Bathing in noise and spawning alien babies at Basilica Soundscape
This past weekend, I made my third annual pilgrimage to Basilica Soundscape, a highbrow yet fun music and multimedia festival held in a cavernous former factory in Hudson, New York owned by modern-day Renaissance woman Melissa Auf der Maur and her husband Tony Stone. They produce it in collaboration with curators Brandon Stosuy of Pitchfork and Brian De Ran of Leg Up Management. It’s hard to describe the fest’s vibe at this point without repeating myself, because I’ve written about it so many times already. Suffice it to say that it’s all about combining darkness, light, beauty, ugliness, ideas, feelings, the personal, and the communal in surprising and awe-inspiring ways. It is not about corporate sponsorship or what you typically think of as “festival” culture, although given the bookings’ tendency towards the transcendent, it’s an extremely appealing venue in which to consume the odd mind-expanding substance, if you’re into such things. Just try to be a grown-up about it.
My crew and I arrived Friday night in time for Lydia Ainsworth, whose lovely, off-kilter chamber pop proved a perfect way to shake off the psychic dirt of New York City and relax into the experience. Still tense from driving for almost three hours, I made my boyfriend Sean rub my shoulders while I listened to Ainsworth’s haunting vocals float above a novel combo of keyboard, electronic beats, cello and violin. When they covered Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Games,” I got my first chill of the weekend.
Next, Calgary’s Viet Cong kicked things up a notch with music that is generally classified as post-punk due to its punchy, gloomy rhythm section, although I heard touches of psych and shoegaze in the squalling guitars. Singer Matt Flegel attacked lines like “what is the difference between love and hate?” with an enviable death rock rasp. When technical difficulties delayed their set, half the band faked us out by starting to play Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”
I know this festival is said not to have overlap between acts, but that’s only true if you ignore the Bunnybrains pop-up out back, which you shouldn’t, as it has some of the craziest stuff. So I skipped electronic producer Actress to watch Bunnybrains themselves — a rotating collective of weirdos the only constant member of which is Dan Bunny — play off kilter music that reminded me somewhat of Primus. One band member was dressed in drag as some sort of wolf lady and Dan Bunny yelled into the mic like a revival preacher about the tyranny of improperly sized witch costumes. I watched this while enjoying a rather avant-garde salad from the Alimentary Kitchen stand.
After getting classily tipsy on sake, I gathered the troops and went inside to watch Los Angeles noise rockers HEALTH slay it in the main room. When they played “Die Slow,” probably the best song off 2009’s Get Color, as their second song, I got excited because I knew it meant they were confident as fuck in their new album Death Magic. Between the fog, the strobes, and the mesmerizing dance moves, it was all I could do not to write the word “orgasmic” in my notebook. “Is this Nine Inch Nails?” asked Sean during one of the harsher industrial bits. “No,” I replied, as the music turned poppy again. He later told me if I wanted to have sex with HEALTH, letting that one guy run his hair over my naked body like a sensual car wash, he’d understand.
Saturday brought a dreary rain that only intensified as the day went on. We were low on umbrellas but soon to be high on a magical combination of substances, so we strode confidently to the venue with only our love of art to keep us warm.
When we got there, Sannhet were engaging in brutally aggressive post-metal pummeling and we got to headbanging right away. There were math-y bits and trippy projections and flashes of light both literal and figurative. As with most metal bands, drummer Christopher Todd was the star of the show, and his throne was appropriately in the middle of the stage. Later, at the Half Moon Pub, Todd showed me a picture of his tuxedo kitty.
At some point between Sannhet and Jenny Hval, I spawned two drug children (note: not actually children) who followed me around like ducklings for the rest of the night. I felt my candyflip coming on harder than expected so I gave them about half of what I’d taken. This proved wise.
While finding shelter for my brood under a leaky tent I noticed Jenny Hval and her dancers getting ready to perform and worried over how to see her. She was playing in the smaller room and it was packed. I could stand outside and watch through the window, but then I couldn’t hear (also, it was raining pretty hard). I could go around to the side where the door was, but then I couldn’t see. Finally I pushed my way into the room and witnessed the final 15 minutes of her set.
Sean tells me they started off by smearing each other with what may or may not have been fake menstrual blood. When I came into it in media res, the women were writhing around the stage as the soft spoken Norwegian genius delivered probing questions and theories on gender, culture and capitalism in a bloody wedding dress and blonde wig. Occasionally they’d all break into cruel laughter or hysterical keening. “We’re gonna celebrate HC with a tale of human emptiness,” I wrote her down as saying. Given what I know if her, I’m going to guess she said “Hillary Clinton.” Then she took out her phone and did a karaoke version of “Summertime Sadness” that ended with everyone screaming and crying. “Lana Del Rey is good at making tempos that are good for swiping,” she deadpanned, pretending to Tinder. Then they all wrapped themselves in toilet paper and formed a beautiful, writhing tableau as the wigs came off. Who says feminist performance art can’t be fun?
As my brain peaked into a loooooong plateau, I found my friends Debbie and Boy Jamie and got a good spot up front for Wolf Eyes. Ever the evolving provocateurs, they’d replaced their usual percussive blasts of noise with psychedelic noodling on traditional instruments (Guitar! Sax!) that was accented but not overtaken by their usual power electronics. I found this disappointing at first, but as it built into an intense kind of trip metal and echoing voices and metallic jungle sounds started coming at me from every angle, I grew to appreciate it. Dan Colen’s giant, black paintings began undulating in time with the music, mirroring its dark and tangled sound. “This is really weird, right?” I asked Debbie, who was not on any drugs. “It’s not just me?” She confirmed it was.
Sometime toward the end of Wolf Eyes, Sean asked if he should set off the fireworks we’d brought such that they’d be visible through the large opening behind the stage. I said he should, but that I couldn’t help. “I’m just gonna go out and see how I might do it, and then maybe do it,” he said, skipping off with an acidic glint in his eyes. That he never followed through was both a disappointment and a relief.
At this juncture I’d like to apologize for being in the utterly wrong headspace to stand there and listen to the “writers in the rafters” portion of the evening, which I am told was great. Apparently one of them made a joke at Terry Richardson’s expense, of which I obviously approve.
Instead, I looked feverishly for my ducklings, only to find them cheerfully chain-smoking under the overhanging roof of a shed on the outskirts of the Basilica complex. One duckling said he’d just had a moment analogous to Hannibal Buress’ “Have you seen my McGriddle?” “No, but we found your passport” joke, only with his cigarettes and wallet.
I tried to watch Perfume Genius but his music was so pretty and sad I thought I might cry, so I went back to the shed and brainstormed with my bright and creative children about new apps with which to disrupt shit. Like Ubrella, for when you need someone to bring you an umbrella, and Upurr, for when you’re on Molly and want to pet a cat really badly. Then we realized we’d forgotten to eat dinner so we got some eats from the fancy food stand, but the okra that had been so delicious the night before was now a slimy alien trying to lay its eggs in my mouth. Someone should talk to the chef about that.
Finally, the music got back on our level and we went inside to let the Haxan Cloak overload our senses with slow-building, bass-heavy, electronic doom sounds that made me feel like the witch in a horror movie…a swamp witch, to be precise, as I had the sensation that the room was filled with a foot of rain water but I didn’t mind. Once again, the paintings melted with the music and I felt like I was melting right along with them. “It’s dark and I’m on drugs and there are scary noises,” said a friend I’ll call Todd. “I must be hanging out with Jamie Peck!”
Before heading to the after party I stopped into the Bunnybrains shack to see what was going on in there, only to be rewarded with a sensory experience tailor made just for me: Dark and vibey techno music from a Led Er Est side project called Further Reductions, experimental films by Katherine Bauer, and some pillows to lie down on while experiencing the whole thing. I tried to make Boy Jamie take a picture of me lying on the pillows, but it came out blurry.
Finally we floated over to the Half Moon where we danced to amazing tunes from Haxan Cloak and Rainbow in the Dark until 4am. I found Melissa Auf der Maur, who may or may not have remembered me from the previous year but was very nice nonetheless, and gave her a big congratulatory hug. When they played a double Melissa rock block of Hole’s “Violet” and The Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979,” I high fived everyone I could find.
Finally, I said goodbye to my babies (they grow up so fast!) and walked back to our Airbnb, where I boofed a Valium and drew a bath for everyone who was still awake, i.e. Boy Jamie and myself. Floating in the our warm womb, we noted that Hudson is a great place to raise a family, whether you’re a freaky vegetable or a potion-swilling swamp witch. Until next year.
Photos by Debbie Allen