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Things Learned At: Plisskën Festival
JR Moores , June 17th, 2014 16:07

JR Moores reports from Athens, where he is battered with rucksacks, picks up a smoking habit and withstands an entire Black Lips set.

There really aren't enough music festivals where you can spend the morning strolling round the Acropolis of Athens in the baking sun. The remaining bricks, steps and pillars of its ancient buildings sit like relics from the Big Bang of civilisation with modern Athens sprawling out towards the hills in the distance. After touring the birthplace of western civilisation, in the evening we participate in the decline of western civilisation (i.e. rock & roll). In ancient times we worshipped beautiful goddesses, goat-legged philanderers, and that one who should've worn stronger ankle protection. Our new gods are psych-guitarists, lo-fi indie crews, and maverick laptop DJs. The ancients would consider us very strange indeed.

Nightmare Air are so good, they booked 'em twice

This rambunctious LA trio open the main stage on Saturday having already wooed the Thursday night Pre-Plisskën Party at a bar called Six D.O.G.S. which boasts the most beautiful beer garden my pasty legs have ever set foot in. On bass and vocals, Swaan Miller seems to be taking style tips from Paz Lenchantin from A Perfect Circle, Entrance and Zwan. The comparison is extra-appropriate now that Lenchantin's been hired by The Pixies, because just like them Nightmare Air don't look like people who should be playing in a band, or at least not playing in the same band together. Miller brings the gawky glamour, drummer Jimmy Lucido is a cheerful probable-lunatic, and guitarist/vocalist Dave Dupuis could be an erudite sandwich salesman. Heavy, loud and fast, they're a bit more shoegazey than the Pixies, with Dave's vocal bursts coming closer to Mac McCaughan's Superchunk shrillness than Black Francis' existential hollering. He's a wizard with the guitar effects too, even if the odd shimmer steps a little too close to The Edge. Twofold booking justified.

Also on the Plisskën bill are Crocodiles. The word crocodile comes from the Greek "krokodilos", meaning "worm of the stones". A crocodile will lie in the water pretending to be an inconspicuous log before suddenly springing into action and biting both your legs off. Crocodiles (the band) won't do that, but they will play shoegazey pop owing to the likes of Spacemen 3 and The Jesus And Mary Chain. Behind the heavily-echoed vocals, layers of effects and double-maraca shakes, however, their songs are relatively straightforward punk & roll ditties, so much so that one track is worryingly reminiscent of The Caesars' 2003 hit 'Jerk It Out'. Still, Crocodiles rock hard enough to inspire the Brian Molko-esque androgynous being in front of me to pogo up and down so much that they land on my toes four or five times in the space of three minutes. I probably should've moved to be honest.

65daysofstatic are (still) brilliant

It's easy to take them for granted these (65)days(ofstatic). Five albums down the line, inevitably their buzz has receded. They're still plugging away though, bless 'em. 65days always come out fighting because they remain heroically passionate about what they do and are hugely invested in it. Rightly so, because they've expertly melded post-rock with electronics in a way that nobody else has properly managed. They could certainly teach Mogwai a thing or two about preparing powerful post-rock/electro concoctions (as opposed to plonking keyboards in a perfunctory way that says little more than you've hung out with Errors and own the Kraftwerk back-catalogue). "All those songs were from our new record. Which you can buy," says Joe Shrewsbury. "This is some old shit," and they launch into a crushing 'Retreat! Retreat!' followed by an equally grand 'Radio Protector', both of which send the crowd seven shades of nuts.

Black Lips are fascinatingly naff

Black Lips are pretty awful, aren't they? Even if you are kind of half rooting for them, like The Libertines or Brian Jonestown Massacre or Primal Scream when they've just laid a stinker. There's that amazing line in Mad Men Season 5, "this is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but you are not an artist", as penetratingly damning as Jez from Peep Show's "Maybe I'm not in the 1% of people who think they're gonna be successful musicians and are totally right, but in the 99% of talentless, misguided dickheads." Black Lips have the musical temperament but are not musicians. Yet they've elevated themselves above the 99% of dickheads nonetheless, through a combination of sheer luck and occasionally getting their willies out. They have the odd strong track but too many numbers that directly pillage The Clash, The Jam, The Ramones, The Beatles or the whoever. Why do they persevere with being so feebly jingly-jangly? Why are their guitars so clean and trebly? Why don't they beef up with some distortion? Why aren't they better? Why aren't their fans bothered that they're not better? One of them has a fancy trick where he kicks the mic stand away and then stomps it back towards his body before it falls over. He does this a lot. It's his thing. He thinks it looks cool. It doesn't. So for greater intellectual, physical and sensory gratification, it's over to Shackleton in the dark and claustrophobic box known as the Club Stage where his oppressive post-dubstep danceable abstractions rumble so hard it feels like your scalp's going to detach itself from your skull and fly into the air like a hairy frisbee.

Greeks can still smoke indoors (and exercise their right with gusto)

Behind Wooden Shjips is a huge electronic screen flashing fit-inducing graphics as if Ceefax just got hacked by Space Invaders. In this main stage venue, a sort of industrial-estate corrugated box, Wild Beasts' sound got a little lost, hampering the purity of their Radiohead-sized ambitions (be careful with that boys, it can make you look "pretty ugly"). However, the slight scuzziness of the PA really lends itself to Wooden Shjips' heady vibes. They flaunt no-nonsense drumming that sits somewhere between Ringo and Neu, rich fuzzgeous guitar tones, deep thundering bass, and groovy keyboards that both look and sound as if they've been coated in tinfoil. Either admirably single-minded or commendably lazy, Wooden Shjips' new songs sound comfortably similar to their old songs, and may even be the exact same song. But, you know, what a great song!

Two blokes to my left are having a jolly good chinwag. Nattering at gigs appears to be an international phenomenon, though it's slightly less irritating when you can't understand a word they're saying. There's a woman in front of me wearing a too-large rucksack on her back that jabs into my stomach when she dances, which she does rather a lot. With these distractions, it's hard to become completely immersed in the Shjips' hypnotics. The problem with talkers and bag-nudgers is that when you notice them you're dragged back into the reality you'd momentarily escaped, like when you're invested in a Quentin Tarantino movie and then the director ruins the whole film with a cameo in which he attempts an Australian accent. I probably should've moved to be honest.

However, unlike the wacky "characters" who populate British festivals, here there don't seem to be any bug-eyed users off their nobs on quack handle, even down the Club Stage. Where are all the catatonically intoxicated people? Is anyone even drunk? They're so damn sophisticated here on the Continent. It makes for a very pleasant atmosphere indeed. The drug of choice here is clearly tobacco. As you'd expect at any Shjips gig, you get the odd whiff of a certain groovy herb, but it's mostly engulfed by the clouds of pure tobacco. The rucksack nudger chain-smokes her way through the entire Shjips set, as does the bloke next to her, as do countless others. By the end of the weekend all my clothes are ponging, I've got a slight cough and have developed a twenty-a-day habit. Tell you what, that Hockney fella would love it here.

Maybe austerity means more duos

Because bands can still smoke onstage here, they obviously look way cooler. For example, check out Athens-based A Victim Of Society, casually puffing away as they perform. England hasn't seen anything that cool since 2007. They're even smoking in their programme photo shot, the cool Greek beatniks. They play suave, confident garage rock in vein of The Kills or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, only, you know, cooler. Their guitarists sure know their way round the FX pedals. The bassist sure knows how to lay down the deep end tremor and the drummer hits like– hang on, where is the bassist? Where's the drummer? They're not on the stage. Oh, A Victim Of Society are two guitarists playing to backing tracks. Is this the price of austerity? The rise of the duo?

It's not just the Greeks. The UK's Fuck Buttons double-act are also here, and the USA is represented by the No Age twosome. Many of the American bands express their delight at visiting Athens for the very first time. No Age announce that it's "fucking awesome to be back". Of course they do, they get everywhere that No Age pair, every single festival bill for one thing. They rattle through their DIY garage rock stuff. As ever, it's highly enjoyable without quite reaching the level of thrilling.

I didn't manage to visit the beach but I did see Dirty Beaches, another duo (sort of, Dirty Beaches is essentially Alex Zhang Hungtai but he has a companion for this live show). With its mixture of beats, noise and crooning, the set is basically a modern take on Suicide. Or a less frantic Health. Hungtai is aware which is his strongest track. During its intro he limbers up his body like an athlete. Soon he's fist-pumping his way through the pulsating noise number that builds and builds and builds its layers of static and fuzz to a near-overwhelming cacophony. It sounds like a Vietnam helicopter on bad post-trauma meds trying to express the horror of what it's witnessed in as musical way as its dented blades can muster. At one point Hungtai whips out a saxophone and treats us to some deliciously sleazy cyber-Stooges jazz-blasts. Nice. More saxophone please!

Duos aside, a hip up-and-coming music festival in the capital city probably isn't the best place to look for hard-hitting evidence of the devastating effects of austerity on Greek society. In the daytime we do see a lot of graffiti around town, ranging from the flamboyantly intricate, through the brashly insubordinate, to the almost pointlessly tagged "YO!". We walk past the tenacious protesters who have occupied the entrance of the Ministry of Finance in objection to cleaning staff redundancies. One of the volunteers participating in Plisskën's "Lab" workshop programme is an architect who has seen her profession shift from making buildings to making rooms in existing buildings more legal. The road to the airport is lined with empty billboards, some of which have been tagged with intriguing phrases such as "Time was experienced mysteriously..." and "Only in one place?"

On the flight back to isolationist UKip-lala-Land, the young gentleman in the seat next to me is wearing Beats headphones, Ray Ban sunglasses, a pristine white shirt, and a bright blue belt with yellow trousers. And he's reading George Orwell. In yellow trousers. I don't know what reading George Orwell in yellow trousers tells us about the world right now but it tells us something. If only Orwell was around to explain what exactly. Orwell who, like many others, travelled to Spain to try to stop the spread of tyranny. Like Byron, who in the previous century went off to Greece to help them out (but then fell ill and died). To assist people with whom they weren't directly connected but with whom they felt empathy nonetheless and had an irrepressible desire to support at whatever personal cost. Yellow Trousers soon grows bored of his Orwell text and pulls out his fancy tablet gadget so he can watch The World's End starring Simon "I've got no qualms with playing an onscreen version of Toby Young" Pegg. And so I stop thinking about what it might represent to read Orwell in yellow trousers on the way home from Athens. I press play on my iPod. I start reading my own choice of liberal non-fiction travel literature. There are times when I worry that I might as well be wearing yellow trousers myself.

With thanks to The Greek National Tourism Organisation