Feature: Le Guess Who? Festival

By Daniel Mackenzie (@EkcaLiena)


The recent drama surrounding Glastonbury’s decision to book childish bigot Kanye West as a festival headliner was pretty funny, wasn’t it? I personally couldn’t give a shit about it. Partly because anything Kanye does is so off my radar it might as well not exist; partly because Glastonbury, and its loyal followers, should probably let go of the rock festival heritage and accept what it has become: a huge, international event that is geared towards demonstrating the massiveness of current contemporary music, performance and art. That means taking acid with a dragon made from straw and pubes, and it means people like Kanye. The eclecticism they favour transcends not just genre and root, but whether or not the performers are generally accepted to be good by people who confess to musical snobbery. Whether this may be considered ‘wrong’ or, worse, completely deplorable to seizure inducing rage can only ever be subjective, and whilst I would take great pleasure in ignoring Kanye West or Chris Martin or whoever else, I would much rather take other festivals up on their offer of eclecticism that doesn’t tread into their realms.

Le Guess Who? is an organisation based in the Netherlands who put together events of differing sizes and favour just the kind of diversity in programming that ticks boxes for a large number of music lovers. Their flagship festival takes over the whole of their home city of Utrecht, with concerts, installations and micro happenings taking place in spaces as small as the activist cafe and venue ACU, to the imposingly huge Tivoli performance centre. The latter played host to some extremely notable names in underground music. In an experience that felt like institutionalised industrial expression, Einstürzende Neubauten clanged and scraped the airwaves within an enormous underground auditorium. Swans did their almost frightening quasi-religious onslaught on a smaller, but equally epic main stage. The same stage was later the setting for a relentless, lights out set from masters of awkward electronica Autechre.

In the smaller areas however, lesser known and local acts delivered scuzzy punk blow-outs, modern classically-informed ambient and outbursts on the fringes of the weird. The middle was also supported in mid-sized venues like De Helling, a pleasant walk through quiet back streets, along the waterfront to the east of the city centre. In this space we were treated to sets from Silver Apples, Ben Frost, Prurient and Sun City Girls’ Sir Richard Bishop. The particular characteristics of each space almost gave the impression of a number of festivals within a festival, and in fact that wouldn’t be such an inaccurate thought. The 24 Hour Dronefest was exactly that, with Stephen O’Malley, William Basinski, and Carla Bozulich joined by a diverse set of names conjuring sonic drifts over a day and night. And on the Friday night back in Tivoli’s Pandora stage, Austin Psych Fest enjoyed their own evening of programmed far out-ness. All of the above only scratches the surface of the event, which was truly epic in scale, masterfully executed and holds the eclectic flag high. Le Guess Who?’s Barry Spooren seems charmingly humble towards the successes of the festival to date. “For Le Guess Who? 2014, we definitely attracted more international visitors then ever” he says. “In total, 22% comes from abroad. We do see Le Guess Who? as an international festival […] but like the numbers show, most of the visitors still come from The Netherlands.”

It appears this impression is in spite of the 22% oversees attendance. Yes it was planned to coincide with the Mega Record & CD Fair, the largest fair for record collectors in Europe, but attracting that many people from across the world into Utrecht in November is still an impressive achievement. Summer festival season is long gone, the climate of northern Europe starts to entice hermetic grumbling and finances begin to bring up terrifying premonitions of arriving empty handed into awkward family functions. There is no real doubt that this comes from adventurous and impeccable programming.

Not all of Le Guess Who?’s events are so huge. The drone extravaganza that formed part of the festival last year has been jettisoned into a showcase of its own. On April 25th New York state’s Basilica venue will play host to another 24 hours of gradual sound, an event that we covered recently. There is no doubting the popularity of the concept. According to Barry it was a huge success last year. “We actually had people coming from abroad for just the 24-Hour Dronefest”, he reveals, “spending the entire 24 hours in the same room with all the drones.”

On May 23rd the Pandora space back in the Tivoli will see a single night of excellent acts grace the stage. One Night in Pandora is a cut down, stripped back insight into what the organisation does, played out through a dynamic line up of far out garage excursions, doom onslaughts and African vocal psych. Pallbearer, Thee Oh Sees and Noura Mint Seymali head up the bill, with Kevin Morby, Morgan Delt and Wand forming support. Although everyone is of course welcome (and Utrecht is a convenient place to reach from the UK), Barry feels this event is focused on people from The Netherlands, nearby fans of the larger festival, organised “to offer our visitors something more during the year than only the festival in November, a party with fans of the festival”.Isn’t that sweet? And along with some other as yet unannounced international events, 2015 for Le Guess Who? is completed in November when Utrecht will be taken over once again. Rather than offering a repeat of previous years, there is an effort to make each edition different from the last. This could be in the form of new venues, new curatorial collaborations, anything to mark the refreshed perspective on a solid framework. “Each year will be different”, promises Barry, “that’s really what we want to do with the festival, to keep challenging ourselves and visitors.” That they do. Consider yourself urged to find out more about Le Guess Who? as they appear to be flying the flag for brilliantly programmed and conceived events in Europe, and beyond.

Tickets to One Night in Pandora (May 23rd) and 24 Hour Drone: Experiments in Sound (April 25th) are on sale now. PHOTOS (credit Erik Luyten)

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