Breaking (Down) the Waves
Berlin-based electronic musician Gold Panda on the strengths and challenges of Waves Vienna
It was early October, and Vienna’s pop music crowd was flocking to Pratersauna, Flex, Fluc, and beyond, for the Waves festival, Vienna’s showcase happening. The idea was inspired, a one-ticket event and with individual day tickets available to buy. Three days of bands in club venues, plus a music conference spanning the city made for an attractive invite.
The goal was to present a broad selection of artists to Vienna’s pop music lovers and give the underground visibility. Other comparable events present a streamlined selection of artists: The "big boys" of Austrian music promotion, Skalar Music, stage big festivals like Frequency, Nova Rock and Urban Art Forms. But rather than to a field of muddy teenagers, this festival brings it back to the streets – where urban music is born and thrives.
Musical highlights included the British band Toy, staging a winning performance with their take on Krautrock (a term created by the British music press to define a 1970s German psychedelic genre). At Flex, a sceptical crowd was won over by their sound, a droning sedated rock got the bodies moving.
On board the Club Schiff, Tu Fawning charmed with a chilly blast of spooky pop out of Portland, Oregon. The venue was the prime choice, as the sound drifted like fog over the interior deck. One exemplary embodiment of the plight of the electronic artist is one Gold Panda, a.k.a. Derwin R. Powers.
When we met backstage, Derwin was not a happy bear. Neither was Peter, his tour manager. Expecting a stage and a sound desk, they arrived to find a regular DJ booth. Normally, Gold Panda can be found packing concertgoers into halls of 1,000 or more, but the Waves Festival is still an infant when it comes to artist maintenance.
Powers is no stranger to Austria, this trip being his third. The first was at the Donau Festival (a visual art and music festival in Krems) in April 2011, and the second just recently at the Stuck Festival in Salzburg. Both occasions offered conventional concert halls with stages and sound desks equipped with lighting rigs and the usual "gig" set up.
Earlier that night, he was in Pratersauna, and they’d turned up on time for load-in to find the venue staff had forgotten to open up, and tour manager Pete had to get forceful with a rather stoned sound engineer. How cliché. They needed a monitor pronto – ideally two – and the soundman shuffled off to look for one. Twenty minutes later, power was set up with an arsenal of controllers, loop pedals and a drum machine, plus the obligatory laptop. Everything worked, but the sound was rather flat. The soundman seemed helpless.
"We all press play"
In electronic music or club culture, the American Deadmau5 is known for his elaborate Electronic Dance Music (EDM) shows where he sports a Mickey-Mouse-shaped helmet, flashing LED – a direct rip-off of the French electro-innovators Daft Punk, who sport Robocop-style head gear. He set tongues wagging after a Rolling Stone interview, when he said electronic musicians and DJs "all press play", steamrolling over 40 years of groundwork by artists like Stockhausen, Kraftwerk, Model 500, Orbital, A Guy Called Gerald, The Prodigy and now, Gold Panda.
Yes, Derwin uses a laptop on stage – every sound is triggered from the push, or touch, of a button, with resonance depth and distortion combined with a keyboard, for melody. Unlike Deadmau5, he uses no gimmicks: no LED helmets, bleeps or drum rolls for the attention-deprived.
The Panda paws lots of buttons, turns a variety of knobs and hits various pedals to feed the speakers with sound. Watching him is entertainment in itself. He ducks and weaves around the confined space, hitting the various contraptions at breakneck speed. After a year living in Japan his music reflects it – melancholic refrains, small snippets of samples from Japanese folk songs blend with samples from Asian interpretations of jazz and freeform fidgety hip-hop beats collide in a glorious conundrum. It’s complicated stuff, but mesmerizing and body-rocking sound.
Powers currently lives in Berlin, having moved there from London to be with his girlfriend. We conversed in a mixture of German and English, as Ausländer do, and enthused on Würstl, iconic Japanese anime films, and his general love of Japanese culture. Bizarrely he likes his Frankfurter "mit Scharf" (seriously, chili on a hot dog) and encouragingly, he is bucking the trend of Berlin bobos by actually learning the language.
Right now he’s under deadline to put out his new album for the American label Ghostly International, and is worried about people tearing apart the second album, something that threatens to rekindle the depression that had dogged him since his teenage years. The constant competition and pressure to produce innovative, in-your-face hits is the reality of being a live electronic-music performer. In the days of free downloads, "live is life", to quote the Austrian pop-rock group Opus.
Daring to be different?
How successful is the Waves festival at getting the little guy out there? Scanning the line-up, there are many complete unknowns along with the "usual suspects" of Austrian tour stop-offs and minor indie acts – like the Anglo-American Scout Niblett, who cancelled last-minute – the Swedish group The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, and the perennial British trench-clad whiners like The Wedding Present.
Overall, it was too much filler and not enough killer – trimmed down to two days and a condensed line-up at a smaller selection of venues, this could be an attractive, world-class festival, bringing bigger artists to a heterogeneous stage. With the myriad of sponsors, they should be able to find the budget.
The Waves festival is a welcome reply to the monopoly of Skalar Music. Modelled on similar events such as South-by-Southwest (Austin, Texas) and the Great Escape (Brighton, U.K.), the "showcase" set-up provides an important framework for meeting and debating for the drowsy pop music industry here.
Perhaps this will become the more city-dweller, user-friendly alternative to the mud pies, warm beer and shady toilets involved with most such events. Saving backdoor deals and posturing, this platform has potential to inspire the long-awaited Wiener innovation.