Pittsburgh new music and media festival thrills with FRKWYS 7 Ensemble, Light Asylum, Blondes, Araabmuzik and Underground Resistance.
“Pittsburgh?” That was what I kept getting every time I told someone I was going to VIA, a music and new media festival in its second year. “It’s in Pittsburgh?” The confusion is hardly surprising. The city itself is both really regular and hyper radical. Pittsburgh is a traditionally rock music city in Pennsylvania, about eight hours drive from New York City through rolling forested countryside. It’s home to over half a dozen universities including the Carnegie Mellon University, renowned for its music and technology research and studies. It’s also where Andy Warhol grew up, commemorated by a museum that houses the biggest collection of his personal effects including numerous time capsules that he made in his early life. In-between stores selling all the usual fare are pieces of psychedelic public art: giant metal and plastic flowers, abstract sculptures and many murals. Passers-by say hello, which is weird. Nice weird. It feels like the set of a Kevin Smith movie; every corner could be the one that Jay and Silent Bob are about to slope round. In that setting I went to four days of events, including performances by the FRKWYS 7 Ensemble, Underground Resistance, Laurel Halo, Blondes, Light Asylum, Araabmusik, Brenmar and more. “In Pittsburgh?” Hell yeah. Here’s how they went down.
Wednesday was rehearsal day for the FRKWYS 7 Ensemble, the group of synth artists made up of pioneer and composer David Borden, his stepson Samuel Godin and Dummy favourites Oneohtrix Point Never, Laurel Halo and James Ferraro. They were rehearsing in Garfield Artworks, a cool space on Penn Avenue filled with oddities, picture and mirrors. I went along to watch a bit of it (check photographer Shawn Brackbill’s behind the scenes pics in Interview Magazine) settling down in a deep sofa to hear them jamming away and catching snippets of discussion and laughter. It was the first time they’d played together since making the record a year ago and there was more than a little anticipation in the air as the following day was to be the world premiere of their live performance. Slipping away to leave them be, I paused a moment to have a cigarette outside. The sound of their synths weaved their way out the thick wooden doors, merging with the discordance of passing cars like bubbles popping on concrete.
I wandered up the road to the Assemble Gallery where one of VIA’s daily workshops was taking place. Two women on the door pulled me in, pointing out a table full of kids with soldering irons learning all about circuitry. On a table behind them others were making instruments out of paper and a special pen. I pulled up a chair at the back where Kendra Minadeo and her husband Joe were running a session on making film the analogue way, frame-by-frame. Halfway through painting my 24-frame strip (that’s one whole second) I discovered it would be used along with everyone else’s on Friday night for the visuals for Tim Sweeney’s (Beats In Space) set. Visuals are a crucial part of VIA festival – not an add-on but integral to the whole experience. “Visuals are curated with equal weight as music, with emphasis put on their relationship and integration with sound,” VIA’s Lauren Goshinski told me, explaining that every music artist had been paired with a visual artist to create a one-off show, the first taste of which I got later that night. Trans Am, Brenmar and Pure Hype were all playing Brillobox, also on Penn Avenue (they have such long roads in America), and New York trio Thunder Horse had transformed the space into a cave of light with parachute silk and projections. Trans Am performed their 1999 album ‘Futureworld’, a heavy, loud space-rock set that blistered and burned. Brenmar brought things back down to earth with a bump-and-grinding set of bass heavy, warped R&B and juke. A few beers later, the jetlag finally pulled me under and I called it a night.
Thursday was sunny and warm. It didn’t feel like October. In the afternoon, I headed over to the Carnegie Mellon University – the spot for that evening’s FRKWYS Ensemble performance. It took place in Kresge Theater, an austere, womb-like hall with a semi-circular stage and staggered red velvet seating. David Borden gave a short lecture and slideshow about his friend Bob Moog, who developed the Moog synthesiser in the mid-60s, and Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, the world’s first synthesiser ensemble that Borden formed in 1969.
He later told me one of the stories he’d missed from his lecture, about when Moog had sold up his company and was having a hard time pen-pushing: “We had a few key phrases we used to say to each other to make us laugh, from years of joking around. So I said something like, “This place looks very beautiful. I bet all the ideas here are pretty deep shit.” And he just got hysterical because ‘deep shit’ was one of the phrases.” Borden has the kind of laugh that makes you join in, and he laughed often during the talk. When he finished, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), Laurel Halo, James Ferraro and Samuel Godin joined him on stage. Behind and around them a series of lights transformed the space from deep yellow to pink to blue throughout the hour they played. Lopatin, Halo, Borden and Godin wielded their synths almost like harps, plucking deeper sounds and reaching further into the jam with each phrase. Having played synths on the record, for this live performance Ferraro sat in the centre with his laptop, channelling and looping the others’ output, acting as both conductor and conduit. Time passed quickly, yet it also seemed to pause, ever-present. [Listen to a room recording of the FRKWYS 7 Ensemble performance below.]
As they came to a close, it felt like waking, returning to an altered moment that became all the more surreal as we sat on the steps outside the theatre and ate burritos. Afterwards it was a short drive across the city to The Rex Theater to catch Four Tet and Battles playing. Four Tet was performing with visual artists Abstract Birds, who were showcasing their Partitura project that they’d developed with London producer Quayola. Like strands of DNA strands, the visuals flexed and flowed in direct correlation with Four Tet’s heart-filled, liquid-like set. A little later it was a completely different story as Battles strode on stage. Minus Tyondai Braxton, the trio played like the rock band they’ve patently always wanted to be. It was a big, brash, electric show, full of swagger and sweat. Guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka got on the mic at the end, pointing to guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams and acrobatic drummer John Stanier and thanking the packed venue for coming to see “two sons of Pittsburgh”. It was a sweet gesture that unsurprisingly lit a match under the crowd, igniting woops and applause.
Friday was a hazy, hungover, jacked-up-on-iced-coffee day. By late afternoon, it was onward to 6022 Broad Street where a warehouse space with a yoga spot above it had been converted into the venue for the evenings proceedings. Pink Skull rolled out their electric boogie lushness, sounding a shade rockier live than on record. After a little mooching about outside it was back in for Light Asylum. Thunder Horse had created the perfect setting for them, carting two giant fans all the way from New York on the back of their pick-up truck to create a cinematic industrial scene for the pure, desperate, widescreen force of Light Asylum’s music. Shrouded in fog, Shannon Funchess was the consummate diva front woman, her voice a cyclone circling above bandmate Bruno Coviello’s dark, twisted pop synths. It was a joy to hear A Certain Person in the flesh but it was Dark Allies that really stole the show, pumping round the room with a perverse sexual energy.
Araabmuzik was up next, possibly the most energetic act I’ve ever seen live. Three giant screens situated along the long wall of the venue showed black and white live footage shot from an angle above his shoulder. His fingers were a blur, beating the MPC pads in front of him into a pulp. It was both thrilling and hilarious, like the fastest techno or Eurotrance on speed, cartoon-like frothing at the mouth. The highlight of the night, though, was Blondes. I have seen them half a dozen times now and it’s like they’re in some heated competition with themselves, always upping the stakes, getting more heated, more intense with every show. The giant screens echoed back Zach Steinman and Sam Haar’s dancing forms on stage, merging in and out of Aurora Halal’s hypnotic live visuals. I danced down the front with a friend who’d driven over from New York that day to see the duo play. We kept exchanging ‘WTF?!’ looks at every bass drop and loop build as Blondes kept upping the bpm, pushing harder, further, driving the crowd into a dancing fury. That Balearic vibe still bubbled throughout but there was something tougher present too, a deep house burn with off-beat drums and gossamer synths echoing round and round, swirling ever upwards into ecstatic peaks and then holding everyone on the edge for what felt like an age before the inevitable drop back into the blissful abyss. [Download Blondes’ live set from VIA below.]
The final night was held outside the venue from the previous evening, where VIA closed off the road to erect an outdoor stage. We arrived just as Laurel Halo was beginning her set in the last of the day’s sunshine. She melded melting synth lines into architectural shapes, carving out sharp and jagged staggered corners before smoothing them out into seamless aerodynamic forms. The crowd got into it, nodding and shoulder dancing.
Up next were Ford & Lopatin, playing to a backdrop of LA-based artist Spencer Longo’s movie infomercial visuals. As they broke out into reworked, fragmented jams from their technicolour debut album ‘Channel Pressure’, paper cups of Coca Cola and lit cartoon cigarettes span above their heads. Joel Ford bounced back and forward on the spot, head bobbing to the beat, while Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) seemed contentedly lost in his synth. As visions of candy-shaped and shaded landscapes danced across their faces, evoking the CGI scenes of their World Of Regret video, they took the crowd into full-on dancing mode as the sun set over Pittsburgh.
Peanut Butter Wolf followed up with a fun AV set, mixing both hip hop and dancehall tunes with their associated YouTube videos live and doing numerous shout-outs, even pulling some local kids up on stage to dance at one point. Canadian opera singer turned electro pop star Austra was haunting in white, her sheer and stately voice holding the crowd’s gaze. The ghost of Lose It seemed to echo throughout every song however, lending a strangely static feel to what was otherwise an enjoyable performance.
It was left to Pittsburgh natives Zombi, then, to shake things up, which they did via Anthony Paterra’s fiery drums and Steve Moore’s icy synths and guitar. Theirs was a thundering live set: squelchy, unforgiving, epic.
The show stealers of the night were Detroit techno legends Underground Resistance. They’d already made their presence felt from day one. ‘No pictures, no interviews, no talking to them’ went the diktat, while a rumour went round that if any of their kit wasn’t set up correctly, they would slap down a $500 fine, just like that. “POSITIVE CHAOS!” boomed the MC, delivering a sermon of brain augmenting proportions. “The revolution starts in your HEART, “ he continued as past, present and future techno collided to become one. ‘I AM UR’ read his t-shirt, and as Mad Mike et al continued to slay the people dancing in the streets, he welcomed the dancers up onto the stage. Positive chaos is the way forward. See you next year, VIA.
A huge thank you to Lauren Goshinski, Matthew McDermott and all at VIA, and Matt from RVNG Intl.