This Is What Happened When I Went to My First American Festival
Afterparty fails, no tents, and banging techno at Movement Festival in Detroit.
Photo by Bryan Mitchell
When you live abroad, it's all too easy to frame your experiences through your most familiar point of reference: how things are done back home. And when that home is the UK, talking about "How we do things in England" puts you at risk of sounding at best like a snob, and at worst like Marlow, the imperialist-leaning narrator in Heart of Darkness.
Going to my first American music festival this past Memorial Day Weekend—Movement Electronic Music Festival in Detroit—I had to keep stopping myself from comparing it to a UK festival. Still, there was one key difference that I'd be remiss not to bring up: Movement didn't involve camping. All the festivals I've previously been to have involved a tent. In fact, camping is pretty much unavoidable at most UK (and a lot of European) festivals, which isn't really the case in the States.
Don't get me wrong: I don't actually like camping. I wouldn't go on a camping holiday given the choice. But something magical happens when you go to a camping festival. Once you're through the gate and you've pitched your tent, that's it: there's no more interaction with the real world. Your iPhone won't even be working after day one, and normal rules no longer apply. You've entered a parallel universe full of endless, unscripted possibilities—one constructed pretty much entirely for the sake of hedonism. To me, that disconnection from everyday life is the fundamental element that distinguishes a festival from a regular club night or gig.
Movement festival is a city-based three-day weekender dedicated solely to electronic music. And instead of having a forest, farm, or field as its playground, it has Motor City—a perfect setting for an event that at its core is a celebration of the birthplace of techno. It all goes down in Hart Plaza in the middle of downtown Detroit, right on the Detroit River's edge, with a southerly view of Canada on the other side. The festival has six stages, flanking a central plaza with a steel water fountain shaped like a futuristic doughnut. The amphitheatrical main stage has raised concrete bleachers, which made viewing the headlining acts a breeze for the more vertically challenged among us. Behind it, the imposing buildings of Detroit's business district rose up all around us, an ever-present reminder of the city's connection to the music.
The festival started in 2000, as the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF)—founded as a homegrown affair consisting mainly of local DJs showcasing the city's dance talent for an international crowd. That first iteration—like all subsequent installments—took place in Hart Plaza, and drew crowds from all over the world—the local folklore being that one million people passed through the city over three days. Back then, the city government gave the festival its blessing, as it still does today.
From the festival's first year, the stakes were raised high that Movement would be part of the city's attempt to reclaim—and benefit from—techno as an industry, following in the footsteps of Berlin. At the invitation of the Berlin-Detroit Connection—an organization started in 2011 with the help of Tresor founder Dimitri Hegemann to explore the cultural axis between the cities—delegates from Detroit's local government even went to Berlin last year to see its dance music industry in action. Whereas some European cities have a complicated relationship with the concept of techno tourism, Detroit, with Movement at the helm, appears to be embracing it.
As you'd expect, many of Detroit's techno architects came out in force for the tenth anniversary edition of the festival, including Grammy-nominated Carl Craig and Belleville Three member Kevin Saunderson. Another Belleviller Juan Atkins, along with Moritz Von Oswald, performed music from their latest album, Transport, as Borderland, a project dedicated to exploring the relationship between Berlin and Detroit techno, put out on the Tresor label. Some of the most celebrated names in dance music, such as Kraftwerk, Dubfire, Caribou, The Black Madonna, and Matthew Dear, also topped the bill.
In addition to the bigger name acts present, Opportunity Detroit—an organization reinvigorating the city through cultural and business investments—hosted a stage spotlighting both up-and-coming local artists and more obscure acts that have shaped the scene over decades. Standouts included ECTOMORPH, a Detroit duo with a cult following that has been making techno since the 90s; Loren, a 21-year-old minimal techno producer and resident at local club TV Lounge; and The Friend, credited with spearheading sludge, a new industrial-influenced genre that takes its cues from ghettotech.
Watching a live electronic act—especially one set up in a traditional band-on-stage-playing-to-audience fashion—can sometimes be a little, well, dull. But seeing Kraftwerk in 3D on the main stage on the first night of the festival was a humbling spectacle. The band's current members—Ralf Hütter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, and Falk Grieffenhagen—stood in rank and file onstage, playing lit-up synths before a screen with images that the audience had to wear paper glasses to see in 3D. The visuals—cartoonish cars and grainy video clips from the Tour de France—brought classic Kraftwerk motifs from beloved songs like "Autobahn" and "Tour de France" to life. Having a band as iconic as Kraftwerk play at Movement really put into perspective how their pioneering sound gave way to entire subgenres of electronic music. From the overt motor references on their 1974 track "Autobahn", to the synthy club grooves on 1981's "Computer Love," Kraftwerk gracefully exemplified the sheer weight of their influence on the other acts present.
Another knockout live act was Dubfire. The Iranian-born, US-based artist and former Deep Dish producer closed out the second night with an arresting audio-visual show in which he appeared housed in a cube-like structure, directing synced visuals, and firing lights and smoke guns off the stage. All the while, he churned the audience in the bowl of the main stage with swirling tech house, getting everyone especially riled up with his hammering remix of Christian Smith and John Selway's "Transit Time."
However it was The Black Madonna's two-hour set on the Red Bull Music Academy stage that left me smiling the widest. Slotted at 6PM on the Sunday, the Chicago powerhouse and feminist activist read the crowd like a clairvoyant, sliding from Chicago house, into late-afternoon-appropriate disco, all the way to acid techno. Throughout, she exuded a visceral energy you rarely see behind a DJ booth, especially as she sang and bounced along to Musique's "Keep on Jumpin'."
As this was my first Movement experience, I inevitably ended up making a couple of newbie mistakes. The biggest being that I didn't quite grasp the deal with the after parties, and didn't do enough planning for them ahead of time. Rolling up at peak time to a $40 cover charge and a long line outside a venue that was a surge-priced Uber away from my hotel pretty much killed my buzz. I manage to make it to one of the official after parties, hosted by Drumcode in The Annex, and saw Swedish producer and Drumcode Records founder Adam Beyer going head-to-head with label signee Joseph Capriati. Together, they pounded out the kind of head-banging techno that makes you worry your brain's about to fall out of your nose.
In spite of my personal afterparty fail, the offerings were wide and far-reaching. Between the Tresor 25th Anniversary bash with Moritz von Oswald, Silent Servant, and Terrence Dixon; the Visionquest party with Art Department, Magda and Lee Curtiss; and, of course, Interdimensional Transmissions' infamous No Way Back, there was something for everyone. The crowd was just as diverse; although predominantly white by a long stretch, Movement was also one of the more ethnically diverse festivals I've attended. I was also struck by just how many tribes were represented over the weekend; between the furry boot-clad Kandi Kids, the sun-kissed hippies chilling by the fountain, and the many esoteric-t-shirt-wearing-bearded-dudes, there was space for everyone to enjoy themselves.
This welcoming spirit came into vivid color for me when I was in the crowd at The Black Madonna. Owing to other people's toilet and water breaks, I found myself alone on the dancefloor. Wrapped up in the cocoon of the crowd's energy and swept away by the dulcet disco, I felt something familiar. It was that same enchantment and freedom I've experienced at camping festival. While not quite the utter lawlessness of running around a muddy field for three days, there was a bewitching warmth pumping through the veins of Movement—and the city itself—pulling the festivalgoers along for the ride. Turns out I didn't need a tent to feel that festival magic after all.
Anna Codrea-Rado is THUMP's News Editor. She is from that small island called Great Britain.