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The Otherworldly Experience That Was Mona Foma 2018

23 January 2018 | 3:55 pm | Amanda Laver

"A festival that actually allows you to engage on any level you wish to."

Friday, January 19

My MOFO experience aptly starts with a performance of Breadwoman Variations. Here at the Turrell Stage, it's so windy my hair is giving me permanent eye damage and punters are sitting crossed legged, trying to lean into the ground. I figure this is an attempt to both avoid the wind and 'get into the spirit of things', while a woman on stage with fake bread covering her face aggressively does tai chi at us. There is another woman next her vocalising some tribally influenced abstract phrases and a man twiddling knobs off to her right.

A solid start to a MONA FOMA experience and reassuring to know they're still able to pump out the obscure and insane with reliable fervour. Perhaps I've walked in a few beats too late to completely grasp the holy seriousness of this performance? As if to answer my prayers and in a moment of perfect timing, Breadwoman raises a baguette to the heavens and David Walsh approaches from behind to make some jokes. Earlier that day, Walsh was reclining on the MONA lawns with a sign on his back reading "KICK ME".

Definitely time for a beverage after that introduction and I wander off to the main stage lawns and treat myself to one of the most delightful Tasmanian products in existence - the 8% cherry cider. 

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On the main stage Godspeed You! Black Emperor's appearance is now imminent. You can tell cause the PA has been droning white noise for a good 20 minutes. The crowd start slowly registering by the time the string duet take to the stage and punters begin to slowly stand at the front, pushing into the centre of the lawns like dominoes in slow motion. Synth phases resembling overhead planes are getting louder and panning from one end of the stage to the other. And as the rest of the band (including their infamous duo of drummers) shuffle on, the sun finally sets and gentle shades of Brian Eno-esque ambience begin to embrace us.

Luciferian Towers is the most pop product, I think, Godspeed will ever produce. As if to prove this point, the guitar riff moves into a dead ringer for the one in What's The Frequency, Kenneth? by REM. I wonder if anyone's told them that? As a flock of starlings arc above the stage, it's clear that Mona have finally managed to get the sound right on this stage, despite this insane wind. The mix is thick and resonant and that's not a cinch when you're working with a violin effects pedal. In fact, Godspeed and their sound engineer have managed to produce the best sound I've ever heard on this stage. Bravo.

They've tuned the PA to hit those frequencies that make your heart rattle down and around your solar plexus. That's a feeling I don't generally love but this time it's handled so masterfully that I kind of want them to do it again. It's also making my brain slosh around in its own juices. I've only had one cider but this feels amazing and that violin's sounds like she's carving toffee with her bow.

There's a warmth and sense of hope to this album that's atypical for Godspeed. It's so fascinating watching them all huddled on stage in their semi-circle, communicating the shit out of it all with the tiniest of facial gestures. Witnessing this hour-and-a-half performance actually feels so intimate it's like you're in a jam in their basement on Wednesday night. You can see them all drinking tea and making nutritious meals for one another.

But then as soon as those syncopated drums come in with the signature wailing feedback, we see a glimpse of the heavier, dirtier Godspeed and you feel the crowd jerk forwards for a moment as if they just climaxed. Closing track Anthem For No State, Part 3 is hooking more into the melancholy dirge of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven... It's as if they're all beautiful melancholic captains, accepting their fate gracefully while navigating a sinking ship with the stars. But it's still the kind of gig that'll give us all good dreams.

It's a bit of a big deal holding Faux Mo in Mac 2 for the first time. I'm curious to see what they do with the joint. After all, us local Faux Moers have grown to love and cherish the office buildings in Parliament Square that housed the OH&S nightmare rabbit warren of Faux Mo days past.

All the nooks and crannies one could cuddle into, the hidden rooms, the smelly tunnels and the squishy outdoor stage that was always exciting to find - even if it took you half an hour to get in and out. Mac 2 is really just an air hangar so it's gonna be a hard task dressing that space to make it interesting enough to meet expectations.

Tonight I've been invited to take part in a collab between Tas Pride and Faux Mo. My brief is "Wear something that screams BIG GAY WEDDING". Okay, so once I've donned my coat with tails, bridal veil, suspender belt and Satan-shaped pasties, I know I'll mix comfortably into the crowd.

There are probably 50 of us gay pride performers on this boat and we're sailing into the harbour out the front of Mac 2 at 12.30am. All the punters are beginning to gather because they've turned the sound down on the main stages and they're wondering what the fuck has gone wrong. They gaze out into the darkness, sucking on their lollipops as we float across the water silently.

All us the little gay wedding attendees are on the top deck, looking down to the floodlit Paul Capsis on the bottom deck who has begun to sing Beautiful Dreamer a capalla — blasting out over a huge PA stack, across the water and out into the hearts of the shiny happy punters. We wave rainbow flags from the top deck silently and as he rounds off his perfect final phrases, we all get goosebumps and try to stop ourselves from crying.

After a quick donut around the harbour, we're dropped off at the wharf where we silently enter through the back of Mac 2, a big gay entourage protecting Mr Capsis, our star, before we all take to the stage to gaze adoringly at him while he blasts out a mind-blowing falsetto cover of Back To Black. There is an impressive army of drag queens on stage behind us all and they've been carried in by what look like futuristic choir boys and girls dressed in crazy concertina white collars with fluorescent lights around their necks.

After the first song, Bob Brown takes over the stage with a pre-recorded message to all the Tas Priders and Faux Moers. He acknowledges the traditional owners of the land and gives a very cute speech about how much he loves Tasmania. "Isn't this a bloody beautiful place you're standing on right now?" he reminds us. He then gets everyone pumped about gay marriage again and tells us we need to make sure we dance, dance, dance the night away. How could anyone not like that man?! Capsis does another couple of numbers and we head off stage. I think now absolutely everyone is filled to the brim with shiny, happy, good feelings.

Still in costume, I wander off to the second stage to see Bus Money - one of the most original and hilarious bands to ever grace Tasmanian stages. Of course, they're cracking jokes about how The Chats stole their schtick. It's funny 'cause it's true and I'm glad they can at least joke about it. To end a perfect night, I witness Capsis side of stage to Bus Money - eyes like saucers exclaiming: "This is one of the best things I've ever seen!" He loves them so.

Saturday, January 20

Today I wander onto the MONA lawns on what's supposed to be a 21-degree day but it feels like 35. Interstaters who underestimated the UV are shrivelling like turnips and I hope for their sakes they've got enough money for a whole afternoon of mojito's to dull the pain.

The super-chilled sounds of Rahim Alhaj and Karim Wasfi drift out over the crowds and I attempt to dive for a spot of shade. Given that I've caught public transport today, I decide to treat myself to a $25 pork and kimchi lunch. Secretly thinking it's a rip off even as I'm purchasing it, I end up trying to deconstruct the recipe in my head so I can make it myself one day at home.

Gordon Gano is a beaming little chunk of mischief with a completely unassuming set up of solo semi-acoustic guitar on the b stage. It appears as if he's about to take us on a good old campfire singalong. It's a pleasure to witness a veteran like Gano press his personal stamp so confidently on a bunch of Aussie poems.

It's his phrasing that seals the Gano wax stamp deal all over this, he's really managed to make these poems his own today and his fingerpicking is so slick and casual it's like breathing. Despite being a lover of words, I've been sceptical about what Gano singing selected Aussie poems will sound like. He's telling us about how he read the Oxford book of Australian Poetry, which kinda surprises me.

He sings a poem called Female Transport, which talks about Van Dieman's shore from the perspective of a female convict. "That wretched place Van Dieman's Land, they chained us two by two." It actually wakes me out of my stupor; I want to hear more about what this woman experienced on the land I now choose to reside in. It's unsurprisingly brutal but also incredible that this record of a woman's voice was even retained. It all makes me reflect on how much healing remains to be seen for this state, along with all the good that this museum is doing to heal other parts of the culture with all its weird perversity, inclusiveness and unpredictability.

Gano proves his love for words, his impeccably comical timing and that knack for creating anticipation within song structures. He's the master of the well-timed pause. He actually succeeds in making poetry do what its supposed to — change your mood, teach you something and interrupt the mundane shit circling around your head. It's a hard call and a hard task but he's an absolute master. "I forgot to apologise for my accent," he says cheekily after closing his last song.

The look of steely resolve on Eve Klein's face as she pumps out such powerful opera with a completely frozen, rigid body is heartbreaking in its resolve. You see the trauma that women's bodies go through — all spelt out to you through the intimate perspective of a laryngoscope that's been fed through the Kleins' nose and down to the top of her soft palette.

I am completely flawed by the punch she produces as she blasts out the word 'contractions' in a mezzo-soprano that's like water on glass. She removes and reinserts the 'device' with her assistant and they treat it as if they're handling Klein's firstborn. All this takes a good 30 seconds and it's fucking intense to behold in a full room of silent punters. The space they've chosen is perfectly womb-like and the stereo sound is mixed perfectly. Just enough sonic dissonance panning from left to right behind us to make the atmosphere slightly otherworldly.

The projected footage seems to be giving such direct proof of women's bodies willingness to do so much more than we ask them to do. The stillness of Klein perched upon her throne with Victorian boots, corset and hoop skirt also seems to be playing with the idea that women are always 'correct' if we are agreeable. It's perfectly confronting and I find it surprisingly painful watching even a professional's physical vulnerability projected on a massive screen in front of me. Opera feels like such a gentle mode through which to cast a light on the strength of women. And it's such a salient reminder of the history of mistreatment and abuse around women's vulnerability and the fact that our vulnerability is key to our strength. I walk away that day wanting to tread a little gentler with everyone I meet. 

Sunday, January 21

It's a balmy twilight eve and Jlin is definitely a trooper for filling in last minute tonight (Genesis Breyer P-Orridge & Edley ODowd had to cancel their set due to health concerns). On this final day of MOFO proceedings the crowd has thinned significantly - the people officially have partied hard enough and spent all of their money on tasty Tasmanian ciders. The vibe is a plodding, mellow, slightly hungover, dinner eating one. Unfortunately, JLin's beats hit us hard and they're sparse and metallic.

The response I'm seeing from most of the punters is that 'uncomfortable shifting on your bean bag' one… and while her beats are dynamic, deep and complex they would be a better fit for Faux Mo tonight at 3am. Right now, they mostly just feel unforgiving. Samples of screams in the background add to the nightmarish tone while people try to eat their potato salads in peace and children attempt to get their parents up to a dance unsuccessfully. Having said all this, we know MOFO is famous for not playing by the rules so this set could be said to be perfectly in keeping with their ingeniously discordant curatorial vision.

I've decided to give Faux Mo a second run for the final closing night. Boy, did I come at the right time - Axon Breeze are playing their first gig ever and they're producing the most mind-bending and satisfying sounds I've heard for the entire festival. Death metal vocals, along with traditional Indonesian flute and chanting, huge triggered electronic beats and delicious melodic little samples make this is a truly unique, highly danceable, cerebral and satisfying all around. "This is our first gig," announces lead vocalist James Brennan. Well, I'll be. It's fucking magnificent. They nail it and walk off stage to an insatiable crowd who nearly mow them down in demand for more. I hope that's not the last time they do that.

Tonight's Faux Mo crowd consists mostly of MOFO and Hobart hospitality staff and my friends so, of course, I like this vibe. In the other room, all the teenagers have congregated for Paris Wells. I give it a good listen but don't find much in it. Probably haven't swallowed enough glow sticks. It's 2.30am and there's a lot more house music and lollipop sucking to be had but I still haven't quite got over Axon Breeze's set and nothing else is going to do it for me now.

I think it's been a successful Hobart Mona instalment, though, mostly because it's a festival that actually allows you to engage on any level you wish to. I like the fact that you can turn up to the MONA lawns, eat a curry and just hang out with the chickens and listen to some sitar if you want. If that doesn't tickle your fancy, just get loaded and mosh with Walsh and Tasmania's super healthy metal community to some Norwegian death metal on a Sunday night. The opportunities are all there for the taking, and rather than being told how to feel for a spoon-fed series of predictable events, it's up to each of us to make of every moment what whatever we wish.