As Primavera Sound celebrates its fifteenth birthday, I found myself making my annual pilgrimage to Barcelona for a festival I’ve visited every year since 2008.
I love this festival and am not afraid of boring people who have never been with the reasons why. It ends up costing about the same as Glastonbury, but you’re pretty much guaranteed decent weather, and you stay in an apartment which has a bed and a shower and a fridge and walls and a roof. As for the line-up, it’s forever impeccable, and when they finally announce one which holds no interest for me I will know it’s time to stop going to festivals and focus on my garden.
For reasons of personal finance, horticultural ineptitude and musical trend, this seems unlikely to happen in the next, say, ten years at least. Bands I saw Back In The Day have now been away long enough to be reforming and playing sets to crowds ten times larger than anything they would have gone in front of in their supposed heyday. There are a few of them here this weekend – Sleater-Kinney, Death From Above 1979, American Football – and doubtless there will be more next year, and the year after, ad infinitum. For there will always be good bands. Every good band will split up. About fifty percent of the ones who do will reform, and watching them will be a perfectly reasonable way to spend an afternoon. And they’ll probably play Primavera. For this reason, I can maybe keep coming here until I die.
Until I die. I didn’t get close to death once at Primavera (unless you count picking up the hire car and driving the wrong way up a slip road), but Christ, this festival takes it out of you. Bands begin at about 5pm and end 12 hours later, and by the end you’re a semi-nocturnal wreck. But oh, the beginning! My delight at my continued existence was magnified by how quickly said transport malfunction was followed with entering the place on Earth where I have more fun, year on year, than anywhere else I’ve been. And that’s despite somehow managing to spend the first day inadvertently watching all of the most depressing bands on the entire line up.
Things started pleasantly enough, as they were always going to. I find the first group I see at Primavera get a free pass because I’m just so happy to be by the Catalan coast instead of Finsbury Park that I’d find merit in pretty much anything. And while I couldn’t remember a whole lot about the competent Americana of Hiss Golden Messenger even minutes after they’d finished, I fucking loved watching them and want to shake their hands for sound-tracking the sunset so splendidly. I’d imagine knowing their songs intimately beforehand would have increased my enjoyment tenfold, but that’s my fault, not theirs. They did a great job.
And it’s a risky thing to say on the internet in June 2015, but actually, for at least the first two thirds of his set, Mark Kozelek did a great job too. Sun Kil Moon’s early show at the Auditori – basically the Barbican on sea (it’s lovely) – had me in tears at one point (which was a truly astonishing rendition of “Michelene”), and in guilt free laughter at many others. Kozelek seemed (relatively) pleased to be there, playing with a brand new band who included Slowdive’s Neil Halstead on guitar and running through songs largely derived from the fantastic Benji, and Universal Themes, which is less fantastic but – live, at least – still pretty engaging. Yet as seems to be his style, just when everything appeared to be playing out just nicely, Kozelek had to sour the mood, making a woeful joke about a yet-to-be completed song that will exist solely to “piss off feminists”, based on the premise that women don’t enjoy vinyl. Who knows, maybe he wanted someone to write about it on the internet. Damn.
What’s worse, I could have left a little early and watched The Replacements, who by all accounts played a total blinder and then split up, again, a week or so after. I thought I’d watch someone on the crest of a wave rather than a reformed band merely riding one of nostalgia, and I was repaid with a set that delighted me at first and yet sent me away feeling a little dirty. I won’t forgive Kozelek until he reforms The Replacements for me.
To cheer myself up, I went to watch Antony & The Johnsons, which didn’t work at all but was still excellent. Though gazing upon Antony and a full orchestra in the distance on the festival’s most enormous outdoor stage was far from an ideal locale given the subtleties of their sound, it succeeded despite the setting, with the dour lament of “Another World” and drastically reworked Hercules & Love Affair tune “Blind” ending up battling for top spot on my list of best songs I saw on day one.
Still searching for the stage at which the festival was kicking in to gear and smarting from the sombre beauty of what had just been witnessed, it was decided that Tyler, The Creator might be the shot in the arm that was called for. Yet while the energy of it all was palpable, Tyler seemed to find it difficult to get this to spread beyond the front few rows, a muddied sound – highly uncharacteristic of the festival – probably not helping matters. When accompanied by Earl, Hodgy or pretty much any of the Odd Future crew, Tyler’s sets have been some of the most fun I’ve had at hip hop gigs. Yet this time it seemed all about him, desperately lacking in any sense of camaraderie, and instead just like a brattish oik having the time of his life when the amount of people in the crowd experiencing a similar feeling could be counted on one hand.
Sit down, watch Sunn O))), I thought. Admit defeat. It was late and this wasn’t going to be a pick me up of any sorts but music’s pretty varied and some pretty horrid stuff is still pretty amazing, right? Like Sunn O))), who were really, really horrid, and excellent. They sucked every other band on the bill in to a black hole and waved them off, laughing as they disappeared. I could feel their relentlessly repetitive metal vibrating in my nose even as I walked away. Rather than finishing, this music sticks with you - even if you don’t enjoy a note of it (either of them). You know how you can supposedly hear your nervous system in an anechoic chamber? I thought about that a lot watching Sunn O))), for some reason.
Day two is happier and involves singing along and dancing. Sylvan Esso welcomed us in, a duo whose intricately crafted indie electro pop should by rights fall flat on its face in the middle of the day on an outdoor festival’s biggest stage, but actually soared out across the Catalan coastline, falling favourably on the ears of a crowd that gets bigger and bigger as the set progresses. They make a tonne of new friends at their first ever Spanish show, and should bear stages like this in mind when writing new material, because owning huge expanses are something they’re going to have to get used to - not that they seemed out of place on their first go.
Being a stupid English person who can only understand stupid English, every word of intelligent Spanish songwriter Sr. Chinarro’s set – performed on the Ray Ban stage, with its idyllic ocean backdrop – was lost on me. Thankfully I knew from my beloved Destroyer having released an entire EP’s worth of his songs in their original Spanish that the playful melodiousness of them would not be lost in translation, and I thought this set was great. People who understood what the words meant (and if Destroyer is a fan, they’re probably really clever words) seemed to enjoy it even more. Perhaps this, along with the embarrassment of not being able to order anything in restaurants without friends shaking their heads in dismay, might just make me learn some sodding Spanish for next time.
Spoiler: Patti Smith was the best thing at this festival, but 80% of the bands covered after her are still pretty good. But Horses live, in its entirety, with a reprise of “Gloria” at the end and a few hits thrown in for good measure, was always going to be pretty hard to beat. The sheer force of it! It was as if the 40 years since its release hadn’t diminished it, but if anything, baked it and made it harder. The fact that Smith could, by playing an album so bloody old, still be riling against exactly the same things she was angry about during its creation would be a depressing thought if listening to her do it wasn’t such a pleasure. “Children don’t want to grow up to be part of any of these fucking governments!” isn’t the sort of lyric people write anymore, unless you’re Sleaford Mods, who despite their many merits simply don’t have a voice this excellent. Her tears at the point of yelling that very line were real, and so were those of many around me. And yeah, mine too, fine, twice in two days, whatever.
That said, I couldn’t have been alone in being troubled by the inclusion of “Rock and Roll Nigger” to close the set. For a wordsmith so skilled, the bluntness of that song has always struck me as careless at best, dangerous at worst. She knows what she’s doing with words – so why do this? If it’s a case of it not being acceptable now, but it was Back In The Day, they why keep on playing it now? As with Sun Kil Moon the day prior, I found this one distasteful moment difficult to reconcile with the brilliance of what preceded it, and headed off in hope that Belle and Sebastian could provide some light relief. Breezy they certainly were – and in front of a staggeringly large crowd, too – but for every “Electronic Rennaissance” (aahhh!) there were a couple of tunes that sounded a lot like the Pet Shop Boys, which is a sound that only really suits the Pet Shop Boys. Most of the festival was in disagreement with me, but apparently so are most of the British electorate. Can’t let it get you down.
Sleater-Kinney made a point of saying what an honour it was to follow Patti Smith, and their set was itself just as riled, impassioned, and very nearly as good. They’ve succeeded in something that so few other reformed bands can even be bothered to try; not only in making new material in the first place, but delivering something that enhances rather than tarnishes their legacy. That the new songs sat so snugly in with the old in this set is testament to their excellence. But listening to SK is one thing, and watching them in front of a gigantic audience (arguably one of the biggest they’ll ever have played to) is quite another. Yes, they were fantastically tight, but all of that amazing musicianship is happening while they’re jumping, crawling, falling and flailing around the stage like they’ve been jabbed with a Taser, inhabiting the songs so fully it feels almost dangerous.
Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein had been posting photographs of herself hanging out in Barcelona with Run The Jewels to Instagram in the run up to them sharing Friday’s bill, and apologies to everyone I attended with, but it looked like the most fun group you could have hung out with in the entire city. While their music couldn’t be more different sonically, there seemed to me to be huge parallels in the gang spirit and camaraderie they exude. Where Tyler, The Creator’s set felt all about him, Run The Jewels made theirs feel all about us – not just the folks present at the show, but anyone fighting the good fight anywhere, at any point in time. When “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” kicked in, it was clear that few bands in operating in any genre manage to balance levels of joy and anger in quite this perfect a ratio. “We are the best rap group in the motherfucking world”, said Killer Mike by way of a goodbye. He was right.
On the third day of Primavera my true love gave to me one reformed emo band, some German industrial pioneers, a hugely disappointing headliner, and the 20th time I’ve seen Shellac play essentially the same set (and the 20th time it’s been brilliant).
Said reformed emo band were American Football, who you seemingly either adore or don’t get the fuss about. Having only listened to them in my late 20s, I’m very much in the latter camp, but a friend I attended with who’d memorised every lyric since discovering them as a teenager seemed to be absolutely loving it, bless him. I know what this felt like, as the same thing happened to me watching the Dismemberment Plan, on the same stage, a year ago. A pleasantly twinkling soundtrack to a sunset though American Football was, I just don’t know if it’s possible to get in to music like this at this stage in my life. However, for some people it will forever mean the world to them, and I urge them not to let that part of themselves go.
Dan Snaith had a busy Saturday. Not only was he the last act proper to play the Ray Ban stage at some ungodly hour of the morning under his Caribou moniker, but he played an early evening set as his alter ego Daphni to a tent so packed they started turning people away before he’d even come on. Watching Snaith dig through his most treasured vinyl and concocting a masterful brew of rare disco was probably the most dazzlingly fun thing of the entire weekend, surpassing even a splendid turn as Caribou later in the day. Sets like this tend to fall in to two categories, either tending towards DJs giving crowds what they want, or indulging in their own personal whims to the detriment of the communal experience. What’s so great about Snaith is that his taste is so exceptional that even the tunes you’ve never heard of, and will perhaps never hear again, are so expertly handled that they feel like old friends.
The little of Einsturzende Neubauten I caught made me punch myself in the face for missing the beginning, because I’ve never heard a steel pole played so beautifully, nor the German language sound quite so sensual, or at least not since the last time I saw Einsturzende Neubauten play Primavera. The line between beauty and brutality is one these unique German industrial pioneers continue to tip toe along with as much grace and grit as they did in the 1980s, and the petition for them to play every festival on the planet has my name emphatically on the top of it. I am not missing them again.
I’d rather forget The Strokes though. What was shaping up to be a fine choice of headliner in fact provided easily the most disappointing set of Primavera Sound 2015, with the band seemingly wholly uninterested in being there despite the mammoth size of a by this point close to frenzied crowd. Julian Casablancas was the main culprit; bizarrely turned out with day glo coloured jacket and newly died red hair, his levels of enthusiasm seemed pitifully below even his own usual, lackadaisical style. Sure, the hits were fun – “Someday” and “Barely Legal” in a crowd of people of roughly this age are always going to provide something of a kick, even if their delivery is truly lacklustre – but The Strokes’ general refusal to give a crowd who are up for the night of their lives anything close to what they wanted sent many away wondering why they bothered. And when you consider that, as the first headliners announced for the festival, a lot of people would have been here just to see The Strokes, that’s unforgivable.
Thank fuck, then, for Shellac, who played exactly what people want, which is exactly what they’ve always played, and exactly what I hope they’ll keep playing for ever. This was the first time I’d seen them since the excellent Dude Incredible came out in 2014, but it was essentially the same set they’ve been rolling out for the past five years, such is their approach to road testing new material way, way ahead of ever releasing it. Even those newer tunes – “Riding Bikes” and the incendiary title track being a particular highlight – could have fit without difficulty on the same EP as the 20-year-old “Wingwalker”, which was played with exactly the same “look at me, I’m a plane!” gag they always roll out, to exactly the same amount of wide eyed laughter from me and everyone else. Even though Steve Albini proclaimed fellow performers Sleaford Mods to be “the best band in the world” from the stage, it’s Shellac who are the perfect band to me. Drums, guitars, bass and vocals should sound exactly like this. And I hope they always stay exactly the same.
All that remained at this point was for DJ Coco to soundtrack our stumbling up the Ray Ban steps towards our regular lives with his signature mixture of Kelly Clarkson and Bruce Springsteen bangers. And so, I left having forgotten any bad band I’d watched in the past 72 hours, without an idea how to get home, even less of a desire to do so anyway, and a determination to do it all again in a year’s time.