DiS was lucky enough to go to by:Larm, Oslo's annual music festival and industry conference. It's basically SXSW except that everyone is considerably better looking. Also, cold.
I don’t know why, but I think it is fitting that the first band I see at by:Larm have decoy ducks on their heads and blue flags with geometric owls on them. It might all be very nownowNOW, but I’m not sure I mind. I always love the first band I see at a festival – even if they are rubbish – because it reminds you why you’re here and what the next few days are going to be about. In by:Larm’s case, it will be three days of bands, ice, sneaked bourbon, thermal socks, industry nitwits and enough art-and-philosophy-based DESPAIR to kill a Kant. Team Me are fresh and young and vital and I double love their jerky pop that the brochure describes as Animal Collective-o-like but which; if you ask me, has enough pep to dethrone Ben Folds. ‘I wish this brochure would stop trying to disguise pure fun by making it put on a seriousface,’ I think to myself for the first – but not the only - time this weekend. They are MEGA.
Then a band called Razika play some flimsy, pointless ska but they are flimsy and pointless in the way that Best Coast might be, i.e. wonderful to stand in front of. ‘This is the sort of music that needs to be performed while people have dinner,’ says someone I am standing with in a most amusing fashion, and we go from dinner-dance-rock to PROM BANDS to PROM ROCK in a matter of smartarse seconds; this genre name feels Just Right for what we are seeing – delightfully entertaining pop that can only penetrate so far; cheap moisturiser music. I still love Razika's drummer though, with her sassy scarlet pullover and her darling Betty Page fringe.
Earlier in the day, DiS’ Luke Slater and I have trudged to Vigeland sculpture park to explore the city properly. I have bought ice runners from Clas Ohlsson (or ‘that small and more expensive Ikea’, as it has been described to me recently) so I cannot fall over. But the main thing to point out about Norway in February, is that Not Falling Over is Not Really The Point. The point is; how many pairs of socks can you put on that still leave room for actually getting your shoes on over them. And the answer on Thursday is: Not Enough.
In the sculpture park all the ART is about STRUGGLE. Like this:
Or this, which I like to call Old Man Touches Old Lady In Her Darkplace:
The park is centred around a large, phallic mega-struggle that looks like this:
Later this week we will be told that the park escaped having the shit bombed out of it by Hitler because he approved of the artist and the art’s MESSAGE. To be perfectly honest, once you have seen these sculptures, this makes perfect sense. You don’t need to have a collection of futurist postcards or to have read Marinetti’s manifesto to see that people who view humans as machines-for-doing do not necessarily have the healthiest of outlooks - even though conversely, these very people are obsessed with health. The park looks amazing in the snow and it is worth it, even though my toes are now made of brittle toffee, they are sure to snap if I walk too fast. Kids are having larky skiing lessons in school hours. This place is heaven.
On Friday I spend a few blissful hours trundling about Oslo. And it is bliss; the light is fierce, I see the biggest seagull I ever saw in my life, I have the dubstep mixtape Eighteen did for DiS for company, and I am running to the top of the Opera House:
...while looking out at a glass sculpture that look like ice ships run aground:
Then I go and see Jeff Koon's Michael Jackson and Bubbles at the Museum of Modern Art. I never noticed before, but MJ has a third, wandering hand, and to be in a room by yourself with him, to come up close to the glass, waiting for him to move (because he is going to move), is quite something. Then, as part of by:Larm’s enviable conference programme, I go to see Vaughan Oliver talk about the thirty year's worth of work he has fancied up for 4AD. And I basically fall in love with him, he talks more sense and is more eloquent about music than anyone else I will hear - journalist, label boss or otherwise - all weekend. Oliver talks about how boring it is that branding bands now means having the same logo and the same visual identity for every release, and how this does not do justice to how bands change, how their sound might progress and call for a different interpretation in the packaging. It all makes me want to go to art school, preferably one this dashingly unaffected Tyneside man teaches at, so I can talk about the Cocteaus all day. He talks simply about how in order to do a band justice, one must fully understand their music; but that unlike 70s advertising or early ideas about graphic design – all visual puns and full-stops - giving people a kind of visual fait accompli must be avoided. And it’s heartening, all this talk of open-ended, but complementary art that makes the purchase of music an event; one of the greatest of life’s pleasures.
Later, at the Nordic Music Prize I see Olaf Arnolds, who is a lot more adorable in person than a gossipy anecdote has lead me to expect (can't tell you). There is a lot of quiver with Olaf, this is no surprise, but the humour in her music is also easier to discern. Because although it is easy to hit upon cultural stereotypes (and roundly enjoy them, as I do), it is not as if the Nordic countries do not know what they are - or play with them - too. So tonight, in between the Crown Prince of Norway presenting Jonsi with his prize and Jonsi kissing him thanksverymuch (which I am told the next day is NOT ON, VERY BAD FORM), there is an acknowledgement by the Norwegian presenters that their climate, and the sheer harshness of it, does produce a certain number of clichés, in the same way that raging sonically against Manchester rain, or Sheffield’s grey vistas, might. By all of which I mean, I like it when Northern Europeans can acknowledge that they are ridiculous, because it is what I like most about we British. First Aid Kit are also there, and it is through a supreme effort of will that I do not rugby tackle them to the ground with my BIG ARMS OF LOVE.
It is also worth pointing out here that Luke, who I am stood next to, CLAPS the CROWN PRINCE. ‘I am not clapping any ruddy royals,’ I say, ‘Luke, I am disappointed in YOU’. Although to give him his due, despite finding Luke’s behaviour very - almost might I say, sackably ANTI-ROCK - he does not clap the heavy metal dude who will give us the Black Metal coach tour tomorrow. Luke is not scared of metal dudes. I am not scared of princes.
Later, we watch some real actual metal dudes called Overthrow (my notes: a simple RARRRRRRR) who are too polite and I am sure I can hear the only Norwegian word I know - ‘tak', which means thank you - in their lyrics. Polite metal! This won’t do at all. Which is why I am doubly delighted to see Put Your Hands Up For Neo Tokyo at the top of a building which looks out over the whole city, you get there in a shaky lift that reminds me of municipal polytechnic university buildings, even though I studied at a Proper One.
PYHUFNT (honestly) are dressed in some sort of mega-practical, the Council Out Of Bill & Ted, foldover-necklined, brushed moleskin black tops. One of them has a keytar. ‘Slamming’ is a pertinent note I make, also ‘pop metal’ - which should strike the fear of Dog but doesn’t. They have a playful attitude with psychedelia which put me in mind of toy kaleidoscopes; there is gathering pace; deft time changes; the whole set is apparently ‘illuminated by an ability to play with form and structure’ (I am a dickhead) and I think it is Yeasayer they put me in mind of most. Even their slight tendency to noodle is alright, and given that I am usually allergic to anything strung out and pasta-like, they are really quite something; look-them-up-when-you-get-home good.
Later, I go to see Mathias StubØ whose DFA friendly, bass heavy, live-drummed electronica is slathered in tinny cowbells at every opportunity. There are dubby breaks and happy house bits and bubbly techno and waves of echoing vocals that make him hard to pin down, but whatever he is doing is immensely popular, this bar is rammed. But spilling your drink in Oslo, where drinks cost the same as a house, is not funny, so I squash up against a rudimentary shelf and make the odd note, writing things like ‘Crescendos!’ ‘Drops!’ ‘POW POW’ and the simpler, ‘great’. Great.
Figurines make impossible to dislike 60s jangle pop but their lead singer wears t-shirts with baggy necklines. And I may have mentioned it but I am a total mum about these things, they look like comfy t-shirts from BHS for ladies but on men, and I am firmly against this. Still, they do a neat job of making neat music and sing songs about how ‘All I wanna do is wake up and make it alright’ which I can’t be bothered to argue with.
Niki and the Dove make more sense to me when I see them live to the point that I am driven to text someone that they are ‘strangely enjoyable’ despite the obvious reference points of Natasha Khan and oh-Dog-is-she-going-to–say–this–yes–she–is Kate Bush. But it does provoke an idle thought pootle about just How Far One Has To Go in order to Present Oneself these days; if I see one band at by:Larm with facepaint I see a hundred. This is almost unfair, in the light of Gaga, you can’t compete with those theatrics and I rather wonder if you should even try. But N&TD do, amiably, they have someone who looks suspiciously like Edward Scissorhands on keyboards and though I am not sure WHY there is all this Dreijering about at the moment, I can understand that if it all must exist, WHY NIKI.
Saturday is ‘play day’ when we go on a Black Metal Tour and see an incredible church, once burned to the ground by the sort of people whose idea of a cosy night in is watching snuff movies while drinking moonshine. The church is BLACK, the man who takes the tour has a BLACK CHIN WEASEL BEARD with BEADS IN IT (I may have imagined the beads) and we listen to BLACK METAL but unfortunately it is REALLY QUIET which is very amusing and wrong. We get taken into a smelly spooky basement where it says this on the wall:
OOOOOOOO. And it is all really funny until BLACK METAL MAN starts telling us about the dude who stabbed the other dude THIRTY FIVE TIMES with the last one, right in THE SPAM*. Oh okay: not cool, not funny. And then we go to a record shop that sells CASSETTE TAPES and has REAL HUMAN BONE AN HAIR on display. I don’t know about you, everyone, but I think I prefer Rough Trade. The new one, with all the nice new displays and the nice coffee and the nice buns.
That night, I go to see 22 who tonight will be channelling the Klaxons and Level 42. They sing songs that posit how ‘there has to be more out there’ and I think they must mean ETs, except because this is Norway they must be METAL ALIENZ. There is more facepaint, and some lumpen riffs but everything is filtered through Spinal Tap because it was on the telly when I go back to pick up a map because mine has gawn. Saying all that, I even enjoy the sax-based wrongsolos 22 do - perhaps because in a funny sort of way, saxy wrongsolos seem – at this particular moment, more transgressive than leather armbands that chinny reckon they have HOOMIN HAIR AN BONE on them.
Museum of Bellas Artes are well-named and extraordinarily good-looking, their singer has an impeccable fringe and one of those neat, rectangular flat bows in her hair I mostly spend the whole of their set wanting to rip off her head and scarper with. They play flute-heavy disco pop and chimey synths and do that shuffly School Disco thing on stage, are-we-good-enough, yes-we-are. The only odd thing is that the man in charge of percussion has an unfortunate Bez-like head-loll going on, or perhaps that is fortunate, I can’t tell. All in all, performance seems to be an afterthought for MoBA, they are not cold but they could be coolly indifferent to your interest, which I am pretty sure you need to be St. Etienne to pull off.
My - surprisingly readable - notes tell me that I then see someone who is ‘ChkChkChk with none of the sass’ so let us gloss over them and Anine Stang’s unfortunate, cringeworthy pop because at that point I text someone and say ‘I seem to have appointed myself DiS' BAD POP CORRESPONDENT’ to which they reply ‘I thought YOU WERE THAT ANYWAY’. So because this is rude in the extreme, I make myself like Anine, I mean, at least she has dancers with cats on their heads even if they look as if they cost five pence, and at least no one is going to try to frighten me with NOISE. Also, being a contrary idiot, I want to be where NOBODY ELSE is, so if NOBODY ELSE is watching Anine, I WILL RUDDY WATCH HER. See, this may be Oslo’s answer to SXSW but that does mean you bump into the sort of industry people who demystify music to the extent that you just want to stab someone thirty five times including A FINAL ONE IN THE SPAM. And I don’t want to meet Derek from HiGloMusic (not a real person) who is in charge of Servicing Digital Content, Northern Europe. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Derek is well brought up and pleasant to talk to. But if I talk to him for very long I will never buy a RECORD EVER AGAIN.
I go to see a band called Brighton who introduce themselves with pre-digital Disney theme tune music in a small bar. They are quite like The Killers but not hateful, but because there is more to see and because at festivals like this you need not stay to hear things that prompt you to write things like ‘serviceable’ because there will be something along in a moment that prompts you to pencil superlatives, I leave. And I am glad I do, because superlatives are more than due for Cold Mailman, who I catch doing ‘Pull Yourself Together And Fall In Love With Me’. I have covered it in The Singles but not really fully appreciated just what an ackfing gem of a bittersweet pop song it is and I have to admit, I sort of nearly cry. Their music barrels and fizzes in a yes, simple and straightforward way, but it is no less lovely for that.
The last band I see at by:Larm are The Lionheart Boys, whose heavily embroidered waistcoats strike fear into my modernist heart. They are fond of wah-wah, squall, also ponderousness. They have on the sort of boots that salute the sun (AAAAAAA CURLY BOOTS), but lucky-for-me, they are only psychedelic in their approach to melody so sound as poppy as Ride. Their retroism is mild and not baulk-making, so - at least until their beats begin to sound a bit block-rocking - they have me firmly on side.
After this it is time for fun, the real sort, the sort that does not require a notebook. So as I am introduced to the delightful members of a Norwegian band I have not managed to see, and as we all attempt to navigate back to an open bar without killing ourselves on the ice, I make a promise to myself. Next time we go to something like this, we are taking more socks. And if Derek from HiGloMusic tries to talk to us we will run away. Politely. In ice runners.
*Late 80s comprehensive speak for forehead. At least it was, where I grew up.
Go here for DiS' Luke Slater's take on the festival.
Wendy is on Twitter, here. If Clas Ohlsson is really an actual man in actual real life, she would quite like his number.