In a dim-lit corner of the balcony of the Von Krohl Bar, a nondescript middle-aged man sits at a table bearing a clumsily-scrawled ‘Reserved’ sign, twiddling on his Blackberry. A bouncer ushers away anyone who happens to wander into his sightline to the stage; a Tallinn Music Week bigwig, perhaps, or a particularly showy venue manager. Then the bouncer politely insists “no pictures” to a local photographer and we realise that the guy must be some kind of Estonian celebrity.
“Who is it?” The photographer looks at us incredulously. “That’s our President…”
It’s a sign of the tiny scale of Estonia – a country about the size of the East Midlands – that their leader can hang out drinking local lager and nodding along to rock bands at the first night of his capital’s equivalent of CMJ or SXSW and barely turn a head. But it’s testament to the talent thriving in this tiny, chilly corner of Northern Europe that, for the three days of TMW, the bars and basements beneath the charming medieval streets – full of stag dos, strip bars and actual ‘wenches’ serving you actual mead – are full of bands from Estonia, Finland and neighbouring states giving the UK scene a damn good run for its money.
Sure, those from north of the Baltic sometimes stick to the Scandinavian cliché of making music that sounds like their terrain: icy, imposing and often impenetrable without months of extensive training. But the best of these – Finland’s On Volcano – manage to sound like Sigur Ro(ck)s without any of the prissiness or violence that can mar the clumsier copyist of the mating narwhal. Others, such as the Pavement-aping Honey Power get the President (almost) moshing along in delight that it’s not all church-burning black metal round these parts anymore (although there’s plenty of metal mayhem on offer courtesy of Nitrous and Goresoerd if that’s your particular bag of rotting crow’s bones).
Yes, there’s smatterings of amateurish Balkan bollocks out there too – Friday night at the cavern-like Mustpeade Maja Keldrisaal finds the one-man Multiphonic Rodent trying to create songs by looping a plethora of instruments – drums, keyboards, clarinets – none of which he can actually play properly. Then, after a recovery hour in Tallinn’s bar dedicated entirely to Depeche Mode (no shit, and there used to be two of them until one drove the other out of business), NME returns to find the marvellously named Estonians Badass Yuki are just plain bad Happy Mondays. But even here there’s treasure: Helsinki’s French Films turn in a sublime set of shoey pop shimmer with a distant clatter of The Drums. ‘Let’s Go Glacier-Skating’, in essence…
Tallinn Music Week has clearly been studying other European conferences for tips. From In The City it’s taken a host of daytime talks and panels – the event entitled ‘How to effectively support music entrepreneurs and artists with their careers: what are the ways of clever investment and support, what is the infrastructure needed to create an encouraging and motivating environment?’ was wall-to-wall hookers and cocaine, we’d imagine. From the Montreux Jazz Festival it’s taken a token jazz night at the Rotermanni Aatrium, which is obviously shit. And from The Camden Crawl it’s taken the inability to get into the best stuff – all of Tallinn and its wife is crammed into the Von Krahl Theatre for Ewert And The Two Dragons, preventing NME from finding out if they’re the porno puppet act we’d feverishly imagined.
Instead, we totter downstairs to catch AMOEBA, a local act who wear laser gloves and monochrome glasses, dance like robotic marionettes and play dazzling electro rock on things that look like guitars and sound like guitars but which aren’t guitars at all. Their most enthusiastic fans perform hippy yoga dancing down the front, and then turn up on the Theatre stage themselves an hour or so later as Iiris, Estonia’s answer to Marina & The Diamonds. Admittedly, it’s a question we’d never thought of asking, but by the time she’s coo’d, trembled and squeaked her way through songs about zombies and unicorns like a Kate Bush/Lady Gaga hybrid we’re considering putting the question ‘what is your country’s answer to Marina & The Diamonds?’ to the next UN council meeting, for the sake of all pop.
And as for the President? He’s probably resigned by now, having realised he could make far more dough A&Ring for the majors in this rich rock backwater.