By Gabriel Mathews
Author’s note: In keeping with the spirit of the events being described, I will include all sponsor references available to me.
FILTER Magazine’s Culture Collide® was not at all what I was expecting it to be. Billed as a three day weekend of music, panels, and heavily sponsored events, featuring largely unheard of bands from all over the world, spread out around Echo Park, and all this for the low price of thirty bones, I was anticipating a melting pot of LA’s musicall-inclined citizens, swarming the few blocks of Sunset Boulevard along which the festival was spread. I was expecting a packed house at every show, I was expecting people to be unbelievably stoked about the headliners and helplessly intrigued by the littler acts from Israel, Latvia, Costa Rica and beyond. What I got instead was one of the more bizarre festival experiences of my life. Here follows my account.
I met up with my designated Concert Attending Companion (hereon referred to as CAC) on Thursday night outside the Echo at 7:00 PM. Nothing was slated to start at the venue until 8:00, but we were under the impression that there would have been so many $30 wristbands sold that getting into a tiny venue like the Echo to see buzzbands like The Men and Iceage would require a lot of line-camping. Imagine our surprise when we were handed cards that read “CONVERSE® RUBBER TRACKS presents ICEAGE THE MEN GRMLN PLASTIC PLATES MIAMI HORROR – FREE – 21+” Free? What about the wristbands? Did they actually just sell so few they had to make this show—featuring two of the most buzzed about rock bands of the past couple years—free? The empty streets of Echo Park (and the ease with which we had found parking) seemed to indicate that this was the case. As did the complete lack of a line. And the fact that doors didn’t open until 7:30 and the dude at the door hardly knew what we were talking about when asking where to get our FMCC wristbands. So after we figured it out on our own, finding time on our hands, we popped over to Stories Books for somewhere to hang out.
Weird Moment #2 of the night came when we found the young Danes of Iceage gathered around a table in Stories drinking tea. They scare me, so I didn’t attempt any conversation. After finding neither of the books I’ve been looking for for months at Stories (where is Powell’s when you need it?), we headed down two doors to Origami Vinyl where psych-pop band Light Thieves were playing an un-FMCC affiliated in-store and where the greasy New Yorkers of The Men were perusing the dollar bins (Weird Moment #3). I said to guitarist Nick Chiericozzi that I was stoked for the show. He nodded.
We went back to the Converse® Rubber Tracks Stage at the Echo, musing at the bizarreness of the empty room. CAC opined that maybe folks would be showing up in a bit, after GRMLN‘s set. Said set ended up being entirely unmemorable—three days later, the only thing I can say about GRMLN’s music is that the vocal processing their frontman used was kind of fun. The Men were up next (“Welcome to the Converse stage by Converse,” said bassist Ben Greenberg by way of introduction) and they played a pretty standard Men set, which is to say that I recognized maybe two songs out of nine. Part of the issue was that I never really got into their newest album, this year’s New Moon, but the Men are so prolific that the chances of any of the setlist aside from rockin’ opener “I Saw Here Face” being songs from that album that I just didn’t recognize are pretty slim. The Men are a fun band, though, with a lot of energy, no matter what they’re playing. All three members of the front line—Chiericozzi, Greenberg, and guitarist Mark Perro—share vocal duties, and their various apings of various styles come off as more than just mimicry because they’re actually really good at writing songs. Oddly enough, even when they rocked out real hard on some punkier tracks, no one in the audience was really moving. At all (WM #4). Plus there were still only like 20 people in the crowd. The bald dude in the glasses and bucket hat next to me seemed to be enjoying himself, but no one else seemed to stoked on the set until Chiericozzi started singing Open Your Heart highlight “Candy,” which was definitely improved by new member Kevin Faulkner’s pedal steel.
Next up were Iceage. I saw these motherfuckers back in March and it was one of the greatest shows of my life. These four Danes are barely in their twenties, but they play their industrial-tinged punk like it’s life or death. Aside from furious frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, no one on stage moves. Ever. Including Rønnenfelt, no one smiles. Ever. Banter is limited to the announcement of song titles. So I thought I knew what to expect. I was a bit concerned (rightfully) when Rønnenfelt got on stage, mic in his one gloved hand, intoned “AWAKE,” and no one seemed to care. “Awake” is a fantastic song, and yet this crowd was just not having it. Second song “Everything Drifts,” though, found me and six or so other dudes slamming into each other a bit, which I guess was refreshing, if sort of low-key. What you want at an Iceage show is a devoted following of quasi-fascist punk rockers who scream along to every word. What we had here were about four of those, Bucket-Hat Dude, a middle-aged Asian lady, and a bunch of people drinking the sponsored Tiger® tallboys under the Converse®-poster-plastered walls and sort of nodding their heads.
WM #5 came when one of these tallboys, only half empty, struck Rønnenfelt in the face only a song-and-a-half-in. He seemed pretty much unphased but this is when everything started to go to shit. The band rolled through a few new tracks, including their just-out cover of Bahamutsi Drama Group’s “To The Comrades.” Somewhere along the line, guitarist John Surrballe Wieth’s guitar cut out, but he kicked something on his pedalboard and was back in action. No such luck when Jakob Tvilling Pless overdrove his backlined bass amp into submission. “Fuck. Something’s wrong. Give us five minutes and we will play the second half of the set.” They swapped to the other bass stack on stage, and started to mic it. They managed to rush through “You’re Nothing” and “You’re Blessed,” an excellent one-two-punch, started another new song, and then Wieth’s guitar cut out again. He kicked at his pedalboard, it came back on, they finished the song. Then up came the violently strummed opening chord of fan favorite “Ecstasy.” The guitar cut out again, and Rønnenfelt said “Fuck this.” He, Pless, and drumer Dan Kjær Nielsen began to walk of stage, but Wieth was not giving up so easily. With another kick, he started what initially seemed to be the Most Thrilling Comeback Ever. The rest of the band got back into position, and then out went the guitar again. “Fuck this, we’re done.” As the band stalked off the stage, crowd applauding, Rønnenfelt asked us, “Why the fuck are you clapping? This fucking sucks.” And that was the end of that. WM #6. While the set being cut short was a minor tragedy, Iceage were totally on point for the 20 minutes they actually managed to play, and I can’t say I was too upset, given the impossibly low energy of the crowd. I left the Converse® stage a little befuddled eager to see what new corporate glory awaited me tomorrow.
Friday at FMCC was actually kind of the reason I ended up going to Culture Collide, as I learned that it was the LA date on Fuck Buttons‘ North American tour and there was no way I was going to miss them. I arrived at the newly rechristened ASCAP We Create Music® stage at The Echo early enough to catch a tiny bit of Mujuice‘s electronic set. The Russian dance musician is apparently something of a star in Moscow, but his work felt pretty dated to me. I was tempted to yell something in Russian to him about his Daniel Johnston t-shirt, but I restrained myself and headed over to the (shockingly unsponsored) Front Lounge stage at TAIX, the crazy-huge French restaurant that was hosting two separate stages for the weekend. Apparently this is where everyone was hiding last night: TAIX was packed to the gills with cocktail-consuming thirty-somethings. I caught the last song of Mexican band Vicente Gayo‘s frenetic set and vowed to myself to catch their full set on Saturday. Other highlights of my pre-Fuck Buttons evening included thinking I heard a secret set by the xx coming from the Onitsuka Tiger® Champagne Room and finding instead Float Fall, a co-ed Belgian duo who sound more like the xx than the xx do anymore, and a few seconds of oddness from Polish band Brodka. Then there was a set by the incredibly entertaining Dutchmen of Birth Of Joy.
These guys were shipped sraight in from 1969. Silk shirts, muttonchops, endless chorus on the frontman’s guitar, lyrics about “teenyboppers”, a goddamned organist, epic Keith Moon rolls at the end of every song. While it seemed like complete pastiche, and set a record for quite how behind-the-times many of these international bands felt, Birth Of Joy’s set was sort of a peak in terms of showmanship, as frontman and drummer simultaneously took of their shirts, frontman asked us if we were ready to rock and then leapt in the air, everyone pulled lots of rock faces, etc. It made me wonder if perhaps showmanship at these events is really reserved for tiny foreign bands. I had to presume that anyone FILTER would ship to LA must actually be a big-ish deal in their home country, and to break into the American market would probably be huge for them. Compared to the American acts I saw, the international bands definitely put way more effort into performing.
Case in point: Kid Karate, the Irish duo who opened for Fuck Buttons back at the ASCAP® stage. These guys couldn’t have been ripping off the White Stripes harder if they’d tried, but I guess I’m being slightly unfair. What they did was more of a modernization of the Stripes’ decidedly retro sound. Does that sound like a good thing? It wasn’t. The Samurai-bunned frontman leaned so heavily on his octave pedal to fill out their sound that I felt like I was perpetually stuck inside “Blue Orchid.” The bass and piano tracks that were pumped out of some pedal felt way too canned. Songs repeated their wordless hooks so often that I couldn’t wait for them to end. The drummer’s skull cap made me wonder what it was with the Irish and skullcaps. All that said, these dudes put on a fucking show. I never knew what a nice stage move high-knees while shredding would be, but it worked really well for Kid Karate, as did the five or six leaps on and off stage the frontman made in their final hurrah. As CAC said to me, this band was a fortuitous pick for FMCC, as they’ll probably be regulars on KROQ in a couple years.
Compared to Kid Karate, Fuck Buttons were a tame, tame set. Visually, that is. Sonically, there’s no one on par with this British duo currently working. My love for their thoroughly menacing, utterly incredible, intricate-as-fuck new album Slow Focus knows pretty much no bounds. It’s easily my most played album of the year. You can listen to that thing fifty times and find new elements every single time. The emotional response Fuck Buttons wring out of their electronic palette makes it hard for me to even consider them an electronic band. Also: that cover art is impeccable.
I’d seen Fuck Buttons twice before, and knew basically what their setup would look like. Andrew Hung and Benjamin Power facing each other at opposite ends of a table coated in cords, boxes, and a Speak-n-Spell, a floor tom at Power’s side for use during Street Horrrsing closer “Colors Move.” What I didn’t quite expect was how fucking loud this band could be in a small club setting like The Echo. I don’t know when my ears are going to stop ringing—any disappointment about the volume of My Bloody Valentine at FYF was erased as their English compatriots spent 70 minutes violating my eardrums. Fuck Buttons make noise music, but it’s more music than noise. It just happens to be made up of sounds you wouldn’t expect to find in music—they grate, they burn, they decimate. Power screams through his tiny Speak-n-Spell mic, Hung pushes piercing shrieks through a processed mic. Bucket hat dude was next to me again, blissing out. I realized that no matter what else happened this weekend, no matter the weirdness of the previous night’s events, no matter how much I ended up owing for the fender bender I’d just gotten in that afternoon, the sheer transcendence Fuck Buttons brought me to through sonic devastation erased it all. When they hit the 50 minute mark and started playing “Sentients,” I suddenly knew what was coming for the rest of the set, and I knew that it would be 20 minutes of glory, as “Sentients” faded into “The Red Wing” and they closed their set with the descending riff of “Hidden XS.” CAC and I walked out of the venue, discussing the fate of our hearing. As two fire trucks rushed by, we realized they weren’t loud at all. It had been a good night.
CAC had other obligations Saturday night, so he passed his wristband off to an even better companion: my girlfriend. We arrived in time to catch Vicente Gayo‘s set in the Onitsuka Tiger® Champagne Room, which was pretty sweet. Based on the one song I’d seen on Thursday, I had them pegged as Mexico’s answer to Foals. Two floppy-haired songs in, Girlfriend said to me, “They’re like the Mexican Foals!” And While the comparison is super apt, these guys deserve more credit than that. They were relentlessly energetic, all four members shouting either in unison or call-and-response, the guitarists tapping like Eddie Van Halen himself, the drummer pounding his skins like he wanted to break them. They pretty much rocked, in short. Check them out if they ever come back north from the Distrito Federal.
During Vicente Gayo’s set, my friend Dustin bumped into and joined us. A few songs in, he started frantically tapping my shoulder. “That guy who just walked by? That’s Moby!” Sure enough, it was. And much to my surprise, it was Bucket Hat Man from the past two nights! This was probably Weird Moment #27. After standing next to him for an awkwardly long time, we took a picture so we could make our Moby-obsessed friend jealous. So, yeah, that’s how I met Moby, I guess.
We went outside to the Ernie Ball® World Stage, past the New Amsterdam® straight-razor barber station (not kidding), the Aqua Hydrate® photo booth, and the lit up sign for the upcoming Levi’s® Rhye show at The Echo Park United Methodist Church. As far as I can tell, The Church was the only stage with no sponsor. Leave it to religion to stay out of corporate dealings, right? Funky monkeys King Khan & The Shrines came on just in time to distract me from my anti-corporate fervor, but their bizarrely short set (After Khan announced that they were done, the rest of the silver-caped band looked about as puzzled as we were) wasn’t long enough to distract me from the emptiness of the entire festival. “Where the fuck is everybody?” I asked for the fiftieth time. Then Girlfriend offered the brilliant insight that pretty much every venue we’d been to was 21 and up. This is what happens when you don’t invite the kids, FILTER. Take heed next year, and maybe you’ll actually be able to halfway sell out your incredibly cheap and ideally rad festival. As I gazed up into the sky, I noticed the FMCC logo emblazoned by a projector onto the CitiBank tower down the street. This was probably the weekend’s most iconic image. I mused for a while about how these completely over-the-top corporate sponsorships were sort of sucking the life out of the thing, life that could easily have been replaced by the addition of adolescent fervor. I thought that it was pretty fucked up that Iceage weren’t allowed to play to their key demographic at a free show, that those kids couldn’t get their ears torn up by Fuck Buttons, and that even at this lovely outdoor stage, the crowd for Liars was bizarrely old and square.
Liars set was a pretty excellent close to the weekend for me, and served well to distract my from my disenchantment. The last time I saw the band was over four years ago, right after the release of Sisterworld, which is probably only their third or fourth best record. One album later, that would be last year’s WIXIW (#2 in my mind), and they’re an entirely different band. Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill, and Julian Gross pretty much abandoned organic instruments for WIXIW, a marked change from only two records ago on their self-titled album, when Liars were most decidedly a guitar rock band. Their live set definitely reflected this change, opening with two almost guitarless tracks from career peak Drum’s Not Dead, the one-two percussion-heavy punch of “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack” and “A Visit From Drum.” Following this intro, the bright-green-slicker sporting, Neanderthalesque Andrew led the band through a few new tracks, all of which followed the general WIXIW pattern of arpeggiators and sampler-based beats. We got that album’s highlights “WIXIW” and “No. 1 Against The Rush,” along with “Brats” and “Flood To Flood,” as well as Sisterworld‘s vicious “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”. Somewhere in the middle of it all, a long-haired hippie girl who seemed to be on vast quantities of MDMA got up on stage not once but twice to dance along, grinningly, with the music. Initially I thought it was part of the show, but the security guys’ response indicated otherwise. Liars closed their set obligatorily with fan favorite “Plaster Casts Of Everything,” which is still one of the most awesome demonstrations of this band’s power as a three-piece rock outfit. Six albums into their career, Liars have proven that they can do whatever the fuck they want and do it well, our “What the fuck is going on?” neighbors be damned. Also: Andrew is a great performer, seeming simultaneously blitzed out of his mind and entirely in control of the proceedings. It might just be his imposing height.
At home, after the festival was all done and finished, my ears still ringing from Fuck Buttons, I spent some time with FILTER’s half-mag guide to try and figure out what was going on that whole time. A cover article on Moby (who apparently sat on some panel at some point over the weekend), a goofy interview with Liars about the hidden charms of LA, and a completely bizarre ode to School Of Seven Bells’ Ben Curtis’ cancer diagnosis later, I’m still not sure at all what FILTER Magazine’s Culture Collide is. But damn if I don’t want me some brand new Onitsuka Tigers to wear while drinking my New Amsterdam G&T and playing my Ernie Ball strung guitar. Or maybe I’ll go with Converse.