Walking in an Indie Wonderland.

HACKNEY WONDERLAND 2016

Mystery Jets

We Are Scientists

Stealing Sheep

Oslo, Hackney – 15th October 2016

We Are Scientists and Mystery Jets headline an up-and-coming bar-based festival in Hackney. Either it’s 2008 or that time machine has worked really bloody well.

Hackney’s ambition to retain its status as the capital’s premier trendy hangout in the face of an increasing onslaught from the ever more hip environs of Peckham are nobly boosted by the ongoing success of mini festivals like the Jack Daniels/Spotify-sponsored Hackney Wonderland. Sprawling across five of East London’s cosier and more chic live venues, the alternative music medley severed up here boasts dozens of exciting new acts, as well as a few of the circuit’s veterans thrown in for good measure. Oslo’s Saturday headlining combo of Mystery Jets and We Are Scientists fall firmly into the latter category, although it’s unlikely that outside of university house party playlists you will have heard these two on the same billing for quite some time. Tonight, however, they deliver a potent one-two blow, much to the delight of a predominately late-twenty/early-thirty-something crowd looking to wind the clock back a few years.

As the sun sets over this still rawly industrial nook of the city, Stealing Sheep are up to transition a pleasantly inebriated audience into the business end of the evening. The Liverpool three piece supply plenty of ethereal vocal harmonies and a dance-pop edge, courtesy of trancy synths and unexpected modulations that make you feel like the floor has just shifted beneath you. Accompanied by pounding drum machine beats and electro bass lines, they represent a delightful melange of current L.A. darlings Haim and Warpaint. Clad in matching skin-tight polka dot onesies and dark circular sunglasses, there is undeniably a bold stylistic element to their stage presence resembling an updated and re-gendered Kraftwerk. The outlandish look is supported by foundation-shaking bass riffs and synth explosions that rattle the ceiling, courtesy of off-the-wall but strangely danceable tunes including Not Real and Genevieve, which weave in a mystical tranciness reminiscent of fellow Brit dream-popper Bat For Lashes. Watch this space – the electro girls from the North West are only just getting started. 

It’s encouraging to know that the full throttle lifestyle of today’s indie rock bands doesn’t necessarily  guarantee a fraught, dramatic burnout within half a decade of releasing a promising debut. New York’s charmingly geeky duo of Keith Murray and Chris Cain – known professionally as We Are Scientists – are testament to this. In the face of a relentless touring and recording regime that has spanned over 14 years and five studio albums, they are still as lithe and spritely as ever, sharply dressed in black shirts and suits that cling with impressive tautness to slender frames. Little seems to have changed in the intervening years since 2005’s landmark opening gambit With Love and Squalor – the between-song banter is still off-beat and unpredictable while the sharp grooming and indie fringes are still proudly on display, albeit with Murray now being entirely grey and Cain having lost the signature pornstar ‘tache of yesteryear.

A relentless, high tempo set proves that the naughties indie survivors still have plenty left to give. The generous array of first album favourites served up – including barnstorming crowd pleasers It’s a Hit, The Great Escape and Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt – are still performed with a youthful vigour, while newer offerings such as 2014’s intricately riffed Dumb Luck and the gargantuan choruses of latest LP Helter Skelter’s lead single Buckle may tread familiar ground but are testament to a persistent level of quality control from the quirky pair.

As if needing to further confirm their eternal vitality, a swaggering version of Textbook sees Murray ditch his guitar and throw himself into the crowd, mic chord trailing behind him, as he manages to belt out an impassioned rendition despite being mobbed and groped by a sea of overly excitable hands. When he eventually clambers back to the stage, even more damp and tousled than before his ambitious foray, he has the look of a man who has just survived a particularly ferocious encounter with the Tasmanian Devil. “Thanks guys!”, he gasps, still looking a little shell shocked.

Following a couple more rounds of Red Stripe and Vodka Tonics, Mystery Jets drift in on a sea of distorted noise before shifting into the sonic, verbose deluge of latest album opener Telomere, after which they kick the mood up a notch or two with Serotonin – a loving tribute to the endorphin-cranking effects of MDMA that has the crowd in full voice. A brief moment of reflection between songs also sees the band reveal that they haven’t toured with We Are Scientists since those crazy days of ’06, as if to supply the response to an unanswered question on the lips of many in the audience wondering the same thing.

Ahead of 2008’s chant-along classic Half In Love With Elizabeth, frontman Blaine Harrison whimsically offers to take everyone “back in a time machine” – a statement which fittingly captures the nature of tonight’s lineup perfectly – as if confirming the collective desire to briefly relive an era when the band were throwing out Laura Marling collaborations and threatening to crack the Top 20 Singles Chart. All the while bassist Jack Flanagan continues to shoot out pithy quips while grinning perennially from under a mop of peroxide blond hair.

By the time the band turn to time-honoured classic and house party mainstay Two Doors Down the ebullient crowd are more than ready to receive it. Like shooting fish in a barrel, trotting out this musical trump card to a large group of indie brigadiers, in various stages of intoxication and vividly reliving their misspent youth, is guaranteed to elicit the kind of enthusiastic but poorly coordinated dance moves which inevitably follow. When the band eventually call it a night the reception is unsurprisingly rapturous. And a little hazy.

It’s a night of vintage indie nostalgia for all those who can remember the genre’s dizzying heyday of the mid to late naughties, but even for the objective onlooker this is a night crammed full of feverish delight from both crowd and bands alike. A Wonderland of sorts it most definitely is, and with edgy, alcohol-glazed and tent-free festivals such as this to offer, Hackney certainly looks set to remain a hub of hipster pilgrimage for a good few years to come.

Words: Henry Wickham

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