The Indietracks Festival needs a little explaining. It’s a festival set on a steam railway depot, for a sector of musicians and music fans who worship pop music in its most poetic form. It’s a festival where indie’s dreamers and outsiders will celebrate their love for pop’s poetry and melody, for its beatific individuals, for their wild pop-music passions, and for one weekend only live the way they like to think it used to be - before the arrogant bastards took over and cut their world apart.
The Swanwick Steam Railway station in Derbyshire, England, is the perfect setting in which to live this dream. Indietracks organizer Stuart Mackay used to work on the engines here. He came up with the idea for the event after falling in love with Belle and Sebastian, and his idea of merging the quaint environment with this quaint music could now be seen as a masterstroke. Indietracks, from its humble beginnings in 2007 - when the only people in attendance were the bands who were playing - is now an important gathering in any UK pop outsider’s calendar, and when we arrive on Friday night at 9PM it’s already a hive of activity.
We’ve arrived too late to see ex-Pipettes lady Rose Elinor Dougall and her new band, but the headliners Au Revoir Simone give us something special right away. All is hushed on the lone outside stage, and the band appear with the air of three girls from next door walking into your house. Their atmospheric electronica quietly lulls one into their world of light touches and luminescent thoughts, and swirls of subtly-building keyboards slowly fill us with euphoria. The girls have a dextrous way with letting things build. They create stunningly emotional backdrops to which lead singers Erika Forster and Heather D’Angelo add their warm lyrics. Forster has a voice as sweet as spring. Her songs celebrate love and unlikely heroes with a super-gentle touch. And D’Angelo, with her big teary eyes, sings completely from the heart.
I decide many times during this set that D’Angelo is my favorite current pop star. She has an honesty; a sense of wonder; a burning, effortless emotion; something special in her demeanour; and a way of expressing things without wasting a word. The songs shimmer and tremble in all the right places, and a playfulness, including a penchant for rocking out in the most sensitive, stylish manner, adds a sense of mischief and bedevilment. Au Revoir Simone tonight make me reach for my breath and takes me to lands beyond the fantasy one I’m already in, and I don’t really want come back.
It was as sultry and stylish an opening to the festival as you could get - the kind of opening that makes you think you might as well go home now. But only for a brief second. All around the Swanwick station wide-eyed visitors are lapping up the sights, and the night will end with two discos that inject pop wonder old and new into our veins.
Saturday gives the chance to further look around the Midlands Railway haven. At the head of the Swanwick station gates, where a model of Oswald The Engine from cult British cartoon Thomas the Tank Engine stands to greet visitors, the ground tilts away down to the platform and then becomes untamed countryside on the other side of the track. Just through the gates is a railway museum shop; to the left a café and a bus depot which is home to many old double-decker buses. Further along is a small building with an elaborate model train set; and then we come to the 110 year-old railwaymen’s church.
The church is a humble building of oak and gilded framework, built during Victorian times due to the isolation of the then new railway depot from the nearest Derbyshire parish. Its building marked Queen Victoria’s jubilee, costing exactly £350 (according to Parish Magazine, 1895 - 1898!), and was paid for by a large donation by the then Duke of Devonshire and a fundraising campaign superintended by one heroic Mr Jameson, who undertook the work for free. Organized “entertainments” earned the grand sum of £5 towards the building work, but I guess those entertainments would differ broadly from what’s in store for the church this weekend, as it becomes a smaller compliment to the two big Indietracks stages, featuring a full line up of rebel pop bands who’ll play where the Rev. R.K. Bolton of Fenny Bentley first preached in 1898.
Down the recline besides the church is a small kids play area and a signalman’s hut, up into which festival goers can climb to look around the station from its high vantage point. On the grass opposite is the outside stage where last night Au Revoir Simone were so good. And on a nearby embankment are some food and drink stalls along with a marquee which will host a record shop and sell handcrafted merchandise all weekend in the form of beautiful badges, jewelery and other inspired oddities from London crafts group Tatty Devine.
Further down the hill past the signalman’s hut there’s a railway traffic crossing which at times during the festival will hold people up in order to let small trains pass as they rush to see bands. And across the crossing is the large station platform, from which a steam train will leave every hour with a band on board playing a set. A marquee that sits near the platform will host one of the two Indietracks discos at night, by day hosting various workshops; then nearby an old train carriage converted into a bar sits outside a giant locomotive shed, which for the festival becomes a large stage area with bar and an extra merchandise shop where bands can sell their wares, records, DIY t-shirts and such. The shed also has a box into which people can drop their own mix CDs. Everyone who drops one in is invited to pick one out at random on the final day.
We take in the novelties of the site for a while, before heading over to the outside stage, which is this year being curated by the Spanish label Elefant, to see a rebel pop legend playing with her latest band. Tender Trap are the new project of ex-Talulah Gosh and Marine Girls lady Amelia Fletcher - one of the forerunners of what became known as the “twee“ sound. Only the term “twee” never was and still isn’t good enough for Fletcher. A large crowd has gathered, and Tender Trap are an underplayed delight, playing songs with melodic pop flavors and the kind of art-punk edge that has always seen Fletcher tower above “twee” wannabes. Fletcher pours her heart out into these songs, pushing her quiet voice as far as it’ll go. A guitarist and drummer coat her lyricism in shimmering hooks, and the set is a wistful, passionate delight.
Back through the festival site and over the railway crossing, the Indietracks locomotive shed stage hosts Glasgow’s Butcher Boy, a band who’s sound hits like a big, passionate embrace. Butcher Boy have a nice Celtic tilt to their songs. Their instrumentation is full of rural flavors, all flowing into a terrifically uplifting pop sound. Keyboards, cello, accordion, guitar and viola swarm around singer Blain Hunt’s tear-stained lyrics to good effect, and the afternoon locomotive shed crowd is glued.
The shed may have a bar and a record shop, but one thing it doesn’t have is air conditioning - it’s a hot summer’s day and it boils up in there, so heading back over the crossing, we make our first stop-off at the railwaymen’s church. It’s full to the brim with people eager to see The Lovely Eggs, so we squeeze in through the side door and stand literally in the pulpit to watch them. I’d guess that the church seats around 150 people, but there’s a lot more than that in here. The aisle is full and people are straining to see in the standing area at the back. It’s far hotter even than the locomotive shed, but The Lovely Eggs’ shocking blond front-lady Holly Ross is in her element.
Ross gives her ecstatic mind free reign to run riot. The Lovely Eggs are a unique-sounding twosome, like the White Stripes on mushrooms. Drummer David Blackwell hammers away behind Ross’s guitar and vocals, and the songs are clever, cartoonish, surreal little ditties that steal profundity from the hands of nonsense. The band’s last song, “Digital Accordion”, manages to rhyme “digital accordion”, “Richard Brautigan”, “deadly scorpion” and “beef bourguignon” in winning, dreamy nursery melodies, and when it ends we step back outside the church into the cool air like we’ve been baptized by cartoon priests.
It’s amusing, watching everybody come out of the church after The Lovely Eggs. How did they all fit in there? But there’s little time to stand wondering as we’re soon off to the Elefant stage for Camera Obscura. Having the Glasgow band play here could only be bettered by having Belle and Sebastian, such is their position in the modern “indiepop” elite after four albums, each of which were euphorically received in this community. Anticipation is of course high, yet the band are initially disappointing. They at first go about it like session musicians, until fortunes turn on new song “French Navy”, which shimmers out as sumptuous and emotional as pop music gets. Singer Tracyanne Campbell suddenly becomes the effortless, tear-stained pop star we know she is, awaking from her initially tentative and weary stage demeanour and coming alive to the possibilities of her music. Her voice all of a sudden is the one we’ve fallen in love with over the last few years and albums - dreamy, tender and questing above her band’s wonderfully orchestral melodies. Trumpeter Nigel Baillie blows wonderfully festive notes through the songs, while Carey Lander on keyboards is immersed in her emotional lines, crouched and bobbing away in a colorful dress.
“Books Written for Girls” is captivating, satisfying an earlier craving I felt during the start of the set for Campbell to quieten her band and just give us her voice and that emotion. “If Looks Could Kill” is a dazzling whirl of skewed melody. The band’s trademark finale “Razzle Dazzle Rose”, with Baillie‘s trumpet again propelling it, is wonderfully poetic, an old yellow double-decker bus appearing out of the nearby depot to make it a quintessential Indietracks moment. But the set ends after only forty minutes, leaving the crowd slightly frustrated. Camera Obscura are bona-fide heroes here. It would have been pretty special for them to play a headline-length set, but instead we get the strange phenomenon of them being followed by Spanish electro-trash act La Casa Azul. We watch LCA leap around in an all-white suit with a backing band of cartoon characters projected on a screen behind him for as long as we can - thinking that it could have been brilliant if it wasn’t simply awful, karaoke begging to be loved, and then hopping back to our spot in the church pulpit, where Glasgow’s Swedish twins Wake the President are whipping the crowd into a fervor.
Wake the President are every Scottish pop band you’ve ever loved, from Postcard Records to Belle and Sebastian, squeezed into the vision of singer/guitarist Erik Sandberg. The Sandberg twins are decked out in immaculate dark suits, and play away with a humble earnestness, simply letting the songs be - little narrative pieces of hope, humor and darkness which grow into blasts of pop euphoria. The church is in raptures, and we fall out the church side door for the second time today having seen something pretty ace.
All that’s left of Saturday is to enjoy the cult London club night How Does it Feel to be Loved? playing out in the platform marquee, DJ Ian Watson battling a few electric cut-outs in between bursts of satisfying Motown, 60s girl groups and northern soul. And in the locomotive shed the Bonnie and Clyde DJs have everyone dancing to a more modern rebel mix. The Indietracks festival at night is a place to behold, a happy mass of inebriated people falling between the two disco venues, living their pop dreams, and savoring the moment.
It’s the last day of this Indietracks dream. A walk through the country lane from the festival campsite, located a mile down the road, is interrupted only by the passing of a road-train taking festival-goers who had perhaps taken more beverages than us last night into the Swanwick station. Oswald the cartoon engine greets us by the main gates, and Cardiff’s The School, led out by a man in a Chaplin suit and Hitler moustache, are a sunny procession on the Elefant stage, despite the Sunday rain.
The School’s singer/lead-keyboardist Liz Hunt is a Marilyn Monroe-like diminutive figure, clad in a blue-ribboned shirt and dress, singing her heart out like a clairvoyant receiving messages from lost girl group Goddesses. The School’s songs float out in sweet humor, full of heartbreak, love and melody, with Hunt taking us deep into their sun-kissed world with her open-hearted lyricism. The rest of the band, drummer, guitarists, bassist, keyboardist, glockenspiel player, trumpeter and violinist, compliment her by playing like they’re receiving lines from a Ouija board tuned to the 60s, and it gets the early Swanwick gathering dancing in the rain.
The shelter of the locomotive shed will give some relief from the weather next. A large crowd gathers as Copenhagen’s Northern Portrait take to the stage. And we’re in for a treat. Portrait’s singer Stefan Larsen has an unmistakeably Morrissey-esque voice, but the band’s sound would defy anyone to call them copyists. Well-crafted pop songs sweep out into the shed, full of soaring, vivid lyricism, hand-crafted songs that come straight from the heart of the ambitious front man. Larson shapes small-town desolation and loneliness into little odes of inspiration in aptly named songs like “In an Empty Hotel“ and “The Fallen Aristocracy” - odes to love and hope with beating romantic hearts. Their set makes for one of the highlights of the festival so far, fully deserving of the rapturous applause it gets after.
BMX Bandits are another of this year’s showpiece Indietracks acts. The Bellshill group are legends in this fantasy land, and a good-sized crowd brave the rain to gather at the Elefant stage to see the Bandits’ Duglas T. Stewart in inspired form. Stewart is a larger-than-life character, a tall, wiry, bearded man wearing a ludicrous brown and white suit, with a pink Big Bird t-shirt underneath. His stage banter with co-singer Rachel Alison is charming and funny, and the same goes for the songs. It’s impossible not to be touched by the bubblegum pop magic of “I Wanna Fall in Love” and “Take Me to Heaven” - a bubblegum magic that has a huge dollop of outsider soul. BMX Bandits are like burlesque with open-hearted pop songs, an unlikely comedy-show featuring songs with all the grit, grime, passion and hope of small-town Scotland - just irresistible in the late-afternoon rain.
There have been steam trains with live bands aboard leaving the station platform every hour throughout the festival, but our last chance to catch one is scuppered by a tip-off that Amelia Fletcher, after yesterday’s gig with Tender Trap, is about to do a set of Talulah Gosh songs in the record shop marquee. We hurry over, and people slowly gather amidst many whispers about whether it’s going to happen. Then Fletcher takes to a corner with two of her friends and - sans PA - starts to remind us of the old magic. Everyone stands as quietly as possible as the faint strains of “Talulah Gosh” and “Testcard Girl” wash over us, just as cute, dreamy and sharp in Fletcher’s hands as they always were, and it’s just a terrific little surprise to add to the scheduled festival fare.
Hearing the old Talulah Gosh songs in all their dreamy wonder is such an uplifting thing, but it’s a bit of cueing up in the rain next, as we try to get a good spot in the church for a solo set by Gordon McIntyre of Scottish band Ballboy. By the time we get inside our plastic festival cups have a good filling of rainwater in them, but as soon as McIntyre starts playing we know it was well worth it. McIntyre is a UK underground pop institution, a song-writer of a certain effortless charm, and the church falls completely silent at the first strains of “A Day in Space”; a life-affirming track about one man’s passion to travel to the stars in the face of his friends’ indifference. I find myself empathizing with Gordon as a songwriter almost totally. He just has a knack, in everyday kind of narratives, of making your hairs stand on end.
A large Scottish man who looks like he’d be more at home in a Scottish soccer ground sits near the front on a church bench throughout the set, waving his arms ecstatically, at one point shouting out “Fuck God, fuck the old firm” (the old firm is a term to describe the rivalry between Glasgow‘s two soccer teams - Celtic and Rangers). He doesn’t seem like your usual indiepop gig-goer, but this is the moment of his life, and it makes you love McIntyre even more that he can inspire such an unlikely follower. McIntyre writes songs untouched by fashion and ambition, bedroom pop made of pure warmth, affection and dreams, full of fantastic notions. He creates an atmosphere of sheer listening in the church that I presume you’d rarely see in a congregation, all that are present delighting in the simple magic of a humble Scottish storyteller and his guitar.
McIntyre’s set leaves me with a lump in my throat. Scottish indiepop legends of yore Teenage Fanclub are finishing their set to a huge crowd on the Elefant stage - their last few songs full of their trademark skewed melodies, but the night has already been won for the McIntyre congregation. The Indietracks dream lasts a few more hours with a blinding disco in the marquee besides the platform by London/Hong Kong DJ duo Music for Children, playing a euphoric mix of rebel pop that has everyone reeling, before Oswald shuts his eyes, the big gate closes, and it’s back to reality. Indietracks was a pure pop fantasy, an addictive DIY pop experience amidst scenery untouched by time. It‘ll fuel the dreams of all who came for weeks to come.
// Notes from the Road
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