Decibel Proves (Again) that DIY Festivals are Better than Corporate Mega-Raves
The week-long Seattle techno rager knows that it's not about getting big, it's about being fucking awesome.
As scenes from the sorry debacle of TomorrowWorld—Floods, mud, sleeping rough and public analingus—flush their way through social media, we're reminded yet again that the long-awaited burst of the EDM bubble is nigh. The notion that bigger is always better, driven by greedy corporations co-opting electronic music culture in the hopes of banking off of a bloated facsimile of it, is beginning to fall apart.
Seattle's Decibel Festival, which took place concurrently to TomorrowWorld last weekend, sits at the complete and utter, total opposite end of the spectrum. Launched twelve years ago by a Detroit transplant named Sean Horton to celebrate experimentalism in electronic music, Decibel has grown from 2,500 attendees to 25,000, and they've done it quietly and classily, without ever compromising a DIY, community-based vision maintained by a staff of volunteers and a commitment to niche markets, specifically techno, experimental live acts, and the lefternmost reaches of house music (and then maybe some more techno).
This year's programming was a feast. Events stretched over five days and nights from storied Seattle venues Neumo's and The Crocodile to Capitol Hill clubbing institution Q Nightclub and The Triple Door, a sit-down dinner theater that housed Decibel's much lauded audio-visual series Optical. Two parties took place on a boat named The Islander that sailed around Lake Washington, while a free event in Volunteer park was a chance for regular 'ol Seattleites to get in on the action. A Breakfast rave and a couple off-circuit all-night afters rounded out an overwhelming calendar of music.
The most difficult thing about Decibel is the stupefying amount of options available at any given time and coming to terms with a perpetual state of FOMO. Given the concurrent options of The Acid and Bob Moses or Clark and Dan Deacon, andhim and Julio Bashmore, or Daniel Avery and The Black Madonna, how are you supposed to decide what to do with your Thursday night? Thankfully for fans and local Lyft drivers, all of the venues are in close proximity, so you can hit four or five events in one evening if you plan well (or stay up late enough).
Early highlights included Nicolas Jaar, who rounded out a series of big West Coast showings, including a stellar performance at FYF Fest in Los Angeles, with a set of his characteristically esoteric patchwork. It was a far more spirited affair than his outing at Symbiosis in Northern California only days beforehand.
Elsewhere, Daniel Avery roused the crowd by dropping a remix of Joey Beltram's "Energy Flash" amidst his patented acid-everything aesthetic, and Bob Moses' early showings of their new album Days Gone By re-assert their incredible ability to be consistently pretty good.
Decibel's much-revered audio-visual component is all housed under the name Optical at The Triple Door, an ornately appointed dinner theater where acts like ESKMO and Decibel OG Tim Hecker performed live sets to the backdrop of live visual projections. guests chomped on classic Thai dishes like papaya salad in a setting that was light-years away from the raucous, all-night parties elsewhere in the programming. As many festivals in the dance space have fumbled their way into introducing live elements to their programming, it's been an intrinsic aspect of Decibel since the beginning.
Wednesday through Friday at The Crocodile, Decibel's conference aspect, put on in conjunction with Creative Live, held discussions on everything from the Native Instruments-hosted 'Build Your Own Synths with Drumcell and Raíz' and a talk on grassroots collectives with Soulection's Joe Kay to seminars on Max MSP, Ableton, modular and FM synthesis. Chinstroke central, for sure, but this is actually how this music, uh, y'know, gets made. Horton's stated that a many of the homespun artists that have become Decibel staples entered the scene from attending the conference.
An army of volunteers, from artist transport liaisons to directors of programming, are the core of Decibel's success. Many of the organization's 21 directors started off as entry-level volunteers, and it's a major part of how the festival maintains its community ethos. People who came to the fest and fell in love have an opportunity to get involved.
Aside from all this high-falutin mumbo jumbo, what really makes Decibel tick is Seattle's much debated cream cheese hot dogs. I've lived in Los Angeles for twenty years, and these things are better than any of our bacon-wrapped monstrosities. I chomped down on one for the first time from the guy outside Neumo's after Recondite's set. The German artist was major revelation for me. His set was a brooding, minimal selection that enveloped with its open atmosphere. It sounded like chill-out music for apocalypses.
What follows is the account of one 24-hour session of partying that began on Saturday. Around lunchtime, a mature-but-frisky crowd, capped at less than 200 people, bundled into The Islander, a rickety old dive bar on water for the System of Survival/M.A.N.D.Y doubleheader boat party. The vessel, with wood-paneled interior and enough booze to survive an island shipwreck, cruised around Lake Washington as the storied selectors roved through disco, house, and techno while boats and canoes bemusedly floated by the double-decker daytime dance party.
As we rounded into the greater lake, the University of Washington's gargantuan football stadium came into close view in the midst of a football game. Parked boats peppered the water for hundreds of yards and you could hear cheers from the stadium mingle in with the the music. A police tugboat had to pull some stranded tailgate speedboats out of our way, and as we looped around Mercer Island, there was a motherfucking rainbow just before the sun set, with seaplanes taking off and landing in the periphery.
A short nap later, I was whisked into a whirlwind series of sets at three different venues: Dauwd and John Tejada at Neumo's, Taylor McFerrin and Bonobo at Showbox, and Shiba San at Q spat me out onto the street for the third and final of Q Nightclub's after hours series for a Drumcell takeover. There, Alan Fitzpatrick dropped Jimmy Edgar's brand new insta-classic "Let Me Tell U," an earworm of a staccato-synthed electro-tech tune that I still can't get out of my head.
With Drumcell and Fitzpatrick following up consecutive sessions by Joseph Capriati and Marcel Dettman, you would struggle to find a stronger techno itinerary than Q's after-hours anywhere in the world during those three nights.
As if the sanctioned parties weren't enough, local promoters Secondnature's db Edition after-hours at DIY-venue Kremwerk was a highlight of the whole week. DJ Qu and Aurora Halal had the crowd glued to the dancefloor until sunlight, and we enjoyed Jagermeister shots for breakfast at 6AM when it became legal to serve booze again. Halal in particular's relentlessly challenging take on techno both boggled and behooved.
The night may have been over, but the party was not. Bleary-eyed and delirious, we headed to a 4AM-to-4PM morning rave named The Breakfast Club at a double-level club named the Monkey Loft. Upon our arrival, we saw paramedics wheeling a smiling woman out of the club and into the back of an ambulance. We didn't stop to consider whether this was a good sign or a bad sign, and soon enough we were chomping on complementary quiche and downing Bloody Mary's to the deep, dark, and weird sonics of Desert Hearts patriarch Lee Reynolds, while an audience comprised of the cuttier reaches of the Burner demographic kept the dancefloor vibes appropriately strange as the sun arched upwards.
At noon, all the way up at Volunteer Park, Db in the Park, J.Phlip and Christian Martin laid down free daytime sets to a crowd including families, kids, and a renegade bouncy castle set up in the grass. I'm not ashamed to say that I tapped out there. I couldn't feel my legs and my head was a cacophony of conflicting beats, but the sheer breath of experience and music I'd been privy to over the week prior easily outshone any festival experience that required me to be stuck in a parking lot for days on end.
Even though Debicel has grown to a formidable size, the archipelago-style programming format and community-based ethos mean that it still feels small. And now, more than ever, that's a major part in why it's important. As this whole EDM debacle should have taught us, it's not about getting big, it's about being fucking awesome. As (hopefully) many in the EDM generation figure this out and matriculate to actual electronic music culture, festivals like Decibel—deep dives into niche communities—will gain greater foothold.
Jemayel Khawaja is Managing Editor of THUMP - @JemayelK