Roadburn 2019, Saturday 13 April, Ladybird Skatepark

“Oh God, that one,” Roadburn artistic director Walter sighs and then laughs wearily, just at the mere mention of Thou’s legendary Misfits covers show at the Ladybird Skatepark during their residency in 2019. That reaction alone already tells you everything about the odyssey that took place behind-the-scenes of what has become one of the most surprising and talked-about moments in Roadburn history.

When Thou were confirmed as Roadburn’s 2019 Artists In Residence they agreed that they would play four distinctive sets over the course of the festival. Only three of these shows were included in the schedule – the time and location of the fourth remained under wraps. Despite that (or maybe because of it?) it became one of the most unforgettable shows in Roadburn’s 20-plus years. So, let’s take this from the very beginning…

José Carlos Santos
Teddie Taylor (pics)

“From the first moment I talked to Bryan about Thou being artist in residence for Roadburn, the idea of having a secret show was already there,” Walter reveals. “I told them about the options: I mentioned there was a skate park, and the Hall of Fame room.” Thou vocalist Bryan Funck confirms: “We had decided pretty early on that it would be really cool to do a covers show, and we wanted to keep it secret, and also do it at the smallest place possible. We didn’t think so many people would be that excited about it, so we thought we’d just create something a little more intimate, just cram a bunch of people into a small space.”

Thou had originally thought of the Cul de Sac for a venue, but the festival wasn’t using it that year. The smallest room available was the Hall Of Fame; but it wasn’t quite right for what the band had in mind.

“The room itself is small, but the stage is quite wide,” Bryan explains. “It’s a nice, cool space, but in terms of what we were going for, especially with that set, it was a bit sterile and it just wasn’t going to work. The skate park stayed on our radar, mostly because it felt like a punk thing, something that’d be fun to do. We even imagined that it would be great to have people skating at the same time and everyone going nuts!”

Fortunately, it didn’t get that far, as security staff had enough on their plates as it was, but the journey towards skate park acceptance was to be a long and arduous one for everyone involved. “We had different opinions about how popular this was going to be – we thought that there would be people there, sure, but not that many,” says Thou guitarist Andy Gibbs, laughing now at how colossally wrong he was in that prediction. “If there were other things happening at the same time, which there were, we thought it’d just be this niche thing. We weren’t sure if word would spread, and how fast, so for us it’d just be like a really small show with half a dozen people. But Walter told us right from the beginning that no, there’d be a shitload of people and it’d be difficult to manage. I don’t think I really understood that until right before it happened. We had thought people would just stand there and stare blankly at us like they usually do,” he laughs.

As we all know by now, it was far beyond a ‘niche thing’. Anyone who was at the festival that afternoon will remember the feverish anticipation when people started to realise that the secret show was due to take place.

“Until a couple of days before the festival, things were still undecided on both ends,” Walter recalls. “The Hall of Fame was easier, there was a stage, it was a proper venue, but there was a certain magic about doing it at a skate park. The real fun started when we announced the running order and the times. People started going crazy because the fourth show wasn’t announced, they kept asking where and when it would be, and we would just shrug and say, ‘We don’t know!’ But it was really obvious from the schedule, the spot was right there – the Hall of Fame ended at 11pm that evening! What did you think was going to happen afterwards?”

When Thou arrived in Tilburg at the beginning of the festival, they went to check out the two venues. And while they weren’t particularly excited about the Hall of Fame, they figured it could work. But over the weekend there were a couple of other impromptu shows at the skate park – Thou saw the potential and wanted to make it work.

“On Saturday morning, anticipation was at a high,” Walter remembers. “The band had decided and asked for the skate park, and production went ballistic. ‘How can we have hundreds of people in there, it’s not doable!’ they told me. People at the festival were, at the same time, getting super anxious, to the point that I couldn’t even walk around anymore without someone coming up to me and asking me about it every time! I remember even Nergal, who was at the festival, at one point came up to me and asked me to tell him where it was going to be! And I just kept saying ‘I don’t know!’, and it was really the truth, even if no one believed it!”

If you’re not too familiar with the proceedings of putting shows together, you might be wondering what all the fuss is all about: it’s just a room but with ramps, right? Walter explains: “The problem is that the skate park is not a venue for shows. For the little punk shows we did there, we just threw together a small DIY PA, and there were a few dozen people watching, and that was fine. But the production team was adamant that it wouldn’t be able to accommodate something of this size and scope.”

That seemed to seal it; but there was one superhero about to rush in and save the day. “After several serious conversations with all parts involved, it was Frens, the 013 general manager, who came to the rescue,” Walter laughs. “He told me, ‘Walter, we need to do it DIY style! This is punk rock and we’re going to do it at the skate park, we have to!’ I told him that production didn’t want to do it, so he went and talked to them, and just told them matter-of-factly that it had to happen because the band was on the way and it was confirmed with them already. Which it wasn’t! But he overruled everything anyway. This happened around 10pm, about an hour from the show. We had an impromptu meeting with security, and we also still had to call the general manager of the skate park to tell him what we were going to do, and he kind of gave us the go ahead, he was just like, I don’t know, sort it out with the production!”

If you have met him at the festival, you’ll know that Walter in panic mode is usually, despite the seriousness of the situations, a harbinger for special things to happen. And here he was, going berserk once more, right before yet another legendary happening.

“I rushed to Thou’s dressing room, and all the band were there with Emma Ruth Rundle. I told them, ‘Skate park is happening! What amps do you need?’ Everyone was super excited and started throwing around ideas: I want a model T, I want that one in the corner backstage, this and that. Five minutes later, I’m backstage with a lorry and all the amps on the street being loaded on it to be carried to the skate park. Of course, that’s when some people saw it happening, and started to catch on. We set it all up with the recommendations of the security staff, who were super helpful, because we still had to measure doors and all kinds of things like that: we still didn’t know exactly how many people we could fit inside without running security risks, which we obviously weren’t going to do.”

All in all, it was one of those situations where it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission. “The day after the show, we had to have a real talk with production, because they were a bit angry,” Walter says sheepishly but with a devilish grin. “They were not amused about mine or Frens’ actions. I know I was very undecided in the days leading up to it, it was all ‘Hall of Fame! Skate park! No, Hall of Fame! No, skate park!’ all the way, then I reassured them on Saturday that we wouldn’t do the skate park, and then at 10pm I’m all like, ‘SKATE PARK, YEAH!’ I get why they were mad.”

Fortunately, anyone who was there will surely be unanimous in considering that it was all worth it. The first thing Bryan told the audience before they started playing was, “So look, we’re gonna have a lot of fun, or we’re going to look like a bunch of fucking dipshits. You gotta pick. Usually we look like dipshits, so I’m thinking we’ll try to have something new tonight, and have fun.” And fun they had…

“The amount of people there was actually less exciting to me than the actual response to it, that’s what made it so memorable for me,” Bryan says. “People were so into it, and having so much fun! For as little as we practised for that set, and probably for as poorly as we played, it turned out incredibly well. It was easily one of the most fun shows we ever had. That set is now the set by which I judge all Thou sets by. It’s actually become a sort of completely unrealistic thing to live up to, but I can’t help it. After having experienced it, now I know it can be like this. So why can’t it be like this all the time? It sort of ruined our normal shows for me!”

For the festival, it was an equally momentous occasion. “It was a defining Roadburn moment,” Walter states. “As awesome as the big shows are, as much as we are known for our production values, as much as the commissioned pieces are an essential part of everything… sometimes, it all comes down to stuff like this. All these bands started out in garages, in basements, in skate parks. This sort of thing is where our hearts lie, it’s where we all come from. Seeing a band in a garage or in a damp basement, it’s in our blood. And it all came together on this show. The band, the fans, the staff, everyone in that room came from that same place. This is the underground that everyone fell in love with years ago, at the very beginning of our individual journey. The expression in people’s faces, the smiles, the joy, the excitement… I’ll never forget it.”

Also, in more practical terms, it had an effect that is still to be measured: “A venue was born, too,” Walter says. “The requests we had for bands wanting to play the skate park in the 2020 edition that didn’t happen was insane. It’s actually being rebuilt now, so we don’t know how it’ll look or even if we’ll ever be able to use it again, but we’ll see.”

It’s interesting to look back now on such an important part of both the festival and the band’s history, and to think about how any small detail might have completely changed it. For instance, Andy reveals that it wasn’t always a clear choice to have Misfits as the theme of the covers show.

“Mitch [Wells, bassist] actually wanted to do Deftones,” Andy says. “I think when we first talked about it, Walter thought we’d do Nirvana, that’s why he suggested it in the first place,” adds Bryan. “Which makes sense: we do a million Nirvana covers, so that’s what people would expect us to do. But for us it was like, let’s just have fun with it. Being a crazy show, and at a place where people weren’t expecting, it all came out of us not wanting to do just the same old thing that everyone thought we would.”

Andy agrees: “That was the whole appeal. I don’t think anyone would peg us for Misfits fans, and to be honest, none of us are really huge Misfits fans! Mitch was really pushing for Deftones, but we pushed back a bit on that, because no one’s gonna go crazy over a bunch of Deftones songs: it’s not energetic enough.”

Perhaps even more shockingly, Bryan quips: “I wanted to do Metallica!”

“That would have been great!” Andy agrees. “But the songs are so complicated: there was no way we could have gotten that together in time, we didn’t have a ton of time to practise for this.”

And you know what? Thou and Roadburn aren’t done playing tricks on you guys. “I loved all the secrecy about it, that’s the kind of shit I love,” Bryan says. “If we ever come back to Roadburn, I’d love to not even be on the bill, and just show up and do a bunch of really fun and weird stuff and have a great time with it. Just surprise people!”

Andy picks up on this: “Maybe we can play on the other side of town. In the lobby of the hotel, like that Nine Inch Nails marketing campaign: we’d leave cryptic notes in bathrooms all over Tilburg. That would be sick.”

Sit tight: who knows what Thou will have in store for us next…

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