Originally published on artshub.com.au

Last year there was a new kid on the festival block called Sugar Mountain. Unlike his older siblings Laneway and Big Day Out, who enjoy frolicking outside in the sunshine, the runt of the litter prefers to spend his time in the dark reading Vice, masturbating in front of a mirror and listening to obscure Japanese art rock.

While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s indicative of a personality half-made, an identity inferred from ThreeThousand and the notion that a backpack and an esoteric iPod equals cool.

And that’s one of the problems facing young Sugar Mountain Festival – identity crisis. To call Sugar Mountain a festival is as ambitious as its art component, which this year is spread throughout Melbourne (No Vacancy Gallery, ACMI, Fed Square), when in reality it’s a multi-act gig that utilises the space of the iconic Forum theatre.

In the inaugural 2011 endeavour, the mezzanine of the theatre hosted a particularly piss poor nod to ‘art’, which was tacked to a plywood panel as haphazardly as band posters in a teenager’s bedroom. This year a few fluffy clouds hung from the ceiling spewing steam. Where the wall of paintings and illustrations once stood was an additional stage (the Mess and Noise Stage), which lay claim to a tiny corner of the stairs’ landing.

While this was an inspired alternative to last year’s art display, without anything but fluffy clouds to look at it’s hard to get past the notion that not only is Sugar Mountain not particularly a festival, it’s also not a Music and Arts festival.

Yes, there is art in other sites around the city – and the lovely program they printed lets you know where these places are – but how likely is it that anyone who attended Sugar Mountain on Saturday is going to remember to check out the ‘rest’ of the ‘festival’?

Another alteration that reinforced the feeling you were just hitting a gig at the Forum was the later start time. In 2011 Sugar Mountain kicked off at around one, while this year the first band didn’t play until six. The dusk commencement made the first few acts akin to those you miss at larger festivals downing as many shots as possible before boarding a train.

And what greeted you when you finally rolled in the door as fashionably late as the punters were fashionable? John Maus, the aspergers afflicted (allegedly – by me) artist crippling his nipples, hammering his heart and vocally fucking a microphone. Giving a performance that my friend suggested was similar to “a house party attendee playing his favourite song and enjoying it times ten for everyone who wasn’t”, Maus was a combustion of activity. With a style comparable to Ian Curtis, he was perhaps the only person who wasn’t afraid, which is indeed a brave and noble thing.

It was through artists such as Maus that Sugar Mountain earned its artistic credibility. A Pitchfork darling, Maus attended art school with Ariel Pink and similarly stands outside of easy, categorical music. His act may have been an affront to my undeveloped understanding of music, but it’s impossible to resist the rapturous execution of an artist possessed by his performance. For that, no amount of unintelligible garbling can deny.

Such difficulty deciphering lyrics may not have been any fault of the artists. Poor mixing and sound engineering was the bane of many a band last Saturday, despite their obvious talent. Yet there was something far more detrimental to the day than any technical tribulation – the crowd – and that wasn’t entirely their fault either.

What makes a music festival an experience is the socialisation, of which there was none. This isn’t necessarily because everyone was a pretentious dickhead, though there were plenty who adhered to Alex Turner’s immortal observation that “all the weekend rockstars are in the bathroom practicing their lines”, but the Forum is simply a shit site for an extended event.

The rows of seating and the secretive booths, all staggered back from the stage, meant that the crowd could cower in the dark. Instead of common grassy ground, this dark segregation allowed too much seclusion and the spectacle became one you enjoyed solo. This was a disadvantage that left the dance floor desolate and debilitated.

That was until the No Lights No Lycra dancers descended, conveying a counterfeit sense of craziness to the crowd, who – when coaxed – willingly collaborated on the impromptu conga. Which would reiterate the aforementioned notion that they weren’t entirely anal and enamoured with themselves. But the dance troupe should’ve been employed for the entire night, because once their spell was cast it dispelled as easily as they did from the dance floor. The spectators returned to their stupor and Tune Yards took the amphitheatre.

Meanwhile, Straight Arrows played a set up at Mess and Noise that was characteristic of the Clash mixed with The Vines, which was deliriously exciting for one particular dude who should’ve somehow pulled a Michael Keaton from Multiplicity. In a perfect world his cavorting would’ve been communicable.

After Tune Yards, who smashed out a peculiarly potent set, a smaller dose of the upstairs derangement was delivered when Thee Oh Sees took the stage. One of the better known bands on the day’s bill, the San Franciscans arrived with two drum kits, and thumped the audience into a rare moment of merriment. Though this was unlikely due to the drumming duo of Mike Shoun and Lars Finberg, when one of them alone could’ve kept the beat. The inclusion of another kit was almost as indulgent as a writer unconcerned with word counts.

Still, Thee Oh Sees impressed with an incredibly tight set with highlights including ‘Enemy Destruct’ and ‘The Dream’, and although John Dwyer’s vocals were somewhat gnarled, their brand of post-punk surf infused art-rock was a crowd favourite and their performance was invigorating, especially guitarist Petey Dammit!’s

What made Dammit! a wonder to watch was his triumphant gusto, which Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier somehow managed to trump. If Thee Oh Sees had a drummer as talented, terrorising and tenacious as Saunier they wouldn’t need two. As a whole, Deerhoof displayed an ease on stage that’s no doubt developed from their 18-year career, and that comfort saw them captivate the crowd. All impeccable musicians, their only handicap was a surge of feedback, which Saunier mentioned when he took a break to thank festival Director Nicci Reid, and dedicate her a song.

Despite shortcomings in the venue, the suspicious aloofness of the crowd, exorbitant bar prices ($12.50 for Smirnoff!) and occasionally poor sound, Reid deserved her commendation. Bringing a bunch of critically acclaimed bands to our shores was no doubt a lengthy process, and though they may not satisfy all musical tastes, if you’re maniacal about music you’d realise the quality of the bill.

Neil Young wrote the song ‘Sugar Mountain’ when he was 19, on the cusp of adulthood, and the festival named in its honour is likewise adolescent – impetuous, a little bit awkward yet earnest, optimistic and promising.

Like most misunderstood teens who can restrain themselves from taking a 12-gauge to a tutorial, if Sugar Mountain works out who it is it could emerge from the Forum’s dark, follow its siblings into the sun and become the next Laneway.

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