Beneath Copenhagen's elegant exterior lies a thriving DIY hardcore and punk scene, a tight network of grimy carparks, basement venues and trashy bars. It's a scene that's birthed cult bands like Iceage, Lower, Lust For Youth and Synd og Skam. For the past 16 years, Distortion has celebrated this dichotomy, turning the city's streets into a mass squat rave for a few days each summer. The current appeal of the festival is obvious: the city's underground is in rude health, so why not bring it above ground once a year?
I missed the first day of the festival's 2013 edition, which included a street party in central Copenhagen and Jeff Mills' performance at the Culture Box. Early Thursday evening, a crowd of around 150 people were crowded around the ticket collection area, not just to buy tickets, but to dance around one of the many bicycle-led soundsystems that roam the streets during the festival. The party slowly shifted to a nearby car park for a Phantasy Sound showcase. Here, Daniel Avery, Mickey Moonlight and Erol Alkan, the latter sporting a Daft Punk tee, all made the most of the oversized speakers. (During Avery's set, a grey-haired man jumped from the stage and started crowd surfing—I later learned this was Distortion's founder, Thomas Fleurquin). Across town, RBMA took over the Pumpehuset venue. By the time I'd arrived the crowd had thinned out, with Brooklyn duo Light Asylum offering those left a memorable peek into their noir-ish brand of synth pop.
Photo credit: Christian Olofsson
On Friday the festival relocated to Refshaleøen, a harbour area on the outskirts of the city. A sea of parked bikes and spray-painted signs marked the way; sails and masts hovered in the air from an unseen marina, while revellers made their way through weedy grassland toward a distant throb of music. The grass soon opened out onto a post-industrial playground of assorted buildings. People lounged in doorways, on dumpsters, on top of buildings, out of windows. At the main festival area, one stage was made of camouflage netting and shipping containers, while another blasted Middle Eastern music from the back of a bus to a small crowd of hippies lounging in a haze of weed smoke. Down by the water, young Danish skaters made use of a floating ramp, while a soundsystem blared from a nearby fishing boat. Dubstep remixes of "Macarena" and "Where's Your Head At" could be heard wafting out of one outdoor stage, while others opted for middling disco-house or Notorious B.I.G. It wasn't a day for musical snobbery—the weather was great and the atmosphere was friendly—but it was hard not to crave some adventurous music to match the location.
The festivities returned to the harbour on Saturday for Distortion's final party. For the second day running there was a huge crowd—organisers expected 15,000, but 50,000 showed up. When an explosion lit the evening sky, it felt like a scene from Mad Max; appropriately enough, a huge banner reading "Welcome To The Jungle" greeted partygoers on their way into the main arena. Inside, the Circus Tent had the feeling of a clandestine afterhours party. Dancers sporadically invaded the stage, and security seemed unsure whether to let them dance or force them off. Svengalishghost's raw, pounding house has a punkish feel throughout, and was perfect for the surroundings: wild, untamed and on the verge of chaos. XOSAR played her live set at floor level hunched over her three Electribe samplers, rewarding those in the crowd with an energetic performance.
Photo credit: Christian Olofsson
Over in the main arena, a long, white room with high ceilings, Todd Terje and DJ Harvey played. The Trouw crew took over a nearby tent fitted with 161 disco balls, while over in the RBMA room Scratcha DVA tore through an upfront selection of UK tunes. Later, L.I.E.S. chief Ron Morelli was plagued by problems with his decks—the same thing happened earlier in the evening to DJ Harvey and Crème chief TLR.
By the time I clocked the artists I was missing due to timetable conflicts—Tim Sweeney, Pachanga Boys, Zombie Zombie and Kode9 among them—it was hard not to wish some of this quality had been spread more evenly across the four nights. Though it remains an endearingly haphazard celebration of the DIY ethos, the festival seems to be suffering some growing pains as it makes the transition from carefree squat rave to internationally recognised festival. The atmosphere and setting were stunning, but the nuts and bolts—programming, sound problems and the like—were lacking. For the time being Distortion feels kind of stuck between two worlds, which is perhaps part of its charm.