Live: For Festival in Hvar, Croatia

July 01, 2013

Three days in Mediterranean Music Paradise

The first night I was in Croatia I ate a lot of lamb with my hands. I’d never seen that much lamb. A restaurant up on a big hill spitfires it twice a week and we got two big platters, stacks and stacks of meat on big bones. A few weeks earlier, in New York City, I’d ordered lamb for dinner. It was delicious there, as it was in Croatia, but it was dainty, three little cuts on a plate. It cost about 30 dollars. I have no idea how much the Croatian lamb cost because the money comes in bright colors and I never got good at the conversion rate. That’s how you know you’re on vacation.

Well, sort of. I was in Hvar, Croatia for the first annual For Festival, a three-day assortment of bands and DJs across two venues on one big island and one small island. Organized by Modular Records, it featured a number of acts from their label—Tame Impala, Canyons—along with a handful of artists whose vibe goes over well in the Mediterranean. Which is to say everyone. Hvar is a large island on the western coast of Croatia, a two-hour ferry ride from Split. It’s almost comically beautiful, with emerald water and ancient stone churches, houses with reddish pink rooftops and giant yachts docked everywhere. Who knew Croatia was so gorgeous? Before I left, I read a magazine story that referenced the country as some European backwater. Many people looked at me puzzlingly—“You’re going to Croatia?” The country could use some better PR in the US. Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, onstage on Sunday night, halfway through a set of uplifting bummer jams, paused to say, “Feel free to get down, boogie, do whatever you want. We're on some Croatian island, who gives a shit?” Beats Coachella.

The first afternoon of the festival may have been the best, if simply because the first day of a trip is always the best—there are the most days left until you have go home. Carpe Diem is an outdoor club located on the smaller of the two islands, a quick boat ride away from the main port in Hvar Town. There are two DJ booths set up, one for day and one for night. The daytime one, where that afternoon I saw Croatian duo Symbolone and Australian duo Canyons play, faces directly onto the beach. Canyons have kooky, eclectic taste and they played loose tunes, things with a disco jangle or a peppy strum. Symbolone was much more distinctly house, which went over well, but I just drank a beer on a bench while they played. It was hot out and no one was dancing; they were either swimming, or horizontal, or bent over in a funny way to reach the open end of a long straw in a tropical drink. Pounding house music is good, but maybe not for the afternoon on the beach, but hey, I’m not from the beach. To me, relaxation jams are the ones built for the afternoon and Canyons made me want to get in the water. So I did. It’s possible you have not heard an excellent DJ set unless you have heard one while swimming in the Mediterranean. That night, I ate dinner in a restaurant with a big terrace overlooking an orange tree. A week removed, this whole thing seems like a joke.

After dinner, the festival continued on Hvar, at Veneranda (which looks and sounds like a typo for the word “veranda"). It’s an interesting club, somewhere between straight rave spot and suburban band shell, along with a weird, semi-dirty pool that no one swam in right in front of the stage. There are random ruins scattered around and there is an ancient church that houses techno afterparties. It would be an excellent place to sacrifice babies and/or host a Euro version of So You Think You Can Dance?. I was late to see Solange due to extreme chilling at the orange tree spot, but rolled up in time to catch Kate Boy, the new Swedish pop phenoms. They were all wrapped in black fabric that looked curiously like teffilin. “We’ve met a lot of Aussies and Swedes,” the singer, who is both, said. She was pleased. The music reflected it with a light bounce and easy swagger. It was a good warm up for Nicolas Jaar, who performed a solo set of extremely crunchy drums, along with some mild tinkering and sampled sax solos. It sounded fairly UK, with a floating female vocal sample on top, and people were very much feeling the music’s heavy booming. My favorite part of the show though was French artist SoMe DJing and playing Drake and some Jeremih mixtape cuts. He was wearing a Knicks T-shirt. (A few days later I saw him in the Split airport on the way home and dude looked like he was hurting.)

Later that night, I made my way back to Carpe Diem to see Jacques Greene. Earlier I’d bumped into him at the hotel we both stayed at and we chatted for a bit about our shared love of Kelly Rowland’s “Dirty Laundry.” He said R. Kelly had just made a remix. At the show, he played it and just went bananas, almost like was having his wedding but he was also the DJ. It was first the few days of super moon and, ecstatic, he yelled, “Shout out to the moon! I’m putting the moon on the guestlist!” Then I took some shots.

The next day I got up and hit the beach. The beaches there are stone and there is a pretty steady stream of really cute kids on vacation unable to grasp why every step on hot rocks hurt. The crowd at the shore was mostly younger folks, but there were a few folks well into retirement as well. One couple who seemed to be in their early eighties hit the water for a swim. The man help his wife put on flippers. She almost slipped on all the small stones. So he bent over and she held onto his shoulders and he placed one neon green flipper on after the other, like he was fitting her for heels at a shoe shop. Bent in half, I could see his bald crown, caked in goopy sunscreen. She took off before he stood up, started doing the backstroke elegantly. And then he dove in. It was really beautiful. I can’t remember if it was the same day or not, but at that same beach three young women turned their lounge chairs around to face the sun and, subsequently, me. Then two of them took their tops off. This made for a very self conscious hour of book reading and chances are good there are 30 or 35 pages of The Flamethrowers I should probably revisit.

That night, there was a number of Croatian acts at Veneranda that I wish I liked better. The best was How Convinient, a duo of very cool-looking dudes with an assortment of electronic equipment onstage. They played a good if not excellent set of sparkling acid that gave me Knight Rider vibes. I watched a few DJs from the Croatian label Burek play in the ancient chapel after that, too, but I didn’t stay too long because Horse Meat Disco, James Murphy and 2 Many DJs were at Carpe Diem and, honestly, I just wanted to go there. Apparently so did everyone else in Croatia, because that shit was really crowded.

James Murphy has a really soft beard and just a very relaxed manner about him. His set is similar, a lot of light disco. He has a special affection for hand drums and I thought that would be my favorite thing to listen to on a hot night in Croatia, but then 2 Many DJs went on and played a brain-bendingly great set, or at least one that was tailor-made for me. Tyree! A Units remix! Talking Heads! I’d seen 2 Many DJs earlier on the street, wearing linen suits looking like Monocle cover starts, and dudes just have some serious class. During most of the set I was near two guys wearing sparkly ponchos they had zipped up and hooded and, near that duo, one of two British guys in dresses (one with a big afro wig) would occasionally bump into me, too. I went home after four and I was definitely the wimp.

I was trying to turn in early because I’d made plans to rent a small boat. Hvar is next to a fairly large chain of small islands and two friends and I intended to hit the water and explore. Because we were on island time, this did not happen until late in the afternoon. The dude rented us the second slowest one, and after a quick lesson on steering we were cruising. We took a brief detour to one of the more populated islands, Palmizana, which was the only time I saw a dong on the whole trip—some rich dude on his yacht sitting naked in the sun. Navigating a boat amongst many other boats when you do not know how to drive a boat proved too difficult, and we set off again for more deserted waters, eventually finding a small cove, and threw the anchor.

I dove into the ocean which was pretty much the most sublime I have ever felt in my life. I went back in the boat but realized it was very difficult to get back in, as there's no ladder and nothing you can use for a toehold. Fortunately, I do still have some upper body strength, so I succeeded in pulling myself up and basically hoisting myself over the side. No such luck for P, who had jumped in, too. After about ten minutes of trying various ways to shimmy himself up the side, he couldn't get back in. So he schemed to pull the boat to the shore with the tie-off rope in the front (not sure what that's called). He did that, and hopped on at the nose. While doing this, though, he asked me to pull up the anchor so he could maneuver better. I'd never pulled up an anchor before, and had no real concept of how difficult it would be, but this shit was fighting back pretty seriously. I figured if this was some BS boat they rented to any sucker, it couldn't be that bad.

Back on the boat, P discovered that the motor wasn't working. A Castaway joke was bleakly made. We were pretty sure we weren't gonna die on this boat, but we were are officially stuck in the middle of nowhere. After 30 minutes of frustrated attempts to start it up again, we realized we could call the boat rental man who, after some panicking and Croatian side talk told us to flood the motor and pull “like a man” 15 or 20 times. Shit magically started and we were fucking euphoric. At this point, we figured worst case scenario we just untie the anchor and leave it and pay dude however much a new anchor costs. But was juiced now that I knew we had the motor going and figured I’d try to swim down and free it from the rock it was stuck under. P had tried to touch the bottom when he was in the water and couldn't but I figured we had nothing to lose and plus I was going to feel like a baby if I didn't at least try.

So I jumped back in and got to where the rope was directly over the anchor. I grabbed onto it and started swimming down, holding onto the rope. After about ten or so seconds I got so deep the pressure popped my ears in a way I had never felt before. I could see I was close to the bottom but I was like, Fuck this. I came back up for air, which took about 500 years. You know when you jump off some cliff into the water and there is that extra second or two where you are in the middle—like you haven't just jumped and you aren't yet splashing in? Like you are aware you are in the air? This was the extended terror moment version of that. It just took so long to get up to the air. Anyway, the boat had drifted a bit in the waves at this point, so we maneuvered it back around and I decided to try another time. Mentally, I was like, Ok dude, hold your breath, you giant baby. You need to free this anchor. So I swam down again, holding the rope, and this time I made it to the bottom. The pressure was seriously fucked and also I couldn't see because I didn't have my glasses on, but I grabbed the anchor and wriggled it out I think and sent that shit on its way and scrambled to get into the air. And then I climbed into boat again and we went back.

That was the last day. We hit the restaurant with the orange tree again and headed to see Young Dreams, Tame Impala and James Blake at Veneranda. Young Dreams, a Norwegian crew of dudes mostly in shorts, played some extremely pleasant pop music that very much reminded me of the short-lived but beloved Foreign Born, who were similar purveyors of (forgive the word) tropical jams. A nice amuse-bouche for Tame Impala, who really just make incredibly triumphant rock with heavily downer lyrics. But the downer element was less on display on the Croatian island. I know I mentioned Kevin Parker’s disclaimer earlier, but to make a fairly forced metaphor, it’s like if Julian Assange gave you surf lessons. But seeing Parker happy made me happy. There’s really no way to escape “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” being a really depressing concept, but if you didn’t think about it too much, this was the music playing at the NBA finals. I love Tame Impala but they didn’t click for me fully until that night with a thousand international folks in the audience cathartically belting the words of a Perth hermit, globalism in its most benevolent form.

James Blake, in his much groovier form, was the last live act of the night. “It’s an absolutely pleasure to be at this amazing festival” he said into the microphone, and it was such a sweet thing to say, because it was. I don’t have much of an interest in music festivals, as I love music and a gross buffet serving of artists dulls the effect. If I’m going to see music, I like to see music, and if I’m going to be outside, I like to be outside. Music festivals are somehow both and neither. For was the happy medium of both, with actual beaches and actual bands. Even after a particularly brutal, 20-hour slog home, I am still sad to not be in Hvar, which I suppose is the truest mark of a good trip. From afar, I never imagined I’d love Croatia so much, but I’m a visual learner and there was a lot to look at.

1. On a boat, headed to almost shipwreck in the Pakleni Islands
2. Insane dinner at orange tree restaurant
3. Nicolas Jaar and Jacques Greene
4. 2 Many DJs

Live: For Festival in Hvar, Croatia