The End is the Beginning
It’s late. No, it’s early. Maybe it’s both. There is a bright crest of light along the top of the tree line, illuminating the grass field that served as our dance floor for a makeshift after-party at Electric Forest. A small contingent of my twenty person group is bouncing along to the Ancient Mermaids’ gritty house, waving sparklers and swapping stories from the festival. Jello Shot Paul tagged along, and two girls in animal onesies trade pulls from a bag of red wine in between hugs. Two hoopers seem to be operating in slow motion. In fact, nobody’s going hard. We’ve all been at it for four days, by all accounts, we should have passed out in a heap back at camp hours ago, but we’re kept upright and bouncing foot to foot by the all-powerful FOMO, refusing to let go.
I know what I said about Electric Forest (and life) in my preview, the metaphor of taking it with you in smiles and laughter and operating with an open heart, and that’s how you get to experience the happiness of the Forest on the other 361 days of the year. However, in that moment, I could not afford that kind of perspective. The forest for the trees, if you will. I just wanted a little more, and for it to last a little longer. After all, I’d already taken so long find a way to let go.
My first show at Electric Forest turned out to be one of the best, with Yotto kicking things off for the Anjunadeep curated day at Tripolee. As a big fan of melodic house with dark atmospherics and heavy, deep bass, that stage was the place to be. Yotto, the Finnish hunk that he is, held the audience in the palm of his hand, rapt and dancing happily. My highlight was his remix of Rüfüs Du Sol’s “Like an Animal,” a surely inadvertent premonition of his and Rüfüs’ b2b booking Saturday night at The Grand Artique. He’s quickly built a handsome arsenal of remixes in the past couple years, and also previewed a new original, ‘The Owls,’ that dropped the following week.
I had to step away from the bliss of Tripolee momentarily to run up to Jubilee for DJ Jazzy Jeff. I’d listened to some of his live sets ahead of time and he’s an incredible DJ, and it was an easy sell to the people I dragged all the way to the other end of the festival grounds. We were all a little disappointed to find him hopping from one top 40 hit to the next with seemingly little artistic touch to it. He had an MC whose voice was a little too loud, and it seemed like they both might have just been off. Even a Prince tribute couldn’t save the performance. It also could have just been me, because there was a tent full of people there who were having a fantastic time.
Upon my return to Tripolee, about 30 minutes into Cubicolor’s set, I was met with a surprising lack of sound. No show, nobody on stage, not even intermission music playing. I meandered past the stage and took a pit stop in a porto, during which music kicked back on. It’s funny how many things seems to start while you’re in a porto…
Cubicolor was more of the same pleasant house, and I found out that the music had just cut off in the middle of his set. This marked the first sort of catastrophic sound failure I’d witnessed at the Forest. Sure, there’s been some feedback or crackling here and there in the past, and some shows where the sound just plain isn’t loud enough, but nothing this bad. It wouldn’t be the last, either. Equipment issues plagued the stage throughout the weekend, and I wasn’t able to figure out the culprit. In all honestly, it probably doesn’t matter, because the people behind the Forest are really good at avoiding repeating the same mistakes. For this go-round, though, the complete stoppages were incredibly frustrating.
A word to the wise for future Foresters: If you need to meet somebody at the security check-in to, say, off-load a wristband; make sure they can get to the south checkpoint. If you absolutely must go and they can only meet you at the north side, take that nice pedicab up on his offer for a ride. You’ll significantly reduce your travel time and thus, the amount of sets missed. That way, you can ensure you won’t be walking along some country back road while the sweet, sweet house of Duke Dumont is blasting across the fields as you’re ambling by. But again, if you absolutely have to, that’s not the worst soundtrack to have on your walk.
I also missed the Moonboots portion of Anjunadeep day, but I got back in time for Lane 8, which wound up being the perfect re-entry point back into the fray of Electric Forest.
Last year, we were treated to a fantastic 1-2 punch of Claude VonStroke and Green Velvet, making for a delightful two and a half hours at Tripolee. This year’s equivalent combo was Lane 8 and Dusky on Thursday night.
It’s interesting that many of the producers on Anjunadeep seem to have converged on the same page sonically. For Moon Boots and Lane 8, it’s been a slight departure from the norm, into darker territory. For Dusky, it’s in large part more of the same, albeit more melodically centered. (Take a listen to these three songs and you’ll know what I mean.)
That sonic shift carried right over into their live shows, with Lane 8 taking his set into darker and edgier terrain than usual, and it was glorious. It’s that feeling when you get into a groove, and everything clicks and falls into place, and everything becomes effortless. That’s the feeling I got at Lane 8 and Dusky’s sets. The day, and indeed the whole build up and travel to the Forest led up to this…bliss. If there was an addictive substance in festivals, it would be produced here, in these moments.
“I had a dream where I was rapping at this place, and Nicki Minaj was there, and she handed me this giant stack of bills. She told me my name was KTM and I needed to make it rain, so I did.” Those are the first words I recall hearing one of my camp mates, Katie Ritter say on the morning we arrived as she pantomimed holding a huge stack of money and feathering bills off the top at an imaginary crowd.
Electric Forest may feature an owl on most of their artwork and promotional materials, but the Forest’s spirit animal for 2016 was, without question, Katie Ritter, who ran at a steady 110% every minute of the festival. Ritter grew up in Montana and relocated to Los Angeles, where she found work as a production assistant on the sets of shows, advertisements, and music videos. Which may explain why being in her company always makes me feel like I’m in a movie. A movie sound-tracked by Rapchat.
Ritter managed something I never have in my past five years of EF attendance: yoga. I just can’t seem to manage to get my poop in a group early enough. But she did. Afterward, when I was still trying to clear out the mental cobwebs, she told me about an incredible moment after the routine where the yogi, Hannah Muse, asked participants to sit face to face with a friend, to place a hand over each other’s heart, and maintain eye contact. Hannah spoke about working through the pain in your life, in recognizing the same in that other person. As it happened, Ritter wound up with a pair of friends at first, so her attention was splintered. But then she was asked to switch to a sit with a stranger. The stranger had sunglasses on, and when Ritter took them off with her non-heart holding hand, she saw his eyes were wet with tears. In his eyes, she saw pain and vulnerability and began to cry herself. The longer they stared, the more intense she felt. The next stranger’s eyes were dry to begin with, but not for long, as the chain reaction continued. As relayed the story, tears welled up in both our eyes, and I was struck by the bravery of everybody exposing themselves to complete strangers. In that story, at that moment, I learned Ritter has heart.
The last time Ritter and I were at Electric Forest together, it was 2011, and things looked quite a bit different. The stages were fewer in number and smaller in size. Tripolee was in a different place, and the forest stage was merely a couple banquet tables under a 10×10 canopy.
Despite the fact that EF is an evolving creature, an ever-adapting work that organizers are consistently tweaking, and some constants emerged over the years, things they’ve gotten right and left that way. They’re gradually building a static branding message, and an identity beginning to take shape. From the ornately carved wood of the Ranch Arena stage that’s remained largely unchanged for three years to the Mona Lisa-smiling faces of Tripolee static only this year, you can now see a photo from a show at Electric Forest and know exactly where it was taken. Even the Jubilee and Hangar remain largely unchanged. They’ve created a beautiful creature and are nurturing her perfectly.
The organizers of EF, through their program, Electrology, place a lot of stress on the responsibility us humans have in cleaning up and advocating for the environment. The most emphasis at the festival is on clean-up, awarding merch tickets and prizes for those who turn in garbage, recyclables, and cigarette butts. Ritter took it upon herself to pick up the festival grounds as we walked, and where we danced, and of course, she didn’t just do it in style, she did it with panache.
I learned Ritter gives a shit. EF places a lot of emphasis on loving the earth, reducing your impact on the environment, and taking responsibility and nobody took responsibility quite like Katie Ritter.
Let’s talk Rüfüs
Rüfüs Du Sol (Just Rüfüs outside of North America) is an Australian trio who make a kind of indie/house hybrid music that, above all else, makes you feel..feelings. It’s easy to get into and impossible to get out of your head, which is fine, because they make incredibly pleasant music.
It isn’t often that I can pinpoint exactly where and when I first heard a particular group, but I know that time and place for Rüfüs. My friend Corkies had to remove herself from the festival circuit, and essentially from civilization for a time a few years ago. We kept in touch by exchanging letters and email. I did my best to keep her up to date on current events, new music, and whatever else I thought was important. She had extremely limited access to music and researched the hell out of what she was able to get her hands on.
It was particularly difficult when the Forest came around, as Corkies is the person who introduced me to the Forest. Attending without her felt wrong, but she encouraged everybody to go without her, and that she’d rejoin us in the coming years. She still wanted to participate, so she put together a list of songs to play each night when we got back to camp. It was in the fourth night’s mix that she included Rüfüs’ “Modest Life” and the Kastle remix of “Desert Night.” When I played them on Sunday night at EF 2012, we were all elated by their music. I sent the playlist to the group afterward, and everybody seemed to gravitate to Rüfüs, and our collective obsession was born.
Fast forward to the return of Corkies, the release of ‘Bloom’, our listening-the-shit-out-of-Bloom, and us chomping at the bit for the chance to see them live. Corkies saw them first in Denver, then I caught their live and DJ sets at Coachella. When we saw their names on the Electric Forest lineup, it felt like planets were aligning. Then the lineup for the ‘Grand Artique’ dropped with a Rüfüs DJ set on it, and this tall, lumbering man squealed like a giddy child on Christmas morning.
The Grand Artique was a multi-purpose, repurposed wooden structure made of recycled materials, and consisting of a trading post, a small semi-enclosed stage, and a myriad of activities around it. There were also quite a few staff in and around the structure to interact and/or haggle with.
It was on that little stage that Rufus took over for Yotto, which was a lovely transition. Their DJ set was a groove-based, house-centric story they told with a string of remixes of theirs and their music, as well as other producer’s originals. They all took turns at the controls, playing to a crowd of maybe 200 people, all smiling and dancing and sublime.
Their live set was delayed by about 15 minutes due to some mysterious equipment issue. When they finally took the stage, they were all smiles and those smiles were infectious. All around me, everybody was cheesing hard for their entire, albeit abbreviated, set. Except for the seven minutes of “Innerbloom” which the singer, Tyrone, introduced as a heavier track, and invited all of us to go on a journey with them. It hit all kinds of emotional buttons, and the effect of that was widespread as well, increasing the intensity of the already high “feels factor” of that song. It was unreal, and over all too soon.
Late Sunday night, a group of us were trampling through the forest on our way past the wooden outer structure of the Grand Artique, when I decided to stop and peek in an opening that took all of my 6’5” and some stretching straining to see into. I glanced and started walking again, then I pulled myself back for a double take.
“Wait, did I just see…?” I started to ask myself as I stood up on my tippy toes. I thought I’d caught the blonde quaff of Tyrone’s hair and his Adidas jacket, but I looked away my crew who were calling back to me.
“What are you looking at?” They asked.
“Rüfüs. I think I see Rüfüs.” I trailed off, not really believing my own words. I peeked again, and the room was empty. “I think.” I added.
“Shut up!” My partner, Cass said in disbelief, “In there?!” I didn’t answer her because it seemed so ridiculous. It had been hours since their set. What would they still be doing here, in the middle of the forest? I also didn’t want to be wrong. I pointed at the room they were in and held my finger at that position as I walked around the building to an opening. Somebody was performing on the stage, and a small crowd had congregated in the Grand Artique, and I followed my finger to the room I had peeked into. It was empty, save for one guy, who was definitely not one of the three members of Rüfüs. But he was familiar. I’d seen him earlier in the day at….where was it? He was on a stage. He was on Sherwood. He was Rüfüs’ sound guy. My heart leapt into my throat, and I turned around to see many of the faces in my crew looking at me.
“They’re here,” I said. “They’re really here. They were in that room.” It didn’t take long to scan the crowd and find them. Again, Tyrone’s hair pretty much glows in the dark. We all just sort of stood there for a second, not knowing what to do, or who would go first. Of course, it was Corkies who broke formation and made her way to talk to the trio. She was a giddy, smiley fan-girl. She didn’t tell this story, about how everything had just come full circle. She asked them about their show in Denver and thanked them for their music that she loves so much. Slowly the rest of us made our way over to them, carrying our jellyfish totem in tow.
“Hey, it’s a jellyfish!” Exclaimed Tyrone when he saw our totem. Courtney explained that it was Shelly, our jellyfish totem. He continued, “Did you know that a large group of jellyfish is called a bloom, and that’s what we named our album after?”
Did I know that? I mean, yes, I’d learned what a bloom is before, but had I also put the two together? Was I wondering this out loud? How long have I been staring at them?
My self-conscious train of thought was cut off when a lanky man in a barbershop quartet costume yelled from the stage, “DODGEBALL FIGHT!” then tossed a few boxes of inflatable beach balls into the crowd. The members of Rüfüs and my friends picked balls up and stood there briefly, as if they were wondering if they could do that, now, with these people. Then their sound guy crashed in and hit one of them square in the face, which led to everybody lurching back and tossing balls back and forth. I couldn’t stop giggling. Eventually, we thanked them again, I took a shaky group picture and we said our goodbyes.
It was the most amazing full circle experience I could have asked for. I’m so grateful for the Forest for providing the grounds and means to make that happen, and to the three gentlemen of Rüfüs for taking the time to talk to us, and for all the incredible music.
On divinity and higher purpose
If there’s such thing as “rock royalty,” then I think the same courtesy should be extended to all genres, including electronic music. If the concept of monarchy does reach that far, then the title Queen of House should go to Anna Lunoe. At the very least, she’s should be its princess.
I missed her b2b with Mija, which is too bad, because from what I’m told, they absolutely tore shit up together. On her own, she’s still a formidable, high-energy performance. She loves music just as much as you do, and she dances as hard as anybody at her shows. And dance she did, repeatedly emerging from behind her console to jump and dance, bouncing back and forth across the stage. It had more of a party vibe than a show.
Justin Martin took over in a seamless transition, the only noticeable difference being the dominating, low thrum of bass as the music transformed into something a little darker, but still full of party.
It was also where I wound up in something like crisis mode. As Justin Martin pressed forward with his bass-heavy house, the start time for Gorgon City grew steadily closer. I’m not gonna lie, these are really difficult times for me. I also recognize this is a prime example of what many people would refer to as a “good problem.” Basically, would you like amazing or amazing? I don’t think there was a wrong choice in that moment, either. I wound up tapping out to head up to Sherwood for Gorgon City, but I didn’t hear a complaint from anybody about the rest of Martin’s set.
Thankfully, the same can be said for Gorgon City’s performance. Holy moly. All I kept thinking was about how “big” the show felt. Not like generation-defining big, more like “how did the Sherwood stage just double in size” big. They were larger than life, and they put on an incredible, captivating performance.
Also, the ‘holy’ descriptor works double time, as much their music clearly borrows from gospel, pushing spirituality to the forefront in their lyrics and production. I’m not a religious person, but Gorgon City’s performance made me feel things, made me feel important, like this wasn’t just a musical performance, instead it became a sort of group enlightenment. This is the closest I come to church, and I believe it serves many of the same purposes. “Ready for your Love” could be as much about finding Jesus as it could be getting over a breakup. Music is never single purpose, though. It’s never the same thing for everybody. Despite that, it felt like it meant something to everybody in attendance at Sherwood Court.
I shudder to think about the experience of a camping festival without the benevolent kindness of camp moms. Not your actual mom (not usually), but the person who takes it upon themselves to coordinate everybody in camp, pools resources, arranges food, and covers all the logistical bases in festival execution. Behind every successful camp is a camp mom. My camp mom happens to also be my romantical partner, Cass, without whom I would be a sunburned, dehydrated mess who expelled the last of his bodily moisture peeing himself, probably just on the first day. Without caretaking camp moms like Cass, EF would be four long days of diluted experience, of soggy cheese sandwiches because somebody didn’t seal the meat or fully close the cooler, so it all had to be tossed, and does this cheese taste like meat water to you, too?
Instead, everybody has toothpaste, cold drinks, and fully cooked meals. We had pulled chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. I had enough water and a charging cable for my phone, and I got to experience the festival, and not my own plight.
Her superpowers don’t stop at logistical prowess and culinary wizardry, either. This year, Cass was something of a festivaling role model. She continually got our group together and kept us that way so we could all experience it together, and so nobody would be left out. She set up activities for us to build little nature scenes, or dioramas. We had a lot of people stop by to check us out, one security guard gathered supplies like pinecones and grasses, and we even attracted the attention of some of the porcelain doll ladies.
She and Ritter also persisted with the characters at the Hangar and got a seat in the back room of the secret Poetry Brothel as well as a peek at the Mile High Club. She threw herself fully into the forest, embraced it, and in turn was embraced. Last, but not least, she looked absolutely incredible doing it. If there was a festival fashion magazine (is there?), she’d have earned a spot on the cover.
In the visual arts, there is a term called negative space, which describes the typically empty area around the subject. In music, it is may simply be called a rest, although there is a lesser-used Japanese term, ‘ma,’ which describes a space between two structural parts. In either medium, if you examine closely enough, you’ll figure out how important negative space is to the overall piece.
If there’s one lesson to take away from Electric Forest 2016, it is the value of the in-between parts of the festival, the downtime between shows, or after the festival gates close at night. The best moments of a festival do not happen on a stage, but posted up in the Forest, or wandering through the campgrounds, or commiserating while recovering in the morning.
It is in these breaks that I’ve met some of the coolest people, heard some of the best music, and laughed the hardest, at festivals or anywhere else.
At a more macro level of a year of day to day life, it is the festival that serves as a rest, and what a beautiful rest is Electric Forest.
Kickin it Like the Second Hand
There were other performances on Sunday, many worth talking about at length. Hayden James and Le Youth put on stellar shows, but nobody (Rüfüs aside) else held their finger on the intersection of feels and melody so deftly, nor so powerfully, as Gryffin. I’ve followed Gryffin’s steady rise since stumbling onto his collab with Hotel Garuda remixing Banks’ ‘Begging for Thread.” In all honesty, he could have just played that on repeat and I would have been content. Instead, he put together a storytelling stream of originals and remixes, handling guitar, piano, and percussion duties in an impressive one man show. He spent the better part of a year engineering his live production, and I have to say that all the hard work absolutely paid off.
In spite of the weaving wall of totems, it was also a pretty visual production, borrowing the colors and graphics of his “Coming Home” single’s artwork. It also helped to watch some of the show from the undulating perspective of the Ferris wheel. Sometimes I’m uncomfortable with the heights, but this time around (pun intended), there was no fear, just the steady rise and fall of the car in and out of the night sky. At the top, you can see the lights and lasers at Ranch and Sherwood, and the shifting glow of the Forest. The people look like insects, and Tripolee looked like an adorable scale model. Something happened up there. I can’t say what, but between the lack of fear and the distance and elevation, I was afforded a gift, of sorts. All I thought was, “none of this matters.” And ‘this’ wasn’t just one thing, it wasn’t the festival, nor was it life in general. ‘This’ was anything, and everything that had been following me around like a cloud. My stress, my grief, my self-consciousness, my anxiety, my worries, none of it mattered. The people in the car with me mattered. This festival mattered. I mattered.
I couldn’t tell you who I closed out the festival with. I don’t remember any big names, no grand finale, or much of anything aside from the dodge-ball fight with Rüfüs. After the music was done, my crew gathered together and posted up near the library in the Forest and waited for security to kick us out like we always do.
And find us they did, seemingly much faster than they have in the past. We shuffled out, and a few of us followed the sound of music into the Triptizone to find a one-person show underway, a karaoke-like setup that really tested the resolve of my grip on reality after it’d already been put through so much. Ritter was likewise entranced, and walked up to me and demanded my phone.
“My phone is dead and I *need* to shoot a music video.” And she held her hand out. I already had my camera out, but I reached into my back pocket and handed it over without hesitation. A security guy came through and checked everybody’s wrists for certain wristbands. Somehow he missed all 6 or 7 of us who didn’t belong there. It soon became apparent that we were at an after-party for staff. Guilt got the best of us, and we opted to rejoin our group rather than partying on without them. It was the last night, after all.
Fear of Missing Out
The last night in the campground of a festival is an interesting place. Some people are already packed up and take off as soon as they can, but most people try and push it a little harder, for a little longer, to try and hold onto that feeling as long as they can. I was firmly in the latter group and geared up back at camp for a long night.
Last year, we found our way to a Big Gigantic afterparty in a courtyard formed by RV’s, but this time, we’d decided to see what else was out there. We snaked through the maze of the RV’s and found a treasure trove of options. One of my favorites was about a fifteen-foot trailer with a DJ set up at the front and what looked to be the entire DJ lighting section of a store throughout the rest. Further down was an RV topped by a flag with a haphazard “GRiZ” painted on it, surrounded by zero people. We must have missed that party by a day or two.
There was a long dirt path flanked by RV’s, many of them featuring music still in full swing and anywhere from dozens to hundreds of people in attendance. Everybody seemed to be going way too hard for our liking. It was going to be a long night, and we needed music that would allow for that. We trudged on, and trudged a little further until we found a grassy field with a sparse, but enthusiastic crowd.
Before that Big Gigantic after-party in 2015, before we’d even left the Forest for the last time, we stumbled into the Jenkstars’ “Sollun” stage and were serenaded by the self-proclaimed “underwater sea crunk” of Ancient Mermaids. Roughly translated, it was house centered, trap-leaning music that was perfect to zone out and kind of come down to.
And who’s just setting up to play for that grassy field at the end of the RV Afterparty Row, but Ian from Ancient Mermaids. It’s like it was meant to be. Because it was.
What waffles are to food is what Electric Forest is to music festivals, in that your end result depends greatly on your own contribution. You can add pretty much anything to waffles, whether fruit, syrup, chicken, catfish, the list goes on. Whatever your customization, the waffle will support it, play compliment to it, and that combination will become an experience unto itself.
In much the same way, the Forest will accommodate anything you bring to the table. Would you like to find an open and welcoming community? Do you want a place where you can drop your defenses and just be you? Want to talk about music? Want to wear a rainbow tutu? Trade pins? Philosophize? Great, so does EF. It may not be utopia, but there are moments where it feels pretty damn close.
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