London Popfest is not your average music festival. Along with its international counterparts, the Glasgow, Madrid, San Francisco and New York Popfests (and it’s entirely possible I’m missing a few, or more than a few, here), it takes place not in a field but all over the city, with bands scheduled for a single venue each night so there’s no chance of clashes – but there’s always a pub within easy reach if you feel like taking a break.
Popfest caters to the indiepop crowd, a friendly bunch decked out in cardigans and button badges, but don’t be fooled. While there was certainly a good amount of cheerful twee on the menu this year, I heard everything from sophisticated chamber-pop to all-out screaming noise, with the lineup ranging from well-established acts to relative newcomers. If you’re a fan of pop that’ll probably never make the charts, whatever the flavour, this is for you.
Photos by Michael Prince
The festival opened - after an endearingly shambolic ‘ribbon-cutting’ ceremony - with a solo set from singer-songwriter MJ Hibbett. Between teaching the audience a dance routine for ‘Do The Indie Kid’ (does what it says on the tin) and a tongue-in-cheek cover version of ‘Boom Shake The Room’ (which I’m reliably informed he almost always plays, but I’d never heard it before), Hibbett was a cheerful, if low-key start to the weekend.
Next up was Cardiff-based octet The School, who combined singer Liz Hunt’s airy vocals with refreshing touches of brass and strings. The influence of Phil Spector and girl-groups such as the Shangri-Las is just as clear in The School’s live sets as in their studio recordings, and the retro feel of songs like ‘Hoping and Praying’ helped ease us into the more danceable bands of the night.
Boston three-piece One Happy Island strummed, smacked, and harmonised their way through a ramshackle set which felt (deliberately, one suspects) like it might fall apart at any moment without ever actually doing so. Highlights included the set-closer ‘Kiss Me, Peach’, which took drummer Meghan’s seemingly fragile vocals from a sweetly melodic opening to a rousing shout, and closed with a ukulele solo to put Freebird to shame, complete with rock posturing. These guys are not just impressive multi-instrumentalists, they’re great fun to watch, and for me were the standout act of the first night. The evening ended with a set from Finnish group Cats On Fire, who balanced songs from their forthcoming album, All Blackshirts To Me, with older tracks like ‘I Am the White-Mantled King’ which had the whole crowd dancing. Singer Mattias Björkas’s delicate vocals combined well with the band’s neat guitar and organ lines – it was a tight set, punctuated with some of the best (and most offensive?) stage banter I’ve seen at a pop show, and making us wish Cats On Fire would cross over to British shores more often.
At the Grosvenor pub in Stockwell, this was the noisiest night of the weekend, opening with a set from London locals the Give It Ups, specialists in loud, guitar-driven pop with in-your-face boy-girl vocals. From the singalong chorus of ‘If Everything Ends’ to the half-sung, half-yelled ‘Why Won’t You Go Out With Me’ (choice lyric: "I can’t stand her stupid face/I wish she would die"), their set was often shambling but always playful and fun, setting the energy high for a night of dancing. Second on stage was Danish pop-punk group the Sock Puppets, combining brash but tuneful female vocals with walls of dense, fuzzy guitar and organ; the shout-along ‘Alcoholic’ was a particular high point and finishing with a Give It Ups cover was a nice touch.
In a change to the announced running order, London-based band Shrag took the third slot of the night. Lacking a drummer due to a last-minute emergency, two members of the last remaining act Tunabunny were drafted in and crammed behind a single kit, but you’d never have known. Despite the last-minute change, Shrag had a post-punk feel which never descended into messiness, and frontwoman Helen King’s vocals are powerful to say the least, sliding easily from childlike innocence in tracks like ‘Rabbit Kids’ to a brazen scream in ‘Ghosts Before Breakfast’. Finally, Tunabunny took to the stage in full. Their set ranged from catchy pop hits, with vocals and guitars drenched in reverb, to lengthy, experimental guitar outros which were a little lost on me but seemed to go down a treat with the crowd. Definitely impressive, and a band to watch if you like your pop with a helping of unadulterated noise. DJs from Brighton’s indie clubnight Another Sunny Day spun records late into the night – a shame that more of the audience didn’t stay since their playlist was a perfect mix of indie hits and obscure gems, but a few of us stuck it out to the early hours and went home ears ringing.
This was the big one: no fewer than seven bands, 3pm until late. Several of my companions went for a shift or two in the pub round the corner, but I didn’t leave the building until the bitter end and it was worth it, despite the boiling temperatures and expensive bar. London Popfest 2012 opened the afternoon - their single ‘Outside Myself’ was a highlight of the set, solidly poppy with a generous serving of distortion and fuzz pedals. Next up was Birmingham band Ace Bushy Striptease, who could have fitted in equally well with Friday’s girl-dominated noise-pop lineup. Their sugary punk-pop set was unashamedly DIY in style – guitars were thrashed, drums thumped, and lyrics yelled defiantly (even in the face of sound problems). The Proctors came as a refreshing contrast, with songs like ‘Not So Far Away’ and ‘Perfect World’ delivered with gently harmonised vocals and jangly guitars, though they weren’t helped by overamplification.
I couldn’t tell if Dignan Porch’s set bypassed the apparent early technical problems or if they just managed to exploit them – possibly the loudest band of the weekend, their sound relied on noisy guitar and heavily reverbed vocals, perhaps put to best use in the final song of their set, the recent single ‘Like It Was Again’. They were followed by Londoners Tigercats, who played a truly excellent set fusing catchy pop with Afropop-style guitar lines. Combining hits from their hit Easter Island EP with songs from their forthcoming album Isle of Dogs, their performance was infectiously energetic.
I’ll come right out and say that I love the now almost-defunct (you might catch their last-ever gig in mid-March if you’re lucky) Moustache of Insanity – as ridiculous as their name suggests, the duo crank out absurd but incredibly catchy songs on topics ranging from fantasy dinner-parties to zombie attacks, on a combination of guitars, keyboards and ancient Game Boys. Brought in at the last minute to replace Northern band This Many Boyfriends, their set at Popfest practically brought the house down and was one of the alldayer’s best moments.
Indie stalwarts Comet Gain’s set, opening with the classic ‘You Can Hide Your Love Forever’, was well-received by an audience accustomed to a band whose live appearances have been fairly patchy in recent years. As I heard one of the crowd say later, it’s a new era for the band and bodes well for their future appearances.
Headliners Allo Darlin’ alternated sweet-voiced frontwoman Elizabeth Morris’s trademark ukulele with newer guitar-led numbers recalling the best of Kirsty Macoll. Their new violinist is a welcome addition, and their songs went down a treat with an audience who seemed to know every lyric by heart – their cover of the Just Joans’ ‘If You Don’t Pull’ was a surprise addition to their set and was as good as you’d expect from a band who continue to go from strength to strength. The night ended with a DJ set from Ian Watson of London clubnight How Does It Feel To Be Loved?, which pulled quite a crowd - we danced until our feet hurt before finally heading home at 2:30am, ready for the final day of Popfest.
The last day of the festival, at the Lexington near Angel, started with a near-impossible ‘pop quiz’ at 12pm courtesy of Popfest-opener MJ Hibbett. Despite exhaustion, our team somehow managed to place third, giving us a few hours to chill out in the bar before heading upstairs to the final show of the weekend. First up were French band Electrophonvintage, whose guitar, synth and melodica nicely complimented singer Remi Parson’s charmingly-accented vocals – the crowd loved them and they were eventually coaxed into playing the first encore of the weekend. Playing second were Derbyshire-based trio Haiku Salut, perhaps the most unusual billing of the weekend. Self-described as a blend of ‘folktronica and neo-classical baroque’, their relaxing instrumental set, despite a few technical problems, was a perfect backdrop to a hungover Sunday.
Up next were the Rosie Taylor Project, a chamber-pop outfit hailing from Leeds who proved to be one of the high-points of the weekend. The band’s songs blend acoustic guitar with wonderful trumpet lines, with singer Jonny Davies’s vocals reminiscent of a more sophisticated Noah And The Whale. There wasn’t a weak track in the set, though ‘Gloria’, performed solo by Davies, was particularly lovely – I wouldn’t be surprised if this time next year the RTP have moved on to much bigger festivals.
The weekend’s last act was the Just Joans, whose boy-girl harmonies and folky acoustic guitars were by turns playful and affecting. Their set closed with the poignant ‘What Do We Do Now’ – "what do we do now?/now we’re ten years older/the bands we loved are dead...do you still drink down the local?/Is the local still the local?" Melancholy it may have been, but as the whole crowd sung along it was a touching end to the weekend.
If you’re a fan of indiepop, London Popfest is second only to Indietracks Festival in the range and scope of bands on offer (if you’re not a fan of indiepop, you’d do best to look elsewhere if you’d not already guessed). Niche though it may have been, the quality of the lineup this year was consistently high and I’ll certainly be returning in 2013. Crack out the cardigans.