Supersonic 2012

As a taxi driver told us earlier in the week, it’s called the Custard Factory because it used to be a custard factory” – Inspired by a talk by The Wire’s Frances Morgan at the start of the festival, Ian Maleney reviews Supersonic 2012,

On the Friday afternoon, before the Supersonic 2012 festival officially kicked off that evening, Frances Morgan, deputy editor of The Wire magazine, gave a short lecture as part of a panel talk called The Art Of Listening In. With her lecture she attempted to explore some of the difficulties involved in processing and expressing criticism of large-scale events like music festivals. Events like these take a much longer time to absorb (time not usually allowed in critical journalism) and reviews of these events inevitably fall prey to the fallible nature of memory and personal experience, much more so than a standard gig or record review. Whereas a one-off, standard live show is generally just about the performance and a brief experience, any review of a festival must take into account the overall lived experience of two or three days (and nights) of consistent musical activity and cultural exposure, including things like location, presentation, branding, food, travel, etc.

With that in mind, here’s a slightly different attempt at exploring and summing up the Supersonic 2012 experience. Handily, I’ve already picked my top acts of the festival over here, so there won’t be a whole lot of echoing going on in this. Rather, I’ll take a look at the festival experience in and around the music, the things that maybe have a less obvious (but no less powerful) effect on the festival as a whole.

Birmingham, as you’re probably aware, is a relatively bleak place. The super-industrialized heartbeat of the UK’s second most populous city has faded somewhat but the remnants of the industrial revolution are still there to be seen. 20th century additions to the architecture haven’t exactly lifted the gloomy veneer but part of what makes Supersonic so interesting is its ability to work with this less-than-idyllic framework to create a festival site that is both reflective of the city’s past and pointing the way towards a possible future. Located underneath the arches of a stunning redbrick bridge of imposing proportions, the festival takes place in a number of interlinked buildings in and around the Custard Factory. As a taxi driver told us earlier in the week, it’s called the Custard Factory because it used to be a custard factory. These days it provides a space for modern music and art, showing the usual signs of advanced regeneration in the form of studio spaces, performance spaces, bars, cafes and over-priced vintage clothes shops.

The main events take place in two warehouses converted into full-on venues for the weekend, with huge sound systems, visuals and bars. Boxxed is the smaller of the two and, perhaps because of this, it had consistently better sound than The Warehouse, its slightly larger comrade. These large, relatively open spaces allow acts (some of whom rarely get a chance to play on big stages) the room to fully explore the spectrum at whatever volume they so desire, making for some surprisingly immersive and expansive performances over the course of the weekend.

On a smaller scale, an old library and a small theatre space provided venues for more intimate performances, with the wild, high-ceiling acoustic in the library either washing bands out or allowing them welcome space to play with. The theatre was mostly for film screenings and talks, though some live performances did take place in there, including a stunning set from modular synth player and saxophonist, Thomas Ankersmit.

None of these spaces were very far away from each other, taking perhaps three minutes to get from Boxxed to the Old Library at opposite ends of the site, provided you didn’t get distracted by the vinyl rally, food court or ping-pong table on the way. Security were a constant presence at entrances to the site and individual venues and, for the most part, they went about their job in a helpful and understanding way. Where security at Irish festivals can range from disinterested to the downright mean, this particular group were a very positive presence throughout.

It probably helps that the general vibe of the festival is not exactly one of wanton abandon. The average age is quite high and many people having been coming to the festival for years, giving the place a sense of relative calm that sparkles with expectation and excitement. People, for the most part, seem to be here to listen.

And there is plenty to be listening to. Drawing generally on acts that tread the boundaries between noise, drone, rock and dance, Supersonic’s program is equally well able to cater for the Japanese noise nerd, the filthy rock crew and the blissful psych heads. Tim Hecker and Hype Williams are probably the biggest names on the bill in terms of crossover success, but it’s not like either of those make anything but weird and powerful music. Other big draws are Swedish music collective Goat, Kim Gordon‘s new project, Body/Head and Japanese noise legends Merzbow, Ruins and KK Null. Futher down the bill, names like Kevin Drumm, My Disco, Lichens and Rangda point to the diversity of the acts on show.

There is no separation between what could be called high and low art here, with the loudest, filthiest of Brummie rock (Drunk In Hell and Hey Collossus!) given the same space, time and attention as more high-minded performers like the aforementioned Ankersmit and Body/Head. Then there are the acts that straddle all sides, like Hype Williams or the Small But Hard crew who took over the Boxxed stage on the opening night. Hype and most of the SBH roster drew together club culture, post-modern art, noise and rhythm into an intense spectacle that attacked all senses at once.

An important feature of all the acts present, and perhaps one of the main threads linking them together, is the obvious – and in these days pertinent – lack of nostalgia. There is not a scrap of sentimentalism to be found on site as the program refuses to indulge in the safety of the past. This is such a refreshing stance at time when it seems like nearly every “alternative” festival has taken to booking reformed “classic” acts, with major events like Primavera, Electric Picnic and ATP at the centre of this utterly depressing trend. As these festivals continue to scrape the bottom of the barrel in their search for “cult” bands they can bring back to life so as to attract the older, money-spending audience they apparently need to stay sustainable, they reinforce the unfortunately retro and short-sighted outlook of the music industry in general today. The Supersonic line-up shows that there is no age limit on cutting-edge art, actively curating a program that highlights the links between today’s innovators and those who began their work decades ago and showing how new and old can always inspire each other.

Outside of the music, another welcome change is the lack of aggressive branding of any kind. Because of this, there is no disconnect between the acts you’re watching and the name of the tent/stage/festival they are performing at. There are no supposedly alternative, independent bands playing on stages paid for by the makers of over-priced sunglasses or major international beer companies forcing you to drink their product. What little business is present is all independent, most obviously in the wallet-emptying market place filled with the stalls of bands, indie record labels (of which Drag City is the most notable) and Supersonic merchandise, itself designed and made by local artists and producers. The food court, such as it were, has a couple of locals manning small vans, selling reasonably priced, tasty food. As far as I’m aware, there were no soggy chips. The bars are all brought in on spec for the festival and they stock only independent breweries. Again, they are not cheap, but they are no more expensive than a pub down the road would be. All simple things which contribute hugely to the feeling of the festival as a whole.

Looking back on it, there is very little wrong with the festival. Sure, I’d have liked it to be warmer and there were a few annoying clashes on the timetable, but that’s not something anyone can really control. Did I enjoy every act I saw over the weekend? Of course not. Does that matter? Of course not. With a festival as open to risk and experimentation as Supersonic, not everything is going to work for everybody. What’s important is that the chance to explore stimulating territory and find new sounds to love is there and that is the central tenet of the Supersonic experience. Ten years of doing it means that the team behind the festival know exactly what they’re doing.

Listening to Lisa Meyer, co-founder of the festival, talk on the Friday afternoon about cross-platform art collaborations, she said that Supersonic simply could not happen in the way that it does without the extensive support of government funding and local business. The festival gives back too, injecting a serious wad of cash back into Birmingham over the weekend, as well as forming mutually beneficial relationships with local businesses and arts groups that extend throughout the year. It gets the funding it does because anyone can see the positive effect the festival has on the city and what it does for perception of the city’s cultural life. And, importantly for the people travelling to it, Supersonic provides a template that other cities and other groups can follow and shape to their own particular needs and challenges, if given the support they need to make it all happen. Refreshing, challenging, thought-provoking and a whole lot of fun, Supersonic 2012 was the best festival I’ve attended in a long time. Ten more years of this please.

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