“Quick, in here!”
I’m pulled from the cobblestone pathway we are walking down into a nondescript door carved into the fortress wall. I bump my head, discovering the hard way that the roof is only 5 foot high. We are led underground into a surreal medieval rave cave. A line of flames lick the bar but no-one seems to be noticing, too entranced in the music. It’s as if Game of Thrones characters had access to techno music and recreational drugs. We dance madly, only to be ejected back out into the throes of the main festival ten minutes later as if nothing had ever happened. Such are the wonders of EXIT.
I first heard about Exit Festival over eight years ago. My Serbian friend Sanja would talk of this mysterious music festival that ran for 5 days in the walls of a 18th century fortress, where local bands and international headliners played until sunrise and the beer was only $2.50. I first came to Serbia two years ago but missed it by a manner of weeks, so there was no question about if we would go this time around. And what a festival it has been.
From the moment I step off the bus in Novi Sad with a friend I’d made in Belgrade, it’s pretty clear that this wouldn’t be anything like the standard Australian festival experience. Within moments we are bombarded by touts offering accommodation, taxis, tattoo deals and even Rakija, the local alcohol that resembles fruit-infused rocket fuel. We make our way through the throng to find a local bus to our hostel. The bus looks like it was donated by a more wealthy country once it had become too unsafe for western standards, like a half-broken hand-me-down toy from a bored older brother (I later find out that this is actually the case for a lot of the infrastructure here).
Even though Serbia may still be a developing country, they sure as hell know how to put on a festival. EXIT began in 2000 as a student protest against then-President Slobodan Milošević, who was responsible for most of the atrocities that resulted in the NATO bombing in 1999. Apart from a few political talks in the early hours of the evening, there’s little resemblance to its humble beginnings today. Over 200,000 people walk through the gates every year, with headlining bands that rival any Western European festival. There are 20 stages dotted around the fortress, hidden in moats, buildings and tunnels. To escape the scorching Serbian summer heat the festival runs from 9pm to 7am each day. Australian festivals could learn a lot from Exit.
The first night begins with one of the headlining acts, The Artist Formerly Known As Snoop Dogg (he has now been reincarnated to Snoop Lion). I don’t have high hopes, but it ends up being an uproariously fun hour-long pastiche of every pop song he’s ever featured in. His new reggae style doesn’t even get a look in. As a Katy Perry backing track fires up for California Girls I realise that this is less a musical set and more of a comedy act. But what fun. Snoop yells “What’s my motherfucking name?!” The crowd isn’t quite sure how to respond. It seems that even he is still having an identity crisis.
We spend the next few hours trying to organise places for people to eat, meet and see bands. Some things about festivals never change. People dressed as giant sperm resembling overweight KKK members hand out Durex condoms. I had hoped that somewhere as exotic as Eastern Europe would have been spared the corporatisation of festivals but it seems there is no escape. We head to see Fatboy Slim, another washed up 90s act playing under the guise of nostalgia (I’m beginning to sense a theme here). To his credit he doesn’t rely on his back catalogue for cheap thrills, and despite being over 50 and not wearing shoes he at least doesn’t sound like he’s just playing a CD.
All of a sudden it’s 4am and I’ve lost everyone. I turn to leave. I climb the stairs that plunge into the moat of the fortress, turning around just in time to catch everyone chanting “Eat. Sleep. Rave. Repeat” in unison as first light appears in the sky. I suspect this will become a motto for the festival. I try to take a photo with my phone camera but it doesn’t do it justice, turning individuals into a seething mass of humanity. So perhaps not an entirely inaccurate depiction after all.
The next morning is brutal. I eat Burek, a traditional breakfast that resembles a meat pastry dipped in a vat of oil. I sit on some stairs accompanied by a stray dog and wonder how the women here stay so beautiful when most meals consist of at least three types of meat. That afternoon we go down to the Strand, a man-made beach on the Danube. We sit on deck chairs sipping cocktails to cure the hangover, listening to pumping techno coming from the beach bars that cancels any progress the alcohol could have made. For a landlocked country, Serbia sure knows how to do beaches.
That night we attempt to catch a glimpse of the Prodigy along with 40,000 others but are thwarted by some fight-dancing Scotsman. We decide to go exploring around some of the numerous smaller stages dotted around the fortress. Most feature slight variations of the dance genre, with one thing in common: every single one plays Get Lucky at least 3 times a night. We discover a Latino stage and spend two hours attempting to salsa, no small feat after numerous litres of beer.
Later on we huddle and watch Who See, the Montenegrin hip-hop duo who represented the country in Eurovision this year. Much to my dismay they don’t appear in astronaut suits like they did then. It seems that every country has terrible hip-hop, it’s just that here they enter it into international song contests. The sun comes up and suddenly literally everyone is wearing sunglasses. Where the hell did they pull them from? People come to this festival prepared.
By the time that Thom Yorke appears on the third night flanked by his Atoms for Peace bandmates, everyone is looking a little worse for wear. This was my big drawcard for the festival, and we are rewarded by a two-hour set (including two encores), despite the band only having a nine song catalogue. It’s much more funky than it sounds on record, almost entirely thanks to Flea’s increased input on stage. Yorke is more relaxed compared to the meticulous style he’s famous for in that other band. I daresay he might even be having fun. There’s much more experimental jamming too; songs are extended into 9 minute epics, which is not unsurprising considering the origins of Atoms for Peace. Hopefully we hear more from this side project.
We climb stairs carefully perched above some ruins and pass a line of girls with their pants down potentially defecating on UNESCO property. We try and find the rave cave from the first night but it’s nowhere to be seen. “It’s like Hogwarts!” somebody quips. Hours later watching a sunrise from the parapet that can only be described as magical, I can’t help but agree.
“It’s so good to see actual instruments!” The girl next to me clearly has seen enough DJ in the past week to last her a year. It’s the final night and Bloc Party play a retrospective set mostly from their first two albums. The opening notes of This Modern Love begin and suddenly I’m sixteen again at Oomoo Street and everything is new and exciting except now I’ve been to Bethnal Green and lived in Kreuzberg and it wasn’t nearly as romantic as my teenage self imagined. They play some of their new stuff and it’s OK I guess but now they’re just another British rock band going through the motions and that makes me more nostalgic than anything else has this week.
The melancholy continues with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I’m surprised to hear numerous Serbians in the crowd singing along. During Into My Arms a young man next to me starts sobbing into his shirt. I can’t work out whether to console him or to join him. It must be the extreme sleep deprivation. Nick is in the crowd and during a sublime cover of The Mercy Seat he reaches out to a girl on someone’s shoulders and for the briefest of moments they touch. This was always the wild card on a primarily dance-based lineup but as Cave’s voice booms throughout the fortress walls I understand why he’s here. Why we’re all here.
The rest of the night can only be recounted in snippets. SBTRKT proving that anyone can DJ if they have access to good guest vocalists. Dancing to a Latino version of Gangam Style. My cursed flailing arms whacking somebody in the privates and then running away hoping they don’t chase me. Diplo playing Get Free and everybody going crazy despite not having an ounce of energy left in our bodies.
As we exit Exit for the final time (I’m still disappointed it wasn’t through a gift shop), I realise why they call this festival what they do. Life isn’t always easy for Serbians, but once you’re through the thresholds of the fortress it’s easy enough to forget all of that. The country is definitely improving, and although there’s still a long way to go for five days it’s enough, for now.