In May 2006 DiS was hanging around the entrance to Pontins, Camber Sands, getting itchy with excitement at the prospect of seeing J Mascis flick his white mane around at the Dinosaur Jr/Sleater-Kinney/The Shins-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties, when we felt the glare of an electronic eye. It was Jonathan Caouette, immediately recognisable from Tarnation, his touching, idiosyncratic – and at times, downright bangin’ – portrait of his relationship with his mentally ill mother. hree years later, Caouette’s co-directed celebration of the festival, also called All Tomorrow’s Parties, premiered at an old Edinburgh cinema with the aid of hula girls, jolly holiday reps, a brass band playing Battles tracks and a live set from the festival’s first curators, Mogwai.
This month the film tours the UK with Brooklyn lunatic rock kinks Les Savy Fav, prior to its release on DVD release on Nov 2. "It didn’t take much to convince me that this was a great idea," says Caouette, who was asked by producer Luke Morris to contribute to the film. "It was Warp Films plus music by Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Belle And Sebastian, Sonic Youth, Mogwai, Nick Cave… Too many amazing bands to mention. I was sold sight unseen."
Presaged in 1999 by The Bowlie Weekender, a festival put on at Camber Sands by Belle And Sebastian (whose Stuart Murdoch festival organiser Barry Hogan describes as ‘the real genius behind ATP’), ATP’s first festival was in 2000, long before the proliferation of so-called ‘boutique festivals’ such as Latitude, Green Man and End Of The Road. With no VIP areas and performers living in chalets alongside the great indie unwashed, it’s both a world of its own plus one of the few places you can ask strangers if they want to come to a ‘Zaireeka party’ without risking the stocks. "By the second day’s filming, I felt I had become a fly on the wall in a cult where music was the god," says Caouette, who reports that he’s just finished a 42 second experimental film with Chloe Sevigny and a doc about "traumatized children in tough love camp".
Video: All Tomorrow's Parties trailer
Visiting first primarily as a fan, Morris was also struck by what Daniel Johnston giggles in the film is "just like rock ‘n’ roll high school", a place where you can see Steve Albini getting gubbed by an arcade game, or, as in the film, have your walk along the beach turn into a dawn sing song with Grizzly Bear. "When I arrived, there was Vincent Gallo playing football – on his own," says Morris. "And then Yoko Ono popped her head out of a chalet and everyone was just sitting around, as if this was all normal." Rather than a Wikipedia-style bullet-point history of ATP, the film is a dizzying, thrilling collage taken from 600-odd hours of DVD, Super 8 and mobile phone footage from Caouette and attendees, one of whom was REM/The National film maker Vincent Moon. As well as the mania of fans and artists mid-performance, there’s impromptu performances, fan bands rockin’ the chalets and a Morcambe and Wise double act in the shape of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
"It was partly economical to use fan-generated footage but it also reflected the festival as a fan-driven community, and we really wanted to involve that community in the process of making the film," says Morris. "People tend to love shooting bands, but I find the people are often as interesting as the bands at any event. So there was a huge amount of footage and artists and bands to chose from and make sense of while trying to capture the spirit of ten years of something. What we tried to do was keep that mix of the big, influential bands like The Stooges and Sonic Youth with the sense of discovering new bands that you’ve never heard of. It was trying to bring to life that comment by Thurston Moore – that ATP is like the world’s best mix tape."
For a few months, the film had trailed with a clip of a Lightning Bolt set – or, more precisely, a clip of an excited guy thrashing out to Lightning Bolt. As the duo crank into all-out assault, his face contorts into a yelling grimace of ecstasy, pain and unhinged mania. It’s utterly thrilling.
"For me, that clip is exactly what ATP is about," says co-founder Barry Hogan, explaining that ATP was spawned from his dissatisfaction with festivals in airfields branded up to sell as much booze as possible. "I used to go to festivals like Glastonbury, Phoenix and Reading and you’d go because they had the Pixies, or Nirvana or Beastie Boys and you loved them, but the rest of it would be awful. You’d watch from miles away and the sound would keep changing because of the wind. Watching a tiny band along with thousands of other people in a field, I’d be thinking ‘there’s got to be an alternative to this’. With ATP, a band curates the weekend, so if it’s someone you really admire, you’re going to want to check out all the bands they’ve put together on the bill. The whole ethos of ATP is that we treat people how we’d like to be treated. And w make money, well, enough money. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t. But what we makes goes back into the festival, to make the souvenir programme, which is free, and back into the line-ups. I really get driven each time to try and make each one better than the last."
Having moved to Minehead’s Butlins from Camber Sands’ smaller "Auschwitz for indie kids" (Hogan’s words) in 2006, ATP is now staged three times a year, with tentacles also reaching to Australia, Barcelona’s Primavera, Chicago and New York.
"It won’t get too big," says Hogan definitively. "We don’t farm it out to people – whether it’s Australia or New York, it’s us who work on it."
"If Barry doesn’t find the right venue, he won’t do it," affirms Morris. "It’s got to retain that intimacy."
He’s right: though watching Iggy’s leathery torso snake its way across a sea of hands or seeing Fuck Buttons detonate umpteen kinds of blissful hell from their equipment is reason enough to watch, what makes ATP such a compelling watch is the interaction between fans, between bands and between bands and fans. Indeed, one year DiS witnessed a stand-off of sorts between a bus driver keen to keep to his time table, and a bunch of fans chanting "we don’t want to leave!"
"In theory, you could come to both weekends in December and stay the entire ten days," says Hogan with a smile. "I don’t know if your liver could take it, but it’s possible. It’s become a community of like-minded people and that’s what we wanted from day one."
And no, we never made the cut.
The documentary All Tomorrow’s Parties tours the UK from 23 October with live performances by Les Savy Fav and is released on DVD 2 November. ATP: Nightmare Before Christmas curated by My Bloody Valentine is on from 4-6 December and Ten Years of ATP Festival from 11-13 December.
See www.ourtrueintent.com for details.
Photos by Helen Barrass and Annebel Fenning