds weren’t competing for front row space, while a third stage was in the far corner of the venue surrounded by trees. Skirting the perimeter of the venue was a long line of food and drink carts, many offering vegetarian food and alcohol. The event, unlike New Zealand’s only alternative music festival, Laneway, was all-ages. The most unique part of the festival was the inclusion of Flatstock, a roadshow of around 30 poster artists who had their work on display and available for purchase. Sarah and I spent several hours here admiring the art and deciding what to purchase. The festival site also included a tent where indie record labels from across the USA had stalls to sell their merchandise. There was a lot more to the festival than live music.
The music was, however, what we were there to see. Pitchfork Music Festival is mostly about showcasing bands ready to make the step up from indoor venues like The Echo in LA, Neumos in Seattle and The Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York City to the larger outdoor stage, along with a selection of more established bands who have released albums in the previous 12 months and a couple of acts for nostalgia. This year’s more well-known acts included Feist, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Vampire Weekend, Hot Chip and The Olivia Tremor Control. On each day it was hard to pick one highlight, but when the festival ended and people asked me to choose I could remember one performance above the rest. Willis Earl Beal was just the second act I saw at the festival, but his roaring tiger-like ferocity on stage made him the most memorable. Swinging his cape, waving his mic stand high above his head and swigging straight from a bottle of whiskey, Beal growled like Tom Waits, belying any predetermined judgement people had made of him due to his lack of live instrumentation. Beal proved he needed no live band to back him up, his analogue tape-machine and voice did the job just fine. No other act all weekend came close to achieving Beal’s intensity, others charmed rather than punched their way into my memory. Bradford Cox’s set as Atlas Sound was more memorable for his banter than his music, which was completely overshadowed by a powerful thunderstorm that hit Union Park and eventually killed his guitar pedals. At one point he dished out medical advice, advocating the use of lukewarm water to rehydrate. Grimes was a delight after the sun faded, her stage energy rallied the crowd at the end of a hot day and her smile and politeness in between her punchy sounding pop hits won over the bursting blue stage audience. Purity Ring‘s performance on day one was the other big surprise of the festival. During a timeslot often given to more established acts they proved their strong billing, syncing lights to their music to add an extra sparkle to the night sky.
I came away from Pitchfork Music Festival wondering why Laneway, now Auckland’s only international indie music festival, hasn’t got it right. Auckland has a fantastic selection of parks, Grey Lynn Park and Albert Park come to mind. Is bureaucracy getting in the way? I’ve been on the other side and I know that noise issues play a factor, but for years Wellington has had successful outdoor festivals close to the CBD and residential areas. Homegrown and One Love have both run with cooperation from the Wellington City Council. Grey Lynn Park obviously has an issue with public transport, but a festival the size of Laneway hardly needs to rely much on trains or buses. Pitchfork encouraged people to bike by offering a secure storage area for bikes, and many people utilised it. PMF was also in a mixed residential area, but the promoters had the last band on at 8.30pm to avoid any major noise issues. The festival also gave license to many of the bands to play after parties, meaning the crowd dispersed rather quickly to other parts of the city.
After Pitchfork Music Festival we retured to New York, a place where putting the North American indie music scene into perspective became even more interesting. For many years I’ve read blogs like Brooklyn Vegan and Oh My Rockness and dreamed of going to gigs at Mercury Lounge, The Knitting Factory and The Cake Shop. To someone half a world away, those venues sounded like large auditoriums, with big PAs and a constant roll of popular NYC bands. These three venues were all the size of Auckland’s Whammy Bar. I’ve already spoken about The Knitting Factory – it became our favourite hangout – but Mercury Lounge was the venue that really surprised me. Situated on the Lower East Side right near the top of Ludlow Street, Mercury Lounge is a tiny venue with a band room that accommodates no more than 200 people. We asked several strangers on the street who walk right past the venue every day for directions and no one knew of its existence. Lotus Plaza played one show there when we were in NYC and The Corin Tucker Band is playing there later this month. We saw Dead Mellotron, a band from Baltimore, play Mercury Lounge to about 40 people.
In Brooklyn many of the popular venues are hard to find. Death by Audio, Glasslands and Shea Stadium are all plain doors to the street with no name or neon sign. The easiest way to find these venues is to know the exact address and, when you think you’re close, to look for people outside smoking. All three are amazing dive-style venues in old warehouses or closed up factories, self-made by the people who own them. They all had home-made bars, old couches and graffiti-painted walls. Death by Audio and Shea Stadium are all-ages. I remember being so impressed that these places existed, and I remember thinking that there’s nowhere in Auckland where these places could exist. Old warehouses near Auckland city are scarce – you’d have to go out to the western suburbs to find a suitable space – but with public transport being so bad and expensive it would be very difficult to draw a crowd. Public transport in most cities throughout the USA cost less than $2.50 per ride and if you purchased a ticket after 6pm it was valid all night.
Every night we spent at DBA, Glasslands and Shea Stadium the venues were full, even though there was a least three good shows on elsewhere in the city. We saw Grooms play at DBA on a bill organised by a band called The Numerators, who didn’t have a huge profile. Despite the rain, a good crowd of 100+ showed up at Shea Stadium for night one of FMLY Fest. The FMLY collective in New York City was really active in promoting the DIY line-up, putting out a mixtape before the festival so that people could hear the artists they’d be seeing live. At Glasslands we saw Dent May headline a show with The Babies and Levek – a show that was overflowing on to the street.
One basic observation, if you take population density out the equation, is that bands in North America and New Zealand draw similar crowds; mostly their friends and people who have heard about them through friends. In Minneapolis the music scene seemed most comparable to New Zealand – insular and isolated, where the number of visiting out-of-town bands was limited by geography. There the underground scene was thriving and people were talking about the unique hip-hop sound developing throughout the city. Cities along the east and west coasts had the added benefit of touring bands passing through regularly, offering fans more variety.
The one thing I this hope this article does is paint a picture of North American indie music culture, that hopefully makes you as excited as Sarah and I were to explore it for yourself. Please share any questions or criticisms you may have in the comments section below.