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Things Learned At: Pop-Kultur Festival
Daniel Dylan Wray , September 3rd, 2018 15:09

Karen Gwyer’s amazing beer-cellar tour, the thrill of Shortparis and the fine flow of Flohio sit alongside Brexit and boycotts at the Berlin festival

Flohio photo by Janto Djassi

In the months leading up to this year’s Pop-Kultur, Nadine Shah, Richard Dawson, Shopping, Gwenno and John Maus all cancelled their performances as the festival became a boycott target for the international BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Network and PACBI (Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel). Pop-Kultur this year received €1,200 (and €500 in 2017) from the Cultural Department of the Israeli Embassy towards the travel costs of Israeli artists performing at the festival, and that is what prompted the boycott.

The festival maintains their stance on the issue: “We believe that discourse and dialogue are the only means through which to deal with conflicts in this world. We as cultural workers have a special responsibility for establishing networks across borders, even when we disagree.”

That discourse and dialogue ran throughout the festival, including a panel discussion about the power of boycotts and a performance from Noga Erez, an Israeli artist who has criticised the Israeli government in her songs and in the press.

Losing a chunk of its bill and getting embroiled in a public and divisive issue doesn’t feel like a great situation for Pop-Kultur to be in, but they continue to push the festival forward in other areas. From gender-neutral toilets to sign language interpreters at talks and gigs to raising money for refugees, Pop-Kultur seems intent on being a progressive force and pushing conversations forward. The vast, eclectic and challenging line-up reflects this approach, too. There’s a lot to learn at this year’s Pop-Kultur.

The contradictions of Shortparis are truly thrilling
Alongside Shortparis’s jumping accordion parts are landmine-blasts of electronic drums that trigger alongside the clatter of real ones as electronics gurgle and spit before a shaven-headed frontman appears and begins to sing a sensual, exuberant falsetto.

The set ricochets between intense post-punk, heavy industrial-tinged throbs, theatrical pop and the avant-garde. It’s like DAF into Liars into the Associates into Sparks. Hips swing and thrust in lusty motions as though the mic stand is a strip pole, while heavy squelches of electronics erupt in erratic ways. During one song there is a guitar part so crude and obnoxious it feels like it was created to destroy the rest of the song, but it makes perfect sense in the moment.

The band are explosive contradiction after explosive contradiction, and they are beyond exciting to watch. There’s a choreographed almost vogue-like dance section in which singer Nikolay Komiagin and drummer Danila Kholodkov enter the audience to move powerfully and gracefully, yet minutes later they are thrashing away against grinding, combusting beats without a modicum of elegance in their movements, moving as if possessed.

Shortparis are one of those bands that in the wrong hands would be an absolute building-collapse disaster but, gripped tightly by their own sense of self, they are an utterly captivating creation. They’re a sort of living, breathing non-stop erotic cabaret.

It’s not difficult to programme a festival filled with women
Big promoters such as Festival Republic (Leeds and Reading, Wireless, Latitude, Download) have come under fire for years about the woeful lack of women on their bills. Despite creating an initiative to address imbalances, Festival Republic boss Melvin Benn still opposes 50/50 bills and won’t be joining the other 45 festivals that have signed up to reach this split by 2020. At Pop-Kultur, in contrast, the line-up this year is close to 60% women. The result is overwhelming proof that those wary of quotas are either lacking musical knowledge and imagination or perhaps just sitting behind unshakable prejudice.

Anna Von Hausswolff’s current live incarnation finds her band sounding somewhere between the Bad Seeds and Swans. For much of the show she stands behind keyboards, throwing her hair around in a frenzied blur and arching her head back, and then she unleashes the tidal wave that is her voice. During a brooding, droning and ever-building version of ‘The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra’, she manages to get a tone from an acoustic guitar that is so distorted and gruesome and deliciously crunchy that it sounds like she’s playing through blown PA speakers. Chelsea Wolfe also manages to push the limits of the sound system with a set that unfurls punishing sludgy riff after punishing sludgy riff, all soaked in a doom-tinged air of gothic splendour. Noga Erez’s beats can be as light and fizzy as they are intense and brutal and via her unique vocal delivery that shifts between speaking and singing - her potent set darts between the worlds of pop, hip hop and dance.

Shortparis photo by Roland Owsnitzki

You don’t need to play in a venue when you’ve got a giant beer cellar
Underneath the old brewery where Pop-Kultur is held, there’s a giant old beer cellar where thousands of kegs used to sit. At midnight each night Karen Gwyer brings 100 people down here for a unique performance. Walking down the concrete steps, the air grows chillier and the clack from your footsteps echoes louder as you plunge deeper underground until you reach a giant tunnel-like room, lit in neon red, with deep archways all the way down. Gwyer sits in an archway by a sample pad, and a giant bulb that illuminates her in the near pitch-black.

“Is everybody ready to begin?” she says, and it feels like she’s going to tell us ghost stories. Instead she builds a pounding beat and, as that rhythm clangs out, her plans for the performance become clear. The echo from the beat rattles against the walls and fills the air like a spreading gas. She leaves the beat ticking to build the echo and moves through the crowd into a second archway where she begins to lay down a little synth.

Archway by archway she moves along the room, adding new layers to the composition, a sprinkle of electronics here, a donk of percussion there. The sounds begin to collide and merge in the echo moving in and out of one another with the sound taking on new forms and tones with every layered addition. As you move through the archways, you create your own layers and echoes by walking in and out of sounds; Gwyer has created an entirely immersive experience, one that is effectively playing the building itself.

Having no headliners means you discover more new artists
At Pop-Kultur headliners don’t exist. There is no hierarchy on the bill here, so bands who might be destined for the 11am slot at a bigger festival are given equal weight on the line-up. This, combined with a booking policy that eschews the predictable, creates an almost continual sense of discovery because brand new artists are playing the same slots as established ones.

Newbies who hit as hard as any big names include London MC Flohio, who flips between grime, hyper-slick R&B and hip-hop with a seamless grace and a flow capable of being as smooth as it is forceful. She fires words with driving gusto or strips them back and rides the beat where necessary. French electro-pop duo Agar Agar also slide between genres, from gleaming disco to house-tinged grooves to straight-up pop. Ava Bonam’s contemporary explorations of folk music - via intricate and melancholic piano playing, and a deeply unique voice that moves from eerie warbles to hushed delicacy - is also a stirring new presence.

Europe is already leaving us
A day after the festival I’m sat on the top deck of a tour boat gliding along the canals of Berlin, sun glistening off the water, cold beer in hand, soaking up the city’s rich history as it slides past me. Like many who have spent a lot of time in the city over the years I feel naturally and assuredly at home here. I feel a fundamental connection to the place, the people and the culture. I feel European.

Then I look up and see a giant banner: “Goodbye UK - and thank you for the music”. The reality of Brexit is now inescapable, an impending disaster. When I find out that the banner is advertising a series of concerts celebrating British music and its legacy, my sadness deepens.

Speaking with one of Pop-Kultur’s co-curators about future festivals and what it means for working with British artists, he concedes that administrative and financial hurdles will likely impact on their inclination to book UK artists. Countless practical and economic disasters that Brexit will create are still ahead of us, but the cultural dismemberment has already begun. A city that any forward-looking country in the world would want cultural ties to is already saying its goodbyes.

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