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Look Back In Stavanger - We Visit Norway For Serena-Maneesh's Festival Among The Mountains
Chris Roberts , September 16th, 2008 15:49

Our man with a well-thumbed passport, Chris Roberts, disembarks in Norway. He is there to find an alternative music festival featuring Sufjan Stevens and Serena-Maneesh but ends up with kamerad & spelemann as well.

People - mostly Norwegian, obviously, although some have travelled from all over Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and England for this - are running out of the building with their hands over their ears, distressed, squinting, their faces contorted. The building is a vast window-sill factory: you can smell the new wood and paint. The noise that’s distressing them so much is being made by a collective of musicians loosely based around the hub of Serena-Maneesh, one of Norway’s most ambitious, experimental bands. For about twenty five minutes, immediately after Sufjan Stevens’ hushed, riveting set has finished, they launch into an atonal rumbling racket: anti-music, white noise, unsparing. After that, they continue for another half-hour with a hint - just a hint - of structure. They call this new number, which they say will feature on their next album, “Ayisha Abyss”.

Norwegians are still dropping like flies. Girls look upset. Being Norwegian, they also look awesome, obviously. This may not be what they were expecting. Nothing ever happens in Moi, we’re told. It’s a tiny town halfway between Stavanger and Kristiansand, in the Norwegian bible belt. It’s green, and mountainous. The mountains that aren’t green are blue. It offers you pine trees and lakes and waterfalls. It’s prettier than a picture. The train station is no bigger than my bathroom. The fact that Emil Nikolaisen of Serena-Maneesh has, in D.I.Y. punk fashion, decided to put on a rock festival here is the biggest local news for years (even though Katie Melua was here recently).

Emil is the Bob Geldof of this story. He has an extended family. Half the bands today seem to feature his brothers or sisters, the Nikolaisens. They’re like The Waltons, or The Bradys, only with bandanas and tight trousers. He’s a lovely chap. “Alright, man?” he’ll say often, eyes big, smile broad. It’s sort of surprising when he turns into a wilfully perverse anarchist onstage. Afterwards, he looks drained, spent: he’s given it his all.

Norwegians are still running, fleeing, screaming like they’re enacting a Munch painting. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit now, but not by much. Through all this crescendo/climax/art statement the Brits stand there mildly amused, or lean on the bar. We’re so hard. We’ve seen/heard My Bloody Valentine doing 'You Made Me Realise' live several times, don’t you know? We were raised on this stuff. Mild-mannered though we may appear, we eat this noise for breakfast. Our ears are made of steel and have barnacles all over them. Why are we here? We are here because we were invited. Why did we accept? Because we thought it’d be interesting to see Stavanger. So what is Stavanger, a European city of culture 2008 and Norway’s fourth biggest city, like? We don’t know, we only see the airport.

“How far’s the hotel?” we ask the driver, upon arrival. About ninety minutes, he says, and drives us to Moi, a long way from Stavanger. Oh. We see. It’s dark. We don’t see much. This is the night before the loud gig. The driver plays a lot of Kid Rock, but when Abba comes on and we go, “Wah-hey!”, he grunts, “Not mine. My wife’s”, and clicks it off, embarrassed.

We reach the Moi Hotel, quickly get drunk, and are introduced to most of the Norwegian music scene, many here from Oslo for the big event in the place where nothing ever happens. The first words someone says to me are, “Welcome to The Shining“. “So”, I politely address one musician, “I. Am. From. London. In England. Are. You. From. Oslo?” “Dude, I’m from Brooklyn”, he says, “I’m one of Ladybug Transistor. You can talk in a normal voice.”

It’s now the morning of the big event. From the local delicacies on offer at the buffet I select an innovative fusion of eggs, jam and brown cheese, which is rather like Caramac. “That’s a big no-no”, I’m told. “I live on the edge”, I say with my mouth full, “Who are you?” “I’m Ingrid Olava”, she says. “Like lava, with an O in front.” “What do you do?” I ask. “I’m a singer-songwriter, appearing onstage today”. She does. She has a terrific voice, and her material is very Tori Amos, with lyrics about warriors and stars. When she sees Norway win a gold medal at the Olympics on the TV, she starts crying. Sensitively, we Brits take the piss. “You don’t understand”, she says. “The female coach has done so much for women in this country.”

At the big event the pink sign says “Oi! Oi! Oi! In Moi!” This, it transpires, means, “Wow! Wow! Wow! Fun in Moi!” Hearts have been painted on oil drums, and on other things, and five minutes’ walk away you can paddle in crystal clear streams as sunlight streams through the tall pines, so we do. Special beer bottles have been printed up with Emil’s photo on the labels. He laughs, says he’s embarrassed by it, but if I was him I’d think it was kind of great and I bet he secretly does too.

There are about a thousand people here. All physically magnificent and beautiful. We Brits by comparison look like John Merrick, The Elephant Man, and his less attractive siblings. Were Norwegians not so uniformly nice, they would stare at us and then maybe lasso us and put us in a travelling freak-show circus, billed as The Grotesque And Macabre Amazing Pasty British People Who Daily Breathe Smog (And Some Of Them Are Under Six Foot Six!) Maybe the perks would be good, I don’t know. Would there be snarling? Could we snarl? Might look into that. The twist is that Norwegian people are all depressed (all of them, I checked: every single one) and drink like fish, but as I‘ve already done a casual throwaway Munch reference I’m going to eschew an Ibsen one.

Among the dozen acts or so - at the festival, not the imaginary freak-show circus - are a German singer-songwriter, Daniel Benjamin, and a Christian rock band called Happy Dagger who feature one of Emil’s brothers. He bellows out the line, “When I get drunk I think of you/ When you get drunk you think of somebody else!” like he thinks it’s good. Are Christians allowed to drink? Elvira is another Nikolaisen - black hair, black dress, she looks exactly like you’d lazily expect an Elvira to look. She also sounds like Tori Amos. Frode from I Was A King ( I recommend his and Emil’s album Losing Something Good For Something Better) plays with Tones and they rustle up an enjoyable Crazy Horse meets Luna kind of sound. Wovenhead go down very well: everyone pays stern attention. Noxagt are super-loud, math-rock with the volume at a hundred and eleven. I get distracted watching speedboats race each other in circles on the lake under the stars.

Then it’s Sufjan Stevens, or Steve Stevens as he’s calling himself for this, a rare European date for him this year: his only show anywhere since Spring and his last of 08. He dedicates songs to Madonna, and to his sister. The one he dedicates to his sister is called “Sister”. He also plays “Romulus” and “the Duke And The Teenager” and “To Be Alone With You”, and “Seven Swans”. It’s a quiet, solo set and most of the crowd are silent throughout. Those who aren’t go “Oi! Oi!” Or are small, bored children, grizzling a bit. He’s like a more indulgent Paul Simon singing the early work of Tyrannosaurus Rex, I think. Some moments fleetingly reach the spirituality he aspires to.

And then it’s Serena-Maneesh, which is what it’s all about really. What an extraordinary outfit. It’s like they lived on Mars and a space capsule containing a mix of MBV, Can and Neu fell on their heads one day and they thought, ah, that must be what music is like, let’s work out, from scratch, how to do this music stuff. And in that admirable striving, and in their noise, lies something truthful and original and a touch thrilling. It takes guts, or something, to organise a big music festival in the little place where nothing ever happens - with your picture on the beer bottles - then hurl an alienating un-tethered din at your hopeful crowd as a finale.

The next day I walk down a big hill thinking there might be something interesting and rare at the bottom - an epiphany perhaps - but really it’s just a lot of cutesy white bungalows on a Sunday morning with extremely nice people washing their cars so I have to walk all the way back up again which isn’t as easy and it starts to rain. Emil has one of those intense handshakes where he grips your hand really hard for ages till you have to do the old Bill Clinton move and pat his right shoulder with your left hand while breaking free. The scenery on the way back from Moi to Stavanger airport is truly beautiful. And there’s so much of it. More than once, I realise it’s made me break into an involuntary half-smile.