We Went to Moogfest Where Brains Meet Bass
Moog make a play to draw hearts, minds, and brains to Asheville, NC, promising inspirational talk and perspirational dance.
The great American highway, this ain’t. We’re outrunning increasing numbers of F150 trucks driven by square-chested men, passing the occasional bored-looking cow, and the radio is filling up with country hits and talkshow preachers with the hypnotic rapture of death in their voices. We weave through the sparse traffic in a 1996 Saturn with Jersey plates, dodging past semis towing entire houses, flanked by satellite vehicles like oxpeckers swarming a hippo’s back.
Noisey likes music festivals, but the first challenge in getting to Moogfest is there are no direct flights from NYC. Rather than take the coward’s option—i.e. changing planes in Atlanta—I opted for the only reasonable route. In the spirit of the tech-led sharing economy I searched Twitter for any mention of “Moogfest”, “driving,” and “New York.” That’s how I found Autumn from Jersey City, the only (and therefore officially most awesome) person to reply to me. She and Marcelo would be my wingpeople, my protectors, and most importantly my drivers, all for the price of gas and 7-Eleven pizzas (7-Eleven pizzas are cooked in two minutes flat, through a process which presumably irradiates your body as you eat it).
This is why I’m witnessing 11 hours of the most boring freeway known to man (hey, Virginians, throw some "World’s Biggest Balls of Twine" on the roadside or something) to reach Moogfest 2014, held in Asheville, North Carolina, nestled in the nook of the Blue Ridge Mountains at 2000 feet above sea level.
Moogfest is the world’s premiere future-synth-technology-mated-with-music festival. I’m making that official, right here and now. Moog pronounced like rogue, fest like best, and Asheville decidedly like Nashville, but without the country music industry. Instead, Moog Music would like you to regard Asheville as a bastion of innovation, a whirlwind of creativity, and also a damn fine mountain town with great food and friendly folks. I was ready to experience the MUSIC and the INTELLIGENT DISCUSSION. But, first let’s tackle a fundamental question.
WHAT IS A MOOG?
Moog is the surname of Robert “Bob” Moog, a man whose passion lay in repurposing circuitry designed for test equipment into playable machines to make future music. He built an empire based on the sweet sounds that his machines were capable of—from early adopters like The Beatles and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, right through the disco era and into powering the synthesiser boom of the 1980s.
A Moog, then, is to the naked eye a keyboard with knobs on it. It creates music via a series of pipes, magic spells, and individually tuned kittens. Here’s a video of a Moog being charmingly nerdsome.
WHAT WAS LEARNED EARLY ON ABOUT ASHEVILLE
There are gangs of children wandering around Asheville. I don’t mean to sound authoritarian or anti-subversive, but they have dreadlocks and I caught whiffs of trust funds maturing on their breath as they asked for leftover food. Apparently giving “traveling kids” (their term) leftovers from restaurants is a regular thing in Asheville. They’re not subverting much except for sidewalk blocking regulations. Apparently there’s a regular drum circle on Fridays at 4pm, so you know exactly when to avoid the center of town.
The notion of Asheville as a magnet for counterculture—some have posited the festival as a kind of northern South By Southwest—isn’t far off track. The festival is held at multiple venues across the city and every restaurant has a vegetarian or vegan option, including the Southern barbecue joints. At shows you will frequently encounter the following:
- Interpretative dance
- Painted faces
Capes I can deal with, actually. A pop-up store opened in Asheville especially for the festival, causing much hilarity (“There’s an entire store just for capes?” Yup). Just don’t operate heavy machinery while wearing them.
In honor of the alternative lifestyle slant, there’s even a Moog Yoga class, which probably wasn’t aimed at me because I was never able to make the 10am call time.
WHAT IS "AN INTELLIGENT DISCUSSION ABOUT THE FUTURE"?
This is Moogfest's third year in existence, but this time round they kicked it up a gear, their ambition encapsulated in the title of the opening talk: “Wiring Silicon Mountain.” Basically, Asheville is staking its claim to be the technology capital of the eastern United States, and they’ve got the craft breweries, hiking trails, and escalating diaspora of college graduates to get there.
There were a ton of speakers covering topics ranging from the nature of creativity to the sound of space, the math of The Simpsons to DIY analog vocal synthesis. Artist, photojournalist, and honorary-geek Charles Lindsay discussed his work with SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), and warned us that our every Tweet will echo around the distant galaxies forever. No pressure.
One of my favorite talks was hosted by Claire from YACHT, speaking with Janelle Monae and her producers Chuck Lightning and Nate Rocket Wonder. I don’t know what you think about Janelle Monae but before the talk I thought she was a great dancer with some snazzy album titles. I also presumed she was just a major label pop star. Well shunt me sideways and wash my mouth out with soap because watching these three talk about pop music is like watching Noam Chomsky discuss the intricacies of language nomenclature.
“Do we have the projector ready?” Nate asks. “Oh, don’t worry about it, we’ll do it like they did in the Acropolis.” An intimate talk on AfroFuturism, quantum realities, and the historical codification of idealistic thought over materialist dogma ensues.
DO CYBORGS HAVE RIGHTS OR CAN WE HUNT THEM DOWN?
Frankly, Neil Harbisson, freaked me the fuck out. He’s an “eyeborg,” because he’s had a camera drilled into his skull. He was born completely colorblind, and to address this he embarked on a quest to hear colors via a camera and headphones. This was refined over the last decade into a single stem that transmits sounds through bone.
In his talk he discusses the software and his brain fusing to the point that he’s started to dream in color and to see non-colored objects with their sounds. Both inspirational and terrifying. Like seeing a benevolent witch displaying her magic: even if you’re only using your powers to grow magic daffodils, it’s an ungodly talent that’s beyond human.
WHAT IS GOOD BASS MUSIC?
I’m over from London, where we don’t use the term EDM. Let me correct myself: we might use it, but only as a pejorative term to describe the terrible frat-boy fracas of Deadmau5 and the like. One of Moogfest’s specialities was bass music, from booming 808 kicks to deep Moog sub-basses.
Some of the venues weren’t quite right—the Warp showcase, for example, forced its audience to sit down in a theatre usually suited to wacky interpretations of Shakespeare. This meant that that while watching Clark followed by Moderat more than a few eyelids drooped. More than a few, meaning both of mine.
Grand prize for “Who Invited Them?” at Moogfest 2014 was the 1-2 double bitch slap of Riff Raff and Dillon Francis, rolling concurrently as part of the Mad Decent crew. Considering the themes of the festival were a) brilliant music that pushes creativity forward and b) intellectual discussion of existential human concerns, what made anyone think that a man with Charlie Brown’s sweater pattern shaved in his face had anything to contribute?
Naturally Riff was on hip-hop time which meant he was so late that his hype-man ran out of records to DJ. Awkward. When he finally showed up the rapper wandered around the stage with a Skype microphone, holding this towel and a bottle of Moët. He was also dressed like a prepubescent girl about to go snowboarding. Just kidding, Riff Raff! I love you. (I don't.)
Riff Raff aside, other live Moogfest highlights include:
Flying Lotus' DJing behind a giant psychedelic screen of spinning reality. Good vibes from Sasha, Tiga, Audion, Shigeto, LE1F, Salva, Treasure Fingers, and Holly Herndon. They all brought the beats, bass, and in LE1F’s case, the anamorphic androgynous fashion sense Asheville had been missing up till now.
I don’t know why I missed Green Velvet. There was a lot of mildly pathetic chatter about the venue he played being “up a hill” and “slightly far away,” which to a bunch of journalists from New York just ain’t a good enough excuse. But I was one of those, so I share the blame. Here’s a sweet Green Velvet song to make amends.
Additionally Dorit Chrysler charmed the theremin every day, alongside the throbbing emanations of the Moog Taurus and I hung out with TOKiMONSTA in the Moog studio where we created the seminal synth jam of the day. She then proceeded to be crystal cool onstage, dropping pop jams alongside her own cuts like the MNDR-featuring "Go With It."
WHAT IS A “DURATIONAL PERFORMANCE”?
According to Awaitinginsaltlakecity.com, a durational performance “is a form through which TIME is manifested in its original (natural) purity and brought to the forefront as pivotal to the experience.” Alrighty then.
At Moogfest, it means a kind of war of attrition between you and the musician. Dan Deacon got to grips with a prepared, exploded piano, and Nick Zinner and Bradford Cox layered loops of generative synth swirls and ephemeral guitar. A friend took umbrage at Nick Zinner’s general presence, complaining that, “He’s got that bullshit heroin chic thing going on. Fuck that guy! I lived through 80s New York, and if you was on dope, you’d be drooling on the floor, buddy. Not suckin’ your cheeks in and strutting around.”
DAN DEACON RULES
Dan Deacon wins the prize for the person I interviewed that was most like a stand-up comic. He gushed good sense and comedic timing. Above is a photo from his durational performance, during which he wore a homemade cape.
And finally, there were the dinosaurs of synth to headline each night. Pet Shop Boys had insane outfits, but equally insane rules about photographing them—the rule being “Don’t photograph the keyboard player.” Well, there are two members of TPSB, so avoiding Chris Lowe is quite a big deal. I think we avoided him because he doesn’t look very well. Somewhat corpse-like. Like Bernie, from Weekend At Bernie’s, playing a synth. Daft Punk-based thoughts: Pet Shop Boys are sort of the 1980s version of Daft Punk, but disguised as children’s entertainers instead of robots.
Nile Rodgers was the most unabashed man I've ever seen interviewed and told many hilarious stories about his successes. Did you know that he’s sold millions of records and used to clean Frank Sinatra’s airplane? Worth buying his book to find out all about it, a book which Cameron Crowe apparently called, “The best book I’ve ever read.” However, watching Chic felt a little like being at a wedding, watching the ultimate Chic covers band that had miraculously roped in Nile Rodgers for a guest appearance. Maybe, like, Kanye and Kim's wedding. (This is my brave stab at TOPICAL COMMENT. Note that I’ve accidentally put their names the wrong way round: it’s usually Kim and Kanye right?)
Of course Kraftwerk 3D was a mind-expanding experience. It doesn’t get much stranger than sucking up your grits in the morning, working a full day in the coal mine then heading to your local tavern to see a quartet of futurist robots mechanistically conjuring dystopian soundtracks. Kraftwerk are the Big Bang of electronics, the group that put the ghost in the machine. Earlier that day, I overheard a dude in his mid-50s from Kentucky saying that as soon as he heard Kraftwerk was playing anywhere near his house, he snapped up a ticket. If the next band you see doesn’t feature visuals that warp your being, basslines funkier than man-machines have any right to be, and four ageing German men in leotards—ask for your money back.
Factory Floor. I guess alien green is the color of winners.
WHO WAS THE WINNER?
There's always a winner. The basement of the United States Cellular Center became known as the Rave Cave. I’m not going to call it that because it neither provided shelter for any interesting animals, had no stalactites or mites, nor anything like a decent rave. It was pretty vibeless, and when I asked the ladies working on a bar what kind of events it usually hosted, they replied that they had never even seen the space before. I think it’s normally a parking lot.
Having said that, the last live act of the festival, Factory Floor, hit the rave cave stage at 2.15am on Saturday night. I love the notion that every time you see a band, it’s like being on a one-way date with them. You’ve both agreed to meet somewhere specific, at a certain time, and you might see them several times over your lifetime, in different countries. A strange romance. Well, I’m crushing hard on Factory Floor, because they match the sweat of muscle to machine action, as Gabriel Gurnsey’s pounding drums and Nik Colk’s wraith-like guitar compete with the synth brain that is Dominic Butler.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM MOOGFEST 2014 IN ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA:
• People with brains exist in the music industry, they’re just shy.
• Southern cooking means that the pounds you pile on in the day have to be worked off dancing through the night.
• As much gear as you want to buy, there’ll never be money to buy it or time to use it.
• Silicon Mountain, people. It’s like Smaug’s fortress but full of resistors and capacitors. Also, the Moog people are neither dwarves nor dragons.
• Cyborgs are frightening and 2014 is the time to make a stand: with them, or against them. Your decision will be judged by no-one except history.
Davo fell in love several times with both animate and inanimate objects during Moogfest 2014. Luckily, diseases aren’t yet contagious between man and machine. Follow him on Twitter - @battery_licker.
Stay tuned for more missives from Moogfest, including nerdy, gear-centric interviews with Giorgio Moroder, Matthew Dear, Com Truise, Janelle, Dorit Chrysler, Sasha, TOKiMONSTA, and Dan Deacon.