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Friday, Feb. 25, 2011
Artist-curated festival sets new rules
Special to The Japan Times
"It's Auschwitz with good music," jokes Nick Cave at the start of "All Tomorrow's Parties," a 2009 documentary released to mark the 10th anniversary of the music festival of the same name. It's a tasteless description for an impeccably tasteful event, one that has become a bastion for left-of-center music and set the template for boutique festivals throughout the world.
All Tomorrow's Parties (ATP) began in 2000, following a format established the previous year by a jamboree organized by Scottish indie darlings Belle and Sebastian. Uncomfortable with the prevailing trends of large-scale music festivals, the group decided to hold the two-day Bowlie Weekender at an off-season holiday camp, picking the lineup themselves. Rather than sleep in tents, audience and performers alike stayed in "chalets" (actually more redolent of a 1950s public housing project), and the nonmusical distractions included waterslides and arcade games.
The event's promoter, Barry Hogan, asked to keep things running the following year, naming the newly anointed festival after a song by The Velvet Underground. There would be no corporate sponsors, and the lineups would be chosen by the performers. As Hogan put it in the documentary, "It's like making a mix tape for your friends, really. It's like taking your record collection and putting it on a stage."
Curators at subsequent editions of ATP have included indie-music royalty such as Sonic Youth, Pavement and My Bloody Valentine, but also "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening and movie director Jim Jarmusch. Sister festivals have sprung up in the United States and Australia, while ATP has branched out into promoting stand-alone concerts such as the "Don't Look Back" series, in which bands revisit seminal albums in their entirety.
On Feb. 27, Japan will finally get a taste of the action, as the ATP wagon arrives in Tokyo, repackaged in a new format. While previous festivals have been held at unorthodox locations, the one-day I'll Be Your Mirror event — another Velvet Underground reference — will take place in a conventional venue, Studio Coast, and with the assistance of a conventional concert promoter, Creativeman.
"We have been trying to bring an event to Japan for about eight years but we haven't found the festival site as yet," says Hogan. "That's why we started the I'll Be Your Mirror series." (Other events are due to be held later in the year in London and New York.)
The lineup for the Tokyo edition was chosen by staff at ATP, and features a few acts that have defined the festival's ethos over the past decade. Headliners Godspeed You! Black Emperor, an apocalyptic Canadian postrock orchestra, played at the original Bowlie Weekender in 1999. After a lengthy hiatus, the group reconvened to curate ATP's Nightmare Before Christmas festival in England last December.
Joining them at the top of the bill are instrumental trio Dirty Three, who have chosen the lineups for ATP festivals in both England and their native Australia.
"I think curating the event in England was a musical highlight of my life," says Warren Ellis, the group's violinist. "ATP is really like a dream event when you curate it. The fantastic thing is you can have an idea, run it up the flag and it works — things you never thought were possible."
This doesn't always turn out perfectly, mind you: the All Tomorrow's Parties that Ellis curated with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the remote Mount Buller Ski Resort in Victoria, Australia, was a financial disaster, albeit a well-regarded one. For the event, the band invited many of the original Australian postpunk generation, including reformed lineups of The Saints, The Reels and Laughing Clowns.
"ATP has changed the musical landscape for the better, massively," says Ellis. "They have also increased the currency of some of the older groups, which is great: people forget easily, and I think the fact that ATP puts groups back in the limelight is really testimony to their influence on the music scene."
"There's music with none of the nonsense attached," says Benjamin John Power, of British group Fuck Buttons. The electonic duo are one of two acts appearing at I'll Be Your Mirror that are also signed to ATP's in-house label, along with Los Angeles-based rock trio Autolux.
"They're really supportive," says fellow Fuck Button Andrew Hung of the label. "The amount of creative control they give us is, as far as I'm aware, pretty unusual."
In addition to the overseas acts, the staff at ATP picked a handful of Japanese artists to play at I'll Be Your Mirror, and it's here that the lineup delivers the fewest surprises. Psychedelic tribalists Boredoms should be the biggest draw, partly by virtue of the fact that they hardly ever play in Tokyo. The others — noise-punk veterans Melt-Banana, screamo postrock unit Envy, heavy rock trio Boris and experimental musician Keiji Haino — are far more promiscuous in comparison.
Hogan concedes that these aren't particularly novel picks, but insists that he's happy with the bill. "We based our choices on the merit of their music, and all of them have played ATP in Britain. We think as a starting lineup to launch the event, these acts are very important to us."
He also defends the decision to team up with a local promoter that's hardly renowned for its anticorporate stance. Creativeman is best known for organizing Summer Sonic, a massive music festival held in the intimate confines of a baseball stadium and conference center, but Hogan points out that the company also promoted Godspeed You! Black Emperor's first Japan tour back in 2000. "They get what I'll Be Your Mirror is about," he says, explaining that "it would be too difficult" to hold the festival without the support of a major promoter. "Lots of people showed interest (in promoting the event), but Creativeman put their money where their mouth is."
He says the inaugural I'll Be Your Mirror "should be seen as a sampler of what is to come," and still hopes to mount a full-scale ATP festival in Japan in the future. "There are Japanese acts we'd like to see curate (a festival), for sure," he says. "Some are acts that have played for us and some that haven't, but you'll need to get me really drunk to tell you."
Boredoms drummer and vocalist Yoshimi P-We says she has a few ideas of her own: "Musicians from Peruvian mountain tribes, Turkish disco, Colombian oldies, Thai disco — there are lots of people we'd invite. But I don't think ATP are going to ask us." That sounds suspiciously like a challenge.
I'll Be Your Mirror takes place at Studio Coast in Tokyo on Feb. 27 (2:30 p.m., ¥7,800 adv;  3462-6969). For more information, visit www.atpfestival.com.