If one needed any reason to still believe in Fun Fun Fun Fest’s commitment to being a trend-bucking anomaly in the overpopulated world of music festivals, you didn’t have to try hard this year. Considering that two of the non-DJ rock bands I saw didn’t even have a rhythm section—something that’s akin to a public suicide in this setting, depending on the act—it is clear that the organization behind the festival, Transmission Entertainment, still has its heart open to the risky and the defiant. The two bands to which I’m referring are Melt Banana, a long-running Japanese hardcore act with a strong penchant for experimentation; and Sparks, the almost undefinable duo that has been influential to both glam rockers and electronic musicians alike since the 70s.
I’m watching Sparks inside the yellow tent where most of the comedy acts perform. Sparks’ inclination toward the theatrical isn’t just a style; the group wrote a radio drama entitled, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. From the stage, the group reveals that it will be developed into a film directed by Guy Maddin. The crowd cheers at the news, though it thins out when it is obvious that this performance will be much more on the operatic side of Sparks, and much lighter on the disco or rock songs.
At some point during the show, I notice the amusingly bobbing presence of a child next to me. His name is Miles and he is 11 years old. His father is Adam Jones, who is a founding member of the group, Deep Time, and who also plays with Bill Callahan. If I’ve learned anything in the twin industries of music and journalism, it’s that you have to exploit youth. Naturally, I’m rolling tape on the kid within seconds, as opposed to simply letting him enjoy a show with his father:
FrontRow: What’d you think of Big Freedia?
Miles: It was very, very, uh, nice. You know, like all the twerking and that kind of stuff. [Laughter]
FR: Oh, yeah. Do you like music festivals?
Miles: Oh, yes, yes, yes. I got to see Jack Black here actually, it was pretty cool.
FR: [Lying] Oh, that is pretty cool. So was Jack Black your favorite part?
Miles: Uhhhh, no.
FR: What was your favorite part?
Miles: Probably my dad performing. My dad performing with Bill Callahan.
[At this point, I turn to Miles' father Adam Jones, and musician Daniel Francis Doyle]
FR: Do you like music festivals?
Daniel Doyle: Not really.
Adam Jones: No. No, I don’t.
Miles: That’s sad: Musicians who don’t like music festivals.
Later in the weekend, I catch Daniel Johnston in the yellow tent, performing his beautiful a capella song, “Devil Town.” The performer cut his set early, and surprisingly it would not be the only a capella performance. The other would be rapper, Killer Mike, in a series of sputtering false starts that were no fault of his own.
Killer Mike had been tapped to replace Action Bronson in the lineup, thankfully. In the proudly relaxed spirit of the festival, Mike was not to perform on an actual stage with professional grade sound equipment, but instead on a skateboard half-pipe. Though I have always found the X Games physical activity portion of the festival to be little more than an annoyance to avoid, I initially found this to be a great and creative idea. Unfortunately, the concept, as so often is the case, was thwarted by the physical limitations of reality.
As we crowded in around Mike he attempted to engage with the limited setup multiple times. Climbing up and down the half-pipe more than once, the microphone would never quite reach the required volume, or worse, not work at all. The rapper led the audience through some very spirited and profane shout-alongs, but it was over quickly. The show was rescheduled for a nighttime performance, which I was not lucky enough to attend. But this all speaks to Fun Fun Fun attempting to retain its DIY spirit, by any means necessary. Can you imagine any other major music festival attempting to relocate an official performance to a setting as dangerous as a half-pipe? With seemingly little regard for issues of liability? Before the crowd could even clear out properly, the skateboarders had returned impatiently, and I jumped off of that thing as quickly as I could.
Some acts are made for the big stage, as MIA put on a spectacle which left me and many others stained with colored powder on our clothes. And then there were acts such as the Dismemberment Plan, whose breakout I associate with first generation iPods, and they have a similarly-sized sound. Not everyone is ready for the enormity of the fest setting, though there is sometimes widespread disagreement about this opinion. Take Television for example, who may have been the most polarizing act of the weekend. The band was either “amazing” or “boring,” depending on whom you ask. I found them to sound exactly like Television, which was one of the most subdued approaches in the early punk era. I’m not sure what people expected. The group’s onstage volume could have been a little louder, but that plays into the same issue. I have a solution for next year: Just have everyone perform on Slayer’s equipment.
That leads me to perhaps my only real complaint about Fun Fun Fun Fest; I have already seen Slayer here before, and that included one more original members than the Slayer I saw last weekend. Though they were still as powerful, the repetitiveness does give some cause for concern about the future direction of the event. The element of surprise has been its strength since its first year, but if I were to make up a theoretical lineup for next year with repeat acts and stuff it in a drawer, I hope to be wrong for most of it when the lineup is announced. Body Count, the aforementioned Sparks, and Television were all the kind of unconventional booking that keeps the event vital and evident that true music geeks are behind the festival, but those are all fairly hoary acts. It will have to be newer bands to take the torch, lest we run out of reunited bands.
So again, most of the highlights were musicians I have seen here before, or who have at least played here before. MGMT steered clear of their self-sabotaging tendencies, by instead playing a career-spanning set that was lighter on new material than expected. It included their mopey, anti-industry hit, “Congratulations,” and there was something moving about seeing a giant crowd glumly mouthing its cynical verses. Glass Candy did nothing to change the fact that they remain one of the most striking live acts in any setting—festival, club, or otherwise. The same goes for the Chromatics who had some of clearest and most effective sound for their particular set.
As the festival concluded on Sunday, I kept returning to a particular lyric during the Sparks performance, buried in their song, “I am Ingmar Bergman.” In it, the fictional Bergman asks himself why he sat through an “escapist” American film:
Was it the urge to partake of something mindless?
Was it the urge to indulge in something vacuous?
This article corrects an earlier version that stated there were two more original members of Slayer at Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2011. There was only one. FrontRow regrets the error.
All photos by Andi Harman.