FEST FLASHBACK: Splendour in the Grass 2006 feat. Sonic Youth, Mos Def, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Nick Gunn
The Vines

Is any show worth an 18 (or even 38) hour trip? With acts like Sonic Youth, Mos Def, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Scissor Sisters, and Brian Wilson on the bill, PopMatters' Nick Gunn was willing to go see for himself...

Splendour in the Grass 2006

FEST FLASHBACK: Splendour in the Grass 2006 feat. Sonic Youth, Mos Def, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs

City: Byron Bay, Australia
Venue: Belongil Fields
Date: 2006-07

Can’t decide whether or not to get gone? In anticipation of the big, bad body bake that is the Summer Festival season (buy your SPF60 now, people!), PopMatters spends this week revisiting the highs and lows of last year’s most scintillating soirees.
DAY 1: 22 July 2006 As I slide down the slippery side of 25, I wonder if I've gotten too old for the orgy of music and mud that is Splendour in the Grass. By day two I felt like the rock-festival equivalent of the Little Mermaid, gasping for air in a heaving sea of punters. But I'm getting ahead of myself... and anyway, the packed schedule was enough to wear anybody out. To give you some idea of how big Splendour is, we drove for 18 hours to get there and back, and that was in no way the longest pilgrimage taken by the festival's devotees. Others came from Melbourne (38 hours round trip) and Western Australia (unspeakably far away) to pay their respects to the gods of rock. As usual, tickets for the shindig sold out in 24 hours, despite a new-fangled system that made scalping a virtual impossibility. This turned out to be a good thing, though, as it ensured that the tickets went to the 17,000 people who really wanted them.


The first act I managed to catch was Sweden's Dungen, who came packing jarringly melodic, Swedish-speaking psychedelia. Dungen had the formidable task of getting a crowd going at two in the afternoon, and by the time they got to "Festival" -- a song they dedicated to the Splendour crowd -- they had more than a few heads thrashing ecstatically. The next thing we knew, frontman Gustav Ejstes had whipped out a flute and gone all Jethro Tull on our asses. Believe me, this was much, much better than it sounds. Much. We then hunted desperately for a way to avoid seeing Youth Group and ended up waiting around on Death Cab for Cutie to do their thing. Whatever that thing was, it wasn't as well received as it might have been. I heard more than one unhappy fan bemoaning the poor set list. I spent the entire set praying they'd break into a Postal Service number, but alas...

Mos Def

Falling victim to overlapping sets, as well as inevitable late start times, we had to race to catch Mos Def at the Mix Up Tent. This was a smart move, and turned out to be a major festival highlight. After getting things off to an unsettling start with a series of eerie reggae-tinged wails, Def proved himself a consummate performer. His set was at least as dramatic as it was booty-shaking, and we left satisfied that, even if all else totally sucked, we'd have at least one real memory. After dinner (Splendour prides itself on some seriously good local fare; I scored a Yemeni falafel roll so hot it made a guy dressed as a lumberjack holler) it was time for the highly anticipated TV on the Radio. I approached with trepidation -- I find some of their recordings a bit tiresome -- but fuck me, I couldn't have been more wrong. It seems that performance is where TV's material truly shines, and they unleashed an (un)heavenly wall of dissonant melody and heavy trumpet noise. That they performed as the sun went down was a major bonus for the band's atmospherics, and the intense blaze of their light show worked well with the giddy, whirling sounds that they created. Being the old farts we are, we took a long break and patiently passed time until Sonic Youth showed up to teach the younguns a thing or two about rock. What they delivered was a master class in walking the line between art and pop, a lesson that covered recent texts like Rather Ripped but also left room for the classics: the set began with "100%", and "Schizophrenia" served as the wildly appreciated encore. Sonic Youth was so good that I couldn't bring myself to cheat on them with DJ Shadow, so I missed at least half of his set, which may have been a good thing. We got there just in time to see him dispose with a Thom Yorke-esque wailer. Things got messy as Shadow cut loose with some fine party tracks like "Mashing on the Motorway" and then wound things down through an "Organ Donor" workout.

DAY 2: 23 July 2006 Many of us spent the early hours of day two mourning the absence of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who had enticed many to make the long trek to Byron. Instead, we showed up at three to see who the mystery replacement was, the act denoted on the program by four mysterious question marks. Speculation had been rife on the radio, in the forums, and around the pubs. Some claimed they knew it was going to be the Mess Hall. Others touted Silverchair. Since neither of these suggestions were particularly exciting, the sigh of disappointment that greeted The Vines to the stage was muted. Everyone sat through the obligatory "Get Free" and then sang along with their underwhelming cover of "Ms. Jackson", but nobody really enjoyed it. At least that's what I'd like to believe.

Snow Patrol

Snow Patrol proved to be the jolliest, most gushingly polite band to grace the stage. Each song was dedicated to another act on the bill: one went out to the Vines for their comeback, another to Brian Wilson. "Spitting Games" was going to be for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but someone in the crowd yelled out and it got dedicated to them instead. Although their music is pretty standard pop-rock fare, Snow Patrol do a great job belting it out. Then it was onto the electro-sleaze boogie of the Presets, and as soon as we saw singer Julian Hamilton take to the stage in his genuine Les Misarables T-shirt we knew it was going to be an exercise in irony. But what a workout! These guys know that the key to reeling in a crowd is to hook up a searing melody with some mind-bending synths, then throw in some nasty beats. It's been a long time since I've seen a crowd go as wild as this, especially during the manic stomp of "Are You the One?" All 17,000 attendees tried to jam themselves around the stage for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and why wouldn't they? It's not every day you get to see rock royalty like Karen O strut her stuff. I regret being slightly too out of it to truly appreciate their show, but even through the haze, I was moved. There was an orgasmic sense of release that greeted the trembling guitar, followed by the death-march beat that marks the onslaught of "Maps". Thousands had been eagerly awaiting this moment, and the band didn't disappoint -- squeezing every last drop of wrenching desperation from their most revered song. Two numbers into the Scissor Sisters and the skies just opened up, drenching all who were unable to squeeze themselves into the Mix Up Tent. Having reached exhaustion hours before, we decided to hedge our bets and head for home. Yes, I'm ashamed to admit it: I abandoned the Scissor Sisters, as well as closing act Brian Wilson. I've seen the DVD where Wilson stands on stage waving his hands over the keyboard while those around him perform his songs, and I was in no mood to brave the weather to see it again live. I've since heard that he was surprisingly together, and that he put on a great show, but there you have it. Maybe I just don't have that enduring reverence for the Beach Boys to which many seem to subscribe. Or maybe I'm just too old. Splendour in the Grass 2007 takes place 4-5 August 2007 in Byron Bay, Australia.

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In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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