Gemma Dunleavy on her “everyday chat dressed as sonics” and the community injustice that spurs her on
A stroll through Paris’ Parc La Villette is surreal of an autumnal evening just after Halloween: the glowing carousels are empty, the stalls selling candy floss are bereft, and the places where you can win giant cuddly toys are starting to close for the night. But in spite of all these indicators that the area is calling it a day, walk a little further and you’ll see a kind of hipster pilgrimage is taking place. Which is to say, Pitchfork Paris is back for another year.
Taking place in La Grande Halle de la Villette, the festival is an intriguing prospect from a curatorial perspective. There are just two stages, in the same hall, so as one act performs, things are set up on the other stage for the next act, meaning punters drift from one end to another until, on Thursday and Friday night at least, the main programming ends, and the after-party begins at nearby club Trabendo.
On the Thursday, it’s the after-party that’s the highlight. Although the main event included spangly, synthy pop from Étienne Daho, a very jaded Julian Casablancas fronting the Voidz with their angular rock, and Mac DeMarco bringing his tour bus driver out on stage, it’s in the smaller club after where things feel less tied to a certain past epoch; more like they’re pushing the envelope.
Berlin-based producer Lotic is behind the decks playing glorious bangers (‘APESHIT’, Cardi’s ‘Money’), and is wry about the relatively small crowd keeping their distance (“I’m guessing most of you don’t know who I am”). It’s an invitation to start performing some glimmering tracks from this year’s incredible ‘Power’, and there’s something especially mesmerising about ‘Nerve’ with its slow, metallic electronics and Lotic’s breathy, soothing vocals.
Next up, Yves Tumor’s set is a masterclass in his strange brand of what’s almost glamrock experimentalism: there is real, captivating star power about him and his set is magic. Sporting what appears to be a red leotard, the enigmatic artist drifts and gyrates around the stage with enthralling ease as he delivers songs from the spectacular ‘Safe in the Hands of Love’, and there’s something incredibly sensual about it all.
The following day again largely passes in rock and indie and synthpop that I’m not that interested in (guttingly I miss Tirzah), though I quite like how the dude from Car Seat Headrest (a band name which makes me feel weirdly motion sick?) jerks around the stage while serving Bobby Gillespie kind of litheness. Chromeo bring the funk in a way that kind of recalls Bruno Mars (this is a compliment!), CHVRCHES are upbeat and cheerful, but obviously I have to leave early to wait on the other side of the hall to get a good spot for Devonté Hynes.
Of course, such dedication is very much worth it – and I’m far from the only one enraptured with Hynes. Many people we meet over the day say they’re just here for Blood Orange (with one especially remarkable woman saying she has come solo from Lebanon to see him). The standout set of the weekend, Hynes’ oeuvre as Blood Orange has always focused on the collaborative vision – and, on-stage, he and his band are very much a family (special props to Ian Isiah, who absolutely kills it with that astounding falsetto on ‘Holy Will’). Hynes himself might be reluctant to own it, and keeps crowd interaction typically minimal (though, compared to his London show, he’s very chatty), but he is very much the star you can’t take your eyes off. The fluidity of his movement as he basically vogues, du-rag in hand, before seamlessly transitioning to singing, to guitar, to piano, to whispers – it’s all astonishing. Though the focus is of course on his latest LP, ‘Negro Swan’, occasionally cut with recordings of those uplifting spoken word monologues from Janet Mock, his poppy earlier sounds get a look-in too: ‘You’re Not Good Enough’ and ‘Champagne Coast’ are particularly euphoric.
Kaytranada afterwards is hard to focus on, such is the daze I’m in post-Blood Orange, but the Canadian DJ/producer knows how to get a party going. He largely plays his own beats, including his recent Kelela and Anderson .Paak remixes and – all too briefly – a slice of his Craig David-featuring beauty, ‘Got It Good’. The visuals are amusing too, with a pre-filmed version of him silently trying to implore the crowd to start chanting his name before rolling his eyes and giving up. Also a seemingly unplanned dancer arrived on the stage and they ended up doing a little coordinated bit and it was very like an iconic scene from underrated classic, The Goofy Movie (but I hugely digress).
The final day of the festival is an odd day of curation too, going from bands like Unknown Mortal Orchestra and a sweetly meditative set from Bon Iver (who very much does not play “the hits”) to suddenly switching to dance music. DJ Koze’s set is warm, Peggy Gou is fine (the highlight is perhaps when she plays what must surely go down as a track of 2018, Marie Davidson’s ‘Work It’), and headliner Daniel Avery is wonderfully abrasive – but it’s Avalon Emerson who does the most tonight, switching between warm techno, poppy beats and even a Bollywood number.
There’s a ghost that’s looming over the weekend, and it’s not just because La Grande Halle is a former abattoir. Instead, that ghost’s name is rap music – for a festival and institution that is so obviously aware of (and, let’s be real, renowned for shaping) the zeitgeist, it is such a striking thing when Lotic and Kaytranada are playing hip-hop because it’s fully absent on the line-up. Perhaps this is to do with knowing their local audience, but given how famously healthy the French rap scene is (recently, Parisian MHD’s album was testament to this), it seems an oversight.
Regardless, it’s an enjoyable weekend. And for the sheer magic of Blood Orange, Lotic and Yves Tumor especially, it was worth traipsing from end to end of the cold former slaughterhouse in the midst of an empty fairground. Which, given how otherwise desperately unappealing that sounds, is high praise indeed.