All photos by Jake Lewis
The Great Escape is Europe’s answer to SXSW. It’s basically just like Austin only it’s on the seaside, the sponsors include Artrocker and The Metro, and everyone who attends will need to work out an outfit that goes with a forecast of “warm and moderately sunny, with colder spells, and heavy rain”.
The festival takes place over three days (two of them are weekdays, which pleases people that go “for work”), more than 350 artists are booked to play, there are conferences and networking events, and a bunch of extra shows happen on the street and at unofficial venues. There are no tents and no headliners, but the local Wetherspoons is open for breakfast and if there’s nothing you want to see there’s a rollercoaster on the pier which will give you a near-death experience.
I visited The Great Escape with a mission. I wanted to find the buzz - a term synonymous with new music festivals like The Great Escape and SXSW. I’ve read about the buzz, I’ve heard about the buzz, but I’ve never experienced the buzz. Does it still exist? Do people still get excited about stuff? Or does everyone just sit around and get drunk?
This is what happened:
On Thursday night, Rejjie Snow, Jonwayne and Big Ups all bossed the Noisey Stage. At least five people told me that it was the best party at The Great Escape and only three of them work here. Unfortunately, I drew the short straw and arrived on Friday - the second day - at about 6pm. I would have arrived at 5pm but Brighton has yet to discover multi-story car-parking.
Once I'd walked a mile into town and picked up my festival pass, I ran straight to a secret Ratking show at Boutique, a venue which describes itself as “THE most fashionable night out” (the weird emphasis on THE is theirs). We queued for five minutes. This is how The Great Escape works; it’s like queuing for a log-flume that you enjoy for a short while before rushing off somewhere else.
Ratking - who make music that sounds like it’s spent the weekend traversing opposing coordinates of the Brooklyn-Queens Metro line - have just put out one of the best rap records of 2014. They’re like characters imported direct from a Harmony Korine screenplay; street-kids that drink 40s, get blunted, and spill food down their shirts. Was the buzz here? I don’t think so. The crowd consisted of a bunch of indie kids and industry heads trying to figure out how to dance to hip-hop and resorting to tapping their feet.
Look at that guys jacket! They’re all wearing sunglasses! Clearly this gang know where to find the hottest act in town. I asked them but they said something about getting drunk on the beach and tried to get me to lend them a phone charger.
It quickly dawned on me that I hadn’t drunk anything in hours so I went to the shop and picked up six Bishops Fingers and a pair of socks. Your man knows how to have a good time. It’s integral that you’re lubricated and protected when searching for buzz; the venues are spread out and you’re going to walk like you’re in training for one of those races that old people and pussies enter.
Also - a 2 litre Strongbow costs £3.89. What world do we live in?
I don’t know why Citroen paid to sponsor a bench, but whatever. One of the coolest things about The Great Escape is that random people turn up on the street, shred their guitars, and you still don’t have to pay them any money because you’ve “only got card”.
Between watching street artists and hating myself for never learning an instrument, I spent the early evening conversing with people that wanted to buy me drinks in the hope that I will write about the band they look after. Suckers. It seemed like the buzz was basically non-existent - people were expensing pints, talking about work, and bitching about mutual colleagues. No one suggested a really good band that we all had to watch. It felt like a Friday at a pub. Did people not realise we were at the best musical showcase in Britain?
Two hours later and I’d had enough with small-talk and besides, it was time for my guest appearance as a backing dancer with pop sensation Kiesza. Look - there I am grabbing her leg for no reason!
Fun fact: Kiesza was almost recruited as a sniper in the US army but instead she sailed to Hawaii and stumbled into Miss Universe Canada. Now, instead of murdering people, she murders Jeff Buckley’s music. On Friday night she sampled “Hallelujah” and put a hip-hop beat behind it. This made me sad; it killed the buzz that Vevo had tried to catalyse by creating a weird mini-garden in the middle of a warehouse complex.
Feeling a little bit sad after Kiesza, I made a mental note to return here later. All the old people that I had met were convinced that this place bred excitement.
I had half an hour to kill before the next artist so I walked around Brighton. This guy definitely felt the buzz. “Fuck indie bands”, he told me. “I hang out on this corner every evening and I’m having a great time.” It sounds dark but I dare you to disagree with that grin and those muscles.
We arrived at Komedia at midnight. Darq E Freaker - who has produced a bunch of things for Danny Brown and heads up Nu Brand Flexx - was playing. He looked a little sad, though. I would have asked him what was wrong but apparently you’re not allowed to just walk up to the DJ Booth in case you try to plant a bomb in their drink or something.
Darq E may have looked a little glum, but everyone around me had a great time. For the first time since arriving six hours earlier, people were genuinely happy and excited to experience music (although the lengthy queues for the toilet cubicles may have something to do with that).
Darq E Freaker started off playing a bunch of stuff that no one had ever heard but, toward the end, resorted to playing banger after banger after banger. In five minutes we heard “Next Hype”, “I Luv U”, “Niggas in Paris”, and one guy loved it so much he threw a Strongbow in his face.
Afterwards I returned to the hotel. It was the end of Day One and I'd found minimal buzz. I pulled a sheet over my head and regretted not bringing toothpaste because I'd assumed that the hotel would already have some. You can just never tell what extras are included in the bill.
The next day I woke up bright and early. I'd missed the previous day's conference from Seymour Stein and wanted to get some networking in; proper networking, with people that could point me in the direction of buzz, not a path toward guilt because I'm no longer able to avoid their emails.
Sadly, no one talked to me. It was mostly just people charging their phones and typing into laptops. I drank two cans of Red Bull and left with a buzz. People may not help me in my mission but fuck it, I'm able to help myself.
We hit up Komedia for the second time of the weekend to watch Blessa, a band whose songs make me want to hug people. Sadly, we only caught the end of their set. I started to wish they had invented teleporters or something so I didn't have to walk everywhere.
I walked around for a little while and watched some more street performers. I'm a dickhead for complaining about walking because it's only now that I realise this guy had probably wheeled his keyboard all over Brighton. God bless the hard work people do for art.
A little further across town I ran into a band called, one can only presume, Mok_UK. Mok are from Brighton and they describe themselves as a "Rap New Wave Band" so I'm pretty sure you can guess how they sound. Lots of people watched them though. Maybe they were the first real buzz band I'd found all weekend but TBH the crowd also consisted of families walking back from Jamie's Italian.
In case you can't tell, Brighton is very windy. This made walking along the beach front virtually impossible and definitely frustrating; mostly because Google Maps had broken and we walked the wrong way but also because sand kept blowing in my eyes, my mouth, my hair, my nose. (Yes, Brighton beach is made of pebbles but between those pebbles is a lot of sand.) There's something about walking along the seafront in the opposite direction to the wind that makes anyone look like a UKIP-voting fruitcake. Thankfully, we arrived at Coalition only five minutes late.
Slaves, although yet to release a recording that does them justice, are one of the best live bands in Britain. They're a two-piece, the frontman is like Ray Winstone but actually funny, and they have a song called "Girl Fight" that lasts sixteen seconds.
The frontman also plays the drums while singing, talks about biscuits, and puts every other frontman in England to shame. If buzz exists at Brighton, Slaves were almost the buzziest. The venue was packed, I spotted various members of the cool music people association, and I couldn't stop telling everyone how great they were.
By 8pm I had crashed. We were in a place called the Royal Pavilion Tavern - or Pav Tav, if you're from Brighton - and a band called Doe were playing. They hurt my ears, the hotdog that I ordered from the bar hurt my stomach, and the long night ahead of me hurt my motivation. Sometimes you've just got to take a breather.
I really wanted to go and watch Wet but this presented a problem. They were playing the The East Wing at 9:15pm and JUNGLE were playing The Haunt at 10pm. I get what you're thinking - Ryan, isn't that 45 minutes? Can't you, like, watch some of Wet and then go and see JUNGLE?
This is wrong. You cannot watch Wet and then go and watch JUNGLE because if you try, you will definitely miss JUNGLE. I arrived outside The Haunt at 9:30pm and the queue was insanely deep. This was the first band - aside from Fat White Family who played the night before and I missed because I've seen them a bajillion times - that the entire festival seemed unanimous in their desire to watch.
We waited; the clock hit 10pm and we were still outside. As the wind lashed around my hair, getting inside my coat sleeves and freezing my insides, I said to myself - this is buzz. It's taken all weekend but this is it. I've found the buzz-band of the weekend.
This group of people seemed to agree as they'd all dressed up for the occasion. Unfortunately they were just confused and had got lost on the way to Walkabout.
Finally, at about 10:20pm, we got inside.
JUNGLE sound massive live. You'll be able to see that four people are in this picture but the entire live set-up consists of: two guitarists, a bassist, two backing singers, and two drummers. Although, to be fair, one drummer is basically a fancy Bez. He mostly played the bongos. Still - they were incredible and, as they finished the set, you could feel buzz bouncing around the room.
Actually, it got so intense that someone called the Fire & Rescue service. Except, instead of arriving to put out a fire, they brought along an elephant that breathed fire and a soundsystem that played The Black Eyed Peas. I'd almost had my buzz fill but I had one last venue to get to. Superfood, an indie band, were playing a house party down the road.
I arrived and it was kind of weird. People were testing to see if they were drunk by standing on one leg and pinching their nose. Usually I'm able to tell that I'm drunk because I can't open my mouth and have to leave a conversation before I spray spaghetti in a stranger's face. But fuck it, each to their own.
People were smoking inside, the walls were covered in so much sweat that I did a little grafitti with my finger, and I couldn't move. Brilliant, I said to myself. Not only have I watched JUNGLE but I'm at a super exclusive house party by an indie band. I could not be buzzier right now.
I stayed inside for about an hour until, eventually, it was all over. The Great Escape had finished and it was time for me to try and get a 3:50AM train back to London.
So - what did I learn?
Buzz used to be a thing. Bleepy pop bands like Passion Pit, bloggable chill-wave artists like Washed Out, and mildly interesting groups like Yeasayer were authentically buzz. These days, buzz is different; it’s fixated on mediocre hip-hop artists, the third album from The War on Drugs, and Kanye West. A group like JUNGLE is the closest that we'll get to a buzz-band in 2014 but even then there are still people that won't touch them - and that's a good thing. It's easy to count the number of failed hype-bands from the early 2000s; all you need to do is visit Hipster Runoff. Now, people only care about an indie band when they're actually good which makes things a lot easier for everyone. I'd hate to continue wasting my life counting on a band like Foster The People.
The Great Escape is a great festival (well done marketing team); you get to watch a butt-load of bands in a brilliant city. But the days of going to new music showcases and discovering the Best New Band is over. The industry people go to get drunk and network in Brighton and the paying crowd go to watch bands that are already known; like Klaxons, the Fat White Family, and Kelis.
Finally, the idea of a buzz band is almost definitely dead. It's all just music.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanBassil