NO FUN FEST
NEW YORK, 16/17/18 MAY 2008
I’m stood outside the Knitting Factory in downtown New York in the rain, in the road, smoking a cigarette when a voice in my ear goes ‘eez thurstanmuwar ohn’ I turn to see a blonde French woman who may be Charlotte Rampling or Bridgett Bardot looking at me with expectant eyes as her own cigarette smoke curls up into the damp night. I’m already half drunk and jet lagged and have to ask her again what it is she wants to know until it clicks that she’s a Sonic Youth fan and has come all the way from Paris on the off chance of seeing Thurston play No Fun. She has no ticket. I tell her that if I see him I’ll tell him she called.
And there’s no way that the bouncers at the Knitting Factory are going to let this French lady in without a ticket. Big Black Guy and his mate are the biggest pair of smiling Nazis on the lower west side. Its the reason why I’m stood in the road with a cigarette because they don’t want me fouling up the sidewalk and impeding the egress of their well heeled lawyer neighbours. You can see their point. If the Knitting Factory’s punters get over zealous and start making too much noise at one in the morning mister investment banker and his missus are going to get pissed off pretty quick. But enforcing this ruling with all the glee of an over zealous school bully is going beyond the call of duty and don’t even think about having a pull on that big bifter you brought with you. Big Black Guy has the keen nostrils of a sensitive beagle and delights in chasing small groups of high teenagers across the street.
The Knit certainly isn’t The Hook. Last years venue, The Hook, feels like a cosy tap room compared to the Dantes Inferno that is the Knitting Factory. At entry level lies Stage one, the main stage. Below that lies Stage two, the smaller floor space. Below that, merchandise can be found. Above all these floors is the viewing area cum DJ rack cum mixer and lights set up. The only way to get to these various floors is by a winding stair case. and with 50 acts appearing over three nights with about five minutes between sets it soon turns into some kid of Orwellian MC Escher loop of folks tramping up and down stairs in search of entertainment. And don’t even think of stopping to talk to someone you know because you ‘gotta keep moving folks - don’t block the corridor’ intone the half interested floor staff who in-between checking your ID and ink stained hands stare disinterestedly at PC monitors checking their emails or doodling. And there’s hardly anywhere to sit and socialise which is half of what No Fun is about. Everyone you meet at No Fun is either playing, fronting a label, a website, organizing tours or there to get ideas. Some people even go just to listen. At least they have bars on three of the floors and some decent ale on offer and even though I’l never pay $7 for a can of Boddingtons it’s heartening to see it here.
Once again No Fun orgasniser Carlos Giffoni has assembled a grand array of noise/experimental artists. Its easily the biggest and best noise related event in the world. Its a sell out. And with 50 acts on offer to the discerning noise enthusiast it becomes impossible to catch everything. What with the stairs and me not being as nimble footed as a mountain goat I probably miss at least half of what’s happening but to be honest its no big deal. Its like sitting down to a five hour Chinese banquet and passing on the egg fu yung. They’ll probably be a next time and anyway once you’ve seen one noise band you’ve seen them all right? Well, not quite. It has to be said that some noise artists come out of the PA sounding all the same, even though the artists concerned will vehemently argue against this but over the course of a weekend of such extremity a general wall of noise becomes lodged in your head and its hard to shift. But its not all all out kiddie pedal noise, therein lies the appeal of No Fun. There’s something for everyone.
Friday nights highlights are a punishing set from Sickness whose the first act on stage one. After the disappointment of last years appearance where there was some problem with the sound its heartening to see this one man PE/noise artist take total control of his gear and begin with an ear piercing wail that reached deep down into my ear ducts and caused me to briefly loose my balance. Bathed in a sea of blue light Sickness showed that the PE/noise axis can be both intelligent and rewarding. Randy Yau did his celery schtick thing. Munching on celery stalks spewing juices down his shirt and spraying chunks into the audience in a sea of celery splatter. Contact micd up it was brief and glorious. Somewhere lies the great photograph of Randy Yau machine-gunning bits of celery everywhere but I never took it. The rest of night descends into a bout of beer swilling jet legged banter with people I know, half know or get introduced to. Thurston, Black Quarter, Dinosaur With Horns and Falling Lights I could have either seen or not seen. Its hard to tell. I half catch Burning Star Core as I wait to get served at the bar. White Out no. Jason Crumer yes. Greg Kelly I have no idea. By now the beer/jet lag ratio is getting to me. Whilst in the merch area its obvious that Damion Romero has started upstairs. The second stage area’s PA is nowhere near as punchy as stage one’s and during Romero’s set of drone I wander around to discover that the best place to hear what’s going on lies the three feet in front of the performer. At the back it sounds all muddy, to the left nothing much, ditto the right. This becomes a problem when the noise freaks want to punch the air during the livelier acts but for shy retiring types like me it means three nights of murk. Astro are the last band on tonight but before that you have to endure Tony Conrad and his Squeaking Fiddle Band. The last time I saw Tony Conrad and his Squeaking Fiddle Band they succeeded in sending me to sleep. Tonight he tops that by driving me from the venue. Astro or no Astro I cant bear it any longer. I wander out into the rain and into the welcoming arms of a New York Taxi cab taking care not to say goodnight to the Big Black Guy and his mate.
On Saturday night I see a man hit two saucepans together and play the maracas. For one moment I think I’ve fallen through some kind of black hole and ended up at a Termite gig but no there he goes and he’s hitting the lids too. They’re mounted on cymbal stands and he’s hitting them with drumsticks. Well I never. But sanctuary is but a stairwell away and I climb to find Aaron Dilloway give one of the most memorable sets of the weekend under his guise as Nevari Butchers. Dilloway shows that he’s no one trick pony and worthy of inclusion after last years well received set. With a cello player for accompaniment he scrapes the insides of a wheelbarrow with a spade before retiring to a table covered in reel to reel tapes, cassette tapes and other various gadgets which he pokes and prods into some incredible sounds. With people like Dilloway, Stelzer and Chop Shop investigating the world of analogue tape experimentation I feel that there is a future for noise outside of its widely perceived persona of head down brain mush. This way the future lies. Nautical Almanac further improve my mood with a theatrical set of noise burlesque. Playing behind a backlit white curtain a figure looms near over a sea of coloured lights. Its like Kate Bush meets Shadow Puppet Theatre of noise land. Keith Fullerton Whittman stands behind his gear with long flowing beard emitting small squeaks which gathering into something bigger. Officially the biggest exponents of knelt down backs to the audience arses in the air drone merchants are The Skaters - I just wish they’d get up and shake some bells now and again as I’m tired of seeing their backsides but at least what they do is good wholesome drone. I bet they’ve never played Brighton without incident though. Giffoni gets himself on the bill but nobody’s complaining because what he does with that old analogue equipment is pretty spectacular. Its the old equipment thats making the most interesting noises. I think Emeralds are using old analogue equipment too and definitely a guitar. I saw a gitar. Through my now drunken eyes I saw a gitar that made a sound like early Tangerine Dream on steroids. I exit for a cigarette and stand in the road. I buy another beer [Magic Hat Circle Boy wheat beer at $4 which sure beats the PBR Well Shot at $7 and if you don’t know what a PBR Well Shot is then you don’t know how half these folks get drunk] I talk shit with people I half know. I get chewing gum stuck the the sole of my shoe. I go out for another cigarette. I find Alvars orchestra at the end of their set looking at their equipment taking in a few hearty cheers. One of them is staring blankly through heavy lidded eyes suggesting that he’s had more than his fair share of PBR Well Shots. And there’s no way I’m hanging around to see Cluster who may be German legends but at 1.30 in the morning play the kind of ambient tat thats liable to induce a coma in a drink and jet lagged body.
On paper Sundays stage one line up is the highlight of the weekend. Sudden Infant, Lasse Marhaug, Illusion of Safety, Consumer Electronics and to top it off, the granddaddy of them all, The Haters. And thats just upstairs. Downstairs we have Brooklyn PE upstarts Halflings, that well know spelling mistake Ahlzagallzeguh, full on FFH, the big man Cleanse and to top it all off John Weise. And lets not forget those I don’t know or will never see.
It could be during one of tonights performances that I smell the unmistakeable sweet smell that is dope. I’m stood at the back of stage one just knowing that its going to be less than ten seconds before Big Black Guy makes an appearance and sure enough here he comes barging through the punters sniffing the air like a drug bust Alsatian knocking folks aside in his quest to catch these most evil of evil doers. I’m as tired of the Knitting Factory now as the next person but at least a three man Edwige kick up a decent racket before Sudden Infant does what Raionbashi and Kutzkelina did last year and silences the No Fun crowd with a cultured display of vocal distortion and noise manipulation. At the start of his set he’s pelted from up above, these noise kids just want to get their kicks and aren’t about to put up with a European giving them something they might have to think about but he carries on putting an index finger to his lips just as they think its all over. Sudden Infant actually gets the punters laughing too with some well aimed observations and at the conclusion of his piece gets a riotous reception. Back down the stairs we get a classic PE performance from a group of young men from Brooklyn called Halflings. They seem to have brought half the crowd with them who immediately start crowd surfing and basically go batshit for the full set. Its good to see what is a sometimes a maligned genre safe in such young hands, Ahlzagallzeguh’s micro-edit noise spurts sound pretty much like other noise spurts live and then on the same floor FFH gives us another one man PE performance that has the thrill seekers, body shovers and beer sprayers doing what they do best. Back up the stairs for Lasse Marhaug this time aided and abetted by a Dror Feller who does a damned good impression of Olatunji era Coltrane going bright red in the face blowing all the high end register out of his sax whilst trying to keep his eyeballs in his head. Marhaug; is whipping cables around and treating us all to one of the loudest and most punishing sets of the weekend. Those high pitched sax squeals coupled with Marhaug’s devastating noise assaults are just on the brink of proving painful to my tinnitus damaged hearing but its still a breathtaking ride. Another member of Sonic Youth at this years fest is Lee Ranaldo but his drumming is but mere background to my search for more Magic Hat. Then its to the more erudite transmissions of Illusion of Safety. I have admired Illusion of Safety from afar for some years now. Their blend of samples, field recordings and experimentation have been a singular voice for donkeys years. If you dig far enough into their CV you’ll even see the name Jim O’Rourke but at this late stage of the proceedings electro-acoustic field recordings mixed with samples and lap top fuckery are interesting for about ten minute but soon wane into self indulgence. The rest of the evening flies by in a bout of drunken European camaraderie. It all comes to the fore upon appearance of Consumer Electronics. CE frontman Phillip Best has been at it long enough to give the punters what they want and with Dominik Fernow helping out with the noise side of things he strides the stage like a blobby drunken holiday maker in Benidorm shirt half open drooling saliva onto his nipples and rubbing it in. Eyes hidden behind shades, screaming unutterables he read from a scrapbook of lyrics wailing them into a wall of fierce noise. Fernow grimaces as the levels rise, Best strips off down to trousers, spits water into the crowd, revels in the ugliness of it all, puts his jacket back on, paces the stage as if looking for inspiration, loving every minute of it. News comes through that John Weise’s lap top has gone tits up so that leaves the bigger man Cleanse to round things off downstairs. Cleanse is there to fulfill all the testosterone fueled rampant male noise fantasists dream. He’s big, he’s loud and he loves to get involved. So it is that after two seconds he disappears in a sea of sweaty, beer soaked bodies and punching fists. The kids are enjoying themselves so much so that Big Black Guy just has to wade in and stop it all. He stands there in the midst of it all looking like the Headmaster searching for the kid who made the funny noise in assembly.
That leaves the Haters to round the weekend off. After missing the legendary ‘tyre’ tour of Europe in which Haters supremo GX Jupitter Larson ground his way into a car tyre with an angle grinder, I’ve been waiting ever since to catch him live, but tonight its just hooded theatrics with a mixer. At its brief end someone shouts ‘GX you’re a genius’ which as overstatements go takes some beating. The man is certainly up there with the greats but this performance is about as baffling to me as The Haters seminal release The Totimorphous. Make sense of that and you’ve uncovered the secrets of the universe. The legendary Haters live show will have to wait for another day.
Back outside I smoke a last cigarette. In the road. Away from the building. Quietly. With no drugs and with no beer. Just me and a cigarette saying a few goodbyes and wondering why it had to be that The Hook went bust and why I ended up at the Knit with Big Black Guy and the stairs.
Oh, and I never did get to tell Thurston about the French woman. She’s called Kate. Sorry.