Drummers and cheerleaders with pompoms in Bulls colors are the first to greet those who pass through the open gates of Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois. It’s 11am Saturday, July 30, the third day of the 2016 Lollapalooza Music Festival, often affectionately called Lolla. It’s a cloudy morning of what turns out to be the first rain-free festival day.
Less than two years ago, none of the European members of AudioDamn! had ever set foot in the States. The band’s main members are Austrian, Oliver “Oli” Wimmer on vocals and guitar and Ali Grumeth on backing vocals and guitar. They’ve been playing with German drummer Daniel “Mudi” Mudrack but while he’s spending time with his family, Tim Cox, also from Germany, fills in.
After moving to Germany, the group tried for two years to make inroads in the music industry. Close to giving up, it seemed like it just wasn’t going to happen and then it did. Now they were making their first big United States festival appearance, playing Lolla’s twenty-fifth birthday. It’s an exciting moment and they are excited to perform.
But when I get Grumeth on the phone, he’s not on the grounds. There’s been a glitch. When they arrived the night before, they learned Virgin American had lost their pedalboard. The airline has told them they simply don’t know where it is. Grumeth was at Guitar Center. When I say it will work out, he sounds discouraged, “I don’t think so.” He explains he plays bass through the pedalboard. “I’ve improvised before, used to it, but this is the hardest. If I just played guitar, it would be okay.”
Festivals have a strict by the bell schedule. They’re the first act on their stage – set to rock at 1:00pm sharp.
While Grumeth is at Guitar Center, Wimmer and Cox are in the cabana in the Artist Village. Wimmer posts a wry humorous take on the situation on Facebook Live. “It’s funny because we’re playing Lollapalooza this one time . . . so crazy, this one show, we could’ve lost it at the shows where three people showed up or something but no – it’s this one.”
Shortly before noon, Grumeth arrives, “I could be less stressed,” he laments as he tinkers with the new pedalboard. Their manager is encouraging, pointing out their luck in being first on stage. They get a sound check, while later bands only get a line check.
Wimmer later observes, “I feel like we handled the situation because it was just so ridiculous that the pedalboard didn’t show up . . . we just accepted it right away, it is what it is, fuck it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t relentless panic.”
Before heading off to the stage, some last minute fashion choices must be made. Grumeth solicits opinions on which vest, “striped or solid navy.” Wimmer is bespectacled and wearing a fitted plaid suit with a black polkadotted shirt. Grumeth’s plaid pants are baggier, navy boxers show as part of the outfit, and his shirt is adorned with unicycles. All three wear sneakers.
Arriving at the stage, immediately there’s a good vibe. The female guard greets AudioDamn! warmly. “Thank God you’re here. We’re waiting for music.” And during the set a security guard named Matt mentions how much he was enjoying them.
Another snag – Grumeth’s guitar strap had been in the case with the pedalboard. A kind and resourceful crew member uses a tie line to improvise a replacement. Then they get permission to borrow one from a band playing a later slot, the Drowners. In comical fashion, every box they open has a strap but they’re “super short and also had a lot of gaffer tape around them.” Finally he finds a strap that is adjustable, “actually I put it on too low . . . there are a few parts where I hit the wrong string because it was a few inches lower than I expected it.”
At 12:27 the first fans arrive front of stage. They’re all younger than the festival itself, Eric, 18, Nate, 19 and Dana, 19. After liking AudioDamn! on Lolla playlists, snapchats and Spotify, they were set on seeing them play.
And Dana is adamant that on this day she was not going let her friends hold her back from getting to the festival and catching AudioDamn! and other early music. There for sure a freedom about experiencing the festival alone for at least part of the day, on your own terms – you can concentrate on taking in the sights and sounds rather than your friend’s need to fill a water bottle.
At 1pm AudioDamn! rocks open the BMI stage.
This is a stage where many now major acts played their first festival gigs, Lady Gaga in 2007 and Cage the Elephant in 2009. On Sunday, Halsey performs on the main Samsung stage and gives a shout out to the BMI stage where she had played just the year before. She recalls how nervous she was at the time.
Grumeth good-naturedly denies nerves because before they went on he was too busy troubleshooting. Perhaps there was an upside to the lost bag.
The BMI audience area is packed out and Wimmer responds to the overwhelming welcome from the crowd before launching into ‘Radar.’ “This is your song. Have fun.”
Music manager and fellow Austrian, Roy Jürgen hears, “Prince, Jamiroqui and Muse” in their music. Many of their songs are inspired by experiences with the opposite sex. For example, before ‘Higher’ Wimmer and Grumeth banter about a drummer they saw in a club.
Wimmer tells the crowd, “we were stunned instantly . . . we couldn’t really believe what we were seeing, you wanted to marry her right away?” Grumeth responds “right away … she was playing the drums like a god, like an angel.” They funk out at the end of the song while the crowd bobs along.
Wimmer says, “It’s just supposed to be fun. I try to perform that song serious but with a certain ironic twist like did I really say that.”
Grumeth adds “We totally had the Prince attitude of just overdoing it.”
At one point, Wimmer uses his strong voice to celebrates the fest “lolla, lolla, lollapalooza” in an awesome falsetto trill.
Wimmer leads into the last song of the set, “Thanks for coming out, we love you and thank you BMI for putting us here. We are super grateful. As a German slash Austrian band in America, it’s been a great journey for us.”
They launch into a Jimi Hendrix cover for the track ‘Fire.’ Cheers and Woos from the crowd as they exit the stage. There’s time for a few pictures with fans including a girl wearing butterfly wings. She was one of the more creatively dressed attendees, Lollapalooza is notably less fashion experimental than Coachella.
Their manager is enthusiastic about the show. “Pedalboard worked out. Sounded killer I couldn’t tell the difference.” The band is exhilarated from playing and stoked about the rocking photos captured. Grumeth gives props to the engineer for doing a dope sound.
The signs “Turn On Your Lights!” along the golf cart path back to the Artist Village seem to be paying a nod (or perhaps arguing with) their song ‘Lights Out.’
While we eat lunch at a picnic table, Grumeth shares their inspiring “it happens just when you’re about to give up” story. Once Americans were interested in signing them, “then the German labels, they were all paying recognition suddenly they were telling Rick from Sony/ATV that we were great and they would have loved to sign us.” They’d worked hard for years and were at a point when they didn’t believe anymore that it would ever happen – it all came together in two weeks.
The singer has a hidden history which they decisively won’t tell me about. Wimmer was the winner of some type of “American Idol” type TV show in Austria, “Austria’s Got Talent,” maybe.
Back in Los Angeles post-Lolla, there’s casual chatter while Wimmer makes coffee. Wimmer is more measured in conversation, while Grumeth is exuberant with the occasional creative use of English phrases. For example when we’re talking about a “super dope” gay bar he went to while on tour in Louisville he tells me “I don’t care, I’m also unable to see gay people,” expressing how he doesn’t think about someone’s sexuality.
Oh and the pedalboard has not been recovered and they’ve been told at this point there’s almost no chance it will be.
Grumeth expresses how much he’s fallen in love with the bass. But he also realizes, “I got a confidence on guitar. It would take me so many years to reach that level on bass.” And he explains how playing through the pedalboard is part of their particular style.
Both agreed that though there are a number of huge festivals, Lolla is special. In Chicago, Grumeth “felt this vibe of people actively looking for good new music to discover.” He continues, “it’s a ton of bad ass big artists” and at the same time it’s such a chance for newcomers, everyone’s appreciating.”
Wimmer agrees “it was a very cool experience and the fact that it was directly in the downtown area I thought was great. The ambience around you, the park, you see the skyscrapers with Lake Michigan in back of the stage.”
Talk turns to the Austrian music scene, there it felt like “everyone was on their own” partially because Austria is such a small slice of the music business.
Grumeth offers, “I don’t think you can really be rebellious. I mean you can’t start a riot in Austria.” Wimmer adds, “It’s just too nice there.”
In the United State, Grumeth like that people are about “let’s achieve the best song, the best possible thing, working together.”
When the band was told they were playing Lollapalooza, they didn’t immediately recognize it was a big deal. The importance of this surprise, a debut appearance at a major festival in America’s second city no less, is not lost on a band that was often told that they’d fit in more in the States than Europe.