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Things Learned At: Pitchfork Paris 2013
Laurie Tuffrey , November 19th, 2013 12:00

Laurie Tuffrey heads to Pitchfork's Parisian festival, and discovers that he needs rescuing from the indie bro's by Savages, The Haxan Cloak and Jon Hopkins. Photographs courtesy of Vincent Arbelet

Former abattoirs make fine festival locations

First things first, hats off to Pitchfork for the choice of venue. The Grande halle de la Villette was a 19th-century abattoir but is now a vast, vast concert hall, among other things, so big that the festival’s two stages are set up at either end of the building, leaving such a gulf of airy, iron-raftered space in between them that, say, Jagwar Ma can accidentally unleash ravey squawks while soundchecking and not disturb Junip’s pleasantries in the slightest. And if you aren’t enjoying the music on offer, you can walk up onto the mezzanine levels and do a bit of vinyl browsing, buy a T-shirt made from recycled organic free-range vegan cotton or some such, and (with the necessary patience and manoeuvring skills) sit in a deck chair and sip a Heineken. While not everything is so peachy - once again, you have to fork out for the obligatory tokens you need to buy food and drinks (find me one branch of Thomas Cook that’ll accept my leftover Pitchforkens, I ask you) - it’s a sterling start for the 2013 edition. So far, so good…

God save us from bro-ism

… but, man, is a Mac Demarco live show a god-awful proposition. On record, his sheeny Californian plaid-rock has an appealing kind of loucheness to it, so it's a shame that live he throws that out of the window in favour of a good ol' bro-down, a grab a can of PBR and your cousin and get humpin'-grade haul of dumbassery. By the second half of his set Demarco and his band are playing one song of his before firing through piecemeal covers of classic rock from yesteryear at a ratio of about 1:3. There's a problem with the bass drum, so while that's being fixed Demarco takes the opportunity to roll out his rendition of Eric Clapton's 'Tears In Heaven'. 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number' gets an airing, as does 'Takin’ Care Of Business' with nary a spunky straw bale's worth of an inkling that singalong-a-Mac is drawing to a close. "We're Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd's up next!" shouts Demarco. Well, yee-fuckin'-haw Mac, that's a rib-tickler right there! He introduces his bassist for a cover of 'Blackbird', and as the hirsute chap lumbers over to the mic, there's the fleeting thought that maybe this could be a high point, the band drafting in their unassuming, heavenly-voiced bassman for a pearl of a cover. Alas, this feeling is short-lived when he reveals a singing voice like a mule being asphyxiated, sweetening the deal by swapping the original's lyrics for his own narrative about "swallowing daddy's come". A glance around reveals that this is all going down a hoot. Two dudes in front of me look at each other and guffaw every time the word "dick" gets an outing. Hang on, I think, maybe I’m just being humourless? Maybe this really is a ball, one to be enjoyed by burying down through umpteen layers of irony? Hmm… "If you want to hang out with your penis out!" No... no, this is just really shit. In fairness, Demarco makes no bones about the whole give-a-fuck air of his set, signing off with, "We're a bunch of immature assholes, I'm sorry, but that's the way we are", but it would be nice if even the tiniest of fucks could have been given.

Come, Savages, cloak us in darkness

Lynyrd Sky… Savages are on now, and we've never needed them more. The band walk on the stage at the opposite end of the mammoth Grande Halle de la Villette in darkness, without fanfare, picking up their instruments before being bathed in the huge glow of massive backlighting, revealing their almost uniformly black tailored shirts and trousers. There's a sense of purpose here, a force that pummels the memory of Demarco's DoodStock into submission. Everything about the band is touched with this intensity: the bass hurtles forward at a pace seemingly faster than Ayse Hassan seems to play it, Gemma Thompson unleashes tranches of metallic fury from her Fender Mustang with seemingly no effort at all and Fay Milton's cymbal crashes are deployed with such gloriously vicious force that one of the drumsticks flicks out of her hand. The band’s bullshit-crushing elan whips up an atmosphere that’s simultaneously brutalising and inclusive, but so fractious that it incites a full-on fight near the front of the stage. It's not long before Jehnny Beth steps down from the stage and stands up against the barrier, whispering closely before screaming "I love you" with a desperate sincerity that makes all previous declarations seem dishonest, and leaving a tangible void when the band promptly depart.

If Savages are the cleansers of Mac Demarco’s stagnant miasma, then The Haxan Cloak is the steriliser

Savages’ unspoken partner in the dark arts this evening is The Haxan Cloak's Bobby Krlic. He seems to be channelling the venue's former life, suffusing it with an atmosphere that could suffocate joy but is at the same time totally euphoric. He incises with the precision of a surgeon, the depth charge bass kicks he unleashes are sometimes clean kills, other times grilled with distortion, all delivering their own kind of punishing satisfaction. People don't know how to react - some grimace, others hold arms aloft; one couple are getting off on it in a big way, while beside them a solitary man simply howls. The closing of proceedings is so intense it’s almost physically painful: the trebly, metallic clicks of Dr Krlic’s instruments cycle over swathes of sub-bass, out of them a fearful, unerringly languid ringing of horns emerges, a sonic memory that he’s excavated from some bleaker ancient time, to usher in the end. All the while each bass thump gets visualised with the searing glare of a pure white spotlight placed immediately behind Krlic, meaning that each time he moves, a near-blinding flare burns out leaving people hiding their faces behind their arms. Terrifying, but sublime.

The Knife will “shake your liver” and “shake your country” with equal ease

Say what you will about The Knife's current live show, it's a blast. They have come, they say, to "shake some heavy tunes", and that's exactly what they do. Upwards of seemingly 15 people are on stage at any one time, each taking their turn on the mic, leaving the band’s core duo of Karin Andersson and Olof Dreijer to merge, Ra's al Ghul-style, into the crowd. It’s impossible to say whether the group are actually playing the vast array of instruments they have on stage, but you don’t really care, and with their slightly out-of-sync choreography and blue jump suits, looking like a Heaven’s Gate dancing troupe, they bound through their Shaking The Habitual album, decorating it with all sorts of baffling visual accompaniment. At one point, they're a bunch of people in bin bags fist-pumping. At another, for Deep Cuts’ ‘Got 2 Let U’, a woman's face - Andersson's? - appears on a screen, dressed up as a slightly fusty older man, with the overall effect looking something like Alan Bennett, while the rest of the group dance beside. It's bewildering and fun, and, factoring in the Bennett element, strangely comforting, like drinking Yorkshire Tea out of a goat's skull. By the close, it's pretty hard to detail exactly what happened. I was there, I'm pretty sure Andersson and Dreijer were there, and everyone there evidently had a good time. Cheers to you, The Knife, and don't leave it so long next time.

Will someone please give Jon Hopkins some damn croissants?

Once Disclosure finish their Friday night headline set, mixing fairly banging tracks like 'When The Fire Starts To Burn' and 'Latch' with precision-tooled live performances of a mid-00s Yamaha keyboard’s demo function, the crowd shifts to Le Trabendo, the armpit-sweaty nook of the Parc de la Villette that’s hosting the after party. After mangling ourselves in the best-dressed, sweetest-smelling mangle of a crowd waiting for a toilet that has its own bouncer you could imagine, there’s time for the last stages of an ace DJ set from Evian Christ, aka Joshua Leary, the Merseyside producer, who worked with Kanye West on this year's Yeezus. Fittingly, Leary ends his set with that album's 'I Am A God', pausing on the "HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS!" line and looping it over again and again and again, turning it into a juddering techno cut. It's into this context that Jon Hopkins enters to play a live set, and while this year's Immunity was filled with plenty of glitchy, dancefloor-ready elements, how would some of its flip side, the spacious and gauzy organic-electronic matter, fare in the wake of America's foremost genius eccentric making his culinary demand in increasingly insistent, beat-heavy terms? It's fair to say it trounced the place. Hopkins' set dissembles his records' tracks, flaying the edges of the samples and loops, ripping the drum patterns off the grid, catalysing and recasting them into one heaving hour-long behemoth. Immunity's 'Open Eye Signal' retains the surging, pulsating rhythm that it's founded on, but the gilding vocal samples are brought to the front of the mix more, pacifying the crowd into a false calm before he rends everything, pulling the kicks and snares, flailing, out in a series of drops, crushing them into a dubstep-like climax. The set pushes forward, Immunity's mechanistic, rhythmic door creaks and field samples, snatched from real life, get transmuted into vital dance floor components and corralled into the surge, with Hopkins' fingers skittering frenetically across a computer screen, mesmerically out of sync with the emerging sounds, all the while. The circular synth line of previous album Insides' 'Light Through The Veins' emerges out of the fray, an incandescent moment and one defamiliarised by being mapped onto dancier beats, which wend their way into one final onslaught, the set pulled apart once again by hulking great slabs of drum patterns, drawn in and out of the mix and lacerated with distortion. At the end of this, Hopkins simply smiles and thanks the crowd; whether or not that was a good set in his mind is unclear, but we leave exhausted and entranced.

Indie schmindie, Danny Brown and Connan Mockasin are where it’s at

A strange addendum (side effect?) to everything being so immaculately thought-out and beautifully presented is a slight paucity of interesting music. Junip and Youth Lagoon, with their introspective, drawn-out indie pussyfooting, hit the right note to soundtrack the varying, elegant shades of grey in which everyone is dressed, but they’re also powerfully stultifying at the same time. This even seems to have infected some of the line-up’s best: Yo La Tengo get a bit too repetitive with their verse-chorus-verse-chorus-seven minute guitar freakout formula, Hot Chip’s Saturday night headline set fails to spark and even Omar Souleyman seems a bit subdued. Enter, then, stage right, Danny Brown, to set things straight. “Pitchfork Paris, what's up in this motherfucker?” Not too much to be honest, Danny, we’re banking on you man, what have you got? A magnificent set, as it happens: cuts like ‘Smokin & Drinkin’ and ‘Kush Coma’ spin on claustrophobic haze and bassy bombast that could rival The Haxan Cloak at troubling the Grand halle’s foundations, while Brown switches maniacally between his characteristic goofy spitting and momentary, terrifying baritone growls. When he finally stops to take a breath and introduce himself, he offers the simple: "Hi my name is Daniel" before loosing the creepiest, most brilliant nasal quack of a laugh imaginable, which, though freaky, is simultaneously endearing.

But it’s the man before Brown who provides one of the festival’s finest shows. With his ragtag backing band and unique personal aesthetic - all curious charisma and bright blonde hair, like Julian Assange’s god complex given free reign over the Ecuadorean embassy’s liquor cabinet - Connan Mockasin turns in a meandering, enticing set, one that hovers between seductive MOR cuts and instrumental jams, at times taking on an unexpectedly Durutti Column-esque flicker of guitar-centred ambience. After in-between song patter that includes a few obligatory references to The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit (Mockasin being from New Zealand and all), Mockasin’s informed that he’s got ten more minutes, and elects to fill the time by stretching out recent album Caramel’s closer ‘I Wanna Roll With You’. The cut, a phew-that’s-smooth groover with an earworm of a chorus, is utterly transportative, engendering such a barrage of emotions in a man at the front that he ends up screaming in elation before taking out a sketchbook to make a quick drawing of Mockasin, leaving an almost too-perfect emblem of the festival to roll out on.