CAMBER SANDS, England — The seaside has always drawn the faithful from countless sects to gather for worshipful, group-affirming retreats. But last weekend, instead of white-robed initiates getting baptized or speaking in tongues by the shore, it was thrift shop-outfitted indie rock disciples who descended on this derelict English seaside holiday village. They came to pay homage to their heroes, the seminal Louisville rock band Slint, at the first of this year’s three-day All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) music festivals.
While an unusual Arctic front intermittently blasted snow through the village, inside the main family fun centre, around 3,000 true believers from as far away as Japan, San Francisco and our own fair city nodded their lager-addled heads in the standard, hands-in-pockets appreciation stance to around two dozen acts, selected by the headliners.
It has been said far too often, but like The Velvet Underground — which penned the song after which the festival was named — Slint was a Helen of Rock: a band that launched a thousand bands.
Efforts to get Slint guitarist Dave Pajo and drummer Britt Walford on the record for this story ultimately proved fruitless. But plenty of fans were more than happy to discuss the matter.
“If rock had a body, Slint would be a rib, or the skeleton,” said 25-year-old Annemarie Mullan, who took a couple days from her job at a children’s science museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland for the festival. Not unlike Louisville, Mullan said Belfast, largely bypassed by bigger-name rock acts, has become something of an indie rock incubator, hatching numerous, locally popular bands, many of which “have a wee bit of Slint in them.”
Massimo (Max) Scaccaglia, 34, admitted Slint’s playing was merely an additional excuse to travel from Parma for a London holiday. Nevertheless, even in Italian ham country, Slint and their musical spawn have made their mark.
“They are most historic in how they changed the way of doing rock,” he said.
Their performance late Saturday night in the main upstairs hall — which, unlike the smaller room downstairs, wasn’t decorated with murals in homage to “Cats,” “Moulin Rouge” and “The Lion King” — was widely gushed over by fans, with caveats. One was, oddly enough, that they were almost too good, or over-rehearsed.
“It was awesome,” said Will Wilson of Norwich, England, who immediately noted his buddy Darren Waite’s comment: “I think Dave Pajo is a robot.”
“He didn’t miss a note,” Waite clarified.
“Just like the record,” was a common comment, accompanied by greater or lesser degrees of satisfaction. Anyone who expected crowd engagement, thank yous or banter was disappointed. Lucky for Slint, with this lot there weren’t many.
Of course, for one reason or another, there were those who would have been pleased with anything:
“Riding around on baby elephants, with a skip (dumpster) full of mushrooms while Slint plays “Good Morning, Captain” for three hours — that would be it!” one saucer-eyed, English-sounding fellow proclaimed on his way out of the men’s room.
Largely overlooked by the general listening public, Slint has been worshipped by a vocal, worldwide cadre of fans and emulated by countless subsequent and sometimes more popular bands, mainly on the unique strength of their second of two full-length albums, 1991’s Spiderland. Until they opened their brief reunion tour last week in Louisville, Slint hadn’t played together in public for 14 years.
Slint’s reconstitution after so much time to play in this odd place was the brainchild of 32-year-old London impresario Barry Hogan, co-creator with partner Helen Cottage of ATP, launched in 2000. Hogan was fed up with overpopulated, mud-splattered, corporate juggernaut music festivals such as Glastonbury, which ignored the more obscure acts he loved. So he came up with the idea of inviting a “curator,” be it a musician, artist or writer, to pick a few dozen of their favourite acts and host an intimate and comfortable three-day event. Legendary recording engineer and Shellac front man Steve Albini, bands Mogwai and Sonic Youth, and even “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening have curated past ATPs, which are now held both at Camber Sands and in Long Beach, Calif.
Hogan was unequivocal in explaining why he chased down Slint, even flying to Louisville last summer to seal the deal.
“It’s because Spiderland is the most perfect record, ever,” he said on a stroll about the park. “This was not done for money … this is a dream come true for me,” he said, adding the Slint-curated event sold out quicker than any previous ATP, months before any of the other acts — including four others that hail at least partially from Louisville — were scheduled or announced. (Besides Slint, King Kong, Sean Garrison and the Five Finger Discount and The RedNails, all from here, one of the two members of Matmos, Drew Daniel, is from Louisville, although he now lives and works in San Francisco.)
For 180 pounds (roughly $350) a ticket, festival-goers enjoyed the use of two- or three-bedroom, glass-doored “chalets” in 16 two-story barracks spread around the holiday campus. A go-cart course, kiddie playground and rifle range appeared largely unused in the blustery cold, but the hot water and en suite kitchens went down a treat.
Entering the main building — a royal blue and grey pile with the exterior charm of an aging suburban bowling alley — one was greeted by a giant beige-orange plaster octopus, its gaping maw opening to the staircase up to the main stage area, its tentacles twisting across the turquoise ceiling. In lieu of a reception desk, people checked in at a giant model galleon’s open cannon ports, which were flanked by a rough, “Pirates of the Caribbean”-style mural. You’re on holiday at the seashore, kid, and you’d better bloody well have fun!
“It was a stroke of genius to use this place,” said guitarist Matthew “Wink” O’Bannon, who traveled from Louisville to play with Sean Garrison and the Five Finger Discount. In truth, O’Bannon was speaking more broadly about the venue as a whole, which despite its amusing contrasts to the usual rock dive, provided a uniquely salubrious environment for the bands and what was “essentially, a bourgeois clientele.”
Dan Marshall, lead singer and guitarist for Louisville’s The RedNails, said the band outspent its stip/files/storyimages/somewhat to play what was “definitely the biggest show of our career yet.”
Nevertheless, “this was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Marshall told the crowd, thanking Slint, after the band’s Sunday afternoon set. They sold all of their CDs, to boot.
Sombre guys’ gathering
The festival’s male/female ratio was remarkable.
“It’s very much an X and Y chromosome thing,” said amateur photographer and music festival veteran Sean Hopson.
“With 10, 15 guys to every girl, I couldn’t see a thing, and I’m tall,” said Kelly Ventress, a 24-year-old native of Brisbane, Australia and former fanzine writer, now an office worker in London.
While that couldn’t be helped, Ventress and some other festival goers said they were baffled by Slint’s line-up picks, adding they’d been hoping for a bigger, richer mix of better- and lesser-known performers, as at earlier ATPs.
Hogan acknowledged there were fewer bands this time around, largely due to logistics and availability, but insisted it was a particular quality, not quantity, that mattered to him and most of the fans.
Ventress also echoed several festival goers in saying that (sorry, folks) the notion of any specific Louisville sound or movement had never really crossed her radar screen.
Clearly, the great bulk of the bands on the bill weren’t from Louisville. From furthest away came Japanese-born sprite Satomi Matsuzaki, lead singer of San Francisco-based ATP veterans Deerhoof. Imagine the Cowboy Junkies on Valium and you’ll get some idea of Alabama’s Brightblack. California singer Dawn McCarthy of duo Faun Fables wowed many with her voice and acoustic guitar playing, though the cheers were simultaneously almost as loud in the packed pub next door for the Manchester United soccer match. Bad Wizard and Early Man, both of New York, came pretty close to blowing the roof off the place, from two floors down, while The Melvins crunched and pounded for what seemed an age. Philadelphia-based Need New Body’s hyperactive, schizophrenic funk belied what several regulars described as an excessively hard and/or sombre ATP.
“God forbid you shuffle your feet a bit, and don’t go cracking a smile or anything,” 23-year-old Ryan O’Reilly said of the general feeling at this ATP.
Even the comedian on the bill — cult favourite Neil Hamburger — was described by The Washington Post as “an exercise in entertainment masochism,” as quoted in the festival’s program.
Nevertheless, the only one with grounds to gripe about Louisville’s decidedly un-maudlin King Kong — fronted by Slint founding member Ethan Buckler — would have been the fire marshal. The band’s Sunday afternoon show packed the smaller downstairs ballroom so tight you could barely have slipped a piece of paper through the door.
“I hate to say it, but we won’t better this,” organizer Hogan said.
Mark Long is a Louisville native who lives in London, where he works for Dow Jones Newswires. Contact him at email@example.com