Live Wire: Formoz returns with a bang

By David Frazier  /  Staff reporter

Fri, Jul 26, 2013 - Page 11

Formoz (野台開唱), Taipei’s big summer music festival is back. From Aug. 2 to Aug. 4, seven stages will host 120 bands, two-thirds of them coming from overseas, including international headliners Suede, The XX, Mercury Rev and Japanese pop idols Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Puffy. This is the Formoz that was supposed to happen every year, and it did from 2001 to 2008, bringing headliners like Moby, Megadeth and Yo La Tengo and, by the end of that run, selling 10,000 festival passes a year. Then, it was suddenly discontinued.

“We just needed to reorganize. Our staff was maxed out, the venue was not really big enough, and we were having to deal with all kinds of expectations about what local fans thought the festival should be,” says Orbis Fu (傅鉛文), CEO of The Wall Music, which organizes the festival and also runs The Wall live houses in Taipei, Greater Kaohsiung and Yilan.

“We originally expected to be on hiatus for a year or two, but it just dragged on for this long,” says Fu.

You could say, however, that this resurrection almost had to happen. Large, Western-style rock festivals are flourishing through Asia, and many of them sprang up while Formoz was sleeping. Japan’s Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic, each drawing 40,000 to 50,000 fans per day, have both been going strong for much more than the last few years, of course. But South Korea’s Ansan Valley Rock Festival (formerly Jisan Valley Rock Festival) has grown to about 30,000 per day in the last few years. Hong Kong’s Cockenflap, held in December, first appeared in 2008 and now draws top names and 15,000 ticket holders. China has huge festivals that bring international artists when the government allows it. And other multi-day music events are constantly springing up in Japan, South Korea, Singapore and even Malaysia. Attracting 10,000 fans for rock or electronic music is now hardly a novelty in Asia.

Moreover, Taiwan’s rock scene has grown more international than it has ever been. Fu estimates that The Wall in Taipei now draws around 50,000 fans a year. While this number has not grown in the last two or three years, he says revenues have soared as the number of international bookings has increased, with a big upsurge starting from 2011. Five years ago the club saw one or two international bands a month. Now it can host up to a half dozen.

“Indie music is becoming more of a lifestyle trend. There are more American and European bands coming than ever before. There are more venues and more small promoters for this kind of music. If you have events happening every week, people start to pay attention,” he says.

“Plus,” he continues, “mainstream culture has gotten too boring.”

For this year’s Formoz, Fu expects about 12,000 people per day and says the budget will be about NT$71 million.

One of the biggest draws (and artist fees) will be Suede, the Britpop band from the 90s, which has been to Taiwan twice before and, with three previous headliner slots at Glastonbury, has plenty of practice at wowing enormous crowds. In many ways, they are a band from a different era, a time when huge album sales preceded huge festival crowds. But that past is not so long gone that local fans have forgotten it, and Suede’s late addition to the Formoz lineup, announced just about six weeks ago, sparked a big run of ticket sales.

Another major draw will be The XX, indie darlings for their Valium-laced dance beats and 2010 Mercury Prize, the British award that anoints young bands into proper rock ‘n’ roll stardom. They will make their Taiwan debut, and I cannot help imagining their visit will be like a photo I can’t help staring at on Google Images — the three band members are in the tropically blue water of a palm-lined lagoon in Miami, yet still wearing black t-shirts, black sunglasses, and no amount of sunshine can brighten the pallor of their skin.

The San Francisco band Deerhoof is indie famous for making anti-pop music that takes catchy rock ‘n’ roll ideas and then destroys them in noise and on-stage freakouts. Other US or European bands to look out for include The Antlers, Blood Red Shoes, A Place to Bury Strangers, Nosaj Thing, The Soft Moon and metal acts Evile and Warbringer.

Japanese acts will include several fantastic indie bands — Te and the Okamoto’s are not to be missed — and at least two pure products of the Japanese pop music machine. Puffy, the ubercute duo of Ami and Yumi, was huge in the late ‘90s. One wonders what sort of nostalgia factor they can milk in Taiwan now that they are 40.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu however is the Puffy of today, a 20-year-old Harajuku pop princess who perhaps represents Japan’s most successful attempt yet to turn a real person into a comic book character. Expect extreme fashion, and if her fans are out in force — in March she sold out a 1,200-capacity show at Legacy — the crowd will be as much of a spectacle as what happens on stage.

Fu sees acts like Puffy and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu — who, unlike rock bands, are regular fixtures in Taiwan’s entertainment media — as “broadening the appeal to people who wouldn’t go to see an indie band on the weekend.”

He expects that any single headliner — including Suede — will only draw 1,000 to 2,000 fans, but that their presence will make the NT$3,600 ticket price worth it to a much larger group that “just want to see a famous band.”

In many respects, Formoz 2013 will not be very different from Formoz 2008. Fu describes it almost as a reboot.

“Fan’s expectations were extremely high, but they expected so many different things. Some wanted more international bands. Others wanted more Taiwanese bands. Some wanted cheaper tickets. Others were asking, ‘Why did Fuji Rock get some band, but Formoz didn’t?’” says Fu.

“In many ways Taiwan’s tastes are still very local. Bands like Fire EX (滅火器) or The Chairman (董事長) have more appeal than many international bands. But at the same time, people want to see new things. By taking time off, we have been able to redirect expectations and reassert Formoz’s image,” says Fu.

And that image is “an international music festival that’s based in Taiwan,” he continues.

The one major change is the venue. In 2008, Formoz was already using the Taipei Children’s Recreation Center (台北市立兒童育樂中心), an amusement park for kids just across the Keelung River from the Grand Hotel. They will still use the kids park this year, but have also more than tripled the area of the site to include the parks to the west and south of the nearby Taipei Fine Arts Museum. These areas were developed for the Taipei International Flora Exposition in 2010, and include several little-used pavilions.

Flora Expo construction was actually one factor in forcing Formoz’s hiatus, as the government would not let events onto the site until the expo was over. Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) has since declared the zone, which is relatively removed from residential communities, to be a center for concerts and events.

“The difference is that before, we had to go to the government and beg,” says Fu. “Now, there is this mandate. We might as well take advantage of it.”

■ The Formoz Festival will be held from Aug. 2 to Aug. 4 in the parks near Taipei’s Yuanshan MRT Station (圓山站). Three-day passes are NT$3,600 in advance or NT$3,900 at the venue. Single day tickets are NT$2,500 in advance or NT$2,800 at the door. For details, check www.formoz.com.