Musical Adventures at the Arezzo Wave Love Festival
by Anna Battista
Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth. And Sonic Youth. For a change. That's what is written on hundreds of T-shirts kids are wearing on the train to Arezzo. It's very hot outside, but most of the Sonic Youth-branded kids don't seem to mind, tonight they will have a precious reward for their efforts: the band they worship will indeed headline the first day of the Arezzo Wave Love Festival, playing on the main stage. It is a joy to see all these fans together, it fills your heart with hopes that the next generation won't sell their minds to crap music. But right while I'm smiling and thinking what a great July day this one will be, a sinister light suddenly bathes my mind. Though Arezzo is a great town near Florence, in Tuscany, and the people are simply great there, though most of the journalists who cover the local yearly festival are true music lovers at the core, usually the festival organisers manage to mess everything up.
It is not rare that during the festival a group of journalists, be they from the independent press or the national press, after having been driven mad by the press office, will come together and start gate-crashing in the dressing rooms, in the backstage, in the no access areas behind the stage and commit other assorted anarchic crimes to do their job and talk to the bands. Two years ago the people of the press office were simply incapable; one year ago they sabotaged the freelance journalists, by simply ignoring them. So, while I wonder if this will be a major fuck up in terms of the organisation, I visit the press office people who seem to be nice and reasonable enough. Watch out, I said SEEM. After getting my pass and meeting a friend from a local newspaper, Andrea, I temporarily remove from my mind the thought of buying a gun, a knife or any other kind of weapon readily available from the local shops. A thing I soon regret when I am obliged with the other journalists to follow the press conference of an Italian crap band who thinks they're gonna be the next big thing. Of course they aren't, so we abandon them but before we ask the press office people a question that will become a mantra for the whole day, "When can we meet Sonic Youth?" And the adventures finally start.
Day One - Friends, fun and sonic wars
It's great to meet up with your old friends after a year, it's even greater to make new friends. It's fucking brilliant then if you share with these friends a crazy passion for music. You swap tips, ideas, reviews and news about the bands and musicians you know. The line up of the first day of the festival includes Kabul Workshop, Los de Abajo, Mercury Rev and Sonic Youth. It's a really mixed line up, which goes from the ethnic sonorities of the brand new Kabul Workshop to the dreamy atmospheres of Mercury Rev. But the first day of our festival would look even better if the bands were told by the press office that they have scheduled for them interviews with the press. Actually they haven't, so we wait in vain for hours and finally later in the afternoon, in the backstage of the stadium where the gig will take place, we meet the first band who is playing tonight, Kabul Workshop.
We have with us Francesco Russo, an Italian, and Massoud Raonag, an Afghan, the core of the band, who enlighten us about their experimental project. "The biggest event in our group was the meeting, in 1998, between Francesco and a friend of ours, an Afghan musician called Khaled Arman who is now not playing in the group. Francesco didn't know anything about Afghanistan, but through Khaled he started to know Afghan music," Massoud remembers. Francesco defines their sound as "Ethno-tech" and explains how they build their patterns of music, "We use the most ancient instruments that come from the Far East, such as the sarangi, a sort of Indian violin, and the tablas, plus sonorous objects created by a Frenchman, which originally were sonorous sculptures, apart from samplers and electronic keyboards. Our challenge is to mix up all these instruments and the different cultures without falling into an abstract concept of making music and without being a mere DJ, though DJs do a great job."
Though Afghanistan has been on our televisions for months on end now for obvious reasons, in the West we practically don't know anything about this country and about Afghan music, "Afghanistan was in a very bad situation because of war events since 1978. Talibans were the last bad thing that could happen in Afghanistan," Massoud explains, "I think all the Afghan situation comes from geopolitics: big countries decide for us and Talibans were a result of these decisions. I can't say that Talibans are Afghan, they don't give the exact idea of Afghan mentality, with them every kind of freedom came to an end, music was banned, children couldn't play and there wasn't any more freedom for men and women. I think the situation is much better now, but I don't know if Afghanistan will be a free country, politically and economically, I think Afghanistan will keep on depending from other countries," Massoud concludes while Francesco continues, "There wasn't any kind of shock between my culture and the Afghan culture. In 1998 there weren't all the tensions that exist now, we didn't want to cash in on what was happening. I now live in Paris because it's a place where people can meet each other, musicians coming from a different background can get together. In Paris you can find musicians coming from Africa, from the Far East or from the States. We are five on the stage, plus a technicians at the controls whom we need because if our mix of music doesn't come out in the right way, it's not very pleasing to listen to! We're new in Italy, we're distributed here by a small indie label, so at present we're not very known. We're not in touch with any other band who do our type of music, we're so brand new in our own genre that often festival organisers don't want to run any risk including us into the programme. But we have already received a good feedback: we did a gig in Bonn a while back and people were great there and after Arezzo we're going to play in Switzerland and Spain."
Kabul Workshop recently released an album entitled Trigana and a single by the same title and are at present working on the new album, "I like many of the songs on Trigana, Massoud admits, "but I like best 'Specchio' and 'Gerusalemme Liberata' which are not on our first album, and will be recorded on the next one." After saying good luck to Kabul Workshop and promising them to go and see their atypical blend of music, we meet with Liber Terán and Carlos Cuevas from Los de Abajo, a Mexican band, formed in 1992, who are keen on telling us something about their origins, "We took our name from the film Los De Abajp", Liber starts telling, before being interrupted by Carlos, "…which is based on a novel by Mariano Azuela. The novel is about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and it's very interesting because it tells the life of those people who lived in precarious conditions, of the 'campesinos' who took the arms and defended themselves. The writer of this novel fought in this movement as well."
Los de Abajo's music is blessed by a particular energy and their lyrics might be considered political and revolutionary. "It is pretentious to say that our music is revolutionary," Liber points out, "but we have always been interested by social problems, our fathers were activists, political leaders in Mexico and this was important because our music is related with politics, but there are other things in our music. We define our music as Cybertropic Chilango Power, because we do a mix of various things, of African rhythms, ska, punk and traditional Mexican music. We don't like being labeled, but we like playing with the labels. I like young bands, for instance Gran Silencio and Los Tigres del Norte, but I usually like a lot of music. Of the classic bands I like Beck and Beastie Boys," he concludes to let Carlos continue, "Our music is a new sound, so there isn't a direct relation between our music and the music of other musicians in Mexico such as the composer Silvestre Revueltas, though we like his music. We make popular music, alternative music. I would define our music as a 'coco loco', a coconut with something to drink inside which has got a lot of flavours and tastes, a fresh and explosive mix. There are a lot of bands and a lot of music in Latin America, and we particularly like salsa and mambo. But at present in Mexico there are a lot of bands in the alternative scene who try to do electronica, lounge and so on."
We then move on talking about what they think about the Argentinean crisis. "I think the crisis is like a fire," Liber states, "because the Argentinean were the first world in Latin America, they kept the economy at the rate of the dollar. Though they went through a dictatorship which was so strong during the '70s and through a repression, I think that they were always equal to the States for us. The crisis was a time bomb which exploded because they couldn't compete with the United States anymore, they can't compete with the new order they have there. So I think it's a fire, because I reckon that all us Latin Americans might have a crisis," he claims, while Carlos explains "We lived a crisis in 1994 in Mexico. And a crisis shows that the government has done wrong things in politics. It is clear that a lot of people get to the power thinking they are going to use it and abuse it. I'm not an economist nor a politician but I can see that economics is not working and as usual the most neglected are ordinary people."
A year ago Italy was shaken by the catastrophic G8 in Genoa and most recently the country witnessed one of the most massive national strikes, perhaps this news got to Mexico as well. "What we heard in Mexico was that a guy was killed, that the police hit people and that there was a repression during the G8, a very bad repression, I don't think there had recently been such a repression in Europe and in Italy before Genoa. This repression was against the freedom of expression, we don't know a lot about what happened in Italy after that, but I heard about the general strike done by the trade unions. Italy has always been a country that fought hard to obtain rights." He concludes, while Carlos launches in a rant about politics: "I think that we can't say if politics is useful or useless, for us politics is done for the service of the others, of the people and must focalise on this. I think that us, as human beings, must know our obligations and rights and, if we find out a government that doesn't take care about these things, we must find out a form of government through which politics work in the right way to have services, education, employment and so on. In Latin America, our political history was really fatal, politics was useless."
And with this we go back to our chat about music, "This is the first time we play such a big festival in Italy," Liber tells us, "and this is important because tonight we're going to alternate our music with bands with different music, so it will be very interesting. I think it will be a 'gran fiesta'." Los de Abajo leave us to prepare for their incendiary set and our treasure hunt starts.
It's late in the afternoon when we discover from a random member of Mercury Rev that they aren't in the backstage, but somewhere in Arezzo, probably visiting the town and won't be able to do any interviews, so we dedicate ourselves to pester Sonic Youth. Well, actually nobody managed to pester Sonic Youth because the press office manages to hide them some place we don't know: their dressing room is empty, their instruments aren't visible anywhere and there is no trace of a tour manager to piss off with our requests. We endure more lies from the press office people stating our Sonic friends are just doing interviews with the music TV channels and the most important newspapers, a thing that royally pisses us off, given that in the media biz everybody is important as long as they tell people the truth in their programmes or in newspapers or mags. Major quarrels, swear words and other assorted verbal abuses follow, then we are blackmailed by an emissary of the press officer: if we want we can interview just one member of the band, the one they choose. Hmmm, very democratic of them, but we accept and finally meet a genius of music, Jim O'Rourke!
Jim has been playing for a while with Sonic Youth and many people consider him by now part of the seminal American band. "The funny story is that when they started off in the early '80s, they weren't enough noisy for me," Jim laughs, trying to recall how he his relationship with them started, "yes, I wasn't into them at first because they weren't noisy enough, but that was a long time ago. Growing up I was more into experimental music, into improvising music than rock music. I try to be very respectful of Sonic Youth's history. You know, I never involve myself without them asking me to. When people say 'you're in the band', well, I just answer that I've never said that: I wouldn't say that I'm in the band because to me it's not my place to say that. It's their thing and they've been kind enough to have been dragging me along for the last three years. I have to be definitely respectful at all times of their history. They are a very democratic band, it's really the first band I've ever been in. I was in bands before, but not as involved, for example with The Red Crayola it was really just one guy having people playing on his record. But Sonic Youth are a proper band. When it comes to working on my records, I'm a bit of a dictator, but with Sonic Youth it's definitely different, there's a bit of an overlap because especially Thurston and Kim are involved with experimental music a lot. I was doing those things with them before I was really playing in the band and it's just something that continues, but, hopefully, experimenting it's different with every person you work with. I still continue working with people I worked with 15 years ago, so it's just like continuing threads."
Having mentioned experimenting in music, Jim passes to enlighten us about what he means with this word. "For me the experimenting has mostly to be done in private, it's almost like doing researches and then when you think you've found something worthwhile, you give a report to the public. I like to do most of the experimenting in private because I don't think the audience has enough time to have to listen to all your mistakes. Not that experimenting is mistakes, but it's a way of finding out things, because you put yourself in situations you are unfamiliar with, you're working with material that you're not sure of and it's a great way to learn. I think that's the most important thing, you need to put yourself in a situation that it's uncomfortable 'cos it's the only way you learn about things, you just do what you feel comfortable with, you don't really learn anything from it. I think experimenting is really important because of that. I can't say that my process while experimenting with music is the same for example of Alvin Curran, I think when he experiments, he does a lot of work in private, a lot of preparation, a lot of mistakes in private, like reorganising the material in private. But basically, I think that there is a similar way of working for everybody involved with uncommercial music."
Jim worked with Sonic Youth in the studio on the latest album Murray Street and he gives us insights on what it is like to work with the band: "When Sonic Youth are working, one and only member doesn't have any influence on the band, but the whole band decides. When a group of people are working together, it affects the way their songs are written and arranged. I can see why people might say that my influence made the latest album more accessible, but I wouldn't say that. I find other records easier to listen to, but I don't think I was responsible for anything like that. When Sonic Youth write songs, they treat me like an equal member of the band, that's the way they work. It took me a while to feel comfortable enough to open my mouth, it was just funny because they wanted me to, they wanted me to be going, 'Do this, do that' and so on, but it took me a while to feel comfortable enough for that as I was trying to be respectful of their history. They had to kind of shake me into doing it, they had to tell me 'If you have something to say, say it!'. That's the way they work, everybody writes their own part, so if you don't open your mind you have no part to play in Sonic Youth. Lyrics are almost always written by the person singing them."
"Thurston and I are both English folk fans, and when there's more than two people interested in the same thing, it kind of brings an enthusiasm and then other people get enthused about it. I think it was an influence because in the last five or six years folk music has been a sort of favorite music of Thurston and I. We like best the English folk scene like Roy Harper and Clive's band, things like that. When I'm working with recording other people's records or producing them usually I try to see what the song is and try to find out what the strength for the song is and what its basic root is and let that be my guide. It isn't like you have an idea and you try to impose it over the song, you let the song tell you what to do and you start working with that. And when writing, we also try to do things that make no sense at all, because this can take you to another direction, many times it's useless, it's like, 'no, that doesn't work', but there's a couple of times on this record where myself or Lee or somebody else would say, 'let's try this' and it made no sense whatsoever, but it led us somewhere that we never would have gone, it took the song to a new place. So I think in the end writing a song is a combination of following what the song tells you to do, and also ignoring it and trying to fight it."
Murray Street might be considered by many people a sort of rebirth after the 11th September events. "Well, everything was written before that, we were already working on the record," Jim remembers, "On the last record I was only involved really with engineering near the end, they and I didn't even record the last album, it was like in one phase they recorded the track, then they asked me to come, finish recording and mix it and then they asked me to play bass. So I was involved not from the beginning. Murray Street is the first album where all five of us sat down from the first day and made the record, so there was a sense of a new beginning."
Apart from collaborating with a lot of other bands, Jim has been a producer and a solo artist, two essential careers for Jim. "I couldn't choose between being a musician and being a producer, I need to do both 'cos when I get sick of one, I do the other. I don't do the producing as much anymore 'cos it wears you down, it's very heavy work, because you end up in doing a lot of the work and then they take it away from you, they give you something that it's yours for a long time and then it's gone. It can be rough. What will happen now with my solo albums is that it will take longer to finish them, because at present I don't have as much time to myself, which is OK. Usually, I get distracted and it takes me two or three years to do a record, now I might take longer," he concludes laughing.
American underground culture seems to us Europeans less of an influence on young people's minds than it was 20 years ago. "I think it's because youth culture is owned now, youth culture was much more open field twenty years ago," he says. "Now it has symbols like MTV, they own most of young people, they own their minds. Everything is organised in the way that there will be something there when they're growing up and own them. Young people now haven't so much of an opportunity to be an individual. I mean you CAN be an individual, but if someone is growing up in a place where all these people are grabbing for your attention, it's very difficult. I look at kids now and I can't even imagine what it's like to grow up now, it's totally different than when I was growing up, it's a different time."
So what about the American dream, has that come to an end or is the American spirit still alive? "I don't know if I believe in the spirit of America, actually I don't believe there is one. I don't see a unified spirit of America whatsoever, I don't believe it. I don't believe it exists. Most people do what the TV tells them to do." And right when Jim is sharing with us his last disillusions about the States, a woman from the press office, a sort of crossover between Charon and Cerberus from Dante's divine hell, arrives, announces that our time with Jim is over (without thinking that we're not in a prison) and kidnaps Jim O'Rourke, a thing which thoroughly frustrates me because I had had the same idea…well, never mind! It will be for another time, we can console ourselves going to see the gig.
Kabul Workshop have already started, their set takes off during the second track, when they play "Trigana". As promised they bring with them on the stage the most traditional Afghan and Indian instruments together with state of the art keyboards. Sinuous songs which might have been the soundtrack to the 1000 and one nights touch our skins and caress our minds while frenzied breakbeats butcher a Persian melody we hear in the background. People are moderately enjoying themselves, but the stadium only warms up when Los de Abajo arrive on the stage. Hailing the revolution, clad in a Che Guevara T-shirt, Los de Abajo's Liber runs up and down the stage while red lights lighten the band behind him. They take most of the tracks from the latest album and right in the middle of the show with "Voy Buscando" people in the crowd get crazy and practically do whatever Liber asks them to do. The gig ends with a shout "Viva Zapata!" and everybody cheers up and would like to destroy the world of injustice with incendiary words and actions. It's a shame. No, not for Los de Abajo, nor for their gig which goes down really well. It's a shame because after these Mexican rebels, Mercury Rev arrive throwing us in a twilight of anguish and despair.
Mercury Rev are lost in a yellow and orange dream of lights and smoke and when Jonathan Donahue opens his mouth to sing the first track, "The Funny Bird," I would like to ask the photographer next to me if he's got some downers to swallow because the set which will follow can't be stood without some kind of chemical help. John thinks he's some kind of archangel living in an ataraxic world of his own where tripping the lights fantastic on "Holes" is the greatest thing that might happen to him. Towards the end he becomes so theatrical, raising his arms at intervals, at each beat of the drums as if he were Mickey Mouse casting a spell in Fantasia. When we get to the last track of this psychedelic but mostly useless set, "The Dark Is Rising", John has crawled on the floor playing his guitar, has tried to clutch a piece of the sky right above his head with his hands and has pretended to die in a heroin-withdrawal-like spasm but with an angelic face. Bless him. While we secretly hope the revolutionary instincts instilled in the crowd by Los de Abajo will push someone to physically eliminate Mercury Rev after they have retired from the stage, we prepare ourselves for the best part of the night.
Sonic Youth arrive in full form. Thurston, wearing an immaculate shirt, looks stunning. He's the one who talks to the crowd and introduces the songs, while Kim strums her guitar and jumps around, letting her pants be seen to the delight of the photographers. Jim O'Rourke's face is almost always hidden behind the tent of his hair and he's playing the bass right next to Lee Ranaldo, beatifically smiling while Steve Shelley is doing his job on the drums. Most of tonight's set is taken from the latest album, so we can listen to "Rain On Tin", "The Empty Page", "Plastic Sun", "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" (dedicated to David Crosby) and "Disconnection Notice" and finally realise that Sonic Youth don't play with their instruments. No they don't, they talk one with the other with their instruments and their dialogues form the most perfect stichomytia and, consequently, they produce the most perfect form of music. Ladies and gentlemen tonight, among the other things, we can admire Thurston playing with a drumstick and Kim singing in a creepy demented voice on "Drunken Butterfly". Towards the end, after having been mesmerised by Kim's glittery guitar strap, while Thurston is lying on the floor ravaging his guitar, we get a glimpse of why they call themselves "sonic". Their sound is so perfect and aggressive that it feels as if it were stripping your body from the skin and leaving you with a skeleton made of iron. It's after 1.00 a.m. when Sonic Youth get off the stage leaving us with one bare-knuckled truth: they rule.
Continue to next page for days two and three.