It’s a cloudy but warm Sunday on 12 June, and Tempelhof Sounds is about to enter its final day. The first two days of the brand new three-day open-air festival saw us marvel at the poetic beauty of Florence + the Machine and go berserk with a triumphant live turn by Muse. Now the weekend is approaching its end and the grand finalé is saved for acts that will, ultimately, break your heart, one way or another. But first, let’s get some cold beverages to endure the June warmth (Northern Europe as it may be, climate change is affecting us all).
The program starting as early as noon is a wonderful opportunity for the enthusiasts to get their money’s worth by hanging out for more than a dozen performances all day. Nevertheless, we’re on duty here, so it’s all but impossible to juggle the many shows with work. Today we make it just in time to watch the finalé of the Royal Blood gig on the main stage. Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher, the only two band members, performing with no help from the touring crew, truly give it their all and sound great live. The audience also seems overjoyed to hear a bit of hard grinding after a weekend of mostly pop and alt-rock performers.
The last day of the event again sees an almost-full house with about 30,000 tickets sold, and there are more than 10,000 folks present for the Sussex duo performance. The show ends as energetically as it had started, with “Figure It Out”, filmed by someone standing front row, and “Out of the Black”, singles off their eponymous debut album.
Without a minute’s worth of break, Anna Calvi takes the Echo stage by storm as the crowd keeps growing. The most powerful contralto in today’s England and the beloved composer of Peaky Blinders Season 5 music is a perfect fit for the feminist and diversity manifesto the festival has tried hard to implement. Having worked with some other Tempelhof Sounds performers, such as Courtney Barnett and Joe Talbot from Idles on her latest album, Hunted, here onstage Calvi is a “natural continuation” of an already long line of absorbing live acts that seldom compromised their artistic integrity for radio-friendliness. Praise needs to be given to this event for proving that less commercial acts also fit at large-scale events. Ensuring a decent mix of bestselling and alternative performers might just give someone a much-needed shot at enhanced media exposure.
That said, Calvi has long been a star in her own right. A famed composer and guitar prodigy, she opens her set with “Hunter”, luring the masses in with her crooning vocals. PJ Harvey and Siouxie Sioux immediately come to mind, but this is a comparison Calvi enjoys. She’s only happy to continue in the footsteps of the greats, and very well does she follow. An hour flies by and the brief set, featuring predominantly songs off 2018’s Hunter, finishes with a beautiful rendition of “Strange Weather”, a Keren Ann cover Calvi did with David Byrne. It is a somber goodbye and a stark antithesis to the vivacious rocking of Royal Blood, but the crowd enjoys the thematic mixup.
Speaking of somber, at exactly 6:30 pm, Interpol’s Paul Banks, Daniel Kessler, and Sam Fogarino leisurely stroll onto the main stage, as ready as ever to bring us down. Banks is as stylish as ever in a triple black suit, sunglasses he will keep on for the duration of the show, a partially unbuttoned shirt, and no less than two gold chains around his neck. After all, this is a man who’s recorded albums with RZA and who spends most of his time listening to rap or DJing. This seductive, almost bad-boyish appearance is an appropriate complement to Bank’s dejected vocals and vitriolic lyrics that shoot right in the feels. A diverse crowd of over 20,000 at first glance appears to have congregated simply to wait for the Strokes (must be the hipster shirts and glitzy accessories), but I turn out to be gravely mistaken.
Virtually as Kessler’s first reverbing notes of “Untitled”, the glorious opening tune to their legendary debut, 2002’s Turn on the Bright Lights, strike, everyone falls solemnly silent. German crowds and people at the fest, in general, are known for being respectful and restrained, something Julian Casablancas will comment on extensively later on in the night. In the case of Interpol, this is heaven-sent, since many of their gloriously pensive songs work best in an intimate atmosphere, usually unachievable at festivals. Thankfully, it turns out the masses really are there for Interpol: thousands sing to “Evil” and “The Heinrich Maneuver”, while the new song, “Fables”, also receives a warm welcome. There’s even a moshpit during “Obstacle 1” (you read that right and, no, I couldn’t believe it, either).
Though he’s been playing the same act of a static, cooler-than-thou frontman for 20 years now, Banks just keeps commanding the crowd with ease. This has also plenty to do with the sheer quality of this band. Given their generally low profile and lack of publicity stunts, it is too easy to overlook Interpol’s cross-generational appeal. Six albums and two decades later, the alt-rock trio still dazzles with their neurotic guitar and bass lines and Banks’ undisputed poetic prowess.
One can see that the new kids on the block have also taken to the cult New Yorkers as every teenager around screams to “All the Rage Back Home” from their fifth album, El Pintor (2014) (my personal favorite). A digression – this is an infinitely pleasing sight – though the song is nominally about surfing (yeah, right), Bank’s chorus hook, “I keep falling maybe half the time”, remains one of the deadliest tongue-in-cheek verses in 21st-century music. Most bands would fizz out after two to three LPs, but Interpol’s well-devised recipe for astute meditations on (doomed) relationships that see Banks singing in all caps over a simple, subdued rhythm section, is much more than a momentary trend. The band will release their seventh album, The Other Side of Make-Believe, on 15 July, and judging by the reaction to the lead single, “Toni”, it will be another heartbreak in our CVs.
There’s plenty of heartbreak tonight as well. Many, many in attendance cry to “Narc”, “The New”, and even “Rest My Chemistry”, but a slyly arranged setlist (Interpol have always known how to manage the song order at festivals so as to keep the crowd in acceptably good spirits) sees “The Rover” and “PDA” offsetting any excessive sadness. The trio also ends in a great mood with “Slow Hands”, to which everyone claps and dances. It’s truly lovely to see such an intense response to a non-headlining act.
Reeling from Interpol, we miss the shows by Courtney Barnett and Griff (our friends say both were great), but we’re not the only ones. After Interpol had finished, thousands stayed by the main stage, awaiting another bunch of slick New Yorkers. The fan pit remained closed until the end of the evening, which didn’t stop a line counting hundreds of hopefuls to form. At exactly 8:30 pm, a deafening scream meant only one thing” five ludicrously dressed rockers, none of whom looks their age, appeared on stage.
Here’s the thing: the Strokes look off-kilter, act off-kilter and often even sound off-kilter. All this is inconsequential. They are still one of the best bands of this century and one of the great acts of today. Make no mistake, they also know it, hence the nonchalance. Their New York cool is the stuff of legends, but it’s also real, almost inexplicably so. Literally, every rock band on the planet has at least at some point wanted to be cool. The vast majority only ended up becoming a parody, but not the Strokes, who even managed to pull off possibly the trickiest thing in showbusiness: a fully successful comeback.
Having struggled to maintain their creative punch for over a decade, in 2020 they released the brilliant The New Abnormal, an album they ended up touring in 2022 for reasons we all know too well. Now in their 40s, the indie rock New Yorkers accept the passage of time in a graceful and eloquent manner. This doesn’t mean they have actually matured. We will witness this hilarious lack of mature behavior over the next 90 minutes, as Julian Casablancas spends about as much time doing standup comedy for raving fans as he does singing.
That said, Casablancas is effortless. In a cargo vest, lots of straight man jewelry (chains and ugly bangles), and a glam-rock t-shirt I don’t recognize, he’s at his most amusing all night. The vignettes range from him taking a mask of his own 2002 face from someone in the crowd, wearing it and exclaiming, “This person is dead. No, seriously!,” through his “Harry Styles story” regarding an alleged failed attempt at playing football (aka soccer) (“It’s a stupid story, so stupid,” he proclaims), to shouting fake German at his bandmates, which he “loves and does a lot”. There’s also an ad-lib of a made-up song, “I’m a little dinosaur” and a lengthy discussion of the culture of festivities.
“Man, it’s quiet in here!,” says Casablancas after “Under Control”. The crowd of over 30,000 immediately responds with cheerful screaming. “That’s not why I said it! It’s just interesting, the cultural breakdowns of crowd silence and behavior… Some crowds stand silent, some cheer loudly… I’m not saying anything about y’all, but… Oh, ok, you clap loud,” Casablancas ends his little rant with a laugh.
All the while, however, one can recognize the man beneath all this joyful bullshit. A fantastic songwriter despite himself, Casablancas is the reason for his band’s likely eternal glory. His deadpan observational style of writing, bursting at the seams with nihilism, disappointment, and irony, resonates all too well with anyone brought up between the 1990s and… today. In our postmodern world, reality bites, effort is fruitless, and our relationships, both with others and with ourselves, suffer as a result. “I want new friends, but they don’t want me, they’re making plans while I watch TV; thought it was you, but maybe it’s me, I want new friends, but they don’t want me, ” sings Casablancas tiredly.
His unpretentious presentational style and honest humor make him deeply loveable, relatable even, but only to a degree. As he commands the band to kick off hit after hit, a sly smile reveals that there might yet be a persona to him, a “Julian the Showman” character and a veteran of playing the field. It’s likely we will never know for sure, but this doesn’t matter when we have all of those genius songs. Finally, this treading between self-effacing honesty and a “just kidding” panache is what makes him and his band so damn cool. No wonder Alex Turner wanted to be one of them.
Sixteen songs in (no “Ode to the Mets”, though, a shame), the band ends with “Whatever Happened” and then thanks the crowd for sticking with them. How could we not? Their music is the soundtrack to the lives of so many of us and there’s no greater compliment than that.
Nearly 50 acts and 58 hours in, the inaugural edition of Tempelhof Sounds is complete. It’s been relaxing, it’s been great fun, and it’s been appreciated. The organizers are already announcing that the festival will be back next year, with the first acts and exact dates to be announced in the upcoming months. Looks like Berlin has finally gotten a festival of its own that is here to stay.