Latvia: The Land of 24 Hour Party People…that I met at SXSW.
It’s strange the impact that South By Southwest can have on our lives, in ways that sometimes go far beyond the music.
|View of Riga.|
In 2006, I did a story for The Baltic Times about the Latvian singer-songwriter Goran Gora, who came for a SXSW showcase that year. He played at the now-defunct club Spiro’s (on Red River) to a crowd that I could’ve comfortably fit into my living room. Since I’m a terrible interviewer, I asked if I could shadow Goran around the festival for the article. I inadvertently bonded with Gora’s posse, something that’s never happened with other sources.
Mix that accidental bonding with some quickly-expiring frequent flier miles, the offer of a place to crash, and the fact that I briefly worked in Estonia, and you have a hell of a road trip. Especially when it’s a road trip I now seem to take on a very regular basis.
|Stone face in Old Town Riga.|
I freely admit that that this sort of road trip is unusual. When I confess I’ve visited Latvia the last three summers, I usually get a double-take like I’ve revealed I’d repeatedly been to Rumpelstiltskinland, Oompa-Loompastein or Unicornworld. I’d get fewer strange looks by claiming routine jaunts to the moon.
Since fairly few Americans get to that tiny Baltic country, I’m a bit unusual there. Combine my relative exotic-ness with the fact that many of my Latvian friends are the “make the party happen” folks in the region—and you have a recipe for a certain amount of craziness. And frankly, it’s a place with an absurd amount of craziness to spare. After all, the bars in Latvia aren’t even required to close, as long as they have the right license!
Given the typically beautiful weather during the short Latvian summer (contrasted with the long and literally dark winter), summer means that many people in the Baltic States appear to be on a skin, beer and sunlight binge, steeping themselves in what they can’t get the rest of the year. Summer in Latvia is usually like March/October weather in Austin. Sure, there was a heat wave in Latvia this past summer (bars ran out of beer, stores ran out of fans); but this was accompanied by a siege mentality emphasizing this was highly unusual!
Just as we have our annual spring Bacchanalian rites/drunkfest and our fall music festival season here in the ATX, summer is festival season in Latvia.
This past summer, I was lucky enough to go to both the “punk” Fonofest which could easily be compared to Fun Fun Fun Fest and the more mainstream Positivus festival
which feels a lot like the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
|The mellow green space of Fonofest.|
My friend Toms Grevins was playing a DJ set at Fonofest, and asked me if I wanted to join him. He arranged for me to catch a ride with the band Astro’n’out (pronounced “Astronaut”). Traveling from Riga to the countryside in a bronze Ford minivan, we chatted in English while drinking some sort of unfiltered beer out of an unlabeled bottle. Astro’n’out took the stage not long after we arrived, with Mara’s huge and lovely voice filtering between the birch trees.
Astro’n’out was followed by the awesome ska band Voiceks Voiska whose set was more fun than the last show I saw by The Toasters!
Fonofest was headlined by an absurd Latvian heavy metal pagan act who dress exactly like the guys from the Capital One ads!
I’m told Skyforger plays electrified versions of historically accurate Latvian instruments while singing about Latvian history, but I’m in no position to personally validate that claim. I’m told they are kind of a big deal in metal in Europe.
Much the way Fun Fun Fun Fest has both a punk mainstage and smaller-draw electronica acts playing at the same time, Fonofest scheduled a dance-tent alternative to the heavy sounds on the mainstage.
Thus opposite the huge draw of Skyforger, my friend Toms was playing the DJ tent at Fonofest. I’ve known Grevins for several years, and, during that time, he’s grown increasingly famous in Latvia. (At the Baltic Beach Party in the tiny town of Liepaja, Latvia, in 2009, I was surprised when we were briefly chased by a gaggle of girls who were were literally running after us while we quickly pedaled away on our bikes!) However, this past summer I was more surprised by the reaction of people who just want to be around him.
|Grevins at Fonofest.|
Being around Grevins gives me an idea of what it’s like to live with disruptive fame. Though I knew he was a public figure, I was really surprised the first time I saw strangers walking up to us to say hello. These days I’m less confused when people greet Grevins by name on the street, but he doesn’t stop to chat. These are his fans. To give you an example of what we’re talking about, when I was backstage at ACL, I nabbed Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips to call and say hello to Grevins, who’s a huge fan of the band. That impulsive phone call made the Latvian tabloids.
With apologies to Wreckless Eric when I think of Grevins, I think of a shark in a goldfish bowl, with everyone looking in at the exhibit. Walking around the streets of Riga with him–and generating the odd flashmob caused by his presence–I totally understand how someone like Charlie Sheen could go batshit crazy. (Frankly, I was kind of wigged out by people who wanted to talk to me–or sit with me– just because I had been hanging with Grevins.)
Grevins lost his voice not long before his Fonofest show, and –after helping him apply stage makeup with the Flashlight app on my phone–I ended up giving the introduction we’d written to the crowd. The tent where Grevins was playing was so packed that I ended up dancing backstage when I wasn’t taking pictures. Along with his petite DJ friend Agata Melnikova and another sweet-faced girl, later that night we ended up pretending to be security to drunken patrons who wanted to take pictures with Grevins while he was onstage! Even though the three of us looked like we were more of a menace to a shoe sale than a real security detail, I learned that a black hoodie and a scowl can go a long way in certain circumstances. Drunk people will believe anything!
|People at Positivus painted these panels|
Then came Positivus:
The weekend after Fonofest was Positivus, which has turned into the largest festival in the Baltics. With Muse headlining the seaside festival this summer, it turned into the Latvian event of the season. As numerous Latvian acquaintances explained, they hadn’t originally planned on going to the festival. Yet when they learned everyone else was going, they had to go as well!
|I didn’t meet Muse, but I did peek into their dressing room at Positivus.|
While Muse played ACL this past fall, many people in Latvia were far more excited about Muse playing Positivus than many Austinites were about the combined ACL lineup! The Muse show was much the same as they did at Austin City Limits festival a few months later.
|The Gin Riots|
One of my favorite acts at Positivus this past summer was the British act The Gin Riots, which Linda, one of the Positivus organizers, told me she’d seen at SXSW 2010.
If you get a chance, check out the toothsome Guy and his tight pants, er tunes. They’ll be back in Austin for SXSW 2011!
After the Gin Riots, I saw the Happy Mondays, a Manchester band maybe best known for their song “24 hour Party People.” I even saw fans of the band holding up homemade banners with the song title on it.
At Positivus, I chose to see Grevins do a DJ setfrom 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., meaning that I only got a few hours of sleep.
|Positivus at 5 in the morning.|
I thought this would be a terrible slot for Grevins’ show to be in, but I was totally wrong. At 4:30 in the morning, I ended up perching on a side-stage speaker case, in order to stay out of the melee. Seeing everyone dancing and jumping onstage well into the breakfast hours was crazy, but, even crazier was the amount of determined fun still going on when I stumbled backstage to crash for a few hours in an temporarily unoccupied festival dressing room. While there were still quite a few people partying at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, I saw several who’d clearly passed out where they were partying, and were sleeping it off. Friday night really is the biggest party night in Latvia. Suddenly, I understood why fans of the Happy Mondays had been holding up signs reading “24 Hour Party People.” It wasn’t just because of the song, it seemed closer to a mantra.
|Partygoers at Positivus.|
To explain the party scene at Positivus, imagine if Zilker Park didn’t kick everyone out of the park overnight during ACL, if there was camping nearby, and that the population was used to the bars not closing. Positivus has an intensity of partying that you just don’t see in the States, even at Mardi Gras. “It’s like people out there are partying with a screw loose,” said one native English-speaker who was hanging out drinking backstage at Positivus.
|Keeping the Positivus party going.|
Given the economic woes of Latvia these days, I can’t say I blame them. (A friend who lives in the region quipped that the reason Positivus 2010 was so crowded was that none of these people had jobs to go to on Monday!) Yet after going to Positivus this past summer, ACL felt a lot like a Sunday school picnic.
One of the strangest things about Positivus this past summer was something that I’ve never seen at a music festival outside of Latvia. Everyone—absolutely everyone—seemed to be falling in love, or at least hooking up. I started feeling like I was at Spring Break at Daytona Beach or Padre Island.
I’d noticed the same thing when I’d gone to Latvia’s Baltic Beach Party in 2009…but I hadn’t seen that sort of thing at Positivus when I’d been there in 2008 or 2009. It was so obvious that even Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters commented on it during their set, when he talked about how sweet it was, that he’d noticed everyone there falling in love!
Meeting the Scissor Sisters:
In my own small way, I think I made the Positivus party happen for someone else. At Fonofest, I’d spent a lot of time with the DJ Melnikova, who is a big, big, big fan of the Scissor Sisters. When it came time for the Scissor Sisters press conference at Positivus, I asked the PR person if I could bring in a huge fan of the band to help me with my questions. Since journalists in the region tend to be very shy about asking questions—and it’s very easy for me to ask more questions during a press conference than anyone else—she let me bring in a guest!
|The Scissor Sisters plus Agata Melnikova.|
When the Scissor Sisters walked in, I’m pretty certain that Melnikova was the most excited person in the room. She was nearly jumping up and down before the band entered, and she was thrilled to ask the band a question about who designed their clothing. Afterwards, she posed for pictures with the band, got them to sign her CD, and took a picture of me and Ana Matronic. She was so thrilled to be there, other people ended up taking pictures of her! She even managed to plant a kiss on Shears’ cheek when I wasn’t looking!
The Scissor Sisters press conference at Positivus was the most fun I’ve ever had at a formal press event. Usually those things feel like someplace where no one really wants to be, because it’s a work event for everyone. Yet the Scissor Sisters seemed loose and happy. Shears described the Positivus crowd as “Young, sexy, fun” then told a great story about a time he was performing in Paris in a teeny-tiny outfit, and looked down to find his balls hanging out!
|Agata Melnikova/Jake Shears.|
Soon after that press conference, I witnessed a huge audience gathered to watch Goran Gora, the singer-songwriter whom I’d met at SXSW. There were lots of people dancing to his huge-in-the-Baltics song “A Dance Away.” That’s a long way from the tiny crowd at Spiro’s where I first saw him.
That’s fitting, because Gora’s songs seem to have grown since I met him. Since I know he got married to Mara (from Astro ‘n’ out) perhaps I choose to see his songs as far happier than they once were. Also, he now has a band, which often makes a singer-songwriter sound less mournful.
Right after coming back to Austin, I spent most of September driving around with Goran’s new CD in my car player, repeatedly playing “Silly Tunes” over and over while driving up and down Lamar. I might be the only person on the planet who hears that duet, and is reminded of the vocal interplay between Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. (You can hear the tune on Gora’s MySpace page, and judge for yourself.)
|Goran Gora @ I Love You|
Given that Goran mixed quite a few of the drinks I had in Latvia at his dayjob at the I Love You bar in Riga, I feel it’s only fitting that I think of Goran every time I pull into the parking lot at Spider House, which has the closest vibe to ILY of any place in Austin. Even more fittingly, Spider House is where I’ve had my lunch order taken by Mike Wiebe, the singer from the Riverboat Gamblers.
Singers with large followings and dayjobs in places that serve strong drink. Some things are the same all over the world.
It’s Time For SXSW again:
Given that SXSW is again upon us, and I have a whole schedule of new people to meet and new experiences to have, I’m a little afraid of what impact this SXSW might have on my life. After all, I’m booked to go to Latvia in July.
PS: If your band is approached by people who claim they are organizing a music festival in Latvia, please don’t think that you’re having a vision caused by an open bar. Such a thing really exists. I have it on good authority that least a few people from Positivus will be combing the alleys of SXSW 2011, trying to figure out what will play in Latvia.
Scroll down for more pictures of Latvia:
|Riga summer dawn @ 4 a.m.|
|Green space in Riga.|
|Riga building decoration.|
|Keeping Riga public transit running with clean rails.|
|Retired Riga weathervane,|
|Art above a Riga street.|
|It’s not 1971, but you do see these on the street. Sometimes.|
|Free poncho at an outdoor show!|
|These Youth Song Festival participants are more likely to be found on Latvian tourist postcards.|
Update: For my Latvian friends who might have never seen Fun Fun Fun Fest here’s a video: