Last year at around this same time, the first annual Berserktown Festival was in the midst of a filthy, sweaty, hardcore but successful mess at club Los Globos in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. A harder edged alternative to Echo Park Rising, Berserktown was successful enough for a sequel this year. With ambition in his heart and dollar signs in his eyes, Church on York captain, Graeme Flegenheimer decided to take some risks in an attempt to expand and grow his vision. The result was one of the most interesting festival lineups I have seen in quite some time. It was a buffet of musical delicacies and rarities such as Dead Moon, Royal Trux, Lust for Youth, No Hope for the Kids, Destruction Unit and Total fucking Control. When it was announced that the second annual Berserktown would be held at The Observatory in Orange County I thought to myself, this could either be genius or it could be a disaster- like a football coach deciding to go for it on 4th and inches, late in the game, backed up deep in their end zone.
The Church on York venture has been disturbing the music scene’s status quo in eastern parts of Los Angeles since 2013. At a time when Spaceland Presents and The Echo properties had a virtual monopoly on permitted music venues in the area, The Church on York opened it’s doors and began operations. It was shutdown almost as quickly as it opened. That has been the story for many collaborative artist spaces and underground music venues in Los Angeles such as the L.A. Fort and Echo Curio. While spots like Pehrspace have managed to survive, it seems like any under licensed venue that generates a significant buzz gets shut down, just as it starts to gain momentum and popularity. And just as quickly as they started, they disappear. Since Church on York closed it’s doors in 2014, they have rebranded as the Church OFF York and have consistently continued booking and promoting shows in the L.A. area at venues such as Jewels Catch One and Los Globos. Being on the fringe is a badge of honor in my book and that was why I was unsure of how I felt about the Berserktown II move down to Orange County. As I looked at the Friday lineup of the three day festival, the names Destruction Unit, Total Control and Thee Oh Sees insured that I would be in my car for at LEAST an hour of Friday, rush hour traffic.
When I arrived at The Observatory on Friday night, I noticed an intricate labyrinth of barricades constructed to handle and filter an overflowing onslaught of festival attendees attempting to make their way into the venue. The only problem was that it was completely void of people. I made it inside at around 8pm, just missing Wax Idols play their set. The first band had taken the stage a couple hours prior to my arrival and it seems that the line outside wasn’t the only area void of people. I then assumed that most ticket holders would arrive just prior to Thee Oh Sees and proceeded to take a tour of the different stages and vendor area. I really dug the layout. With Burgerama and Beach Goth making the Observatory their permanent home, it was no wonder why festival organizers looked at this spot as the perfect location for a festival outside the county limits of Los Angeles. While most of these festival brands set huge festival grade stages in the parking lot of the Observatory, Berserktown II transformed the patio inside the venue into an area ironically named the “Dance Tent”, but there were no push play, EDM DJ’s in this dance tent. There was, however, a grindcore band called Sissy Spacek. After a jaw dropping set by Sissy Spacek that was the equivalent of a concussion grenade, I shook off the shell shock and met up with a friend inside the Constellation Room. After a great set by Dress Code, I exited the Constellation Room just as freely as I had entered it.
I casually walked over to the main room for Destruction Unit (and friends). I easily squeezed my way to the very front of the crowd, just moments prior to the band taking the stage. One by one, the members of Destruction Unit walked out, picked up their instrument, set their levels and started playing with tone and volume. On this night, Destruction Unit would have 5 people playing 6-string guitar, 1 on bass guitar, their drummer and Alex from Dirty Beaches playing saxophone. The result was like nothing I had ever heard before. Destruction Unit swallowed me whole. Their sound hammers the senses, knocks you off balance and distorts reality. I felt an odd shift in my equilibrium- like standing up too fast or being at the bottom of the ocean. The words “psychedelic” and “thrash” hardly ever have the opportunity to co exist in the same sentence but they cannot be separated when describing Destruction Unit. I have never had a musical experience like the one I had with Destruction Unit on Friday night. I started to feel a bit like I was going mad. I felt like moving around. I looked around me and what I saw was shocking. Not only was the room half full but not one body was moving. Hardly a head bob. I thought these were the hardcore kids. I assumed that everyone was just as discombobulated as I was and gave this audience the benefit of the doubt. Destruction Unit only played what seemed like just a few songs in their 45 minute set. When it was over, it took a moment to come back from the sensory overload but I was ready for Total Control.
The Aussie, post punk quintet called Total Control took the stage and immediately looked perplexed. The people in attendance could hardly muster a golf clap. What the fuck was going on here? One of the things that drew me out to Berserktown was the promise of chaos. This band that played a total of 4 shows in 2011, 4 shows in 2012, 2 shows in 2013 and hasn’t been to Southern California since 2011, shows up to play a highly anticipated gig must’ve felt like they entered an alternate dimension. Since Orange County consistently masquerades as Los Angeles (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) to out of towners who don’t know any better, it must be ultra confusing when people are looking for a glitzy metropolis. Total Control frontman, Dan Stewart talked a bit of shit when he remarked how lovely the town was. “You got an hour long walk in any direction for a cigarette”. Dead silence. This was painful. It took a couple of songs for the band to tighten the screws but once they did, they ripped through their combination of electro and punk valiantly as a house full of blank looks stared back at them.
I took comfort that Thee Oh Sees were going to turn things around in this joint. I have yet to see an Oh Sees show that didn’t end in complete fucking chaos with kids jumping off every protruding edge in any venue I’ve ever seen them but alas, it was not meant to be on this Friday night. I honestly left the Observatory in a mild depression. It felt like getting stood up on a date. The detail that went into organizing this event was painstaking. The hours it took to put together the visuals projecting on the screen from old Disney loops, weird clips from old TV dating shows, clips from the movie Boy in the Bubble, the interviews going on back stage between bands and projected to the main room of the Observatory, the beautiful Zine that was put together for this event, all the money that was spent in an attempt to create an event that would be remembered in the hall of fame of festivals seemed to be flushed down a black hole of artistic indifference. It seemed like someone was going to lose their shirt on this event and I had no idea how I would muster returning the next day for another stellar lineup of bands that would be the equivalent of the existential question of a tree falling in the forest. So I didn’t. I skipped Saturday and due to scheduling conflicts, so did our photographer, David Evanko. I was kicking myself that I drove all the way down to Santa Ana for this event when there was a perfectly amazing festival only minutes away from my house but I couldn’t resist that lineup and didn’t know how others did. Maybe this lineup of bands was not suitable for a suburban setting like deep Orange County.
Saturday was different, though. Berserktown achieved something I have never seen before- from eyewitness accounts, the vibe completely shifted on Saturday and bands were playing to full rooms of excited people. Again, I was kicking myself but this time for NOT staying the course and seeing No Hope for the Kids, Fucked Up, Antwon and Lust for Youth on Saturday night.
I returned on Sunday to a fuller, friendlier audience that was more willing to crash into each other on the dance floor. I returned to White Lung, Screaming Females, Dead fucking Moon and the highly anticipated set by Royal Trux.
Dead Moon are a revelation of rock. Reminiscent of a real life Ramona and Belvedere Rickettes, I couldn’t help but think what it would be like to sit on their back porch with them during a full moon, with an acoustic guitar in one hand and a bottle of moonshine in the other. I’m not exactly sure what I missed on Saturday but theirs was the only set of the weekend that I saw any substantial movement on the dance floor. Dead Moon are as authentic an act that you will ever find in rock and roll and I never wanted their set to end.
But end it did and we still had a Royal Trux set owed to us. As always, It’s hard to know what to expect when money motivates musicians to reunite. Jessica Herrema walked out on stage with what looked like a plastic bag from somewhere like CVS in one hand and a fat bouquet of sage in the other. She lit the sage and began to exorcise away any lingering demons left by previous acts. She was either a total mess or she was involved in some Andy Kaufman-esque bit. It didn’t seem like she knew were she was half the time and that theme continued when the music started. The band was SUPER tight but Herrema appeared lost throughout most of the performance. There were mumbles where the melodies were supposed to be and 80% of the set was a trainwreck, vocally, except when Neil Hagerty was singing. It was a very anti climactic ending to a bi polar experience at Berserktown II.
Ultimately, I think Berserktown belongs on the fringe, within the city limits of Los Angeles, fighting for legitimacy. Easy for me to say but we need it up here. I think the strategy to move down the highway from the free festival of Echo Park Rising was a sound one but in the end, the lineup was suited for a city more densely populated with hipsters and music snobs. I think if Berserktown wants to keep their future dates, (if there are any) in direct competition with Echo Park Rising, they need to lower the ticket price and split the difference between L.A. and Orange County. My biggest quip is with the fans that were in attendance. I will never forget how quiet and calm the room was when Thee Oh Sees were on stage. Get your shit together, hardcore kids and show some goddamn self respect when attending a festival with a lineup as momentous as this one. Unfold those arms and swing those elbows or the future of mankind is doomed.
Words: Danny Baraz
Photos: David Evanko