Last year I studied music composition at the Victorian College of the Arts, and spent a fair bit of time at its Southbank campus – a collection of new and repurposed buildings nestled among the more prominent attractions (galleries, theatres, concert halls and parks) that comprise Melbourne’s official “Arts Centre.” I hadn’t expected to find myself back on campus any time soon, but here I am. Even less had I expected to be here to attend Sugar Mountain, one of Melbourne’s most enticing music and visual art festivals. But again, here I am, waiting in line with a pair of three dollar faux-bejewelled white sunglasses I just bought from Arthur Daley’s Clearance House. I’m happy with my purchase, less so with the fact that I’ve now missed Danish punks ICEAGE, who I was pretty eager to see. But only the early bird gets the worm; the dawdling bird gets the sunnies and listens to CHELA perform through the fence. I love Chela though: her would-could-should-be chart-topping dance pop is both modish and timeless, clever and silly. The effortlessly memorable “Romanticize” rings out through the streets. It’s a golden tune, and I’m instantly primed for some technicolour pop catharsis.
As I walk in, getting my bag inspected and a pink paper strip curled around my wrist, it’s BO NINGEN whose music meets me head-on. The London-based Japanese quartet are blazing through heavy riffs at full throttle. I’m not really mentally or physically prepared for fast-paced amplifier worship, but it’s impossible not to have some of Bo Ningen’s enthusiasm rub off on you. In a world glutted with riff-rock, these guys have sufficient gusto to stand out even to the casual first-time listener (that’s me).
Clutching a kombucha (yeah mate, it’s that kind of festival, roll with it), I zig-zag through the exceedingly well-dressed crowd to watch HOW TO DRESS WELL. Last time I saw Tom Krell perform it was at the Bakery and I was ambivalent; he did the set karaoke-style, wonky on cough syrup, luxuriating in his own presence while seeming fairly absent. Today, he doesn’t do much to raise the bar: Krell and his two accompanists are late to the stage, and he begins to throw thinly-veiled tantrums when technical difficulties arise. “Technical difficulties” is overstating the fact anyway: Krell’s furious that his left-hand microphone is reverby and his right one dry, when he wants them the other way round. We get it, Tom: the setup isn’t quite how you want it, or are used to it, but the narky attitude is ultimately a lot more detrimental than anything sound-related. After protracted groaning he swaps the damn mics over, to rapturous applause. When you sing like Mariah Carey you’re allowed to be a diva; Tom Krell doesn’t sing like Mariah Carey. After twenty minutes they’ve played one and a half songs and I give up, migrating back to the Dodds Street stage, which is hemmed by giant inflatable tentacles.
There I find TWERPS, figureheads of the Melbourne’s low-key, DIY jangle-pop sound, looking characteristically indifferent up there amid the wobbling, psychedelic octopus appendages. I’ve always struggled a bit with this band: they can write a mean pop tune when they’re in the mood (see: “Who Are You”), and their instrumental skills are surreptitiously nifty. But their flippancy always strikes me as lazy and drab rather than endearing or relaxed. Today does little to change my mind, for as much as my ears enjoy the buoyant rhythm section, the weaving guitars and the homely melodies, I can’t ignore how bored – begrudging, even – Marty and Jules look as they sing their respective songs. There’s scarcely any banter with the crowd and even less interaction between band members; I feel like they’d rather not be there. Compare that performance aesthetic to contemporaries like Dick Diver, who always seem jocular and engaged, and it’s clear which approach lifts this breed of song in the live setting. As an introvert and perennially anxious performer I can understand opting for a quiet, withdrawn attitude – but as Bo Ningen just exemplified, a little zest goes a long way.
Over in the “Warehouse” space I scope NONOTAK’s DAYDREAM V.4. It’s an elegantly simple installation to the naked eye, though probably plenty complicated to produce: in the darkened space, white lights on screens of ambiguous dimensionality scroll and strobe, constructing a shifting array of 3D shapes in front of you. You’re aware that there’s an illusion at play, but when you try to unpick it, even the mechanics of the illusion feel illusory; the line between physical and digital sculpture is literally blurred before your eyes. It’s a beautiful, compelling collaboration from illustrator Noemi Schipfer and architect/musician Takami Nakamoto.
I catch a bit of DJ duo THE 2 BEARS – not a lot, but enough to see them lead the crowd in a collective kangaroo hop and to hear them drop Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” – before heading back over to Dodds Street for BODY/HEAD. The duo is the latest project for Kim Gordon (ex-Sonic Youth), together with friend, guitarist, and noisy kindred spirit Bill Nace. The set is fully improvised, duelling guitar textures, oblique riffs and Gordon intoning washed out vocals; I’d call it a “no surprises” performance in terms of Kim Gordon’s musical reputation, but that doesn’t detract from its appeal. If anything, it’s thoroughly gratifying to see Gordon, a pioneer of the freeform noise rock genre, do what she does best – and her masterful control of feedback, her ability to use distortion and noise like paint on a broad sonic canvas, are skills here laid beautifully bare.
Perhaps the highlight of the day comes from NO ZU, whose adrenalized, horn and percussion laden post-disco-funk-whatever is utterly undeniable. To sweeten an already sweet deal, they’ve got Sal Principato from legendary no-wave act Liquid Liquid joining in, as well as local hero Becky Sui Zhen (of Sui Zhen / Sui et Sui) – Liquid Liquid tunes get an airing (reimagined somewhat in No Zu style) and though it highlights the directness of their influence, it feels like a charming homage. The augmented ensemble summons an immense vibe, a Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark boulder of rhythm and cheer that you just let roll over you, while ricocheting congas, pitched-down vocals and gleaming brass bounce over the beats. If more bands could merge life-affirming vitality and intriguing artistry like NO ZU do, the world would be a heaps better place.
Soon it’s over to ARIEL PINK, who’s been the main drawcard for me personally – in light of my long-term obsession but also his great new record ‘Pom Pom,’ and in spite of an extremely dubious public persona of late. His idiosyncratically mismatched backing band trickle on stage, freshly joined by Australian indie stalwart Shags Chamberlain dressed like an alpine park ranger and lovingly prepping an analogue synth. Ariel trots on, sneering in pig tails, a pink blouse, denim short shorts and spike-covered purple platform heels. After a lot more soundchecking than you’d expect from a notoriously devil-may-care frontman, they glide into weirdo hair-metal banger “Not Enough Violence,” following it up with “Lipstick” and “Four Shadows.” The renditions are great – extravagant and picture-perfect, though it takes the dark comedic funk of single “Black Ballerina” to rouse the crowd into a bop and singalong. Earnest digital-age power ballad “Picture Me Gone” is a highlight, though the PA has been mysteriously quiet for much of today, and the missing punch is conspicuous here. After a set of few antics but plenty of agile riffing and howling, they round it out with new single “Dayzed Inn Daydreams.” Doug Wallen was right in his Sydney Morning Herald review when he said that these songs “didn’t quite translate live” – Pink’s music has always felt particular to the recorded medium, with faux-aged, genre-hopping tracks sitting side-by-side like forgotten analog artefacts on some weirdo’s dusty cassette mixtape. But what’s lost in translation is made up for in a fresh uncanniness, the strange and awkward glee of experiencing these tunes in such an incidental context, performed by real human beings.
SWANS arrive, dressed in black and grey and looking stoic and wizardly as they are wont to. They drone, chug, chant and clang along the many contours of their dark heavy landscapes, exploring almost every point in the dynamic and tempo spectrum whilst keeping the palette strictly minimal: essentially one chord, and one gritty guitar tone. Michael Gira’s face is permanently locked in a world-weary pout, while multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris (yes, Thor) pummels the tubular bells, smashes cymbals and shreds on violin, like the band’s own private Beelzebub. While Twerps’ apparent glumness felt jarring against their breezy pop, Swans’ visual malaise enhances the grim sonic world. A set to remember for sure.
Speaking of malaise, there was none of that over at DAN DEACON’s stage, where the lovably hyperactive, loquacious and ridiculous musician whips the crowd into a choreographed frenzy. It takes a while for the tres-chic audience to shake off its inhibitions, but we get there. Deacon blasts his whirring, kaleidoscopic electronic compositions, thick with hurtling drum machine, 8-bit melodies and vocoder croon. As much as I love DD’s interactive dance happenings, it’s almost a shame that these wild and intricate songs feel like an afterthought.
I catch a bit of TERRIBLE LOVE featuring KIRIN J CALLINAN, in which Kirin and Brooklyn’s Terrible Records Skype various famous musicians (the ones I see are Blood Orange’s Devon Hynes, Neil Finn and MacDemarco feat. the boys from Pond) to shoot the shit and perform weird lo-fi karaoke versions of classic songs. Along with the shirtless Kirin J’s nervous/giddy braggadocio schtick, it’s a bizarre and charmingly unorthodox experience.
The sky’s now dark, and the vast corridor running down from the Dodds Street stage teeming, as NAS takes to the stage to perform his classic record Illmatic. This bit’s hard for me to comment on: for some people, hearing this era-defining hip-hop album performed by its creator in entirety must be a religious experience. But I was three years old when Illmatic came out, and save for a few tracks, I’ve never really caught up with it, at least not to the point of being emotionally invested. So I catch as much of the set as I can – it seems heartfelt, energised and (as you’d expect) vocally on point – but, ultimately unable to see or hear much through the hectic throng, I go lie down on a nearby patch of grass and listen to the radio’s restroom of Twerps’ set, which is more enjoyable the second time round without my mental qualms about whether or not the band members are having a bummer of a time.
It’s been a day of widely varied curiosities and classics, curated with seemingly few common threads, but somehow perfectly cohesive. This doesn’t feel like the Sugar Mountain I envisioned when I heard of its inception a couple of years ago: that festival sounded like a genuinely unconventional, small-scale DIY spectacle with a format to match the weirdo aesthetic of its performers. Today feels more like a classic summer festival, with trendier food and beer, a bunch less people, and less safe/less predictable music and visual art. But hey. That’s a pretty great recipe if you ask me.