All photos by: Kristel Jax
Trigger warning: mental illness, medication
Electric Eclectics Festival’s long weekend is one of summer’s hottest and slowest moving. In Toronto, as the month of July turns over into August, humidity mixes cocktails with emotional turmoil, the burden of the timeline news ticker (everything is fucked), and the long arm of financial instability. My city-tied friends fight bad acid trips and bad news while I’m on a farm in the countryside two hours north, shaking in the night, crying myself to sleep because I don’t know how to fix anything for anyone, especially myself.
The wee hours screening of Life of a Craphead’s feature length avant comedy Bugs is over, ending a night so perfectly curated that each set on the tarpaulin covered stage makes me shudder to think I almost didn’t make it to this year’s annual festival.
I’m here in the woods freaking TF out in a tent because I love weird music that can’t land beer sponsorships or TV soundtrack syncs. I’m here because I decided to trust my mental health enough to believe I wouldn’t ruin the festival for my friends, and because I trust my friends enough that they’ll help me if I’m wrong on that.
Swaying alone on stage, sometimes-drone artist Castle If is performing her pop set tonight — dreamy, eerie songs that feature robotic vocoder vocals waxing on spaceships, aliens, and resolute loneliness. Forrest, usually shy but comforted by the dusk enveloping her, banters to us about the infinite reaches of space. “If you look behind you,” she says from the stage that in daylight overlooks rolling, unpopulated hillsides, “It’s a beautiful skyline… way more exciting than me. ”
Barely visible, many bodies turn in full to gaze at the stars.
Hexzuul ft Mandelbrut
Then there’s Hexzuul, with visuals by supernatural chemical mixer Mandelbrut, projecting molten lava patterns on EE’s projection screen, who drops the body-realigning noise set I somewhat knew I needed, followed by Detroit tech/noise artists Apetechnology ft. Cotton Museum, who are as obsessed with robots as they are with bone crushing sound. On a wheeled setup that looks like something NASA might send to a distant planet, a tall inflatable ghost spins and bends as its body expands, contracts, and at only one point topples over (I commiserate as the crowd lifts it back up).
Finally, to ready the crowd for the dance tent a five minute walk away in the valley below, Toronto’s Scott Hardware ends the night with a danceable, approachable take on experimental, emotive electronic pop.
It’s been one of those thoughtfully crafted lineups that reminds me why I pursue live music while navigating life on this planet, and it should be justifying the horrors that are sleeping in a tent on an air mattress I assume my dog has punctured at some point in the past because it won’t inflate, as well as the fact that it’s 4AM and someone on the campground is so lit that his infatuation with his own voice has reached Trumpian proportions. But it doesn’t quite and I’m a mess.
A therapist once told me as I get older my recognition of and respect for my limitations will increase, but apparently it hasn’t happened yet and I curl up in a ball on my useless sleeping mat and try not to run screaming through the pines and away from my irrational proportions of distress.
“All I want to do is get high by the beach,” Lana Del Rey mutters in my ear a hundred times while I fumble with some Seconal and Klonopin. The song is locked on repeat, the next best thing to introducing my body to a wall of Hexzuul-noise again, and while I wait for chemically induced relaxation I make some funny tweets and upload my Snapchat videos to Instagram.
As a walking factory of self doubt and anxiety since puberty or possibly age five I’ve never been able to attend an event without asking myself ad nauseam, “why am I here?” and Electric Eclectics 2016 is no exception. I’m here in the woods freaking TF out in a tent because I love weird music that can’t land beer sponsorships or TV soundtrack syncs, because human beings I love are here, because Julie Reich of Bile Sister (who — you’ll just have to trust my integrity on this — will deliver a killer set the next day using plastic whirly tubes) has generously let me and my dog come ahead with her three-person-tent. I’m here because I decided to trust my mental health enough to believe I wouldn’t ruin the festival for my friends, and because I trust my friends enough that they’ll help me if I’m wrong on that.
And I’m here because it’s vaguely my job to go to events and keep a watchful eye on outsider music, a space where the personal often overlaps with the professional.
Every summer for the past eleven years, Chris Worden has run Electric Eclectics together with Gordon Monahan and Laura Kikauka here on “The Funny Farm,” near Meaford, Ontario (where Kikauka and Monahan live year round).
Electric Eclectics has one of those thoughtfully crafted lineups that reminds me why I pursue live music while navigating life on this planet.
Leading up to EE 2016, I volunteer to help out unofficially with Worden as I cover the festival — an insider’s insider perspective on an arguably underfunded and irrefutably DIY spirited Southern Ontario labour of love competing against Toronto’s rising bubble of populist indie festivals. He agrees, possibly against his better judgment.
Except it doesn’t work out anyway, because I have a summer breakdown. A therapist once explained me the difference between a lapse and a relapse using drawings on the back of a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy worksheet: a lapse is a temporary dip in a line of progress as it steadily rises upwards, a line of improvement. A relapse is where the line dives back down to where it began. Summer, I worry, has begun to take on the shape of the latter line. Seasonal Affective Disorder has harsh claws in the winter, but Lana Del Rey's “Summertime Sadness” has 259,640,446 views on Youtube. Worden notes I’m in no shape to shadow anyone.
So, one night in, dissolving into chemical chillness, I text the festival co-director from my tent to ask how it’s going on the frontlines. “Dying but fine,” he replies, a postponed epitaph for anyone working in the arts, ever, anywhere.
The morning after Lana Del Rey leads me off into a tunnel of sleep, David Jones, a.k.a Hexzuul, who’d already helped me set up my tent a couple of hours before his Friday night set (FD etc), offers to drive me to the beach with a gang of mostly similarly bleach-white Torontonians wearing a style best described as low key summer-goth and possibly more accurately described as dreary.
My pals. My talented, somehow also keeping their heads above water at least in public pals. Having a scene means I always have someone who’ll watch my dog at the festival when I have to pee, and also a lot more than that. We pack into the rented van and follow the hand drawn maps the festival provided at the gate.
At the beach I spend a lot of time staring out at Georgian Bay and thinking about how precarious a community we are, how remarkable it is that anyone gets anything done at all amid the chaos of day to day debt stricken millennial life (a music video, an album, a tour, a festival gig out of town), and then for about ten minutes I think my dog’s leg is broken and I go semi-catatonic while I hold her in my arms and try to conceptualize how we’ll get back to the city on the Saturday of the festival, and then she starts walking normally again and the panic ebbs like the waves a few feet away.
Noise artist Xuan Ye sits down the driftwood log from me making tiny piles of stones, and we don’t speak, and I lean into being sad despite my various blessings because to do otherwise has become exhausting.
Later that afternoon under the burning sun I’d prayed for all the night before, HSY’s pummeling hardcore set turns the field into a half-moon shaped expanse of grass where Anna Mayberry (also of ANAMAI) is screaming similarly to how I was screaming just a week earlier except alone in my closet where I hoped my neighbours might not hear me, and it’s so good, so necessary to see that emotional response to being alive represented in a body that’s as female and vulnerable as mine out here on the grass.
Anna Mayberry of HSY
Then Oakland’s AH MER AH SU, a.k.a Star Amerasu, is on stage, beaming, dancing, as powerful as sunlight. “I don’t really see myself represented here” Amerasu says introducing “Little Bird,” looking out at her mostly white audience.
She’s right, as Kansas noise artist Dreamcrusher would have been if their passport had come through (sadly it didn’t), and as B L A C K I E and Mykki Blanco would have been last year, and I’m thinking about that — the pressure of sharing music with an audience alien to one’s own experience, and the bridges that can’t be built in an afternoon or a weekend, though that doesn’t mean festivals shouldn’t try, and doesn’t mean festivals who don’t try shouldn’t be faulted — when Amerasu dedicates a song with a trigger warning.
"This is my song about benzos... it's called Klonopin,” Amerasu says. The heartbreaking, cheeky track is as sickly sweet as the nerve calming, brain-restructuring medicine under my tongue last night.
Worden appears as the song ends. “I texted you,” I say. “About the song?” he asks.
AH MER AH SU
Between sets, or if a performance isn’t aligned closely enough with that line between function and the abyss that seems to dive so far down into the pitch black sometimes so I can’t see it anymore (here, outside the city, the moment I set something down after 10PM it vanishes forever), I wander Electric Eclectic’s art installations alone, or with friends intercepted near the Nepalese food tent or among the cars parked in the field.
Dwight Siegner’s radio randomness echoes with FM static and automatic horror-thoughts spliced with Taylor Swift singles: “It me,” I mentally caption. Julia White’s water themed installation in an empty grain silo ties up nature and technology in a unity as impossible to untangle as they are in my grip as I selfie in her echoing, pink-lit gallery-scape.
Until nightfall, Ryan Cassidy’s Trinkatron, a giant vending machine installation, dispenses novelty items for $5, but when I wander behind to see Cassidy in the lab coat working the cardboard box from within Wizard of Oz style, I think about asking the Trinkatron for help with my life. What should I do, Trinkatron? I’d ask.
Hunched inside, Cassidy would reply with some robotic-esque joke and the interaction would obviously turn into a strained improvised therapy skit. I decide I don’t have the energy to make this installation as awkward as things are inside my head and pass on the idea, wondering if spending a weekend camping at a festival is giving me too much time to think or not enough.
The stage is a redemption from my own disturbed company, and I resolve to stay close to it.
Ryan Cassidy's Trinkatron
The headlining set begins near midnight, “stateless” but US passport holding and world-touring (lol) no wave/spoken word legend Lydia Lunch glows red and spits fire into two microphones. She’s aggressive, perhaps theatrically abusive with her drummer, Weasel Walter, and with her audience half-angry (“I know my own name!”) and half-delighted (“Canada loves poetry!”).
Lunch’s vintage strain of rebellion is a different kind of rawness than what I’m in pursuit of this weekend, and I find it difficult to follow her down every anguished, outrage twist and turn, but as I watch her unpeel layer after layer of pain on one more stage to one more audience, I imagine how hard she fought to claw her way up here and realized she’s earned, needed, this fearsome, and purposefully not wholly believable, mask over vulnerability.
When Lunch stops shouting at the assembly in the field (even the mostly-older lifer-EE folks who mainly keep to their campsites are here on the front lines for her), the chaos of pitch black night is back to push and pull my friends between the campgrounds and the dance floor, anyone who doesn’t have a flashlight buddying with someone who does, anyone whose drugs are peaking exuding a helplessness I want to hold like a little bird and an energy I want to watch set the tree-line on fire.
My dog falls asleep in my arms by the dance floor as (pal) conceptual artist Vanessa Rieger aka NIGHTLIFEGUARD watches over the tent making sure dancers are unharassed and hydrated while (pal) Julia Dickens spins truly eclectic dad-faves. Shortly after spotting someone in full chicken costume and a dude with feathers stuck in his man bun, I ghost on the party and head back to the tent. The music rumbles through the pines.
On Saturday night I don’t cry, and on Sunday, Electric Eclectic’s chillest day vibewise, a day of eating popcorn on a blanket as Doom Tickler and Xuan Ye howl below the tarp and on the grass, a day of tossing a tennis ball into the weeds for my dog and giving a media tour of Laura Kikauka and the Funny Farm’s colour-coded, hoarder style art studio even while working as media myself (fullest of disclosure), I watch the final sunset from a chair someone has left in the field at the line where car-flattened grass meets knee-high expanses of flowers and weeds.
There is no VIP, no phone charging station, no soul vacation, there is only the hint of rain and the knowledge that as Peruvian sound artist Maria Chavez closes a brilliant set of disjointed turntable minimalism and Jennifer Castle begins to sing solo over her guitar, the darkness will find anyone without a flashlight.
Drone artist and old pal Fog Spirits, who’d performed on Saturday with nightmarish VHS visuals, gives me a lift back to Toronto minutes before the rain starts to come down heavy.
I get home to the news local DIY enterprise TRP is shutting down indefinitely, so I reach out to my pal who co-runs the station to make sure he’s okay. He is, kind of. We’re all on precarious footing asking ourselves “why are we here?” while simultaneously creating the reasons to stay.