Can a photocopier join a skiffle band? All these questions and more answered in an insider's festival report of a rejuvenated Liverpool Sound City.
Richard Foster
17:52 14th May 2018

Sometimes things aren’t what they seem to be. Despite the claim that the 2018 edition of Liverpool Sound City was “going back to its roots”, WORM Rotterdam (an avant-garde recreation centre in said Dutch city) experienced an event that cleverly sidestepped many of the traditional issues that blight UK festivals, namely, shit and overpriced food, Big Brother-esque advertising, overcrowding, inane bleating dickheads off their collective swedes and power tripping security. In fact the set-up, ethos and parts of the programme in the city’s Baltic triangle could have been found in Ljubljana, Krakow, Barcelona or Eindhoven. Slowly the threads of a once settled festival fabric are unravelling. The Modern Music Festival is a-changing. And it’s a good thing.

WORM’s task here was a big one: curating four bands, doling out advice (!) at the conference’s “meet n’ greet” sessions and performing in a two-day residency upstairs at the Blade Factory, in the Camp and Furnace venue complex. To make this happen in the most subversive way possible we’d picked the resources and team of WORM’s Pirate Bay. The Pirate Bay is ostensibly an alternative resource and lending library based in WORM’s premises on the Boomgaardsstraat in Rotterdam city centre, and staffed by Rotterdam-based artists of many disciplines and interests. Over one weekend it was pressed into action as a flexible music group playing a lot of gigs, a zine making factory and a druidic antidote to the continuous succession of enthusiastic if very loud young indie bands on the stage next to us. Using a photocopier christened Connor and Sadie. More of that later.

Day 1 - Saturday 5 May

After the mild embarrassment of answering people’s questions about the bizz at Friday’s meet n’ greet, Saturday dawned and WORM Pirate Bay staff set to work, wondering just how to employ all the rare underground fanzines, tapes, LPs and DVDs to maximum effect. We’d clocked earlier that our roommates were a genial looking bunch of loons who had set up a “Skiffle Workshop”. This was Liverpool Arts Lab, similarly bent on doing something different. We decided to join forces throughout the weekend, intervening on each others shows and providing emotional and artistic support where necessary. This offer of support eventually proved a useful back-up. When certain elements of the set up broke down at the starting line (yes Mr 1990s Canon photocopier with an empty toner cartridge and a display that flickered continuously like a telly on the blink, we’re looking at you) we had to think quick and look to our new mates to crank up the noize, whilst we rethought matters.

To overcome this unexpected mishap, WORM drew on one of its heroes, here the great Johan Cruyff, who once said that “every disadvantage has its advantage”. The photocopier would get it later. For now Pirate Bay set up what would be known all day as ‘The Eternal Throb’; a series of four musical shows - supported by our brothers and sisters from Liverpool Arts Lab. This, we hoped, would provide an antidote to Blast Furnace’s standard idie fayre. The LSC audience, their ears freshly deconstructed from the 100db+ beat-and-two-veg experience next door found themselves swimming through an aural soup made from multiple WORM tapes and broadcasts, spliced together with feedback and mixer-magic. The point was to make everything surreal as possible whilst providing drone “gigs” that would either drive people away from, or into, our room. Whether it worked is up for debate. Some of the festival audience joined in, moaning and yelping into microphones. Others stood dumbfounded, shocked by the subterranean rumblings from camp WORM and Liverpool Arts Lab’s skiffle nuttiness, which was now in full swing in the far corner. The soundmen next door wondered if our Eternal Throb wasn’t in fact someone’s bass speaker playing up. Others began to wonder if Brexit was, in fact, a good thing on this evidence. “Are you all this weird in Rotterdam?” Well come and find out, la...

The lack of delivering a definitive musical agenda played into our hands. There are only so many multidisciplinary throbs you can do in a day. After droning ourselves into mute oblivion, Pirate Bay decided to decamp en masse to the Liverpool Arts Lab and proceeded to deconstruct the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ in a righteous mess of paper, howling, and found sounds. Ever seen the Fabs’ lyrics reassembled and sung from the back of an old school ruler? Neither had the audience.

After such revelry the day entered a third stage; watching the bands on our curatorial list sock it to the locals. Gdansk’s Trupa Trupa were up first, knocking out an ear-bleedingly loud set on a hot afternoon upstairs in the Blade Factory. Singer Grzegorz was quick to sardonically inform a wondering crowd that the band sung “very simple” songs. But that was a red herring, as there is an integral otherness about Trupa Trupa that belies their very more-ish rock, which draws on the ghost of Barrett, Pixies and (to these ears) Faust. And they are masters at creating a vast emotional and spiritual hinterland that exudes a mystery that’s hard to grasp. A series of rumbling, menacing tracks were delivered at ear-splitting volume that in turn set up a crashing ending where the band barred their teeth and showed the unhinged side of their nature. The shellshocked survivors staggered out onto the blazing sun. Later in the evening Venus Tropicaux and Lewsberg played the well appointed Brick Street. A word on both. They are part of a bubbling Rotterdam scene of musicians who seem to live in each others’ pockets regardless of whether they like each other or not. Consequently there’s a homogeneity in outlook and sound that nevertheless thrives on idea swapping and mutual determination. All of which mark this particular bunch of artists as ones to watch. Venus, with new drummer Marrit and keyboardist Joris (freshly escaped from drumming duties in Lewsberg) knocked out a brilliant and long set that promises great things. The band is predominantly held together by Shalita’s bass rumble and the (Blakean?!) mind maps and visions created by singer Shelley, who could, on this form become the focus for a whole new expression of Dutch pop fun. The ‘spindly’, (almost) deliberately sparse sound they kicked out (courtesy of a sympathetic sound desk) was a great pop prop on the night; allowing for lots of headspace for the audience to delve into and investigate. Dancing ensued as Venus’s protean rumble started to cast a spell in the space. When Shelley decided to venture into the crowd it’s game set and match and we know we could be watching the beginnings of something very special.

Lewsberg’s set was a big contrast; calmer, considered, and still plotting a course through the sonic landscape unveiled since drummer Joris left. The drumming is less forceful but somehow allows more atmosphere and suggestion. With no impetus to “get on with it” from the skins, Lewsberg’s tracks were stretched, bass-heavy and maybe more sensual. The slow tracks got slower, the fast ones felt like a boulder rumbling steadily but inexorably your way. As ever Michiel Klein’s “Simply Saucer” guitar blurts cut any zen-like feelings short; acting like ink spreading through blotting paper. Already growing out of their LP’s great Modern Lovers pop template (even if not many people have actually seen them outside of Rotterdam), Lewsberg have quickly reached a crossroads where - given luck - they could go on to truly great things. They are one of those rare bands who channel the accessible and the strange for the public good. Let’s hope they keep at it.

Day 2 - Sunday 6 May

The more I hear of British lad indie guitar bands the more I think of the meal deals on the menus in Premier Inns. It’s not that these fellows don’t mean it, or that there is an inherent lack of quality or imagination that just needs a little work to make it palatable. It’s just that they offer the same thing freshly scrubbed, without thought, continually. A comforting safety net, an aural version of the happy thought that in an English hotel, motel or BnB there will “always be sausages” for breakfast. As the second of two days of thumping indie sounds in the Blade Factory cranked into action, WORM felt the pressing need to make a gigantic sacred landscape that could rival Avebury. And reimagine a conked-out photocopier as a musical instrument; to be employed as and when. The first act was to round up members of an increasingly enthusiastic audience in covering the aforesaid machine in the mounds of paper from the previous day’s workshop. Somehow along the way the photocopier acquired the name Connor and Sadie. The machine was then “trundled” towards the Liverpool Arts Lab’s frenzied skiffle workshop. WORM Rotterdam met the ‘Pool’s Arts Lab head on in an intermittent, 4-hour battle of percussion and groovy intonations that drew large crowds (and a fair number of participants) along the way. During the course of the afternoon, festival goers seemed to get word of this new weirdo band. “Is this where we can hit the photocopier?” It was. Further musical interventions took place in the street outside Camp and Furnace where WORM joined in a number of ritual plastic horn blowings. All in the very best possible musical taste...

The second task was to ensure the maximum possible psychic barrier between WORM, Liverpool Arts Lab, our newfound followers and the outside world. This meant making a long, snaking Keltic Kross on the floor out of the leftovers of the workshop which led to the photocopier (now getting the living biscuits knocked out of it). At the far end, a mock Neolithic temple was constructed out of tables and chairs. This structure attracted a number of musicians during the day, who seemed to feel its Psychic powers; from Lithuanian band Garbanotas Bosistas (who’d delivered a chiming, giving set of weirdo pop jams on the Saturday) to Estonian troubadour and uomo universalis, Mart Avi. Avi went one further, taking great delight in sitting on the new temple, puffing on his efag as he took in the 20 minute drones emanating from the WORM-Arts Lab. entente artistique. Avi was one of WORM’s picks for the curation, playing downstairs in the Blade Factory. In a remarkable gig, seemingly charged up by the memory of the undulating drones he’d ingested upstairs, Mart Avi prowled around the stage like a wolf in the zoo. Indulging in shadowboxing, umbrella twirling and Hamlet-style soliloquies on the stage-edge, this was flaneurism given new purpose. His glorious Euro-synth pop sounded as out-of and ahead-of time as ever, the swells and eddies of sound clashing against stuttering beats and whipped into line by Avi’s irrepressible baritone. “Like John Foxx gone mad” said one grizzled vet of the 80s. Curiously the audience was full of lads who stood mesmerised by the sheer gallousness of Avi’s stage presence. “This is boss…” Indeed, it was. When Mart threw his fanzine, ‘Avizonas’ at these new disciples to signal the end of the set, there was a feeling that the A3 sheet contained further wisdom to soak up. Until next time. The man is extraordinary. Chutzpah with red cabbage.

After this WORM packed up, passed out and somehow failed to see anything else, missing the afterparty and finding sanctuary in pints of bitter. But the memory of a festival finding new purpose and artistic direction, despite the inevitable adjustments and compromises, is a strong one.

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This was all made possible thanks to Liverpool Sound City, Popunie and Gemeente Rotterdam

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Photo: Corey Rid