Le Guess Who? – Utrecht's church of noise

We venture to the Netherlands for a weekend of off-kilter musical shenanigans at Utrecht's Le Guess Who? festival, and fall head first in love with a city full of secrets.

Feature by Will Fitzpatrick | 04 Dec 2015

Janskerk is the perfect place to begin. Built early in the 11th century, this Dutch Reformed-denominated church stands proudly in the Janskerkhof square in the centre of Utrecht; a Romanesque-styled national monument that once served as the town library, foreshadowing the birth of the city’s university. Whether by design or serendipity, this symbol of local culture houses the first act we see at Le Guess Who? Festival, and it all feels very apt.

The artist in question, Hildur Guðnadóttir, uses little other than cello, triggered samples and her own haunting voice, as intertwining melodies conjure melancholy with grace; portentous doom with hope; sorrow with captivating beauty. As the curtain-raiser to a music festival, the set feels less of a triumphalist call to arms, more a solemn opening rite – a hushed prayer amplified by the stillness of her surroundings, cleansing, purifying and humbling. ‘City of music’ is the phrase emblazoned on the tourist booklet that lies on our desk in the modest-yet-modern Star Lodge hotel, but it’s the religious themes that recur time and again throughout our time here, and even to this writer's secular outlook, they are both urgent and striking.

The church then plays host to the wonderful Julia Holter, whose bewitchingly unusual arrangements also seem perfectly at home in its soft stillness. Opening with her instantly-arresting version of Karron Dalton’s My Love, My Love – meditatively dedicated to the victims of the previous weekend’s Paris attacks – the set builds appreciably in magic and confidence before we relocate to another grand structure: the TivoliVredenburg complex.

A labyrinthine space opened in July 2014, it contains five concert halls and a plethora of lecture theatres, each one a remarkable feat of engineering and acoustics. In the belly of the beast sits the Grote Zaal theatre, the old symphonic hall around which TivoliVredenburg was built, and where The Notwist provide a searing blast of controlled-explosive excellence. Possibly due to preceding their existence by a good ten years, the veteran noisemakers never were referred to as ‘the German Broken Social Scene’, but it’s a comparison that doesn’t seem too far off the mark. Thunderous electronics crash mightily into shimmers of collegiate haze – a collision, rather than a synthesis of man and machine, with the resultant wreckage frequently stunning.

Later that night, we also witness the heart-wrenching pop of Majical Cloudz, Faust’s remarkable range of imagination (replete with a trio of knitting ladies sat at centre stage – your guess is as good as ours, but it fits, somehow) and Ought’s amiably oddball take on fractured post-punk, before finally being blown away by a spiritually sinister take on white noise-drenched techno from Demdike Stare. After a dizzying first day in the city, a nighttime walk alongside Utrecht’s canals seems the most calming, sensible way to realign our heads and perspectives.

Le Guess Who? is a very different sort of music festival. Arguably somewhere between Primavera and All Tomorrow’s Parties in terms of both lineup and atmosphere, it was first held on a much smaller scale way back in 2007. Artist announcements were kept secret until just before the event began (hence the choice of moniker, although with Caribou and Julie Doiron on the Canadian-only inaugural bill, nervous punters would soon have their quality-related fears put to bed), and unlike the corporate sponsored affairs that dominate the circuit, it remains entirely independent.

Its inevitable expansion has been contained – while this year’s 170-strong bill ensures it’s too big to merit the term ‘boutique’, it takes advantage of a small city centre with venues that are large enough to feel like a major occasion, but not so much that any sense of atmosphere is swallowed up by the space. Indeed, there’s a cordiality in the air throughout; hospitable locals are friendly and in good spirits across the weekend, while putting our native grasp on the English language to shame.

While waiting for the second day’s entertainment to get underway, a tour of some of the city’s musical landmarks inevitably brings us to another building of religious significance – Utrecht’s astonishing Domkerk cathedral was literally ripped in two by severe storms in 1674 and never rebuilt. Its 112-metre Domtoren tower now stands sentry above the city, isolated from the main building on the opposite side of the Domplein walkway, truly a sight to boggle the mind. Our destination on this walk, however, is a stone’s throw away from such grandiosity – the less-imposing Pieterskerk does not scale anywhere near the same grand heights, but it transpires that its graceful interior and restored sandstone pillars provide the city’s finest acoustics for vocal performance. Sadly, there’s no choral group present to demonstrate this for us –  a shame, since our dabblings in the building’s history (originally Roman Catholic, before being repurposed by the Walloon denomination of the Dutch Reformed Church) leave us in the mood to immerse ourselves further in its splendour.

Soon enough, we relocate to the site of a very different musical venture. By the side of the Oudegracht (‘old canal’), surrounded by bars, cafes and independent shops selling comics, second hand records and general bric-a-brac, lies the original Tivoli building. Originally built as another church, before evolving into a 1000-capacity music venue, it now operates as the studio complex and brain centre of the ‘Kytopia’ project; the brainchild of one Colin Benders, aka Dutch hip-hop artist (and general noisemaking polymath) Kyteman. Designed to support young artists determined to push themselves and their art, it houses several recording facilities, a vast performance space and the affable Benders’ own modular synth experiments. Engineers and producers are on hand to offer advice and expertise, and upstairs resides Sonar Traffic, a synthesizer afficionado’s paradise with a vast collection of equipment.

It’s a dizzying complex; almost too much to take in. Luckily, our next stop is the delightful Café Olivier, a luxuriously-pristine bar serving delicious Belgian brews – the perfect way to relax after the information overload of our previous destination. Our questions as to what constitutes the elusive 'Dutch cuisine' meet with terse, flippant and largely unhelpful responses, but their snacks prove to be excellent as we sample the local bitterballen: deep-fried snacks containing a molten meat paste, which go down a treat with mustard and the rich, tar-thick delights of high strength beer (something of a guilty pleasure at mid-afternoon). Oh, and the building itself? You guessed: a former church, recognisable immediately from the polished organ pipes climbing the back wall.

All this is almost enough to make one forget that there’s a music festival at hand, but we return to TivoliVredenburg in time for the first artist of the day: the sublime Besnard Lakes. Their robust pop draws from classic psychedelia and the reliable crunch of what’s ambiguously called ‘classic rock’, but their outlook is far sweeter than that suggests. By way of contrast, Kaki King’s guitar explorations are fragile and ornate, yet percussive and subtle; a beguiling but undoubtedly odd curveball as a follow-up to the first act’s familiar immediacy. Preconceptions are bent backwards upon themselves halfway through the set, however, when the abstract images projected above King’s impassive face break into subtitles, explaining that they represent the guitar’s own ‘voice’. “I bet you didn’t know I could talk,” we read, when a beat suddenly drops and plunges us into the guitar’s likeably daft 'life story', soundtracked by melodic flourishes. What an odd performance.

That’s not the sort of phrase you could throw at Titus Andronicus, of course. Even with Patrick Stickles howling American history through ragged vocal cords, not to mention the ambition of their arrangements, they ultimately boil down to classic American bar-band rock’n’roll – The Replacements or even Soul Asylum as refracted through the narrowest prism of Irish folk. It’s exuberant as fuck, of course, which is why the crowd loves ‘em. Protomartyr’s approach is less joyous, but even as frontman Joe Foster drawls his way through a series of bleakly poetic observations, there’s hints at an everyman optimism buried in there somewhere – cryptically (and most likely unintentionally) evident in the beer bottle that only leaves his paw when it’s time to replace it with another. Their take on Joy Division riffs is less taut and more garage-centric than most post-punk cap-doffers, a rough edge they’d do well not to sand down.

They’re followed by the blinding blast of Toronto’s METZ: a white-hot rush of squalls, screams and undying energy that places them firmly at the peak of festival highlights up to this point. Edinburgh composer Anna Meredith is the surprise complement to their visceral chaos, as her fusion of classical stylings with glowing, electronic pulses maintains the momentum with an added sense of maximalist discipline. Trust us, she’s great.

It’s with trepidation, then, that we head in the direction of Blanck Mass. We’re perfectly trusting of Benjamin John Power’s talents, you understand; this year’s Dumb Flesh remains a perfect document of consciousness-stretching, complex electronica – it’s merely the battering our hearing is liable to take that worries us, and naturally the set is loud. It’s much less dense and more accessible than his tent show at Electric Fields this summer, however – you might even call it a triumph. The lights go out on the day thanks to a sterling, but even more brutally noisy pummeling from the mighty A Place To Bury Strangers, who literally leave walls shaking and punters quaking in their wake of their nihilist post-punk scree. It’s a true sensory experience that  hits the pit of your stomach as hard as your ears – a uniquely rewarding one, but even so, we’re ready for a nice lie down.

Le Guess Who? isn’t just about international touring musicians, of course – it’d be remiss of them not to reward the Netherlands’ own upcoming talent, and as such there’s a plethora of fringe events such as Le Mini Who? that do exactly that. The pick of the bunch from our vantage point is the uniquely odd Jo Goes Hunting, a quintet based around the ‘avant-gardistic pop’ of one Jimmi Jo Hueting. Merging electronic tinged new wave with a thoroughly now take on off-kilter psych, their pleasantly warped outlook makes a significant  impression on their humble stage at the rear of the Voorstraat’s Plato record shop. After the set, we welcome in the dusk at the heated tables outside the canal-facing Café de Postillon, drinking in the busyness of early Saturday evening under the pale glow of streetlamps and tree-mounted lights: a flâneur’s paradise.

Moving back to the main festival, we catch a truly remarkable set from Destroyer, with Dan Bejar’s louche, debonair mannerisms catching the eye almost as solidly as the band’s lushly arranged sophisto-pop catches the ear. It’s off to De Helling for us next, though, for a mighty triumvirate of rickety guitar pop: Ultimate Painting are up first, their easy hooks and unassuming politeness unearthing a charm that’s reminiscent of  Teenage Fanclub in its unerring ability to generate warmth and conviviality from the stoniest of hearts. Lovely stuff, although in a very different way to what follows.

Instantly, energetically commanding from the word go, the wonderful Shannon And The Clams race through their surf-embossed riot with sass and sensibility, igniting a small dance party amongst the still-not-quite-drunk-enough audience. Go see ‘em, and prepare to fall for ‘em in a very adolescent manner. After that, Memphis garage punkers Nots can’t quite match The Clams for hip-shaking instancy, but their tuff gnarl still comes at enough of a rip-roaring pace to make that self-titled debut album seem like something of a necessity.

Later on, we receive a full lesson in how to blow minds from Kamasi Washington and his band. Performing tracks from his frequently astonishing, three-hour debut album The Epic, we’re treated to a masterclass in cosmic jazz and P-funk detonations. You’ve gotta be flash to pull this off, but Washington wins over the hearts and minds of all present, with the audience applauding, hooting and hollering long after the last echoes of wailing sax have faded away. The only thing that can possibly top that is the furious Lightning Bolt, who take to the stage at 2.30am and duly grind us all into the floor; Brian Chippendale’s frenetic drums sounding as ever like 40,000 gold teeth rattling in a tin can, only much, much noisier. Exhilarating? Always. Exhausting? You betcha.

It’s our final day in Utrecht, so we grab at the chance for one last rustle through its cultural treasures. A walk to Centraal Museum provides an opportunity to amble through the picturesque Museum Kwartier: so much history to absorb, so little time… but that’s the perils of exploring a (nearly) 2,000-year-old city for you.

The array of exhibitions is daunting, but the fascinating Lekker Licht (‘nice ‘n light’) catches our eye. An exploration into the meaning of light, the pieces on display make use of lightbulbs that give the impression of melted luminescence, pop videos displayed on giant screens, and a number of family-aimed interactive features. Most notable is Citadels: Common Structures by Matthijs Munnik, a strobing, six-metre monolith in an entirely white room: according to the blurb, its intention is to invoke a feeling somewhere between ‘Zen and psychosis’, but the experience actually feels more like a headache. Regardless, it leaves its mark.

Back at Le Guess Who?, Kelley Stoltz performs in the packed-out back room of canalside bar Ekko. His wit sparkles as brightly as ever and his songs pop and fizz delightfully, but it’s when he merges into his alter-ego of Willy Weird that things get really interesting. With his voice drenched in effects, and the band channelling a drama that ties together the most neo-romantic excesses of the 1980s with some undiscovered space-punk, it’s a baffling but brilliant turn. Back in Tivoli, the airy fragility of Eerie Wanda is less captivating; a soft-shuffling (occasionally bossa nova-ing) jangle that’s pleasant enough without fully capturing the attention. They’re more successful than The Babe Rainbow, whose beatnik/hippy attire and overwhelmingly kitsch pastiche feels more like a challenge to our patience than a tribute.

Everything moves back to positive vibes with Mikal Cronin’s set, however. As a special, LGW?-only treat, his subtly sophisticated power pop comes decorated with strings and horns, sending melodies into the stratosphere at times while keeping his quieter moments poignantly grounded. Difficult to associate such refined melodies with his occasional job as bass player for hard-rocking garage merchant Ty Segall, but who’s complaining? Not Songhoy Blues, certainly. Their combination of Malian rhythms and nimble-fingered blues is endearingly infectious, while Aliou Touré’s tireless sashays across the stage (not to mention his combo of velvet-smooth voice and perma-grin) add up to 100% fun times for all. Os Mutantes continue the celebratory mood, throwing splashes of psych-rock, Tropicália and (unexpectedly) Crosby, Stills And Nash at us with dizzy abandon, as A Minha Menina unites an appreciatively boozey crowd in its bottom-shaking grooves.

There’s just time for The Bradford Cox Show to close things out. Beginning in his Atlas Cloud solo guise, he emerges dressed as an early 10th century frontiersman (incuding a snazzy, wide-brimmed floppy hat) but struggles to retain the congregation’s attention with shapeless electronic doodles (“Like someone using an Etch-a-Sketch for the first time,” as we hear one wag remark).

Things pick up for Deerhunter, happily; their shoegaze-referencing dreampop is much more like the stuff of which headline sets are made. Highlights from recent album Fading Frontier get an airing, with the pristine pop of single Breaker feeling more robust in particular, but it’s the extended airing of perennial favourite Nothing Ever Happened that really gets the blood pumping. As its motorik closing section contracts and expands over a heavenly eternity, it loses all sense of being a mere song and becomes something more resonant than that. Solemn in its execution, hymnal in essence, and performed in one of the most spectacular rooms of a remarkable building, in a truly wonderful city. It feels like a closing prayer.