In Our Natural State at Marfa Myths 2016

A double exposure of Sheer Mag and Marfa's night sky as seen from El Cosmico; photo by Bryan C. Parker

A double exposure of Sheer Mag and Marfa’s night sky as seen from El Cosmico; photo by Bryan C. Parker

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In the desert, you can hear yourself think. Maybe this is true of being in nature in general, but the desert seems to provide an unparalleled clarity of thought. And in our infinitely complex, cluttered existence, maybe that clarity of thought is, in part, what prompted Donald Judd to acquire a decommissioned military base in Marfa, TX in 1979 and to begin installing large scale art installations by himself, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin. And it serves to reason that a similar impulse guided Mexican Summer’s Keith Abrahamsson, among other personnel, to conceive a small music festival in that same remote West Texas town three-and-a-half decades later. This year marked Mexican Summer’s third event in Marfa (the second to be officially titled Marfa Myths) and featured an expectedly solid bill of incredible artists performing over a long weekend in March.

This coverage may seemed delayed, arriving 0ver a month after the festival’s end, but too often festival recaps feel rote and perfunctory. Plus, the fest occurs on the weekend before SXSW, which means any talk of it is all but swallowed up by that behemoth. With some time for reflection and avoiding being one more voice in a crowd, now is as good a time as any, perhaps better, to call attention to Mexican Summer’s annual mecca in the desert.

Marfa_March_2015-67People, like all matter in the observable universe, seem to operate on two polar yet simultaneously true principles of locality: they either huddle together in masses or separate themselves by vast distances. After all, atoms are mostly empty space, an enormous nothingness separating the nucleus from the electrons orbiting it. How far from this cluster of planets to the next? How many miles separate one city of congregated humans and its nearest neighbor? While we mostly spend time in relatively close proximity to other humans, remembering the massive emptiness that pervades the universe is more difficult. So, maybe being in an environment like Marfa’s sparse, desert landscape provides some subconscious emotional balance rooted in the eternal truth of existence. At stasis, in our natural state, the body and mind feel free.

Marfa_Myths_2016-6Over the Marfa Myths weekend, attendees converge periodically on the few venue spaces the small town of roughly 1,800 has to offer, communing in the presence of art and music. Then, they disperse, spreading out to a less concentrated distribution. It’s the kind of festival where there’s just one thing happening at any given moment, and ample time separating one event from the next to allow for contemplative reflection and appreciation.

My day job prevented me from catching some of the weekend’s most enticing performers, including Ethiopian jazz funk artist Hailu Mergia, electronic legend William Basinski, and a set by Fred and Toody of lauded punk band Dead Moon. However, my own absence shouldn’t mean these acts don’t get a shoutout in the extant coverage of 2016’s event, because the programming for MM2016 was on point. I arrived in time to see a beautiful, but not festival related, reading by the Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman, who was in town for a residency through the Lannan Foundation. Celebrated author Jamaica Kincaid happened to be in attendance. These are just the sorts of things that happen on any given weekend in Marfa. Transcendent, unexpected experiences seem to unfold wherever you are.

Lower_Dens_at_Marfa_Myths_2016-6After splurging on food at Marfa’s brand new Hotel St. George, my fellow traveling partners and I ventured the half mile to the outskirts of the one-stoplight town to the festival’s most equipped venue, The Capri, where the weekend’s most traditionally structured rock show was almost underway. The night promised sets from Quilt, Sheer Mag, Connan Mockasin, Parquet Courts, and No Age. Although illness caused Emmit Rhodes to cancel all his Texas dates, the festival added Jana Hunter’s minimalist pop project Lower Dens to fill the slot. Lower Dens opened the night with a mesmerizing and calculated performance.

Quilt_at_Marfa_Myths_2016-2Quilt followed with an enjoyable set of their lush, swirling psych pop before Parquet Courts took the stage. The New York group seems to be moving beyond some of their roughly hewn, house party rockers in favor of nonchalant pop tunes a la Velvet Underground. Though their newest effort, Human Performance, still possesses plenty of tenacity and more varied arrangements than prior work, their live set at Marfa Myths adopted a more blunt approach. The performance had an unaffected coolness, as the band defiantly asserted a new direction for their art.

Sheer_Mag_at_Marfa_Myths_2016-6Undeniably, Sheer Mag’s set in the middle of the evening, won the most favor with attendees. Shedding all notions of pretension, Sheer Mag’s lean, distorted rock songs prove that music doesn’t have to be complex to be good. Thriving on the energy of Tina Halladay’s snarling vocal delivery, Sheer Mag cranks out 70s-influence East Coast rock songs that inspire fist pumping and shimmying with abandon. A light mosh pit broke out after a few songs, and although a few folks cleared out, the crowd’s roughhousing was good natured and relatively mild. Fans chanted lyrics as they bounced up and down while grinning. I can’t remember the last time aI saw a group of showgoers exude so much joy at a set.

Connan_Mockasin_at_Marfa_Myths_2016-3The night climaxed with Connan Mockasin’s “wet dream” (as the set was billed). An appropriately indulgent set by the so-called visionary, who beckoned guest after guest, including the members of Quilt, Weyes Blood, and Ariel Pink, onto the stage for a collaborative, weird-rock onslaught. Apparent inside jokes, winks, elbows, and nods permeated the set which kept the performers wryly grinning at one another and their fans transfixed like yearning yet entertained window shoppers. Eventually, Mockasin et al. yielded the stage for No Age to end the night in punk rock catharsis.

Marfa_Myths_2016-2Around then, the undeniable pull of Marfa’s only late-night food joint’s last call lured me away. Greasy sandwiches from the Grilled Cheese Parlour were in demand to absorb the one-too-many Lone Stars and tequila shots. The eatery only serves it’s titular cuisine from 10PM to 2AM on weekends. My compadres and I arrived around 1:30AM and battled blurred vision while studying a sign with a list of grilled cheese varieties, all of which were crossed out except their basic recipe. I waited in line for a few minutes as other patrons continued to pour in behind me. “I guess we’ll have three of the basic grilled cheeses,” I eventually told the harried man behind the counter. Behind him another man flipped grilled cheese in a tiny kitchen. He scribbled on a pad of paper before stalking away, around the counter, and into the main room. After crossing out the lone remaining menu option, he belted out, “We’re outta grilled cheese!!” Would-be customers endured their momentary confusion before they succumbed to a realization and resolved to boos and hisses.

Marfa_Myths_2016-3“That’ll be about 30 minutes,” the young man told me as I handed over a wad of cash. I swallowed hard and glanced nervously at my companions, who grumbled half-heartedly. Four of us took turns sharing a lone chair as we studied the establishment’s second function as the Museum of Electric Wonders, a sort of performance art environment where parlour patrons become the participants. Twenty to thirty tiny television sets that recall futuristic Japan, a 1960s London, and a 1980s Berlin gaze out at customers from a variety of shelves. Most glow blue-white; some flicker and scroll through grainy television sequences. It’s a surreal, dystopian scene that breeds a self-conscious uneasiness the longer the grilled cheese sandwiches take to cook.

After a few minutes, one of our party started losing his grip. “This wait is crazy! I’m just gonna cancel my order,” he blurted. “No way!” I said, grasping his forearm. “We got the last three grilled cheeses in the place. Come on!” He relented, as a drunk guy in cargo shorts and a hoodie wandered in and began belligerently addressing the guys in the kitchen. In a fit of grilled cheese withdrawal, he pocketed a shiny, silver package of chips on the sly. But when the cashier saw him and called him out, the scene began to devolve quickly and the drunk guy denied everything before throwing the chips at the employee, knocking over a few soda bottles, and storming out of the building. Soon after, we gorged ourselves on greasy grilled cheese–the good kind with slightly burnt edges of crust and spillover cheese. The entire hour experience felt like stepping into a performance art piece built on discomfort and self-consciousness. And yet it’s these sorts of surreal, waking-dream experiences that abound in Marfa and give the town it’s allure.

Marfa_Myths_2016-4We arrived back at our campground at El Cosmico in the early hours of the morning, but other travelers moved over the dusty terrain as soundless shapes, dim shadows against an even darker landscape. We drifted to our tents, where we sealed ourselves away from the chilly desert night to wait for the morning sun. Sunday dawned bright and clear and we rose to grab breakfast before heading to the Crowley Theater for an afternoon of films, including one with a live score by Swedish progg band Dungen, which served as the weekend’s grand finale.

Marfa_Myths_2016-5The Crowley Theater’s outward state of seeming disrepair conceal the simple yet classic design inside, as is the case with many of Marfa’s edifices. Several short documentaries that were effectively highly developed, entertaining commercials for a few upcoming albums on Mexican Summer’s reissue arm Anthology Recordings. The albums, a set from Swedish band Trad, Gras, och Stenar as well as an album by Ilian, both came out in April. The box set from Trad, Gras, och Stenar sold out almost immediately, although some of the individual reprints are still for sale. Illian’s Love Me Crazy just came out last week and is available for purchase.

Mushroom_Movie_at_Marfa_Myths_2016-1A brief film about earthball, puffball, and earthstar mushrooms followed. These are spherical or ovular fungi that contain thousands and thousands of spores that rush out in clouds when the fungus is smashed. A live band scored a quirky, trippy score that corresponded to a montage of the mushrooms being crushed and mushed and mashed. As the clouds of spores poured out of a deflated sphere: pfft, blurrrrp, shshshshs, womp, womp, plop, flap, fizzzzzz! The performance and video had the tone of a childlike shriek of joy blended with an aware smirk. It was simple and playful and engrossing all at once.

Raum_at_Myths_2016-1As a penultimate movement before the finale, Grouper’s Liz Harris performed a set with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma under the name Raum. With sustained noise-scapes and subtle textures, the droning musical piece accompanied a series of video footage such as gently undulating water and vintage footage of planes flying over cities.

Dungen_at_Marfa_Myths_2016-2By the time Dungen took the stage, the room was ripe with anticipation. I went into the performance knowing nothing about the film and without expectations for what Dungen’s score might sound like. The Adventures of Prince Achmed turns out to be an exceptionally complicated film. The first full-length animated feature in history, the 1926 German film is directed by Lotte Reiniger, a woman who has been largely forgotten in cinema lore. However, it still manages to be startlingly racist in it’s depictions. Perhaps, in part, the film relies on crude caricatures since it consists exclusively of paper cutout silhouettes used in stop-motion fashion. If one manages to see the film as a reflection of prevailing cultural stereotypes rather than an endorsement, one can appreciated a charming, whimsical narrative rooted in the earliest traditions of storytelling.

Dungen_at_Marfa_Myths_2016-1Dungen’s score employed much of the same sonic palette as their albums, with heavy emphasis on flute, synths, and noodley guitar lines. I have seen a few live scores over the years, but Dungen’s set at Marfa Myths was the best I’ve experienced. The band’s excellent choice in a film conducive to live score aided it’s success to be sure, but beyond that, the film and music separately offered plenty to arrest and captivate attention.

From the careful programming to the remote location, everything about Marfa Myths emphasizes that which makes art valuable. The most worthwhile art requires thoughtfulness and reflection. Often, it requires effort, even resilience. It takes patience and asks viewers/participants to set aside their egos and preconceived notions to see themselves and the world in new ways. The convenience and commerciality of modern music festivals undermines music as an art form and treats it as a commodity. Mexican Summer is doing something special in the desert, something that energizes and respects art and music. Yes, extreme temperatures must be endured, and long distances must be driven. There may even be nights when you must go hungry. But ultimately, this communal gathering relies on these hurdles to avoid passive consumers and assemble true believers. It’s the adventure and distinctiveness that define the event and will keep people coming back year after year.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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