Let’s be clear: Austin, Texas doesn’t need another music festival. In a year bookended in the spring by South By Southwest and Austin City Limits in the fall, throwing another three-day marathon of bands and visitors trampling the landscape just to see those bands seems superfluous, if not outright greedy. And yet, in the years since its humble, single-day beginnings in 2006, Fun Fun Fun Fest has become arguably the city’s most vital and all around enjoyable festival, maintaining a purity of spirit best embodied by this year’s breakout star, the taco cannon. Aside from being pleasingly self-descriptive (it is, indeed, a cannon that fires tacos), the taco cannon symbolizes all that Fun Fun Fun is: It’s a seemingly dumb idea, much like putting on yet another music festival in Austin, that is every bit as awesome as it is impractical. It delivers things its audience craves at high speed—way too fast to take all of it in. It makes more sense when you’re drunk, and so on.
Its presence also tells you exactly where its organizers’ heads are at, as Transmission Entertainment orchestrates the festival not according to any sense of logistics, but according to its own crazy whims. Theirs is a world where a huge BMX/skateboarding park, a wrestling ring, and a mechanical bull are given equal prominence amid the main stages. In here, Turbonegro is considered a headlining closer, and everyone gets really psyched about it. And if you’re in the right place at the right time, you can watch Val Kilmer wielding a chainsaw. Here are some other fun (and sort of fun, and not as fun) things The A.V. Club experienced when we spent three days along Auditorium Shores.
Fun: Witnessing a live yet very gentle “battle” rap competition between two brave but only relatively talented white kids in Friday’s early hours, one that ended in a contest to see which one could freestyle the best verse about how nice his opponent was.
Sort of fun: Watching rock ’n’ roll vampires Dum Dum Girls ply their surf-goth while visibly melting in the midday sun, then waiting for them to explode like in Near Dark.
Fun: Spying a girl in a full-body penguin costume pogo-ing to galvanizing Austin punk-pop group The Riverboat Gamblers. Considering asking whether she is there to see Penguin Prison later. Deciding some things are better left a mystery.
Fun, then immediately kind of disturbing: Seeing a guy in a squirrel mask, shortly thereafter, then imagining if he and Penguin Girl mated.
Fun: Admiring the impenetrability of the bleached-blond quiff on the head of Diamond Rings’ John O’Regan—a resiliency that matches O’Regan’s attitude, as he throws his choreographed, makeup-smeared, spiked-black-leather-vest all into his flamboyant dance-pop songs. The whole set is like walking in on your brother singing Lady Gaga into the bathroom mirror.
Uncomfortably fun: Watching rising Austin comic Chris Cubas be forced to follow a championship round of Air Sex that involved one contestant pretending to be a farmer blowing his horse, a girl who (jokingly?) proclaimed she’d starred in such porn films as Rock ’N’ Roll In My Butthole, and winner Weenie Dodo pouring champagne down his ample naked belly while miming autoerotic asphyxiation. (To his credit, Cubas still had a killer set.)
Fun: Seeing touring comics do stuff they wouldn’t normally do, probably. Jon Benjamin did an extended improv scene with touring partner Nathan Fielder, based on an audience member’s banal description of her day—one that ended with her being surprised by an uncle who’d raped her. After that, Hannibal Buress played clips from hip-hop artists like 2 Chainz and scrutinized their lyrics, all culminating in a trenchant analysis of UGK’s “Pregnant Pussy.”
On Saturday, both Wyatt Cenac and David Cross had obviously fresh riffs about Hurricane Sandy (which Cross said destroyed his car), while Cross also had an anecdote about deliberately fucking up a set by fest headliner Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros (or “Johnny Pants And The Magic Beans”) by repeatedly cranking up their fog machine. Sunday, Eugene Mirman screened some rare scenes from his sadly rejected Comedy Central pilot Eugene—an SCTV-like spoof network that’s home to shows like Happy Cop, Sad Cop and My 25-Ft. Daughter—that he said he isn’t able to release anywhere else. And it’s possible not even Doug Benson knows what he did, as his was an exceptionally loose set full of funny, if occasionally meandering tangents through the haze of a tent that became a hotbox before he ever stepped onstage. Benson rightly warned the crowd up front that a festival with so many people blowing smoke in his face and so much crazy stuff going on is a bad place for “an easily distracted stoner.”
Fun but confusing: The guy who was dressed as some sort of Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Man at Doug Benson’s set—or as Benson called him, “Hey there, possible box of fries.” Asked why he was dressed that way, his friends called out, “It’s his birthday!” Again, there was a lot of pot in the air.
Fun but somehow even more confusing than that: Val Kilmer “crashing” a “special performance” by The Black Lips, one that was expressly orchestrated for the purposes of the movie Terrence Malick has been filming for over a year now. Last time Malick was at Fun Fun Fun, he captured Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara having intense conversations and making out on the side of the stage. This year he had Mara (as she did at ACL) pretend to play in the Lips, then sent Kilmer in to break up their set by acting like a deranged, faded rock star—one who sounded an awful lot like Val Kilmer, considering he kept asking the crowd if they wanted to hear some Doors songs, then screaming back, “Well, you’re 20 years too late!” Add in the fact that Kilmer shrugged off multiple bras thrown his way (presumably by stagehands), used a Taser on the drummer, wielded a chainsaw, then finished by hacking off his own hair with a Bowie knife—all while Malick and Michael Fassbender laughed from the side of the stage—and there’s really no telling what this movie is about now.
Not as fun as it was last year: As goes Malick, so goes The Hunt for Ryan Gosling, who’s quickly becoming the festival’s unofficial mascot—or maybe even official, considering the “I’m With Gosling—->” underwear available at, and eventually sold out from, the merch table. And yet, there seemed to be a hint of nonchalance, a palpable growing ennui in this year’s Gosling sightings, which are no longer a novelty. (Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, caused plenty of people to lose their shit.)
Fun in a very familiar way: Friday offered near back-to-back time warps, with X agelessly rocketing through all of Los Angeles before a pack of favorites like “The Hungry Wolf,” Bob Mould tearing through all of Copper Blue to close with Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising,” then Mould’s touring drummer Jon Wurster rejoining Superchunk (while Mould watched backstage) on a set overflowing with classics like “Driveway To Driveway,” “Hyper Enough,” “Slack Motherfucker,” and “Throwing Things.” And to close out the night, the ’80s came roaring back with the much-anticipated return of Run DMC, who played non-stop old-school hits like “It’s Tricky,” “My Adidas,” “King Of Rock,” and “Walk This Way” for the festival’s biggest, loudest audience.
Not quite as fun: Knowing that the reason Run DMC doesn’t do this more often is because one of them is gone—an elephant in the park that was made explicit with a 15-minute tribute to the late Jam Master Jay that saw his two kids filling in for him on the turntables.
Definitely not fun: The abrupt end to Run DMC’s set, which stopped without warning nearly half an hour before it was scheduled to, and was followed by an “encore” in which Rev Run and DMC reemerged for a photo op, then scuttled off to get paid and get gone.
Sort of fun in a not-as-familiar way: Watching a Public Image Ltd. set that sounded surprisingly spry for how leaden John Lydon looked. Still, Lydon is more goofball than firebrand these days—as his donning of a giant cowboy hat and mocking, waddling dance moves confirmed—and with nary a comment to the audience aside from a stray, “Let’s get on with it,” there was a sense he was just plowing through this to get to his paycheck. It wasn’t exactly an “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” moment (the powerful versions of “Death Disco” and “Chant” made sure of that), but it was a disappointingly decent, workmanlike set that could have used a touch of nasty behavior or even personality, especially considering who we’re talking about.
Fun in a surprisingly heartwarming way: Getting Swedish hardcore vets Refused to stretch out their reunion for one more Texas show provoked a lot of unexpectedly sentimental reactions from fans of such an aggressive band (except from those on the sidelines who were still vocally pissed they stole so much from The Nation Of Ulysses). But even if you can’t imagine tearing up at the opening notes of “Liberation Frequency” or “New Noise,” you’d have to be a heartless bastard not to get a little stirred at the sight of an 11-year-old boy screaming all the words to songs by a band he probably never thought he’d see.
Fun in an unsurprisingly gross way: Danny Brown: another festival, another set almost entirely about eating pussy. Still, you’d have to be a heartless bastard not to get a little stirred at the sight of an 11-year-old boy… (just kidding).
Late-night fun: Heavily buzzed darkwave group Trust plying their sinister synth-pop at an after-show at Elysium, Austin’s home of goth and ’80s dance nights—a fitting locale, considering Trust’s music combines both of those. The group made the most of the extra hour afforded by Daylight Savings Time, forcing the old-school goths, frattish college types, and record nerds in attendance to wait until well after 1 a.m. before finally emerging. But they absolutely owned a time slot far more suited to them than their scheduled Sunday 4 p.m. showing at the festival.
More fun than you’d think: Watching AraabMuzik blast out his dizzying, hip-hop-based instrumentals by rapidly flicking his hands back and forth across his MPC drum machine. It was a display of dexterity that elevated using a sampler to playing an actual instrument.
Probably fun for a few dozen people: Having Damian Abraham from Fucked Up jump down into the crowd for the band’s set definitely speaks to the camaraderie of the group’s barking hardcore. But for the people who aren’t right up front, we’re just left wondering where the hell the singer is the whole time.
Not as fun as it could have been: This year’s Danzig Award For Being A Huge Prima Donna goes to De La Soul, who started their set way later than they were supposed to, then devoted the first half to bitching out the sound engineers from the stage, while also stopping songs and refusing to perform until people put their cameras away (including the professional photographers in the press pit). When Plug 1 and Plug 2 decided the conditions were optimum and that they were being given the appropriate respect they deserved to, you know, rap about positivity, they managed some real party-starters like “Oooh!” and (ironically) “Ego Trippin’,” but it’s hard to party with poopers.
Not fun at all, really: Watching Atlas Sound’s set completely fall apart, as Bradford Cox struggled with technical issues from the very beginning, then only became more overwhelmed as the hour wore on. Constantly retuning, stumbling over even three-chord numbers like “Shelia,” and clearly nervous, Cox took to babbling in between songs about his dad’s new bulldog and his plans to form a Ramones cover band. By the time he got around to closer “Parallax”—preceded by a buzzkill of a tribute to Broadcast’s late singer Trish Keenan, who’d joined Cox’s set at his last, much better Fun Fun Fun performance—the mood was irreversibly uncomfortable, made even more so by Cox declaring that it would be the last Atlas Sound show “for a while.” As he left the stage, Cox waved, “See you in a few years,” and whether he meant it or not, it certainly seemed like he could use a break.
Fun thing that almost made up entirely for this Sunday night fizzle: Spying a man with Matthew McConaughey’s face tattooed on his calf, right above the slogan, “JUST KEEP LIVIN’” as we filed out.
Photo credits: Diamond Rings and Val Kilmer by Pooneh Ghana; Bob Mould and PiL by Chad Wadsworth; Run DMC by Dave Mead; David Cross by Jessop Kozink; Refused by Dagny Piaseki