indieBerlin reporter, Will Macmaster, immersed himself in a weekend of psychedelia at the Synästhesie Festival 2019.
Feeling worse for wear from a night of excess the evening before, I make my way to the Kulturbrauerei – the venue for The Synästhesie Festival 2019. Dubbed as a night with the best of psychedelic music, not only from Germany but across the world, it is somewhat of a mystery to me.
Equipped only with a banging headache, a beer and optimistic mindset, I head towards the venue with no idea what entails and unaware of any of the names on the line-up.
Yet, I’m unconcerned. In fact, on the contrary, I was excited. My editor had informed me that the line-up was solid and within minutes of being at the event all was looking promising.
I enter the first stage area, grab another beer and tentatively enter into a dark and smoky room, with a gothic décor – decorated with skulls and blood. The room offers a sense of foreboding as you enter. A sense perfectly coupled with the sounds of the first performer of the night, Steppenkind, whose grungy, mellow sounds have an almost creepy vibe to them.
Their sound could be defined somewhere between Joy Division and Crystal Castles with a combination of poetic rock and electronic club music, culminating in a unique and memorable spectacle. Their Irish frontman, Brandon Cleary, furthers the aesthetic of the former with his Ian Curtis-esque performance where his tall, slender figure stalks the stage as he performs his gloomy lyrics which, at some points, are almost at the pace of spoken word. But this is no beat poetry night, this a creepy and intense performance where he peers intimidatingly at the crowd, with a gaze that ushers out anyone in the vicinity who are faint of heart.
The performance finished with a track dedicated to “Macho Culture” which the band “hates”. I approached Brendan, terrified of what might follow, but to my surprise, he was a charming and friendly chap who had no qualms being questioned on what I just saw, his influences for performing in such a way, and the music his band makes.
In what I later learned, to my surprise, was his first post-gig interview, he told me, “The Joy Division stuff I guess comes from early influences, but the electronic stuff comes purely from living in Berlin the last few years. ” Before explaining, “It was the first time we played before midnight in I don’t know how long. So it is an interesting dynamic, but the crowd was really good and very receptive and I think some more of the feeling came through as opposed to the dancing.”
Curious about his own performance, I hesitantly asked him where this creepy performance originates, he laughed, before explaining, “it comes from going to so many concerts and not seeing the frontman being the bridge with the audience. There needs to be that connection between the crowd and the band and the frontman has to stand there and stare them out. It’s like a stand-off and you have want to engage them”.
Following the intensity of this first performance, I head down the elevator to the second floor. I somehow navigate the labyrinth of a venue and stumble upon the Stable stage and take a seat in a room and listen to some ambient, tranquil sound from Ross Alexander of Discrepant Records and try to calm down with him being a complete contrast to the intensity of Steppenkind. This respite was short-lived however, as before I know it the small room becomes increasingly filled with viewers waiting to indulge in one of the most bizarre performances I’ve ever witnessed- Stylish Nonsense.
We like looking cool, but we also like a bit of nonsense added in too so maybe we look funny but there is no other band like us
It took me a while to figure out whether it was still a sound test, but not for long as it soon gave way to a trancey smorgasbord of sounds, that were almost random and chaotic in their nature. Gradually it became clear that this was all perfect anarchy, as the lead singers voice came into play and it all came together in an instant. At this point, their name made perfect sense.
Full of funky sounds and with the pair decked out in a quirky get-up, the whole thing was a very surreal performance. No less because one of the pair continuously added and subtracted clothes as the performance went on and the tracks changed.
The performance progressed, becoming more and more energetic and erratic along the way, largely due to the singer switching from vocals angelic to painful as he sung out the band’s minimalist lyrics, which shared vibes with early Gorillaz tracks. I’d never seen anything quite like it. It was a weird and wonderful performance. Massively experimental, but undeniably cool.
I later learned the duo had made a 15+ hour trip from Bangkok to Berlin in order to perform 14 gigs in Berlin, with Synästhesie being the final one. Naturally, after the performance, I had tons of question, with more forming in my mind as I waited for the pair to pack up their kit.
Pok, the singer, took me to the backstage, which was nothing like a backstage I had been in before. As opposed to alcohol, drugs and women, there was a table full of light snacks, such as crisps, biscuits and the like, while a young child sat with its mother.
Sitting down with Pok, he talked me through not only his performance but his-get up and band mantra also, while we were occasionally interrupted by the young child, curious about my presence.
He explained, “We are influenced by many types of music. We grew up with guitar music but then we became curious about synthesisers, so we listened to more music from there. But, in the end, we decided we don’t want to play concerts where we repeat ourselves every time and we want freedom to make new songs at live concerts. And so, I can say, it is half improvised and half what we remember in the past.”
What about their unique look? “Well, we are called Stylish Nonsense. So we like looking cool, but we also like a bit of nonsense added in too so maybe we look funny but there is no other band like us. We are all about the effect.”
I left this area of the festival feeling optimistic about what was yet to come and walked up the stairs (due to the elevator somehow going “kaput” at some point during the Stylish Nonsense performance).
I attempted to get a feel of the performances so far from the attendees standing outside but nothing massively useful was obtained in this process, so I abandoned these efforts in pursuit of more performances.
A Showcase of Music Legends
I found my way into a neighbouring building, the Kesselhaus, still struggling to make head or tail of the stage layout.
Things were kicking up as a gear with Mdou Moctar. They were amping up a much larger crowd than what was present as the first performances with their psychedelic, hard and fast sound with a middle Eastern aesthetic- the band being covered head to toe in white robes and guitarists in some form of turban.
Their sound certainly similarities to Hendrix and their efforts were massively appreciated by the significantly sized crowed who filled the Kesselhaus areas and the group were offered a fantastic response for their efforts.
During the intermission, I clambered up the stairs, now a little worse for wear as a result of my powerful taste for the hops, where, in the Machinhaus, the psychedelic sounds continued with Sofia Portanet. Her high-pitched howls of passion were immersive.
My indulgence in this was short-lived as shortly after arriving I popped out briefly for a couple of minutes to regain my bearings, by the point I was ready to re-enter the room the crowd was so packed the security began operating a one-in-one-out policy so I watched her enigmatic performance continue from the doorway.
There were a few acts that looked like promising ventures for the remaining couple of hours, so I retired to the smoking-room to plan my next move.
But as I scoured the timetable in the smoking area making my decision, I was interrupted out of the blue by a woman who I had briefly seen early at Steppenkind, thus her taste was clearly of merit.
She eagerly explained that I simply could not miss Michael Rother. “Who is Michael Rother?” I inquired with intrigue. To which she informed me he was a member of krautrock pioneers, NEU! and early member of Kraftwerk.
Of course, I was very familiar with both of these groups and my ignorance to the name was somewhat an embarrassment. With a red face and her advice well and truly noted, the decision was clear – Michael Rother was my next port of call.
I re-entered the Kesselhaus, eager to not miss out on what was clearly an unmissable part of the night, at which point I met another fellow, Adrian, who eagerly gave me a quick run-down of Rother’s achievements in the scene and explained that he had bought the ticket almost exclusively for this performance. Which, he highlighted, was likely the case for most people attending.
If that was the case, they definitely weren’t short-changed when the Rother himself entered the stage.
He briefly greeted the expectant crowd in German before delving straight in to the performance. During which he showed no signs of fatigue from his long and experienced career with an enthralling performance.
The crowd loved it and, from what could be inferred from my positioning in the crowd, the man himself did too. A fast-paced performance, which took you on a journey of drama and euphoria with the huge crowd vibing on mass to the incredible performance.
Alistair Mccloud, a Scot who was full of stories about similar outings, only some of which are suitable for print, spoke to me after the performance.
He explained, “I’ve been a fan of Neu! for a long time and I thought this was something I would never get the opportunity to see and this is really once in a lifetime experience. He really blew me away by playing a lot of the Neu! stuff and mixing with his own stuff. He was even better than expected”.
Talking about Synästhesie, the four-year-veteran of the festival stated, “It’s a great festival. It gets better every year. It gets bigger and its really cool. For me, it’s special”
The night was brought to a close by another much loved German band Stereolab – another can’t miss band according to the mystery lady who had spoken to me in the smoking area, who, reflecting now, could be considered a music guardian angel who guided me to the must-watch events of the night.
Making their first appearance after a 10-year hiatus, they too shared a euphoric sound adored by the wanting crowd, with their eccentric lefty pop sound paired with some delicious vocals .
Rusty? Not an ounce as they brought the night of euphoria to an apt and glorious conclusion.
As I headed off into the night in search of further conquests, my mind was buzzing with what I had witnessed and was eager for what the second night had to offer.
That eager expectation for the second night was replaced by an eager need to nurse myself back to health in bed from antics of the previous night, which for the second night in a row had come to a daylight finish.
However, what sort of music journalist would I be to bow down to the “Kate” as they say in German. With this considered, it was back on the u-bahn, back on the beer and back to Synästhesie.
Clearly, I wasn’t alone in my night of excess as there was a noticeably smaller crowd on the second night. Whether it was their previous night’s antics or the fact it was a school night, the Kesselhaus was barren in comparison to how I’d last seen it last when Stereolab was on stage.
As such, when Sara Lou arrived on stage, the room as just half full. This was a shame as the performance she gave was wonderful.
When her and her band, decked out in matching luminous orange sweaters, which she joked were a result of her having “skinned some Muppets”, hit the stage, she made sure that those who had made the effort were well rewarded.
Her exotic sounds had an almost ska-like sound at times, with which she soothed the fatigue from the previous night’s excess, with a clear 60s vibe in sound, look and stage presence. There was definitely a Winehouse-vibe about her and throughout the performance, I couldn’t help but picture her songs fitting perfectly into a scene from a Quentin Tarantino Film. Which, being a big fan of both personally, is a massive compliment from me.
Her performance was a very personal event. With her addressing the crowd before each song, as well as bringing on her sister for a duet and performing a song she had written with her father when she was just 9 years old.
These little aspects to her performance offered much more to her set and gave her a much deeper connection with the crowd. There was something very enchanting about the attitude in performance and, I daresay, I left the performance slightly in love with her.
The type of music a supervillain might listen to
As I walked up the stairs to MachineHaus, picturing our future together, I hear the intense bass sounds from 10,000 Russo’s already who snap me out of my stupor. From the harmonic voice to their heavy sounds, littered with the diegetic sounds of smashing glass over the intense drumbeat, it was yet another perfect parallel between the types of music that the Synästhesie festival throws up. Over the backdrop of a selection of graphic stock footage imagery, it was a phantasmagorical showcase of their sound.
Slightly terrifying and unearthly, I couldn’t help but think it might be the type of music a supervillain might listen to. Impressive in the way it spurred emotions I never thought I had within me, I sat the back of the room wallowing in melancholy, regretting my life thus far – the performance was memorable if nothing else.
I ducked out halfway through though as the second night was all about the Kesselhaus, with many of the biggest names I knew on the bill there.
I slogged back downstairs, reeling from 10,000 Russo to catch one of the headliners of the event, the Black Lips.
Their fast-paced, upbeat folk tracks were yet another complete contrast to what had come before and reignited my spirits with an electrifying performance.
“Maybe everything’s not so bad after all” I thought, as the lead singer, Cole Alexander, the first person I’ve seen rock a mullet so well since Billy Ray, inhaled helium and spoke with a high pitched voice directly before kicking off yet another awesome track, which made me feel I had fallen through a rabbit hole and transported back in time to some local venue somewhere in the deep south of the USA.
Their Southern drawl when addressing the crowd and their Woodstock-esque costume design added authenticity to the experience, so much so that I felt like I could have been somewhere far away from this November night in Berlin.
The guys from Atlanta really roused the crowd and if nothing had woke them from their Sunday evening daze, this crew of oddballs did, with the front reaches of the crowd moving emphatically to every track.
By this point, the crowd had begun to grow a great deal. From a little light in number at the start of the performance, they had grown exponentially.
I turned around midway through the set to a mass of new faces who had been drawn in by the alluring fast-paced ol’ country sound of the group.
The weary eyes of the crowd regained their sparkle and the essence of Saturday was back upon us by the time the Black Lips capped off their performance with a high-octane grand finale.
An ode to the electronic legends of past
I attempted to make it into Holly Gram but the curse of the Machinehaus struck again and the room has reached capacity early door, so I cut my losses, sat down and composed my thoughts ahead of the final main act of the night, Deer Hunter.
As I sat sipping yet another Becks beer looking across from the balcony at the large expectant crowd below me I had a short period to reflect on a weekend of music that contrasted in huge ways but still united in their psychedelic, far-out, trippy nature that makes one yearn for the past.
While, of course, there were new up and coming groups, still with every performance, there was an influence from an early generation of music. Rife with genres, styles and sounds, they were collective in their appreciation for older generations with each performer offering an ode to the electronic legends of past in of music that resonated with me as I psyched myself up for the last performances of the festival.
Indeed this continued with the entrance of another Atlanta band, Deer Hunter’s frontman, Bradford James Cox, on stage.
He dove straight into the action with a powerful Bowie-esque tempestuous performance, that provided a powerful start. Much slower and eloquent than the Black Lips, their ethereal sound wafted the listener into their performance increasingly with each track.
Feelings of glam-rock were certainly prevalent, but it was hard to categorise their sound.
At their highs, The Cure are definitely comparable but their lows are a passionate, sorrowful blend, unique in their own right. With Cox’s piercing voice and charisma, it was a captivating performance to end the night.
Feeling that I had seen all I had to see, and acknowledging the fact I was working the next day, Deer Hunter ended the festival in the perfect way and encapsulated all I had experienced in the last two days – an empathetic, deeply beautiful and aesthetically arrant showcase of psychedelic global music.