Three years ago, I went to Gothenburg, Sweden to cover the Way Out West festival for Pitchfork. I loved it. Part of that was my own stuff: When you haven’t been out of the country since you were a kid, simply walking down a European street feels like wandering into a Bourne movie, and even the license-plate shapes feel exotic and new. And when you’re an English-speaking foreigner in a country where everyone speaks English, you suddenly become at least 25% more interesting; I can’t remember the last time I had that many fun, long, interesting conversations with complete strangers. But that’s only part of it. Most of it is that Way Out West is a great festival: Not huge but not small, well-organized, well-formatted, programmed with a populist’s heart but with a discerning ear as well, conveniently located in the middle of a beautiful city. By all accounts, the festival’s gotten even better since I visited. A year after I went, Kanye West briefly joined Prince onstage, and I felt like an absolute asshole for not being there, even though it wasn’t anything more than a tiny cameo. Next week, I’m going back, and I can’t wait.
In a lot of ways, Way Out West works like the Pitchfork Music Festival; it’s just as urban and smartly programmed, and it tends to get acts of roughly the same size. It’s user-friendly in the same ways, too, with just three stages, generally scheduled so you don’t have to make too many agonizing decisions. But it’s Europe, so the festival goes later, too, and then it takes over a bunch of the clubs in town, with shows from smaller bands, giving the whole thing a mini-SXSW feel. There’s also a small film festival this year; it’ll be where Before Midnight, for instance, gets its Swedish premiere. This year’s festival goes three days, and it has three headliners who couldn’t possibly be more different: Neil Young & Crazy Horse, the Knife, and Alicia Keys. (Neil Young and the Knife, at least, have both made intentionally audience-alienating electro albums, but then Alicia Keys hasn’t done an intentionally audience-alienating thing in her life.) But all three should put on good shows, and I’m excited to see all of them.
Plenty of the bands on the bill are mainstays on the American festival circuit, and most of them are worth catching: Grimes, Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Cat Power, Beach House, Bat For Lashes, the Roots, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. A few others, like Miguel and Rodriguez, are familiar names who don’t tend to go too heavy at the festivals, which makes them a bit more exciting. But the real reasons to get excited are the things I couldn’t really see last home. I’ve seen Disclosure at SXSW, but I haven’t seen them in Europe, at night, in front of a seriously appreciative audience. Way Out West also has Giorgio Moroder DJing in the middle of the day. It has the Knife, who haven’t played an American show in forever. GOAT, the freaky Swedish psych-rock collective, released a really great album called World Music last year, and they’ve only played a handful of American shows. The Stay Out West schedule has Pissed Jeans and Factory Floor and Mikal Cronin and Austra, all great, but it also has Ingrid, a kinda-mysterious Swedish pop collective that includes Lykke Li and members of Peter, Bjorn & John and Miike Snow, throwing an hours-long warehouse party.
And then there are the discoveries. The biggest star of the 2010 festival was Håkan Hellström, a Gothenburg singer-songwriter who sang energetic indie-pop songs in Swedish, while wearing a sailor suit, fronting a band of dudes in matching sailor suits. People loved this guy. They lost their shit. It was amazing. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a huge crowd go buckshit the way they did for Hellström. When I said that I’d never heard of him, strangers looked at my like I was crazy, and one guy helpfully explained that Hellström is “the Swedish Johnny Cash.” (And pronounced Johnny as Yanni, it was awesome.) Later on, when I was asking people what was up with the sailor suits, some girl said, “The two main components of Swedish pop are structure and sailors.” That’s a verbatim quote, I promise. I liked Hellström’s music just fine, but it was nothing compared to the giddy spectacle of his crowd reaction. Hellström will be back this year, and I’m hoping to see the same level of hysteria. And there’s a ton of other stuff I’ve never heard of, Swedish groups with names I can’t pronounce who could turn out to be terrible or amazing. I’ll let you know.
If you’re reading this and you didn’t already know about Way Out West, I don’t know what I could do to convince you to go. You probably can’t. But maybe you’re crazy rich? Maybe you’re an American ex-pat living in Copenhagen or something? I don’t know. Europe has a lot of amazing festivals; Øya, happening the same weekend in nearby Oslo, also looks badass. But Way Out West will be great. You should go. And if you’re going, I’ll see you there.