Around 1998, when my music tastes were turning towards the wider world, electronic music was captivating my consciousness. When you’re a 16 year old, your music collection is about as subtle as a Thunderdome compilation but interesting stuff was creeping in: Squarepusher, Boards Of Canada, Aphex Twin, LFO, anything on Warp basically and Rephlex Records. What was cringingly called IDM largely by North Americans (even though they practically invented all the important genres of dance music like house, techno and electro) did it for me and still does.
Barcelona’s Sonar Festival had started to intrigue me shortly after that. Billed as a “festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art,” it appealed to me as someone who started a course in multimedia programming and its artist selection was impeccable in terms of electronic music. From 2000 to 2005, the years I kept an eye on it from afar, it hosted the likes of Death In Vegas, Bjork, Plaid, Aphex Twin, Underworld, Massive Attack, LCD Soundsystem, DJ/Rupture and Roisin Murphy. Even the website was ahead of the curve in terms of its layout and live streams. Their annual compilations around that time were also great sources of musical discovery (they even got Maradona to do an ad in 2002).
Despite my interest, it took me until 2012 to make it to the festival courtesy of Red Bull who hosted a stage at the festival and who are also responsible for the best music initiative by a brand, the Red Bull Music Academy. I’d heard all about beach parties, off-site anti-Sonar parties, big warehouses, the respective Day & Night programmes in different locations etc, so it was great to actually get to experience Sonar finally.
Sonar By Day
Sonar By Day takes place in the city’s old town in Raval near the central street La Rambas. There’s a large square which houses the main stage and some of the other performances take place in the CCCB, the centre for contemporary culture of Barcelona, which also houses a exhibition space, a Music Hack day and a cinema.
Most people at the main stage were content to chill out and take in the sun, which maybe explains why the stage was never really the main focus of most people there (though I wasn’t present on the first day of the festival and missed the Brainfeeder showcase as a result). Highlights of Friday and Saturday main stage during Daytime included Jacques Greene playing a live all-synth hardware set facing his on-stage musical partner Ango which culminated in a version of ‘Strings Of Life’, Austra who were as animated as ever but suffered from poor sound (a problem which plagued the main stage) and led me to a mind wander about continental habits prompted by a guy who had a wedge of Gouda cheese to nibble in the crowd. Darkside, Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s minimal disco-funk project really suited the laid back 30 degree sunny atmosphere on the Saturday.
The biggest draw during the day this year in terms of consistency was the Red Bull Music Academy SónarDôme which is a marquee tent around the back of the festival site. The lineup was largely taken from Red Bull Music Academy ex-participants in previous years like Doc Daneeka, Om Unit, Nightwave, Nina Kraviz, XXXY, Salva, Jesse Boykins III which is a pretty impressive alumni.
Slovenian born Maya Medvesek has been to Sonar four times but this is the first time she’s played the festival. As a producer, DJ and vocalist she goes under the name Nightwave. She’s been based in London for ten years but her dad got her interested in production at an early age (he was in a Slovenian pop group called Gu Gu) . Her DJ set at Red Bull Music Academy SónarDôme was a head-turner, taking in banging juke tracks to rap, house (‘Percolator’) , Seiji’s ‘Face Up’, R&B, a couple of Rustie tracks and more.
“Future garage is a pet hate of mine. Ummm, It’s not been made yet… It’s in the future. You idiot.” – Nightwave.
Most recently, Nightwave provided vocals on Rustie’s radio edit of ‘Surph’ and she says there’s more to come from the pair on that front.
From Nightwave’s banging set to the bottom floor of the contemporary art building where John Paul Jones, yes, him out of Led Zeppelin could be found collaborated with a Norwegian experimentalist group Supersilent. Waves of synth noise and low low bass notes in a sparse and experimental fashion were heaved out onto to crowd, prompting only one reaction… “who has time for this shit?”.
Further into the recesses of the building and a cavernous exhibition space is found where multimedia audio based projects reign and nerdy dudes make idiosyncratic synths for a €38 euro privilege. The highlight of this dark, deep trip was watching five automated robots getting their groove on mechanically by playing Kraftwerk’s ‘The Robots’. It was hard not to be impressed by the artistry of it all.
My third time seeing Fly Lo live and it was a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere at the Red Bull Music Academy SónarDôme than previous outings. Stephen Ellison is clearly a bit of a don in electronic music, much revered. The last of two shows at Sonar sees him play a hybrid DJ/live set with tracks taken from his own discography mixed in with zeitgeisty stuff like Clams Casino, TNGHT, Lil Wayne and ‘N***s In Paris’ in chopped and screwed form. Fly Lo live is always a fun experience. He stuck around all weekend soaking it up and forming his own opinions on proceedings:
Too much robot music at sonar this year.
— Flying Lotus (@flyinglotus) June 16, 2012
Hailing from Chicago but now NY-based, Bill Salas specialises in club tunes and his set had bodies popping all over the place at SonarDôme via a bombastic fun mix of tracks which all hit heavy with bass and included ‘Pump Up The Jam’, Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’, Daft Punk and more.
“I had a good time tonight.It’s about the music. It’s not a summer break. The people in Barcelona are very receptive to this kind of music. Primavera is a bit more populist and has cool shit but this is more experimental.”
Brenmar, along with Nightwave is an Red Bull Music Academy graduate (A tip for entrants? “It’s all about the application form and showing that your honest, sincere and enthusiastic.”) who says really got into collaborating there. It’s a skill he’s put to good use with recent productions for Nina Sky, Zebra Kats, Javeon McCarthy and his excellent collab with cross dressing performance artist and rapper Mykki Blanco ‘Wavvy’. Incidentally, both Brenmar and Nguzunguzu expressed interest in producing tracks for Ciara. Make it happen world.
“I wanted to make a club track for Mykke. We wanted to make a tune that’s bigger than the labels that have been applied to him positively or negatively.”
Sonar By Night
If Sonar By Day is a playground, then Sonar By Night is Disneyland. It’s the kind of thing that has to be seen to be believed. A gigantic warehouse/hangar/trade show structure one long and wide indoor space that looks like it would hold 50,000 people alone with two outdoor stages that rival the size of main stages at most festival. In between, there are bumper cars with an international DJ playing to those brave enough (or off their heads enough) to hang out on the perimeter of the bumper car track.
The lineup is a mixed bag: Deadmau5’s show is impressive in scale but dull in texture yet it brings in the punters, Amon Tobin’s Isam show loses its impact in the massive hall, Lana Del Rey was playing the wrong festival pretty much, Friendly Fires did what they do best, The Roots lost me during a jazzy meandering set when they played ‘Sweet Child Of Mine’, Die Antwoord were fun for all the ten minutes I saw of them; it will work well in the Academy in Dublin next month no doubt. James Blake got to see what it felt like to DJ on a main stage with his every CDJ move scrutinised by the Sonar video screens so it felt a bit #stadiumstep. His set went hard on early DMZ dubstep so it was fun. Modeselektor did their greatest hits thing, as they did at Forbidden Fruit a few weeks earlier.
Joined by Dave Harrington live as he was the next day for Darkside, Jaar’s live show relies on subtle changes in his tracks to keep things moving. On record, it can be a bit abstract but in front of what felt like 4,000 people at Sonar by Night, it was deep and widescreen. Jaar’s tracks can have an acid jazz tinge to them which works because the palette is kept muted and the beats are keeping the focus on your feet. I’m glad I picked this set; it was full on audio escapism.
I’d never seen Metronomy live before but heard they were a bit more muscular than their recordings suggested. Well, it really worked at Sonar By Night, songs from The English Riveria album formed the bulk of the set (naturally) and were positively danceable and even a little bit rave. While they were one of the few “guitar bands” performing at Sonar (singer Joseph Mount jokingly called the instrument slung around his waist “the enemy of progress”), they lined up at a similar time slot to New Order and in that regard they continue the tradition of English indie-dance bands.
It’s almost too easy to dismiss Hot Chip at this point. They release great singles and decent albums generally but live, is where they excel. Watching them play on Saturday, I realised I haven’t seen this band play live since Electric Picnic 2005. How did that happen? Well I’m in the enviable and minor position of telling you that the band live are much better live these days but you probably knew that.
Hot Chip members are currently in a pretty fruitful period with a new album In Our Heads and side projects including The Two Bears, Joe Goddard’s solo stuff, About Group and New Build. That’s some considerable music making in the last year alone and that talent and sense hits headstrong into their live set. Each band member was assured in their role. Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard, Felix Martin, Al Doyle and Owen Clarke were joined on stage by Rob Smoughton on every other instrument and the excellent Sarah Jones, of New Young Pony Club on drums. The setlist reads like a greatest hits at this point: ‘Boy From School’, ‘One Life Stand’,’Over and Over’ ‘I Feel Better’ and ‘Hold On’. New album songs ‘Don’t Deny Your Heart’ and ‘Flutes’ in particular will be up there once the album sinks in. ‘Ready For The Floor’ even segued into Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere’. What more do you want?
So Sonar 2012 overall was a great experience. I had underestimated the scale of Sonar By Night, it really is a bit mindblowing. I sadly missed John Talabot and Squarepusher but will see the former this weekend. Musically, if we’re talking trends, traditional house and techno were staples, juke and footwork tracks were common and reflecting the lack of segmentation of genres in dance music, all of it was mixed together in most sets. The high energy club-based rap hybrid played by the likes of Nguzunguzu, the LuckyMe crew and brought mainstream by tracks like ‘Mercy’ is becoming more prevalent. It’s a lot of fun to dance to as well. Commercial dance was represented by Fatboy Slim and Deadmau5 but give me Skrillex any day, at least his show is hyper fun, not just endless buildups and breakdowns. Dubstep was confined to the Hyperdub showcase and James Blake’s DJ set, there was no aggressive “IDM version” to be heard thankfully.
More sets from Sonar at http://redbullmusicacademyradio.com.