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Coachella 2016 Was Proof that Dance Music Doesn't Need EDM To Thrive

The electronic underground—including SOPHIE, the Black Madonna, and more—made this year another dance-y triumph in the desert.

Sometime around that legendary Daft Punk performance in 2006, Coachella ascended from mere music festival to bonafide cultural institution. Nowadays, the whole world is watching the whole hullabaloo in the Southern California desert (Thanks YouTube, social media, and H&M), which functions––in music, style, and trends––as a mirror to American youth culture. The past few years have seen dance music creep further and further into ubiquity, and with LCD Soundsystem, Disclosure, and Calvin Harris all enjoying headlining slots on the main stage and four out of eight stages dedicated almost entirely to dance music, it's fair to say that the scales have tipped in favor of the untz untz untz—and that's even accounting for the heft of Guns n Roses wheezing through a turgid performance on the other side.

Nothing proves dance's growth at Coachella more than the development of the Yuma Stage. Only added to the Coachella itinerary two years ago, the enclosed nightclub-in-a-tent has grown from an intimate cave of underground dance music into a massive cavern of house and techno. Saturday's schedule touted underground icons of the moment like The Black Madonna, SOPHIE, Matthew Dear, DJ Koze, Mano Le Tough, Nina Kraviz, and Justin Martin.

The flooring of the Yuma is a slick, springy, Pergo-like material that exacerbates your dance moves. There's always room to give a proper strut and enough fog in the air to enjoy a freeing sense of anonymity—as all good clubs afford you. Your casual headbobber transforms into a pop-n-lock Fred Astaire, and despite its much-expanded size, the tent still maintained a sense of intimacy in the smoke. Perhaps that had to do with the familiar faces as so much of the LA underground dance community was camped out in there all weekend. Or it may have been about the increase in those plush, lounge-about bedding platforms at the way back, the site of many cuddle puddles (and perhaps, uh, more) throughout the fest.

LCD Soundsystem/Photo by Erik Voake for Coachella

The triumphant return of LCD Soundsystem closed out proceedings on the main stage the first night and was, for many, the focal point of Friday evening. In fact, it was one of the only occasions I had even planned on leaving the Yuma Tent all weekend. The NYC dance-rock pioneers have always been a band that induced wisps of nostalgia for something you never even experienced in their songs––"All My Friends," and "I Can Change" are indie feels classics. Now regrouped, they are in the business of actual nostalgia—for the golden age of early millennial hipster culture. It turns out they're timeless, though, and they even dropped into a cheeky cover of Guns n Roses' "November Rain" and David Bowie's "Heroes,' proving the band is still as wry and self-aware as ever.

Of all the bands of that era, nobody quite straddled indie-rock and the synthy dance like LCD Soundsystem, and nobody has since. As good as they still are, it's a lot harder to dance to their rock-facing tracks than their disco-inspired indie-dance tracks. The 4/4 of house does most of the work for you in keeping your body moving on beat, but without the steady, aerobic safety of the kick, your limbs are left to fend for themselves and the unkempt flagellations and haphazard jumping of the crowd is a fair reflection of the imperfections that give rock music its character. Still, by the end of their set, I was back at the Yuma Tent for Marco Carola.

LCD singer James Murphy's touch was also felt elsewhere at Coachella. Despacio, the world-roving disco den he constructed with 2ManyDjs (AKA the Dewaele brothers of Soulwax) was a low-key milestone, a totally new feature at the festival and its first appearance in the United States. Set up in the round, the black-and-white tiled flooring and massive, modular speaker are constructed with disco in mind. It's also loud as motherfuckin' hell and the Dewaele/Murphy combo DJed a series of hours-long marathon sessions that kept the heads happy and toes tapping all weekend.

As recently as two years ago, the gargantuan half-dome of flashing color and light in the Sahara Tent exemplified the big-room bluster of EDM at that moment. If that bubble isn't straight-up popping, it's at least deflating, and the changing sound of the Sahara Tent is a clear acknowledgment of that fact. Gone are your Martin Solveigs and Nicky Romeros, replaced by more eclectic programming that included a rash of hip-hop acts (Rae Sremmurd, Vince Staples) and the subtler stylings of Tchami and ZHU––deep EDM, if you will, or "mid-room house," as it has been referred to on THUMP before. The Sahara is still the most enrapturing sensory experience of the whole festival. It's Coachella's attempt at competing with EDC, and this year the theme centered around a massive colored cubic pyramid.

High-flying theatrics on the Do LaB stage/Photo by Watchara Phomicinda for the Do LaB/Coachella

The Do LaB at Coachella began in 2005 as a petite shade structure with accompanying musical programming, an oasis of burner aesthetic peeking into the still nascent Coachella milieu. I first stumbled upon the LaB totally unawares many, many years ago whilst on mushrooms in the midst of a performance by the Lucent Dossier Experience, the production crew's in-house psychedelic dance circus. It was one of the trippiest experiences of my life. I have really enjoyed the LaB's growth into a formidable stage set-up of its own over the past decade. Now, its autumnally-colored turtle-shell design fits thousands and features the most unique production at the whole festival, entirely electronic programming, and a totally sui generis dose of weirdo energy.

The surprise sets at The Do Lab, for which the stage has become known, included The Glitch Mob, RUFUS DU SOL, and Bob Moses. But the highlight of the whole weekend was Job Jobse's artful selection on Sunday night. There weren't many people there, but it was the sort of sleeper set that those that witnessed it are bound to talk up for years to come.

The Do LaB's programming can get kinda crunchy granola sometimes, but they've also shown some prescience, booking Griz, Gorgon City, and Mija before any of them broke. Dirtybird MVP Justin Martin has gone from performing at The Do LaB a couple years ago to closing out the Yuma Tent on Saturday. On the eve of his 37th birthday and the release of his second album Hello Clouds. Amidst the hectic clangor of his wonky, energetic booty bass, Martin offered a nod to his own roots by lapsing into a series of jungle tunes. In the early days, Coachella was a strong supporter of drum & bass––the first edition featured LTJ Bukem and Roni Size––but support for the genre has since faded. Martin's nod to those now-unfashionable sonics featured the only amen break dropped during the whole weekend.

DJ Koze/Photo courtesy of Coachella

Shortly beforehand, DJ Koze dropped easily my favorite set of the weekend, a rare stateside performance for the air-shy German veteran who just oozes with creativity and class. At some point, I heard a bro-ey sort of fellow lean over to his friend and say: "Is it just me, or does this guy really know what he's doing?" before shortly exiting the tent, I'm sure to head to see something along the lines of Jack Ü, Zedd (who brought out Ke$ha as a surprise guest), and Flume—all acts which closed the Outdoor Theater, traditionally the fest's second largest stage. At a certain point on Sunday evening, every single stage had electronic acts performing, with the exception of Death Grips in the Gobi Tent, though you could even count them too if your vision of the dancefloor is noise-rap inclusive. Mine isn't––I don't know how to dance to that racket.

Sia/Photo by Erik Voake for Coachella

During that mad rush of electronic acts on Sunday, I ran into some friends from college (who I only seem to run into at festivals and weddings, despite us living within 5 miles of each other) and got my arm twisted to return to the main stage. It was serendipitous as I witnessed Sia's truly remarkable performance. The camera-shy Aussie songstress put on a very serious and cinematic affair, with Paul Dano, Kristen Wiig, Tig Notaro, and the startlingly expressive teenage dancer Maddie Ziegler all donning black-and-white wigs a la Sia herself and acting out melodramatic, abstract theatrical performances to the music. I've not seen anything quite like it before. Sia's litany of hit songwriting credits is formidable. She performed both her (written) songs "Diamonds" (Rihanna) and "Titanium," (David Guetta), before closing with her own "Chandelier," at which point I imagine much of the audience was in some state of tears. I attribute this partially to early onset comedowns.

I ended the weekend with a much more familiar kind of intensity: headbanging techno. Maceo Plex literally blew out the speakers in the Yuma at the end of Sunday during his set. It was silent for a good ten minutes as a gaggle of technicians frantically tried to fix the issue. Elsewhere at the festival, people had looked in pretty good shape for night three, but as the lights went up in the Yuma Tent momentarily, many around me looked absolutely feral. Respect. As is becoming tradition now, I closed out the last moments of the festival at The Do LaB.

Coachella's relationship with dance music has come full circle. The programming in the early years featured trailblazers from all over the dance spectrum and a stable balance between electronic and organic sounds. In the first decade of this century, indie-rock and pop dominated the bill, despite a good showing through the proto-EDM electro phase. Over the past five years, the big, shiny EDM we all know took over in a big way. That fad's now receding, but dance music is more present than ever all over the festival. It's great to see that progressive take on underground dance music from Coachella's salad days represented so strongly again now. I saw pretty much nothing but electronic music all weekend, yet barely even entered the Sahara Tent. Even a couple years ago, that would have been impossible. EDM may have re-lit the yankee masses' thirst for electronic music, but if this year's programming is any indication, the stateside palate has matured quickly and dance music isn't going anywhere.