[EVENT RECAP] Culture Collide San Francisco: Day 2
Culture Collide SF involved itself with successful players in the local music industry micro-climate. SF Station, a lifestyle and events guide, hosted bands at Hipstamatic’s headquarters on day 2. Different Fur Studios, a busy recording studio in the Mission, presented the stage at the Elbo Room both nights. The studio also hosted a green room for artists where they could interact, relax and drink beer before their sets, and set up live recording sessions. At the Elbo Room merchandise table during the festival they were giving away limited edition tee shirts based on the covers of albums recorded at the studio over the years by artist Micheal Shantz.
I caught up with Different Fur’s studio manager Katie Kopacz to talk about her experiences with bands coming and going through her doors during the two day event. “It’s been really exciting having so many international bands in one place and seeing them interact. Having Dune Rats from Brisbane and having Alphabetics from Costa Rica and hearing about how they’ve all kind of heard about each other and seeing that mutual respect was pretty cool.” She continued on about the effect of globalization on the music world. “The internet is cool because it’s allowed us to discover music we would never find in our hometown, but at the same time it’s interesting that a band can have 45,000 fans on Facebook but come to the United States and play for a crowd that’s never heard of them before. I find that really beautiful and interesting and eye opening in so many different ways because their music could be popular here but we just haven’t had a chance to hear it yet.”
I set out for day two of the festival to listen to some music I hadn’t heard of.
POP STRANGERS (NZ/UK)
New Zealand natives Pop Strangers opened the festivities on Wednesday at Elbo Room. Having released two albums on Carpark Records, Antipodes and Fortuna, the London residents are perfecting their delivery of disjointed but extremely catchy brand of rock music. With a steady rhythm section complimented by distorted and often jarring guitar hooks, the band comes at you full steam with a succinct blend of 60’s psychedelia and 80’s alternative. Singer Joel Flyger’s vocals strain and echo around the room with the help of delay pedal effects; the result blends sincere and synthetic, giving the listener a glimpse of creative humanity with the feeling of tumbling down a robotic rabbit hole. Brief moments of calm would open up to a torrent of crashing symbols and feedback-laced tremolo guitar picking. The band stayed mum throughout the performance, methodically smashing through their set with many songs played back-to-back. A favorite song of mine was “Sandstorm”, the first off their latest release. “Something you said got lost in my head, that’s fine”, sings Joel, while plucking out melodic arpeggios in the style of fellow Kiwi expats Unknown Mortal Orchestra. “Sometimes I get the strangest of feelings”, and emotions were delightfully mixed in the presence of these Strangers.
LEVEL AND TYSON (NORWAY)
A more cheerful and less British disposition greeted me at The Chapel for Norway’s Level and Tyson, whose five members spread out across the large stage in front of a variety of string, wind and keyboard instruments. Leaking with enthusiasm the band cuts into air around you, splitting the sonic atom between poetry and noise. The expression and antics of lead singer Richard Noir make you feel like he should be committed to an institution reserved for the musically insane; he’d be a great bunk mate for the likes of Win Butler or Beck. The band delivers its full bodied sound with operatic aplomb, evoking the wall of sound experience of an Arcade Fire performance or Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Whimsical at times, their sound gives the listener the feeling of being lost in the Scandinavian wilderness, only to come across an enigmatic hermit who brings you into his cabin to show off an excellent record collection.
I chatted with the band outside of the venue after their set about the music scene in Norway. “It’s really small first and foremost”, said Richard, ” and you kind of have two sides. You have the pop side and the black metal side. There’s a little grey area in between, and that’s kind of where we fall.” Bassist Sofie Sæther chimed in: “even though it’s small, there’s a lot of great stuff in that strange noisy, pop-y area where you don’t know if it’s really nasty subculture or just about to be popular culture. Norwegians are good at that because it’s so dark and everyone’s depressed.” I asked about some other good bands from Oslo, and member Namra Saleem was wearing a tee shirt that everyone pointed to. “It’s Dark Times, a really cool punk band from Oslo. We always wanted [laughs] a bff band, and they’re some of our best friends.”
First to represent for the Bay Area local scene was San Francisco’s Wag, whose debut album No Worries was recorded at the lauded Tiny Telephone Studios just a few blocks from their set at Elbo Room. Their music is gaining steam, and live shows are increasingly appearing on the calenders of music lovers and industry players here. Their loud and sometimes angry offering of garage punk, laced with California surf sentiments, feels like a fresh trek down well-trodden ground. One of the best songs was “Shed”, where the band careens between hammering guitar solos and an all hands on deck vocal performance of “don’t shed no tears for me, cuz I ain’t been much of a friend.” The band kicked and thrashed through their high energy set, knocking mic stands over and falling into the crowd occasionally. Their heavy guitar sound came with plenty of fuzz, occasionally pecked with a the sustained feedback boomerang of a roughly bent string. The strained bawl of lead singer Lucas Nevrla stretched over the music like the tense skin of an inflatable balloon filled with flammable gas next to a lit match, waiting to burst and catalyze the explosive reaction at any moment. The tension and impeding disaster was viscerally tangible during the band’s emphatic performance.
I made my way up to The Chapel’s backstage balcony viewing area for Australia’s Gossling to get a better view and come perspective of their hypnotizing affects on the audience. Fronted by the ethereal timbre of singer Helen Croome, the band bathes in a ripple of dreamy and synthesized pop music. Their debut album, Harvest of Gold, is a well composed guided tour of Croome’s creative process, drifted from lush piano ballads to more concrete guitar hooks. The album was well received by critics, and several Culture Collide attendees I spoke with were eager to hear the band live. Croome started the set with a guitar in hand, strumming rhythmically and backed by Josh Jones on bass and Peter Marin on drums. A standout track was the swiftly moving “Challenge”, where she sings “I challenge you to show, you’re safe behind that masquerade / I challenge you to show, do you see all that you have made?” Croome is giving us the woman behind the mask, lifting the curtain on a a world of real deception and enigmatic songwriting. Rich with themes and layered in complex melodies, the songs boil down to a simple solution that sticks itself to the inside of your ear; I found myself dwelling on one phrase or line like the aria of classical music. Gossling was ephemeral and impacting, leaving an Alpenglow in the wake of their set.
Dutch two-piece Monokino performed next at the Elbo Room on constantly shifting sands. Plugged in and playing a variety of analog and digital instruments, the duo conjured up a witches brew of New Wave, synth pop and electronic shoegaze. Part Depeche Mode, MUSE and New Order, the band is signed to Modern Sky, the largest independent label out of China. If there was any band the personified the ideals of Culture Collide, it’s these guys: from Europe, signed to a label in China, performing in the U.S. and taking cues from artists across the cultural spectrum. Songs came through the ground below their feet, invoking the industrial goth dance party feel of electronic music before the EDM cult of personality took over. Ripe and unhinged, they moved back and forth from drum machines to live drums and keyboards to electric guitar, all awash with endless effects.
NERVOUS NELLIE (SWEDEN)
Sweden’s Nervous Nellie proved to be the most composed, mature and professional act of the festival. Taking their duties seriously, they effortlessly glided through a calculated set, never missing a note, beat or cue. Comparisons have been made to Phoenix, M83 and The Rolling Stones, and the band incorporates storytelling elements of Spoon and The Flaming Lips with the deceptively complicated structures of folk heroes like Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg. That latter aspect of the music is exemplified with “Meet Me In The Stars”, which incorporates Western European folk elements with a backbone of Americana and indie rock sentiments.
I spoke with brothers Magnus and Henrik Johnson as they were loading out after their set. “Swedes tend to be a little bit more introverted, they will probably not respond as well, yet they are very heartwarming. They don’t really show much emotion.” I asked where they like to play: “mainly actually more around Europe than back home, and we’re trying to make our way over to the U.S.” Their experience with Culture Collide and the crowds in America: “really nice, friendly, enthusiastic. A lot of enthusiastic people which is great. It’s been a lot of fun so far.” I asked for Swedish musicians to check out and about the music scene’s vitality: “other bands we like are Dungen and Lykke Li. Sweden has the best music scene, it’s a good place for bands to create, evolve and network.”
CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH (USA)
The headliner for day 2 of the festival, indie rock royalty Clap Your Hands Say Yeah took The Chapel’s stage to the excited cheers of a capacity crowd. Drawing from their catalog that includes four full length albums and nine years of touring and writing music, the band captured the audience’s attention with and energetic stage presence and loosened their joins with feverish bass & drum beats and syncopated guitar jabs. Their power over the movements of the crowd was apparent during “Satan Said Dance”, a wild and euphoric number that would fit the ritual sacrifice of future humans on Mars. When the opening distorted keys of “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” waffed over the room, the anticipation build to a fever pitch. Lead singer Alec Ounsworth’s croaky yowl echoed off the walls over succinct snare drums snaps and a meandering bass line. I spent every last joule of energy jumping around with the crowd near the front of the stage, and left the venue both exhausted and exalted.
San Francisco’s Culture Collide went off without a hitch, and gave music fans in the Bay access to literally a world of great music. Talking to bands from Europe, South America and Asia, you quickly realize that cultural differences pale in comparison to similarities, especially with a shared global tradition of popular music. Each band blends the homogeneous nature of mainstream music with the unique perspectives of individual musicians from different backgrounds and with different influences. I’m definitely looking forward to next year.