Marfa Myths is a festival for escape artists of all ilk. Located on a Chihuahuan desert plateau in far west Texas at least three hours from any city you can name, it’s free of your average festival grievances like scheduling issues and surprise sets by Chris Brown. There are no VIPs, no velvet ropes, just long brambles called ocotillo, which look like the kind of menacing weeds you expect to find on your way into hell — which is to say, Marfa Myths is a music adventurer’s dream. As Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering put it, “Isn’t it great? We all got to come here and escape where we live.”
This year’s expanded Marfa Myths took place in Marfa, Texas, over three days in March, one week ahead of Austin’s South by Southwest (which is seven hours away by driving). Co-curated by Brooklyn-based label Mexican Summer and contemporary art gallery Ballroom Marfa, Myths showcases music, film, and art from local and non-local artists. Although the population of Marfa is just over 2,000 (it has a status as an artist enclave — thanks to the town’s unofficial patriarch Donald Judd and his acolytes), there are plenty of creative hands on deck to make a music festival happen out of thin air and Marfa Myths required all of them.
For Mexican Summer co-founder Keith Abrahamsson, the challenge of creating a festival in the middle of nowhere wasn’t hoping people would show up — it was choosing bands that would blend with Myths’ raw aesthetic. This year, Iceage, Steve Gunn, Grouper, Gregg Kowalsky, and Bitchin’ Bajas meshed with label acts Connan Mockasin, Weyes Blood, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Tamaryn, GABI, Thug Entrancer, and Co La. “We wanted to balance our music with some people outside of our label that we felt could be at home on our roster.”
The west has been calling Abrahamsson for some time now. His label is responsible for bringing sun-scorched indie bands like Kurt Vile, Best Coast, and Washed Out to light. One of Kemado Records’ first employees, Abrahamsson created Mexican Summer under its imprint in 2008. “I felt like we could hone an aesthetic,” he said. Marfa Myths is an extension of the label’s sprawling vibe and Abrahamsson has no plans to add many more bands or corporate sponsorship. “We’re keen to have some air of exclusivity and uniqueness to what we do here.”
In 2013, Abrahamsson found a kindred spirit in a friend of a friend, Nicki Ittner, Ballroom Marfa’s director of music. Ballroom Marfa, just four years older than Mexican Summer, is the town’s main valve for artistic types who come from art capitals like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. Ittner, who has worked in Marfa for five years, developed the gallery’s music offering and residency program, which culled artists like Autre Ne Veut? and Eleanor Friedberger?. Grouper’s Liz Harris, who completed a Ballroom residency in 2010, returned this year to paint a vast mural outside a coffee shop in town. “People who come to Marfa are having an experience they can’t have other places,” Ittner said.
Dev Hynes and Connan Mockasin would agree. Neither producer had worked collaboratively on a personal record before their week-long residency for Marfa Myths. The result was an exclusive 12”, due for release in August 2015. “I wouldn’t collaborate with just anyone,” Mockasin told Billboard, “but I like playing with [Dev], it was very relaxing. I wish we had more time.”
During an impromptu set, Hynes and Mockasin faced each other on stage, Hall & Oates-style. Mockasin wore blue velvet loungewear as he played guitar and Hynes, in a Michael Jackson baseball cap, was on keys. They played three title-less tracks — the fruits of their labor — with dense falsetto harmonies and a funky Bee Gees-inspired sound. All of the lyrics, Mockasin later said, were improvised and forgotten. “I had an idea in one of the mornings, but I wanted to see Dev’s approach, so I hummed it to him,” Mockasin said.
At times, Myths felt like a bizarre communal retreat. Saturday began with festival-goers cramped in a yoga studio for an aural cleansing led by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and ended with the same people grinding to remixes by Suiceideyear, a baby-faced DJ from Baton Rouge, La.
There were plenty of surreal highlights, from Connan Mockasin’s Playboy Bunny pajamas to the frowning Danes of Iceage carousing at the Lost Horse Saloon. Dev Hynes played soccer by agave plants. Grouper’s Liz Harris sat on the stage like a surgeon over an operating table, making a great big wall of sound. “Except the sound guy kept turning me down!” she told Billboard with a laugh. The music culminated at a neon-painted dive called Foodsharkland, where local hardcore band Lbs. jammed.
On a moonless night outside the Capri, a seemingly intoxicated Elias Ronnenfelt wagged his cigar onstage. The Iceage frontman has an old-fashioned rose tattoo on his right arm and finally an audience to appreciate it. When he spat out “The Lord’s Favorite”, he grabbed a man by his iPhone and reeled him onstage like a trout hooked on a line.
“It feels like a really damaged, gun-club, punk/western record,” said Abrahamsson of Iceage’s Plowing Into the Field of Love album (Matador). “It feels really at home here for me.”
The morning after the Marfa Myths’ music portion, Abrahamsson invited all the bands, the label employees, the press, friends and family for what felt like a post-wedding brunch at an expansive ranch house Mexican Summer rented. Mockasin, with a Bloody Mary and a coffee in each hand, said he will miss the slow pace of Marfa, as it reminds him of his native New Zealand.
“It is important to us — and to the artists — to keep them inspired,” Abrahamsson said. With Ballroom Marfa’s partnership, the objective of Marfa Myths will continue to empower local and non-local artists. “[The festival] is about the label and the artists coming together with each other. It’s a seriously undeniable bonding experience. There are no spoilers here. Marfa is really as magical as people say it is.”
Marfa Myths 2016 is already underway with plans to have a music and film presentation with a band performing the live score. “We also want to continue the recording and visual arts residency,” explains Ballroom’s Ittner, “as well as expand into some kind of sound installation.” Ittner says that in the interim, Ballroom Marfa is working on a potential limited edition with Liz Harris of Grouper.