Imagine if Thee Oh Sees had been crap. Imagine that. Actually what’s the point? Of course they weren’t crap. On the contrary they were astonishing. Where to start?
Hanging out in Utrecht really isn’t good for Incendiary magazine, we can feel it in our collective waters, so to speak. A beautiful city and full of things that both inspire and (intensely) annoy, the city and in particular the “Modern Urban Bohemian” enclave round the Voorstraat sets the nerves a-tingling. The Voorstraat is a stretch that encompasses what is happening and what could happen if we allow the legions of
Bright Young Things* the “aspirationally young” their heads: a sort of display of modern urban sensibilities, a glimpse of an ersatz utopia for the well brought up. Traces of the old Utreg linger on in the surprisingly discreet red light and old laundrettes – though an increasing number are now cupcake shoppes or some other ‘retail affectation’ which, depressingly, is possibly the future of shopping in the developed world… Inevitably a sensitive man’s thoughts turn to drink. Luckily on the day of our visit there was enough to offset a potential belt and braces rebellion led by yours truly, as Le Mini Who was staging its six monthly festival, alongside its Big Brother, Le Guess Who?.
Arriving bang on time in the Voortuin to catch The Treasure of Grundo (hosted by Haarlem’s Geertruida Records) we find the Treasure’s singer quietly cursing a jumble of wires and pedals. This didn’t look good. Eventually after a lot of head scratching and sighs the gig had to be cancelled: a shame as this band’s work is intriguing and their LP well worth investigation. No matter we could run across the road to see what Subroutine Records were up to at ACU? Again, delays with Avery Plains… no soundman… Hmm. OK, surely Snowstar Records had something on? I mean, their stuff needs only a smidgeon of amplification… I Am Oak and the like could play a nose flute gig and no-one would bat an eyelash. Off to Snowstar’s showcase at the lovely Kapitaal shop, (one of those whitewashed, increasingly ubiquitous arts ‘spaces’ where, I am convinced, stencilled tote bags breed like rabbits behind our backs). Yeah, no problems here, but Herrek would be starting in, erm, 30 minutes…
Christ on a bike, is there a fucking gig on? Anywhere?
We traipse up the road to Moira, which is a gem of a place, a mini sixties dancehall, built for weekend hops when teenagers ran the world, and the sort of place you’d expect to see The Shirrelles play. This was where the Subbacultcha! existentialists had pitched their flag: and yes there was music and lo!, it was amplified. CROWDS were running through a set of growly, moody rock, lofi, often sounding like gloomy takes on A Catholic Education. Which is fine and dandy. Whilst not remarkable per se, it was a pleasant enough racket, and got the blood flowing; and there is something in their outlook that warrants further investigation. Then back to Kapitaal to catch Herrek who would be doing a set of covers. An all-star band (we got Luik’s guitarist joining in the fun) and in front of a big crowd of yummy mummies and urban groovers, they started nicely if unsurprisingly enough with covers from a couple of other Snowstar acts, and then switched abruptly to taking on Vashti Bunyan’s Diamond Day which was frankly, killer: Herrek’s languorous and heady sound being a surprisingly good new jacket for the shimmering, crystalline original to wear. Then we got a Gainsbourg track which was fab, Gerrit’s voice having enough smoky charm to match the original’s sultry presence. On reflection, they should just cover these sorts of Left Bank ditties and nothing else, or at least do a “Herrek Sing The Songs of Selected 60s Underground Dudes” LP. Sadly we had to do one, to catch Roy Santiago in ACU, but that Vashti Bunyan track was a highlight of the day, no shit.
Over at ACU, Koen ter Heegde was bemoaning the travails of dealing with soundmen in general: luckily all had worked out fine with the Avery Plains’ set and as he said, people enjoyed it, which is all that matters in the end. This was good news, as I was looking forward to see Roy Santiago’s latest outfit, The Doo Run Run and wanted No Distractions, motherfucker. ACU was packed and with good reason. Roy Santiago is an engaging presence, and despite his youth, an experienced performer with long experience of straddling both the underground scene and The Official Hit Making Factory and Youth Development Programming Afdeling over in Hilversum. Tall, gawky and inquisitive, (almost like some big friendly Bloodhound sniffing out some mystery) he is also adept at playing the awkward wallflower on stage; every trick (including some remarkable facial contortions) this side of respectable is used to grab the crowd’s attention. His band seems to throw a protective wrap round all this posturing too, cleverly keeping the sound quiet and intriguing, which is a blessed relief as rocking out would wreck the balance and swamp all of those bittersweet observations.
The Doo Run Run songs are small town laments, things like Lesbian Digest mini stabs of frustration. Just like Johnny Richman he accentuates the underdog’s view, and revels in his provincial outsider status. And just like Richman, he plays it quiet, daring the audience to pay the requisite amount of attention. It was a master class in how to be an old fashioned, “Son of the Stage” troubadour. Brilliant.
Then back to Moira for something completely different. AWOTT (Asian Women on the Telephone) are from Moscow and make a racket that only Residents fans can dig. They also wear the maddest headgear going but more of that in a sec. Reading the Subbacultcha! notes prior to their gig the organisation seemed genuinely apprehensive in putting this on. Maybe they need to listen to Duck Stab a few more times. I note Bram from WOLVON is here too and he gives me a look to say ‘what the fuck are we letting ourselves in for?’ This is more like it.
Anyway that headgear. I know we’re here to report primarily on the sounds, but when a band turns up with remarkable things on their heads and frankly wearing little else, you have to say something. The girl bassist wore a sawfish head mask and a very skimpy dress, her modesty being protected by the most outrageous of bras. One lad was naked but for a remarkable codpiece and an amalgam of gasmask and car battery. I’m sorry there’s no other way to describe it. The drummer contented himself with a satyr-like contraption which looked like the devil’s head from one of Goya’s black paintings. The place was swathed in dry ice, the lovely old warm décor in Moira looking more and more like some subdivision of the underworld. The sounds weren’t much different. If you like The Residents you will love this band, if you’ve never heard the Residents (as many here obviously hadn’t,) you were in for a big shock. Muffled squeaks and blurts, subterranean beats and strangely cackled, hectoring vocals were on the menu. I had to keep pinching myself that it was a Saturday afternoon outside, and most of Utrecht was placidly going about its business whilst this strange and sulphurous show rumbled on before us. By the end the audience were irrevocably caught up in this fog of noise, the slightest gradation in texture and beat being the signal for further entrapment. No-one was going anywhere. The last track upped the ante and became this low grade dance number which the crowd dumbly nodded along to. Then, as if by magic it was all over, the spell was broken and the three performers went back to being normal people just like you and me.
Well, someone had to. Badly in need of something bracing we tripped over to the Voortuin to catch Frankenberries run through a cracking set of feisty, punky rock and roll. Brilliantly, (well in retrospect) the bar was full of jolly but meathead football fans who tried to outdo this colourful guitar noise with music of their own making. I love football, but long experience on the terraces back in the 80s showed me that you can love a team and hate your fellow fans. And just what is it with Dutch blokes that means they have to make lowing noises to anything that threatens them? Maybe it’s an expression of their true bovine natures. Someone’s opened the gate and they’ve got out of the field. In any case Frankenberries took the on and gave them an earful back. It was class to see this sort of confrontation, the upbeat punky stew forcing the divots out of the bar with no answer.
A quick break whilst waiting for Lucrecia Dalt, (Incendiary is ashamed to say that we went to a wine bar and saw lots of braying types wearing that depressingly odd combo of polo shirts, polished shoes and jeans – the REAL sign of people without a care in the world), and then back to the Rosa Kuiper gallery where Miss D was playing. Incendiary likes the Sound of Lucrecia, her records are boss and we were excited to see her play, even if it was a poky gallery in a backstreet. Lucrecia’s music is sensual, womb-like at times… all based round a sort of breathy suggestiveness that is underpinned by rich, gloopy bass runs and layer upon layer of harmonics and loops. Standing on a raised platform, the diminutive singer soothed the crowd, the music blossoming into a sort of mid-afternoon lullaby. She is a master at creating dreamy, sensual blankets of sound: which is a relief for this sort of music, if handled badly can be the worst kind of extravagance. Anyone can knock out dreamy slabs of electro using laptops, but there was a lot of attention to detail in the set, her sound built on a true musical sensibility. In any case, these intricacies of composition were lightly touched on, there for all to hear but not looking to force their way into the prevailing dreamy mood. All too soon and it was over.
Today was a day of true contrasts and, from being bathed in sensual and feminine vibes from Columbia it was time to be stung into life by the raw and braw racket from Groningen going under the name of WOLVON. Off we went to Moira again to catch WOLVON, of course the place was packed for this show and the band as ever looked to rock hard. Despite the sound being very fuzzy indeed, (and at times entirely lacking in the upper register), WOLVON still managed to browbeat the crowed into submission. Submission is what it’s all about, there’s no point trying to analyse a WOLVON gig, less still to ignore it; this is not music for those who like to chat through bands. There’s this sexy, smelly steaminess to their sound at the minute, the awkwardness has gone, and they are turning into something like an abrasive, postrock version of The Pink Fairies. It’s still good time, still shit goes wrong, and shit still gets broken, but their live set is now an expression of their confidence and the realisation that there’s a real longing for this music they make. The crowd got heavy to the gargantuan Future Truths, heads banging in strict accordance to that track’s steamroller beat. People bopped to the hyperactive Heliotropics and swooned to Unicorny. It was good and WOLVON did duly rock, despite the gig sounding like someone had poured soup into the speakers.
Thence to the big stuff: the main festy, Le Guiess Who?. We’d decided to take up camp at de Helling, so as not to miss Thee Oh Sees. The line-up looked pretty sound down there, but we just couldn’t get into Bleached or Mikal Cronin at all despite trying our best. It just sounded like anything or everything else if I’m honest. Reports came in saying Deerhunter was boring as hell, which sort of made up in a way for the disappointment of missing out (square that thought if you will), and we roused ourselves for The Intelligence, if only to stop falling asleep in the foyer. The Intelligence played a sharp set of Wire/Monochrome Set-like tunes to a fair bit of acclaim. Whilst not being earth shaking stuff, the dry wit and deadpan manner of the tracks helped a lot in rousing us from our torpor, which was much needed.
Then we got Thee Oh Sees.
Now we’d spent three hours in a venue without really digging anything that much. And – as I’d said - we’d nearly dozed off in the foyer. Some people had started to prod me to keep me awake. Imagine if Thee Oh Sees had been crap. Imagine that. Actually what’s the point? Of course they weren’t crap. On the contrary they were astonishing. Where to start?
I could write about how the audience went nuts in a manner I’d not seen many Dutch audiences do… they went beserk, beserk at the sonic version of freedom that Thee Oh Sees offered; utterly beserk. It was utterly exciting.
I could write about the fact they just ramped up this egoless noise and tempo to breaking point, and didn’t back off; the fact they got hold of that reckless repetition and wrung every conceivable bit of goodness from the idea of playing the same note over and over, the way that Can did with Malcolm Mooney at the controls… It was exciting.
I could write about the way they sounded like a sublime mix of Elevators fieriness and Kraut immer geradeaus drive… It was exciting.
I could write about the way the fucking bass player looks like he’s escaped from a late 60’s docu on Suedeheads… It was exciting.
I could write about my girlfriend hitting me hard and repeatedly in the small of my back for about an hour, because she was so excited. And the fact I didn’t care, because I was too bloody excited to notice anything but these smashing, crashing grooves. It was exciting (but painful).
I could write on about the pure enjoyment I felt watching the singer repeatedly kick people off his stage (not seen since the Bunnymen back in the 80s when Mac would propel over excited casuals into the crowd with his foot) or when he started nutting the mic in a sort of adrenaline surge. It was exciting.
I could write about the temperature in the room, feeling like a cork popping from a bottle as the noise grew ever more hedonistic and focussed. It was exciting.
I could write on about their extraordinary power of concentration: the feeling that someone’s switched on a light bulb, someone’s turned a powerful torch on things that truly matter. The fact that there are far too many hang ups and false attitudes in rock. And that you can throw all that crap away and go mad. The last time I saw that sort of piercing, feral intelligence on display was with Guided by Voices in their 90’s prime. It was exciting.
But for me the best thing and the thing I want to point out is that you notice there was no ego on display. Anywhere. It was so refreshing right from the off. The fact that Thee Oh Sees set their own stuff up and play is great and inspiring. They are here to do a job. Simple set up, drums at the front, plug in, go. No narcissism, no bullshit. That no bullshit ‘thang’ can, of course, be a sort of egoism in itself but when it’s displayed like it was at de Helling then you realise anything, anything is possible if you cut the crap and small town ego stuff.
Afterwards the place was an incoherent babble of excited exhausted voices. We talked to all sorts of blown away people, friends, strangers, you name it. For once the feared night train held no worries. It was cool and armed with this lesson from Thee Oh Sees, you can do anything you like.
*Let’s be honest, this now means anyone up to 60 nowadays: the ‘haves cake want to eat it’ bunch…