Thursday, 1 March 2018

Top Tens: Jason Berden of El Topo Bookings and Level Up Festival's Top Ten Punk Rock Influences

Jason Berden is the driving force behind Belgium's El Topo Bookings. Previously a tour booker and show promoter, he now focuses solely on organising the two-day fest El Topo Goes Loco and co-hosting London-based Level Up Fest. He can also sometimes be found deejaying afterparties with his fellow El Topo organiser Wouter, under the moniker Radio El Topo.

1. Reel Big Fish - Take On Me
I spent my early teenage years listening to crappy pseudo-gothic metal. To long-haired, acne-ridden and socially oblivious thirteen-year-old me, Evanescence were the absolute best gift the music gods had given to mankind. I sort of drifted into New Wave later on, with Evanescence replaced by Joy Division as my favourite band for a few years. Somewhere late 2008 I was listening to a playlist on YouTube when a-ha's classic tune "Take On Me" led me to a strange cover by a quirky and colourful band… On my first listen, it felt as though I'd been living in a dark hole my entire teenage life and someone just lifted the lid. I fell in love instantly with the energy, the cheekiness and the attitude. That evening in 2008 was a real turning point; I was sucked into the skapunk scene immediately and I don't think I've since listened to my old stuff more than maybe five times. RBF (and skapunk in general) gets a lot of flak, but to me they will always be the band who showed me music could actually be fun.

2. Streetlight Manifesto - Somewhere In The Between
It probably comes as no surprise but SLM is my all-time favourite band so this album ranks pretty high on my list. I was introduced to them shortly after discovering the skapunk world and from the very first moment I was blown away. I sometimes wish I could forget about them so I can go through that first discovery again. Ever since, they've pretty much been the benchmark for any other band, both musically and lyrically. I recently saw them perform one of the three shows with the BOTAR Orchestra and hearing those songs performed with the full glory of a fourty-piece orchestra behind them reaffirmed why I have been so obsessed with them for nearly ten years.

3. Propagandhi - Supporting Caste
So when I got into skapunk in late 2008 I was vaguely aware that it was closely related to a lot of 90s punk, but I didn't really find many bands that resonated with me at first sight. I have never really been into many of the 90s melodic punk bands. It was the release of Propagandhi's Supporting Caste shortly thereafter that showed me the fast and techy side of punk rock and really sucked me into it. I guess their political stances had a lot do to with that as well. I love how their songs seldom have a real chorus and the lyrics more resemble a manifesto. They aren't my favourite band in the subgenre - that's A Wilhelm Scream in fact - but they definitely were my gateway to techy skatepunk, which is a close second to skapunk in my book.

4. The Clash - s/t (USA release)
The Clash might not be the only band that matters, but they kind of are The Only Band That Matters. The USA release of their self-titled is slightly better than the original, with a few stand out tracks that really showcase why The Clash is such an influential band on me. They broke down punks barriers and showed how to incorporate so many other vibes in it. I'm not sure if they were the first to add reggae, funk and so much more to the new punk sound back in the 70s (I wasn't there, on account of not being born for another 15 years) but they certainly did it the best.

5. First punk show I attended, co-headlined by The JB Conspiracy and P.O.Box
I grew up in Mol, which is a boring town where nothing ever happens. Fortunately, we Belgians have something called youth houses, where youngsters are supported to do whatever the fuck they want. In my case, someone from Mol booked a show in late 2009, co-headlined by skapunk staples P.O.Box and The JB Conspiracy. Punk music's great and all that, but it pales in comparison with seeing bands like these live. Give me sweaty punk shows over big fancy arena productions any day! This was the first of many, many, many shows I attended and those two bands turned into some of my all-time favourites. They've featured at many El Topo shows since and looking back, I can't believe what a great line-up that first show was.

6. Random Hand - Inhale/Exhale
I had been listening to skapunk for about a year when I stumbled upon Random Hand's Inhale/Exhale. I knew about some skacore bands such as Voodoo Glow Skulls but it hadn't really clicked yet. Random Hand changed that for me. I found out about the huge UK ska scene through them, which has always been predominant throughout the six years that El Topo has been running now.

7. First time seeing Gogol Bordello live (2010)
I felt very lucky I got to see Gogol Bordello in a medium-sized venue before they blew up and only played huge fests for a while, until I got to see them in a huge venue a few months back and realised they still brought the same rowdy vibe to the stage. To me, Gogol Bordello is the epitome of the mix-'n'-mash approach to punk rock I love so much and in that way, I guess you could call them today's Clash. To me, punk is about carving out something new; I feel bands who create a whole new sound out of such a wide range of influences are way more punk than your run-of-the-mill '77-style "punx" band. This show was so insane, I immediately afterwards decided I'd get their logo tattooed - to date, still my only ink.

8. The Menzingers - On The Impossible Past
So as I said earlier, I went from dark and sad New Wave to happy skapunk and then gradually got into punk rock. I guess I came full circle with this album, which got me into a lot of more emo-style punk rock. What an album! What a band! I saw them just a few days ago so I'm still reeling. The topics that these guys sing about are a lot more personal and very relatable for twenty-somethings like me who can't quite figure life out yet.

9. Putting on Beat The Red Light (2012)
I started putting on shows as El Topo in early 2012, because no one else was doing it anymore in Mol. For one of my first shows, I booked crossover ska/metal heroes Beat The Red Light. Even though it wasn't exactly the greatest turnout, it is to this day one of the most insane shows I have ever put on. It showed me that I wasn't just putting on shows, but rather was building a scene. Someone suggested I just book a whole skacore fest and I decided to act on that. This show was really where my fest, El Topo Goes Loco, was born. A pretty decisive moment, considering that's what I spend most of my free time on nowadays…

10. Booking a tour for Tree House Fire (2012)
In 2012 I booked a tour for UK reggae/ska masters Tree House Fire. One thing led to another and at one point I think I had 9 bands that I booked tours for. Real life has come between that and I've given it up now, but for a few years this was a huge part of my life and something I wished I could do for a living. I've never really picked up any instrument, but with this tour booking thing I learnt to fully appreciate the DIY spirit and it felt as if I was contributing a lot. In 2015 we secured a showcase slot at the Jera On Air festival, which was definitely one of the highlights for El Topo Bookings - Tree House Fire played it, of course.

Check out El Topo Bookings here:

Check out Level Up Festival here:

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