SYN Goes To Pyramid Rock Festival

Camping: first invented in the 60s so people had something to say they were doing at Woodstock, it’s since evolved into a massive recreational industry. However, at its crux, it’s still mainly about one thing: how much alcohol you can sneak into the festival. As this year the literature on Pyramid was so strongly-worded in prohibiting alcohol short of threatening execution, everybody did the responsible thing and left it at home so we could all enjoy a sober and pleasant three days free from drama or violence. Except those guys in the Spiderbait crowd who, to express their appreciation for Kram et al., started slogging each other so hard they ended up with broken noses and mouths full of loose teeth. That’s the spirit, lads.
 
The charming upstart of the quiz shows, RocKwiz, threatens to infect everyone with its everyhuman-ity right from night one. Even though we miss the opportunity to participate as contestants ourselves because we can’t decide which poles go where – a blow to the festival, as not only are we all extraordinarily good-looking but we’ve a music knowledge to rival AMG – we get to the Pharaoh’s Annex in time to shout out answers and commiserate with the peasants sat next to tonight’s team captains: Jess Cornelius of Teeth & Tongue, who released the outstanding Tambourine earlier in the year, and the Aussie wrinkly rocker Tim Rogers, whose hysterical stage banter isn’t just endearing because he seems like such a legendary bloke, up there in his white suit like rock’n’roll Jesus, but because it sets a bar for stage banter that, to break the illusion of present tense that what you’re reading is happening right now, is a bar that won’t be exceeded for the rest of the festival. Something about the kids today has them emulating the symphonic qualities of the bands that came before them but few of the performative ones, and most acts elect to pack as many songs into their timeslot as possible rather than chatting with the crowd. Back to the stage, Rogers is performing Bowie, taking a second to modify the lyrics and have a go at the festival’s yoof audience for not being old enough to know who Bowie is. He’s that guy what started The Rolling Stones, right? Julia Zemiro also mocks the crowd for not being old enough to know the whistling melody to “Walk Like An Egyptian”, and these jokes largely land because all the relative Olds have come out for RocKwiz, yet they’ll seem suspiciously absent until Spiderbait later on.
 
The scene sufficiently set, just like Phillip Island’s abusive and overbearing sun, I don a suit and Matt, a recovering Central Coaster who could look like a prettier young Springsteen if he’d wear more leather, jumps into the unicorn onesie that he impulse bought at one of the stalls surrounding the main arena. We go looking for a party, but the surrounding tents are deader than Daddy Cool so we head back to the Annex. The debut musical act is the post-RocKwiz DJ set by Aussie Rhyece O’Neill, better known as Westernsynthetics. On-stage he pores over his laptop, a black shirt peeking out from behind it that reads “FREE GAZA.” As an electronic DJ you don’t really get to address the crowd as directly as any act with a microphone so relegating political expression to a t-shirt doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, and if it gets any of the hundred kids in the crowd to use their iPhone to look up what’s happening to Palestine right now between skimming set times and taking hazy Instagram shots of bands, O’Neill’s done a good thing. Inconveniently though, the set’s lacking in the desired bpm. Emboldened by desperation and how utterly fantastic we look, we venture into the wild frontier of unexplored camping grounds. Amid the aimless wanderers, quiet campers and gym-rat revelers hanging off the girls from whom they’re trying to get a little bump’n’grind at a party of their own, we find our Shangri-La: an impromptu rave between four combined campsites, DJ’d not with an iPod but with an impressive amount of real equipment. It’s these underground parties and the sense of community that makes the camping ground such an exciting place to be and why camping as an activity is so important. You can make five minute friendships here that, like brief, casual relationships, can be more beautiful than the ones that last. With no time to unearth the imperfections of the other person – the way they laugh a little too long at a racist joke, how they have no concept of personal space, how they like Odd Future – you can walk into a campsite picked at random and make a connection with perfect strangers that confirm that you’re here, you’re alive, you’re human and you’re a perfectly adequate part of a greater thing. Or you get chopped to bits and hidden in the Outback, depends on your company.
 
Anyone with a dedication towards squeezing as much out of the festival as possible is going to end up with a total of two hours of sleep or less. There’s signs of life until at least 5am and the sweltering, blinding sun rises just a bit after that, and it’s so overwhelming that it’s impossible to sleep-in. Suddenly energy drinks and other stimulants become as precious as water in the desert, and indeed it’s necessary to constantly drink water itself unless the fatigue and heat combine to put you in the ground before the new year. By virtue of Pyramid taking place on top of a gigantic rock it’s quite exposed, and the two marquees near the main stage fill up quick. Fortunately during the morning, the position of the main stage casts a steadily-shrinking shadow, allowing people to enjoy the starting bands in relative cool. To kick off the rock portion of the festival: King Cannons. The Melbourne-based rockers play a straightforward set, no bells and whistles except for the ones at the back of the stage, playing songs at the intersection between The Clash’s dub-flavoured punk and Springsteen’s girls- and bar-talk. Despite such ambitious influences, they careen from one extreme to the next and the set sounds incohesive. About halfway through the set, frontman Luke Yeoward says “This place is about to get hot.” Mate, it may only be 10am, but it already is.
 
The Cannons are followed by San Cisco, a quartet of Freo kids who became very popular this year as Triple J played the hell out of their afropop-rock “Golden Revolver”, except today it’s the single from their forthcoming EP, “Awkward”, that has the crowd excited. More than partially, it’s obvious given the chants of “Scarlett! Scarlett!”, this is because of drummer Scarlett Stevens. “Awkward” is a standout in a similar way to another highly-anticipated song of the festival, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”. There’s a certain magic to girl/boy vocals put to use describing the two sides of a relationship, generally the awfulness or self-pity of the guy and the virtue or unattainability of the girl; the added complexity of another narrator filling out the narrative of the story as well as creating the opportunity for pithy banter (see also The Beautiful South’s 1990 hit “A Little Time” and about half of the Los Campesinos! discography.) All this is to say that “Awkward” is an immensely catchy as well as familiar story that I hoped would be a blueprint for the band’s next stage of evolution, because Australia doesn’t have a really great girl/boy garage-pop band right now who’s out there mythologising young urbanite romance. Thus it was especially heartbreaking when, out of the sun after their show, lead singer Jordi Davieson tells me they have no plans to do more girl/boy stuff. “I’m not a singer,” Stevens elaborates. It’s true that right now she doesn’t have the same range as her male counterpart but her untrained vocals bless the song with charming authenticity and its relative roughness next to Davieson’s radio-friendly sheen actually causes it to leap out and distinguish itself from the rest of the song, which a good vocal dichotomy should do. To return to Los Campesinos!, their first female vocalist Aleksandra was also not a classically great singer but she was ‘bad’ in a mellifluous way, a quality I think Scarlett Stevens shares. There’s a difference between not being a good singer and sounding like shit, and the chemistry between her and Davieson begs to be further exploited.
 
Another thing Scarlett mentions is the difference between Sydney and Melbourne audiences: even though they only played cramped pubs in Sydney compared to Melbourne’s opulent venues (like the Toff), she says that in Sydney, at least they moved around, “but in Melbourne they’re more like-” then she crosses her arms and pouts slightly. This affliction is obvious to anyone who’s been to more than a few shows in our grand city, renowned for its booming live music scene but conversely infected by idleness and a vague veneer of skepticism and entitlement as the crowds stand there waiting to be impressed. The party’s happening in Sydney’s shitty bars while the cloistered up indie kids here are too self-conscious to cut a rug. In the words on Melbourne’s fabulous ScotDrakula, “I want you to shake ya bones!”
 
Then it was on to Hunting Grounds at the Annex. Hailing from Ballarat, the rowdy punks have today chosen a uniform of various black clothing, which for a band who changed their name because they were too frequently mistaken for a Rhode Island doom-metal band, definitely seems like a good idea. The apparent contradiction of their sartorial choices aside, the band are ferocious from the first minute. The band’s two frontmen trade guitar for mic seemingly after each song, not striking a balance so much as teetering the crowd on a see-saw between Lachlan Morrish’s unhinged yowling and the funkier delivery of Michael Belsar, who leads the crowd in a sing-along to Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood”. Unfortunately Matt and I have to duck out before they complete their set when I get a text: Dee Dee from Dum Dum Girls is at the tent waiting for us.
 
Dee Dee is instantly recognisable: a black blouse tucked into black leather shorts over her iconic black-striped tights that lead down to black heels, and black sunglasses beneath her jet-black bangs. Despite an outfit that must absorb heat like a solar panel she looks cooler and more composed than any of us in our shorts and sleeveless shirts. We have a short chat in which she reveals she’s still got the records that Nardwuar, The Human Serviette gave to her a year ago and that she buys her tights wholesale from a friend.
 
Ten minutes later I’m one of maybe ten people in front of the stage watching Dum Dum Girls open their set with “He Gets Me High”, the title track from their stellar EP. Immediately I begin having flashbacks to Future of the Left at last year’s Pyramid, the crowd for whom was so desolate it led to Andy Falkous tweeting that only in Australia could they play club shows to ten times more people than a festival. Soon enough though, people start crawling out of their hiding spots in the marquees and making their way to the stage, and this is where the trouble starts, at first with a “You’re hot!” and then working its way up to a “Smile, baby! You’re beautiful!” until the moment they’d left the stage. As loudmouthed misogynists are wont to do, witnessing an act as powerful and talented as Dum Dum Girls proved too transgressive for them to keep their antiquated bullshit to themselves.
 
Look, maybe you’re reading this and you’re a heterosexual male who a) grew up in a society that worships heterosexual males at the expense of every other group and b) is aware that Dum Dum Girls are certainly very attractive, and because of a), might feel compelled to voice your attraction. If that’s true, just take a moment to think about what you might say, and then just shut up. These bands came all the way here to play at a time when it’s not even all that profitable for them, when they could just play their hometowns for eternity to crowds magnitudes bigger, and without getting harassed when they’re trying to perform. Instead the Girls came here and they put on a fucking great show; the drone of their guitars sounded even more blown-out on the festival speakers so Dee Dee’s voice became an amorphous melody, her lyrics indistinguishable among the haze. For their part, the band barely even reacted, being nothing more than polite between songs. As the set became more intense, Dee Dee’s face glistened with sweat, looking glassy as she shouted over and over “There is a light and it never goes out”, and the Dum Dum Girls’ never did. From start to finish they played a raw set in hellish conditions to a largely unappreciative crowd, and as one of the brightest noise-rock bands to come out of 2010, they deserved better. Fortunately at the Corner on Tuesday they’ll get to play with Super Wild Horses, one of the impressive coterie of garage rock bands to launch in Melbourne over the last couple years, and hopefully they’ll show ’em that we’re not all bad.
 
Later in the night, having cooled down a little, it was time for Matt and I to get the cameras out and hit the Pharaoh’s Annex for Tim & Jean. I first saw the boys play with Art vs Science and Jinja Safari at the Hi Fi in Melbourne and at the time their cut-and-dried synthpop paled between the former’s bombast and the latter’s Jungle Book playfulness. That’s apparently a minority opinion though, because the girls in the crowd tonight squeal and swoon like they were watching a set starring Paul McCartney and Elvis behind the keyboards. This one girl is so desperate to show her love for the boys that she grabs me by the collar and begs me to give them her number, which I fib and tell the smitten girl I could do if she wrote it on some paper, just so she’d release me. I’ll tell you, the look on her face as she murmured “…but I don’t have any paper,” was like watching a twelve year old hear that little Spot, the faithful canine companion she’d grown up with, had gone off to a better place. I honestly wondered if my cruel deception had snuffed out the last incandescent spark of her innocence and that after the festival she’d resign herself to a life of mild and passionless hardship. “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent,” I read on a GIF of Beyonce once, and it seemed like my patronising con had been the icepick to lobotomise her of any notions that this weren’t true. Then I went back to shooting the band though because, after all, they are quite handsome.
 
We don’t mess around in the pit for too long because Gotye is playing on the other stage and, fortuitously, we arrive before he’s played That Song. Gotye’s transcendent hit single first took over Facebook with its mesmerising film clip featuring Wally and the sonorous Kimbra and then became so ubiquitous it was impossible to walk down any street in Melbourne without hearing it from someone’s car stereo. The only possible way it won’t reach #1 on Triple J’s Hottest 100 is if we get a Bart-for-Class-President scenario where everyone assumes everyone else will vote for it so nobody does. As the waifish songwriter looks out over the crowd in a simple grey cardi, he says “I see a thousand young Kimbras in the audience tonight,” before retiring to the back of the stage to the drums, where he begins playing a beat that sounds vaguely familiar. The horns join in and they play a few bars of Luiz Bonfa’s “Seville” before transitioning into “Somebody That I Used To Know”. People pile on top of each other like a looming tidal wave trying desperately to crash against the stage, reaching its maximum tension in the third verse when he cuts his vocals and the crowd, as he ordained earlier, fills in for Kimbra. It’s the most quintessentially 2011 moment of the festival.
 
Coming off the communal high of Gotye, we stash the cameras and get amongst it at Grandmaster Flash. I was oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t going to be rapping but doing a DJ set, and initially I’m skeptical, until I step into the Annex and immediately recognise that it’s going to be the best DJ set of the entire festival. Flash spins a collection of classic rock, eighties pop like Matthew Wilder’s “Nobody Gonna Break My Stride” and old-school hip-hop from Biggie’s “Juicy” to, of course, “The Message” while the screen behind him flashes his Twitter username and website. Every song he plays hits the crowd with collective nostalgia so hard that not a single body has their feet on the ground for more than a second. He only pauses between songs, a record scratch transitioning samples, to tell Phillip Island to “get your hands up!” which would seem patronisingly boilerplate but for some reason it sounds like a heavenly mandate. The rest of the night is a complete blur: running back and forth between the main stage and the Annex, catching a bit of The Living End where our friend Liz gets the cap off Chris Cheney’s stage beer before having it stolen from her, then catching a bit of Spank Rock, then meeting some girls who’ve come down all the way from Shepparton and dancing with them to Yacht Club DJs remixing, if I recall, Disturbed’s “Down With The Sickness” with Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love”. As they finish up at four in the morning I decide I haven’t had enough and go looking for the same party we found the night before, with no luck, its cruel transience making it that much more fortunate we found it in the first place. Even so, the prospect of having to sleep was not entirely unwelcome.
 
Day two, Georgia Fair to kick off New Year’s Eve. It’s a calm morning, the previous night being, I suspect, a bit bigger than people anticipated, and so they’re now sequestered in their canvas caves nursing bottles of bore water and Nurofen. The boys of Georgia Fair seem aware of this, giving humble thanks to everyone for making it out for the morning and even inviting people to get up on stage and dance, though nobody does.
 
At this point I can no longer ignore the quite literally glaring presence of the Sea Shepherd flag on the side of the main stage, which I’d noticed at the Annex earlier but assumed it was just for the act, but now it seems obvious that it’s a sign of support from the festival itself. The skull-and-bones pastiche of their flag looks as ominous as tales of exploits from the organisation, who split off from Greenpeace in 1977 to take more, um, direct measures to stop whaling ships. It’s interesting that Pyramid Rock’s website lists Triple J, VMusic and FasterLouder as associated organisations, yet the logo of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is noticeably absent.
 
Anyway, onto Illy. Unlike the titanic icons of its root genre, the names in Aussie hip-hop tend to dress unadorned, and Illy is no exception; instead of gold chains, diamond grills and designer suits, he’s in a white tee that looks like it comes in packs of four and baggy granite-coloured shorts, having more stylistically in common with skaters than the fashion show-chic of Jay-Z’s contemporaries. That said, American hip-hop was all about street wear for more than a minute and  Kanye’s Rosewood movement only elevated hip-hop style to couture-status in 2010, and looking at rappers like the Odd Future kids with their toting of street fashion label Supreme, it’s clear that big boy style isn’t necessary to write popular rhymes. 
 
Illy plays his Like A Version of “Where Is My Mind?”, introducing it by saying that he stole all his rhymes for the track from other people, “but what is hip-hop if not…” – he pauses to think, before finishing uncertainly – “stealing?” New tracks follow, before begging people to vote “Cigarettes” in the Hottest 100, and then the biggest hit of the set when Owl Eyes bursts out from the side of the stage, a luminescent blur reflecting the sun off her entirely white outfit and starting on “It Can Wait”.
 
Graveyard Train are simultaneously the most vocally polite and most depressingly bleak. In one breath the lead singer wishes everyone in the audience a Happy New Year, and for what it’s worth he genuinely seems to mean it, before reminding us that we’re all going to run out of New Years pretty soon. “I don’t know how many years you’ve had collectively but I really hope you’ve enjoyed them, because one of these years is gonna be your last and you’ll all be fuckin’ dead,” he says. “I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead, the sound guy’ll be dead, the guy on the other stage, he’ll be fucking dead.” Well yes, but why dwell on it, except to remind yourself that life at the moment is pretty satisfactory, or to affirm that it isn’t and hasn’t been and to motivate yourself to get on with turning that around? Their humour unsurprisingly falls to the darkly sardonic, with Nick Finch saying “Here’s a song about drinking, you guys like drinking, don’t you?” to introduce an anguished, demented song about struggling with alcoholism-as-literal-inner-demon. Their farmyard style – playing a self-made washboard and banging chains with a hammer while chain-smoking and drinking – doesn’t make them obvious sex icons, but a topless sailor in the front row wolf-whistles at the guitarist. He’ll be dead soon, too.
 
That night amid mascara-caked tears and raised cans of Australia’s finest, tepid beers, Scissor Sisters ring in the new year. The night surrounding the stage is pitch black, casting Jake Shears and Ana Matronic as spectacularly sexy conductors on a train heading towards the light at the end of the absurd tunnel that was 2011. Nobody knew what we were getting into! Hirings, firings, make-outs and break-ups, Brisbane got flooded, Grinderman broke up, Odd Future were everywhere like AIDS in the eighties, Royal Headache saved Aussie rock. I was on TV! Oh god it was a disaster but most of us made it out alive, if only barely (sorry Molly.) Pour some out for the ones who didn’t, then raise a glass for 2012. Sorry Jake, but I DO FEEL LIKE DANCING!
 
As the sun rises on the fourth day, everyone’s pretty much ready to get the hell out of there. Some are so eager they don’t even bother taking their tents, and I’m told there’s money to be made in scavenging the campgrounds, but we pack ours up all the same. I wish I could say there was some symbolic occurrence that happened between then and getting home, something to summarise the year past or hope for the year ahead, but in my friend’s little maroon hatchback we boringly drove in relative peace scored by an iPod playing “Party Rock Anthem”. I guess that’s it then, no regrets for 2011 but maybe just one pre-emptive apology for 2012: Sorry for party rocking.
 
by Jake Cleland

January 7th 2012
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