You don’t really expect sentimental surges like this from indie-rockers born in the 70s--you get it from emo-kids born in the 80s. But this past weekend in the Catskills was a different story: This long-awaited 3-day installment of ATP, curated by long-vanished shoegaze magnates My Bloody Valentine was like a tear in the expensive jeans of time--and fuck, those were our best jeans.
In any case, if we were going to allow ourselves to get all swept up in a tizzy over a collective indie-rock past that we’ve spent so much time gilding simply by forgetting (and yeah, that was a switch to first person plural you just felt there), the least we could do would be to do so in private. Thus, the site of ATP, Kutsher’s Country Club (a sprawling, dilapidated leisureplex positioned deep in the woods, 250 miles west of Boston, 1500 feet above sea level and [for our purposes] 16 years since the last MBV show) seemed appropriate, removed enough, as it was, from just about everything ever.
Oddly appropriate, too, seemed the nostalgia in the air--and not just due to Kutsher’s prevalent mildewy fust. A quick glance of the festval’s highlight acts (Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr., Mercury Rev, Mogwai, Tortoise, Bardo Pond, Shellac, MBV, to name a few) does more than just suggest the organizers are old enough to have several nieces and nephews each; and it represents more than just a ladle-full of college rock (remember that term?) that few have taken the time to manually transfer over to their iTunes; and it means more than a categorically non-shocking glimpse into MBV’s particular musical fancies.
As ATP staff dutifully (and insistently) handed out free earplugs to attendees, two things became clear: 1.) this music we were about to experience was the product of another era entirely--and if that sounds like a severe overstatement of how much time has elapsed since these bands’ respective heyday, it’s not and I’ll get to why in a minute. And 2.) MBV was most likely going to rape our ears with that ungodly 20-minute “holocaust” finale to “You Made Me Realise.” In short, we were saved and we were fucked.
Before I get into the music, let me offer some words on the venue itself. Kutsher’s is kind of amazing. A vast pleasuredome for Jews of yore on leave from New York, the place is at once completely tricked out (in a 1968 sort of way) and completely falling apart (in a 2068 sort of way).
A grand lobby greeted guests with a spread of dusty couches, grandiose oils and gauche fixtures. The rooms themselves were replete with gold accents, nauseous corals, sea foam greens and lavenders. It was as though the design scheme was scraped together from the remains of a detonated Golden Girl. Vast systems of hallways extended Shining-like into distant funky-smelling wings, some of which had been ravaged by fires and resultant sprinkler floods. At the far (admittedly forbidden) ends of these stretches, the floors softened underfoot, rotten sections of wall drooped limply, interiors of once serviceable rooms were splattered with dried black fluids. On one basement expedition, we found (by the light of our iPhones) a forgotten function room, slick with broad puddles of ancient water, piled high with superfluous blue chairs, and treacherous with old lighting fixtures dangling low by their cords like dead snakes. Some hallway walls were carpeted in faded stripes, others were carpeted in rich blue fur (as though someone had skinned a Muppet). Here and there, the floors were warped. Everywhere, the odor of mold.
Elsewhere on the grounds, a massive pool lay dry, sun-bleached and empty, protected by stubborn bushes. The adjacent lido, busy with grimy white chaises, dewy tents and overgrown with thick grass, buzzed with its own ghostly emptiness. A weedy putt-putt course languished in the shade of an ill-kept tree. A boarded-up ice arena hid a permanently thawed rink, a wall of forgotten snapshots, a room of rusty skates and a modestly-sized Zamboni, sleeping like a mammoth where some seats used to be. A squeaky playground sat on the far side of a pond off the main courtyard, the squealing of its witch’s hat audible from a row of vinyl chairs people had dragged to the water’s mucky edge.
It wasn’t all unfathomable wreckage, though. An indoor pool off the lobby attracted a steady stream of lanky, tatted cannonballers; a “futuristic” bar that overlooked its shallow end (defiantly named “The Deep End”) sported foxy red vinyl seats (good for extended indie-rock pub quizzes) and a roomy dance floor (good for the all-night dance parties). The grand hallways that connected the two main performance spaces were strewn with couches (which, in turn, were strewn with sleepers), and offered an array of amenities--from an arcade stocked with Tekken and Millipede (awesome), to a nook for air hockey and billiards (cool), to a women’s clothing boutique full of hideous shawls and slack purses the size of feed bags (scary), to a glass make-up counter staffed by a white-faced woman who has seemingly never used cold cream, ever (scariest).
At one end of the hall was the Stardust Club, a massive round auditorium painted with swirling galaxies and an unlikely quantity of comets, which served as the primary stage, outfitted as it was with a state-of-the-art sound and light systems. At the hall’s other end (and adjacent to an open air food court) was a dark squarish ballroom, which didn’t handle sound nearly as well and might better have been employed to house DJs and dance parties. Throughout the complex were bars. Lots of them. Each one well-stocked and reasonably priced-- a sure sign (along with the limited cuisine) that Brits were in charge.
Perhaps the most incongruous part of the Kutsher’s experience was its effect on those who spent three days there--and I don’t mean the rumored ‘Kutsher’s Syndrome’-- a fitful chest cold that lingered long after the hangovers vamoosed. Indie-rock people, thousands of them, were, in between Coronas, engaging in--get this--regular physical activity. Girls golfed, guys shot hoops, people swam laps, played shuffleboard, threw horseshoes, rolled bocce balls, rowed rowboats, and a Japanese contingency hogged the ping-pong table. Blogging isn’t really a physical activity, but everyone was doing that too. The near constant sunshine (but for 15 minutes of rain on Sunday), the highly focused leisure of the proceedings gave Kutsher’s a strange, far-removed and highly-debauched feeling-- like a Meatballs where big subwoofers were more important than big boobs; or a nudist camp where instead of nudity, everyone just had brazenly exposed 90s hangups.
If there was ever a setting to revisit and revive a sound that was as self-indulgent and satisfying as it was taken for granted in its heyday, Kutsher’s was it--and the ravages of time evident on so many of the Club’s facilities made the relative rustiness of many of the acts seem mild in comparison.
I have this theory (and I kind of hate myself for having it since it’s insultingly easy to arrive at) that 9/11 royally retarded the development of rock. (Kind of like how WWI derailed modernism--see Marjorie Perloff) It’s hard to ignore that the towering figures of excessively loud yet dreamy rock that so many of us eagerly sopped up through the '90s was ushered out so briskly and so handily replaced by stuff like dance music (or dance-music inspired non-dance music). It’s like the past 7 years have been all about regaining some semblance of safety or regularity-- the fundamental predictability of a DFA 12”, the shamefully tame natterings of bands like the Shins, the ceaseless and overt songiness of endless Peters, Bjorns, Johns, Reginas, Leslies, Conors. Chaos isn’t cool; our cravings for pummeling, transporting noise have been squelched by a scourge of catchiness.
In the absence of an explicit common thread to link together the disparate lineup represented at ATP NY, one uniting characteristic loomed: these were not bands at all concerned with crafting cutesy hooks, reviving anything they didn’t invent to begin with, or landing wispily flip pop-clips safely atop a Target ad. Each band was there not just for their respective streaks of innovation, but for their prioritizing of sound as a source of pleasure.
Whether it be new sensations like Fuck Buttons trashing the laissez-faire passivity so often associated to electronic music; stately elders like Mercury Rev extracting their drama almost entirely from volume (the remainder supplied by singer Jonathan Donahue’s glam histrionics); founding punk fathers (or daddies, as it were) like Bob Mould unleashing an unexpected barrage of chunky Hüsker Dü numbers; indie-pop progenitors like Built to Spill moving thousands to sing along with guitar solos instead of lyrics; highly efficient meta-formalists like Shellac hand-filing the teeth of each carefully picked (both senses) note; the explosively rapturous tantrums of (surprise highlights) Apse; or even the acrobatic turntablism and airtight battle rhymes of Edan--the issue of sound, and what it can do to a listener--that listener’s body--was primary. Like Kutsher’s itself, the bands at ATP NY represented a veritable world of wonders grown over with weeds, rendered sad with neglect--but all too ready to delight again, given a little attention.
If I had any lingering doubts about the importance of sound itself as a guiding principle for this fest’s aesthetic, they were duly shooed away like so many wealthy Jewish urbanites from their favorite summer hangout by My Bloody Valentine’s finale performance. If theirs wasn’t the best performance of the weekend (it wasn’t), it was at least the clearest crystallization of the shoegaze zeitgeist (and its influence) the weekend had to offer. Your mental image of Kevin and Bilinda wanly patting their guitars just like they did back in the day remains jarringly accurate; but the sound that came from it--a sound that didn’t just hit your gut, but filled and threatened it, that shook the very roots of your teeth and invisibly brushed the hairs on your arms, a sound that in its blinding, unknowable force grew indistinguishable from the drowning white lights--was unfamiliar in the way that things like death are. Hits obscured themselves in devastating vortices of howling guitars, treacherous bass swells, godless shrieks of feedback--even a quickie check of the kick drum between songs was havoc upon the body.
When “You Made Me Realize” finally surfaced from the set-list, it was like the last ceremony in a primal ritual. It didn’t feel important, it didn’t feel beautiful, it didn’t feel gimmicky, it didn’t feel gratuitous. It felt entirely unreal--and thus, felt like everything one could compare it to, all at once. Some people cowered, winced, held their plugs in tighter with their fists. Some raised their arms as though the sound were a cleansing blast of water, some took to the floors, wrapped hoodies around their heads, some laughed as though the abyss were actually kind of funny after all, some scowled as though disgusted by the petulance of it all, some people even made out. Many ran for the exits. Most stayed.
At the song’s (???) conclusion, the relative silence set in like the morning following a terrific disaster--and the house lights bathed the slowly departing mass in an appropriately aggressive golden light. Outside, it wasn’t the expected after-show afterglow--it looked more like the aftermath of a plane crash. A thick fog rolled across the pond, joining with the smoke of a hundred smokers. People looked fucked, bleary, confused. They stroked at their ears, held their faces in their hands, searched for survivors they recognized. What, their faces seemed to ask, could have been the purpose of what just happened? Perhaps if one cataclysm can set things wrong, another one could wrong it right.