Uncovering New Music at Copenhagen’s Distortion Fest

Nisennenmondai, Iceage, Copia Doble Systema and more
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd | June 8, 2011
A street scene from the Distortion festival in Copenhagen.

A long long time ago, in a year that shall not be disclosed (2003), I attended Love Parade, the debauched festival of raving that clomped and trucked down Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. A million dance music lovers strong, it reimagined the Millennium City into something more resembling “Fraggle Rock,” as the generously sized garb of the traditional gabber was eschewed for bare behinds, neon-plushy chaps and copious facepaint. Somewhere, a photo exists of me in a hue-neutral miniskirt and Adidas trainers giving a gleeful hug to a six-and-a-half-foot man in a full-body patent leather gimp suit. Before its cancellation in 2010, Love Parade was legend, a spectacle unparalleled. That year, though, there was one huge drawback: the music. Paul Van Dyk was the headliner. As a whole, Europe loves trance better than we do.

Just last weekend, I attended Distortion, a citywide music, dance and art festival held in the gorgeous and homey city of Copenhagen. Just as I found myself involuntarily fist-pumping along with thousands of Danish revelers as we watched a group of bright-eyed ravers scale a delivery truck in order to dance above us, my friend and cohort T. Cole Rachel turned to me and said, “This is just like Love Parade.” And it was, insofar that the fabled rave festival shared a similar energy with Distortion: in short, lust for life. But there was one major difference: the music.

Nisennenmondai bassist Yuri Zaikawa in 2008.

For a festival of Distortion’s scale — five full days, with happenings from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. — it is remarkably well-curated for dance music lovers, possibly the best dance festival in the world. (Dubstep lovers might argue.) With a focus on up-and-coming DJs and bands, it is quite diverse and characteristically fealty to the spirited underground, even in its 13th year of existence. Bigger-draw names smattered the line-ups — Detroit techno god Kenny Larkin, German minimal linchpin Michael Mayer, Milano rave-makers Crookers were among them, drawing huge crowds of angular-clothed fans wielding Tuborgs. But unlike most huge festivals, Distortion is the kind of spot where you can discover new music. Perhaps because of the city’s central/neutral location, it attracts musicians that rarely play in the States — particularly now courtesy our country’s increasingly cantankerous work-visa gatekeepers — and the lineup included dancefloor-blasting sets by Brazilian baile funk legend Sany Pitbull, German tropical bass scions Schlachthofbronx, and Japanese art-punk band Nisennenmondai. The latter, a Tokyo-based trio with a feverish cult pull in the US who’ve only hit our shores once ever — CMJ, 2005 — proved why after 12 years fans still speak of them with the reverence of the last pope. Hinging their riffs on repetition and a bulldozer of a high-hat, they let their devotion to minimalism do the mesmerizing, letting up on their tightly zig-zagging structure only to make room for crescendos. There was Kraftwerk in it, Neu! too, but unlike other bands I’ve seen that milk those oft-reissued teats, Nisennenmondai’s careful note meditation seemed neither recycled nor boring. Stage presence helped — bassist Yuri Zaikawa was a rumbling tectonic plate, concentrated and tethered to the volcano drumming of Sayaka Himeno — but their no-chord, no-dissonance style was also just a source of clean energy. Their latest album is called Nisennenmondai Live!!!, and the experience warrants both the posterity and the exclamation points.

Interestingly, much of the pre-fest enthusiasm centered on Copenhagen-based punks Iceage, who’ve stamped their kewpie teen faces all over the internet through a few indomintable singles and some particularly impactful live footage of a wee DIY mosh pit. Their showcase was held in what looked like a graffiti’d trailerpark and the bill, titled “NEW DANISH PUNK FUCK YOU,” was comprised of all their scene friends. I skipped it because I am still wary of the testosterone-clusterbomb that is the mosh pit and also they’ll be in Brooklyn on June 17. Besides, the digital cumbia showcase was down the block at Global, a non-profit club subsidized by grants and the Danish government. (Bloomberg, are you reading?) New York’s proud son Uproot Andy, copurveyor of Que Bajo, was on the bill, but I’ve seen his great underground Latin sets quite a lot; my main motivation was the excellent DJ UMB, whose tireless Soundcloud scouring for his enthusiastic blog Generation Bass has introduced me to countless new producers, bands, and genres. Many of those have been in the dubstep/tropical bass/moombahton categories, and thanks to the ravenous appetite of many Euro dance fans for rave-crescendos, he kept it quite solidly in the dubstep zone (which made everyone go bananas). But it was telling that Distortion staged not one but two nights focusing on tropical bass — a very loose, broad, shortcut term for mostly Latin American, African and Caribbean-rooted music that melds localized sounds with detonating low-end.

The second of these tropical bass nights featured a band I first heard about on the aforementioned Generation Bass blog — Copia Doble Systema, a Copenhagen-based, five-person collective playing digital cumbia on computers and electronic percussion, fronted by the adventurous DJ/producers Copyflex and Jens Fokking, plus a compelling Venezuelan-born vocalist named Pepita. If “tropical bass” is about the mushing together of sounds to create a singular reflection of how localism goes local in the information age, this crew is part of the blueprint. They sometimes call their sound “Viking cumbia” and let Fokking’s past in jungle music bleed ever-so-slightly into the low-end. I recognized their matching, Latino-psychedelic ensembles as made by Mexico’s Metereo label — they were a vision in post-Jodorowsky neons — and their loose-going counter-rhythms, so carefully snaking around South American pan-flute sounds, wafted into Danish booties and compelled some to get down with Cuban motion. This whole world is a nation of immigrants.

At Distortion, each day a different neighborhood plays host to a party, which includes several stages on different streets with local DJs playing various types of dance music, tens of thousands of attractive, natty young Danes with their game switches in overdrive. But huge festivals, whether of the Love Parade or Coachella oeuvre, rarely provide opportunities to see and discover new music with the same enthusiasm as this one. On the final day alone, cordoned off in a huge hotel compound that housed 12 different venues, I saw: a “Party Bus” pumping out salsa music, drag queens synchronized swimming in the hotel pool, UK DJ prodigy Ben UFO, a giant Galaga video game installation operable with your body, Hot Chip’s Felix DJing under a rain of mist upon which visuals were projected, and maybe the best mini-rave I’ve ever been to, which was in a small clearing outside and hosted by an assortment of European drum n bass DJs. Distortion is the Maximum Overdrive of festivals, and I’m still googling acts I didn’t get a chance to see. So, has anyone googled Copenhagen lately, is it still intact?