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Random Rab Explains the Curious Transcendence of the Sunrise Set

Before his yearly dawn-session at Envision in Costa Rica, we talked to the San Francisco-based artist about this interesting phenomenon in the dance music scene.

Photos by Andrew Jorgensen Photography

There's something undeniably stirring about dancing to music when the sun comes up. Whether it's at one of Burning Man's invigorating, picturesque sunrise sessions, or the chased-upon moment when willowy beams of light penetrate through the air of some dingy, smoke-filled warehouse, early morning sets are treated with a near-religious air by many dance music fans. San Francisco-based psychedelic artist, Random Rab, knows this better than most, having long been one the dance scene's most solar-focused; playing tranquil, inspiring sunrise sets at festivals around the world for over a decade.

At Envision, the four-day Burner-influenced festival taking place next week, Feb 25-28, in Uvita, Costa Rica, dawn-time performances have always played an important role in the event— surely complemented by the festival's awe-inspiring location. The event also features a strong focus on yoga, an exercise in which the "Sun Salutation" (the standard sequence in many practices) is meant to follow the transition of a rising sun. For nearly every year in which Envision has taken place, Random Rab has performed during the day-break, usually starting at 5:30 in the early morning. Often including his own live vocals, an electro-acoustic setup of Ableton controllers and live instruments usually deployed by a special guest or two, Rab's yearly session has become something far more special than your average CDJ festival set of early morning tech-house.

The man born Rab Clinton took some time at his hotel during a recent February visit to Los Angeles to explain what's inspiring about playing and experiencing music as the sun come up.

THUMP: What do you gain as an artist and performer by playing at the sunrise?
Random Rab: I do mostly late-night club gigs at theaters, so the sunrise is kind of like the reward for me. I feel like it's when people are most emotionally raw and open to anything happening, versus the middle of the night where there's a craving for a more edgy, party vibe. During the sunrise everyone's also in alignment with this celestial body and are recognizing that we're on this giant ball floating through space—no matter what you do you can't stop it. There's no, "can we delay sunrise by 15 minutes?" It's happening when it wants to happen, and I think that that just awakens some primordial awesomeness inside of us. It's kind of also a psychedelic state—even if you're not on any kind of drugs— just to be awake at that time. So that adds to it.

Do you personally adjust your sets for playing in this type environment?
I think it's almost like you're dealing with something more delicate—like a chandelier rather than an LED bulb. You're handling people's minds and hearts, as well as your own state of mind. I find that at night, sometimes being overwhelming can be awesome, and that's the experience, but in the morning it's really about space. So I really try to focus on the subtleties in my music. But it's often a crapshoot—you never know what people are going to want. Sometimes they're gonna want to go hard, and sometimes they just want to cry and melt. So you just have to be willing to go where everyone else wants to go—which is usually where I want to go too.

What were some of first sunrise sets you ever performed?
The first sunrise sets I performed were at Burning Man, where I actually played the music that I consider my "sunrise music" at that time. It was more this kind of secret music—I was playing more breaks and trance and house and stuff at the time—I had that I had been working on that I hadn't really shared with people. At that time sunrise sets were not really very sought-after, and the sound systems were often turned off and the party was over, even though people were still awake. I remember that summer convincing people to [stay up] — or just taking over the systems. That's when that momentum gained, and it felt really new and fresh. To this day it still has this fresh feeling. I guess that's the nature of the sunrise

The sunrise is usually a peaceful time, but in some of my experiences people are, for lack of a better word—zombies. Have you ever had instances where a sunrise set has just gone in an odd direction that you didn't expect?
Absolutely. I've learned now how to anticipate when and how that happens, and what vibe creates that. I'm a lot more careful now about where and when I book sunrises. If you're at a four day festival and you play sunrise on Monday morning, you're asking for trouble. I want to do it when people are feeling good and healthy. Certain festivals and communities are also a lot less health-conscious—they don't eat their superfoods, or take care of each other as a community. And then there's the types of drugs that people are doing. If people are all jacked on the wrong kind of stuff, then it can create a really gnarly environment. But I would say that's the exception, these days I think people are getting to be more and more "professional sun-risers." Mimosas and sunglasses...

Sunglasses and champagne are life. Let's get to Envision—you've been there every year thus far. How did you get involved with them?
The first year I went, there were probably less than 500 people, and it was a really small lineup with different promoters, who are still friends and family. It blew my mind, just being in Costa Rica for the first time. It was more like a large house party or something with a big yard. I mean it was a festival, but it had that vibe.

Envision is one of the few festivals that maintains that same feeling as it grows. Last year there were thousands of people, yet it still had that sense of family and friends. When you're down there you just feel like you're friends with everybody for some reason. There's this bond, you know? It's just the jungle — last year there were howler monkeys singing along with me at my set. And the sun itself down there — a sunrise in California can't touch a sunrise in Costa Rica.

How did you start playing the sunrise sets there?
I think the first year I didn't even play sunrise. But it goes back to the old way I used to do it. I have this renegade spirit where I'm like the last man standing, and I always want to play sunrise because I'm always the one who's still awake. I don't even remember how it all started, but once it started, there was no stopping it from there.

If you can spill any beans, do you have anything special planned for sunrise this year?
It's going to be a combination of totally winging it and planning some stuff out. Every year I look at lineups and see what friends I have that are there, and then reach out and invite a lot of collaborators up. It's pretty free-form and is always been kind of a slightly improvisational thing where I'm not planning too hard.