Primavera Sound: On the Beach

by Ally Brown

18 Jun 2009

Photo: Inma Varandela 

British festivals are grey and muddy, feature huge amounts of beer drinking, and everyone camps. At American festivals (well, Coachella at least), there’s sun and baking heat, huge amounts of water drinking, and very few people camp. Primavera Sound is based on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, in a complex of stages in Barcelona, so I was keen to find out whether it would represent a midway point between those two experiences. And it does, in the best possible way—there’s sun and moderate heat, a fair amount of boozing and late-night partying, and a beautiful city to explore too with loads of accommodation options to pick from. Did I even mention the music? Primavera prides itself on its curated line-ups, with stages hosted by Pitchfork and ATP, and a general commitment to putting on interesting and challenging music. Artists I didn’t even see a second of included Yo La Tengo, Ghostface Killah, Phoenix, Shellac, Squarepusher, the Vaselines, Sun O))), Gang Gang Dance, and El-P. But what I did see made it one of the best weekends of my life.

The atmosphere in Barcelona before the main events started was buoyed by Wednesday night’s success by the city’s main football team, FC Barcelona, in Europe’s biggest football competition, the Champions League. The match was watched by tens of thousands on big screens erected across the city, and when Barca completed their 2-0 win over Manchester United, everyone went crazy. It was a long night, with thousands of fans celebrating in the streets, eventually having to be cleared at 3am by police in riot gear firing rubber bullets. Barca is a brilliant team, but don’t rely on this pre-festival excitement every year.



Magik Markers are the first band we see, but from the offset it’s clear they aren’t suited to the setting they’re playing in. From where I’m sitting I can see hundreds of audience members chatting, thrilled to finally be here and enjoying the sun, while the Mediterranean Sea stretches out behind the stage. Magik Markers are playing dark, imposing, funereal-sounding songs from their new album Balf Quarry, with long droning organ sounds and minimally picked off-key arpeggios. They need to be in a tent, a small dark tent, with a little bit of smoke and red light, not out here on a big stage among palm trees and excited laughter. Four songs in, “Don’t Talk in Your Sleep” provokes a minor crowd reaction, but it’s just not working. We leave for beer.

Photo: Chus Sanchez

Photo: Chus Sanchez

LIGHTNING BOLT @ ATP Stage, 8:45pm

Later on the same stage, Lightning Bolt don’t give a fuck what you think about the setting. The duo—an overdriven, messy guitarist and crazed, caged monster drummer—play songs that sound like a reinterpretation of Sonic Youth’s “Nic Fit”, an unintelligible rant, completely meaningless, stuck in primal development. Also, it’s pretty loud. Half-an-hour through it’s becoming a bit of an ordeal. From any other band we’d be demanding a change of pace right about now, but we clearly can’t demand anything from Lightning Bolt. They don’t give an inch: They just keep on rampaging, grunting, and flailing, until you’re ready to take it again. Or, leave. But as newly born masochists, we all stay, and we burst through that wall.

Photo: Inma Varandela

Photo: Inma Varandela

Later, we catch a bit of the Jesus Lizard from afar, and they’re pretty loud too, before leaving for Andrew Bird. He’s whistling on-stage, alone, and plucking his violin to new song “Oh No”, but clashes call, so we have to depart early again, this time for The Bug.

THE BUG @ Pitchfork Stage, 11pm

I read an interview with The Bug’s Kevin Martin a while ago where he described with reverie a memory of feeling his nostrils bulge with bass at a party—so if it’s his aim, to billow our noses with bass, he’s succeeding. He’s playing with just one MC tonight instead of the usual group, but the duo really know how to work the crowd—the MC yells “make some noise for The Bug!”, and The Bug complies by playing crowd noises, embellishing our own. Then we’re asked “who won the Champions League?”, and the bass drops, a siren alarms, a backspin reverberates through the crowd, and the bass briefly departs my face to shake my Adam’s Apple. Well it’s everywhere, really, the low frequencies are all-consuming, charging through the crowd, enveloping us all. It’s really good, and kinda tiring.

Photo: Inma Varandela

Photo: Inma Varandela

MY BLOODY VALENTINE @ Estrella Damm Stage, 00:20am

Well, I thought The Bug was loud, but then there was My Bloody Valentine. They’re doing two shows this weekend, one outdoors and one indoors, but I plump for the outdoors one to avoid clashes. From about 50 meters away, every kick of the bass drum is shaking my bones. The mid and high frequencies are so loud and distorted it’s difficult to tell where the haze of guitars end and the otherworldly vocals begin. After a while of sheer undulating noise, I grab for my earplugs; but there’s no point. They just muffle what’s already distorted, and the kick drum continues to assault. So I take them out again, and look around. Absolutely nobody is disengaged; it’s impossible not to watch, in awe, because of the volume. Then, midway through “You Made Me Realize”, MBV launch into their so-called Holocaust section, when the volume rises and they just play brittle, extreme noise for a good 10 minutes (shorter than usual). It’s an endurance test so many people have earplugs in, and are pushing them further in with fingers, gritting their teeth. It isn’t just the volume that is extreme here—the noise is so crunchy, so low, it sounds like the air around us is fracturing. It’s like a natural disaster is occurring—the airquake at the end of the world. At the end, the huge crowd erupt in cheers and applause, but I can barely hear it.

APHEX TWIN @ Rockdelux Stage

Although the Estrella Damm stage is officially the main stage, Rockdelux is surely bigger, as it has a large terracing around it for viewers to sit and watch. When I get into the crowd, the bass is so loud it’s making me nauseous, so I retreat up to the terracing for a seat. There are thousands of people below, and Aphex is playing a pretty straight techno set by his standards. He’s making use of the screen behind him to be subversive, merging giant images of ill children with his own gurning, scary mug. And, it looks really good, but from up here I’m struggling to get into it all. It’s been a long day, and my mate’s going home, so we head for the bus. As I lie down to sleep an hour later, there’s a deafening buzz in my ears.

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