Our slice of indie heaven
Anna Calvi. Austra. Yuck. Twin Shadow. Girls. It still seems unreal that acts such as these could be coming to Asia for a music festival. For fans used to attending shows only at AsiaWorld-Arena, these names will be unfamiliar. But for the increasingly large and influential music audience that exists chiefly within the liquid borders of the internet, these bands represent the best reason to go to Singapore since the invention of kaya toast.
A few years ago, bands of similar stature might have attracted a couple of hundred fans in Singapore. Today, they're coming to Fort Canning Park all at once as part of the St Jerome's Laneway Festival, and fans will number in the thousands. And there's more. The Drums. Cults. M83. Toro Y Moi. Laura Marling. The Horrors. There's even, for goodness' sake, Feist. Indie rock just doesn't get much better than this.
As recently as the 1990s, Singapore police prevented fans at a Bon Jovi concert getting to their feet to dance. They thought the revellers could trigger a riot. Michael Chugg, the veteran Aussie impresario behind promotions group Chugg Entertainment, was behind that concert. These days, he's one of the driving forces behind Laneway, a multi-city festival that started in Melbourne in 2004 and has since spread across Australia to Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and to Auckland, New Zealand. The indie-only festival first set foot into Asia last year, when it attracted a crowd of about 5,000 to rain-drenched Fort Canning Park. The fans were allowed to dance.
On a call from his home in Australia, Chugg says 2011's Singapore outing was a raging success - a sentiment shared by most Hongkongers who made the trip - and vindicated his opinion that the region's internet-savvy fans are ready to embrace the cutting-edge festival.
'I've been going up there for a long, long time, but I always believed there was a market for indie music up there,' Chugg says of the Lion City. 'With the success that we've been having in New Zealand and Australia, we just felt it was time.'
That wouldn't have been the case five years ago. Singapore, says Chugg, 'was a bit hard'. Ticket prices for concerts were 'stupid', and bands and promoters weren't treating it as a place where they could build their careers. The way Chugg sees it, the internet has completely changed the scene. The mere fact you can listen to music instantly and cheaply, if not for free, from anywhere in the world has made Asia almost as viable a music destination as North America or Europe. And so, Singapore has become an important part in the Laneway mix.
'For years bands have been flying across Asia and not stopping there, and this is a great excuse for them to stop, and it gives people like Feist and M83 and people like that a good chance for breaking the market,' Chugg says.
At its conception, Laneway was staged in various venues in and around Melbourne's famous laneways - which would be called alleys anywhere else - keeping the focus on intimate gigs with up-and-coming acts just starting to break it big. Unlike fellow antipodean festival Big Day Out, at which arena acts play to tens of thousands of fans, Laneway emphasises a hip vibe that verges on the exclusive.
'We're into presenting young indie bands on the way up,' says Chugg. 'Quite a few of the bands, a lot of kids haven't even heard of yet.'
Laneway has brought that vibe to Singapore in only slightly modified form, bringing all the acts to a central venue but retaining the small-gig atmosphere. This year, the festival will add an extra stage to Fort Canning Park to reduce the turn-around time between sets.
But plan your toilet breaks carefully - there's not much you'll want to miss. Here are five must-sees:
Austra today is drawing the sort of notice that fellow Canadians Arcade Fire were getting in the mid-2000s. The indie music blogs are almost united in their praise for Austra's choral electro-goth, whose dark synths are offset by singer Katie Stelmanis' wandering, high-pitched vocals. The band's debut album, Feel It Break, made many a top-50 list at the end of last year - including a No1 on the respected New York magazine's top 10.
She only has one album to her name - last year's self-titled debut -but Anna Calvi already feels like, as music legend Brian Eno described her, 'the biggest thing since Patti Smith'. The English singer-songwriter's soaring soundscapes and powerful vocal chops won her a cult following and spots on Late Show With David Letterman and Later ... With Jools Holland, as well as comparisons to PJ Harvey. Her single Blackout, a sonic flight through a dark and bumpy fairy tale, is enough to raise the hairs on the back of your hand.
Canada's Leslie Feist is a shining example of what can be achieved with a guitar and one transcendent voice. The Broken Social Scene member is a stripped-back superstar whose sugar-sad melodies find tremendous cross-over appeal among disaffected wannabe hipsters and gauche grandmas. Two of her five albums in particular - Let It Die and The Reminder - have delivered her Grammy nominations, Canadian music awards, millions of fans and enduring critical appeal. She has even appeared on Sesame Street - the ultimate endorsement.
The first thing to get your head around is that Girls is a band led by two dudes from San Francisco - Christopher Owens and Chet 'J.R.' White - with a bit of support from some friends. Owens, the main songwriter, has channelled a childhood growing up in the Children of God cult into a druggy prog-pop that squirms irreverently among psychedelia, sunny pop, moody blues, and balls-out rock. Influential indie music blog Pitchfork has all but anointed the band the very breath of God, rating their 2009 album, Album, 9.1 out of 10 and last year's Father, Son, Holy Ghost 9.3. The praise is justified. Girls came out of nowhere in 2009, but now they're going somewhere - probably into history. For now, just look for them in Singapore.
Acting as a huge, fuzzy, dancey contrast to the guitar-based indie pop that characterises much of Laneway's line-up, M83 promises to serve as an epic night-ending festival highlight. The group, formed by Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez, have cut through the clutter of indie dance acts, building their reputation on remixes of Goldfrapp, Daft Punk, and Bloc Party while also pumping out banging original material, as proven in a handful of albums, the most recent of which is last year's expansive double-LP Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, which was near the top of all self-respecting 'best of 2011' indie music lists.