The all-new Liverpool Sound City 2015 is over, Getintothis Peter Guy delivers his definitive annual review on what we learnt – plus the best bands, pictures and highlights from the festival.
“The possibilities with Bramley-Moore Dock are literally mind blowing…”
It feels like John Snow is the sole remaining original cast member of Game Of Thrones yet to have their head displaced from their torso since CEO Dave Pichilingi revealed his masterplan to transform Liverpool Sound City.
However, it was merely back in October 2014, that we learnt the eight-year Sound City plan, which cribbed the music-festival-meets-delegate-conference blueprint from Manchester’s In The City and international industry titan SXSW, was to be ripped up in an audacious move which saw the four day’s proceedings transported from the inner city sanctum of well-accustomed bars and night clubs to the outer reaches and relative obscurity of the northern docks.
The reaction was inevitably mixed – but elicited something which is undeniably tantamount in music – a sense of wonder and intrigue. Yet, as the pieces of Pichilingi’s puzzle began to take shape it became clear, that while the new landscape was an unknown variable, the music – namely headliners The Flaming Lips, Belle & Sebastian and The Vaccines – were of far greater appeal and ambition than ever before. But in revealing a host of big names, and with it the sense of ambition, so too was the added pressure to deliver. So did Sound City deliver?
Like the majority of its ‘post-apocalyptic’ setting, the answers are definitively grey – however, repurpose the question and ask was the move to Bramley-Moore Dock the right one – and we’d say definitively yes.
For here is a site – and a festival – which now has the foundation for something seriously impressive. First up, and perhaps most impressive of all was Sound City‘s 2015 conference. In previous years the conference, like anything at a festival which falls outside the music bill, seems somewhat on the periphery. But at Sound City 2015, organisers ensured the conference line up literally spoke for itself. And in 2015 it proved a key success.
Acting as the Mo Farah of hosting, writer and former Haçienda DJ Dave Haslam oversaw a hefty consumption of verbosity beginning appropriately in the Terror Lounge with The Fall‘s Mark E Smith who proved it was possible to be hilarious, harrowing, warm, hostile, engaging and mischievous all in one sitting – all the while steadfastly avoiding many of Haslam’s questions by seemingly talking over him with answers to another. In conversation with John Robb, Julian Cope‘s rendition of druid by way of philosopher via musical sorcerer and stand up comedian was only bettered by Edwyn Collins‘ truly heartwarming session alongside wife Grace Maxwell in which Sound City veterans suggested this was perhaps the festival’s finest moment in its eight year history.
Engaging panels featuring The Lips’ Wayne Coyne, Viv Albertine, Jane Weaver plus a rare Q&A with Mr Dance Music himself, Cream‘s James Barton ensured the big league discussions proved a fitting marriage to the magnificent Titanic Hotel; a setting itself living up to its £36million redevelopment tag. Sure, bar snacks may stretch to the £10 mark but here was a colossal space in which to simply sit back and admire – so too the adjacent derelict warehouse (the biggest single-bricked of its kind in Europe) across a ghostly turquoise stretch of the Mersey. The setting itself felt like an event. Elsewhere the Market Place was fine addition, a large space in the Titanic lacking in personality transformed into a vinyl fair, cover art exhibition, sit off area and small indoor stage for new emerging artists; indeed Thursday evening saw Liverpool’s hottest teenage outfit CANVAS play to but a smattering of knowing heads.
If there was anything lacking in this year’s Conference set up it was the chance to mix with fellow delegates. In previous year’s there’s been a range of hang-outs and sessions however in 2015 these appeared to be on the scarce side and when they did happen it was sometimes lost amid the day’s activities or in one case farmed out to the other side of town on Dale Street’s Aloft Hotel – a place few would have contemplated moving so far away from the main cut and thrust of the action.
Indeed, this sense of industry identity was something slightly amiss at Sound City 2015 – in its eight years in existence organisers have carefully crafted the notion that business, opportunity and creative endeavour is as key to the festival’s development as the music itself. However, with the huge scale transition this crucial element seemed somewhat lacking this time round. Music and heavy-weight bands loomed large. A notable example was in the music showcases; where in previous years you had a Korean Rocks showcase or Polish Party in Mello Mello or Cologne-based electronica in the Shipping Forecast‘s basement, in the asphalt sprawl of the docks everything transformed into indistinguishable mush. Rather than carefully curated stages pocketed together to exhibit emerging international new talent this year it blended into one big festival. And if there was an Expo showcase it’s doubtful whether the majority noticed.
Where previously the Australian BBQ and in latter years the Korean parties in the Kazimier Garden have excelled in setting a mood and agenda, this year – though there were once again incredible new international artists (see below) – they merely blended into the background of the overall festival sprawl. The same could be levelled at how Sound City has cultivated a vibe for breaking new artists; this industry hype, buzz or whatever you wish to call it was hugely apparent in previous years – queues stretched around the block for the likes of Courtney Barnett or 1975 at the Zanzibar yet while this year’s festival undeniably met Pichilingi’s hope of not ‘wanting a situation where people have to queue to watch acts or worse still not get to see them at all,’ it’s crucial that Sound City retains that tangible excitement that they’re responsible for not just hosting new artists – but reinforcing the idea that this festival can actively break new artists. In essence, Sound City is all about industry buzz, and if that element is lost, so too Sound City’s hand is weakened. How organisers do that is an intriguing proposition – but it’s fundamental.
Fundamental but you’d like to think relatively easy elements to fix on site were plain for all to see from day one. The much-discussed and much-maligned stage positioning was problematic from the off; the notion of having many of the festival’s most exciting artists in three tents immediately next to each other *and* with another open air stage on the back of a wagon directly opposite was quite simply baffling and inevitably led to persistent bleeding of sound and in several cases (most notably during Circa Waves‘ impromptu set) crowd bottle-necking which was unavoidable and unnecessary. The obvious quick-fix, as has been pointed out elsewhere, is to ditch the tacky, cumbersome fun fair which occupied a quarter of the site in favour of two or more smaller stages. Similarly, the ‘post-apocalyptic’ theme was stretched to such a extreme even Mad Max would feel uncomfortable; the extended drag of plastic white tents (all unnamed, all near identical) resembled a Vietnam War medical centre and coupled with the incongruous stalls and a feeling things had been hastily slapped on site (a blacked out Red Bull super-car blasting out trance anthems near the entrance seemed like some kind of ironic joke gone wrong). Again, this is something which can be easily fixed with a little creative thought – but in an age were festivals struggle with imaginative music billings, it’s the look and feel that can transform a festival into something special.
What was particularly magnificent, was the Baltic Stage. The red-bricked behemoth was a winner all weekend. Superlative in structure and in sound, it was arguably better than even the main Atlantic Stage – which itself overcame the potential worries of a hurling cross-site wind to have little sound worries all weekend. But it was the expertly-curated Baltic Stage which truly rocked. The Membranes, SWANS, Fat White Family (what was with that ‘Keep Buying the Sun’ t-shirt lads?), Peace, Evian Christ and many more found this the perfect marriage for their cranial busting sonics while the Tim Peaks Diner (minus Tim Burgess) – though feeling a little redundant during the daytime – came into its own during late night dance-offs. Like at Festival Number 6, more of these intimate late night parties will be needed in future years to improve the rounded festival feeling; indeed Stealing Sheep‘s secret Thursday evening party in Vessel Studios proved a smart touch which other Scouse entrepreneurial spirits should exploit next year. Finally, the Baltic Stage was also one of few places to sit down all weekend – who’d have thought six wooden crates would feel like a gift from heaven such were the non-existent places to rest weary limbs.
But it wasn’t simply the Baltic Stage that hosted great sounds. Such was the slightly muddled positioning of stages it was often easy to underestimate the profound depth of quality on offer all weekend – in fact, with the odd exception, we’d go as far to say this was the best weekend of music for Sound City. While there may not have been anyone to match the phenomena of Factory Floor in 2014 or Thee Oh Sees and Savages in 2013, there was much more quality across the board – and much credit must be accredited to chief band booker Steve Miller and COO Becky Ayres for spotting emerging international talent.
Similarly, on the Merseyside front, this was by some stretch the strongest year for homegrown talent, the list of first-class sets was unimaginable once again proving that the lifeblood of the festival is in progressive new Liverpool music. Being immersed inside the Liverpool day-to-day music bubble makes it easy to gloss over what’s on our doorstep on a weekly basis, but the artists speak for themselves with the likes of Stealing Sheep, Hooton Tennis Club, The Sundowners, All We Are, Bill Ryder-Jones, KOF, Tea Street Band, Jane Weaver and a frazzled-weirdo cyber-WTF moment from Dave McCabe and The Ramifications pulling in some of the biggest crowds and brightest musical moments of the weekend. Similarly, emerging or experimental Liverpool artists including Barberos, Ady Suleiman, Strange Collective, VEYU, Tear Talk, The Little Secrets, Broken Men, Bathymetry, SeaWitches, D R O H N E, Vryll Society, Natalie McCool, Serpent Power, Moats, Cavalry, Sankofa, Hummingbirds, Jennifer Davies, Gulf, Silent Sleep, The Floormen and LIVES added a distinctly communal affair central to Sound City’s ethos.
This communal vibe extended to much of the offbeat extras this year; all of which added much to the mix – the Lantern Parade‘s illuminations, Dogshow‘s brace of sets, the Spark drummers and Brazilica‘s mini parades peppered the weekend with added flair and verve – but once again, a little more creative thought into how these spectacles are produced is needed for the audience to truly capture what was unfolding – and most crucially where. Similarly, the magnificent Kaskelot ship was a stunning sight but moored adjacent to the tacky fun fair looked incongruous and quite simply odd.
So to return to Pichilingi’s opening quote from October 2014, the results to some of those open-ended possibilities were near mindblowing; the music, the Baltic Stage in particular, the simply stellar conference, its setting and organisation plus a smattering of ideas which while not fully formed show blossoming buds of big, big promise, however, looking to the future, with this first seismic hurdle successfully navigated it’s where he and his team take us next which is perhaps the most wondrous of all – Liverpool Sound City 2016 could just be the one to truly blow our minds.
Top 15 of Liverpool Sound City 2015 (in no particular order)
Perhaps, along with The Flaming Lips, the greatest coup for Sound City 2015, and so Michael Gira‘s pulverisers proved with an astonishing 180 minutes of aural decimation. As we eluded to, their set was somewhat tempered in volume but it mattered little as wave after wave of metallic ambience obliterated the senses. For all the talk of loudness, it was in some of the finer details – Thor Harris‘ cello or percussive pipes, Gira’s miniature bell ringing or Christoph Hahn‘s gentle lap steel tremors – which proved what masters of their craft they are, with light shading against the relentless darkness. A monumental set from a monumental live outfit.
2. The Lytics
Our moment Sound City 2015 arrived. Around 7pm on Friday inside a packed Cavern tent, this energised Winnipeg collective brought lyrical firepower with a considered message which lit up the early evening’s proceedings. All who witnessed lapped it up and they were a name on many people’s lips come the close of the opening day.
3. The Flaming Lips
‘We don’t do support slots, it leaves more time for spectacle – our audience appreciate that,’ Wayne Coyne told the Titanic Hotel delegates on Friday afternoon, and so it proved the following night on the Atlantic Stage. Following tea at The Lobster Pot, a trip to The Cavern and Tate Liverpool, Coyne and his fearless freaks lit up the docks with a cosmic carnival including frog outfits, numerous confetti explosions, the characteristic giant hamster ball, an onstage wedding proposal, an inflatable Father Christmas, giant ‘Fuck Yeah Liverpool‘ metallic balloons and more. We’d have loved to hear more Soft Bulletin but you can’t have it all – and with Pompeii Am Gotterdamerung, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and a triumphant Do You Realize? it was a near-perfect festival set.
With the raft of guitar-orientated acts on offer it’s almost doubly satisfying to discover a fine pop act at Sound City and our brief interlude of chrome-polished bangers provided by London trio M.O. prove a treat. Blending UK garage beats, casual swagger and hooks a plenty they’re another festival find with closer Preach an anthem of the TLC variety in waiting. Later in the evening, Saturday’s future star is the pink-haired poppet FEMME; all tongue-in-cheek moves, deep bass pangs and glass-cutting beats. Well fun.
5. Garbanotas Bosistas
Perhaps our finest discovery of Sound City came with the festival’s sole representatives from Lithuania. Garbanotas Bosistas were prime pickings for a city smitten with colourful rock and roll – and here was a band enraptured with swirling guitar, mystical melodicism and kaleidoscopic pantaloons. Consider us their biggest fans.
6. R. Seiliog
Another Baltic Stage winner, R. Seiliog‘s cauldron of krautrock loops, heavily layered loops and propulsive percussion proved magnificently epic in the cavernous warehouse backdrop. Each track built on steady foundations of hyper-kinetic waves of dissonance before exploding into something colourful, exotic yet industrially heavy. More please.
7. Bad Breeding
Stevenage sledgehammers Bad Breeding provide one of the weekend’s genuine moments with 25 minutes of white-noise intensity. Their ‘Age of Nothing‘ message is as bleakly clear as it is ferociously life-affirming with the set culminating in the Baltic Stage transforming into a circle pit of bodies colliding around vocalist Christopher Dodd whose deadened eyes and drunken lunatic stagger serves to ramp up the mania. As the hiss dissipates and onlookers scooped up their jaw, Dodd merely staggers in his socks and knackered hoodie to the back of the warehouse zombie-like into the shadows.
Shaking off Friday night hangovers in the Australian BBQ-assisted Kraken Tent, Melbourne dynamo was another first-rate Sound City 2015 discovery. Able to mix the down-tempo minimal piano-led dusty beats of Blue Lines-era Massive Attack with the primal ferocity and on-stage power play of Young Fathers, Remi Kolawole was a talent we couldn’t wait to hear more of.
Astronomyy‘s lean cosmic lullabies enraptured a keening audience on Saturday afternoon reinforcing the belief that the Cargo Stage was the place to be. Melding spidery guitar licks with sparse electronica the Worcestershire trio dabbled in the kind of melancholia befitting The xx but ramped up proceedings with sky-scraping dramatic crescendos.
Another of our pre-festival tips proved a sensation. Perfectly positioned around tea-time Saturday as the blaze of the sun seeped through the dusty site, Patrick Alexander Bech-Madsen and his supporting duo of Danish instrumentalists segued languid sultry sizzling electronica which gently fizzed into a sweat-sodden crescendo as treated guitar bounced off frenetic live drumming. Both blistering and blissful.
11. Holy Holy
Australians Holy Holy kicked started a rapid-fire storm of awesome new music on Saturday exuding epic guitar ebbs married to gorgeous licks of melody and Timothy Carroll‘s beatific vocal. Imagine late era Floyd powering Van Occupanther Midlake and you’d understand our enthusiasm.
Taut, tense and ultra tight, Julie Campbell‘s Cavern Stage set on Saturday was an exercise in measured post-punk precision. Weaving a DFA-induced funk with steely Wire-like grooves she had the first four rows knee-wobbling in an instant and by the time she’d reeled off the bulk of new album Hinterland the rest of the tent followed suit.
13. Belle & Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian‘s headline slot was essentially an outpouring of mutual adoration, frontman Stuart Murdoch self-consciously suave as he dragged starry-eyed and screaming punters on stage to join him in his exuberant groove. From the sensitive low-key melodics of their early days to the rapturous pop of their early-noughties revival and even their modern electronic forays, almost every outing hit the mark, and they closed the Atlantic Stage for the year in as radiant a fashion as could be imagined – by Patrick Clarke.
In a headline-worthy set Glasgow duo Honeyblood delivered a high octane assault on the Sunday afternoon audience, breathing new life into those hungover heads with deep melodic hooks and infectious energy. The young pair may be fresh on the scene but there’s nothing green about their performance, tight as The Black Keys, with biting vocals worthy of Jenny Lewis or HAIM – by Emma Walsh.
15. Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Bringing their third LP Multi Love to the Baltic Stage, New Zealander’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra produced a masterclass in grooving psych-pop. Through tracks such as Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, they channeled the Motown spirit through a kaleidoscope of new sounds. With Rubén Nielson‘s warm, soulful vocals combined with vintage keys and pummelling rhythms, UMO brought disco vibes to the warehouse’s concrete dance floor – by Adam Lowerson.
Getintothis photography highlights from Liverpool Sound City 2015:
Getintothis‘ reporting and photography team for Liverpool Sound City 2015 was Patrick Clarke, Tom Konstantynowicz, Ste Knight, Adam Lowerson, Phil Morris, Emma Walsh, Matthew Wood, Tom Adam, Chris Flack, Michael Hegarty, Vicky Pearson, Martin Saleh, Jack Thompson and Martin Waters.