FYF Festival 2012
[Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis at FYF Fest. All photos credited to Max Sweeney]
Though California is known worldwide to feature the mother of all festivals, Coachella, there’s a smaller scale event that is gradually maturing and on the verge of becoming a great contender in the festival circuit. Now in its ninth year, FYF Fest has become the last great event in East Los Angeles to wave goodbye to another summer, one last party before the locals begin to rummage through second-hand shops on the lookout for deals on coats.
The one defining factor that separates FYF from other festivals is that it appears to be orchestrated like a massive playlist coming from organizers who unquestionably worship their music. It truly is a music lover’s feast; one that’s expertly curated to feature acts both classic and current, making for an audacious sorting of influences and influencers of the independent persuasion all in one same open field. While younger, hipper-than-thou crowds may flock to see the latest up-and-coming garage band, there’s a pretty good chance that their parents may be enjoying a venerable eighties punk band at the adjacent stage at the same time.
So I’m glad to report that FYF continues to hold that backyard event charm, but I’m beginning to suspect that this will be one of the last years in which it’ll remain a precious secret, and more the kind of wandering diversion for those who like to attend festivals to merely shed the boredom of an otherwise uneventful weekend. And not just because Katy Perry and John Mayer were spotted canoodling while enjoying rising electronic duo Purity Ring in Hill St. Stage. The poor girl doesn’t know what’s coming to her, does she?
Of course, there’s much of that already happening – a quick glance of the VIP is filled with a bevy of bored onlookers drinking generic brands of overpriced beers (really, start showing support for local brewery brands, FYF!) and hardly giving a care about actually getting into the action. It goes for the media people as well – why was I the only one with that powerful (it’s just a pass, but flatter me please) orange media pass actually diving headfirst with the crowds in eager anticipation of the next big act? Granted, saying that a festival like FYF is strictly for music savvy types would describe me as disingenuous, but it certainly feels that way.
For someone who’s too overly enthusiastic about music in its current state, constantly evolving even if its nurtured with retrofitted ideas, the experience can still be greatly rewarding. So much so that it’s a bit hard for me to get grouchy in a “everything sounds like New Order” kind of way, and my eagerness to digest everything sometimes had me roaming around multiple stages back and forth like a test rat in a labyrinth, stopping to hear cursory 20-minute sets of some of the acts instead of really absorbing them. That’s really the nature of a festival in which every stage is within your grasp – if you find yourself bored or thinking you’ve actually missing the absolute best set at a given time, it’s only a ten minute walk towards the other end of the park.
So perhaps it’s telling that someone like myself is in his element, even if I found my enjoyment hindered by some outside influences and utterly reckless logistical decisions. Firstly, I can understand that expanding the festival into two days may be a good thing in theory, but it also does invite more room for filler. But at the same time, it does give a chance for lesser known acts (mainly local bands) to expose their talents at possibly the worst times, when it’s still empty and really, really hot. But hey, the exposure is always welcome.
Surprisingly, some of my favorites acts this year came from these one to three pm time slots, several of which I’m pretty sure will get their moment in the limelight fairly soon. I’ve been championing garage pranksters FIDLAR ever since they released their impressive debut EP (they were chosen as band of the year for a local blog I write for) and their performance stood up to the title. Their balanced dose of hilarity and merry surf rock hi-jinks can really brighten up the mood, and you can tell that they’re making the most of it every time they’re either at a festival stage or at a crummy bar. Much more than the Yardbirds-resembling Allah-Las, who like to play the part in both appearance and sound with their choice of clothes and by playing AM radio pop like bores. If you remember that über-cool scene in Blow Out where the band is coolly feeling the crunch and letting the fuzz simmer while an almost static crowd looks from afar before it turns into fan frenzy, than you have a good idea about the kind of reaction the Allah-Las may incite. Garage bands are a big commodity in the DIY LA scene, but the wholly impassioned and perhaps too appreciative PAPA did the opposite, delivering a number of pleasantly meandering, not to mention bubbly, tunes that should bestow them the reigning chair previously held by other indie rock classicists like Tapes n’ Tapes and White Rabbits. Hopefully, they’ll make the effort to keep the enthusiasm going after album number two.
FYF primarily began as a punk festival, so it’s little surprise that the festival hosted quite an impressive assortment of the new class as well as established musical acts. One of the first to make an immediate impression on me were New Yorkers The Men, who make the sort of thick and sludgy, no-wave leaning psych rock that’s both empowering and novel. Much like their songs, The Men’s scorching 35 minute set was short on words, except when Nick Chiericozzi remarked, “Give it up for the bus”, as the Gold Line rail train passed by, perhaps the only pictorial resemblance to their home city. The attendees were boiling with angst, and a young twenty something male came out of it bleeding after getting knocked in the mouth after a ravenous circle pit I happily avoided whilst bobbing my head with my arms crossed. That said, it was much more eventful than the fairly predictable Cloud Nothings set, which had Dylan Baldi screeching in his newly adopted post-hardcore stance. It didn’t provide much of a spark as it was intensely hot in their 4:10 set, and the fact that the stage they were playing at had all the nearby food trucks didn’t do them any favors. Drink lemonade or get showered with dust smoke? Sounds like a no brainer, don't it? They also provoked some strong reactions from the crowd, including a thirty something couple that began to mockingly bounce and pantomime like emo kids while Baldi sang the chorus to Stay Useless.
[Dylan Baldi, Cloud Nothings]
Nevertheless, these aren’t “real" punk bands, but there were enough long-established post-hardcore and alternative metal acts to entice the ears of purists and those nostalgic for those days when MTV2 actually kicked ass. I, for one, am partly culpable for being one of them, although it’s also a little heartbreaking that many of these bands will never transcend beyond the tag nostalgia act, a fate they brought upon themselves by reuniting. Seriously, in which other festival will you see short-lived acts like Hot Snakes, Refused and American Nightmare, all of whom are curiously from the beginning of the past decade but could easily be confused as one-album nineties grunge acts, playing on the same weekend? Putting that aside, Quicksand was especially great, a band I'm sure indirectly informed all of the aforementioned - they were never ones to dabble on melody, but their riffs resonated just as tight and precise as they did two decades ago. I’m also somewhat shocked over how a band like Refused suddenly became so popular, partly due to those Paramore and Muse endorsements and Coachella headlining set I suppose, so it was undeniably surreal for me to witness such glowing enthusiasm for the eternally youthful Swedish band. Despite all the praise they got for their now-considered seminal The Shape of Punk to Come when it originally came out, the band slipped unnoticed, pissed on and relegated by all the nu-metal nonsense that bore the "rock is dead" mindset back in the day. There wasn’t any Helmet, in case you were wondering, but wouldn’t that had completely sold it?
I’m a sucker for dreamy, ethereal-sounding pop myself, so I also took every chance to watch some of the genre’s current top players. Unfortunately, this year’s acts were debatably some of the weakest offerings in the genre. My enthusiasm rapidly waned when I finally got to see some of these acts for the first time. I’ve never been a fan of Wild Nothing myself, but their latest is a significant improvement over Gemini. Sadly, the set was by the numbers and too pristine for my taste, not to mention that Jack Tatum’s voice sounded like a saw machine grinding a polar bear stuffed animal. But probably the biggest disappointment, and possibly the worst act of the festival honor had to go to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, although I’m blaming perception on this one. What I thought was a fairly decent live band sounded more like a high school garage band, and not in a cute, eighties sounding Breakfast Club kind of way. I was astounded by how much of a twerpy frontman Kip Berman is, who after aimlessly tuning his guitar shouted, “that’s my manly way of saying I love you”, after a young teen expressed her platonic affection for all of us to hear. I’ll never look at their discography the same way ever again.
[Ramona González, Nite Jewel]
Every year, it seems like electronic music has a stronger presence at the festival, and 2012 was no exception. Except that most of the acts weren’t terribly exciting and held that same motif of keeping it grounded in an unadventurous, house-influenced aesthetic. Perhaps the only act who managed to drift me in a trance-like state, if you will, were The Field, who for almost close to an hour played some of their most alluring, and sneakily inventive minimalist songs. When laptop acts like Gold Panda and Glass Candy try to rile up a crowd with pre-programmed trickery, the Swedish trio were the only ones I saw that actually had an actual bass and analogue drum kit. Same goes for Nite Jewel, whose R & B-tinged electro-disco felt distinct from the more rthymically propulsive acts. I have to say that I partly enjoyed the Tiger & Woods set, especially when they lock themselves in a disco groove, but the rest of it was pretty forgettable.
The one act that should get a refund is James Blake, though, who pressured himself to turn some of his quiet, soulful songs like Limit to Your Love & I Never Learnt to Share into loud, seven minute suites that got alarmingly close to sounding like conventional dubstep. There was a reason to this - he got hijacked by Tanlines’ booming set at the nearby electronic stage, and couldn't help to awkwardly laugh between songs. His music is too intricate and captivating for an outdoor setting, and you could really sense that he had a devoted audience struggling to absorb every tingling bass tremble, drum click and static burst. Hell, I’m sure all of us, even Blake himself, thought that the crowd over at the Tanlines set were having the time of their lives. Technical snafus were minimal, but the one act who couldn’t get their own handle on things was Chairlift, who ended their set abruptly after singer Caroline Polachek held her head in frustration because she couldn’t get the words to their left-field hit I Belong in your Arms in Japanese right before promoting their Greek Theater opening slot supporting Gotye. Talk about undermining yourself.
[Francis McKee, The Vaselines]
It seems like the real loser at this year’s festival was the lack of tried-and-true rock music, which also hints at how the current crop of blog approved indie acts avoid it like a plague. Nevertheless, the few acts that did were among the best and also drew some of the biggest crowds. Redd Kross played their well-crafted power pop with heaps of enthusiasm on their side, and The Vaselines were as jokey about sexual themes they’ve always been, playing an expertly firm collection of greatest hits to a surprisingly abundant fanbase (aren’t they bigger in the US than in the UK?) that knew every word to every song. But the best-in-show award had to go to Dinosaur Jr, a band who is as resilient as ever, still writing killer original material and sounding as fresh as they did back in their eighties heyday. Lou Barlow even quipped about how their newer material is slower because "they’re old", not before unexpectedly defying that thought, reminiscing their pre-feud days by delivering a blazing Deep Wound track. Henry Rollins was backstage savoring every moment, and I was praising the preacher. A sidenote: I’m still kicking myself for missing Black Mountain’s set, but it was physically impossible for me to multiply into two.
[Emily Kokal, Warpaint]
Fast forward to some quick lows and highs: Warpaint turned me upside down with their compositional prowess when I thought they'd be wearisome on stage; Conor Oberst's pre-Bright Eyes act Desaparecidos played a rousing, get pissed at the GOP set although I couldn't shake that uneasy feeling that Oberst was playing a character he'd already outgrown, coming from an artist who's tried really hard to become the next great enigmatic singer-songwriter; Daughn Gibson was unintentionally laughable, striking a casual lothario pose with an affected Nick Cave wail that came off as an amateur bookstore poetry reading; Liars snugged comfortably into the night with their synth-slathering, not to mention expectedly sinister WIXIW heavy set; Beirut were, well, pleasant and antiseptic, a dreary, mariachi-horn drenched hour long set that suddenly sprouted loads of thick rimmed glasses and faint glances from girls, although their European slant and characterless demeanor felt deeply disconnected with the audience that was crushing me on stage, including a couple of self-proclaimed nineteen year old "ghetto girls" who were wondering amongst themselves before he came out, "Is Beirut on the radio?" And then we complain that our kids have a lack of higher education.
[Angus Andrew, Liars]
All in all, FYF continues to mature into a festival beast, but it doesn’t seem like it’s ready to take a leap into superstardom. And having them supported by Goldenvoice, the same people who run Coachella, it seems like there’s currently a conflict of interest about how far to take the festival in the future. Yes, there were a few headliners like M83 and Yeasayer, and though they linger with the concept they’re not exactly stadium-filler acts. Except maybe M83, who sure had a lot of prancing, shirtless jocks crying out the words to Reunion with utmost perfection. The same could be said about the lack of non-Caucasian participation: Aesop Rock was the only hip-hop act, and I’m pretty sure the darkest person I saw on stage was Yeasayer’s Anand Wilder.
FYF felt more like a transitional year for the festival, and I’m curious to see how it continues to portion its diverse musical stylings into an all-inclusive two days. They’re obviously aware that a big chunk of their patrons are in the know about what’s current and what used to be current in the indie side of the equation, and it’ll be interesting to see how it continues to broaden its selection. With ticket prices getting more expensive each and every year, there’s really a limit to how much you could charge for a festival that still doesn’t seem to be interested in featuring any Top 40 radio act. Just like the staunch, rabid fanbase that contributed into making festival what it is today, they’ll begin to wonder to themselves how it ever got to this point. And unlike nostalgia acts revisiting their glory days with modest artistic aspirations, festivals never go back to more humble beginnings.4 September, 2012 - 08:28 — Juan Edgardo Rodriguez