No Fun Fest Goes Pop

Written by Chris O'Connell on . Posted in Posts.

What was once the
showcase for upcoming and legendary noise acts, the five-year-old No
Fun Fest has evolved—or devolved, if you aren’t into melody—into a
different kind of beast.

It’s still three days long and filled with many noise bands, and the Music Hall of Williamsburg will definitely be crammed with sweaty dudes in tight jeans on May 15, 16 and 17, but there are a few subtle differences this year, one being—gasp!— rock and pop bands.

Curated by experimental musician Carlos Giffoni since 2004, No Fun Fest has traditionally been a place where the underground gathers. Avant-garde bands and musicians like Wolf Eyes, Prurient and Merzbow—acts that don’t necessarily sound alike but most certainly share common fans—have been big draws at No Fun Fest since its inception.

Giffoni, however, has branched out, trading some spots normally reserved for power electronic musicians and guitarpedal-smashers for straight-up rock bands.Well, kind of.

“It’s different this year,” Giffoni says. “There are some poppier bands like Blank Dogs and Cold Cave. I’ve tried Sonic Youth before, but this is the first time I’ve gotten them as a band.” Giffoni has booked Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Jim O’Rourke before, all members of the seminal noise-rock band, but they’re usually paired with experimental musicians like drummer Chris Corsano.

It could be that the bubble for noise music has burst, just like it did for punk 30 years ago, dividing the purists from the new wavers. But is the poppier side of experimental music akin to the saccharine of new wave? The truth will be in the crowd’s reaction to the “other,” weirder (to them) bands on the bill.

The thing is, the pop-oriented bands this year, like Brooklyn’s Blank Dogs and Philadelphia’s Cold Cave, aren’t straightforward rock bands. Blank Dogs, a “mystery” musician/band plays noisy but melodic punk tunes. I say “mystery,” because Mr. Blank Dog conceals his face during photo shoots, but in reality he isn’t so mythical.

In fact, a friend of mine once referred to Blank Dogs as the musical equivalent of the character Spagett from Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job, a character that hides behind houseplants to surprise people, even though they know he’s there. Either way, Blank Dogs is likely the most orthodox band on the bill, and is the most likely to polarize the audience.

Cold Cave is a dark, synth-based group, sounding like a mixture of a more minimal Coil and “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazarus. Possibly the most puzzling selection of No Fun Fest 2009, the band was most likely chosen to play because of its association with experimental music labels Dais Records and What’s Your Rupture?, the former having strong ties to Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge, one of the most influential figures in experimental electronic music.

While Cold Cave doesn’t sound like Throbbing Gristle, you can hear the influence P-Orridge has had on its music. The kids at No Fun Fest might be unaccustomed to dancing, but they will forego the usual head bobbing for some shaking when Cold Cave plays.

Wesley Eisold, former American Nightmare and Some Girls singer, and founder of Cold Cave, has a positive outlook on the differing sounds at No Fun Fest this year.

“I like it because I listen to most of the people playing and I think there are relative links from sound to sound,” says Eisold. “Also I think it’s wonderful if one of the more ‘pop’ groups is responsible for turning someone on to something more extreme or different for them.”

It’s obvious to see why the more accessible bands wouldn’t see a problem with playing No Fun Fest alongside mostly experimental bands, but Matthew Bower, a British experimental musician who has been playing with Skullflower since the early ’80s, is happy to be separated from some of them.

“I’m glad to not be on with Sonic Youth and Bardo Pond,” says Bower. “We’re scared we’d be intimidated by their authentic ‘rock chops’ or whatever.”

He’s most likely being sarcastic, but I couldn’t get that sense because we had to communicate via email. Like some other noise musicians I contacted, Bower doesn’t own, or care to speak on, a telephone.

While he may not care for the incoming rock bands, he certainly doesn’t think it detracts from the slew of other experimental acts on the bill—including Skullflower.

“There’s enough great noise on Friday [and] Sunday to not worry,” he says.

The noise bands Bower refers to include legendary noise band Thrones, Merzbow, experimental music stalwarts Bastard Noise and many more. “Besides,” he adds. “I’m sure some ‘oscillator only’ dudes consider our gee-tars a bit problematic.”

Even the authentic noise bands can’t catch a break these days.

> No Fun Fest

May 15 through 17, Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 N. 6th St. (betw. Wythe & Kent Aves.), Brooklyn, 718-486-5400; times vary, $20 and up.

(Read interview with Sarah Lipstate, who opens No Fun Fest)