FYF Fest in Los Angeles is pretty much the only time I leave the house. Each year the list of artists is announced, and I'm like: I'm going. Then the weekend comes around, and I'm like: Oh no, this means being in public.
This year, I felt especially resistant when a crop of chin acne sprung up just days before the event. I envisioned my four giant zits headlining the festival, caked in crusty concealer, spotlit by the LA sun.
Music festivals are supposed to be a time of freedom, fun, and happiness. But I'm scared of personal freedom, not naturally great at fun, and tend to find happiness elusive. Part of the problem is that I am always on the alert for something to beat myself up about. If it's not the acne, it will be something else. But happiness—the ability to let oneself just be with effortless ease—seems to elude a lot of other people too.
This year at the festival, I decided to interview musicians whose work is deemed "sad," "dark," "nostalgic," or "melancholic," about happiness: what it is, what it means to them, how to get it. The first person I spoke with was Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, whose album Big Black Coat I fucking love for its longing-y sounds.
"Define happiness?" said Greenspan. "I'm pretty easy to please, I'm pretty Even Steven. If you think about the types of things that would make a 70-year-old woman happy, those are generally the types of things that would make me happy. My idea of a perfect day is like going antiquing in the country, a day at a farm, that kind of thing. I don't like thrills. I like easy."
"Does that factor into your music in any way?" I asked.
"I'm not a dour, melancholic person in my daily life, so all that stuff comes out in music I think… it's like, that's the nice thing about doing music, you have something to do with your anxious energy when you're in a bad place… Often good music comes out of bad moments in your life. Generally I can work through things through music a lot of the time."
Greenspan seemed pretty content to me. I wondered what his reaction would be to a sudden large crop of acne appearing on his chin. Would he let it disturb his flow? I didn't think so. Wild Nothing's Jack Tatum, with whom I spoke next, seemed reassuringly more self-conscious and less at ease.
"There is something about music festivals that is somewhat surface level that I feel like, as an artist, I have to make it seem like I'm happy or having more fun than I might be. Which isn't to say I'm not having fun… but I have pretty bad social anxiety, so I would never go to a music festival if I wasn't performing," he said.
Interestingly, Wild Nothing's music reveals little of the frenetic energy of anxiety, projecting instead a more dreamy, womblike energy. It's where you might go to hide from anxiety.
"Do you have a trailer? Have you been hiding in it?" I asked. "Because I like to hide. I've been hiding in the bathroom tweeting."
"If given the chance I would be," he said. "I'm ready for that chance… When I'm onstage, it's different. I don't create another persona, but I do put on the act of 'I'm cool with being here.' I do enjoy it on one level, but I always have that feeling like, oh shit. I think about what everyone else is thinking."
"When you experience social anxiety," I asked, "does it feel more physical, like a panic attack, or more of a thought manifestation—racing thoughts, like general anxiety?"
"It becomes more physical when I'm in a big crowd like this," he said. "Last night, I came here to watch some stuff, and then I was like, 'I can't do this.' I always have to pull back… Whenever I get into my own head, I go deeper and deeper down and start to wonder what someone else might be thinking. It's hard to remember that no one else is thinking that much about you."
Next I talked with Munaf Rayani and Michael James from Explosions in the Sky, a band known for its dramatic and emotional sound, or what the members call their "cathartic mini-symphonies."
"I used to be a little more cynical about happiness, like contentment was happiness, just not wanting anything, but I don't really feel that way anymore. I feel like I do need something to be happy… certain fulfillments," said James.
But Rayani felt differently.
"I feel like for myself, happiness used to come through an if / then formula. If I acquire this, then I'll feel this. But as I grew older and figured out more and more that you can eliminate that and just kind of live in the now and be happy as you are… when you're in happiness, it's kind of easy to be like, 'Well this is missing, or that is missing.' I think you have to be willing to want happiness first," he said. "Our music over the years has had that sadness in it, moments of anger, those moments that we're chasing and trying to relay through melody. But it's not our full definition as people. It's an interesting thing to think about some of the artists we've met along the way and who, in my mind, matched the music and who didn't. And those who didn't, how much better they were than those I was hoping for. And those who did, it was like, hmmmm, well I wish I hadn't met them."
"I don't meet my idols, I don't do it," said James. "I've played festivals with my favorite bands and avoided them. I don't want to ruin it."
At FYF, I got to meet one of my musical idols, Gold Panda, a UK producer whose work I often immerse myself in for creative inspiration. Sometimes Panda is dance-y, and other times, as with Kingdom—the EP he put out quickly this summer following his LP Good Luck and Do Your Best—he sulks and broods. But as it turns out, Panda himself is darker and more of a loner than some of his music might even bely. These qualities only made me like him more.
"I wish I didn't have to play," he said. "It's harder for me when I'm on tour. It took me about five years to learn how to relax. I'm happiest when I'm in my routine. I like to wake up, have some exercise, go get something for lunch… Do you know potato waffles? I take potato waffles and grill them, not fry them, and put them on some bread with some salad. I use mayonnaise and English mustard. This makes me happy."
That's the Gold Panda sandwich, an original. He also said that his recording schedule is based around food rituals from childhood as well. When he was young, he would come home from school, and his mother would have tea and cake for him and his sister. Now, 4 PM is when he settles in and makes music.
"I've been playing 'You' at shows recently, and people love it," he says of an old favorite of his. "It makes them happy. But then I wonder why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for? Or, at a show, this guy came up to me and said, 'I didn't have a very good time tonight,' and I was like, 'Is that my fault?' I don't like anyone I know coming to shows, because they come up and bother me. Birthdays, holidays, I like to be by myself. I'm happy when I'm by myself, you can do what you want to do."
"I'm the same way," I tell him. "There's nothing more beautiful than when a friend cancels plans. But sometimes, if I don't have plans, I feel like I'm supposed to have them."
"That's why you should always make plans and cancel them," he says. "A few months ago, I made plans to go see a show in London. And when the day came I was like why did I do that? I don't want to go out. What was I thinking? So I canceled right before. And it was the greatest feeling ever. It was freedom."
"That's perfect," I tell him.
"We should have both canceled this interview," he says.