Johnny at Jisan: A Review of the Rock Fest
Haps sent comedian Johnny the Greek and photographer Will Jackson to cover the Jisan Valley Rock Festival last weekend. Johnny recounts his rock and roll ride on the peninsula, including an interview with former Smashing Pumpkins’ guitarist James Iwa, as well as how Radiohead let him down.
JISAN VALLEY, South Korea -- Since its inaugural concert in 2009, the Jisan Valley Rock Festival has been growing in stature and popularity, proving to be a hotbed of musical diversity featuring such acts as Weezer, the Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, Oasis, Patti Smith, Suede, Belle & Sebastian, Massive Attack and Kula Shaker.
There’s a strong love for all things Britpop in Korea, which is evident in any record store that’s still standing, but there are a plethora of Korean and Japanese acts who ply their trade at these festivals. Thankfully most of them manage to stand up to their British and North American counterparts.
I’ve put together my take on the most recent festival. You can check out Will Jackson's fantastic photo essay of the talent here.
Day 1: When do the atrocities begin?
This year’s headliners all hailed from England: Radiohead, James Blake and the Stone Roses. Will and I managed to hitch a ride with two friends who drove up to the festival, and after seeing what difficulties some people had taking buses, we couldn’t have been more appreciative.
Ideally, if you want to go, get some people together, rent a car and pool the costs, because any bus from Busan drops you off at Icheon Bus Terminal, which is still 30 or 40 minutes away from the festival site itself, which is somewhat galling if, like us, you’re carrying camping equipment. It didn’t look to be much of a problem for a Scottish fella we met who looked like he was carrying nothing but his kit and a kilt—and he had a creepy propensity for flashing both.
The camping layout was a bit problematic—the festival had set up a lot of tents to be rented on the flat ground, so much of the open space was on the incline of the mountain. Anybody with vertigo would have been better off finding a stray patch of level ground.
Additionally, no stalls actually accepted cash; instead, you had to line up to buy a glorified “My Bi” card at the beginning and charge it with money, something I think most festivals should do in the future.
Bathrooms were cleaned fairly regularly, and the layout of the concert stages was very well done. My friend Neil would agree for the most part, but he took the time to note, “In the future, could somebody at this festival please make sure the tents are not directly above the stage where Downhell (a thrash metal band) is playing at 3:00 a.m.?”
Interviewing James Iha
As we were set about the business of covering the fest for Haps, we managed to snag an interview with ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist/songwriter James Iha (coming soon), who was touring his second LP Look To The Sky. Unlike the mostly hard-edged sound you’d expect from the Pumpkins, his solo stuff is more along the lines of Mojave 3 and the quiet bits from Placebo, which is a pleasant surprise.
I was curious what questions I could get away with, having been told by a festival liaison not to ask questions about Billy Corgan (Google their feud; it seems James has taken the high road and let Corgan slag him continually over the years since they’ve split without responding), but I had already done my homework. (Sorry for the teaser, folks, but you’ll have to wait to read it next week.)
Following the interview, we met a few of our friends who were transfixed by Deul Guk Hwa, a somewhat legendary Korean rock band. (Think Anvil in business suits.) Grizzled old frontman Jeon In-kwon has an undeniable charisma and sounds pretty good considering he’s pushing 70. They seem to specialize in slightly fuzz-toned ballads and the crowd really dig it.
After Deul Guk Hwa, we got back to the main stage just in time to take some Godhead photos of Elvis Costello and the Imposters; the cool old git is wearing a four-piece suit in 30 degree heat! The poor stiff responsible for drycleaning that suit after the show couldn’t possibly be alive today; we’re talking bestiality body odor, people. But the man's a true professional, rocking the mic like he’s still that svelte “This Year’s Model” singer from over 30 years ago, and he plays all the hits (this is a crucial point when discussing the next band). It's pretty extraordinary.
Radiohead Let Down
We took a quick food break then made it back to the main stage to watch Radiohead, and, sure enough, they drew the biggest crowd at the festival and it was almost impossible to get anywhere near the front.
I will be the first to tell you that the band was not my cup of tea that night; far too self-indulgent with their newer material and very reticent to play their hits. A die-hard fan might not complain, but if I paid good money to see James Brown and he didn’t play “Sex Machine” or “Cold Sweat”, I’d be pissed. They play with a lot of energy and with enviable chops, switching off instruments at various points during the night, and they go way past their 90 minute scheduled set list—the crowd certainly eats it up.
The look on Will’s face said, “You can play circles around anybody, and you’re a serious rock band with a career past OK Computer, I get it; now play something off The Bends and Pablo Honey, you jerk-offs.”
Day 2: Beers Are Not Enough
Saturday’s line up promised to be a mixed bag—a lot of Korean acts and a headliner called James Blake whom most people had never heard of. The fest is divided up into several stages for various acts, we avoided the Red Stage like the plague, as it featured mostly DJs and a bunch of scrubs starting at midnight and ending at four in the morning. It's a decent idea if you're needing to wind down after the headliners are done, but not such a good idea if you're knackered and want get back to your tent to sleep.
Apollo 18 is a three-piece Korean metal band that knows how to rock out, and they are no posers. I have an unabashed love for any hardcore group from this country because they have zero chance of becoming superstars in Korea’s K-pop wasteland, but they go for it anyway. The pictures I took wouldn’t look out of place in a 1988 episode of MTV Headbangers Ball, but the execution and intensity are dead on.
Next up for us was a Japanese band called Spyair. Think a low-rent Limp Bizkit, only calculated to appeal to every single girl in Asia. They had the punk-rock joker (who did nothing but stash the microphone between his crotch kiwis and try to work the crowd up), the pretty boy singer, the Marilyn Manson-esque bass player, the skateboard trash guitarist, and the frat boy drummer, whose every strand of hair stood perfectly coiffed and accounted for. It was wank-cum-pop-punk for teenyboppers; no more, no less.
Next up was Motion City Soundtrack, a band whose core duo, Justin Pierre and Joshua Cain, hail from Minnesota. They’re a very crisp power-pop band who get compared (very aptly, in my opinion) to Weezer and Ben Folds Five under the heading “emo rock”.
At 37 years of age, I’ve heard it all before by bands who did it first and better, but I have to give them respect for their earnest delivery and their conviction to put on a good show—despite the fact that their sound check was a bit problematic. I got to interview Pierre after the gig (again, a full interview for Haps coming soon) and the guy was more nervous than Flavor Flav at a KKK rally, but he answered my questions without a shred of attitude, so he’s okay in my book.
Next, we headed over to the Green Stage to check out Owl City, who completely blew us off for an interview. (Which is odd considering the guy's manager was quoted in an interview as saying, "People feel like they know him, like they've got a direct connection to him because of how he approaches his connection with them online".) Will catches the look on my face after the first number we hear and starts laughing as I make the "jerk-off" gesture. Owl City’s music is electronica-lite with a good chunk of Christian faith lyrics. His act is tailor-made for Korea, however, and the assembled throng just laps it all up. I still think Stryper would have fared much better.
Not long after enduring the Owl City set, we get back to the main stage just in time to see UK wunderkind James Blake. I last about three songs before I bail, and there's a steady stream of people following me. I honestly didn’t know who he was before arriving, and after hearing him, I couldn’t leave fast enough. Apparently he’s some big name in this loathsome musical genre known as “dubstep”, which, in my opinion, is thoroughly un-listenable if you’re sober or have an IQ higher than your shoe size. To quote my friend Peter: “Don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re a painter just because you shoot a load onto a canvas.” Amen.
Day 3: Deodorant is No
At this point I am operating on zero sleep, and the band I really came to see, the Stone Roses, wasn’t on for another 11 hours. I’m not a Red Bull guy, I live drug free and I hate coffee. Solution? Jjimjilbang!
Nothing better for your alcohol-fueled, sleep-deprived, wrong-side-of-30, overweight, dehydrated body than a sauna, right? Will, being the more professional of the two of us, wakes up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enough to check out Los Lonely Boys at 6:30 p.m., a Texan outfit that start their set on the Green Stage performing in front of a mere 50 people, but by the end of their set the size of the audience grows considerably.
Next is a tour-de-force by Yellow Monsters, a Korean three-piece punk band whose latest album is brilliantly titled We Eat Your Dog. I get back in time from the sauna to watch the Korean band Nell, who clearly have spent as much money on guitar lessons as they have hair products, and their set starts real slow. Painfully slow. Ballad-euh slow, in fact.
Will summed it well: “You’d think they’d pull out their Van Halen stuff right off the bat, wouldn’t you?” Eventually they do, and the crowd goes nuts.
Following them are the remnants of Oasis, Beady Eye, who receive a very warm welcome, but whose energy runs dry after the first few songs; could it be the heat They’re only getting by on the Oasis legacy; the sound is ragged, and you can tell they’re just going through the numbers. While watching them I am reminded how much I’d like to launch a full Heineken at Liam Gallagher’s head to repay him for all that Oasis had done for music, so I leave before the urge overwhelms me—a Cass tallboy would have been more economical.
At dusk we headed on over to the Green Stage for its final act, Jang Pil-soon, a woman who is something of a nostalgia act in Korea. Strangely, I am actually in awe of her. She’s a handsome woman with a husky Kim Carnes-type delivery, and even though the material is heavy on the ballads, she really hits the high notes effortlessly. Soul: You either got it or you don’t.
Everybody knows the words; everybody sings along. A graying Ian Brown never stops bopping and shaking for 90 minutes. Reni’s tight as hell. Mani looks like hell, having seemingly aged at twice the speed as the other three over the past 20 years, but offers an equally tight bassline. The fathers of “Madchester” and “Britpop” steam through a jigsaw puzzle of anthemic ditties from both of their two studio albums, though it’s clear that songs off their debut LP are the ones getting the most feedback. My buddy Neil gets photos of Liam Gallagher dancing offstage by himself during their set, so clearly they're doing something right.
They close out with killer versions of “This Is The One”, “Made Of Stone”, “Waterfall”, “She Bangs The Drums” and, finally, “I Am The Resurrection”, which sends us all home on a natural high. No encore, and really with a set like that, they didn’t need one.
Another year, another successful festival in the bag. Just three days in the life of 100,000 people who were rocked afresh on a very green and sunny ski resort in the dead of summer. See you on the next one, folks!
Photos by Johnny the Greek—who you can see performing regularly at The Ha-Ha Hole.
You can check out Will Jackson’s photo essay here.
Read more from Johnny the Greek