Peace have a problem. It’s a little over an hour until they’re due onstage at Primavera and they can’t find their guitarist, Doug. He was last seen swimming naked in a rooftop hotel pool with a mysterious man named Joe as the sun came up over Barcelona. “Last night was eventful,” explains singer Harry Koisser. “It’s our first festival appearance of the summer, so if Doug shows up that’ll be a good sign. It’s not looking good. The meeting time was about an hour ago and he isn’t here. I don’t even have his number anymore. You get four chances to be in my phonebook, and he’s lost four phones. I’m not putting another number in for Doug Castle. He’s had his chance.”
I’ve come to Spain to find out what makes seeing music live at summer festivals such a trip, and it’s clear Peace have an intimate understanding of the ancient, tribal significance of people coming together to party under the full moon.
“Festivals were the first time I went on a weekend bender without parents and with just the lads,” says Harry. “We just watched some bands and had a good time. That’s why it’s weird that this year we’re playing them and it feels like we’re on the other side of a one-way mirror. I hope that people who come and see us are having the same sort of experience that we had. I discovered a lot of bands at festivals. Reading, especially. The first time I went to Reading was when I was 16, and everyone I had to beg my parents for a ticket for my birthday. I went, and the person I was meeting was called Hezzy, and when I found him he was in his underpants in an upside-down shopping trolley with three litres of Strongbow on his back. I was like: “Fair. I can dig.” I had a blast. I don’t know if it was just a thing about being from the Midlands, but a group of about 50 people would all go. You’d know people all over the shop, and people would introduce you to new bands all the time. It’s cool to think that people might come to see us from a group of people looking to have a fantastic time.”
Unsurprisingly, going to festivals as a band hasn’t changed their attitude to having a fantastic time, even if their group of friends has grown steadily more surreal. “We fucking got wasted last night,” Harry continues. “And then Harry Styles came to my party. He gave me a cheeky congratulations on my engagement. Fair play. Last night was a total… I got carried home by our manager. Apparently there were police and shit. I got way too into the festival spirit way too early. Total knockout. This morning was one of the hardest mornings of my life.”
Life backstage at a major international festival is both less glamorous and more fun than you might imagine. It is less glamorous because instead of hot tubs, gourmet chefs and monkey bartenders all you get is a series of stark grey portacabins and toilets only marginally more sanitary than the shitholes outside. It’s more fun because the beer is literally on tap, and it’s free and they let you pour it yourself. Although the security do get restless if you try to squirt it straight into your mouth.
Eventually, Peace’s guitar tech turns up with Doug in tow, full of stories about the enigmatic Joe: “He was a beautiful man. He wears lipstick. He’s got a lovely hairdo. Great personality, great legs, and we went for a little swim… from seven to ten this morning.” He pauses, and thinks for a minute. “If I see him today it’ll be so, so awkward. The last time I saw him I was naked.” Still, he has a pretty unanswerable defence for his adventures: “This hotel is full of bands,” he points out. “The question is: why am I the only one swimming naked at 10am?”
If the backstage area isn’t quite as glamorous as you’d hope, the rooftop of the 4-star Zero hotel opposite the site more than makes up for it. From up here you can look down over the Parc del Fòrum site, from the main stage and the Ferris Wheel to the smaller stages out by the sea. With a bit of a following wind you could probably get a decent distance on a punted TV set. Tame Impala are in relaxed mood, though, despite the fact that this festival trip has taken them further than probably any other band. They’ve come from all over the world, with Kevin Parker flying in from Australia and drummer Julien Barbagallo driving from France. “And we’re just doing this one festival,” points out Kevin. “We literally came all this way just to do Primavera, which shows how good we think it’s going to be!”
Julien chips in: “Where I come from in France, Primavera is the highlight of the year festival-wise. Every year it’s the best lineup that’s near France, so everyone comes here.”
With so many people coming from so far away and planning on having the best weekend of their year, can the bands actually feel the difference when everyone’s really up for it? “Ah no, we can totally tell the difference,” says Kevin. “We never lie when we tell the audience they’re the best crowd of the tour or something. I would never just say that. Each gig is it’s own kind of episode. The funny thing is, it’s super psychological. Even within the band. Sometimes we’ll get offstage and someone will say: “Man, that crowd didn’t give a shit.” Then someone else will say: “No man, they were totally transfixed.” That seems to be the keyword. It just proves that it’s completely subjective. The crowd could have been dead, or it could have been transfixed, and transfixed is like the best possible thing because they’re so into it they can’t even move. How you interpret it depends on how you’re feeling.”
Sitting by the pool across at the equally luxurious Princess hotel are festival headliners Phoenix. If anyone knows what a surreal trip music can take you on, it’s the men who stunned Coachella by bringing out R Kelly halfway through their set. The whole experience was made even more strange by the fact that he turned up so late they didn’t even meet the guy until they were already onstage.
“It’s true!” says guitarist Laurent Brancowitz with a wide, playful grin. “We prepared everything, but from a distance. We didn’t meet beforehand. We were onstage and we still didn’t know when he was going to turn up. As time went by I thought he wasn’t going to get there, so when he arrived with his cigar, his mobile phone and his diamond-encrusted microphone… I felt happy! We were almost as surprised as the crowd. We felt very lucky because we are part of the small community of people who worship R Kelly. We talked to Thomas from Daft Punk about it and he’s part of this community as well. Some people realise that he’s a genius, he’s just hiding it in a very unique way.”
Laurent’s own musical journey has been particularly odd, taking him from playing in garage band Darlin’ with the members of Daft Punk to headlining festivals alongside bands he once slept outside just to catch a glimpse of: “One of the first festivals I went to was an NME one, a long time ago in the ‘90s,” he says “Blur and Ride, the shoegaze band, played. I went to London with my backpack and a few friends and we slept in the streets. It was at The Marquee. We were very poor, and really cold, I remember. Now we are playing a festival along with Blur! It’s bizarre.”
Maybe it’s this sense of the magic of the occasion that makes the band appreciate festival shows so much. “There is something in the air, you know?” says Laurent. “It’s like the Olympic Games or something. At these events people know that it will only happen for one night or two nights, and then it’s gone. Not every festival gives you that feeling, but the Grand Chelem do, the Grand Slam: Glastonbury, those kind of festivals. Everybody is taking a small part in the history of entertainment. We love also to play under the full moon. There’s something pagan about it that connects us to our ancestors. We are very excited, so we come up with stupid ideas. We asked one of our favourite artists, Richard Prince, to design fake dollars bills for us.” He reaches into his bag and pulls out a stack of notes. “This is what he came up with. It’s really crazy. We’re going to fire 40,000 of those into the crowd. They’re going to be blown into the air during the song ‘Bankrupt!’. This guy is so big we never thought he would say yes, but he did. I think he liked the fact that we have a captive audience. This is the dream we had as kids. You can use the power that being in a band gives you to get a lot of hookers, or you can use it to contact Richard Prince. You have the choice!”
It’s all well and good to prepare for a headline slot from the comfort of a 4-star hotel, but to really find the beating heart of a festival you have to get down and dirty with a hardcore touring band, and there’s nobody more down and dirty than Mac DeMarco and his band. I head down to the Pitchfork stage to see them play the funniest and coolest set of the weekend, then try to head backstage to hang out. A particularly muscle-bound security guard with a crew-cut is having none of it, and I’m firmly turned away.
Not to be denied, I find a friend with a VIP pass who’s leaving the site and cut the wristband off his arm. Then I head offsite to buy some sellotape and stick the band onto my wrist. The perfect crime.
Backstage at the Pitchfork Stage is a series of dressing rooms which look to be swimming pool changing rooms in normal life. The clean white tiles and panelled doors give the impression of hanging out in a bathroom stall, which seems somehow fitting given the massive amount of recreational narcotics being consumed in there. I find Mac and his band and start drinking heavily until some guy comes in and takes our bottle of vodka, which pisses everyone off until someone points out, quite reasonably, that we’re in the wrong dressing room and it was probably his bottle all along. Nevermind, just outside there’s a bar with a pricelist which includes this listing for beer: “Cerveza – €0”. The Promised Land.
Mac is buzzing about having made his Primavera debut. “This place is crazy,” he says. “It’s like we’re being told: “You get to play in front of the ocean, and there’s a bajillion people, and it’s outside and it’s beautiful. Welcome!” It’s so sick. It’s crazy. It’s a little bit overwhelming sometimes. It’s hard before you have to play because it feels so overwhelming and you’re thinking about the fact that you have to play later, and then as soon as you’re done it’s like: “Fuck yeah! I can do whatever I want!””
I can see the crew-cut guard from earlier eyeballing me. He knows I’m a fraud, but I’m inside now and he knows in his heart I’ve already penetrated his inner sanctum. I eyeball him back, and down a free beer that tastes like victory. “People are coming here to party,” Mac continues. “I didn’t realise it goes to like four in the morning, which is fucking crazy. I’m just glad they didn’t slot us in at like 3:30 in the morning. I just wouldn’t be able to stay sober. It would be a very funky show. I think they know to put the dance-y, feel-good-in-the-middle-of-the-night stuff in the middle of the night. It’s very groovy.”
We head out into the night to see My Bloody Valentine over on the mainstage. Mac’s ginger-bearded bassist Pierce McGarry is alternating between playing chicken with the security cars that rumble past and, perhaps relatedly, worrying that the drip-drip-drip he can feel in his pants is his own piss. ‘Loved up’ would be a generous description of the general mood. ‘Wasted’ would be a more accurate one.
It’s approaching dawn when a man dressed in a tuxedo, wielding a novelty oversized wand and calling himself The Magician finally gives into the unstoppable psychic energy of the summer and plays ‘Get Lucky’. “Come on dude, they’re playing Daft Punk,” shouts Pierce as he leads Mac and the rest of the band towards the dancefloor. It seems so fitting, in its way, because like the thousands of other people still awake on this spit of land jutting into the Mediterranean, we’re up all night and it’s impossible not to feel lucky. It doesn’t quite feel like real life though, maybe just a backstage we’re going through.
Originally published in NME, 8 June 2013.