Notes from Pitchfork Music Festival 2011

Nick Martens reports from Chicago’s Union Park on drummers, the summer heat, and Porta-Pottys.

Photo by Marc Whitman

John Stanier belongs in a comic book. On stage drumming for the art rock band Battles, he exerts himself in such an exaggerated manner that, at times, he no longer resembles a real person. Before he starts to play, he clenches his face, sways and shakes with nervous intensity, and pounds his foot noiselessly on the floor. Then, a crash. He hammers the cymbal once, hard, and he’s in it. His body twists into a hunched, tortured posture, and he assaults the drum kit. Stanier makes no small movements; each beat is an axe splintering wood, a karate chop shattering bricks, or a skull-crushing stomp. He stares straight ahead with a look of focus or temporary madness, and his face turns purple. His style exhibits no fluidity, elegance, or grace, but it produces a tremendous sound.

Stanier is like the Rafael Nadal of drumming. He performs with great virtuosity, but it’s borne out of enormous physical strain. He will likely be sidelined for a touring season with a rotator cuff injury. The first time I saw Battles, he sweated through his dress shirt after one song. Last Friday, on the Pitchfork Festival’s Green Stage, he fared better, his seafoam-colored shirt staying opaque through four whole songs. By the next one, the shirt was off.

He has the bizarre, part-skinny, part-flabby body of a farmer. Or rather, he has the body of an actor who could believably portray a farmer in a movie. (I have never seen an actual farmer shirtless.) It makes some sense, though, when you consider that his shape was molded by the reality of hard labor, not sculpted through deliberate exercise. Or maybe he just has an incompetent personal trainer.

Stanier is known for mounting one of his cymbals unusually high on his kit, so he has to reach way up to hit it. Someone near me remarked, “Dude, that cymbal is really high up.”

The guy in front of me in line for the bathroom walks into an open Porta-Potty and closes the door. Immediately, it begins wobbling back and forth. A girl in the next line over turns and notices. “Oh my god, people are fucking in there!” she informs her friends, several times. “I can’t believe someone is fucking in there!” she opines. She seems very surprised when the door opens and one person steps out.

I go in next, and even though I know what’s coming, I can’t keep the unstable stall from rocking.

Julianna Barwick makes subtle, ethereal, haunting music. Chrissy Murderbot does not. Barwick stands on stage alone, holding a microphone, with some electronic gizmo at her fingertips. Her songs build from lonely cries to surging choirs as she layers, loops, and distorts her voice. The music is beautiful, and not very loud. I cannot say what Chrissy Murderbot’s stage set-up looks like, nor can I give an accurate summary of her sound, but: her drums are quite loud. I know this because on Saturday, both artists opened the festival, performing at the same time on opposite ends of the park. I watched Barwick’s set, and I could hear Murderbot’s drums thumping the whole time.

To my surprise, I didn’t find myself annoyed. Instead, the few times I could hear Chrissy Murderbot clearly, machine-gun beats and techno-synth blasts sailing across the field, I thought she sounded pretty good. and I was impressed that Barwick didn’t act bothered, though I’m sure she was. She stood up there, unfazed, and showed such conviction as she wove her spell that I still fell under it.

So, out of a scheduling snafu, I came away with a new appreciation for the musician I came to see, and a sudden interest in one I never would have discovered otherwise. Music festivals are weird.

There comes a time — as temperature and humidity rise as one, as the afternoon sun blazes down out of the cloudless sky, as scorched dust kicks off the parched ground on hot winds — that even for intrepid festival-goers it becomes advisable, despite great cost of time and money for the sole purpose of festival-going, to yield to nature’s apathy for the comfort of man, to retreat to an air-conditioned theater to watch Harry Potter, and to live to fight another day.

Photo by Nick Martens

I can’t tell if the last day of the festival is post-apocalyptic or if the apocalypse is still in progress. Broken letters hang off the sign at the entrance, the bag-checkers’ station overflows with garbage, and the broad field that forms the heart of the park looks like the aftermath of a short war fought with empty plastic bottles.

I blame the heat. It is merciless and unrelenting, much in the same way LeBron James was not during the NBA Finals. It makes the crowd impatient, impolite, and most of all, lazy. I see trash slip through people’s fingers, as though they had every intent to throw away that balled-up wrapper, but it was simply too heavy to hold.

The music doesn’t help. If anything, it only shows that the attendees have become a horde of sun-dried zombies. Their range of motion comprises aimless lurching and rudimentary limb control. They remain largely still as Deerhunter launches into “Nothing Ever Happened,” one of the best and most energetic songs played all weekend, and when lead singer Bradford Cox starts shouting during the long outdo, the guitars ascending to their climax and Cox going to town on the mic like he never has when I’ve seen him do this song before, the band is greeted with the least enthusiastic response I have ever witnessed a great performance receive. And I live in Seattle, home of the apathetic audience.

But the crowd’s not to blame and I’m not one to point fingers; my claps are as leaden as the rest of them. We’re just too damn hot to create any more friction. It’s a sad moment. We had been in conflict with our environment all weekend, trying to sustain our enthusiasm for the music we love despite the crushing heat, but as the soft cheers dwindle and die, I know that this time we lost.

Photo of John Stanier by Marc Whitman

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.