Oh, the high life of an indie music writer. One minute you’re rubbing shoulders with your favourite bands (not literally, unless they’re into that), then the next you’re bumping into fellow journos in Chicken Cottage or on Cardiff’s St Mary’s Street with a bag of chips in hand, having just visited the city’s infamous Caroline Street while desperately trying to hold to scraps of remaining dignity in a tug-of-war of professionalism. But there are obviously the major perks, as this very photo shows. Oh the life of an editor must be a cruel one.
Trying to find the right balance between work and play at festivals is always a tricky one. You start off walking around with all the speed and urgency of a banker during lunch hour, trying to get from stage to stage without bumping into anyone you know who will only waste your valuable set interlude time, and sooner or later you’ll find yourself stood at a bar drinking on the job, trying to convince yourself that the headline band you’ve been going on about all day will be too busy to get into anyway just so you can slump into a corner with a drink.
Saturday was one of these aforementioned days. Theoretically the longest of the four days, a damning combination of a terrible hangover, needlessly staying up until near dawn procrastinating sleeping by reading the entire previous day’s worth of #swn tweets and striving to convert caffeine into comprehensible words and sentences. You see, I didn’t take any Science-based subjects past GCSE so I don’t know what the easiest way of chemical conversion is – but there must be a way surely. My strive to scientific breakthrough means that I miss a chaotic set from DFA-esque punks DZ Deathrays – ironically one of our pre-festival ones-to-watch.
Thus once I get my act together, it’s already getting dark and Summer Camp are the first band I catch at 5pm. What happened to our twee darlings Elizabeth and Jeremy, eh? They’ve gone and grown right up. Their set shows them as bonafide popstars, but with a sinister edge. The duo start in the audience, kicking off with an acoustic rendition of ‘Better Off Without You’ – a perfectly brash number about a needy ex. It’s a totally crushing blow to anybody who’s ever drunkenly cried down the phone to a past girlfriend – which is, of course, every single one of us. Gone is the coy shyness that made the group pretend to be a bunch of Swedish teenagers – now, backed by a live drummer, Elizabeth struts in and out of the crowd, luring and unnerving the audience, even inviting one person up onto the stage with her. Set closer ‘I Want You’ ends on a suitably dark note, emphasising how much the group have come from the sunny bedroom pop band they formerly were. Shockingly this is the first time I’ve seen the London couple in action, only now losing my Summer Camp virginity – a late bloomer as it were. But by the end you can bet that my cherry is good and popped and like the formerly-innocent protagonist at the start of a 80s coming-of-age movie, I’m totally spent.
We head over to Undertone, the rock club-esque basement underneath the parent venue Ten Feet Tall to catch Mammal Club, who I had heard a fair few mumbled words about over the weekend. Soon it becomes apparent why people had been talking about then, as we’re met by the news that the band had to cancel their performance at the festival. While it seems quite rude to walk straight in and out of a place, but when that place merely consists of bar staff idly checking their smart phones and event organisers seated doing likewise – all of which to the soundtrack of The Postal Service- it seems to be the only viable option and we quickly flee upwards before our buzz is killed for the entire evening.
In this SWN chess game we’re all playing, we’re strategically pinpoint Clwb for Gallops as our next move – talking into consideration that it leaves us enough time to get a pint in during the interval. Bladdy lovely. But by the time we finish our drinks and move onwards to North Wales’ Gallops!, they have already started and have seemed to have somehow acquired a Bez-like dancer. That would be good fun and all except that I don’t actually think he’s part of the band, instead he just appears to be a jaw-clenching weirdo who’s had one too many but damn, can he throw some shapes. As for Gallops!, despite fulfilling one of my major pet peeves in music, and that is unnecessary (read alternatively as “post-modern” or “just annoying”) use of grammar, they are still, however, pretty! damn! good!
Next up is Esben & the Witch, and if you wanted a witch-based pun, you could say this is pretty SPELLBINDING stuff. Oh, you didn’t ask for one? Well you got it anyway. The threepiece is much better than anything that’s ever been labelled witch-house, 10x more haunting too, and their music too pure to be compared to MBV or J&TMC as per. Instead, they transfix the entire crowd with their hour-long enslaught that features a neat little trio-drumming session interlude and their heavy guitars and feedback make the floor shake continuously, repeatedly making me mistakenly check if my phone’s been vibrating.
Just as Esben comes to an end, our very own editor arrives in town which only means one thing: shit is going to get #messy. You’d think that your boss would encourage you to stay on course, to look down on you for craving a beer, to make sure that you see every band possible – but on this instance, this isn’t the case. Instead, within around 12.5 minutes of arrival shots and Jagerbombs are already mentioned, which means everyone’s quietly aware that everything is about to fall apart altogether.
We do however, manage to drag ourselves from the cosy wranglehold of the Buffalo Bar and head across town to see the hotly-tipped Zulu Winter at the ever-brill upstairs at Dempseys. I can’t pinpoint the exact reasoning but somehow the band don’t grab me. Maybe it’s that their brand of alt-but-accessible anthemic indie is not really my cup of coffee, or perhaps it’s just simply that I already got getting pissed firmly in my head by this point. Sorry, Zulu Winter, but everyone else thought you were great. I promise to see you again, another time, at another place, perhaps with a closed bar and an open mind.
With all of the TLOBF staff phones quickly dying in unison, we work out a plan for the rest of the evening so we know where we’re going to be and when, knowing that we’ll soon be without the breadcrumb trail that is Twitter. We plot Y Niwl / Ugly Duckling as our remaining destinations but then almost like destiny, everything takes a turn for the weird. Technical failures, electricity cuts and temporary blackouts mean that a number of venues run late. At Dempseys, the tills aren’t even working to serve alcohol! So instead of sticking around to catch amazing North Wallian surf-rockers Y Niwl (who play on three separate occasions over the weekend, none of them I get to see) Team TLOBF alternatively opt for a bag of chips each and the Silent Disco – basically the ‘When in Rome’ motto appropriated to a Cardiff night-out. After a darkly comic stroll around the city centre (highlights including two men urinating up against a bin and one onto the other, women trying to put the “sex” back into “war” and “death” in the form of army-themed miniskirts, and drunken steroid-pumped lads kicking crates and proceeding to fall over onto their 50p-shaped faces), we’re finally at the Student Union for the silent disco. Outside there’s already two Freshers throwing their little guts full of former hopes and previous dreams up, splattering all over the pavement. So it’s pretty safe to say that by this time we’re all feeling pretty awful. Luckily Jen Long, pictured above with her band Effort, is on hand with a gem-case full of 90s and 00s pop-rock hits. We all know we’ve reached the Catch 22 of our lives when on one channel is Kanye and the other Katy Perry. Every decision will be a piece of piss from the day forth.
Sunday comes, with another headache attached, and we decide to meet at Spillers Record store because that’s the type of indie site we are. All the others buy vinyls and the like, but I do not have the cash – making me appear a complete phoney. Record store browsing faux-pas out of the way, a couple of us head over to pub/small venue ‘Gwdihw’, which – we later find out – means owl in Welsh. Good music tip-offs and linguistic facts, oh we do spoil you lot. The first band of our last day happens to be Mechanical Bride, who are utterly pleasant on record but to an empty midday pub (to the extent where the singular handful crowd are hesitant to whom will be the first to clap at the close of each track), the atmosphere subdues a slight rather than energising for us for the day ahead.
We tiptoe out halfway through, hoping that nobody will take it as an insult, and head to see the first of our lovingly-curated The Line Of Best Fit Stage, taking place at the recently-refurbished (and sadly Legowall-less) Arts Institute. The premier act is Dancers, another band from North Wales who vary between the numbers of 1 and 10 depending on the gig. While nothing wholly original in terms of the muzak – influences can be clearly heard from Titus Andronicus, Pavement, Elliott Smith and someone else said Los Campesinos! but I think that’s just because there’s a girl with a violin involved – it’s singer Dafydd Myddleton’s raw sincerity that sets them aside from any cover-band types.
The second act of the line-up are a name that any blogger would recognise – Copenhagen’s Battlekat. Don’t recognise them? Well, they were briefly known as the mysterious ‘Just A Number 05272011′.Yep, now you’ve got it. The blogs go silent and the internet must run itself for a brief while as everyone congregates to see what is the Danish group’s first UK appearance – and one of a fair few over the coming week. It’s not everyday that you see a popstar in a pub – unless you count catching a glimpse of Pete Doherty through the grubby windows of the Hawley Arms – but Battlekat are bonafide popstar and if there was any justice in this world then they would be huge and the Rasmus would have never existed. Their set is a spooky one, with singer Matilde’s robotic dances backed by a dreadlocked dude in the back playing with static feedback of 80s mobile phones, sucking a florescent tube that changes the pitch of the music and generally staring at the audience very eeriely. These are definite 2012 Ones To Watch.
You know what, I had heard a little snippet of boy-girl duo Big Deal beforehand and to be quite honest I didn’t know what the, wait for it, BIG DEAL WAS. But easy punning aside, as I sit at the back of a mellowed-out Arts Institute waiting for the London-based pair to start, surrounded by repeatedly overheard Slow Club comparisons lingering in the air, I’m getting ready ready to rip them apart limb by ever-so-pretty limb. Metaphorically-speaking of course, I’m cynical – not homicidal. But don’t you just love it when you’re pleasantly surprised and your preconceptions are totally thrown out the window? It makes you feel a whole lot better about the state of humanity, like in Uni when I used to leave my laptop idle in the library thinking that if it got stolen then my thoughts on human beings would hurt a lot more than the few hundred pound spent on replacing it. The band’s modest set-up consists only of two guitars – one acoustic, one electric – completely juxtaposes the surprisingly bulkiness of their music. But it’s their honesty and down-to-earth nature that truly impresses, as everyone sits and listens, absorbing all for a good 45 mins.
Deciding to venture elsewhere, bringing free from our own stage having a monopoly over my day – I decide to check out glitchy, bassy producer Dam Mantle who I’ve seen many times but every single performance having been brilliant. I guess this is why people watch re-runs of TV comedies like Friends, because they know what to expect and they are guaranteed a laugh or two. This is what I expect from this outing – but sadly, and not to any of the Glaswegian’s own doing, this is not the case. I arrive to a completely empty dancefloor, with Marshall (REAL NAME DROP ALERT) about to step up to the decks. The subsequent performance is peerless but it’s a bit like watching a sitcom without the laugh-track, which is a damn shame as the newer tracks from the WE EP would have sent any crowd into a shuffling fit.
So as the night and weekend comes to a close, I decide to tone things down a little – my head is too weary for any more electronic music. Instead I find in the programme that American folk-punk singer and ‘Conor Oberst’s Favourite Songwriter TM’ David Dondero is about to begin at Ten Feet Tall. I’ve liked Dondero for a long time, and am adament that his song ‘Rothko Chapel’ is one of the most beautiful ever written, from around the same period that my Bright Eyes fandom reached pathetic heights, leading me to listen solely to anything linked with Conor or Saddle Creek – Cursive, The Faint, Son Ambulance, even Maria fucking Taylor for crying out loud! So standing in the Cardiff cold, you can bet I’m pretty psyched to see the songwriter, but it seems nobody else really knows who Dondero is, thus explaining the sparse crowd. But as the set, comprising of anarcho numbers and some heart-wrenching others, progresses, I guess word has spread – god bless the internet – and Dondero finishes his specatular set to a room twice as full as when he started.
So there you have it, my weekend at SWN in diary form – or a series of articles loosely pieced together by combining the old tweets with “and”s and “then”s in between each. The festival is rare for its sheer community nature, a line-up that treats the bigger name acts just as equally as those starting out, a layout that means no transport needed between each venue and no dreaded nightbuses at the end of the night, enabling you to have a royally good time with no transport worries hanging over you; and one that you can find the organisers in the queues and at the back, trying to worm their way to the front just like the rest of us. Same again next year, SWN? What? You’re gonna make it even better than this one? You crazy, guys. But see you then!
Photos by Luke Morgan Britton, David Breese, Lauren Down and Laura Snapes.