Tue 18 Sep 2012
Like A Death Of The Heart
Jesus, Where Do I Start?
In the summer of 2012, Sarah and I ditched our computers and went backpacking across North America. Traveling by train and bus, we visited sixteen cities and witnessed a lot of live music — in DIY venues, bars, parks, festivals and large outdoor arenas. We stayed with friends we’d made through this music blog, Einstein Music Journal. It really was an amazing adventure.
For the past five years I’d written about music being made in North America based entirely off what I’d heard through my bedroom speakers. It never really occurred to me that many people were going to see these bands play live — that was just a dream for me. When interviewing musicians I would regularly ask what the scene was like in their home town — a question I no longer have to ask. I now have a new perspective on the music I am so passionate about — going abroad changed me. The first few months after I returned from North America I struggled to listen to music with a critical mindset and during the month I spent in New Zealand after the trip, before relocating to Australia, I didn’t attend a single live show. Only recently have I started writing about music again — now with a much clearer perspective on the music being made on the other side of the world.
My introduction to live music in the USA happened the night we arrived in Los Angeles. It was to see 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 Jack White’s band The Dead Weather and they’ve received good press ever since — I remember seeing them in Nylon magazine. But lack of perspective can be a strange thing. We 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 not to. Luckily we got there early — Lotus Plaza had just released a new album and plenty of people had turned up for the show. But that wasn’t the case with every show we attended. In Seattle we saw Xiu Xiu play at a small bar called Barbosa, touring in support of their latest album, Always. The show was in the small downstairs band room below Neumos, one of the city’s most well-known indie music venues. A hardcore punk festival roared away in the main live space upstairs. Lotus Plaza drew about 200 people; Xiu Xiu about 60. Both shows cost $10.
One thing that excited me about North America was the cost of shows. In New Zealand you would likely pay upwards of $40 to see bands like Lotus Plaza, Xiu Xiu or Screaming Females. In the USA and Canada we never had to pay more than $15. Occasionally we didn’t have to pay at all, including a show we attended in Brooklyn, New York, to see an artist I once blogged about on EMJ. After each performance 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 just mentioned. Bands and solo musicians who made us appreciate the depth of talent in a small country like New Zealand.
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 hosts the Lollapolooza festival. Die-hard fans could pay $25 to get up close, while everyone else could watch for free from a field, behind the paying crowd. Those watching for free could view the bands up close on several big screens. I’d never seen anything like this in New Zealand. We also discovered a music venue in Brooklyn, New York, which had a similar philosophy. One night we arrived at The Knitting Factory to discover a Fruit Bats show we were hoping to attend had sold out. To our surprise and good fortune the venue had a glass wall at the back of the band room, which was in a separate room directly behind the main bar. Live music from the band room was being plugged through the bar PA. It wasn’t the greatest viewing platform, but we got to unintentionally see and hear Fruit Bats for free.
In several cities we encountered music festivals that were free for the public all weekend long. We arrived 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 Dirty Projectors performed at venues in the city and Chromeo headlined the main outdoor stage late on the final night. The city was alive with music, a crowd of approximately 100,000 came out to see Chromeo. Similarly, Chicago Blues Festival occurred one weekend we were there. The three-day-long festival showcased the best African-American blues musicians from the Deep-South to the Mid-West and ended with a live performance by Mavis Staples. You could buy alcohol at both events. Despite them being in very public places, 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 planning to go back again. I’ve already mentioned the cost of shows in North America — Pitchfork, a three-day festival, cost just $110USD. As someone who is used to New Zealand festivals, with expensive entry fees and long lines for just about everything, I’m not usually a big festival fan. Pitchfork Music Festival had very few annoyances. I was able to enjoy every artist from wherever I felt like standing and I 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 shelter from both the rain and the forty-degree 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 large 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 approximately 30 poster artists who had their work on display and available for purchase. I spent several hours here admiring the art and making a few purchases. The festival site also included a tent where record labels from across North America had set up stalls to sell their merchandise. There was a lot more to the festival than just live music.
However, the music was what we were there to see. Pitchfork Music Festival showcases 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, alongside a selection of established bands and several acts for nostalgia. The 2012 lineup included Feist, Grimes, Ty Segall, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Vampire Weekend, Hot Chip and The Olivia Tremor Control, plus many others.
Each day it was hard to pick one highlight, but when the festival ended and people asked me to choose, one performance stood out above the rest. Willis Earl Beal was only the second act I saw at the festival, but his roaring tiger-like ferocity made him the most memorable. Swinging his cape emblazoned with the word Nobody, waving his microphone stand high above his head and swigging straight from a bottle of whiskey, Beal growled like a young Tom Waits, belying any predetermined judgment people may have made of him due to his lack of live instrumentation. Beal proved a live band was not necessary; his analogue tape-machine did the job just fine. No musician all weekend came close to achieving his intensity.
Bradford Cox’s set as Atlas Sound was more memorable for his crowd banter than his music, which was completely overshadowed by a thunderstorm that hit Union Park, eventually drowning his guitar pedals. At one point he dished out medical advice, advocating for the use of lukewarm water to rehydrate an overwhelmed fan. Grimes was a delight after the sun faded. Her stage energy rallied the crowd at the end of a long hot day and her smile and politeness in between her punchy sounding pop songs won over the bursting blue stage audience. Purity Ring’s performance on day one was the other big surprise of the festival. Playing a time slot often given to more established acts, they proved their strong billing, syncing lights to their music to add an extra sparkle to the stage.
I came away from Pitchfork Music Festival wondering why Laneway, Auckland’s only international indie music festival, hadn’t got it quite right. Auckland has a fantastic selection of parks — Grey Lynn Park and Albert Park come to mind. Perhaps bureaucracy had got in the way. I’ve been on the other side and know that noise issues play a factor in gaining consent, but for many years Wellington has had successful outdoor festivals in highly populated residential zones. Homegrown and One Love have both run with cooperation from the Wellington City Council and local residents. Grey Lynn Park has an issue with public transport, but a festival the size of Laneway hardly needs to rely on trains or buses. Pitchfork encouraged people to bike by offering a secure storage area. Pitchfork Music Festival was also in a mixed residential area, but the promoters had the last band on stage at 8.30pm to mitigate any major noise disruptions. 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 returned to New York, a place that really put the North American indie music scene into perspective for me. For many years I’d 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, these venues sounded like large band spaces with big PAs and a packed itinerary of popular NYC bands. All three venues were about 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 surprised me the most. Situated on the Lower East Side right near the top of Ludlow Street, Mercury Lounge is a small venue with a band room accommodating approximately 200 people. The venue was made famous by The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. We asked several New Yorkers who had walked past the venue on Houston Street for directions, but no one seemed aware of its existence. We saw Dead Mellotron, a band from Baltimore, play at Mercury Lounge to about 40 people.
In Brooklyn many of the popular venues were hard to find. Death by Audio, Glasslands and Shea Stadium all had discreet entrances, with no neon sign or name printed outside. The only way we found them was by knowing the exact address and by asking people who were outside smoking. All three are amazing dive-style DIY venues in old warehouses or closed up factories, made by the people who own and run them. They all have home-made bars, old couches and graffitied 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 expensive and unreliable it would be very difficult to draw regular crowds away from the CBD. Public transport in most North American cities cost less than $2.50 per ride, with a two-hour window. If you purchased a ticket after 6pm it was valid all night.
Every night we spent at Death By Audio, Glasslands and Shea Stadium the venues were full, even when there was at 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. Despite the rain, a good crowd of 100+ people showed up at Shea Stadium for the first night of FMLY Fest. The FMLY collective was very active in promoting the DIY line-up, putting out a mixtape before the festival so that people could get to know the lineup. At Glasslands we saw Dent May headline a show with The Babies and Levek — a show that was overflowing out on to the street. Iceage were playing next-door at 285 Kent.
If you take population density out the equation and focus on demographics, bands in North America and New Zealand attract similar audiences. Proportionately, the music scene most comparable to Auckland’s is in Minneapolis — where the number of visiting out-of-town bands is largely influenced by the city’s geographical isolation. As a result, the underground music scene in Minneapolis is thriving and people are talking about the city’s unique hip-hop sound.
Witnessing the diversity and the different ways people express themselves in North America has given me a new perspective on the culture in my own hometown. If you ever get the opportunity to visit another country, I’d recommend exploring the underground music scene and seeing what it has to offer. There’s nothing quite like experiencing something with your own eyes and feeling liberated by discovering art being made in the most unusual places.