ATP The National: the DiS review
It’s been an ‘annus horribilis’ for ATP – Barry Hogan’s gone ahead and said as much: a nasty disentanglement from Butlins Minehead, liquidated in June with debts of £2.6m, reborn in July as a new company and a return to rickety old Pontins Camber Sands with its tail between its legs. The ATP website showed a short film in lustful anticipation of the homecoming, and while it was definitely tongue-in-cheek, with post-rock playing over the crude, primary-coloured charms of Camber, it was a little triumphant, too. The vibe was a bit ‘fuck you, we’re still alive’. And so they were.
Camber Sands Pontins is small. The chalets are dingy. The sofa beds are canoe-narrow. The televisions are microscopic, and as always, only one of the ATP-curated channels works. There had been warnings on the DiS forum – ‘bring duvets, toilet paper, food, booze – it’s dire’. But deep in my memory were warm feelings about the place. I’d been to a bunch of ATPs here – Mars Volta, Slint, Vincent ‘spermy’ Gallo, the epic Dinosaur Jr/Sleater-Kinney/The Shins one – and they’d been magical. It had something. We just had to find it again.
So whaddya do? You neck some booze and go to watch some music. The first act we caught was Hayden, a scruffy, sexy, melancholy singer-songwriter from Toronto who’s so low-key and unprolific he was at one point even listed as ‘deceased’ on his Wikipedia entry. On record, he’s beguiling; a poet of broken and bruised hearts, lives that won’t seem to go right. Live, it’s not so dour, not so entrancing. A few rabid fans sing along fervently, and I think it’s just about fun enough to kick things off. Upstairs on Stage 1, Hauschka plays the piano. In the first of many missteps I make this weekend I don’t stay to watch, then hear repeatedly later that his set was awesome. Oops.
Buke & Gase are on Stage 2 downstairs; a two-piece from Brooklyn who use self-made instruments – she’s on the ‘buke’ (a sixstring baritone ukelele) and he’s on the gas (a guitar/bass hybrid). Add in a load of pedals, amps and unwieldiness, and you’ve got a band that sound a lot like the brilliant Quasi, without the reverb. It’s a fidgety racket – chamber punk (as they grudgingly call it) from ADD minds – a sweet, fractured mix of noise and beauty, but after a while I end up forsaking them for that transcendent calling: dinner. We’re back for Bear in Heaven, who I’ve never got too excited about; they’re definitely good, but singer Jon Philpot’s astonishingly sexy writhing and the fact that another member of the band looks like Pob distract me – my notes for this just say: ‘poontang dance’ (underlined three times) and ‘sexual rumbles’. They do of course have a fine line in liquidy Eighties disco, all propellant basslines and hazy, swirling crescendos, but I’m underwhelmed.
Luckily, a cleansing sweep of Boris’s merciless guitars halts my drift into nostalgia over previous ATP Friday line-ups. The catharsis that’s found in listening to such heavy and uncompromising music live can’t be denied (unless you’re a pussy, hey) and I let their squalls and dirges wash right through me. I begin to feel good. It’s almost a letdown when they play gentler stuff and sing, like, lyrics and shit – but never mind that. While listening to Boris for this review I came across a great quote on YouTube which assesses them far more eloquently than I ever could: 'I seriously get so many boners during this song. They come and go? just like breathing'. Nicely said.
Kurt Vile doesn’t get a look in. Last time I’d seen him he’d done his best to look unconscionably bored and make all his lovely, lovely songs sound just the same. Screw that. We stumble out past the Pontins perimeter into what feels like endless hinterlands; we’d been promised a cinema. We roam randomly before realizing the village hall is directly opposite the entrance. It should have been a smart idea – to replicate Minehead on the cinema front by way of the local village hall – but before long I’m bone-frozen and stiff-assed on an uncomfortable plastic chair and, damn, Talladega Nights ain’t even all that good.
Late to wake, scoff greasy English breakfast, a walk on the beach, then bands – that’s how ATP Saturdays roll. First up today is Lower Dens. I saw Jana Hunter at ATP in 2006 and had loved her starkly pretty album Blank Unstaring Hearts of Doom (which seems to have since disappeared into the dust), so I’ve been following Lower Dens with interest. This year’s Nootropics is the sound of them finding their feet, wielding their synth-heavy, narcotic sound to spellbinding ends. Watching them live I decide that they’re getting almost too comfortable with the motorik beat – they’re becoming reliable purveyors of epic krautrock jams, which is fine but feels a bit samey. Nevertheless, there’s thrills to be had in listening to them pummel out ‘Brains’ and ‘Stem’, the headiest one-two hit on any 2012 album. They end with ‘Nova Anthem’, which I find too whiny to be as transcendent as it’s meant to be, but that’s okay. These guys know what they’re doing.
Richard Reed Parry of the Arcade Fire has been omnipresent on the schedule, but that doesn’t mean that this feckless reviewer has seen him yet. Somehow I miss him again (probably because I was playing Dance Dance Revolution) and wash up at This is the Kit, who everyone looooove, and I do understand that love – they’re a sweet, folky British band with some enchanting melodies and poetic lyrics, but there’s a couple too many "ooh-ooh-ooh"s and repetitive-sounding songs for me. This doesn’t negate their loveliness; it’s just to say that they don’t make my heart throb as much as they do everyone else’s.
But Michael Rother does. My god does Michael Rother. I wobble with anticipation. This is Neu!, guys, this is Neu! (ok, without the Dinger). This is the fucking inventors of the motorik beat right here; the professionals have arrived. I find some friends who are going nuts to it; who totally get the wild joy of hearing live those famously hypnotic beats, that dreamy, liquid autobahn economy. A distorted, bent out-of-shape version of ‘Hallogallo’ is blissful. Thank fuck for Michael Rother.
Next we miss Kathleen Edwards and Mark Mulcahy and see Sharon Van Etten. I’ve wanted to see SVE for ages, especially since I consider Epic (yeah, Epic – not Tramp) to be Joni Mitchell’s Blue for the twenty-first-century, an opinion that no-one else has yet considered anything other than mad hyperbole. Whatever, guys. Live, her music is unsurprisingly stunning, her voice choral-sounding in its rounded, rich beauty, and despite the chattering fuckwits around us (there were a lot of chattering fuckwits at this ATP, but that’s another story…), her charged harmonies are stirring. My friend, who has seen her live a fair bit, says she seems lacklustre compared to normal. She’s just finished a long tour with the marvellous Damien Jurado and I agree she seems tired. But even if there’s a sense of going through the motions, the vulnerability and heart of her songs shines out and the set is wonderful, especially ‘Serpents’ and ‘Give Out’.
It’s time for the Antlers. Having long been in obsessive, unhealthy love with ‘I Don’t Want Love’, I’m itching to hear it live. But the bastards don’t play it. I can take it, though – there’s more than enough else that’s good. For one, they play what can only be described as absolute sex music – live, the floaty, submerged sounds of Undersea wrap you in such a bubble of sensuality that it’s enthralling. My notes squeak: ‘they’re sooooo goooood.’ It’s deep and woozy and crackling; the crackle is in part because the speakers are malfunctioning – and they’re not happy – but I reckon this is splendor. Can it get better? I swig some Tequila Sunrise and float downstairs for Menomena.
Menomena are from Portland, which makes sense – they remind me of a messy week spent there not so long ago which left me wistful and jealous of the sense of freedom and fun, the kind of Elephant 6-y dedication to music and to being weirdos I found in the people there, without the ceaseless dictate of ambition you find so much in London. They’re exuberant, sweaty and chaotic, and just as I find with their albums, they’re excellent to listen to but nothing sticks. Yet. Suuns up the ante, though – it’s clear they’re going to be something special from the start, coming at us all sparse, ominous, Throbbing Gristle-y. Soon, I recognize ‘Arena’, a searing, dark techno banger which adds to today’s surprising bounty of live music you can really dance to. Dark, sexy, full of pulsing restraint and one pouting, sulky, somewhat depraved-looking lead singer – it’s a magnificent set. I’ll be keeping my eye out for their new album in March.
After, it’s indie disco time, but who wants to hear about that? I’ll just say that thankfully it’s better than at recent ATPs – not just the kind of crap they used to spin in Crazy Horse, to my repeated desolation. But the fact that the song people get most excited about is the Avalanches’ ‘Since I Left You’ is fair evidence that ATP DJs still make lacklustre picks and don’t care that no-one’s dancing. Man, they should let me DJ.
Fourteen or so ATPs later, I still haven’t managed to do the pub quiz. Over the years it’s become some kind of shimmering holy grail; no amount of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll could ever get close to how taking part in the pub quiz would make me feel. This time, my honourable friends get us there. Yes! But – but – I’ll spare you the next few painful hours. Let’s just say that it requires monster knowledge of shit pop songs and an ability to sit there for hours as the notorious MC Lord Sinclair (the crap English version of Neil Hamburger – who I, almost anomalously, find really funny) tells terrible jokes. To ease the pain, I skip between the Queen Vic and Stage 2, where father and son Pedro Soler and Gaspar Claus play the violin and guitar so winsomely, so beautifully – a gorgeous set of profound yet simple songs – that going between that and the pub quiz feels like skipping between universes. Eventually scores are announced, our delusions of winning fall away, and we leg it at once, swearing never to do that again (well done to my mates who won it again, though – your knowledge of shit pop is shocking). Upstairs, My Brightest Diamond is in full swing, and her voice is dramatic, operatic; she’s got a brilliant stage presence and thunderous songs. My friends enjoy it while I slink to the back for a massage.
So here’s the thing about Perfume Genius. On record, he’s endlessly listenable; but here – and I know this is heresy – he’s a bit tepid. We can barely hear his voice, more’s the shame. We head back to the Queen Vic for Michael Rother’s backing band, the Berlin-based Camera, who blow my socks off. I’m in good company – Michael Rother stands near us in the crowd, nodding his approval. These guys are seriously good. They’re my favourite aspect of krautrock – those cosmic, electronic melodies and that forward-flowing, pulsating vein – what Rother calls 'the idea of endless flight, with our eyes focused on the horizon,' reincarnated, distilled. I don’t know how there can only be about 50 of us watching; we’re the lucky ones, for sure. It seems such a waste that their set has to end – I could have listened to them for hours.
Another mistake straight after – missing most of Owen Pallett. Dinner and ‘Ghost World’ in the chalet substitute for almost all his set, save a sped-up, devastatingly beautiful version of ‘This is the Ballad of Win & Regine’ that I manage to catch. Apparently he was amazing. Damn you, hunger! But hey, we still have Deerhoof. These guys feel like ATP’s house band. They’re also one of the best live bands around. As always, watching them is electrifying. They seem to have an alien intelligence or be on smart drugs or something; their elastic yet implausibly focused music seems every time to come from a place light years away.
It’s the perfect lead-in to The National. We push our way to the front and stand in a packed crowd, waiting for the band of the weekend. The only other time I’ve seen them was at the Explosions in the Sky ATP, so long ago, and it was a low-key set by all accounts. There’s such a thrill to seeing them as the main event now, with everyone around me singing every word of ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ and a euphoric (in a dull and wicked, ordinary way, of course) ‘Secret Meeting’, while the Dessner twins – who’ve been ubiquitous all weekend – stand either side of Berninger, slashing their guitars into submission like they’re stadium greats.
More nitpicky the National fans than me might be able to find problems with this or that, but I just found the set pure thrills. Hemmed in all around by a crowd going wild for ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, jumping madly to the tiny glowing gem that is ‘Abel’ – it was a joy. The thing about the National – what I never understand when people dismiss them as boring bedwetter music – is that their sense of song is so fucking superior; the way they’re sculpted as these dense, celebratory creations, even when, as they so often are, they’re riven with despair. Nico Muhly and Richard Reed Parry join in, adding plaintive weight here and there, Muhly’s contribution especially adding to one of the band’s four new songs they play, an atmospheric grower that reminds me of, uh, REM. (It’s the one called ‘Sullivan’).
What more can I say? It was beautiful, especially ‘Slow Show’ and ‘Green Gloves’, songs that feel so much like private odes to loved ones they’re almost painful to hear; the rockin’ alternate version of ‘Terrible Love’ and the closer ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, which had never done much for me on record, but with Matt Berninger heading down into the crowd like a torch-bearer, such sincerity etched on his face, singing: “All the very best of us, string ourselves up for love” – and us all singing it with him – well, this was a moment. I learn afterwards that he usually is super-drunk and wades into the crowd far more readily; that this time he showed restraint, but this is the first ATP I’ve been at in which the singer from the curating band has just tried to dissolve into the audience at the end of their set, and it’s just a reminder of how humble, and how awesome, the National are.
Dazed and happy, we head for intoxicants and dancing. The night soon accelerates, becoming enough of a messy belter to rival Queen Vic shenanigans of old. I’m told later that Ethan Lipton’s late show (which Matt Berninger recommended at the end of the National’s set) was the best, the very best thing on this weekend, but hey. I adore jumping around to Fugazi at a skanky holiday camp, and so when ATP rises to the occasion – it’s been a good six years since it has – I damn well will. Around 4am I realize that this is it – the magic: when you’re sleep-deprived, looking like shit, the lights are on, the bar is closed, sunrise ain’t too far away and you’re doing ninja kicks to ‘Waiting Room’ with a bunch of equally bedraggled ne’er do wells – this is all the sheer happiness of the weekend rolled into one. Only at ATP. Thanks again, guys.