Report: Sugar Mountain, Melbourne 2013
The Forum, Melbourne
Saturday 19th January 2012
It's probably unsurprising that the talk of Sugar Mountain was the guy who sells signed portraits of himself at the merch desk. Perhaps we didn't expect to see his dripping and exposed penis projected on the wall behind him, a bodybuilder be ejected for rushing the stage, or phone footage of a man being induced into suffering an epileptic fit. But Kirin J Callinan's "collaboration" with video artist Kris Moyes was billed as a "performance" and on that it absolutely delivered.
Held over three stages at Melbourne's the Forum Theatre, the festival's third year saw the event further coalesce into an essential arena for some of the best local, fringe bands. But while the place looked lush and wielded a diverse range of performances, it did feel at times like a glorified house party. That's OK. But with locals dominating the two smaller stages, a frequently sparse main room—hosting the majority of internationals—never seemed like the place to be.
But to the meat. None of the accounts I've read have correctly detailed precisely what happened at Kirin J Callinan and Kris Moyes' set. Here's another:ACT 1
With a 7-piece band ready and waiting on stage, Moyes appears talking on his phone. While his strobing video for Callinan's 'Way II War' plays silently on the cinema screen behind them, Moyes motions Callinan—in black jeans, white shirt and a pair of white gloves tucked into his back pocket—over to his A/V set up for discussion. A few minutes pass and Moyes tells the audience that they can't get the audio working, but whatever. The pair cheesily display the awards they've won for the video. A bodybuilder beefcake bro is sitting in the front row, taking photos with his phone camera (flash on) and generally woofing it up and being inappropriate. Moyes says organisers won't let them perform the show they've been rehearsing because of a "duty of care" to the audience. Callinan agrees, that he could see why they were against it. Their original idea was, they say, a carry-over from the glitchy 'Way II War' clip: to induce an epileptic fit on stage while Callinan played.
To that end they had found a middle-aged candidate in "Billy", an apparent sufferer of photosensitive epilpesy, and who is called down from the crowd. They couldn't induce the fit live they say, but they had done a test shoot backstage, featuring Billy having a strobe held up to his face and then fitting on the floor. They screen it while Billy watches on stage. Some punters walk out, their sits fill as quickly as they're vacated. A lady stands up and yells at the pair, saying how disgusted she is with the imagery, that it's irresponsible and "pornographic". People in the crowd are telling her to shut up. So far we're twenty minutes into the gig and no music has been played. Every now and then Kirin scrapes his guitar and it sounds like an aeroplane being guillotined. The firecracker scene from Boogie Nights comes to mind.
The band finally performs a caustic, near-danceable track. It's great. Images of Kirin in various states of undress shudder on the screen. Moyes disappears for a while and returns. "There's a weird vibe in the room," says Kirin after the song, looking uncomfortable. "I feel like we're not friends." The beefcake guy suddenly jumps up on stage and lifts Kirin on his shoulders, only to be ejected by security. The heckling lady reappears to shout down Kirin from the front of the stage. What first felt like a hijacking becomes pantomime. Beefcake returns, his strutting around on stage becomes less confrontational and more annoying -- he seems less willing to sell the premise, like the ruse is up. Kirin and Moyes are being good cop bad cop: Moyes asks the guy to get off stage while Kirin looks for a moment to actually play a song. Finally he introduces 'Masturbate and Wait', a lament that includes Kirin bellowing the title under a video showing him pissing off a ledge; an enormous trail of white fluid hanging from his nose; a naked Kirin doing weights in the shower. In case it was missed, the next scene is a close up of his dripping cock and balls, jittering back and forth above the band in .gif-ilated glory. At one point Kirin turns to look up at the enormous image of his art flapping in the metaphorical wind and turns back to the audience sheepishly. We're still not sure who is being revealed here.
The song finishes and the lights suddenly come on. They've played two, maybe three tunes - by this time I'm too distracted to know which way is up. Moyes and Midnight Juggernauts' Daniel Stricker (on percussion - Callinan is signed to the Jugg's Siberia Records) all rush over to the sound desk and plead for one more tune. All look incredulous at being knocked back, Callinan seeming genuinely disappointed. He tries to talk to the crowd through the now silent mic, then drapes himself over the stand, head bowed, before hurling his guitar to the floor with a crash. The band scatters.
Did organisers pull the plug? Did Callinan and Moyes intentionally go over time? Was Callinan punk'd by Moyes, his set highjacked so Moyes could architect a piece of Andy Kaufmen-esque theatre? Were organisers actually pissed off at the intended abuse of this "duty of care" or were they in on the set up? Why did the beefcake guy tweet pictures of himself to people talking about the show, both before and after the event? (UPDATE: His account has now been suspended.) The fix was in, that much is clear. But was it any good? On an evening of performers curtseying in their niche, it completely blurred the lines of music, performance, art, identity, legalities and sheer idiocy. So yeah: it was fantastic. And whatever the fallout (if there even is a genuine one) is that Callinan and Moyes' stock just went through the roof.
The contentious set was perhaps the logical end point for a festival that that boasts of an interactive art and musical experience, but can feel mildly unhinged. With at least half the line-up featuring bands that rely on pretense or theatrics to best frame their art, there were few bands who's "thing" was just being really good. But at that end of the spectrum were ESG, the band of Bronx siblings who managed to turn a simple live bass, drums and percussion set into a glorious, feel good dance off. Dirty Projectors seemed poised to follow, but their steadfast obligation to twist pop songs into riddles at the expense of rhythms cast a tense dampener on the end of the night - especially when Peanut Butter Wolf was leading an actual dance party on the balcony upstairs.
It didn't help that they had to follow an out of place Action Bronson, who began by smoking a joint in the audience and, according to those within earshot, threatened to beat up security. Annoyed at the paltry crowd watching him ("well this was a weird show"), the US rapper finished his set 15 minutes early with, "I love you. Go fuck yourselves. Have a good night." His DJ then switched to playing dance music and seemed to be having an immeasurably better time. Meanwhile, Bronson was being spoken to by police (he got off with a warning).
Elsewhere, Naysayer & Gilsun continued to bend minds with their breath-taking mastery of mash-up cinema spliced with random footage and dance music. Forces took their hilarious maximalism to the nth degree in their collaboration with Antony Hamilton: one one hand, the duo's militaristic, testosterone stream of thudding techno was the perfect accompaniment to Hamilton's stage show of dancers working machine-like props. On the other hand, a bunch of faceless ballboys manipulated styrofoam while jarringly grooveless beats searched for a song. Whatever the interpretation, this kind of music needs a focal point and theirs was pretty memorable. HTRK similarly tried to evoke mood in the upstairs theatre, but a mix of too-bright lighting and the addictive embers of joy still falling from ESG, meant Jonti out on the balcony seemed more appropriate than their glacial haunting.
Sugar Mountain has become an essential alternative to the festival calendar and deserves to bloom. Whatever the fall out from today's shake-ups, it's hard not to see how they were anything but positive.
(Photos: Tim O'Connor)