Friday, 29 July 2011

Great Festivals: Kuipersfest 2009

What makes a great festival experience? One element that I feel is often overlooked is the sense of adventure, the experience of the new and unusual. Of course, it is all relative. When I was 17 and went to Leeds Festival for the first time, it was incredibly new and unusual . A free pass for the weekend, as much beer as I could carry, as much music as my ears could take. It was probably the first time I ever put up a tent and I marvelled at these cans that contained an ‘All Day Breakfast’. It was the early days of the 21st century and anything seemed possible.

Attending that particular festival 5 years running saw a steady decline in my enjoyment of it. It was a combination of many factors; familiarity, overcrowding, changing tastes. But also the fact that it wasn’t new anymore. Ok, the trip from Wakefield to Leeds wasn’t exactly a step into the great unknown, but it was the first step in a life of festivals. I was just bored of taking the same step over and over again.

Since my last Leeds Festival experience in 2005 I have sampled from the vast and constantly growing platter of festival ‘experiances’ on offer. I marvelled at the Leeds Fest Carbon Copy V Festival and flew to an airfield in Poland for Opener. I sat in a rainy, abandoned forest in Windermere for Fell Foot and relaxed in a Railway Museum for Indietracks. Latitude, Rough Beats, Live @ Leeds… the variations continue on and on. But what about that sense of adventure? Many festivals now market themselves as ‘an experience’; simply putting on bands in a field is not enough nowadays. Alex James is organising ‘Harvest’, a food and music festival. Where you can watch KT Tunstall whilst eating his finest homemade cheese. Latitude itself offers Theatre, Comedy, Poetry, Literature, Film, TV, KNITTING WORKSHOPS amongst many others to keep you busy through the day.

Yet it all takes place within a very safe and very controlled environment. Of course, we are thrilled that there are toilets that actually work. And food that won’t kill you.All good advancements. But how long before a festival essentially becomes a home from home? Latitude already has an onsite restaurant that has ‘proper plates and cutlery’. There were sofa’s in the tents to sit on. You couldn’t see the stage but you could watch it on the big screen, like you were in your own front room. If you missed a band, Sky had a tent where you could sit (on a sofa) and watch them. There was a little shop down the road where you could get a morning newspaper.

Yes, Latitude is different in this manner, but these extra touches which actually make ‘the experience’ more enjoyable will soon become the norm, with festivals battling to give and ‘all round package’ that appeals to the mass middle class interest in festivals. I’m not glorifying the dirt and squalor. I approve of everything that Latitude and its equivalents do to make my weekend more enjoyable. It’s just so bloody safe. There’s nothing unique in the homogenised Festival Republic experience, there’s no story to tell.

In Summer 2009 I went to the most interesting and unique festival I have ever come across. The bands were all completely unknown. It had no facilities whatsoever (not even running water or electricity). It took 2 and a half days to get there. But all those factors added up to something quite amazing and an ‘experience’ I will remember for the rest of my life. In summer 2009 I went to Kuiperfest.

My friend and folky chap The Passing Fancy had visited the year before and spoke of this strange but wonderful festival perched on the edge of a valley, amongst the olive groves of sun scorched Spain. I don’t recall when we decided we had to go. I kind of get these things in my head and they just happen without me realising. After driving to Munich and back a couple of years before I had an urge to make the drive to Calciete, the nearest town, about an hour outside Barcelona. This, coupled with the Passing Fancy’s fear of flying, cemented it – we would make the trip in my 3 door, 1 litre Corsa.

Day 1 saw myself, Mr Passing Fancy and Jayno take the relatively easy trip from Wakefield to London. There we picked up the 4th member of our team – Rich. As well as Mr Fancy and myself having separate gigs booked, Passing was also performing a piece of theatre, for which I was providing the soundtrack. So, amongst the tents, bags, sleeping bags and beers we also had the set of the play and 2 acoustic guitars. Every nook and cranny of my tiny Corsa was filled. There was no room to stretch or move. Very much the proverbial sardines in a can.

Day 2 saw us hit the Channel Tunnel and enter France. The weather was glorious as we sped south, our spirits high despite the crushed conditions. We put on our comp CD’s and chatted away. We stopped at massive aircraft hanger super stores and picked out ham and cheese for dinner, the sandwiches I had made the previous day now a gooey, sweaty mess in our travelling hotbox. To avoid Toll roads we took smaller A Roads, then found ourselves worryingly short of fuel. Which meant Rich and I had to grapple with our limited French to find a petrol station. “Er… Voiture… Gasoline?” The kind locals drew us a map. However, the majority of the day was spent on the Motorway, which wasn’t the most exciting drive. But by the time we hit Bordeaux around 10pm it was great to think of the progress we had made.

Day 3 saw us awake in the beautiful French city and take in croissants by the river. The only regret was that we did not have time to explore. With some trepidation we got back into the car, now more chaotic and restricting than ever. Not to worry; by days end we would be at Kuiperfest.

By dinnertime we had hit the Pyrenees, the huge mountains that separate France and Spain. This is what these longs drives are about. We wound our way up and through and down. After 10 minutes in a cool, shady tunnel we emerged in Espana. Looking out over the barren, sandy vista’s felt amazing. After some low moments in France, with Rich especially succumbing to Cabin Fever, we felt good again.

Our last experience of civilisation was a stop for food in Alcaniz. After that we hit the endless desert roads. For hours we drove through a nothing landscape, empty ghost towns surrounded by craters and dust. As light began to fade, so did our spirits. The journey had been amazing. But we had reached the line now. We needed to arrive.

The roads became smaller and more winding. The venue for the festival does not exist on Google. I don’t use Sat Navs, but it wouldn’t have been on there either. We missed the dust track the first time, but doubled back. We weren’t sure, but a sign pointing to an old church was the clue we needed. 15 minutes down the bumpiest, dustiest dirt track eventually brought us to our destination. As the sun vanished completely, our tents were up. It was too dark to take in our surroundings but we didn’t care; someone had got us an ice cool beer and that was all that mattered. 56 hours, 1200+ miles later, we were here.

The next day we were able to explore the site. The only buildings were the house of organiser Jon Bon Figlio (his real name), which was off bounds to punters, a shack the size of a garden shed, which was the bar and a row of hand built toilets, the fourth wall of which was missing, meaning you had a view of the beautiful valleywhilst you befouled it.

Water was brought in from the town in bottles. No electricity was required. Breakfast, Dinner and Tea were cooked out of the back of a camper van. They rung a bell when it was ready and for a couple of euros you could have fresh salads and scrambled egg on toast. There were no fences on site, no barriers, not even a designated camping area. Find a spot amongst the olives trees, preferably with a chance of shade early morning and you are set.

The sense of quiet was amazing. There were maybe 150 people at the festival, spread liberally across the stepped ridges. Myself and Mr Fancy went to rehearse our sets and walked for 20 minutes round the rim of the valley, far from the campers. Our guitars had warped in the heat and we could not get them in tune, but had a go anyway. On our return we were told everyone could hear us perfectly, such was the peace that engulfed the festival.

The music, as well as some theatre and stand up comedy took place in an area that had nothing to distinguish it, bar a little wooden log a performer could sit on. Performances went on late in to the night. The audience there were the most appreciative I’ve ever seen, with even the most generic singer songwriter material being met with understanding silence and handsome applause.

The heat was intense, much greater than I could usually deal with, but the fact there was nothing to do but relax made it bearable. Sometime I would go sit in the car TO COOL DOWN. One time I nodded off with my feet up on the dashboard and for the rest of the festival I had sunburnt ankles. Nothing else, just the ankles. To help cool off, the organisers ran minibus trips to a nearby river each day. Nothing to do there but get wet and try and catch fish and it was wonderful.

On the 2nd day we craved SOMETHING and drove to the nearby town 45 minutes away. We looked round and ate some tapas and returned to the tent. 2 friends, Sam and Cherry had joined us, by the more conventional means of an airplane and we just sat around, talked and watched some artists do their thing. The play went down well and Mr Fancy and I enjoyed our sets. We saw some absolutely terrible Shakespeare and a bonkers piece of performance that featured a man dressed as a giant vagina and two guys with water pistols as Penises. But it was more about the sense that the 6 of us had made it all this way, to the absolute back of beyond. Not for a festival that was advertised, that will get Guardian and BBC approval or that you could search out on E-Festivals and buy a ticket. Something truly alternative and unknown, a literal trip into the unknown with 100 people from different corners of Europe that will never meet again. That was what made Kuiperfest so amazing and why it will always stick with me.

At the end of the weekend Mr Fancy, Sam and Cherry headed over to Barcelona for a few days. Rich ended up staying in Spain for the summer, working his way around. Jayno and I drove the 1200 miles back, passing through Andorra, Avalon and Lille. By some fluke we had got a 5 star hotel in Andorra for 40 euros a night. The sight of us arriving in the reception, 4 days of unwashed living hanging upon us must have raised an eyebrow. I thought I’d got a real healthy tan until I got in the shower and realised it was about an inch of dust clinging to me.

It’s rare to get ‘experiences’ in life like that and the more festivals are marketed as such, the less likely they will be in achieving what they claim to offer. I hear of the amazing secret areas of Glastonbury, the ‘real’ festival but I expect they are not really secret, just not of interest to the U2 / Coldplay / Beyonce adoring mass market it is now sets its sights on. The community element is alive and well though, especially in the smaller niche festivals and outside of adventure, that is another key element to a successful and enjoyable festival. This year I am heading back to Leeds Festival and whilst I won’t be camping (that is an ‘adventure’ I am not willing to under take ever again) I am interested to see if that sense of involvement and togetherness exists at all, especially during Pulp’s headline slot. Yet I know that it can’t ever be anymore than a good day out – the true experiences take a lot more searching out, are more elusive and all the better for it when you find them.

Dean Freeman

Photographs: Richard Cole

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