Double the trouble or twice the fun? As Eurosonic Noorderslag is Europe's biggest showcase festival and a key industry event, we decided to send along not one but two of our most experienced festival correspondents - one a Eurosonic veteran, the other a virgin - to see what they made of the four-day frenzy in Groningen, The Netherlands. Between them, they saw the weird, the wonderful, and almost everything in between - here's what they made of it all.
Derek Robertson: So Dom, I know you’re a Eurosonic veteran, but it was my first time in Groningen for the festival and I have to say, the first thing I noticed was simply the scale of the event, the number of things going on, and the breadth of musical genres represented; 352 bands in total I believe. It’s kinda hard to get a grip on it all and work out precisely what you want to see - and of course, it’s hectic running around between venues in the freezing rain trying to make sure you’re in time to actually get into venues.
Dom Gourlay: Oh it’s huge! But at the same time so compact. Groningen is one of those cities where nothing is more than a 10-minute walk away and every other building is a music venue. In terms of infrastructure, it beats most other inner-city showcase events hands down. Although this year, there was a touch of the wristband hierarchy that’s dominated The Great Escape in recent years which made it difficult to get into certain venues and once inside, you find the venue to be half empty (Vrijdag I’m looking at you!), which made it doubly frustrating.
Derek: It did seem a little silly to wait for 20 minutes to get into The Homesick before finding only about 30 people watching them, although apparently there was another venue upstairs. Then again, it was worth the wait - they were one of my highlights. I only saw their Wednesday set, but it was incendiary to say the least; listening to them burn through ‘The Best Part About Being Young Is Falling In Love With Jesus’ was incredible! They look so at home, and so composed - not to mention they have the tunes to back it up and are about ten times better than most buzz bands that hail from Dalston. That whole Dutch scene is really vibrant right now; you’re a big fan of a lot of those bands, right?
Dom: You know what, I was completely gobsmacked by the intensity of the Dutch punk scene right now. Koen Ter Heegde and the guys from Subroutine Records are undoubtedly at the heart of it, and bands like The Homesick (I heard on the grapevine an album deal with a very prominent US label is imminent) and Canshaker Pi are almost certain to break outside of The Netherlands this year. However, scrape beneath the surface and you’ll find a whole host of acts waiting to explode - Korfbal played two extraordinary sets over the course of Eurosonic; they’re essentially a “supergroup” of sorts featuring members of Rats On Rafts and The Homesick among others. Their set is an explosive mix of original material and covers (check out their take on Pink Floyd’s ‘Lucifer Sam’ if you get chance) while Fake O’s, Mexican Surf, and my own personal favourites Charlie & The Lesbians evoke the spirit of the early 1980s UK street punk scene where bands like The Exploited, Discharge, Cock Sparrer, and The Business were the talk of many a small town back home.
Derek: I caught Iguana Death Cult as well, who I first saw play at Le Mini Who? two years ago, and actually bumped into the guitarist from The Homesick bouncing around in a very joyful way to their tuneful racket. It all seems so honest and refreshing, coming from a place of just wanting to make music and have fun with your friends instead of being “cool” or making it. There was a complete disconnect between those bands and the most hyped band of the festival, Superorganism. You missed their set, but I don’t think you would have enjoyed it; it seemed a little contrived and forced.
Dom: I made a point of avoiding all of the hyped acts this year. Aside from the fact I’ll be able to catch Superorganism, HMLTD, Pale Waves, and the rest of their ilk at pretty much every other festival this summer, I didn’t see the point in travelling all the way to Groningen to stand alongside the rest of Europe’s media and booking agents waiting to be impressed. Instead, I found more satisfaction veering off the beaten track and managed to discover several hidden gems along the way. Like Croatian trio Žen for example. As a sucker for all things reverb-laden, fuzzed up, and ethereal, these three ladies ticked every box. Their forty-five-minute set reminded me of Lush, The Cure, My Bloody Valentine, and 65daysofstatic yet aside from the two radio journos I persuaded to tag along, seemed to be almost free of anyone connected to the music industry.
Likewise the excellent Blackberries, my first band of the festival on Wednesday evening; it actually felt relaxed in the sparse confines of the All Round Poolcentrum where people actually seemed there to enjoy themselves rather than outsmart the competition as it were. In fact, as far as UK artists are concerned, South London’s Housewives were by far the most interesting act on the bill from these shores and also the least hyped to boot. Think Battles, Einsturzende Neubaten, and Animal Collective in one big noise’n’beat driven melting pot and you’re in the right vicinity.
Derek: Žen and Housewives were two of the bands I really wanted to see, but I ended up missing them. Some of the best sets I witnessed were the ones where people were properly into the music, as opposed to standing around at the back poking on their iPhones. But I can also understand why these kinds of bands are booked; they are being talked about by the press and featured in all the Ones To Watch lists, so it’s natural that “the industry” wants to check them out before booking them for every second festival in 2018. Some artists were just so passionate and infectious that they transcended such problems though, like Yungblud; he was a lot of fun, like if Alex Turner had grown up a fan of Jay Z and Kanye. He also has a serious side uncommon for a 19-year-old - one of his biggest songs is a commentary on sexual assault, consent, and corruscating the “lad mentality” that is so prevalent in small-town UK.
Dom: I guess so, but then when I hear an artist like Yungblud on the radio all I hear is this year’s Jamie T, Mike Skinner, or worse, Ratboy. It’s almost as if the industry has to justify its faith in regurgitating facsimiles of what’s gone before rather than sticking their necks out and taking a chance on something genuinely new and exciting. Take this year’s biggest hype Sigrid, for example. I’m sure she already has a list of well-respected songwriters and producers queuing to work with her but in all honesty, what is she actually bringing to the party other than half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a cheese and ham bagel? Ever since Robyn exploded on the scene just over a decade ago, (after a previous decade of trying nonetheless) and has continued to exceed expectations, the industry has been obsessed with finding the next Scandinavian pop sensation and failed, miserably.
Derek: Depends how you define “sensation”; Sigrid will, no doubt, be huge. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because she’s backed by so much money, just like Rag’N’Bone man last year. The one song that she played at the EBBA awards on the first night was OK, but I agree, it’s hardly reinventing the wheel. The whole Scandi pop thing scans as a little overdone to me; breathy vocals, icy synths, everything aiming for a cool detachment. I was at Vil Vil Vest last September and so many artists fell into this category; they all just felt bland. Especially the ones who have a guy in a black polo neck and NHS specs playing a multitude of black boxes. ALMA was good though - she has a real edge - and I was impressed with Youngr too. He seems a real talent, not to mention an incredible multi-instrumentalist.
Dom: More like changing it for the spare tyre to be honest. The biggest problem I have with most of this new breed of synthetic pop puppets is their purpose seems little more than a box-ticking exercise. An excuse to fulfil quotas driven by diversity demographics where the musical focus becomes secondary. I mean, great pop - and by great pop I mean ‘Take On Me’ by A-Ha, ‘Saturday Night’ by Whigfield, even ‘2 Become 1’ by the Spice Girls - should be memorable. Entrenched in your brain for decades. Sigrid’s ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ or Skott’s ‘Glitter And Gloss’ don’t fall into that category, and while none of the aforementioned would ever bother the Ivor Novellos at any given time, those songs will continue to be staples of that genre. Benchmarks for others to strive for. If you want to hear great pop in 2018, listen to Confidence Man!
Derek: Part of the problem is bands and artists striving to be super original - coming up with something that no-one has done before and yet can still be neatly summarised in a catchy soundbite - and other artists then filling the void that’s left. And then there are some bands who try to constantly reinvent themselves and surprise their fans, such as Iceage. I bet no-one expected one of the darkest post-punk bands of recent years to appear on stage with a violinist and a saxophonist...it’s interesting to see how they’ve developed since they were anointed the “saviours of punk music” back in 2011.
Dom: I almost forgot we saw Iceage on the first night! Elias Bender Rønnenfelt has always been a bit of a contrarian to be fair, but I’m still quite confused by that set. Granted, his live shows can be a bit hit and miss, as anyone who saw both Marching Church shows at SPOT Festival last year will testify too. But the sight of people leaving Vera in droves after only three songs kinda tells its own story. Anyway, enough of the stuff that didn’t float my boat. What about The Zephyr Bones? Barcelona’s answer to Diiv or The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart.
Derek: They were really good, I must say, and not a band that was even really on my radar. I guess happy accidents like that are part of the joys of Eurosonic; stumbling upon something brilliant. It also goes to show just how much musical talent exists beyond the UK and the US, even though huge parts of the music press and the industry continue to ignore it. I’ve done a number of European showcase festivals over the last 18 months, and the thing that’s stuck with me most is how much better some of these artists are than whoever is on the cover of NME or getting Best New Music in Pitchfork. Discussions in the UK frequently centre on “Where are all the future headliners?”, and I suppose massive events do rely on a few big names to shift absurd amounts of tickets, but when you can gather such a diverse and exciting selection of artists in a smaller city, it makes me wonder why anyone would bother spending hundreds of pounds for a corporate piss up in an anonymous field somewhere. The only bad thing about the entire event was the sense you couldn’t see everything you wanted to and an acute sense of FOMO.
Dom: Absolutely. Ignore the fancy PR pitches and glossy cover shoots and you’ll discover a band like Hater, Malmo’s answer to Alvvays, or the eastern-tinged psychedelic folk of Amsterdam dwelling Turkish natives Altin Gün, who played three riveting sets in differing venues ranging from a record shop to an amphitheater respectively. I’d rather be squashed like a proverbial sardine in a backstreet pub waiting for Canshaker Pi’s third set of the night than clock watching as the latest hyped act hits ephemeral cruise control any day of the week. I do miss those Eierbals mind…
Derek: It feels like the sort of festival that has the capacity to educate as much as entertain; where you can actually learn alongside indulging yourself. I’d recommend any band to get themselves out to this and get involved - not just for the exposure, but to be among their peers and to broaden their own minds, exactly the kind of thing that the British in general - not just UK bands - don’t do enough of.
Eurosonic Nooderslag takes place in Groningen, The Netherlands, every January. For more information about the festival, please visit their official website.
Banner photo credit: Siese Veenstra