Attending Slam Dunk in Leeds for the second year in a row happened on a whim for me this time round. After posting a ‘sorry for myself’ tweet the day before, one of my best friends replied with the prospect of guest list entry, a space in his car, and a place to stay – thankfully, he has excellent connections within his family to the music and media business, and they pulled through in style for him. I quickly yet meticulously packed my bag and forced myself to have an early night, knowing that an early rise was on the cards alongside a two-to-three hour long car journey.
I decided to approach the festival completely differently this year; but I did plan. By this, I mean the night before I spent some time looking at the set times of the bands playing, and tried to work out what was best for me – opting to see acts I felt a stronger connection to, than ones where I felt I may have been impressed; ones who wouldn’t be in the UK as often, etc. This limited the clashes – and afterwards, it was simply a case of who I had seen before already. This approach also left me feeling very laid back and relaxed: it wasn’t my intention to dart around the entire student union watching two or three songs of every act, I wouldn’t have been able to embrace them, let along enjoy the songs with my mind constantly waltzing around, but also I felt it wasn’t the ‘festival attitude’ to have. I wanted to be with my friends (on top of the fact how they went out of their way to get me one hundred and seventeen miles from home, roughly), and I wanted to drink (responsibly), and I wanted to simply enjoy Slam Dunk.
So, my friends Ryan, Chloe, and I arrived at where we’d be staying the night after a very easy drive up, at a friend’s student house (who doesn’t have a friend whose a student at one of the two universities at Leeds, honestly?), and began to get social. I was asked several times if I was excited, and at that stage I wasn’t, and I kept saying so. My main response was that I needed to arrive at the student union to begin to get in ‘that’ mood. We sat around for a little while, waiting for more friends to appear and bask in the glorious sun with us whilst we listened to an ensemble of various music and drank what alcohol we brought along with ourselves – gatheredly joking along in aimless chit-chat, embracing our youth, but also simply revelling in the fact that twelve hours ago the sky was torturing our hopes with rain and hail.
This moment made me feel good, mixed up with the constant inner-battle of ‘do I change into my shorts, or stick it out with jeans?’: ‘well, I’d be inside for the majority of the day’; ‘it could get hot and sweaty even inside’; ‘but what if drinks and God knows what else is spilt onto me, or kicked up?’; ‘how chilly will it get later when we leave?’. Yeah... I stuck with the jeans.
It was roughly three o’clock when we set off for the quick walk from the ‘student area’ of the city for the student union. I was a little sad I had missed Gnarwolves, but going with the flow, I remembered that nothing should be rushed or forced. The much remembered walk was enjoyable in the sun, passing the multitude of people going about their day within such a thriving environment, filled with more conversation and finishing off whatever drinks we could carry: I remember gin in a water bottle, and I remember not liking it so much! Naturally.
The natter could be heard, and the atmosphere could be felt, from a mile away. It was suddenly then that it all hit me. I felt incredibly important, and cool even, as we approached the guest list entrance and was handed my wrist band, silver afterparty ticket, and pocket guide, and which point we ran into a few more friends from the university, ones in event management running the show. After briefly catching up, I made my way into the main room as it was too hard to venture around outside and attempt to take everything in: every stall, every sight, every attraction – it, like very festival, is just too much; I had to go with the flow (a phrase I notice I’m consistently using, but it’s liquid state not only makes a good joke on the amount of beer I was drinking, but best suites the style/movement one needs to adapt in such an environment) and just move about, knowing that I could still catch and be a part of fantastic festival experiences.
‘Okay, the main room’, I thought to myself, or as it is to be correctly known as, the refectory. In my opinion, the place felt a lot more spacious than last year, or to put it more abruptly, the place had less people harbouring about it – my point can expertly be made apparent when I point out (to those who attended anyway) that I didn’t wait for one second to be served at any instance I approached the bar, the one exception being for food, which I’ll get onto later. My friend Ross and I were the first two in, and we decided to take advantage of what was around us, and walked up to the small Jägermeister stand at the far end of the hall, and demand a free shot. This was calmly rejected, even after Ross spent a few minutes trying to sweet talk the vendor and compliment his attire, but we didn’t leave empty handed! We were able to nab these little bracelets for our troubles so the time spent didn’t feel like a total loss.
Quarter to four, and Cambridge’s Natural Born Killers lovers Mallory Knox took to the stage to a roar of admiration and appreciation. In such a short space of time, this local act had really rallied its way up the ladder, whilst not at all denting their respect. And, despite being local, I had yet to grab the chance to see them; I was always low on money or it was bad timing, so I was excited and keen from the get-go to see what they had in store, and more importantly, what I had been missing out on.
We’re introduced to a rolling thunder of hammering drums and engaging power chords from the guitars that begin to flare and expel sweet, delicate riffs whilst Chapman gears up, sticks his chest out and pounces around the stage: rightly opening with ‘Wake Up’, the crowd are alive and jumping along in time to the epic chorus and howling collective vocals. With a beer finally in my grasp, I stood with my collective near the back, taking in the entire view. For me, it was more about being ‘in the moment’ and enjoying the show, rather than being that guy that barges his way to the front, or has trouble getting around and then instantly (this latter part is always me) ends up hating where he is situated as the crowd has no control of itself, and one ends up swaying from side to side, forwards and backwards; simply riving in pain amidst all those around you in the same boat – all of whom have no bloody clue who is doing this mass barging, ruining the fun for everyone. Where one becomes more concerned about, let’s say, safety and how to position them self for the next bombardment, rather than have the chance to look straight up and watch their idols on stage. Give it a Name used to be relentless for that, for me – and this, now at a more ripe age, was the last thing on my to-do list.
The performance itself from Mallory Knox really, really impressed me. Blending social interaction to keep the audience on their toes, with radio friendly bangers such as ‘Beggars’ and ‘Death Rattle’ kept the set strong, and more importantly efficient. The sound emitted, combined with Chapman’s voice was equally as lovely and impressive live as it is recorded as they concluded their thirty minute set with firm favourite ‘Lighthouse’, with its outro trailing off and left forever echoing in ones ears. I read in a quick fire question session with the band that their goal was to “see the world, play to thousands, [and] inspire people”, and they certainly did some of that, well on their way to seeing the rest of the world.
There was about two hours to kill before the next act played that I wanted to see, so I switched into sensible adult mode and went out to the balcony with Ryan and we got ourselves some food, and of course a pint or two more for good measure. We spent a bit of time out on this balcony the previous year too, so it felt like a comfortable spot, despite being full to the brim of people and mass queues to the grilled BBQ food (a double bacon and cheese burger for myself, you know the score!). And with the hazy atmosphere feeling comfortable, time quickly sped by. It was sadly that within this time too, without realising, we got heavily burnt from the sun – still ever present. Upon walking back in, I noticed how pink my arms had suddenly turned; but this is of course all part of the experience, so I made jokes and laughed it off as Ryan and I set off to the Keep a Breast stage, a small, corner room for the stripped down acoustic acts to perform intimate sets by the likes of Sophomore, and William Beckett of The Academy Is... (I was a little bit gutted I didn’t see him).
We arrived promptly and found a spot to actually sit to really take in the performance, to the left of the stage there was this line of speakers where we and some other people sat. It was out of the way, but left us with a perfect view to witness Arthur Carl Enders III enter and set up his acoustic guitar – better know by his stage name, Ace Enders. The thirty-one year-old from New Jersey, as I’ve mentioned before, has his hands in many musical pies, starting out with The Early November, and then branching out with projects know as I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business, Ace Enders and a Million Different People and most recently, simply Ace Enders.
Ace played a quick and neat half hour set, consisting of a jumble of songs from all of these projects. For me, hearing ‘Old Man’ was grounding and humbling, and beautifully sweet; The Early November’s ‘Sunday Drive‘ was a pleasant surprise and greatly received by the entire (packed) room, guided with patience, the quiet and sombre song struck a chord with me; and finally I Can Make a Mess’s ‘The Best Happiness Money Can Buy’, which is one of my all time favourites, so I ended up recreating the smile-and-bopping-head actions to that of a very small child watching Barney the Dinosaur sing one of this nursery rhymes: embarrassing, but incredibly and positively infectious. I felt in a daze, and perhaps star struck with awe as well, as the set was over before it began and people started to pile out of the room (Ace and all scarpering out quick with another set to play in just over two hours time on another stage), so I felt I hadn’t taken in the full performance; or perhaps Ace was just so good that it left me wanting so much more. It was the true definition of intimate for me. All it was missing was a couple of candles.
Ryan and I hiked our way back up stairs and into the refectory once more where I had a mini-downward spiral. As we waited for others to meet us, we relaxed at the back of the room like previous, and coming from such a dark room to be in a well lit one felt like a complete switch and before I knew it I was laying on the floor having a little snooze. After about five minutes of my power nap (apparently) my partner in crime kicked me to awaken me from my slumber; at least I felt more refreshed and ready as Kids in Glass Houses geared up and burst into their energetic and enigmatic set with debut album opener ‘Fisticuffs’ – originally demoed under the name ‘Pick Flowers Not Fights’ for those looking to score some extra pub quiz points.
I was eager to see them, having always been an avid fan, and forever missing the opportunity since first seeing them back in 2007, the same year they broke through into the big leagues. The ‘lightest’ act to ever sign a contract with Roadrunner Records opted for more fan favourite tracks, from their back catalogue, rather than anything of their latest album, In Gold Blood, but they did play the single they dropped the day before, disco-pop-rock anthem ‘Drive’, mid set in order to spice things up. Amusingly for me, the songs picked were all ones I favour greatly so I found myself on a cloud, or in a bubble, chanting along with no concern for dramas around me.
‘Easy Tiger’, ‘Give Me What I Want’, ‘Artbreaker I’, ‘Youngblood (Let It Out)’, ‘Sunshine’, ‘Saturday’, and finally ‘Matters at All’ were all showcased as proud cavalier (of his own safety) and ringleader Phillips kicked about the stage and lashed out with his trademark microphone swinging skills. Rightly chanting ‘goodnight!’ to the crowd as the set came to an end, it was clear to see how Kids in Glass Houses have been able to attain such a strong fan base and remain strong in attendance for shows with an upbeat and up-tempo performance such as one I had just witnessed; to simplify, it was a good, old-fashioned sweaty rock show. Just brilliant.
We were to wait in the main room for about twenty minutes for the next act on the bill, so what else was there to really do but head on over to the bar with the crew and grab another pint?
Proving how unique and diverse with appreciation they can be, Norfolk’s Deaf Havana opened with a quirky eye-opener, a funky pop classic from everybody’s youth: Robbie William’s ‘Let Me Entertain You’ – something, no doubt, your mother chose to play every time she got her hands on the family cassette player. The amusing trick was that everyone knew the words, and everyone jumped up trying to reach the ceiling; it was funny and it set the mood in more ways than one: the set was to be light-hearted, powerful and fun, but it also presented the band in their new light, Deaf Havana in their latest state – a more commercial act, with the backing of a bigger label and bigger shows, accompanied by their two new members, and further young backing singer, Grace Barrett, jived up with Afro-American sass, funk and soul.
Following this, the band pitched to us their latest endeavour, new single ‘Boston Square’, the only song of the set where the majority didn’t know the words, but went down maturely well, hitting the right notes with every step of the way. Afterwards, anthems from Fools and Worthless Liars were belted out, including a nod to their experimental alternative release of the album: new keyboardist Britton and frontman Veck-Gilodi doubled up in performing a beautiful rendition of the piano tinted ‘Anemophobia’, before merging it with the original, hard rock style where the rest of the band came tumbling in.
Three words spring to mind in retrospect when thinking about Deaf Havana’s set: passionate, eccentric, and joyous. As the set approached it’s end, ‘The Past Six Years’ stripped down the pace, and I found it shocking how apparent everyone in that room knew every single word to the song, and the howled them out back at the band: to me, it was incredibly eye-opening and impressive – I just kept thinking how All Time Low must’ve felt incredibly intimated that this is what there were going to have to follow.
I became ‘that guy’ when ‘Hunstanton Pier’ kicked up as the final song of the evening. From my location, Deaf Havana have been an easy band to follow from the MySpace days leading all the way up to now – so it has been something that I’ve just done, taking an active interest in them as people, as well as musicians. They’re one of the few bands I’ve seen right from the very beginning, I mean, I first recall seeing them in a pub at an alldayer, in Bury St. Edmunds back in February, 2007. The promotion team I was a part of went on to put on their 101st show, the night after their self-released EP, Evangeline, was released. It was actually our promotion team that printed and put together those CDs as well. And when I was at university, I made friends with people from Norwich by shouting “f***ing pirates!” (‘Ninjas Vs. Pirates’, White Lines, But No Camera, 2006) when the DJ changed songs during a club night... I thought about how their parents must’ve felt, and how Phil must’ve felt, and I became emotional, and having reflected back, became so built up with empathic pride, I shed a little tear like an emotional wreck and embraced such ecstasy before me. It was a real powerful moment.
I bolted out of the main room pretty quick as soon as Deaf Havana left the stage and the audience began to exit the room too, working their way outdoors, or to the central corridor. I stumbled about, still buzzing from the emotional and exceptional performance, purged and clearly intoxicated at this point; the alcohol had finally really hit me and I believe ventured downstairs, half staring at the small guide I had stored in my back pocket. My eyes instantly blurred when I tried to concentrate, simultaneously walking along, making sure I didn’t bang into anyone – I had literally no clue where I was going or how to make it to the Macbeth stage by myself. At the same time, I began to get worried: Deaf Havana had run over, but what if the Macbeth stage was still running on time? I’d have the potential of catching perhaps just one song of my beloved The Early November, if that! I also became surprised and shocked at how late it was in the day and how quick the whole event was in fact going!
I ended up getting lost and so confused, I bumped along to a safe spot, the Keep a Breast stage; considering the time, I best set camp in the Pulse room and await Andrew McMahon’s set to finish off my evening. Emarosa and Dance Gavin Dance whosit (wotsit – hah) Jonny Craig was still performing when I entered, and I found it quite easy to slither my way through the crowd to about the middle of the room where (finally away from the speakers) I could hear him play. With sheen of confidence, borderline on arrogance, I felt compelled by his powerful and harmonious voice, and sympathetic for his Macklemore hair cut. It was very different from what I expected – the music had a lot of R&B bass and beat behind it; it was more like listening to BBC Radio 1 late at night, but with that ‘emo’ scene wrapped up within it, I could tell this was a unique act.
As Ryan re-found me, we overlooked a chap on his iPhone, looking at the UEFA Champions League final score, and I asked him what the score was. 1-1. It was the 89th minute and suddenly as he refreshed, he swore - Bayern Munich had just scored again and clinched victory. The underdogs defeated again.
We sat back up on the side where we were before four hours previous, and as the clock struck ten, Andrew McMahon emerged to a rallying cry, and I myself even tried to muster a ‘whoop’. I sadly do not sound the slightest bit manly when I attempt it. I’ve never really given Something Corporate a listen, but am a huge fan of Jack’s Mannequin (to the point where I want to use ‘Caves’ as the soundtrack to this movie segment I have concocted in my mind), and was surprised to see him added the bill, and therefore exceptionally keen to watch him and his piano whirl me into bliss.
The final act of the evening was the only real clash of the evening that I had to debate; the loser being Cancer Bats. Despite being thoroughly enthralled by them last year, that was just the point, I had seen them before and McMahon has always had that space in my heart. I’d have imaged not a lot would’ve changed with the Cancer Bats set either; there has been no new material from them, they’ve largely been touring, and I’d have excepted them to play several Black Sabbath covers, as they enjoy their own spin with the nickname, Bat Sabbath. It’s quite weird really, because I don’t like Black Sabbath from what I’ve heard, yet they’re one of my father’s favourite bands – his beer belly is always sporting one of their logos upon black cotton. It always has me question what sort of music did my parents raise me on.
McMahon neatly and confidently performed perfectly penned and composed songs, combined with sweet introductions so the audience never felt outcast from the intimate affair. During the immaculate mind you, I did fall asleep again, Ryan too this time. Sunstroke, all the beer, and being back in such a dark room deemed too much for two party animals. He shook me awake having found me curled around his beer, protecting it and we continue to listen to the set – for there were more speakers set up between us and the stage, hindering our view tenfold; thankfully the sound was wonderful.
The highlight for me was ‘Swim’, nearing the end of the set. It was just magic. If you listen to that track right now, and imagine all of the reverb bouncing off the walls, and the chance to hear more expression within ones voice... My God. We even stood up during, but quickly had a torch flashed our way by security for us to get down, shamefully. A cheery deliverance of ‘La La Lie’ saw my night draw to a close – McMahon playing off the crowd, sharing the song and moment with them in a gorgeous fashion.
Sadly I didn’t seem to bump into any famous faces like I did last year, but I did bump into a car... As we left the student union, I had head permanently down –staring at the ground, and before I knew it there was a thump and Ryan burst out laughing on the floor. Shocking the woman in the driver’s seat, I had accidentally walked full pelt into her car; one final shock to the system, aye? If that wasn’t enough, descending out to the black-skied nightlife, I had been informed that someone back at my place in Peterborough had broken the sink. So there I was, off into the night, a sun-burnt wreck of a deflated man, in search of a McDonald’s whilst spewing hate and barking down my phone...