Athens Popfest, Day 2 – The Dance
Punisher of drums for Deerhoof (and fellow introvert) Greg Saunier, shot by the lovely folk of Gauche.
All videos by Jason Seiple.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
T-Shirt for the day: Melt-Banana tee, grey. Acquired back in April after seeing Melt-Banana open for Melvins (in 20 minutes or less).
You cannot force the dance. The dance will come to those who wait for the beat. The dance alights when the mood is right. You do not unleash the dance – the dance will set you free. And, as I learned on this night, people who dance together bond together.
This day, like the previous day, begins at 2:30 in Little Kings. Several folks (including my editor for Immersive Atlanta) were hyping these Gláss folks that’d be first at bat today, so I poke to the front with eager eyes. Dude in front with the Jack White build can’t be older than 20 or so, yet he can summon forth this almost Nick Cave-y growl. Granted, as my host for the week (who you’ll learn more about later) warned earlier, their post-punk hadn’t quite grown bat wings of its own just yet. I consider my private in-joke, that if these guys had to choose their favorite Bauhaus album, it’d probably be the first one. Dude has nailed the deathly stare, mind, and I enjoy glaring back at him for the entire set. But I’m underwhelmed, and ergo disappointed.
Soccer Tees, on the other hand, better exemplify the spirit of Popfest. Less tends to be more at Little Kings – duos and trios crackle with more chemistry, bounce more ideas, commune more with the crowd. So it goes with Soccer Tees, a mildly emo bunch with those tapped mathy vine riffs and cracked shouting. Me, I love watching their drummer, this androgynous chick with bushy hair. I’d find out later that she’s Ciera, the amiable guitarist/singer is Zach, and they recorded their last EP (which I buy shortly after the set) at NC State’s library, as they all still studied there.
See, another way to gauge a good band is by how much they stick around after their obligatory performance, and I said hi to Ciera and Zach at almost every show afterwards. Ryan from Minorcan hangs around, too – I told him yesterday where the nearest bookstore is, and he pokes in today with a fascinating book of short stories. Robert Schneider returns today, too (right in time for the next band, SheHeHe), and will pop back into Little Kings every day of the festival with a green composition book, the kind that you can pick up at a drug store for a buck or two (because real writers fill pages so fast, they can’t afford to replenish their supply with fancy Moleskins).
I’d never seen SheHeHe, but I knew what to expect. “They’re Athens’ dive bar punks,” I told someone earlier. Nicole Bechill lived and breathed in rock and roll; she’d flip her hair down over her face, jump down the stage to prowl at the edge of the crowd. These were the type of punks that encouraged a hearty drink instead of total anarchy – normally I reserve that phrase for scorn, but there’s this sloppy camaraderie between SheHeHe that sloshes through the crowd and makes everything work.
Also, as it turns out, I did order another beer after SheHeHe’s set. By this time, all-around swell Athenite Emileigh Ireland had arrived, and so when I told her of my design to drink one beer per day, she suggested a cider. Emileigh, by the by, can tell better stories than you, dresses far better than me, and sings better than just about anyone in town, but any further digression would lead to a different memoir entirely. Anyway, at the bar, she takes me up on the blueberry sour draft, and I attempt whatever cider the bartender can muster.
Thus, with elderberry cider in hand, I watched as Big Fresh piled onto the stage. Fronted by Schneider’s pal John Ferguson, this E6 gang boasted a lively trombonist who would swing back and forth in time to the beat. His presence made the whole ensemble sound like Chicago for juniors. The crowd seemed to dig it enough, but I slipped to the back after a while.
This intermission was uneventful, as every acquaintance that I asked out had other plans. So after a quiet dinner alone at the Grit, the festival migrates to the Georgia Theatre. It’s the biggest venue in town, but certainly not arena-sized; even with the second-floor balcony, there’s only room (legally) for 1000 folks. Still, the neighborly vibe of the day shows evaporates here; as the night progresses, friends easily get swallowed in the swelling crowds as roaming students pile in. But that’s later; right now, we can breathe and collide cordially and introduce ourselves without shouting, as I do to a lady named Alice with a Cosines tote bag and a British accent, and her American acquaintance who’s about as tall as me (i.e. not at all) and wearing a messenger bag. They mention working together in a “collective” in the UK, but I completely miss exactly which collective this is, and before I can ask, Dead Neighbors erupt into motion.
As I noted in Immersive Atlanta beforehand, Popfest invited loads of locals to the stage. Of the 50-ish bands and artists on the bill, roughly 40% hailed from Athens. And tonight, two of those groups would be granted the biggest stage of their gigging lives. I’d last seen Dead Neighbors – who I’d described in the guidebook as some congenial brainstorm between Sebadoh and the Swirlies – two weeks back at the Big Thing, a glorified house show in a ramshackle neighborhood of Atlanta. There, wicked guitarist Sebastian Marquez collapsed in a soloing frenzy, on a runway so close that I adjusted his guitar strap while he was sitting before us. Here, the band has incredible acoustics, yards of space to roam around in (which Sebastian did; Owen, his foil, remained cool and stationary), and the sweetest light show, which includes a dramatic strobe during one tense, almost post-rockish interlude. Thus, as much as the Dead Neighbors already ruled, the theatre magnified their might and mystique for all to see. Sebastian didn’t collapse, but he nevertheless worked himself into a sweaty trance, and we were mesmerized.
Prior to Antlered Antlord’s set, I pondered out loud to guitarist Lucy Calhoun, “Oooh, I can’t wait to hear how you guys sound.” Her answer – “Me too!” That’s the Antlords for ya – no show of theirs ever sounded the same, thanks to the whims of the dizzying mastermind Jesse Stinnard. Tonight there’s only one swtich-up: they present the sinister “Pray For Glam” (announced as “Pray for Gordon Lamb”, a reference to our tireless music journalist, gatekeeper of the Caledonia Lounge, and, tonight, stage hand) without the eerie Joy Division vocals and nocturnal synths on their album. Jesse is in top form – he’s ricocheting off the mic stand, he’s bunny-hopping, his rubber-band voice twangs and bounces and soars, he even lifts the mic stand mid-set with his foot after accidentally knocking it over (“and now I’ve got my yoga in for today”) . Lucy and Mary Jane Hassell ground his antics in rhythm and earthly divinity; Jesse’s brother Ethan does his best to hide in the corner with the ever-present tambourine and marimba, but we see and hear all. Nevertheless, though Antlered Antlord validated their freaky pop cult status to the crowd – though the jangle of “Monopilot” makes me swoon, though the topsy-turvy “Sigil to Noise” excites us locals the moment it revs into motion – I couldn’t help but feel a smidge saddened. They looked like a proper band, stable, no longer in flux.
I’m standing again with Emileigh as she charges her phone by the bar. We’re also standing directly before this long ramp that rises up to the wings of the stage, as bands race up and down with their gear. She’s talking, and of course I’m listening, but a very slight, very tall, and inconceivably handsome young man rushes by us. Heart, must you falter! Mind, must you halt! Eyes, must you betray me@ I know that face – but we shall not encounter this figure again until tomorrow.
At any rate, I’m back in the crowd, and I’ve found Jill, a kind lady and Popfest veteran that practices karate, who I met earlier today. For the first time this evening, I don’t know what to expect next – I’ve never heard Gauche before, and they fill the stage with half a dozen folk, including a lady with a stonking huge sax. At once they launch into the groove – ooh, that groove! Precarious! Wiry! Witty! Democratic! Shouting! The back of my head logs the Delta 5 / Au Pairs / X-Ray Specs connection; the rest of me propels into motion. I can’t help myself. Neither can Jill. With each new song, with each new groove, with each new revolt, with each new singer, Gauche remove all the barriers that usually petrify me. What fear? What anxiety? What discouraging male gaze? None! Nada! We in the front row jump and jive and mingle, igniting each other into action.
At one point, a lady with a plume of black hair rushes toward me with a big grin, and dances before me. Is that Rachel of Shopping? – but whatever, she loves me because I’m dancing, so I’m sashaying even harder now. Only afterwards – as I’m panting and awaiting the next set and looking up at the stage take – do I realize that yes, that WAS Rachel Aggs of Shopping, one of the most distinctive and dead cool guitarists in the UK. The same feminist groove ethic from Gauche applies here, but with half the personnel and twice the firepower, because Rachel and bassist Billy Easter can sprint and flex and leap with their respective instruments like gymnasts in the Olympics. We love their drummer Andrew Milk too, with his quick shuffling beats and sultry commentary within and without the songs. (“This next one,” he says just before ‘For Your Money’, “is part of the canon of non-autobiographical, anti-capitalist queer love songs – of which there are SO many,” he adds after our enthusiastic cheers.)
Mind, as an avid Shopping enthusiast, I didn’t expect any surprises from the trio. Boy, was I wrong. I’d heard rumors that Vanessa Hay (of Pylon) had attended the mic check earlier today, but heard no reason why. Now suddenly she walks on, towering and proud like the rock goddess she is, with a slip of paper in her hand. We in the front need no introduction, and none is given – and so she sings the lyrics she wrote not too long ago, still with the deep and resonant drawl, still with the wicked yowls, for the usually blank “12345”. The ever-witty Milk adds afterwards, “I’m pretty sure I just died of heat exhaustion and somehow, inexplicably, gone to heaven.” (He’s also one of the very few musicians to thank the lovely Chris McFarlane, of Jigsaw Records, for manning the merch table for the entire festival – “feel free to tip him, by the way. He may not accept it – but hey, if you don’t want it, slip it under the table, I’ll get more drinks later. THANKS, CHRIS!”)
Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. Two more bands left to go, and I’m already hobbling when I descend the stairs to the bathroom. But I can’t collapse now, not when Athens’ most potent and secretive alchemists Tunabunny are about to mount the stage. Hassell and Stinnard are back, but now Stinnard mans the high throne and Hassel seduces us on the growling menace of “Pump On the Brakes”. Every ‘Bunny show is orgasmic in some way, if only because Brigette Herron and Hassell woo me with their confidence, their brashness, their utter dominance over rock and roll. And perhaps because deconstruction excites me – no Tunabunny show is complete without a little mayhem, like when Scott Creney bangs his bass head against Stinnard’s crash cymbal, or when Herron and Stinnard swap positions.
Like Shopping before, Tunabunny delight even us hardcore fans with a few surprises. They air several songs from the new album – there’s a coy little number where Brigette grooves and twists beside her tiny synth, another that’s loud and raucous like the Gun Club, one with the token ‘Roadrunner’ riff. But the climax sucker-punches us all: after the cacophonous euphoria of another unfamiliar song, Herron sets down her guitar and picks up a book. Hassell turns her guitar down. We anticipate a serious moment. And then – “yeah, we’re running a little hot tonight / I can barely see the road from the heat coming off it”. We’ve been had – she’s quoting the infamous monologue from ‘Panama’. But, in a blazing glory that only Tunabunny could raise, Herron transforms Diamond Dave’s lyrics into her own anthem – “got the feeling, power steering, pistons popping, ain’t no stopping now” – with the last line lifted to the heavens. And of course, they exit as only they can – Hassell calmly leans her bass on her amp, Herron falls down and bangs her axe on the floor like a kid throwing a tantrum, Scott drops the bass nonchalantly and swaggers off stage; Jesse stops and picks up the beat at least three times before Herron and Hassell join back in for a brief reprise. Of course, I’m going nuts. If ever I could be up on a stage, I only hope I can disrupt norms with as much glee and abandon as Tunabunny.
Now, I thought that a healthy crowd had filled the theatre by this point, but alas – now that midnight has struck and Deerhoof wait in the wings, throngs of students surge to the front. I’m swept back some rows, and my feet are throbbing, but I hold firm near the stage. Lucky me, the floor slopes gently downward toward the stage, so when the mighty men and lady of Deerhoof emerge, I’ve got a prime view. Oh, lawd, and what a view. Everyone, including demolition drummer Greg Saunier, has lined up in the front; Ed Rodriguez wears this incredible yellow suit that makes him look like a galactic superhero (not to mention that perfect rock god hair, long and curly – no I don’t have a crush, not yet anyway); teeny Satomi Matsuzaki wears all white, kinda like Andrew W.K.
I couldn’t tell you exactly which songs the band chose from their vast repertoire, but then who cares – any time Deerhoof fire up their pistons, fireworks and explosions and lightning flash at once. Noise, color, glee. They definitely started at Milk Man, careened through a bunch of other albums, alighted for some pit stops at La Isla Bonita, and showcased the louder parts of The Magic, but beyond that my head was in a whir. I think to myself, in some off-hand moment, that if ever any dude bros scoffed at Satomi’s precise cheerleader dances (which are magnificent to watch, a triumph of – and once she even guides us through some coordinated arm waves), they’d have to answer to Rodriguez or Saunier or the other noisy guitar guy John Dieterech, who seem to bend steel and break the sound barrier and warp light before our eyes (respectively). Oh, man, Saunier, though. If one were to plug that guy’s drums into a generator, he could power three cities (“or maybe three small neighborhoods,” contemplates Emileigh).
Early on in the set, someone taps my shoulder. A woman is asking me for my cell phone – Saunier is wearing their band’s T-shirt, and so they needed a picture. With barely a second thought, I say “sure” and hand my phone over. And wa-la, you have the cover picture for ya, with Greg in a spiffy Gauche shirt.
Saunier steals the show yet again later. After another vigorous work-out, Deerhoof halts, the drummer rises from his throne – and at this point, I’m assuming that this is just a routine breather, with perhaps a scripted dialogue to entertain us. I’m also seeing, for the first time, his lankiness, the brisk tugs on the ear, the arms taut by the side – in other words, that for all his superhuman muscular drumming, that he’s as awkward and anxious as the rest of us (at least, the devout Popfesters with the 4-day passes on our wrists).
He speaks and I love him even more. “One would think, or imagine, or suspect, or guess, or reason,” he begins, with pauses between each verb, “or even without supposing, it would seem obvious, that in the several shows we have played, that we would have mastered the following concept:” Pause, brief turn of head, reflexive hand comb. “That, when placing drums on top of a carpet –“ another pause, disruptive ironic cheers from the crowd (I may have cheered too, but with no irony whatsoever) – “or, in industry lingo, what’s called ‘spiking’ the position of the carpet, which is putting” – he leans over, fumbles for a second, and as he does so Rodriguez casually strolls behind him and gestures to an unseen stage hand – “small fragments of fluorescent electrical tape to identify the corner positions –“ And we can see now that Ed has procured a roll of tape, and is deftly tearing off new fragments. He leans down directly under Saunier, prompting him to ask meekly, “Are you gonna spike my foot there, Ed?”
And then both men proceed, Greg with his monologue (which is now nearing two minutes long) and Hernandez with his swift fix: “Ed is nullifying my joke. One would think that one would already accounted for the fact that, whereas the drums are not sliding across the carpet, and the carpet is starting to show, very carefully and precisely positioned, to match the fluorescent corners that were created –“ Ed, finished with his handiwork, now stamps down on the huge swath of corner taped just behind Greg – “that unless one adds four –“ he looks down again, as if he must ascertain that this is correct, and must formulate the right words – “large strips of the most stickiest tape available, for any military or commercial application, and stomps on them, three times – was it three times?” Ed counts on his fingers; a woman from the crowd yells “four!” – “four times, the carpet would still be sliding forward and increase the danger of the drums sliding into the audience.” Many cheers follow this statement. I’m probably cheering, not because I’d want a bass drum in my face, but because he’s successfully executed his joke, which I suspect that, under any ordinary circumstances, he would’ve never been given the space or time to do so. But of course I give him the space in this (perhaps already exceedingly long) article, because as a fellow introvert I have been cut off, cast aside, and denied glory like this a thousand times over; and I could feel, in every pause and tick here, the specter of social anxiety.
And yet, there were so many other highlights, for Deerhoof is Deerhoof, and light blazes from them as breath pours from our bodies. There was the impromptu performance of “Happy Birthday”, where Greg and Ed strummed on the same guitar; there was the spot-on, giddy rush of “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, with Def Leppard’s naughty lyrics pressed into purest honey by Satomi; and, in the greatest slapstick act all night, the dainty “click-click-click” of the woodblock on “Nurse Me”, which the audience tried to anticipate, but of course Saunier was too clever for them.
I recall being in some kind of daze afterwards. My only thought was to egress as soon as possible so as to not be engulfed by the stupid student masses that still swagger/stagger through the streets at two in the morning. The whole impact of this night – this wondrous, sweaty, steamy, blurry, neon-lit night – would not catch up with me until five hours later, when I awaken stupefied with a shattered back. So that happened. So I actually forgot myself and engendered such happiness that I have not felt in months (and shall not experience again until at least a week later). So I have found the company of fellow wallflowers and introverts, transformed into rock stars and superfans. So that was bliss. And the dream was still yet to come.
Previously, on the Popfest
Day 1 – The Embrace
Next, on the Popfest
Day 3 – The Crush