Sunday, 17 July 2016

Planet Pop, Flux and the 20-Year Trickledown Effect to Edinburgh International Festival

When Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan announced his first programme in 2015 would include a gig by FFS, a collaboration between Glasgow-sired art-rockers Franz Ferdinand and post-modern music hall duo, Sparks, it was a headline-catching statement of intent. While previous EIF programmes had featured the likes of rock and roll poetess Patti Smith performing alongside minimalist composer Philip Glass, here was an event rooted in Scotland's DIY pop underground which had subverted the mainstream.

This year, Linehan's contemporary music programme has been developed further. Glasgow instrumentalists Mogwai performing a live soundtrack to Mark Cousins' film, Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. Former Arab Strap vocalist Aidan Moffat will perform alongside Where You're Meant To Be, Paul Fegan's film that follows Moffat's journey in song around Scotland.

Moffat's performance will take place in The Hub, where Chemikal Underground records mainstay and former member of the Delgados, Emma Pollock, will appear alongside a mini supergroup that includes the Cairns String Quartet and RM Hubbert.

Quebecois apocalypsists Godspeed You! Black Emperor appear in concert at Edinburgh Playhouse, where they will also perform a live soundtrack to dance company The Holy Tattoo's performance of their key work, Monumental. Back at the Hub, Edinburgh's own Young Fathers will play two shows that show off their unique mesh of beats, bombast and electronic fizz.

This comes at a time when a public consultation is being undertaken by City of Edinburgh Council on a legislation which states that all live music must remain inaudible beyond the four walls of the venue it is being played in. While such legislation has been derided as a physical impossibility, EIF's programme highlights the importance of grassroots music venues which are currently being gentrified out of existence across the UK.

This was made clear following the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Lost in France, Niall McCann's new documentary film charting the early days of Chemikal Underground records. The film focuses on one particularly messy French sojourn for the label's roster, who at the time included the Delgados, Arab Strap and Mogwai. Following the screening, Emma Pollock tweeted a picture of the West Bow branch of Sainsbury's Local where a large pub called the Cas Rock once stood.

Without the Cas Rock, it remains unlikely that any of the artists mentioned would have found an Edinburgh venue to hone their craft in a way that has seen them graduate to EIF. It was here too that collective desire to fill a musical gap during August's festival season resulted in Planet Pop, a month long annual festival which began in 1996.

Over twenty nights, one could see Mogwai playing third on the bill to a small audience waiting to see headliners Urusei Yatsura. Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos' early band, The Blisters headlined two nights before, while The Delgados supported Eugenius. Also on show were Edinburgh talents such as Ballboy and Idlewild, the latter of whom again played third on the bill, while Arab Strap played the following year.

“To us popular music was this massive gaping hole in the biggest arts festival in the world,” Jonathan Kilgour, one of the original collective behind Planet Pop and guitarist at the time with Police Cat remembers. “We didn't know what wasn't possible, so we decided to try to fill that hole ourselves.”

A similar idea had been hatched by David Sefton, who in 1993 had started the Meltdown festival on London's South Bank. Unlike EIF, Meltdown ignored categories in favour of a more eclectic approach.

“I was coming to Edinburgh every year with that background,” he remembers, “and was painfully aware that while you'd hear amazing things, at that time in Edinburgh, music was defined as purely classical in the International Festival. This became something of an obsession for me as so much great stuff was happening at the time that wasn't being reflected in the major UK arts festival.”

Sefton was joined by Alex Poots, who has also worked on Meltdown, and, after being rebuffed by EIF, the independently run Flux festival brought the likes of Nick Cave, The Divine Comedy and Michael Nyman to town. A triple bill of Scottish acts at Flux featured Mogwai, The Delgados and The Nectarine No 9. Like Planet Pop, Flux was designed, according to Sefton,“to plug what seemed like such an obvious gap. If you look back to the 1990s, and well into this century, most of the traditional festivals viewed their music programmes strictly in terms of the classical and traditional. Modern music was something written for an orchestra by someone who hadn't died yet.”

While all this was going on, a local operation somewhat fancifully dubbed the House of Dubois was introducing Edinburgh to leftfield electronica and experimental sounds in a way that was way ahead of the curve. One of the House of Dubois' earliest ventures in 1998 was to put on the second ever UK gig by the then little-known Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the decidedly un-rock and roll confines of Stills Gallery on Cockburn Street.

“I felt very strongly that the music I liked, at least, the more experimental stuff, wasn't coming to Edinburgh,” says Christine Wilson, who formed one half of the House of Dubois. “We came up with what now looks like a rather random plan to put GY!BE on at Stills. One of the curators there was a friend of mine, and she was up for it. In all honesty, I didn't really know what I was doing. I was only twenty-three, but the gallery was our idea. We contacted GY!BE, and the deed was done.”

Given the limitations of an art gallery sound system, it was perhaps no surprise that GY!BE blew the speakers, thus cutting the gig short. Within a year, GY!BE were on the cover of the NME and selling out venues ten times the size of Stills.

Young Fathers are a more recent addition to Edinburgh's musical landscape, but have made waves since first forming at the original New Street site of the Bongo Club, now demolished to make way for the controversial Caltongate / New Waverley development after being a gap site for more than a decade.

“Young Fathers have been all around the world at least twice now,” their former manager Tim Brinkhurst points out, “and it’s good for the world to come to them, for a change.”

Why it has taken EIF twenty years to embrace contemporary pop music the way Linehan's programme has is something to do with the sort of resistance identified by Sefton.

“There’s a lot of people still don’t think pop music is art,” Brinkhurst observes. “Just trying to get government to recognise the importance of pop music is painfully slow and in the meanwhile nothing changes. Maybe they should try to imagine what the city would be like without live music, apart from a few weeks every year. A bit like Elmore, Oklahoma?” he posits, referring to the film, Footloose, set in a town that has banned music.

Linehan himself accepts that “live music year round is really complicated in Edinburgh. People are doing really great things here, but institutions in Edinburgh aren't as connected with popular music as they are elsewhere. There's something to be said for rock and roll not being too institutionalised, but popular music is still an outsider artform in Edinburgh, and maybe doesn't get the respect it deserves, but that's changing, and I hope we can continue to be a part of that change.”

As Sefton and Poots went on to run the Adelaide Festival and Manchester International Festivals respectively, in Edinburgh, grassroots initiatives such as Tigerfest, Retreat!, and the Song, By Toad record label's archly named Pale Imitation Festival picked up the slack from Planet Pop. As did the Summerhall-based Nothing Ever Happens Here year-round promotions which have provided a focus of sorts alongside venues such as Henry's Cellar Bar and Sneaky Pete's.

As for the future of EIF, according to Brinkhurst,“They should give Young Fathers a venue to curate every year, with a decent budget so we can get some good stuff on from around the world. Ground-breaking music presented like a cutting edge theatre show, working with top lighting, sound and wardrobe designers. Apart from that, why shouldn’t it be taken as seriously as the other festival elements and included every year?”

Monumental, featuring Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Edinburgh Playhouse, August 8-9, 8pm. Godspeed You! Black Emperor in concert, Edinburgh Playhouse, August 10, 8pm.
Young Fathers, The Hub, August 14-15, 9.30pm.
Where You're Meant To Be followed by a live set by Aidan Moffat, The Hub, August 16, 5pm.
Emma Pollock, The Hub, August 25, 7pm.
Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, with a live performance by Mogwai, Edinburgh Playhouse, August 27-28, 9pm.


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