Another Labour Day has come and passed, marking the end of summer’s festival season. This year, over a hundred thousand animals from all over the world turned up at Electric Zoo’s four stages, which hosted programming curated expertly from across the dance music spectrum.
Over three days I took in everything from techno to dubstep, snapped some of the best photos of my life, and interviewed an up-and-coming artist with a recent Jeffree’s release that Salacious Sound has gone nutso for. All while thousands of folks of all ages in costumes ranging from the courageous to the outrageous to the down-right salacious.
Arriving on site Friday, the day was hot and the energy was palpable. There couldn’t be a starker dichotomy than that between the serenity of the adjacent driving range, with its rolling green hills and large American Elms lining its boundary, and that of the raveresque Randall’s Island festival site. The golfers didn’t seem to mind the throbbing of electronic beats from the Sunday School Grove stage however, and rather embraced the chance to get down to the Vagabundos crew.
Getting in was a quick affair, and before the weight of my commitment to ‘do’ this festival had sunk in I was surrounded by hundreds of young people cheering and grooving. From the vantage of the small hill at the entrance, protected by the shade of several large trees decorated with butterflies and LED lights, I surveyed the entire grounds, got my bearings, and enjoyed a much-deserved mid-day beer.
To my left, I could see all the way to the enormous main stage, which already had a crowd of several thousand cheering with their hands high for the musical stylings of Alvin Risk. In front were thousands more festival-goes in transit between stages, soaking in the sun, and filling the quickly filling Hilltop and Riverside tents. And off to my right, the modestly produced and heavily curated Sunday School tent was pulsing with the live musical stylings of Frivolous.
Electric Zoo has always done an incredible job on stage production and this year there were several improvements and surprises in store. Every stage had a distinct visual aesthetic, with production elements which were added and layered as each night grew late, providing an evolving show experience which grew in excitement, and befit the style of each performance.
What makes Electric Zoo really special, however, is the crowd that this sort of event attracts. Ten steps in to the festival I was swimming in a sea of colourfully dressed people from their late-teens to mid-twenties on average, glowing with excitement, more often costumed than naught, and completely ready to get down. They provide the inquiring mind a constant source of amusement, and the eyes a constant stream of stimulation.
My first shoot of the day was a set already in progress in the Fool’s Gold Riverside tent, which at 2pm was over half-full with folks enjoying a typically uptempo set by Nadastrom. I’ve seen these gents a handful of times in 2012, and there’s something very special about the energy of their sets. They manage to capture the best sound across genres, vary the tempo seamlessly, and every single time they kill it.
Behind the gents was a giant video screen easily 25′ high and 50′ across. Capable of playing full-motion video, the Fools Gold animated visual reel looked incredible on the giant arrays of LEDs surrounding and providing a backdrop to the stage.
The effect I was most blown away with was the real-time rendering that was taking place on the live video stream of Nadastrom. During their set, and throughout the weekend, live video could be played on the rear visual array and masked in real-time with any number of things (Nadastrom coloured strangely, Dillon Francis in a red riding hood costume.. use your imagination).
I stayed put in the Fool’s Gold tent for some time, and it quickly swelled to capacity for Dillon Francis’ set. Francis is a guy who really doesn’t seem to take image too seriously, and it makes him so accessible. He’s literally the only guy who can get away with jokes about his hair, quipping “FUCK DUBSTEP!”, and playing Venga Boys in a festival moombahcore/electro/etc set.
There’s something about his silly and very geeky persona which makes him so genuine, and I think that’s a fitting description of his music too: sometimes whimsical, light, and ostensibly toy’ish with a no-holds barred, get down aesthetic.
Bottom line: he has cultivated a fanatic base of loyal fans with extremely good taste, and when he performs, they eat it all up – just look at the photo below of the crowd and stage.
I spent the next several hours shooting portraits of the fantastic costumes, and taking in the Vagabundos in the Sunday School Grove. While I have no more artist photography from the first day, I do encourage you to check out the “Animals of Zoo” gallery for my favourite shots.
The shared feelings in my small crew at the beginning of day two was three-fold.
First, it felt like day five; we’re pretty good at shutting things down, and had accrued much fun to ourselves the evening prior.
Second, the Zoo had become a battleground in which you fought for your own clarity of mind against a torrent of assaults on the senses; the piercing lazers and gutteral growls of Felix Cartal’s Riverside set greeted us, along with mad neon YOLO snapbacks, costumes which seemed to be increasing in weirdness and complexity, and a blistering sun.
And third, the festival seemed MUCH busier than the day before; the addition of thousands of animals filled us with a sense of anticipation for the day’s festivities, heightened to the point that it bordered on anxiety.
We moved without delay to our favourite spot in the Sunday School Grove, where Koze was hard at work.
The tent seemed much busier than the day before, and much more impressively lit. As the visuals increased in complexity with more elements added and layered, the tent took on an exciting character which highlighted the subtle details on the stage. The theme of the theme really grew on me, especially as I dialed in my angles.
The busiest I saw the Sunday School over all three days, and indeed my favourite set of the weekend, was dirtybird boss Claude VonStroke’s midday jam, which was a perfect mix of set and setting.
For starters, there’s something deeply infectious about the dirtybird sound; lush, unpredictable, funky, spacious house often referred to as “booty-house” was the soundtrack to which the sweaty animals ground, pop-and-locked, and cheered VonStroke on to.
But what really captured my fascination was his ability to vary the tempo with changes in speed or percussion complexity. His play of Justin Martin’s “Don’t Go” alongside Leroy Peppers’ drum & bass remix is a perfect example of how a very unexpected tempo change, even to something not typically heard alongside the regularly scheduled programming, can be used to great effect.
To me, it’s the truest sign of a great talent for programming.
The setting too, was phenomenal. Scorching peak-heat outside the tent, over two thousand people packed in the Grove seeking refuge under the tent’s shade, and the relief provided by the bouncers at the front spraying the crowd down with soft-pressure water wands. Everybody in the tent was in an absolutely killer mood – a smile at a stranger would earn you a new friend, and a dramatic dance move would earn you a dance-off. I didn’t hear a crowd cheer as loudly in that tent all weekend, and VonStroke soaked it in humbly, like a boss.
Next up was another crew-favourite: Maya Jane Coles. I wish that the first sentence which pops to mind when I think about her wasn’t “best *female* DJ I’ve ever seen”, because she is one of the best I’ve seen irrespective of genres. But there probably is something worth noting about the exceptional talent it takes to succeed as a woman in an industry completely dominated by men. Her taste is on point, and she soundtracked an amazing transition from afternoon to evening.
Dada Life was my main stage set for the day, and I am confident that of any it was the best one to take in. These guys don’t really perform so much as they throw a party, and that attitude really gets their audience going.
They have such a wild and hilarious aesthetic, with their giant inflatable bananas and champagne bottles, a stage covered in actual bananas, and now, a very impressive synced video reel for their performances. There’s something about seeing the words to “Kick Out the Epic Mother Fucker” in 1400pt font that make it a more visceral experience.
There’s also something deeply hilarious and perhaps ironic about playing a set of build-up -> orgasmic drop formula electro house for 90 minutes, and then “finishing” on your audience. Whatever your take, the audience loved the chance to slap a series of high fives, and to get a taste of the champagne Dada be sippin’.
Wolfgang Gartner capped off a big day for me, and was also one of the most exciting photo-ops of the weekend. I’ve been next to this guy a handful of times while he’s DJ’ing now, and let me just say, it’s a shame that people can’t connect visually with what he’s doing with the mixer. The guy is an effects wizard who uses the mixer really extensively, adding little edits, build-ups, and personal touches which put a unique stamp on his performances.
Upon arrival on site with crew Sunday, we were totally sapped of energy from the night before after catching Bauuer, DJ Sliiink, OM Unit, and Aquarian at a sweaty Brooklyn dance party held in the Glasslands venue (did I mention we’re good at shutting things down? and that New York goes til 4 or later?).
I had an interview coming up, and just enough time to spare to take in some people watching, a cold beer, and the musical stylings of my good friends Adventure Club, who had the Hill Top Arena on their toes.
The combination of very upbeat + melodic dubstep, the controlled festival chaos, and the psuedo-tranquil atmosphere in my immediate vicinity gave me a sudden rush of adrenaline, and that was all she wrote.
My interview with Paper Diamond was the first task of the day, and I’m pleased to say that it went spectacularly; he is an extremely well-spoken dude with a passion for the wide variety of work he’s doing in design and music. Keep it locked here over the weekend, as I’ll be publishing that as a separate feature.
After a few words and christmascigarettes with Paper Diamond, I was off to see Umek in the Grove.
Sunday was by far the best-looking day in Sunday School. The stage production was at full-capacity, with impressive projection mapping on the buses layered over the rest of usual visuals.
The vibe was very Eastern European, with the tech house stylings of 1605 label boss Umek next to some impressive selections by Boys Noize.
But what really kept me going was hard electro everything. Knife Party on the main stage, Bloody Beetroots on the Hilltop stage, Benga, Zeds Dead, and Diplo in the Riverside tent, and the grand finale: Skrillex’ main stage mothership performance.
First up was Knife Party where, predictably, a huge crowd was raging.
What surprised me most was the enthusiasm of the security staff in the pit. I’ve been to a dozen festivals this summer now, and only at one other festival have I seen the security actually having fun. These folks have a serious job to do, taking care of a crowd of twenty or thirty thousand, but as the front-line people they also have a dramatic impact on the energy of the first ten rows. I saw security dancing, moshing, taking pictures for festival-goers, and even helping to cool the dancers facing a blistering heat.
For my own tastes, the Riverside tent was really the place to be on Sunday afternoon, with curation at the forefront of Dubstep, Electro, and whatever label you’d like to put on the ostensibly weird shit that Diplo produces.
Benga, a true godfather of Dubstep, was first up, and put together a set that was as striking as the visuals that backed him and his emcee.
Rounding out the night of musical exceptionalism were three artists at the forefront of their fields. Each act is a triple threat: 1. an artist ‘concept’, with 2. incredible, relevant, new original productions, and 3. a performance flare that puts these artists in league with the finest concert musicians to ever take a stage.
The first was the dark, cinematic, and anthemic sounds of Zeds Dead which have earned them a fervent base of loyal fans.
Following Zeds Dead’s set was the performance, marketing, and musical genius, Diplo. As a label boss, he’s grown the reach of Mad Decent to extents matched only by major labels with major funding, curated some of the year’s weirdest and innovative music, and pushed the genres of trap and moombahton to the fore of the North American dance music consciousness.
As a performer, he’s managed to fuse the energy of the dancehall emcee with the precision of a digital turntablist, play seemingly out-of-context tunes which cross genre-boundaries, excite his fans to a fever-pitch, and recruit the uninitiated, and finally and most importantly, turn the seriousness with which most modern electronic dance music musician (and deejays in general) perform completely on its head with a visual aesthetic which belies its serious intent.
Bottom line – Diplo is above performance; he throws a party.
And the crowd reciprocates the care-free, freaky, get down attitude. This next shot is one of my favourites of the festival (and yes, it is un-cropped).
I did a quick dip past the Hilltop Arena to take in some of The Bloody Beetroots set, which was as striking as the stage visual.
The final act of the evening – the coup de grace of Electric Zoo 2012 – was a main stage performance by a man for which little needs to be said. Skrillex held the festival-closing spot at a time when all the other stages were closed, and drew a crowd which easily exceeded 30,000 by my estimation.
The word epic is thrown around a lot, and is in all practical senses part of the lexicon of electronic dance music trope, especially within the Dubstep genre-space which Skrillex has done so much to push forward.
But Skrillex’ mothership production is quite literally that.
The scale is epic: massive and imposing, with several hundred square feet of blindingly-luminescent visuals backing a spaceship which literally raises from the ground.
And the set too, is epic: Skrillex is the hero who has championed bass music, made it accessible to middle-America, and who curates a selection of music which, if you open your mind sufficiently, can take you on a journey across the spectrum of electro, dubstep, and drum & bass tempos, with influences too numerous to make a list practical, and as disparate as acid techno and reggae.
I found it completely irresistible to thrash, mosh, skank, and rage. It may be an oddity that something which is so transportative and freeing inspires such seemingly violent behaviour, but I’m fine with that inconsistency.
For me, no other set across any festival this summer has matched the spectacle of Skrillex’ headlining performance at Electric Zoo 2012, nor been so positively exhilarating.