Stage of discovery
It's as much about the party as the music at Taiwan's Spring Scream festival, writes David Frazier
LTK COMMUNE ARE renowned in Taiwan for their bizarre social commentary and occasionally dangerous performances. They've set fire to piles of guitars, played political rallies in drag, and simulated various sexual acts.
However, last April may have been their strangest gig when they tried to exorcise demons from the dying Pope John Paul II through a Taiwanese ritual of blasting an effigy with fireworks. After the show, which ended with 20 or 30 people on stage destroying things, band frontman Hsiao-ko said: 'You know, it's Spring Scream. We always prepare something special.'
Spring Scream, an annual music festival near the beach town of Kenting on Taiwan's southern tip, starts on March 31 and runs for 10 days. Now in its 12th year, the event is the oldest outdoor music festival in Asia and probably the most unique.
'We don't do the mega-stage,' says Jimi Moe, a Seattle native who founded the festival in 1995 with fellow expatriate Wade Davis. 'We try to gear it towards hanging out in the music lifestyle instead of towards rock heroes or legends.'
Japan's Fuji Rock, which boasts the biggest names money can buy, is two years younger than Spring Scream and epitomises the big music festival for commercially successful rock. Budding regional events such as the Bangkok 100 Rock Festival and Seoul's ETP Fest tend to use Fuji as a template, mixing indie pop, corporate sponsorship and the best foreign bands they can afford.
Even Taiwan's Formoz Festival, which was launched four months after the first Spring Scream, when Taipei's college rock clubs saw what kind of rock party a couple of expatriates could throw, focuses on pulling headliners such as Moby and Yo La Tengo.
But Moe and Davis have tried to build Spring Scream around a do-it-yourself, indie ethic, and the festival's growth has been low-key, corporate-free and steady. The first year featured only a few dozen bands, many doing Nirvana covers, and drew about 300 visitors. As the event became popular, raves sprang up around it, turning the weekend - which coincides with Taiwanese universities' spring break - into a huge party drawing thousands of students to multiple events in and around Kenting. In recent years, Spring Scream has attracted crowds of 20,000 and Taiwan's record companies have come to see it as crucial for scouting for new talent.
Past acts include alternative pop singers Sandy Chan and Cheer Chen, both of whom have put in multiple appearances. The festivals has also attracted winners of Taiwan's Golden Melody award for best band, including Mayday, punk-funk foursome Sticky Rice and metal band Chthonic.
Even though music is Spring Scream's core, the festival has never promoted bands or advertised other than on its own website, relying on word of mouth.
Darren Jorde, a bass player veteran of multiple festivals, calls it 'a Bohemian fantasy'. Adachi Haruo, who brings Japanese bands from his underground label People's Records, recently said: 'It's more about the party.'
Spring Scream is somewhere between the Burning Man festival in the US, one of the best basement club gigs you've ever seen, and a party in a concert car park.
This year, more than 200 bands will play the Kenting concert on five stages, including about two dozen from outside Taiwan. Styles range from world music to punk, turntablism and post-rock. Highlights include millennial psychedelic trance from Japan's Miracle Saru, so-called retard-core from New York's Dynamite Club, and 2003 DMC world scratch champion DJ Dopey from Canada.
Spring Scream has also become a beacon for the Asian underground, drawing bands from Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and bands in the US and Europe. 'I think we offer something you can't really find in other places in Asia,' says Moe. 'It's a big stage for really good, up-and-coming bands that might not get into big festivals.'
Anders Christensen, who will play this year for the first time with his Chengdu-based group, the Roadkills, says he found out about Spring Scream through an internet search. 'It was only after that that we began to meet people who'd been and heard what it was like,' he says.
At a time when unsigned bands are trading music and planning tours by doing little more than checking out sites such as myspace.com, it's hardly a surprise that Spring Scream is finding itself a crucial part of underground networks.
This will be the first year that Spring Scream offers modest travel stipends and fees to a few international acts. 'We're not really doing it very well,' says Moe. 'We're looking to add variety and quality. And in the case of a really good but struggling band from New York or San Francisco, maybe they'll need something to be able to come out here and play, so we're trying to take that into account.'
Moe hopes to eventually take the festival to Okinawa or the mainland. 'It would be nice to give these bands a mini-tour and make it more worth their while to come out,' he says.