All Tomorrow's Parties: The Film
The All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals have become an institution for the UK’s alternative music fans. Mark Robertson watches the new film that celebrates a decade of their existence
A young man, at the head of a throng of people, kneels in front of a performing drummer, his hands either side of the drummer’s floor tom. The man is shouting, nay pleading with the drummer through a variety of emphatic hand gestures. Growing more desperate, he appears to be shouting ‘Thirteen’! The drummer takes note, before unleashing a battery of furious beats. The man, request answered, explodes into life, jerking back and forth, only the wide grin on his face suggests rapture rather than torture. The camera pulls out to show a row of young people furiously air drumming; a team of grinning, grimacing Energizer bunnies lost in the whirlpool of the music.
This intimate exchange between gently unhinged fan and similarly unhinged musician (the drummer was Brian Chippendale from US noise rock two-piece Lightning Bolt) is only one of a number of perfect, essence-capturing moments from All Tomorrow’s Parties, a new film made to celebrate ten ragged, wayward years of the UK’s flagship alternative music festival.
Held in out-of-season holiday camps in the south of England, each ATP event is curated by a single artist or band who choose a programme comprising their particular set of tastes, rather than the acts who happen to be out touring at that given time. There’s no corporate sponsorship. There are no headliners. The result is a refreshing deviation from the festival norm.
The eponymous film embodies that same collective spirit. It credits almost 200 directors – the film was constructed from almost 1000 hours of footage captured by organisers, fans and artists – and the focus is very much on the experience of being at ATP rather than just delivering a roll call of live performances. That said, the live cast list is pretty breathtaking, including Belle & Sebastian, Iggy and the Stooges, Grinderman, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Shellac, Mogwai, Daniel Johnston, Gossip, Battles, GZA, Sonic Youth, Portishead, Boredoms and Slint.
The film also captures the impromptu performances, the rubbing shoulders with minor indie celebs and the (mis)adventures in the swimming pool, amusement arcade or the chalets after dark that all add to a typical ATP weekend. There’s also a wealth of set pieces: Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore wielding a microphone, quizzing bemused French kids about how to battle against ‘corporatised teen culture’, Portishead’s legendarily reclusive Beth Gibbons leaping offstage to dish out high fives and hugs to audience members during the band’s set, and Grizzly Bear strolling across the beach at dawn, serenading a crowd of fuzzy-headed revellers. This is the essence of ATP, all inter-cut with original footage from 1950s holiday camps.
What few people know is that the original concept came from Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian. Barry Hogan, the public face and founder of ATP, takes up the story.
‘It started off with the Bowlie Weekender in 1999. I was booking Belle & Sebastian’s gigs in London, and then they just came to me and said they had this idea and it should be a gig on a holiday camp. We kind of developed it with them and said “let’s turn it into a weekender”. We did it and it was great but Stuart said “I think we should leave it as a one-off”. But a lot of people were kicking themselves that they didn’t get to go to it and I just felt it was too good an idea to let go. So, with his blessing, I asked them if we could continue it.’
The film premiered at Edinburgh International Film Festival in June with a holiday camp themed event manned by red coats, and a live performance by Mogwai followed by a round of bingo. This month there’s another special screening with a live performance from US rock hedonists Les Savy Fav. Bassist Syd Butler is quick to praise ATP both as a fan and musician.
‘The most important thing about ATP is there’s a connection, it feels personal,’ he explains. ‘The bands party with the fans and get to know their fans, and the fans get to know the bands they love. With something like T in the Park or Reading there’s nothing new to discover. With ATP, the curator might invite a band you have never heard of, that has only sold 100 records, but blows your mind.’
But the question remains, given the festival’s Scottish roots and the convenience of Butlin’s in Ayr, would Hogan ever consider an ATP Scotland?
‘It’s funny, it came up in conversation again recently,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t rule it out, as so many people from Scotland come down to the event, and given that you’ve got Butlin’s, that was where Stuart Murdoch worked and inspired the whole thing, so I wouldn’t say we’re doing it, but maybe one day.’
Les Savy Fav play as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties screening at ABC, Glasgow, Sat 24 Oct. The All Tomorrow’s Parties DVD is out Mon 2 Nov.