While San Francisco has no shortage of music fests, the artists performing at this weekend's On Land Festival are an especially unusual, esoteric bunch. Over the course of three shows at two venues in two days, 21 artists will perform music from myriad subgenres, including subdued bedroom pop, blissed-out atmospherics, conceptual sound art, and epic soundtracks accompanying projected films.
"This stuff definitely skews to the outer realms of musical taste," says festival co-organizer Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, whose Root Strata label is associated with many of the artists performing On Land shows at Café du Nord and the Swedish American Hall.
Several acts come prepared with devices of their own design. San Franciscan Jim Haynes will be manipulating a variety of elements, including a bell, a large pile of sand, and an autoharp with a hand-cranked grinder. Massachusetts-based Keith Fullerton Whitman plans to perform a composition on handmade synth modules he commissioned others to build. Bay Area musician and filmmaker John Davis will be working with live Super 8 found footage.
The shows will get obstreperous at times: Pete Swanson, formerly of the noise band Yellow Swans, is bringing additional PA equipment for extra loudness. The duo Metal Rouge, from New Zealand by way of Los Angeles, often uses electric and pedal-steel guitars to deliver an unruly, metallic-string clamor evocative of Kiwi compatriots the Dead C. But for every cacophonous outfit, plenty of quieter sounds also line the bills, such as the lulling, looping hypnotics of Portland's Grouper.
Liz Harris, aka Grouper, says to expect a "blurred-together quality" from her set. She'll use handheld cassette units to play back prerecorded instruments and vocals. She's looking forward to seeing the fest's panoply of artists, including Operative, electronic musician Scott Goodwin's "multimedia cadre" exploring the structures of techno with a live drummer.
The idea for On Land germinated a year ago, when Cantu-Ledesma and his fellow Root Strata proprietor Maxwell Croy put out feelers to see whether there'd be interest in a showcase of the artists they work with. The idea blossomed from there. Cantu-Ledesma says the title of the festival has no subtext. "I just happened to be reading a book, and the two words looked nice together," he explains. "And it's the name of a fantastic Eno record."
Cantu-Ledesma is involved in two of the more filmic groups appearing: cinematic Krautrock specialists the Alps, and Tarentel, which provides heady backing music to the films of collaborator Paul Clipson. The latter band was the initial inspiration for the Root Strata label in 2004.
"Tarentel was going to Japan," Cantu-Ledesma explains, "and I just wanted something to sell, so I put out a CD-R." Since then, the label's catalog has grown to some 50-plus releases. The label's most recent output is a double album by Austin's Christina Carter, also of Charalambides. Titled Lace Heart, it offers six tracks of gauzy guitar and wispy vocals on three sides of red vinyl — the fourth features etchings of a drawing by Carter. It's a great example of the attention to aesthetic quality given to all the label's releases.
Ilyas Ahmed released his latest disc of free-range guitar psychedelics, Goner, on Root Strata, and will be playing On Land with an expanded band that includes fellow Portland residents Honey Owens (of Valet and Jackie-O Motherfucker) and Jed Bindeman (who will also play drums in Operative). Ahmed looks forward to the camaraderie of like-minded musicians. "I'm psyched to be able to see a bunch of people I've never seen before," he says. "Hopefully this could be the beginning of a regular event."
Here's hoping On Land lasts through multiple annual anniversaries. San Francisco could use more music festivals promising so many transcendental high points.