“This is weird for you too, right?” Taylor Rice, Local Natives’ frontman-of-sorts, addresses the elephant in the room. Not that ‘room’ is really appropriate, by any measure: we’re in the open air, a carved stone amphitheatre that seems to emerge naturally from the rock beneath it. Modest in size, but elegant. Worthy of any band. On one side we’re bordered by the Adriatic, weaving through scattered land masses, mostly uninhabited, seemingly dispersing away from the Croatian coastline. On the other, flanked by the rest of the island on which the venue stands, all untamed nature and gravel tracks and cicadas in the trees. An Elysium, screensaver-perfect. So, hardly a room, but then not really an elephant either. Tonight’s gig isn’t uncomfortable, it’s just—strange.
When he says “you too,” Rice refers to the audience, which at stage time amounts to around fifty, growing steadily throughout the set, but not by much. Tiny—even in the context of a pre-release tour that includes a number of intimate dates—for the band, whose third LP, Sunlit Youth, is about to be released. Despite the locale, the audience are predominantly British, as are the organisers. There are some Croatians, a group of German kids on the boat ride over, some Italians wondering about. But sometimes this place feels like a British encampment, hiding out in the backwaters of the EU, trying to get caught on the right side of things when merry England’s drawbridge gets pulled up. It’s just gone eleven now, but this is the most that’s happened all day. Those that woke up here wiled away the sunshine hours drinking at the harbour, on the beach, by the saltwater pool.
This peculiar place is Obonjan. Owned and operated by the same people who convene Croatia’s annual Hideout and Unknown festivals, the island was purchased last year with the intention of turning it into something halfway between holiday destination (oozing luxury, a ‘James Bond hideaway’, as they put it) and a festival. To book a stay here (on-site accommodation, there is no camping) feels more akin to booking a room in a hotel than tickets to a festival. It plays host to a both live acts and a healthy number of DJs over the course of its two-month season. Gold Panda, Four Tet, Shura, Gilles Peterson, and Floating Points all make appearances. There’s a programme of talks and workshops, many with a health and wellbeing bent. But the main attraction, you suspect, remains the land itself.
Our attendance tonight is serendipitous. Holiday plans take us through nearby Šibenik, a pretty Dalmatian town on the mainland whose café culture and derelict stone backstreets embrace the Mediterranean influence from across the narrow sea (Croatia is a country beset by a certain tension between the coastal culture of the Adriatic and former Yugoslavian neighbours to the east). News of Local Natives’ show, rather than the island destination-festival itself, trickles through social media. Plans are changed, AirBnBs amended, things seem to fall into place. So we wait, at Šibenik’s small harbour, for a boat transfer. This, of course, is the only way of accessing the island. The boat arrives, Croatia’s coastline soon starts to fragment. As we drift further out to sea it quickly becomes hard to tell the mainland apart from its closest islands.
Expectations are met. We worry that Obonjan might feel fake: dolled up as a ‘paradise’ but in reality a barely disguised tiki theme park. But ‘paradise’ feels appropriate; rarely does it look entirely real. The water is clear—really clear—entirely still and seemingly distilled; wading neck deep you can still see your toes. The tents are spotless, equipped with individual air conditioning units, clean linen on the beds (easily deserving of that nasty portmanteau of ours, “glamping”). The restaurants (there are two, with more informal pizza and curry places to catch any overspill) are good, the gnocchi in particular, and although beer prices hardly reflect those on the Croatian mainland, they’re not likely to break the bank, either.
It’s not all there yet, though. Travelling around the back end of the island (we are lost, although exploration feels encouraged), there is still pipework to be laid into the ground, still outbuildings to be finished. Plenty of room for expansion. Not that you can blame anyone: this is not the same as festival, a pop-up city that is built and demolished for the purpose of a three-day weekend. These structures are permanent, the island essentially a small village. Its completion will be an ongoing project.
But still, despite a handful of attendees (late twenties upwards, in the main), a twisted confluence of circumstances and events have led to an eerie quiet tonight. It’s Wednesday now, but by all accounts the dual draw of Anderson .Paak and a UK bank holiday meant the island was bustling over the weekend. Presumably they’ve returned to their day jobs now. There are broader factors, too: not only is Obonjan a festival in its first year, it’s one whose identity is tricky to convey (half holiday destination, half festival: ‘your perfect summer holiday with a festival twist’, say their marketers). The island project was waylaid by water and electricity problems at its launch, forcing refunds visitors expected in the first week, and inviting some bad press as a result. It’s very almost September, off-season bearing down on the island, and the nine-week series of events is drawing to a close. Whatever the reason, these few days the island has the feel of a party just finished, business winding down.
Not that any of this slows Local Natives. With LP number three itching to be released, the LA locals are either genuinely excited to be playing new music, or simply consummate enough to tap into a collective muscle memory the moment the house lights go down. Most likely it is a mixture of both. New songs (‘Villainy’, ‘Coins’, ‘Past Lives’) sit comfortably alongside old ones. Pop-y, sure, but still in a way that’s recollective of the bands you once listened to as a kid, when you first discovered there was music beyond what your parents listened to, what was on the radio. Complex enough to be more than that, too. In the performance itself, you wouldn’t notice anything was up. It’s those moments between songs that are revealing. Tonight is “a nice break” from the bands’ usual run of shows, not one of them, and they are taken aback when a yelped request for ‘Airplanes’ filters through the dark (“you know one of our songs!”). Maybe they are surprised by their surroundings, maybe that they were booked to play this sleepy island-resort at all, maybe both. Either way, it’s a surreal privilege to be stuck on this rock tonight.
Photo by Justin Gardner.
For more information about the festival, please visit their official website.