At the tail end of November in 2015, the renowned Clockenflap Music & Arts Festival returned to the West Kowloon Cultural District for its eighth grand incarnation.
Inviting a cavalcade of music acts from all over the world, we've been lucky enough to catch some of them, as they made their Asian visits count by reaching out further into the Southeast. This time around, we guess there were people who felt right to bring some of that prime music and arts festival experience straight into Singapore. Introducing Neon Lights Festival, there were plenty of activities going on, music and non-music, and the sheer breadth of it and how it was optimized for the Fort Canning area was incredibly noteworthy.
Our editor Daniel Peters had the chance to fly over to Clockenflap to finally experience what years of Hong Kongers have been enjoying, while our senior correspondent Darren Ng and head of video Jeremy Hu walked alongside many Singaporean music lovers to enter the first ever Neon Lights Festival. They compare their experiences and reflect on the different acts they saw, many of whom played at both.
Daniel Peters: So we're here to talk about the two festivals that happened during that weekend, Clockenflap and Neon Lights. We saw a lot of good bands, we experienced different kinds of weather and people, there was all sorts of different activities. Let's break it down first. Before you entered the venue, how was it like?
Darren: I think it was very confusing at first, to get to the designated point. There were separate entry points for people who had weekend passes and one-day passes, so it was hell for those with weekend passes because we had to walk all the way to the top, which was I think fort gate?
Jeremy: Yeah, you had to go to a different place to get your VIP tag as well. So you had to get a day pass, as well as a VIP pass.
DP: Do you think it was possible if everything could have been done in one place?
D: I just thought it could have been better if it was at a nearer location, because everyone was walking up the same way to the Fort Canning area, so the front entrance would have been convenient for all.
DP: I guess it was their way to manage crowd control.
D: But if you have to, it would be a problem, I mean unless they had a wireless system.
DP: For mine, it was hell for the first day because from the nearest MTR station, it was a 10-15 minute walk, which was fine, because the weather was cool. But once I arrived at the entrance, I could not find the media booth. I approached the nearest personnel who directed me back to an area I came from, so I thought I missed a turn on the way. But I went there and security told me that the media booth was on the other side of the festival grounds.
D: But 20 degrees weather what!
DP: Yes but I was still rushing to catch a band I really wanted to watch: Sun Kil Moon. So essentially, part of the journey was a waste of time, which was already during his set. Thankfully one of their PR ladies found me and brought me along, with a few other equally confused media people, to the actual media booth. Rushed to the main stage just in time to hear Sun Kil Moon bellow out "Richard Ramirez died of natural causes."
But as frustrating as the experience was, the rest of the festival more than made up for it, and those last two songs by Sun Kil Moon sounded absolutely lovely. The breeze added it to it for sure. How was the weather like at Neon Lights?
D: I think the overall weather was decent, even as I was expecting rainfall for most of the festival. I think there were instances of drizzle until the last set of the fest, Flight Facilities, and it started pouring. But it was fun! Reminded me of that first Laneway Festival with Foals and The Temper Trap.
DP: Yeah it was heavy during Foals, lighter during Temper Trap, but definitely more trying during the latter because Temper Trap were so shit.
D: F**k off, hahahaha.
J: It was drizzling right before their last song, and they were like "Oh you guys stuck it under the rain, we'll play one more for you!" And then the rain just got heavier, and it went up to three encores. By the end of it we were all drenched. It rained harder incrementally that from a light drizzle it became a proper legit downpour by the end. Now we know FF are wizards that control the weather.
DP: Well, they already are masters of the sky, aren't they? I won't be surprised if those encores were special just for Singapore.
D: I think the drizzle also started when they played the song 'Sunrise' actually hahaha.
DP: Shit, really? Well I heard humidity was a huge killer during the day.
J: Yeah because on Sunday, it rained earlier so it got sunny and it became just really humid. Otherwirse, the first day, even when it was hot, it was still fine because it wasn't raining.
D: There were even mosquitoes.
DP: Did the weather affect your enjoyment of the performances though?
D: Nah, I've gotten used to it already but it did affect a lot of the bands themselves They were always complaining about the heat, even during our interviews. The one thing they always noted when they were describing the festival that it was "wet", or "moist" hahaha.
DP: I heard the only band unfazed by the weather was Songhoy Blues, because they were saying that the weather was the same back home hahaha.
J: They were really good though, I was in-between places during their set but whatever I heard wowed me.
DP: Same, I was rushing for Bo Ningen but I stuck for a minute just to watch because they were so tight, and their album's good too. So I felt sad rushing off so soon.
D: Let's talk about the arts stuff that happened before we get into the music acts. Neon Lights actually gave a lot of attention and focus to all things non-music, with the sideshows and small little showcases.
J: It reminded me of Urbanscapes!
D: Was it the same at Clockenflap?
DP: I didn't explore around too much because I got so distracted by the music acts haha. But there was an active craft market, a silent disco, a cinema, and plenty of smaller stages which I passed by.
D: I heard they were giving out free stuff around those stages.
DP: Dammit, should've stayed then hahaha.
D: I think for Neon Lights, there was also a good mixture of art installations, interactive graffiti stations, then there were also poetry slams and plays going on.
J: Yeah, there was one about durians.
D: I don't know how to explain that ah, it was a bit experimental for me.
DP: Haha experimental how? Can you describe a bit about the play?
D: They were idolizing a durian and then I lost track.
DP: If they're idolizing durians, it means they're heathens. Or Singaporeans.
J: it was like, the whole play was a series of vignettes involving durians. So for one, they were envisioning that the durian was planted by aliens to conquer or invade earth or something, and then they transitioned into a different scenario, using the same four characters, with NS. There was more talk about durian there. I think they used an actual durian, there was one in a birdcage and it was just bizarre.
DP: Where it belongs.
J: There was this place called the Cloud Factory which is a kids area during the daytime. But at night, it turns into this freakish, arty, experimental stage show. There was this one act, where this guy was stacking up these pink elephant balloons on top of each other and he was like worshipping it, all the while there were these really weird noise-scapes happening. Some of the bands who performed, like Pains of Being Pure At Heart or Viet Cong, they sat in and watched, looking confused.
And then this one guy was just playing his toy guitar. He tried to smash it, but he underestimated how durable the toy is. It was just not breaking, and he was wearing tights as a shirt. He took paint out of his crotch and he started painting his face white.
DP: Sounds like a surreal mental breakdown
D: Was that NADA?
J: Could be.
DP: Did NADA perform music?
D: They did. They played a couple of old Malay songs and then after that they were dubbing over it, one of the most memorable parts of this show was him humping a lady in a mask.
DP: Interesting. For Clockenflap, like I said I didn't see much, the area was just so huge, so I got caught up by the bands. All the installations I saw were cool, and I was tempted to join the silent disco, which had a playground next to it. I've never seen people so animated while dancing before that silent disco. What wonders headphones can do to remove self-consciousness haha.
J: First act I saw was SOAK. They were OK, to be honest. It was just standard indie fare. I wish I had more things to say about them but they just didn't make that much of an impression on me. And uh, that's why I left and got to check Songhoy Blues.
DP: How was the crowd like?
J: It was really empty at the beginning, we were there at around 2pm, and I think because people were still afraid of the sun.
DP: Reminds me of 100+50 festival, it rained a few times and got really hot during the daytime too.
D: I also think it's about the star power and the draw the bands had also. One of the things I picked up during our interviews was that it's always like a climb, like the later sets generally have the more popular acts. What if, for once, if there was a mix-up in a schedule? So people won't come on purpose just for the evening show with the bigger acts.
DP: Festivals could do that, like how we were even able to watch Kings of Convenience on an early Saturday afternoon at Laneway, but I guess it's depends if the artist has any objections. For example, if they only want to play during a certain period. I'm sure that happens.
J: Yeah, because many of them have done the festival circuit long enough to know that the nighttime is the "primetime".
DP: Yeah, in fact I'd love to see some bands I like in the early PM. I was able to see Swervedriver and Bo Ningen in the afternoon at Clockenflap — both fairly big names in the underground, so that was cool.
J: At least for Songhoy Blues, there were people enjoying themselves and dancing, even though it was right smack in the afternoon. Another thing too, did you see anyone at the VIP area?
D: I didn't even know there was a VIP area.
J: You know the area just before you take the stairs to go up at the back at Fort Green? The place at the right is the VIP area. Even at night, it was pretty sparse.
D: I just thought it was just a drinks area, and either way you couldn't see much of the stage from that spot.
J: Yeah. Well, later in the afternoon, we caught Shugo Tokumaru.
DP: Oh how was he?
J: It was nice, man. It's very summery, feel-good, folk music. His music has a Of Monsters and Men-meets-J-pop kind of feel to it. He's also a far more versatile guitarist or musician than I thought he'd be but it was great, everyone enjoyed it. There was quite a number of Japanese people in the crowd too
D: After that was Bo Ningen.
DP: Yeah, I was already feeling all the hype through social media after their set at Neon Lights, made me even more pumped to see them at Clockenflap.
D: Their set was great, I think Jeremy was talking about how the Japanese are so good at doing weird, I thought that was very apt.
DP: But weird is subjective, for sure.
D: Yeah, the kind of "weird" we're talking about is a good thing, it was almost magical.
DP: They definitely have a pretty special stage presence. But their music was so intense, I loved it all the way through. Even started a moshpit. Couldn't last long with my beanie covering my face though.
D: Yeah, that's not a good idea. So, looking at both line-ups, there were a few exclusive acts that played at Clockenflap only and some at Neon Lights. How was Neon Indian?
DP: Neon Indian was one of the best sets of the fest for sure. Danced from start to end man. So fun.
D: Why didn’t they book him for neon lights?! I mean he is like the perfect ambassador name and all.
DP: Exactly man. Bizarre. He would’ve been the subject of so many good article headlines.
D: Thoughts on New Order?
DP: Loved it! I missed their show back in 2012, so this made up for it, even if they didn't play 'Ceremony'.
D: While New Order played the last set of Clockenflap, I think having Flight Facilities to close the entire festival is equal in show value proportions. They were highly inventive in their use of the stage and by bringing in guests to sing, it really raised their status from being two guys behind a console to architects behind a full-blown party.
Also, hats off to FF for giving us like six encores for sticking it out in the rain. I’d like to be rewarded and acknowledged more for getting wet.
J: It seems that every big festival act debuting at Fort Canning will have a baptism of water. It was pouring like mad towards the end of FF's set. Same thing happened at the very first Laneway.
D: Did y’all see Gengahr? I thought they were so deserving
DP: Couldn't make it in time, sadly! Had to miss out on SOAK and Songhoy Blues, along with Rachael Yamagata.
D: It was fun doing our interview with her, she liked the format we chose for the questions. Surprised about her packed schedule. Saturday, Clockenflap and Sunday, Neon Lights. Exhausting as hell!
DP: And then Singapore again in January.
D: She’s playing another show after Neon Lights?
DP: Yes. She has a four-show-a-year contract with STB.
D: Hahaha, that's cool we can get acquainted with her on a first name basis. But take it slow, we still have eight years to do that.
DP: What were your big highlights for the first day?
D: On the first night for me, it had to be Sun Kil Moon. Hearing about the asshole tag thrown onto lead singer Mark, I mean everyone already had initial reservations about his set. His infamy brings out a lot of hype to his name, but I feel that he plays that down well with his music — very spoken word, conversational style blues. Everyone was in the mood for storytelling. I was expecting him to react more violently to the crew at the Club Minky stage following his feud with War of Drugs for similar reasons. He unexpectedly ended up as the highlight of my night.
J: First day, it would be Bo Ningen. Incredible stage presence, keeps your eyes glued on them with hypnotic, psychedelic tunes to keep your ears entranced. They were such a tour de force live; they manage to make recklessness look so damn effortless where others make it contrived, and they straddle the line between sheer entropy and a highly precise form of performance art down, with such grace and finesse.
Mogwai was a close second, because they are one of the few post rock bands in the business today that can still keep things fresh enough for me to find something new to enjoy and be awed by every time I see them. Granted, I was a fan to begin with so there is of course a bias, but there is a reason why they've been around as long as they have.
DP: Definitely agree with both fronts on Sun Kil Moon and Bo Ningen — Sun Kil Moon's conversational style was something he adopted for his 2014 album Benji, and I didn't expect it to work so well live until I managed to catch those last two songs after (hilariously) catching my breath, hurrying over to the main stage after that disappointing detour to the media booth.
He has an effortless charisma, befitting his notorious disposition, and somehow managed to make the huge location of the Harbourflap main stage feel like an intimate campfire. He can make a song about having a flip-phone titled "This Is My First Day and I'm Indian and I Work at a Gas Station" so intriguing.
Bo Ningen was a surprise, even though I knew how frenzied their live shows can be. What struck me was how spiritual it felt — their performance was one of transcendence, and also still being "in-the-moment" that encapsulates a great rock show, complete with hypnotic motorik moments that were subsided by these wild freakouts that didn't seem insular. It was completely punk rock man.
D: Like what Jeremy said, “No one does weird as great as the Japanese”. Think that’s fairly accurate. And the singer's bass face!!
DP: Yes! He reminded me of Wish I could've seen Mogwai again, have nothing but great memories of their set at Hostess.
D: I unfortunately missed Mogwai to be at Chic but haha, not sure if Jeremy wants to share this but Barry Burns of Mogwai has a photo of him in his phone for all but the weirdest reasons. Explanations, Jeremy?
J: So after our video interview with him and Stuart from Mogwai, I went to them and asked for a photograph, when Barry suddenly said to me, "Hey, I have to take a picture of you, because you look exactly like my friend back in Scotland." I learnt two awesome things that day — apparently I can pass off as a Scottish dude (accent notwithstanding), and somewhere in Barry Burns' phone is a picture of my face.
Jeremy with Barry and Stuart of Mogwai.
D: I thought another great set for me was Damien Rice. The first half of the set had a very sit-down loungey mood going around. He had the simplest of gear onstage, looping pedals, a guitar and a singular spotlight on him. Nothing to scream and shout about, dressing-wise. But for the last song, he invited two fans onstage to join him for drinks in a make-shift bar setting in ‘Cheers Darlin’ It was cool lah, they chugged like one and a half bottle of wine in the span of a six minute song.
I thought it wasn’t going to end well, you know, asians being asians. At the end of it, he made sure to mention how the next bit of their night was going to be exceptionally wonderful. Don’t need wine to tell them that.
J: Yeah, Damien Rice kinda felt like the antithesis of that entire maximalist spectacle, and shows how one guy with a guitar on an empty stage is sometimes enough to command the attention of thousands. No frills, no filler, just telling stories. Viet Cong for me was a pleasant surprise; dug their sound though I thought their whole name controversy ended up becoming bigger than their music, to be honest.
D: I feel the same. I always struggle with being the better man and enjoying music for what it is, ever since they came out with that band name, it is hard to put these thoughts aside. Think about it, if they ever or could ever play at Vietnam, the poster would say something like Viet Cong is coming tomorrow. How would people pay 15 bucks to hear that?
The music was solid though and they really seem like top guys. It is just sad that they gave a half-hearted apology and shelved off a name-change for the longest time. Music was solid despite the sketchy mixing, I don’t think they could have had a better set. So what was your #1 set at Clockenflap, Dan?
DP: Best set definitely has to go to Flying Lotus, always been an admirer of the man's work for a while now, and he definitely did his music justice with an extraordinary visual show. Everything was on point — the lights, the sound, the stage set-up. It was exhilarating and I couldn't have asked for a better show. Maybe if Kendrick Lamar made an appearance. Also, the memory of me not bringing a marker to get my LP signed will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I must say that I can't wait to see Battles again because their set at Clockenflap floored me — absolute energy non-stop for almost an hour. Of course, I was slightly drunk by then but I had so much fun just watching the trio powering their way through a set, which had them playing about five songs in, back to back, without saying a word. Their songs translate live a lot better than I thought they would,
But of course, other acts that I had lots of fun watching — and dancing to — were A$AP Rocky, whose great stage presence and eye-catching set design made up for the startling lack of classic songs, RIDE, Neon Indian, Angel Haze, Future Brown, Justin Martin and Swervedriver.
D: Was the RIDE reunion what you’d hoped it be? I thought this reunion kept a lot of their old fans happy, people who have been following them twenty odd years ago made the bulk of the crowd, there were no smartphones in the air for a change! It was like going back in time for me. I was not acquainted with their music, seeing the energy at hand really made me wished I knew more of their songs. But I find the viability of RIDE releasing a new record and surviving on that album tour is still very low for me.
DP: Oh definitely. If we're talking about shoegaze reunions, I think they sounded even better than their records, compared to Slowdive, who already did a great show here last year.
D: Did you manage to catch CHIC + Nile Rodgers at Clockenflap? I was absolutely floored by Nile Rodger's tact. He looks like he has a brick for a personality on face value, but he was extremely polite. I saw him actually talking to the fans and grabbing selfies when the band had some tech issues with the sound. What a man.
DP: Disappointments were definitely Ratatat and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart though, the former because their songs started to sound the same — this, of course, coming from a casual fan haha, and the latter because their new direction causes a weird glossy whitewashing of their past songs.
J: I agree with you on Ratatat. It was a fresh take with the harmonising guitars and classic rock homage, which was charming… for the first few tracks. After a while, it felt like two guys playing guitar heroes to a backing track.
D: I actually thought Ratatat made their set at Neon Lights really count. They were closing the Neon Garden stage for the last night so I assumed they were in a jubilant mood. The crowd were digging into their stuff. Fair enough, there is only a limited number of things you could do for a band that consists only of two guitar-wielding members, they were slightly awkward onstage shelling out their thanks and keeping audience participation to a minimal. I was always expecting for something a bit more to happen, like fireworks sprouting from the tip of their guitars or lit up guitars in the dark. Music-wise I still found it entertaining and even gave my good o’ robot moves a little polishing.
I was always expecting for something a bit more to happen, like fireworks sprouting from the tip of their guitars or lit up guitars in the dark. Music-wise I still found it entertaining and even gave my good o’ robot moves a little polishing.
One act that I was really disappointed with was Daughter. The set felt drab and monotonous. I have been a fan of theirs for a while so I’m acquainted with the way their set would go. Unpopular opinion but there just wasn’t any highlights in their set nor was there any real stage presence or connection between band and audience. It felt intimate if you’re comparing it to their set at Laneway because of the lesser crowd and people talking mid-show, but I thought I wouldn’t have missed out on much If I had just skipped the show and searched for their hashtag on Instagram. There’s like 20 odd videos of ‘Youth’ on there. No joke.
DP: Any interesting things that you saw at the festival?
D: During Ride I saw a mother of a baby in a pram who decided enough is enough after 30 minutes of ride at volume 11. Thoughtful parent. The baby's eyes were closed, he/she might've been dead, who knows?
DP: It’s shoegaze, what did she expect?
VERDICT: While Clockenflap has certainly solidified themselves as one of the biggest — and incredibly well-curated — festivals in Asia, we feel Neon Lights has the chance to rise among ranks as an all-encompassing, family-friendly festival experience in Singapore.
The sheer amount of acts that played at Neon Lights was stunning and this could be the perfect closer to each year, as many of us await for Laneway or the F1 concerts every time for a multi-act spectacle. On the other hand, as our editor Daniel can attest to, make sure you pay Clockenflap a visit at least once. But as music lovers in Asia, we all win either way.