All Tomorrow’s Parties: the only society the secular side of a nunnery where the queue for the men’s outstretches that of any other gender; a place where Monomania, and not endless Metronomy, booms over the most irreproachable PA imaginable between the bands; a realm where deodorant doesn’t count. Camber, meanwhile, is a drowsy civil parish where time seems to have stopped, so long as it ever started in the first place. And for one final time, its gloriously lurid Pontins plays host to ATP’s curtain call.
End Of An Era Part 2 isn’t all doleful endings, however, as it begins with New War, the Antipodean four-piece the newest signings to ATP Recordings. A thrice around the Sussex mulberry bushes – Polgate, Cooden Beach, Bexhill etcetera – ensures our weekend starts instead with Al Cisneros’ OM, the notorious Dopesmoker throttling his Rickenbacker as though it were a particularly itchy anaconda. A little later on, Fuck Buttons inspire mass crowdsurfing, a tidal Surf Solar a strangely natural fit for the archetypal ATP pastime, although at twenty to nine it’s all more than a little disorienting. The following evening, a gloriously disparate set from D.C.’s The Dismemberment Plan ensues, only getting better as it grows older, before A Winged Victory For The Sullen bring soporific neo-classicism to an appositely solemn Stage 1. “Are you guys ready to have a nap?” quizzes Adam Wiltzie a little ruefully, “‘Cause we’re the perfect band for that.” Splayed out prostrate, they create the dulcet sound of perfection itself that, irrespective of situation, ceaselessly thieves your breath at every tempo. Thus as well suited to Stage 1 as they were Sadler’s Wells; to slumber as interpretative ballet, bouts of savage feedback notwithstanding, they top their hour off poignantly with a nicely sentimental, if never mawkish Sparklehorse tribute, Spirit Ditch airing an otherwise muzzy room with crystallinity anew.
Downstairs in Stage 2, Alex Zhang Hungtai provides a typically exorcismal purging of his wearied soul, replete with saxophonic discordance, while returning co-curators Loop, like The Dismemberment Plan however many hours before them, extend in stature, or perhaps rather sonic sculpture, as their set wears on. During a languid Pulse, with the floor wobbling underfoot, Pontins feels set to collapse. By Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere is sombre as the previous two were anything but sober, Wolf People’s compellingly intricate psychedelia, comparable in complexity to Italianate Renaissance cornicing, inspiriting a fair share against most odds. Italo-American three-piece Il Sogno Del Marinaio, featuring Mike Watt, and Melbourne guitarist Mick Turner both then enthral Stage 2, the place inundated with morning-cum-mourning dress. For once, gone are the obscure band tees and ill-fitting jeans, replaced instead with an abundance of suits and boots. Indeed, there are likely more within Pontins than there will be within Canary Wharf concurrently. Nonetheless Watt, despite the band’s auxiliary info, is anything but its star performer, with Bolognese duo Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi epicentral throughout, the tempestuous guitar lines of the former a perfectly isometric match for the latter’s tumbling drums. And it’s the band’s ethos, enunciated raucously by Watt of course, that best fits that of ATP and the acolytes to have so foolhardily shadowed Barry Hogan and Deborah Kee Higgins’ every endeavour. “Let the freak flag fly!” he decrees in typically Californian fashion, the sentiment later echoed by Raphaelle Standell-Preston of BRAIDS. “ATP is so important” she reckons, the Albertans pertaining more to soothing reverie than the reverential indie revelry of Superchunk. Plundering Standell-Preston, Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith’s infinite minds for previously inconceivable material, they exhibit a total intensity to furnish all in attendance with what transpires to be, arguably, the set of the weekend, if not that of an entire era.
But ATP, essentially, is less about the musics than it is the experience, and whilst you sense an absolute appreciation for artistic singularity that’s rife and runs right throughout, it is, to pillage Latitude Festival’s immutable copy, so much ‘more than just a music festival’ – it’s a modus vivendi in its own right. With the formal attire (plus an extraneous spatter of prematurely unwrapped Father Christmas garb) of Sunday only intensifying the surreality of it all, this is a show so far removed from rules, and societal regulations, and indeed even regularity that it feels a relatively normal occurrence to discuss such widely lionised “cats” as D. Boon and Cedric Bixler-Zavala together with Mike Watt aboard a train bound for London. For this is a place where friends are both made and maintained. Again, there’s little shock nor horror in learning of two girls – one Latvian; the other Japanese – who first met at an ATParty a number of years ago halfway around the world, and have been frequenting them together ever since. Belgians fall headlong through single-glazed windows at the behest of Bacchic Celts, while you might find yourself invited into a remote chalet for pasta and pesto by the onetime editor of The Guide. There’s a feel of democratic egalitarianism and of indubitable equality, and that this weekend is to be the reputed ‘last ever UK holiday camp ATP’ makes it feel as though I’ve involuntarily donated a vital organ to an abandoned skip. My liver may one day thank Barry and Deborah for calling time on these kinds of eccentric jamborees, although I can’t imagine my heart ever will.
To revert to that which filters through our ears a moment though, the weekend’s crowning moment is perhaps less an isolated instance, than it is an applied tenor. For the bill, an impressive blending of old(er) and new(er) that spans as many generations as it does genres, fails to succumb to the nepotistic inclinations of past editions. Yes, Shellac play, again, bassist Bob Weston proclaiming: “We love coming to this fucked up place. Every year.” But everything seems forgivable now, if it’s not already been forgiven. Pontins remains the one, and indeed only place I’ve indulged in that avocation aforementioned, and in the face of three weeks’ worth of spinal agony, I’ve no regrets re: said idiocy either. That was then during Deerhunter’s third of three outwardly spectacular performances, and this time, for every Mogwai there’s a Goat; for every Shellac a BRAIDS. Stuart Braithwaite et al., who emerge to The Staple Singers’ This May Be The Last Time, chip in with a suitably elegiac, if a little too lethargic finale. And certainly, in spite of an already ruinous Remurdered, they make heavy weather of an emotionally muddled Sunday night, a sonic conflation of Teen Age Riot and the crackling of smashed plastic pint glasses come the cataclysmic climax of Mogwai Fear Satan infinitely preferable to the previous two hours-plus.
It’s a set that, during its latter moments, is at times almost overrun with chatter, and it’s something that attendees have frequently taken issue with – both bluntly and obliquely via social media – although only this weekend does this also start to seem strangely tolerable. For you forget that certain people congregate here and only here, and these bi-, or at best triannual gatherings are the rare occasions on which certain, perhaps socially incongruous groups of people reconvene with one another. You end up with acquaintances so closely associated with ATP that their faces bring you straight back to Butlins – its fabled Space Bowl, as much as the stench of Rollover hot dogs. It’s the one and only place where the likes of Shellac and Slint likewise are deemed mythic demigods, and it took for End Of An Era Part 2 for me to finally see the former for a first time. Steve Albini’s musically terse ensemble demonstrate not one iota of fuss, but at once that whipped up around them is emphatically vindicated. For they make for a familiarly brilliant time, despite my not knowing a solitary song in around an hour. Thus although the event may be “bittersweet” to “quote, unquote” Weston, as bitter as a distinctly rancorous Wingwalker may be this evening, the aftertaste is sweet as the cans of Strongbow sold at the rear of the room.
Beyond this and on into another two days later, “It’s just another Sunday, in a tired old street” or so an atonal karaoke-goer goes, slurring along gloriously to Starship’s We Built This City. As was the ’85 single’s equivocal host conurbation, for a few days a year it feels as though Camber is itself made from the unadulterated essence of “rock and roll”, this one of many impressionistic renditions throughout the weekend explicit testament to exactly this. The more said about the chap who gets up in a woolly moose hat to imprecisely bellow forgotten bits and lost pieces from Sinatra’s My Way the better – he departs the stage to rich grunts of approval, crowdsurfing as far as the bar.
And I’d dare say that, without even the slightest suggestion of hyperbole, this tangential societal microcosm is the closest I’ve yet come to living in a flawlessly lawless environment. Attendees are afforded total artistic license, with no restrictions on single-lens reflex cameras, while security checks are decidedly lax, yet never are there any altercations. This is how a festival can, and doubtless should be done, and just because it may well have run its course in this particular format, that isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of inspiration to pick from its bones. For it’s the finer, vital attention to detail that makes ATP the immediately accommodating haven it is today, or rather was yesterday: from the festival’s substantial, diligently compiled programmes, included in every ticket price, to this winter’s reversion to fabric wristbands; the impeccable lighting and sound production values, to the fact that every running time throughout the weekend is so meticulously kept to, Barry and Deborah’s parties are complete rarities, if not altogether one-off carouses.
There’s then the customised artwork that accompanies each and every edition – something very few festivals tend to do. But fewer still, if any, would manufacture a bespoke fuzz box featured within said artwork. It’s a company that, in lieu of an impassive office send-off replete with a tacky box of chocolates and a cheap bottle of plonk, will instead brand its departees with a tattoo of a tipi (or, to put it acutely as an inky needle, A( )T(e)P(ee), or blunter still ‘a teepee’), likely while surfing around the Queen Vic atop a rippling sea of limbs. Thus as well preened as the pistes may be, it’s the proverbial après-ski where the real blanck magic happens. Less a dirty protest than the result of reckless self-destruction, a drunk mistakes a lower bunk for the bathroom, escorted out of a production chalet with his trousers down around his ankles. In the corner, an Essex barman cackles hysterically while others romp in a shadowy room to Dancing in the Dark. This is a secluded, if not totally secret society, and one it feels we’re only able to shed further light on now that it’s to assume another form, for fear of the equilibrial balance being fiddled with. In releasing Fuck Buttons’ ’09 full-length Tarot Sport, ATP Recordings inadvertently took Olympians and the Bristolian duo, inclusive of the expletive, to a very literally international audience, included as the song was in Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony – that’s the potential cultural heft the festival can, or rather could have had.
Although ATP will endure by virtue of the reality that, as even a perfunctory look around Pontins reveals, this closely bound, if motley bunch desperately need for it to do so. But for the time being, in the same way that Hogan hopes and dreams to one day procure Kraftwerk, we can but keep everything crossed someone will someday resurrect the whole shebang. (Hopefully with Matt Groening again curating, selecting the exact same line up he did in 2010. Sans Broadcast of course – R.I.P. Trish Keenan – and The xx if they’ve no longer the necessary kudos.) Because ATP has become a way of life, and in both Pontins and Butlins (and Pontins again), both it and its votaries found a home. Rendered another way, a communal spirit and common idolisation of alternative artists got to shack up in a suitably alternative space, and became a physical community in itself.
And so this feels less the end of a mere era, but more the potential demise of an entire culture – one not only inhabited, but also powered by plenty of singularly talented, and totally affable people. The merch room likely sells more records in these two weekends alone than Rough Trade must in a month, suggesting these to be those that, as Standell-Preston suggests, genuinely care about that which they’re listening to. But it’s about the atmosphere as much as it is the music on offer, omnifaceted though it may be, and you could travel halfway around the world – which we may now have to if we’re to experience further holiday camp gatherings – without feeling any further removed from the mundane travails of reality. There were lingering whispers insinuating ATP will be glad to get rid of these shows, although the typical solemnity, if never sobriety, of Sunday should go some way to exposing just how essential these weekends have been to so many. The sense of loss, tonight intensified tenfold, can be felt omnipresently, thus although All Tomorrow’s Parties may be over, at least in this particular manifestation, never will they ever be forgotten. The same goes for all those gaseous smells, both intermingled and incurred by the stench of cheap meats, but if this music may be considered a niche concern then this is, or perhaps rather was, its niche.