The British weather might have been up to its rainy old tricks again during 2015’s outdoor season but it hasn’t dampened the spirits of the near-5,000 kids wellied-up for this year’s ArcTanGent festival.
Based at Fernhill eco-farm in Somerset’s Mendip Hills, over the last three years the three-night event has become an eagerly anticipated date for fans of intricate math-, post-, noise- and “anything in-between”-rock. This year 70 bands were booked, from Alpha Male Tea Party kicking off the Thursday to Deafheaven closing the Sunday night (read our potted review in last month’s issue).
Sandwiched between were plenty of high-achieving Prog favourites: Trojan Horse, 65daysofstatic, Mylets, Talons, Toundra… and the hairily explosive eight-legged instrumental beast we know as The Fierce And The Dead.
You should be so tired after you’ve played that you can’t walk: you’ve given everything.
“Every year we’ve tried to get on the bill,” says guitarist Matt Stevens as we spot him outside the merch tent after their early lunch slot on the Saturday. “Finally we’re here,” he beams.
Summer’s End, Hawkeaster, 2000 Trees, EppyFest, Cropredy… these days niche festivals are definitely where it’s at for the discerning music fan. This is Prog’s first time at ArcTanGent too and it’s hard to not be impressed by the quality of the line-up, four-stage production and – in spite of the mud – the atmosphere. The crowd are young and predominantly male but there are plenty of musos of both genders getting excited about bands in the tiniest PX3 tent, as well as under the Kubrick-esque spaceship spider that is the main stage, Arc. Later, we’ll be eating pie and mash in a mosh pit as The Dillinger Escape Plan whip up a headline frenzy. But right now we’re making our way to the press barn for a date with the Dead.
If ‘press barn’ sounds rural, it is. Midway through our interview, Stevens exclaims: “Is that a chicken?” as a brood of them peck about amid picnic tables and band gear.
It’s all a bit different to October 2011 when TFATD played their first gig in North London’s Library bar as part of that year’s Oxjam festival. Four years on, today’s show drew a crowd of a good few hundred (not counting livestock). Times have changed, eh?
“The background we come from,” says bassist Kev Feazey, gulping down a cup of tea, “we’re used to playing confrontational places, so we think, ‘We don’t know what the audience is gonna be like but we’re gonna bring it.’ This is where all the hard work pays off. There’s no other context, just us and them.”
As childhood friends in Rushden, Northampton, it wasn’t until drummer Stuart Marshall, guitarist Steve Cleaton, Stevens and Feazey had settled in London that they formed TFATD in 2010. The passion and showmanship the quartet put into their shows is mirrored by the curation of bands at events such as ArcTanGent.
“Festivals like this,” says Feazey, “are like going round someone’s house and they play you their records. The people running this festival, they put such faith in it, people respond to it and we want to do the same thing.”
“The authenticity and intensity has to be the real deal,” nods Stevens. “You should be so tired after you’ve played that you can’t walk. You’ve given everything.”
“Which invariably is the case!” quips Cleaton, to much laughter.
Playing ArcTanGent has clearly been a buzz for you. What makes this festival so special?
“It’s because it’s genuinely new,” says Stevens. “It comes from the scene that likes weird, proggy, instrumental rock. Now a slightly different audience has developed, which is fantastic.
“Things like ArcTanGent wouldn’t be able to exist without the internet,” he continues. “It’s a local scene created online and shifted into the real world, the niche music equivalent of a sci-fi convention. You create the community then arrange a meeting point.”
A much-needed alternative to mainstream festivals, then.
“A lot of mainstream music has got good at being good,” says Feazey, smacking his hand on the table for emphasis. “All the edges have been taken off; it’s all in tune. I think people want something different.”
He pauses for a moment, then says: “Sorry, I’ll rephrase that: music fans want something different. And they want a different kind of festival, not somewhere where you have to battle through crowds to see a band, pay loads for food and drink, walk three miles to get back to your tent…”
Watching complex and slick performances brimming with nervous energy from fresh-faced guitar-slingers such as Axes this weekend, there’s always the possibility of things spectacularly falling apart. TFATD cite seeing At The Drive-In’s frantic genius live at London’s Astoria in 2001 as being a pivotal moment in their ethos. Are they now influencing younger bands in the same way?
“Because we’ve been going five years, there’s an element of that,” says Stevens. “We crossed over from prog to post-rock to instrumental rock, so there’s a few guys who send us CDs saying, ‘We’re into what you’ve been doing,’ which is lovely.”
“The stuff we do is visceral, it’s loud,” says Feazey. “We might have introduced some people who like our music to things they didn’t know existed. We pulled back the curtain. We’re like a gateway drug.”
TFATD’s latest addictive offering is the Magnet EP. The five-tracker emerged in August as a precursor to new material that Marshall’s described as “fucking terrifying”. So who designed its enigmatic graphic sleeve, and what’s it all about then? “Me,” says Feazey, “and I’m not gonna say!”
Are you a freemason?
Feazey, laughing: “Make of it what you will. I’ve been thinking of it for a while. It’s symbolic…”
Prog turns to Cleaton for answers. They all shout “Don’t tell ’em Pike!” and “Don’t pick on the nice one!” (He doesn’t crumble.)
“A lot of these symbols are open to interpretation, and what you believe when you pick them,” Stevens chips in, coolly. “We looked at the logos for Black Flag and Hüsker Dü and tried to do something along those lines.”
“It means something to me and to us,” says Feazey. “But with the EP itself, we started writing new material and got impatient for people to hear it.”
“The first album [If It Carries On Like This We Are Moving To Morecambe] was mostly written in the studio as we were there,” he elaborates. “We’ve gone from doing that to growing more and more confident in what we do next. This is like a bridge.”
This ‘bridge’ takes in title track Magnet In Your Face, a one-minute-40-second blast named after “a funny phrase” (“Most of our songs are,” says Stevens) and worked up from a Pentagram riff. Palm Trees is a longer, more breezy groove that turns truly evil before we get to the Fuck Buttons-esque experiment Part 6 and a rehearsal recording of Let’s Start A Cult. In the middle is old familiar Flint, the opener to their aforementioned debut.
“We re-recorded Flint because we’ve changed a lot as a band since we first did it,” says Feazey. “It was supposed to make a room full of people dance but we didn’t record it that way… About a year ago we finally figured out how to really play it.”
“Turns out it was my fault,” says Marshall dryly, as they all laugh again.
Their forthcoming album might sound “bigger, dirtier and more electronic” than before, but it’s all part of their progression.
“We’ve been out there for a while and it’s great to see festivals like ArcTanGent put a flag in the ground that everyone can rally to,” says Feazey. “In the past few years a lot of people have missed where we were coming from. In this context, this scene feels like us. The future feels exciting.”
Magnet is out now via Bad Elephant and www.fierceandthedead.com. Read about TFATD at Summer’s End on page 118.
Four new bands that TFATD love live.
Matt Stevens: “Cleft. I love ’em. They call themselves ‘turbo-prog’ or ‘speed prog’. They’re instrumental, joyous, noisy and wonderful live. When you hear them, you can’t believe it’s a two-piece. Check out their ace riff medleys on YouTube – they’re everything live music should be.”
Kev Feazey: “I loved watching Londoners USA Nails at this year’s ArcTanGent. They have a Krautrock/punk style and a really big sound. I’m a big fan of bands who aren’t afraid of keeping things simple and weird, then throw in bursts of complexity.”
Stuart Marshall: “We’ve played a few shows with Mannheim from the Netherlands. Drums, bass, guitar and a really brutal-sounding baritone saxophone going through a very loud amp. Punk jazz is probably the closest I can get to describing it. They’re tight without being pedestrian, intricate without being self-indulgent and get the room moving every time we’ve seen them.”
Steve Cleaton: “NASDAQ are from Manchester. The opening to a track called Dead Peasants got me hooked. A crazy, weird riff that itches to get going, doesn’t quite get going, and then after a while you realise it has always been going, and it’s your ears that need to do the catching up. Lovely stuff!”