Denmark certainly has been in the press a lot recently. From articles touting it’s regular standing at the top of the World Happiness Index to Bernie Sanders name checking it as a an example of how government can function well for its citizens, there’s every indication the country has hired the right PR firm.
For most people, though, ‘Denmark’ equals ‘Copenhagen.’ Its Kastrup airport is the gateway to The Nordics, and even some residents of Stockholm are grumbling that it may now be the de facto ‘Capital of Scandinavia.’ However, just as the fantastic city of Chicago constantly seems lost in the shadow of Los Angeles, or New York, the jewel of Jylland, Århus, is criminally ignored as a destination. It has a vibrant food scene, and the new, modern architecture around DOK 1 is based on a more practical plan than Copenhagen’s Ørsted area.
It’s a short bike ride from the picturesque downtown to the tranquil Lake Brabrand, with its paths and picnic spots. It’s the kind of place that makes visitors feel like they could pack their bags and sign on for this Democratic Socialism thing permanently.
While Århus’ calendar is heavily dotted with music and culture events, it’s hard to argue that SPOT Festival is the not-to-miss music event of the year, using the gorgeous city as a backdrop, and featuring talks, receptions, and day parties in various cosy spaces throughout the town, before the evening’s concerts start. Spring weather has just arrived, spirits are high, a different kind of spirit is flowing liberally, and people are out, en masse, to enjoy the weekend’s offerings.
I first went to SPOT five years ago not knowing what to expect. Now established acts like Baby In Vain were playing their first shows. I loved the Psych/Garage scene happening at HeadQuarters, especially the band The Wands, so I was excited to see an offshoot of that band, Der Underjordiske, which also features members of The Entrepreneurs and Tan (who were also on this year’s bill), was on the bill for SPOT’18.
I arrived Thursday with only enough time to catch Les Win’s set at TAPE. Having caught them five years prior at the same festival, I was reminded of how solid they are, combining solid Post Punk rhythms with This Heat style guitar stabs. I went home satisfied, saving myself for a packed weekend schedule.
Friday I hopped on a rented bike, took a right at Arne Jacobsen’s perfect specimen of a Danish town hall, and headed down to the harbor for my first day party. Tambourhinoceros is one of the great indie labels of Europe, boasting a deep bench of talent. Much like its founder Kristoffer Rom’s band, the brilliant Oh No Ono, their bands stray from formulaic rock.
Acts like Cancer, Efterklang, and The Entrepreneurs are comfortable genre bending, yet the end result is always extremely listenable. It’s not easy to achieve “if it’s on that label you should be interested in it” status, but they have. So it came as no surprise their day party was well-attended, and the programming was perfect. Held in the Dome of Visions, a perspex ball of a structure adjacent to the harbor, acts like Molina, adi & nico, and August Rosenbaum soundtracked the passing of container ships.
From there it was over to Lydhavenen Studio to attend a Live At Tapetown filming of ONBC and Sista Bosen performances. The former band being a treasure that has been on the Crunchy Frog label for years, the latter being one of their newest signings. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. ONBC delivered an achingly beautiful set, showcasing lush vocal harmonies and lilting melodies. Sista Bosen bounced around the room like children at recess, after being dosed with a quadruple espresso each. Singer Hampus Sundén was playfully confrontational. It takes a special kind of front person to demand audience participation, get it, and for it to work, but that’s exactly what happened. Afterwards stragglers chatted, toured the space, and drained half empty bottles of Prosecco.
SPOT benefits from being a manageable size. Most of the time it’s easy to make decisions, and avoid being overwhelmed. At the same time, festival goers are rewarded for going with the flow. Inflexibility often means missing out on something special. So while I wanted to catch the always fantastic Collider, once again I found myself mostly camped out at HeadQuarters, for a night of great Garage Rock.
The undisputed champions of the night were Orcas, who could turn a room full of five people into a party, so with a packed house things peaked as the band brought them into their performance over the 45 minute set. I’ve been to a lot of venues in my life but HeadQuarters is the first one I’ve seen with a refrigerator of Red Bull, right on the stage, for the bands to pilfer at will. I’m pretty sure their limitless energy was something Orcas were born with, though.
With the venues being so close I was able to pop by the beautiful Musikhuset Store Sal for most of Bisse‘s inspiring set, which combined electronica, hip hop, and straight up pop, then dash across the street to catch some of Riverhead, who are the best Punk band in Denmark right now, hands down.
Saturday, I was able to spend some time around the Godsbanen area, which is a hodge podge of container bars, shacks, and food stalls sprinkled amongst well-designed buildings and spaces. The result is a modern day Christiania environment where the most interesting things in town happen. It’s a typical story: an unused former industrial site is settled by artists, who turn it into something special. It gets popular and the town, developers, or any with a stake in turning a profit, decides maybe it’s valuable after all. Godsbanen’s existence hangs in the balance currently. It needs to be protected. If Århus wants to be on the cutting edge playing field they will preserve what is happening there.
My favorite performances of the day were in that mini city. Blood Child is a new band and, though that shows in some ways, they have something special, and are clearly a band to watch. Employing heroic amounts of reverb on the guitars and vocals, guitars from the surf arm of the Post Punk genre, the end result is something fans of bands like Iceage and Protomartyr will connect with. Hôy La blended Nordic casual cool with classic Trip Hop sounds, to great effect. Scholars of the ’90’s Bristol scene are encouraged to check it out.
Denmark enjoys many bands playing many genres, but straight up Guitar Pop is something I don’t come across often. Århus’ own The Broken Beats is a rare example, and Luster are poised to be the next reigning champions. The songs are expertly crafted, and the band, which consists of heavyweights from Palace Winter, Sleep Party People, Masasolo, and Bisse, is in perfect sympathy with songwriter Jacob Haubjerg. Additionally, whereas one might expect foundational guitar riffs to back up all of this, what’s delivered are parts that sound like Johnny Marr if he played on ‘Berlin Era’ Bowie records. I can’t wait to see this band again. Later in the evening Der Underjordiske played their bold version of Psych Pop, which also incorporates some of Suede‘s mewling Glam style, to full room at the Scandinavian Congress Center.
Also on the bill that evening was Nelson Can, whose tight rhythm section lays down a repetitive Disco/Funk/Punk foundation for Selina Gin’s powerful, shouting, sometimes barking vocals. One moment sublime and dreamy, the next as urgent as Savages, their new level of versatility shows they’ve been hard at work for the past few years. I’ve followed this band for some time now and I’m absolutely impressed with their arc as of late. They have gone from an Indie club band to one that’s ready for the big leagues.
Props need to be given to Turbolens, a band formed by ex-Mew guitarist Bo Madsen, one of the most gifted and inventive guitarists ever to come out of Denmark. Madsen, who has only played in one band before now, has said “when I struck out on my own, the main thing I wanted to do was play music with people other than white men my age.” While he has shared the stage with Damon Albarn as part of the Africa Express project, the band he assembled for Turbolens (a pun on the word ‘turbulence’) consists entirely of young musicians from the same school he attended as a child. The end result is sometimes a little shaky, but it also contains a lot of magic. Madsen is onto something and should be applauded for going off the map. If nothing else but the aching and lovely song ‘Rastløse Bevægelser’ (‘Restless Moments’) were to come from the project that would be enough.
Sway is an unlikely place to house such a great club. It’s cramped, and the bands set up in a former kitchen. The drummer is usually placed under the old ventilation hood, and patrons need to squeeze by the patch of floor that functions as stage left to get to to toilets. The drinks are average, and the staff is friendly. Previously, in that space, I’ve been floored by provocative Cowpunks, Powersolo, and Dark Wave merchants Shiny Darkly. Earlier in the week I’d seen solid performances by Boundaries, and Modern, which is fronted by SPOT Conference Organizer Jesper Mardahl’s son, Christian. Jesper was standing next to me as the band played jangley pop reminiscent of Orange Juice, Josef K, and the many bands on New Zealand’s Flying Nun label. “This is what happens with you give your son your Smiths records,” Mardahl laughed.
Saturday the same venue was turned over to Crunchy Frog for their infamous end-of-the-festival party. As usual, the lineup was strong, with Sista Bossen and ONBC playing full sets. The standout of the night was Felines, however. The band started it’s career as a good enough Indie act, but have recently found their stride, making music that would have been at home in the early 80’s Mud Club scene in NYC. Catchy, memorable, and easy to follow lyrics, sparse guitar parts, and hand percussion blend with stilted grooves that owe a debt to bands like ESG. You’ll likely be hearing more about them.
New for this year was a kickoff event in Ålborg, which lies an hour north of Århus. Held the day before SPOT began, the party was curated by Søren Kristensen, a respected fixture in the city who has been working to help bands for longer than anyone can remember. Stand outs were Sweden’s Bottlecap, and Ålborg’s own Get Your Gun. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something in the water in Sweden. Their Garage Rock bands just have a… thing that they do, and they do it well. It brought success to The Hives, continues to drive legends like Bob Hund, and Sista Bosen most certainly has it. The spirit lives, currently, in basement dive bars like Plan B, in Malmö.
This thread has run so long, through so many bands, for so many years, I half expect to discover that there’s been a svengali, in some Gothenburg basement, teaching a secret master class on how to put on a (goddamn) proper rock show. And Bottlecap have got “it” in spades. Not one nanosecond of the set lacked energy, and none of the songs were anything short of a good time.
On the darker end of the spectrum, Get Your Gun delivered Noir Rock fans of Nick Cave would certainly enjoy, but also mines the fringes of Dream Pop, if your dreams were disturbingly gothic. The band creates music that sounds like it was made for some yet-to-be-made murder mystery that takes place in the dessert. It’s so heady I almost missed the fact that singer Andreas Westmark is also a truly spectacular guitarist. The night was a success, I hope it becomes a tradition, and I implore festival goers to make the short trip north next year.
Words: Alex Maiolo | Photos (L-R): Michael Bring-Nielsen, Johan Adrian Buus, Christina Lykke, Jesper Hedemann x 2, Rasmus Vester x 2, Allan Niss, Mikkel Elming, Kim Matthai Leland x 4