Things Learned At: Pop-Kultur Berlin

At this year's edition of the cross-cultural Berlin festival, Luke Turner finds questions asked and answered about the malleable nature of "pop", the therapeutic nature of Cats Eyes' music, the raw power of Algiers and the necessity of European co-operation. (Photographs: Annett Bonkowski)

Pop-Kultur calls for expansion of the German dictionary

There is surely a long German compound word for the feeling when, as a depressed person, you turn up for a music festival panel discussion about music and depression only to find that it is being conducted in German. A few more could probably be added to the same consideration when you fly halfway across Europe to see a Polish group who make the most sublime, escapist music which they rarely play live only for them to cancel at the last minute — for the sake of anonymity, let’s call them Stara Rzeka. Or to discover that Liars, who are capable of the most transcendent and mind-clearing live sets I’ve ever seen, will actually be doing an adapted version of a forthcoming film soundtrack. Plans to write at length about the nihilism-banishing powers of music are thus at last abandoned in favour of having an excellent time in Europe’s finest city.

Mogwai’s Atomic is a warning

Pop-Kultur opens with a performance of Mogwai’s soundtrack to Mark Cousin’s documentary on the perils and promise of nuclear energy. This career highlight is searing in the Admiralspalast venue, the geopolitical resonance heightened by the strange touch that Mogwai’s soundman is working the desk from a balcony designed for the personal use of Hitler. In this disastrous Brexit year (superficially noticeable for all English visitors in the punishment of going to a cash machine and seeing first hand the slide of the pound) a stridently anti-nuclear film feels important. The atomic cloud is, after all, the most extreme expression of nationalism turned violent. Watching Cousins’ film, made from archive footage, one is struck by the power of the footage from 1950s CND marches or protests at Greenham Common, and the sense of solidarity that we’d do well to rediscover. In this time where much resurgent English nationalism seems to be a clamour to return to the simpler 1950s, there’s an odd resonance here too – public safety films of that period have men in flat caps jumping off their bikes into ditches, Jeyes bleach on tin buckets, pipes and black and white. Have we forgotten just how warm the Cold War actually was?

Festivals ought to make us all work harder

Music journalists are lazy pricks – you only have to write a press release for a forthcoming album to see your own words replicated across major publications in the subsequent coverage — which, surveying from this personal vista, one finds manifest pointedly in various ‘MSM’ reviews of the new Wild Beasts LP. Thanks then to Pop-Kultur for making me, and various other industry delegates present for the festival, give three hour seminars for local youth. Unlike more arts-focussed European city festivals, Pop-Kultur is part funded by the business side of the city, and young people are invited to join up for a programme of talks about how to get in and get on with the business. It is, yet again, something many UK-based festivals could learn from.

Let’s remember not to deny the youth their now

Girls Names are excellent, playing a sort of agitated racket that’s equal parts Sonic Youth, the Jesus & Mary Chain and Joy Division, and I overhear someone moaning about this on the way out. I’m an old fucker and on about the third cycle of a lot of these sounds now. But that doesn’t make it appropriate to be churlish, because the immense power of music is to always sound fresh in new ears. It takes a particular kind of bore – bloke, essentially – to sit pooh-poohing the retromanic tendencies of the bands of a generation below. The more I consider it, the more it seems utterly bizarre – it’s a fetish of the music snob, the critic, the follower of lines of history. It’s obviously something I’ve trodden the line around before, because I am a man and I am a music journalist after all. But after two decades, the majority of my life, using music as a form of escape, identity and medication to suddenly pull up that lifeline behind me would be snide, mean-spirited, and deeply unfair.

What’s pop, then? Who knows.

All of the above transfers into the divide (a false divide of course, one imposed by mainstream cultural gatekeepers) between notions of pop and alternative. This festival is after all called Pop-Kultur, which it is compared to most of the things I’m usually coming to Berlin for, but definitely not when put up against many of its UK equivalents. These false binaries, now largely dead among younger generations but still held up by the golden oldies for whom they make convenient fortifications, deny the power of music whatever it might be to release and revive. Take Abra’s performance on the festival’s final night: it’s one of the most compelling sets I’ve seen by a solo artist in quite some time. It’s so packed all you can see is her bleached hair carving circles against the black backdrop, always weaving arms up as her astonishing voice unleashes songs of great hope and clarity. She’s a really odd, down-to-earth sort of pop star in waiting – there’s no front here, just a sense that she’s a wonderful conduit for something very special; something for everyone. I’ve no idea where the mainstream sits these days but Abra ought to be a part of it.

Send couples in trouble to see Cats Eyes

Rachel Zeffira and Faris Badwan’s Cats Eyes project is one of those things that can make even my hard-bitten and cynical heart swoon. There are the likes of ‘Drag’ and ‘Treasure House’ of course, at once classic and new, arrangements as delightful as treetops moving lazily through summer sun. But live is when they really shine, largely in part to the disarming dynamic between Badwan and Zeffira, where their love flickers off the bickering. They’ve the air of a couple twice their age who’ve shared so much both good and bad, and it all pushes the impact of these swooning and wonderful songs. I can’t quite understand why haven’t taken a hold in more hearts.

Anglo-German co-operation is a necessity

Perhaps the only thing the British and German nations don’t see eye-to-eye on at Pop-Kultur is what time is acceptable to put things on of an evening: some of the talks don’t start until 22:00, which seems much too late for serious discourse when one ought to be making a serious effort to find something to drink other than the rancid Pilsner popular in this city. Anyway, tQ’s own Wyndham Wallace hosts an excellent chat between Colin Newman (Wire, Githead, Immersion) and Robert Lippok of To Rococo Rot on krautrock and Anglo-German connections. Words become sound the next day as Lippok plays drums in a rare set by Immersion, Newman’s project with his partner Malka Spigel. It’s one of those events where nobody in the crowd seems to know what to expect and ends up rather blown away. The bright kosmische is driven by Spigel’s unusual way of playing the Korg, treating her instrument to brutal flicks to generate rhythms. Lippok’s drums come in and out delicately, like watching rain showers move across the country on a weather radar. Above it all though are easy melodies (Colin Newman just can’t seem to help making them) that at times hint at the more reflective moments of Eno’s Another Green World.

Liars will always divine horrors

It was hard not to be slightly disappointed to learn that Liars weren’t going to be playing a full set but a version of their soundtrack for 1/1, the first film to which they’d written a score. It’s a natural move for the group given their ability to write albums that convey a warped cinematic narrative, from the witches of They Were Wrong, So We Drowned to the inverted Los Angeles horror of Sisterworld. Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill are joined by a mysterious third member on modular synths and sit behind a desk in front of the screen, looking for all the world like eery puppets from a Brothers Quay animation coming to life and being given a laptop, a bunch of gear, and a few bongs of paranoia. There are anxiety whitey rhythms, Andrews’ voice floating across like a chorister who’s breathed the evil out of the cathedral yew. Liars’ music has always been about anxiety, insecurity, death and this heavy hour is no exception. There are juddering subterranean crunches and while far-off mine disaster whumps two a penny at the moment in electronic gloom world, Liars stamp their own echoing uncertainty all over the racket. There’s buzzing boise that follows broken vocal melody like a dentist chasing a Haribo-addicted soprano up the stairs, towards the end a crouching monster that has the forlorn comms device melancholy of OMD’s Dazzle Ships. Teetering on that difficult brink between despair and euphoria this was an unexpected festival highlight.

Algiers’ Industrial soul is my new jam

Algiers have been handed a formidable challenge. One, they’re playing in a venue in which terrible sound has reduced nearly every performance to atonal racket. Two, they’ve been asked to play a set of entirely new material. Yet this is a group who are all about fighting adversity, be that political, personal, or the dubiously tiny speakers in a very large room, and fangs are bared from the off.

In the first track (sounds like the ghost of Rowland S. Howard is flying around the balcony over a DHR drum machine tattoo) Lee Tesche has a cymbal stuck under his guitar strings and Ryan Mahan flails as if he’s in a hardcore band; Franklin James Fisher (in a black suit, medallion and red scarf from his back pocket) testifies as he hollers "this is not OK this is not alright no". The rich intensity comes to a guillotine halt. The second new number has him in soul gesticulation as Mahan mouths along and out-dances anyone at the festival in prime sinewy EBM mince and punches himself in the face. These new songs, seven of them in the end, are fantastic – running the gamut between funk basslines, rolling piano, hissing booms, insidious Vatican shadow rattles and BBC Radiophonic Workshop if they did goth ballads. If there was a slight concern with their debut album it was that the power of the songs didn’t quite translate to the record. If they can capture this new material on their second album it suggests that nations the future bodes well, especially with the huge difference drummer Matt Tong (whose talents were cruelly wasted in Bloc Party) now permanently on board.

Algiers are very much in that Mute records mould of English-speaking bands appearing in Berlin and suddenly being incredible, and tonight are the natural heirs and next generation to your Liars and Birthday Parties, passionately brutal and loaded with menace and meaning. I do worry that we’re in an age where musical cross-pollination all-too-often eschews aggression in favour of the tasteful, like a carefully-curated interiors shot on Instagram. Can Algiers defeat this with power alone? The crowd reaction, one of the best of the week, suggests they might.

Just before Algiers play a refreshed German lady tells me about ye depression talk. One of the participants didn’t turn up. The monotony of the personal exposition was apparently very German. It was, apparently, rather depressing.

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