Caught on Tape, the duo of Thurston Moore and John Moloney.
Photos by Tim Bugbee
The feasibility of mounting large-scale experimental and underground music events in the U.S. has grown increasingly questionable in the last few years. Festivals that forgo corporate sponsorship, like the once-venerable All Tomorrows Parties, have pulled out of American operations, and smaller one-offs like Neon Marshmallow and Terrastock haven’t made much of a peep lately. In their place, operations like the Red Bull Music Academy have stepped in, funding events like this year’s Drone Activity In Progress, a one-night noise extravaganza at a disused glass factory in Queens. It offered a convincing snapshot of the scene for a $8 cover fee and the incongruous sight of coolers full of Red Bull Silver being hawked as Pharmakon obliterated a black-clad crowd of misfits in an adjacent room.
At the same time, the rise of left-field music blogs, the virus-like proliferation of cassette and small-run vinyl labels, and the omnivorous listening habits of hotly tipped artists on established “indie rock” labels-- the taste-agnostic Grimes on 4AD, the Kiwi and jangle-rock worshipping Real Estate on Domino and the trinity of hardcore crossover acts Iceage, Fucked Up and Ceremony on Matador-- has birthed a community of independent music fans whose reference points are as varied as at any point in recent music history. Combined with access to an ever-expanding galaxy of music via Soundcloud, Spotify, Bandcamp and the now-standard album pre-stream, the result is a contemporary fan with practically unlimited options for making music a part of their everyday life.
It is with this in mind that I headed down to Raleigh, North Carolina for the fourth annual Hopsctoch Music Festival. Diversity is the name of the game for the festival’s line-up and although there were a lot of artists you would recognize from any number of the mid-size, middlebrow regional festivals that have proliferated in the Coachella era (Local Natives, Holy Ghost, Earl Sweatshirt), there were also plenty of incongruous names, like sexagenarian provocateur Charlemagne Palestine, who played a singing glass of brandy to a rapt audience in an historic church on Saturday as technical death metal exponents Gorguts eviserated an at-capacity crowd at a tiny bar across the street. It is this kind of contrast that demonstrates why Hopsctoch is now the premiere experimental and underground music festival in America.
If you understood any part of the last sentence, then Hopscotch offered an unmatched bounty of left-field music, beginning with the first act of the first night: Nathan Bowles (Pelt, Black Twig Pickers), who inaugurated the festivities with an expert set of solo banjo tunes (an in-depth interview will be appearing soon). After that, it was off to the races, with a transporting solo set of cosmic guitar from Expo 70, playing to a small, rapt audience in the nook of an upstairs bar. In a tiny black box theater, Saskatchewan black metal upstarts Wold delivered a baffling performance that felt more like a Public Access headscratcher than a terrifying glimpse into pagan darkness.
By the time Wolf Eyes took the stage at 12:30, a full-blown noise rock catharsis was needed and delivered. Although it's easy to take the Michigan lifers for granted, the group remains as thrilling and uncompromising as ever in their fifteenth year of operation. When they teamed with Hopscotch Artist-in-Residence Merzbow for the final movement of their late night set, the foursome proved a match made in hell, their bottomless scree relenting for a brief false finish just long enough to allow the appreciative yelps of the audience to fill the room before they unleashed a final report of skull-rattling noise.
For anyone who stayed on at WolfBow (or MerzEyes) until the bitter end, the next morning's noon wake-up call for the Three Lobed Day Party was a harsh one. There wasn’t much to do but wince in a stupor over a bloody mary or cup of coffee and speculate about John Olson’s Grateful Dead-centric getup from the night before as Jenks Miller Band kicked off the day. The matinee bill at Kings was so stacked, however, that it had been anticipated in hushed tones for weeks before, and I even heard unconfirmed reports that some punters had flown in just for this show and weren’t even attending the festival proper. It was hard to argue with that logic as American avant luminaries took to the stage one after the other: Tom Carter, conjuring infinity for the bleary-eyed with an expert set of looped guitar virtuosity; Glenn Jones, who had himself traveled down just for this show; Magik Markers, performing a blistering all-improv set; and the transatlantic wonder of Desert Heart, which pairs Steve Gunn with Irish guitar wunderkind Cian Nugent and the accomplished rhythm section of John Truscinski and Jason Meagher. The result of that supergroup was an elating, maximal guitar assault. The crowd reached capacity for a headlining set by Thurston Moore and John Moloney’s Caught on Tape duo. Moore teased the opening lines from “Ono Soul” off 1994’s Psychic Hearts before launching into a frenetic guitar spree, matched against Moloney’s aggro kit work.
The Three Lobed bill alone would have been enough to satisfy any underground listener, but it was merely an amuse-bouche to another full night of sound art, beginning with the gorgeous guitar and vocal stylings of Ilyas Ahmed and the processed guitar soundscapes of John Kolodij’s high aura’D project, both at the Long View Center, a libation-free church of austere beauty. Elsewhere, Swearin’ and Speedy Ortiz’s hyped, high-energy sets provided a convincing riposte to anyone still clinging to an outmoded “rock is dead critique.”
Pelt and Daniel Bachman
As the witching hour drew near, an impossible kaleidoscope of musical riches presented itself: plant yourself in a pew and be dazzled by Daniel Bachman’s solo guitar artistry, then stay put for the aforementioned Charlemagne Palestine invocation, or head over a few blocks and luxuriate as Big Daddy Kane-- a last-minute replacement for the injured Action Bronson-- proved he could still command a crowd with the best. Cruise around, and you’d have a glimpse of alternate festival histories being unspooled in parallel with your own: the massive (and jarringly young) crowd swooning to Local Natives in the festival's largest indoor space, the Memorial Auditorium, or the metal diehards on line for admittance to the club hosting Vatnett Viskar, Gorguts and Pig Destroyer. Grab a seat at the Fletcher Opera Theater, and you'd lean back as Mount Moriah played a marathon set encompassing its entire discography. Don’t stay too long though, or you’d miss Pere Ubu, who thrilled an attentive and decidedly older crowd inside the now-familiar confines of Kings, and closed out day two with one of the most (un) intentionally absurd moments of the festival as they were joined by Merzbow for the final song. Notorious curmudgeon/bandleader Dave Thomas stared out from his center stage throne with undisguised anguish as the Japanese noise legend brought the full force of his gear-heavy table to bear on the post-punk legends' sound. The sight of both of them on stage brought new meaning to the phrase, “separate but equal.”
Easing into the third and final day of the fest was made palatable by another can’t-miss day show, this time an outdoor affair in a beautiful amphitheatre presented by Paradise of Bachelors. The convivial atmosphere reunited a good portion of the Three Lobed crowd from the day before to enjoy Spacin’s fuzzed-out rock and a rare and delicate, collaborative drone set from Pelt and Daniel Bachman, which led directly into the Black Twig Pickers’ old-time twang. Nashville’s Promised Land Sound followed with a convincing set of country rockers. Chris Forsyth’s Solar Motel Band has of late coalesced into a gravity-defying, multi-headed, electric guitar-worshipping hydra. Playing through their forthcoming Solar Hotel LP, they proved that the breathless early press notices were not exaggerating. The alchemy between these players cannot be overstated. Steve Gunn provided the penultimate set, focused on tunes from his exemplary recent LP, Time Off, and in a rare treat, the sun finally burning off, Philadelphia's Birds of Maya delivered a relentless, hour-long excursion into depths of fuzzed out boogie. Despite a barely functioning drum kit, the band wailed into the Raleigh dusk.
Hopscotch’s final night brought the festival to a close with a fitting smorgasbord of eclectic rock music, including a euphoric set from Spiritualized, who recently added Oneida’s Kid Millions to their live band, and a supremely confident, low-key solo performance from David Grubbs. For a smattering of fans, Richard Youngs’ extremely rare appearance provided a rapturous cap to a 72-hour marathon. A more extensive feature on Youngs is forthcoming, but suffice to say his command of the massive Memorial Auditorium was a confirmation that Youngs belongs to the highest echelons of avant-garde musicians.