“If you see me at ArcTanGent this weekend – remind me that I hate camping and festivals and to never do it again. Thanks”
That was my Facebook status update on August 14, 2019. Three days later and my mind was changed completely. . . About one of those things.
I’m an anxious person. I will spend weeks before events, or situations with the potential for massive amounts of fuck-ups (on my part, of course), playing out every possible way in which things that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Festivals are breeding grounds for this type of anxiety – Will I lose my tent? Will I lose my friends? How much food should I take? I have £0 in my account; how will I eat when I inevitably run out of supplies on the first day? Is it acceptable to revert to cannibalism at that stage? How will I do that if I’ve lost all my friends?
To add to these constant brain-pricking thoughts, I knew I had to interview Lucinda and Conor of Cultdreams and Alexis of Daughters on the first day. I’ve never done a face to face interview before in my life and I’m set to do two with musicians I greatly admire. Well. Shit. . .
Most of my friends go to ArcTanGent every year. A fair few of them have played it. Many did this year too. Their reassurances to me that the fest is small and friendly and the actual greatest gathering in the world don’t really help.
They can’t. That’s how my brain works. I need to go and do it for myself and face up to everything that’s haunting me about what is, essentially, hanging out with people I love, listening to music I adore, and getting to chat to interesting musicians about their art. . .
And so we set off at 9:30 am sharp on Thursday. It has to be early because A) There’s no way I’m missing Cultdreams and B) I’m really very awful at putting up a tent. And I’m fully aware that B is extremely likely to have a hard impact on A.
Sure enough, tent wrangling takes up an inordinate amount of the morning. Could have something to do with the air mattress I have… which is a queen-size, takes up the whole of a 4-person tent (wall to wall and floor to ceiling) and takes nearly a day to inflate.
BUT, I make it to Cultdreams. I do. Right up on the barrier.
Lucinda will later tell me that such a short stage-time means they put together a “bangers” set, and that is as accurate a description as I can think of. It’s angry, emotional and anthemic. By the second song, an appreciative crowd has gathered; and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just me who took the choruses of ‘We Never Rest’ as a chance to kick off the festival with a cathartic singalong.
The band tells us to leg it across the site as quickly as we can after their set to catch ITHACA. That was always my plan: The Language of Injury is one of my albums of the year and I will never pass up a chance to see them tear up a stage.
The tent is already packed when I get there. The sound is huge and tight and vicious.
I love this band. I love what they stand for. I love the music they make. I love how dedicated to being themselves they are. I love that they make me feel less alone in being a non-binary musician in the heavy music scene.
I make my way to the front for the final song – ‘Impulse Crush’ – because I’m pretty sure I know what’s going to happen. Sure enough, confetti canons are produced and detonated as the song kicks in. It’s a beautifully uplifting moment that somehow makes the festival feel so much like a community.
I desperately pull my camera out and try to fire off a few shots, but I’m more dedicated to enjoying the moment. All the photos I get are completely unusable, but. . . am I starting to enjoy festivals. . . ?
Still on a high I wander to the next tent. Cocaine Piss are doing a violently, beautifully abrasive thing. The guitar tone is disgusting. I love it. They look like they’re having the time of their life. So does everyone gathered to witness it.
By this time however, I’ve remembered that I’m interviewing Cultdreams very soon and there’s not enough space in my brain for everything that’s happening.I take a breather. Have a beer. Prepare myself for Pigsx7.
One of the people I’m with is the biggest Pigs fan I’ve ever met. For my part, I’ve done the thing I’m prone to do where the more I hear a band talked about, the more I’m told that I absolutely MUST listen to them, the less likely I am to put their music anywhere near my ears.
I haven’t heard a note of Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs’ music.
It feels like this is the right time and place to do so.
It’s clear that Pigs. . . are built for festivals. Riff after riff after riff pours forth from the stage. They’re huge. Some of them are dumb. Most of them cause involuntary riff face.
You’re supposed to be chucking beer down your parched festival throat and turning to your friends to do riff face at them, aren’t you? That’s the point? It works.
But I have to leave to talk to Cultdreams. And I need to stop being incited to drink beer before that happens.
Lucinda and Conor of Cultdreams are two of the most open, friendly and enthusiastic people you could hope to have for your first interviewees. Hell, that you could hope to ever meet. I was told they would be. My anxiety wasn’t listening. More about our conversation elsewhere.
I head back to the festival cursing the fact I won’t be able to listen to their new album, Things That Hurt, until Sunday evening. And that’s when it actually happens.
I lose everyone.
My phone is dead, but that makes absolutely no difference at ArcTanGent, because signal doesn’t exist here. Except for in one specific portaloo. But I won’t discover that particular Narnia until Friday.
The site is small. So small I bump into the same friends about 50 times during the course of just Thursday. Only not the ones I’m looking for right now. It should be so easy to find them.
I catch snippets of Conjurer (brutal as ever); I manage to totally miss Mol because I have no concept of what time it is, or who is on when, anymore.
Then finally, FINALLY, I see him! Andy! I was looking for a shaved head. He’d donned a pink cap – something even easier to spot than the thing I was looking for.
We watch a little of a band with a lot of time-signature changes who cannot stick to a good groove for more than 3 to 5 seconds. We decide it is “Not for Us” and make our way to find a spot for Andy and Alex to watch Zeal & Ardor.
I’ll be leaving soon to interview Alexis from Daughters. I’m so nervous about this that I can’t really get into the five minutes of Z&A that I get to catch. The sound is undeniably powerful, and it reminds me of something else that I’m just not quite able to grasp. But I have to go.
Alexis Marshall has arrived fresh from a flight and been shepherded straight to the press barn for interviews. He’s rightfully exhausted and we joke that we could both sack the whole thing off and get some rest. I think we’re both only half joking.
Despite this he’s affable and warm, and I get to ask him about things I’ve been mulling over since I first heard You Won’t Get What You Want. He answers with openness and candour and I’m grateful that I get to spend a while talking to him.
I manage to find everyone first time and head to take in Raketkanon. Raketkanon know what a groove is. And they know that they should employ it in every single song.
The only thing I know by them is ‘Ricky’, but that’s OK because most of their songs sound a lot like ‘Ricky’. This isn’t a bad thing. The riff face makes an appearance again. I also adopt a whole-body head nod.
I’m so relieved that the interviews are finished and have gone well that I think I might actually be relaxing. Is this what it’s like to have fun at a festival? It might just be.
A break is taken for food and drinks as I prepare myself for Daughters. I wonder how they’ll translate the energy and visceral nature of their show to a festival tent. I asked Alexis this question earlier and he assured me that they will just do what they do.
He’s not wrong.
Daughters are as overpowering in this environment as they are in a sweaty club. Waves of noise are propelled by slabs of percussion, as Alexis barks apocalyptic prophecies, held aloft by the crowd. It’s mesmerising and perfect and the exact opposite of Coheed and Cambria, who I do my best to watch next.
(As a side note – halfway through I get a surprise hug and chat with Joe Naan of Nuclear Blast records, who I’ve only ever talked to before on Twitter. It’s this kind of thing – randomly and regularly bumping into friends and acquaintances every five minutes – that makes ArcTanGent feel less like a festival and so much like a community and a massive hangout with all your favourite people.)
Coheed are tight as hell and Claudio’s voice is extremely impressive. Those are probably the nicest things I can say.
I realise about ten minutes in that there was a good reason I stopped following the band around the time of Good Apollo. . . They are not for me.
I also realise about this time that they’re not going to play ‘Welcome Home’ until the end of their set. As this grim realisation sinks in, I start to think that maybe I like lounging on a queen-size air mattress more than I like hokey, sub-Terminator visuals.
They are undoubtedly a worthy festival headliner though, and when I do finally hear the bombastic riffs of ‘Welcome Home’ float over the still evening air towards my tent, I’m reminded of why I was ever into them.
I drift off to the sounds of the people in the tent behind me practising their Arnold Schwarzenegger and Muppets impressions over and over and over and over.
As one of the group says to the other “Wow, just how many voices CAN you do?”, I zip my sleeping bag up over my head and look forward to the inevitable trip to the inevitably destroyed toilets at 4 am.
(Turns out ArcTanGent toilets are award winningly sanitary. I feel this is worth mentioning. Whatever time of day I visit they are, by festival toilet standards, pristine. So pristine that for a moment I consider drinking the abandoned plastic bottle full of moonshine I find in there in the middle of the night.)
I’d heard that today was due to be a little inclement. If you were at ArcTanGent, you know that is an understatement.
I wake early to the sound of water on canvas. My soul drains from my body. Aaaah yes, THIS is why I hate camping and festivals.
Cowering in my tent and hoping it will pass is not an option. A.A. Williams opens the second day at 11 am and there’s not a single chance that I’m going to miss her. The rain is already being forced sideways into my face by the time she takes the stage. It seems I’m not alone in facing up to the elements to make sure I catch her brooding melancholia either. The tent fills quickly, and the crowd is silent and reverent throughout, apart from rapturous applause at the end of each song.
More dynamic and much heavier than on record, (a record I absolutely adore by the way), A.A. Williams turns out to be the perfect soundtrack to the gathering storm. Her voice effortlessly soaring to meet the swollen clouds outside. It’s perhaps my favourite set of the weekend and headline tours are surely not too far away.
The site has not yet turned into the fetid swamp it is soon to become, so the dash across to the new bar stage to catch my friend Ben Harris performing as Ogives isn’t as arduous as it will be by the end of the day.
I tell the people I’m with to expect some dextrous finger tapping and looping. I end up sounding like a liar.
Ben has decided to cross his Ogives material with the chopped and screwed electronics of his Rainbow Slicer project this morning and we’re met with a barrage of expertly deployed and utterly disgusting distorted beats. A horrible wake-up call in the best possible way.
I’m so giddy about seeing Slow Crush next that I’ve almost forgotten about the rain.
The icy, biting rain. The rain that’s needling my cheeks even underneath a tent and with the hood of my poncho pulled up.
I open a tin of G&T and try to ignore it. Slow Crush definitely help with that. Or perhaps make it seem like an integral part of their show? Watching the rain turn heavier and heavier out of the corner of my eye whilst being overcome by waves of distortion, reverb and one of the thickest, crunchiest bass tones I’ve ever heard, is a pretty spectacular sensory experience.
I’d only heard the band for the first time when putting together my ATG preview piece and after this performance I’ll be following them closely from now on.
At this point things start to fall apart.
I head back to my tent for food and discover it’s started to take in water. A very familiar story across the site, I’m well aware.
Friends under canvas next to me have it much worse. The centre of their tent is leaking, and their only course of action is to hang an umbrella upside down from the middle to catch the water. . . which ends up becoming a treacherous, sloshing, pendulum.
Also, my camera is dead. I guess I won’t be taking those crowd shots I promised E&D, or the portrait shots I’ve mentioned to several bands.
I’ve missed so much by this point.
I gingerly unzip the door of my tent and realise that my loaned poncho is no match for the downpour. I’m soaking. I’m cold. I’m defeated. I’m nearly out of beer. I zip the tent back up and crawl onto the bed.
Fucking camping. Fucking festivals!
I’m woken by the ache of a straining bladder. I try my best to ignore it. It’s impossible. It’s poncho time again.
It’s at this point I discover that, not only are the ArcTanGent toilets award winning, they also have the best signal of the campsite. I take the opportunity to immediately WhatsApp my entire contact list to tell them what an awful time I’m having, to message Charlie and tell them not to expect anything too special from my reporting (I’m all about managing expectations) and Instagram my photos from Thursday. All perfectly valid uses of my time, remaining battery and a portaloo.
Hannah turns up shortly after with more food, drinks and pep. I start to feel bad for having given in earlier.
I also have the words of James King (friend, band mate, sound engineer, prog enthusiast) ringing in my ears – “Don’t fucking miss Zu.” So I make sure that I do not fucking miss Zu.
Zu are incredible. The combination of baritone sax, drums, gnarly bass and a dedication to a head-nodding groove is the perfect way to break the funk brought on by the weather. I look around a few times to see that riff face has infected pretty much the whole audience.
James has come to the site just for Zu. He’s driving home immediately after.
I’ll admit to a small pang of jealousy, but my friends are all utterly uplifted by Zu’s skronk; and I think to myself that maybe being here with them in a well-catered bog is, perhaps, maybe better than a warm home and a cosy bed. Just.
The tent is already packed by the time I crawl my way over for Russian Circles. Rightfully a huge draw, it seems that momentum, and perhaps the entire set, will be lost just moments in when Mike Sullivan’s guitar goes silent. The band plays on for a while, but soon arms are thrown up in apparent defeat as efforts to remedy the issue prove unsuccessful. Until, all of a sudden, they aren’t? A huge cheer goes up as power is restored and the post-metal trio don’t waste a second in picking up where they left off, as if nothing at all had happened.
We’re getting battered by the incessant rain at the very edge of the tent however, so we make our way to the bar stage to watch in relative warmth and dryness.
“Is this gonna be thrash then?” the person serving me asks.
“Is what going to be thrash?”
“This band that’s setting up now. Is it gonna be thrash metal? I really hope it’s thrash metal. It’s been really sleepy stuff so far and I could do with hearing some thrash!”
“I. . .uh. . .it’s not likely to be. . .”
They shake their clenched fists at the stage.
The next band starts. It is not thrash metal.
I can’t bear to see the look of disappointment on their face, so I brave the torrents in search of food and those open urinal things, which I can’t stand, but. . . no queues. Only – no torrents. Not a drop. I’d almost forgotten what no rain felt like. Like absolute bliss, it turns out.
It’s in this state of pure euphoria that I take my place for Battles. It doesn’t last long.
I’ve seen Battles twice before. Once very early on in their life as a band and then at Pitchfork Paris in 2015. They’d lost a member between those two performances, but seemed to have lost nothing as a band.
Tonight feels different. Down to a two-piece, things seem stilted and awkward from the start. Drummer John Stanier is giving his all, as always – sticking it to that cymbal placed just within his reach – and Ian Williams is doing his very best to cover all the bases left open by departed band mates; but it’s just not connecting. Not for me anyway.
On Saturday I’ll overhear people discussing how incredible they were and what a mind-blowing performance it was, but I just can’t correlate that with what I saw. But that’s the thing about festivals I suppose – everyone’s experience is going to be so different from the next person. Depending on who you saw, who you were with, what you took. . .
When I run into my friend Jamie on Saturday for the 100th time of the weekend he’ll tell me that he discovered his boot had a hole in it and he’d literally been walking in mud all of Friday. That would probably have stuck me in the pit of a foul mood for the rest of the weekend. He was still grinning his effusive grin as he told the tale.
Battles weren’t the perfect closing band for me. But that’s OK. I’d woken up and been awestruck by A.A. Williams, so my day was already made – despite the weather, despite the midday slump, despite trying to get to sleep again to an endless refrain of “GET TO DA CHOPPAH!”
I knew Saturday was to open with a trio of Bristol bands (Sugar Horse, Ogives Big Band and St. Pierre Snake Invasion) and I knew I was going to bump into friendly faces at every corner.
My phone and camera were dead, and all my clothes were soaked and stinking, but the weather was supposed to take a turn for the better. And maybe I didn’t care anymore if it didn’t. OK, so maybe it’s going too far to say that I love festivals now; but I definitely fell in love with this one.
Camping is still the total pits though.