Before I left for Amsterdam for my personal inaugural Dekmantel festival, a friend who'd been before messaged me saying: "It's rare that something finishes at 11PM and you're fully satisfied, but Dek is that something." While his abbreviation ran the risk of making the whole thing sound more like a Vans-sponsored pop-punk bar, it's the sort tribute that just about everybody seems to pay the festival. Next year will be the fifth annual Dekmantel festival. Over that short time, the event has amassed an unshakeable reputation and the love for the festival comes from all angles. "Dek" is indeed that "something."
Four days into my trip, and I'm more than beginning to understand why. A world-class lineup timed to perfection, brimming with one-off back-to-backs all housed on beautifully designed stages spread across the Amsterdamse Bos. It's not just the lineup that has people flocking here from all over Europe and beyond. The usual stresses and hassles that come with a festival are somehow miraculously alleviated by the Dekmantel atmosphere. It's become the kind of event DJs and artists really want to play at. Which means they usually deliver something special.
"It's a mutual respect," Kowton tells me, over a beer under the beating sun, nestled somewhere between the Boiler Room stage and the airy cloisters of the Greenhouse. "The organizers get the best sound, the best layout, the stages are beautiful and you have crowd that is so receptive and clued up."
Our meeting comes only a couple of hours ahead of his second appearance at the festival. This time around the Peckham-via-Bristol producer, who this year released his debut LP Utility, is bringing something special to the stage. A brand-new collaborative show alongside his Livity Sound co-labelhead Peverelist. The performance plans to construct Livity's signature wonky UK techno in a live context, and it's clear from the offset that there is no better place for them to be doing it. "You know that if you want to try something this is the best possible place to do it," he explains. "I don't think you'd ever come into it worrying about the amount of people there or crap sound."
Photos by Bart Heemskerk.
Kowton sees what I see all weekend: a festival powered by passion. "It's people that love music doing a festival to the best of their capabilities. That's not a rare thing necessarily—there are a few of them about—but I think this is a particularly good example."
The unique culture that Dekmantel have fostered over just five years hasn't gone unnoticed by the acts they book to perform. "DJs just want to play it and when they do they play the best they can because they want to get asked back," Kowton adds. "The thing we are doing is a live format which we haven't tried before. The guys that run Dekmantel said 'Would you do it? That's what we'd like to see!' So we've spent the past few months putting together this one-off show." From here, he explains, the project has been a labor of love. "It's been a big investment of time—a lot of going to Bristol and back—but it's great to be asked."
The set they went on to perform utilized a powerful new set-up. The catalogue of Livity Sound and sister label Dnuos Ytivil was raided for singular, live interpretations. "I'm doing the backbone of the music while Tom [Peverelist] is doing the backbone of the dubbing and stitching it all together," Kowton explains. "With a live show, if you're just playing raw drum loops and samples you notice how hard it is to get cohesion. Tom there dubbing it and gluing it all together makes a world of difference. If I was doing it on my own it would be a fucking mess."
Their dedication to providing something unique for the Dekmantel devotees is no outlier on the bill. Across the weekend the finest DJs in the world all provided their own bespoke moments. Unsurprisingly, Midland's "Final Credits" created one of the more gloriously anthemic chapters of the weekend—easing us into Saturday afternoon as we nursed the aftershock of Legowelt's live set at the Melkweg afterparty. Roman Flugel and Daniel Avery's main-stage b2b session was brilliantly played, guiding the crowd into heavier territory ahead of Detroit minimal demigod Daniel Bell who was deploying a devastating hardware and live-drum special under the DBX moniker.
Other certified heavyweights lived up to their reputations—DJ Harvey opened up the Selectors stage with a typically slow-burning but hopelessly seductive three and a half hour set which began in a torrential downpour and ended in glorious sunshine. Also a quick nod to the real life Quentin Blake illustration and reining overlord of the abstruse and esoteric, Ricardo Villalobos, who arrived late but pushed forward with a divisive set which hypnotized and perplexed in equal measure.
Kowton referred to Dekmantel as a "do what you do climate"—a place for experimentation protected by the faith that the crowd and organizers will be receptive and responsive. Describing the event as one "for the heads" seems to allude to a kind of snobbery which plagues far too many electronic-led festivals. There's already an over saturation in this game—THUMP has previously made no bones about the increasingly formulaic nature of festivals lineups and the fog of monotony that seems to hang over the market. Yet Dekmantel manages to effortlessly sidestep this—even with a capacity that's doubled since its inception four years ago. As interviews with the organizers will attest, they don't want to be the biggest, they just want to be the best in the eyes of the fans and the artists. Watching Kowton and Peverelist's taut and spell-binding reimagining of their own back catalogue, it's clear how they've managed to do this. Creating a platform for performances that go above and beyond the prescribed formula. As the sounds of Livity clatter out through the humid hum of the Greenhouse this prospect of innovation, in the midst of a festival, is palpable.As a parting shot, before he took to the stage, I ask Kowton whether this live set-up is going to be something he and Pev will perform again, or whether it was a Dekmantel one-off. "We'll see how it goes, we've put a good two months into it so it seems a shame to let it go," he rightly considers. "But at the same time, we'd like to keep it as a bit of a special one." Looking back on their set, and the sum total of my first Dekmantel, one thing is clear: whether or not it happens once, twice, or a hundred times again after this, the first time will always be a bit of a special one.