Behind (and in front of) the scenes at dunk!festival 2019

Anyone who has been lucky enough to make the trip to the sleepy East Flanders town of Zottegem, Belgium for dunk!festival knows that for three days every Spring this picturesque hamlet takes on the weighty and well-earned title of Center of the Post-Rock Universe. I’ve been to my share of festivals, and there’s really nothing that compares to the dunk! experience. We’re trying to recreate the vibe as best we can with Post. Festival in Indianapolis, but that’s of course a project still in relative infancy, and there’s something about the rural setting and how it accents the entire experience that one cannot hope to duplicate. There’s a charm to watching people show up group by group; the looks of excitement and awe and anticipation on the faces of newcomers, the comforted looks of festival vets that will tell you again and again how they feel like they are finally home again. I understand that there’s an element of cliché to saying that an annual festival feels like “home,” but in this case it’s entirely true. The post-rock fandom is niche but global, and it truly is like a community. Fans from all over the world have a way of finding each other via social media and building genuine friendships, and there is a level of dedication that ensures many of these folks make the pilgrimage yearly regardless of where they live, so in many ways dunk!festival is like a family reunion for post-rock fans.

I have found myself in a unique position of privilege regarding the dunk! experience. I have made a concerted effort to be a highly active member of this community over the past few years, and as a result I am now intertwined with several entities directly involved with the festival. Just to quickly recap how I’ve found myself in the position I am so we can move on with this account with all of the context intact: I was the U.S. rep for dunk!usa in 2017, I write album copy for dunk!records, I am a creative collaborator with A Thousand Arms (the U.S partner of dunk!records), I am also a creative collaborator with Post. Festival (which has taken the mantle as the U.S. post-rock festival with the love and support of dunk!), and I run a PR company called Young Epoch, through which I have clients who played this year’s festival (Staghorn and PILLARS). So, I have the great fortune of being granted free and full access to the festival. But I am also a fan and friend first and foremost, which puts me in a sort of middle ground where I am vacillating back and forth between behind the scenes and out front with all of the friends with whom I’d be enjoying this experience with regardless of my role in the post-rock world. Ok, that’s out of the way and I don’t feel too much like I’ve been blathering on about myself like a megalomaniac, so let’s move on with the story of dunk!2019.

It’s probably appropriate to follow a paragraph about my accomplishments with a paragraph about how I’m an idiot. Last year, I was set to meet RANGES in Paris for a short tour prior to their appearance at the festival. Not thirty minutes off my plane I had my wallet stolen, no doubt while I was standing on the train with all my bags, headphones in, wearing a goofy, awestruck grin. This was a whole ordeal, obviously. I had to cancel all my cards and my parents thankfully Western Union’ed me some cash for the time being. So, one would think that this year I would be incredibly careful paying attention to every detail. Not so much. I bought my plane tickets in January, and until a month prior to the festival I was planning on travelling alone. Then my brother Mike realized that he would have extended time off from his job as an entertainment director for a cruise line, so he asked if I wanted some company.

It was only then, when he was attempting to purchase a ticket on the same flight, did I realize that the airline I had booked with, WOW Air, had unceremoniously gone bankrupt a couple of months before without informing anyone. Imagine my full-bodied depression and anger had I made the drive to Boston two days before the festival only to realize that I had no flight. I don’t even want to think about it. He ended up booking a new flight though, and we were set in that regard. Then, we get to Brussels, hop in a taxi, head down to Grand Place for some waffles and sightseeing, and as I’m watching the taxi disappear down the street I put my hand in my pocket and realize I’ve left my phone in said taxi. I am an absent-minded ditz, and cannot be trusted. Thankfully Mike was able to get in touch with the driver and after an hour of waiting and feeling like the dumbest American in Europe, my phone was back with me and we could move on with the next 8 days without further tragedy.

Coastlands and PILLARS at Gonzo

Flash forward a few beers and a train ride later, and we’re pulling into Zottegem, a day prior to festival, but with a room ready to go for us in what would become the artist quarters during the following three days. Much respect to the dunk! family, literally, as our hospitality was provided last minute and without question by father Luc Lievens and son Wout, who oversee booking and overall festival proceedings, as well as other son Mart, who tirelessly manages so many hospitality elements. Similar to dunk!usa, where I hosted a pre-festival showcase at a local venue with Lehnen and Man Mountain, we were able to enjoy a little taste of what was to come with a local performance in an adjacent town by EU tour-mates PILLARS and Coastlands.

Well, sort of. Seeing as Mike and I hadn’t eaten since 2pm (by this point it was nearly 11:30), what we really needed was a taste of the local cuisine, which wasn’t readily available, so we settled for a Greek gyros dive that turned out to hit the spot just right. We got back in time to catch the end of Coastlands’ set. I think. I dunno. I was really tired. But we did get to hang out for a while after, which was nice after a long day of travelling and almost ruining my own experience because I’m so absurdly flighty. We headed back to the festival grounds around 2:30, then I passed out and didn’t wake up until 12:30 pm to the property looking like a much different place. I couldn’t tell you the last time I slept that late, so you could tell I needed some recharging.

Thankfully I managed not to miss anything, as the first band was set to go on the main stage at 1 pm. As has become tradition over the past few years, the festival was kicked off by two Chilean bands, courtesy of LeRockPsicophonique label/festival-runner Rodrigo Jarque. This year we were treated to stunning performances from the experimental trio Sistemas Inestables and the brooding post-rock collective Osorezan. Sistemas Inestables featured a bass player on a riser center stage, bookended by a member switching between guitar, keyboards, and drums to our left and a primary drummer on the right, who adjusted his space during the last song and provided something more akin to a DJ set to close things out, a really unique and intriguing curveball that brought an instantly exciting vibe to the proceedings. Osorezan delivered 45 minutes of highly dramatic, entirely epic compositions, marked by a finale in which they were seemingly on the verge of ending the song for about 8 straight minutes, but continued pushing the envelope further and further until it reached an explosiveness that left many attendees proclaiming by the end of Day 1 that their set had stolen to show to that point.

It was around the time that the underrated Romanian band Am Fost La Munte si Mi Placut went on the Forest stage that I started settling in with friends both new and established. In 2018 I found myself so wrapped up in networking and hanging out in the merch tent that I feel like I missed out on simply enjoying the festival for all its friendly charms and killer music. I was determined not to let that happen this year. So when I saw my three-years-running Airbnb-mate and post-rock superfan Greg sitting on the hill with Canadian-by-way-of-Russia Margarita, who I know from music groups on Facebook (this year was her second dunk!fest but I somehow never ran across her last year, probably due to aforementioned networking-focus), I decided it was high time to get back into the hanging-out-with-friends game. It didn’t take more than 30 minutes for Margarita to direct us back to the campsite, where she pulled a bottle of Spicebox whiskey out of her tent that she had brought from Toronto, and the festivities began in full.

Staghorn

And not a moment too soon, as it was high time to get hype for Staghorn. Both myself and the band had been greatly anticipating this moment for nearly a year, and we were fully confident that their energy and ethos would translate perfectly to the Forest Stage. During the month-long UK and EU tour that led up to this performance (the first two weeks of which they spent with genre legends yndi halda) the band had collected and dried flowers from multiple countries, then adorned the stage with their findings.

They also lit numerous sprigs of incense and placed them around in the trees and in front of the stage. Donning their robes and face paint, they truly had the appearance of a collective. They are a band with a genuine mission statement and consistently thoughtful sensibilities, and this comes across in their music. They take very seriously what they do, but also take incredible joy out of the process. Watching from the side of the stage in a forest packed full of fans (many of them newly won), reveling in everything they had to offer was one of the best memories I brought home with me from this year’s edition.

Staghorn

Following directly after Staghorn were another group that I now count amongst my good friends in the genre, the Portland, OR-based Coastlands. An exhaustive touring schedule including appearances at both dunk!usa and Post. Festival had led this trio to the mecca of post-rock, and it was a well-deserved main stage appearance. Their 2018 record The Further Still was one of that year’s finest. I’ve seen them play these songs several times live, but to see them get to do it in front of nearly 1000 people was a true joy. Another American band, also out of Oregon, This Patch of Sky made their EU dunk debut (they had also played the U.S. edition) in the sub-headliner slot not long after.

This was one of my first times being directly in front of the main stage at dunk!, as in previous years I had always hung back so I could watch from the fullest perspective, and so I could intermittently interact with Wout, Luc, Joris de Bolle (artist manager/guitarist for Celestial Wolves), various dunk! bartenders, CJ Blessum and Wilson Raska from A Thousand Arms, and others. But as I said, I was insistent upon putting myself more into the front-and-center experience this year, so this was my introduction to that. I had to get used to dodging the headbanging of Greg, Margarita and festival regular Jonas Abrahamsson, but I quickly managed to get the timing down, so I ended up not getting any mouthfuls of hair. Really, I should have just stood behind SLC native and festival vet Sean Oliver, who is ever the picture of composure.

By the time we got to Celestial Wolves’ Forest-closing set night had finally fallen (I still have a hard time growing accustomed to it not getting dark until 10:15 in Belgium), and it was safe to say I was having a really great time. I had all but forgotten how my dusty old ass isn’t fully made for sitting on the forest floor during sets, and I was entirely in the moment. Day 1 closed with Ufomammut, who I admit I had never heard of prior to their announcement, but their brand of dense, sludgy stoner doom was surprisingly high-energy and a great way to finish up the first day of festivities. Not that said festivities were done at that point. There was still some whiskey and beer left to be drunk, and drunk it was. And drunk I was, as well. By the time 3 am rolled around, Mike, Margarita and I were party to a group of Germans loudly talking and laughing and most certainly keeping certain members of the campground awake past their bedtimes. I am not the quietest of people myself, so, yeah, it was a time for sure.

dunk!friends: l-r: Jonas, me, Margarita, Greg, Sean

Day 2 dawned quickly thereafter and it’s safe to say that my only savior would be coffee and grease of any and all sorts, preferably of the bacon and runny egg yolk variety. I don’t end up hungover often, but a full day of travel followed by a full day of beer and liquor, combined with two full days of the “Belgian diet” (which seemingly consists primarily of potatoes, various sauces, meat, waffles, chocolate and beer) left me feeling like a bloated sack of bruised meat and bottomless sighs. I did my best to enjoy Day 2, but it was a slog to be sure. I really wanted to see Mantis open the main stage, not only because they rock pretty hard, but also because their drummer Ruben is an old colleague from my Arctic Drones days. However, at this point in the weekend I looked about half as alive as Bernie from the Weekend at Bernie’s movies, and felt zero percent as good as that titular character. I was comprised entirely of various aches and pains and my throat felt like I had eaten an entire mummy whole. So, unfortunately, I didn’t feel ready for music until about halfway through Baulta’s set. It was exceedingly solid as I remember, and my cohorts insist that it was in fact one of the weekend’s best. I wish I could tell you, but we can take their word for it.

Backstage before PILLARS’ set

Thankfully I was back to being marginally amongst the living again before PILLARS took the main stage. I hung out for a while behind the scenes with them and Coastlands and took turns hugging and wishing luck, but I just had a feeling it was going to go great, not unlike what happened last year when Appalaches went on around the same time and totally owned it. That ended up being exactly what took place. I got to witness half of their set front and center, and the other half from behind the sound and lighting boards with two of the wives, Sarah Frizzel and Stephanie Ertel. Getting to watch a band I’ve work so closely with make that kind of an impression on that many fans on a new continent was another monumental moment in this year’s festivities, but of equal or greater importance and enjoyment was the opportunity to see Sarah and Stephanie (who are a total blast and have become two of my favorite people from the Indianapolis crew) soak in exactly what this is all about and what this means for the bands involved. It was an emotionally charged moment, one of the things that makes this entire experience extra special.

Malammar

The rest of Day 2 is something of a blur of misery intermittent with some really strong highlights. I can confidently say that Wang Wen was awesome, a revelation really. Their set was unique and inventive and energetic and remains one of a few clear-cut, sharp memories from the day. Malammar was great as usual. They should have a residency on the Forest Stage; their vibe is so strong and their connection with the audience is very real. They are much different from most of the other participants, with a sound that is more akin to Black Sabbath if they came up in the DIY punk scene. It’s a welcome shift in tone that is helpful right in the middle of the festival. When all was said and done I know that a lot of attendees counted A Swarm of the Sun’s set as the best of the entire weekend, and it was indeed intense and focused and intimate and highly dramatic, but at this point in the day I was experiencing fatigue of a variety that I have rarely known. About 30 minutes into their set I felt like I was going to topple over with exhaustion, so I had to stumble sheepishly out of the tent and go find a place to sit and reflect upon my choices. Apparently I picked the worst possible moment for this, as about 20 minutes later a steady stream of people were walking past me and up to me proclaiming the final 15 minutes of the set to be one of the most incredible experiences they’d had to that point in the festival. Joke’s on me I suppose.

A Swarm of the Sun

Kokomo was another bright spot for me on this night, as it was my first time seeing them live and I got to hear some new tracks from their upcoming record. They threw out beach balls to punch up the experience a bit, which I fully appreciated (it was reminiscent of The End of the Ocean at dunk!usa) despite my appearance, lurking in the back like a half-dead vagrant. Wrekmeister Harmonies were perfect for the Forest Stage aesthetic and they really soaked it all in. Their performance was captivating despite my fast-fading status. By the time Efrim Manuel Menuck took the main stage to finish Day 2 I was beyond the point of reason and was intent on either sleeping or dying, whichever came fastest. It seemed like a lot of people felt similarly, as there were only about 100-150 people remaining for his set.

It felt a little bit like Earth a couple of years ago, where the status of the artist determined that they had to be a main stage headliner, but the whole vibe probably would have worked better on the Forest Stage at a time when people weren’t as exhausted. I don’t think most folks were quite prepared for Efrim’s sonically-challenging, droning solo work, and I suspect that more than half the attendees had either made their way to dunk!fries to soak up some of the alcohol with copious amounts of potatoes and sauce, or to consume enough beer to keep themselves propelling forward, or had simply given up and headed back to the campsite to crash.

I found CJ and Wilson and trudged grimly back to the car, a man fully betrayed by his body but still enriched by the overall experience. There was nothing I needed more than sleep at that point. So obviously I laid on the couch at our Airbnb and posted all my pictures to Instagram for two hours, finally falling asleep around 4:30 when I knew damn well I needed to be up at 7. Whatever, I was on vacation, goddamnit.

Wrekmeister Harmonies

Despite getting a stunning lack of sleep over the course of the first two days of the festival, I was surprisingly chipper and ready to roll for Day 3. This was likely helped along by the fact that this day – by a good measure – featured the most exciting lineup of bands for my money. The main stage alone was stacked front to back – Le Temps Du Loup, Paint the Sky Red, Jardin de la Croix, Silent Whale Becomes A Dream, the Gifts From Enola reunion show, Tangled Thoughts of Leaving, Alcest – there isn’t a band in that stretch that you could miss. Add to this Forest Stage bands like Shy, Low, Zhaoze, BOSSK, and maybe most importantly of all, the final show ever by Her Name Is Calla closing the night, and you had one of the most memorable days of post-rock in recent years.

Jardin de la Croix

There are too many great performances from this list to get into detail about all of them, but I do want to hit upon a couple of highlights. First and foremost, I can confidently say that Jardin de la Croix was one of, if not THE, best set of the weekend. The Spanish prog-math quartet came out and shredded the stage right from the drop with an incredibly high-energy performance that gave everyone exactly the boost they needed heading into the home stretch. They were insanely tight, with guitarists Ander Caballo and Pablo Rodriguez volleying complex finger-tapping sequences, occasionally both going off simultaneously, as bassist Ignacio Hernandez fired off thunderous low end and drummer Israel Arias kept up a blistering pace like a machine behind the kit. As the set concluded, one of the guitarists ascended a steel column at the side of the stage, offering an emphatic fist pump to the crowd as the final notes rang out. It was a breathtaking set and I highly recommend taking any opportunity you have to see them.

Shy, Low

Shy, Low also provided a striking and heavy show for a packed Forest Stage audience, as well as playing a role in one of the festival’s more amusing moments. Anyone who knows Greg Pittz knows that two of his favorite post-rock bands are Shy, Low and Silent Whale Becomes A Dream, so of course, as fate would have it, those two bands were scheduled to play back-to-back. To make matters more hilarious, because of certain scheduling considerations that had to be made, those two bands (plus Zhaoze) had the only overlapping sets of the entire weekend, just to make Greg squirm even further. He finally came to the decision that he was going to miss Shy, Low in order to ensure his ability to reserve a front row spot for Silent Whale.

Shy, Low

Being as I am a little looser with the entire process of seeing bands live, I told him to stop being a crazy person, go watch Shy, Low for three-quarters of their set, then sneak back to the tent and grab front row for Whale. Which, by the way, would have been a totally reasonable plan. We’re not seeing Oasis at Wembley in ’96 here, we’re at an 1100 person post-rock festival, with post-rock fans, which means you could just ask nicely to move past them in order to grab front row and they’ll apologize to you for being in your way and carve you a path. Anyways, whilst standing up near the stage taking pictures of Shy, Low, I was happy to catch a glimpse of Greg atop the hill dancing and flailing his arms around like an excited kid on Christmas. I’m glad he managed to squeeze in a couple of songs before his neurotic fan impulses forced him back to the main tent to secure the spot for Silent Whale which I am certain he could have snagged mere moments before the band took the stage.

I’d like to skip ahead somewhat to make the important point that Alcest was awesome. I’d never seen them live before and I roundly enjoyed the experience. They have an intriguing stage presence; even as the songs are barreling forward with profound intensity, the band retains a strikingly composed visage. If you were watching without the sound you could say that Niege looks more like he’s covering Jeff Buckley ballads than shredding blackgaze epics. But the sound is enveloping and entirely affecting, and more than worth the price of admission. That being said, Alcest was handed a mighty difficult position to be in, as a headliner following what was potentially the most emotionally charged live event of 2019 for post- fans. They handled the challenge very well, but there is no other place that the story of dunk!festival 2019 can end other than with Her Name Is Calla.

Alcest

For those readers not familiar with the story behind HNIC’s appearance at dunk!2019, a quick catch-up: at some point in time during the writing and recording of their album Animal Choir, the band came to the realization that due to a number of circumstances they would have to bring the band to its conclusion. They remain very close, and after signing with dunk!records for the release of the album, arranged to have their farewell tour end at the festival, with the label releasing Animal Choir one day prior to their last performance, closing down the Forest Stage on the final night.

Unsurprisingly, this set drew the largest crowd of the weekend in the forest – and there were some packed shows there, make no mistake. But there was a palpable gravity surrounding this performance. You could hear a pin drop prior to the band going on stage. As they set up during sound check every exchange between band members was audible, and you felt as if the sound of a guitar pick falling to the floor would reverberate like a nuclear blast. It was strange, really. There was such an anticipation for this show, and rightfully so, but as it was coming into being it actually just felt like an incredibly common moment. However, this was mostly because the silence shared by the hundreds of attendees made the lead-up seem like any other that would happen away from the public eye. It felt strangely appropriate as it was unfolding.

Once the show started it became obvious why this band is beloved by fans. Their stage presence is incredibly approachable. It feels like you’re being invited into their practice space. They’re self-deprecating, colloquial, humorous, imperfect, and seemingly totally fine with you seeing all of that. There are no airs put on by Her Name Is Calla. Bands often describe themselves as “friends making music together,” but rarely in my experience has that aesthetic ever felt as wholly believable as it does with Calla. I barely remember the set list to be honest (and if I’m being honest, I am generally horrible at remembering set lists because I tend to just melt into the moment). I know they played “Frontier” and “New England.” I was desperately hoping they would play some new stuff like “The Dead Rift” and “Robert and Gerta,” but I can’t even imagine the weight of having to summarize an entire 10+ year career in an hour and ten minutes, with the knowledge that it’s your last show. It didn’t really matter what they played though. The experience was bigger than any single song.

Her Name Is Calla

I sat with Margarita about 15 feet from the stage, and I’m telling you it was in a handful of concert experiences that just felt bigger and more important than the performance alone. As we neared the end of the set, one by one people started standing up and singing along. For those people who haven’t yet attended, the Forest Stage is typically a seated arrangement, but this wasn’t your typical set. Behind us were a group of people who had made the trip from the U.K. and were very clearly viewing this show as the unquestioned centerpiece of the weekend. The way they belted out the lyrics was something I’ll never forget; they sang with the conviction of people who’d been there since the beginning, people who went beyond fandom into the realm of family.

This wasn’t just a show, this meant something more. It’s not an experience I’ll soon forget, and I’m not ashamed to say that I found myself blinking tears from my eyes on multiple occasions. Not because I’ve been with Calla since the beginning, because I haven’t. I’ve only discovered them in the past few years. But to be blessed enough to share a moment that so clearly means everything to the people around you, well, you don’t find that often. I’m drawn to these moments, when music transcends, when a fleeting instance becomes frozen in forever memory, when 300 people come together to share something that no one else can understand, a moment that is theirs, rejoicing in a fusing of art and experience that holds a value that could never be appraised.

As I recall the events of their set, it’s strange that the small moments are as resounding as the more dramatic ones. Tom realizing that he forgot to charge the battery for his acoustic guitar and having to borrow one from Tiernan, the massive hornet stalking the musicians as they attempted to perform with this bizarre threat looming overhead, the members laughing at themselves during imperfect instances as if there was no pressure in this finale, only freedom. There were also huge moments I’ll never forget; Tom handing Jonas his guitar during the final cacophonies of “New England,” the entirely impromptu encore where Tom sheepishly apologized to Alcest from across the festival grounds, the minutes-long standing ovation that ushered them into the night.

This was something I’ll never forget, and as meaningful as it is, it seems like there is at least one of these kinds of moments every year at dunk!festival. It may be in an entirely different context each time, but the impact is undeniable. That’s the magic of it; it’s such a profound shared experience, a yearly pinnacle for so many people who probably feel somewhat isolated in their musical passions wherever they live, coming together with comrades from all over the world for a weekend where you can gush about this music and people actually know what the fuck you’re talking about. You just have to be there. So, next year I hope to see you there, and if I do then I know I’ll see you in the years to follow.

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One thought on “Behind (and in front of) the scenes at dunk!festival 2019

  1. MetalepticFit Reply

    What an amazing festival. Would have loved to have been a part of this.

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