You’ve got to feel for festival organisers. These happy dreamers merely want to put on seismically huge parties for thousands of people showcasing the bands they love, yet they’re required to take on enormous financial risk and have the organisational skills of five-star generals. They organise the festival site, hire massive squadrons of people to set it up and staff it, find funds, organise artwork, manage the press, keep the local council and government at bay….and this is before we even mention the bands.
Who to book? How much do you pay them? How do actually get in contact with them? Are they going to drop out on you at the last minute? Who’s picking them up from the airport? Will they throw a tantrum if you put them on at night? Will they burst into flames and dissolve into ash if you put them on during the day? You’ve got to feed the bastards as well. AND you’ve got to keep them drunk without letting them go completely berserk on alcohol. Bands can drink as much as a festival can afford so you’ve got to give them a bit of alcoholic rope to play with, without giving them so much that they wreck themselves and bankrupt the organisers. Now the festival organiser’s CV also reads one part bartender, one part zoo-wrangler. And don’t forget, the band will need somewhere to sleep as well….
Portugal’s SWR Fest had an ingenious solution to that particular problem when I played there with Mithras.
We wanted to play that festival basically because ex-Berzerker guitarist Matt kept on telling me how much fun he had playing there with Akercocke. They’d keep getting invited back over to SWR and would be put up in a nice hotel, plied with alcohol, and well-paid, plus they’d get to play on a large stage to a few thousand people. That sounded pretty good to me, so Mithras put in an application to play there and were accepted. Perhaps what I didn’t realise at the time was that this festival loved Akercocke and treated them accordingly. All the other festivals I’d played at tended to have generic arrangements for the bands: same catering, same accommodation, same wranglers. Things played out a little differently this time around.
SWR was pretty good for the most part. We were picked up from the airport with UK three-piece Taint. I liked Portugal almost immediately. The eucalyptus trees reminded me of Australia, and I loved the little sweet pastries sold everywhere. We arrived at the festival and were shown backstage, then given a slot on a small indoor stage. We played alright except for one moderately obvious stuff-up that only the fans would have been able to pick. It was one of those strange times where we got our gig out of the way fairly early in the day, I think it may have been mid afternoon when we went on. But the band was generally happy with the show, and even our notorious sound-man Bob seemed like he didn’t hate everything as much as usual. We had sandwiches backstage, and an Irish band had brought along a bucketload of alcohol and were happy to share. It’s funny when you’re in these general band situations. People’s faces are kind of familiar. You know you’ve seen them in some magazines or video clips somewhere, but you can’t quite pick them.
I met a couple of couchsurfers, one english guy living in Portugal and a ginger film-maker. I’ve stayed in contact with them both. Couchsurfing is the website organisation that hooks up travellers with people who want to host them in their flats, and the people you meet tend to be either unique legends or utter losers…there doesn’t really seem to be any mid-point with them. The film-maker guy fell into the former category. He looked like a ginger bearded Wally from “Where’s Wally” and is the guy who now runs the Blood Music record label out of Finland. Some day he will write a book about the months of random couchsurfing he did through Europe and it will blow away all of my stories. And one day he’ll let me blog some of the things he has found out about the metal industry since starting Blood Music, and it will destroy numerous record labels.
Anyway, so we hung out chatting for hours. I watched Taint play their set, thought they were amazing, made a mental note to look up their music, and have failed to do so since. I hadn’t seen the rest of the band for a few hours by now. I hung around and watched Kreator on the main stage. I must have had a few beers, because I was compelled to do an impression of Kreator’s Mille which consisted of taking off my shoes and kneeling on them so I looked like a dwarf, and screeching “fucking fucking fucking” in an angry Teutonic voice. I’m not sure how that would have gone down with everyone else, in retrospect.
note: It’s at this point I have a confession to make. I don’t really remember too much from the afternoon of the festival. Actually out of a lot of things I’ve done in music, this afternoon rates as the least memorable. Not that it was boring or unpleasant or anything, just that my recollection of it is fuzzy. I had a dim memory of the rest of the band walking a long way from the festival and leaving me there. I was probably too busy telling every english-speaker in an audible radius stories from my time in Berzerker in a desperate attempt to be relevant*. What I didn’t realise is that the rest of the band had been trying to deal with the money and accommodation all afternoon. To my eternal shame, I didn’t realise this until asking Leon to proofread this article and fill in any of the gaps.
We were supposed to be paid and sorted for a hotel straight after the show, with transport to take us when we were ready. So after the show, the guys went to collect payment from their designated payment dude. The festival people said he wasn’t there, but it turned out he was hiding behind them in a portacabin. The band hunted him for hours. When they eventually got hold of him, they were then stonewalled for a few more hours. It appeared accommodation-wise that we had been ‘bumped down’ from a hotel to…something else. We didn’t know what. They even seemed reluctant to pay us. This was the point where Leon and the other guys decided to walk away until they could no longer hear the festival, which turned out to be a town three miles down the road.
Eventually the rest of the band returned. It was now late. I was tired. We’d left England early in the morning, travelled across half of Portugal, played our set, and now it was time for a bit of sleep. We’d have to leave for the airport mid-morning the next day, and we didn’t want to be completely fried for that. Although we still didn’t exactly know where we’d be staying, the rest of the band seemed to know at least one important bit of information which they shared with me: we’d be taken to our sleeping quarters at four a.m. – after the last band had finished.
Obviously this wasn’t going to do. We were already droopy and over it and needing sleep. We couldn’t hang around for more metal. We begged with them to take us to our place now. They said no, sorry, all the bands had to leave together at the end of the night. We couldn’t get a taxi because we were in the middle of nowhere, and we had no idea where we were supposed to be staying. We were stuck.
It was at this point that Bob started to lose it. His neurochemistry is rather exotic, and where tiredness turns me into a dozy sooky-bub it seems to turn Bob into a full psycho. He’s a sweaty, evil, bald, foreigner-hating Englishman, and his face was starting to go red at this point. He began yelling “this is FUCKING BULLSHIT” and throwing bottles. He popped outside to ostentatiously piss on the tent, the popped back in to rant some more. Normally I’d be uncomfortable at one of my crew losing it but I thought, let him do his worst. I’d never heard of a festival just leaving a band to fend for themselves after their show. It was indeed, as the man said, fucking bullshit.
I think Bob was looking at the festival tent with an eye for disassembling it when one of the festival crew approached us. There had been some huddled Portuguese chat in the corner where obviously the idea was to deal with the crazy ranting english guy and his cohorts as quickly as possible. At the time I suspected his display was just a balls-and-all tactic to motivate the organisers into taking us to our beds but it appears that Bob going nuts was possibly what prompted them to pay us. Great tour skills, that guy. No, seriously. Live music is a funny place. Being reasonable likeable fellows with photocopies of all your contracts and agreements will only get you so far. There always needs to be a lunatic in your midst who can kick right the fuck off when necessary, and Bob was our man.
Eventually the band-bus arrived to take us to where we were staying. It was the general metal bus meant for the bands who were staying for the entire weekend. It was stupendously late and the bus was a rickety bastard thing. It took over an hour before we arrived at our destination. Everyone was dropped off on one side of Portugal, and it appeared we were staying somewhere on the other side. We were the last passengers. It was late when the van pulled up at a harbour and there, docked proudly, was a great big ex-hospital boat.
“You’ll be staying on that” said our festival guy.
Normally I’d be pretty excited to stay on a boat. It looked like some old Navy vessel. It sounds cool, doesn’t it? But here was the reality: each of us had a couple of items of heavy musical equipment. We had to walk that up the gangplank, over the water, and onto the deck. We maneuvered around the various obstacles, and up and down the small ladders that linked these decks. Naturally, the gangplank was at the opposite end of the boat to where we started going downstairs towards our cabin, so we had to human-chain our crap across a hundred meters of this bullshit. The stairwell leading down to our cabin went down three levels, with a steep staircase barely wide enough to climb down by ourselves let alone armed with guitars and bags. The interior of the ship was damp. I slipped at one stage and skied a few stairs down, upright and clutching my guitars in terror. Once we arrived at our floor, we navigated the maze like corridors until we stumbled across our cabin. The door was locked. We banged on it for ages until someone let us in. The lights were turned off, and there were rows of navy surplus stretchers along each wall. This obviously wasn’t constructed as a sleeping cabin. Probably was either a leper-pit or the amputation-room. A Russian band was trying to sleep in the cots on the left hand wall. We looked at the stretchers along the other wall. On each one were folded sheets, a pillow, a pillowcase, and a blanket. We had to make our own beds.
We pushed all our equipment up towards the end of the room, and attempted to make our beds as quietly as possible in the dark. Our dissatisfaction was palpable, we could hear it sizzling off each other. We heard some not-so-quiet groaning sounds from the Russians. We had woken them up. I draped my sheet over my mattress, stuffed the pillow, and tried to arrange the sheet and blanket in a fashion that wouldn’t leave me too cold. I slowly lowered myself into the cot. It squeaked like tortured mice. I heard other squeaks as everyone else tried to climb as quietly into their beds as possible. Bob was on my left, Leon was on my right. There was a damp musty stink in the room. I lay there thinking, well this sucks.
Then just as I thought things couldn’t get worse, Bob farted.
We pissed ourselves laughing. We couldn’t help it. It was so magnificently horrid. It was like the cherry on top of the awful cake. The smell wafted over me. The air was now hot and sticky and smelled like Oswald Moseley’s tidal breath, a salute to fresh air long gone. My watering eyes had adjusted to the dark sufficiently to see riveting in the walls, lending the cabin a decompression-chamber style feel. We laughed some more, and eventually I slept.
I woke first out of everyone. I’m a light sleeper. The Russians were awake and making deliberate noise to get us back for waking them the night before. I climbed up out of the bowels of the boat. Everyone seemed keen on sleeping in, having showers, and so on, but I wanted to explore the small town before we had to leave. I had seen it as we drove to the dock the night before. It was a lovely little place, where the main street rose steeply upwards away from harbour, and there was a beautiful building at the top of the hill overlooking it. I walked up and down the main street, and there was a cafe that everyone seemed to be heading for, so I joined them. I used the two or three portuguese words I knew to get a coffee and some of those yummy sweet pastéis de nata I was rapidly falling for. I sat out in the sun, ate them, and felt happy. I guess this is what I miss most from living in England and playing festivals, being able to grab easy moments like this in other countries.
I arrived back at the boat just as everyone was getting out. The guys told me our lift to the airport was on its way. I dragged my stuff back out of the boat. It was entirely possible that this so-called accomodation was the most inconvenient and tricky structure in the world for anyone carrying musical equipment to navigate, short of perhaps a field of landmines or a tightrope across the Grand Canyon. We were picked up, I remember the driver was a cool young guy from the festival. I sat in the front passenger seat. As we drove out of the town I asked him what the building was on top of the hill. He replied it was a church.
“Church of Satan?” I joked.
“Jesus CHRIST Sam” Bob exploded. “Did you have to say that?”
“You can’t say stuff like that!” he said. “You don’t say things like that to people here! You don’t joke about devil worship in these places!”
“Come off it”, I scoffed. The driver was smiling. I thought of the festival itself, with models of ten metre high witches next to the main stage and satanic imagery everywhere. I also thought of Bob and the time in the Czech Republic he’d spoken in nothing but Borat quotes to everyone we met. Was he trolling me?
“You just don’t behave like that in other countries. People take things like church really seriously over here.”
It was too much for me. I turned and laughed at him. “What, are you Mr.Cultural Sensitivity all of a sudden?” I couldn’t take him seriously. Had I actually managed to offend Bob the sex-fiend überbigot, with a jibe to a fellow metalhead about a church? I sometimes remember that exchange when I need a quick laugh, and it cheers me up no end. It’s also entirely possible that he was just winding me up, in which case I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
We bumped into Taint when we arrived at the airport and were all waiting for our flight back to the UK. They asked us how our night went. We complained about Das Boot and asked them how they fared, half expecting to hear a horror story of their own. Nope – they were picked up at a reasonable hour, taken to a house just down the road from the festival, stayed in the garage which was empty except for three beds, and were given a cooked breakfast. Oh.
This was the last festival I played with Mithras.
* Yep. I realise what I did there
Mithras are currently recording their upcoming album ‘On Strange Loops’, with original bassist/vocalist Rayner Coss back in the lineup.