A decade ago, electronic dance parties lurked in the shadows of mainstream music. Perhaps better known as raves, they were one-off events, organized and attended by a kind of secret society that would make Dan Brown blush—held in abandoned warehouses, marketed by whispers and built on a desire to create a different reality, one centered around dance and the free-form, unstructured electronica music that is more a rambling soundscape than the strict narrative structure of popular music.
Although some vestiges have remained, that has changed: Today, raves are known simply as concerts. Electronica is now known as electronic dance music, or EDM, and DJs are called producers. What's more, all this is conspicuously advertised. Check out the live music listings any given week, and it is evident that electronica has moved mainstream.
To sort out the growth of EDM, I decided to head out to my first local EDM show in years—yes, in Bend!
I shouldn't have been surprised when the crowd for the hip-hop/electronica hybrid Smasheltooth show at Liquid Lounge, scheduled for 9 p.m. on a Thursday night mid-March, didn't trickle in until around more than an hour later. Even the bouncer didn't know when they would arrive.
"This is the dub-step crowd," he said in response to my confused look. "You never know when they're going to show up."
But the initially sparse crowd didn't deter Chris Haindel and Brig Rockwell of opening act Thumbprint Collective. A starry array of yellow, green and red laser lights splashed onto the dance floor and TC spun a scratchy vinyl recording of the first lunar landing, then rocketed into splayed-out asymmetrical beats and atmospheric samples. They were using no laptop and improvising each song. It was an appropriate old-school analog technique, perfect for the old-school spacey sounds. I was impressed.
I edged toward their equipment and, in a box underneath, noticed an Uncle Remus album—you know, the guy who tells the Br'er Rabbit stories. "Boy," I thought, "these guys can sample anything." Sadly the record remained untouched, but their set was eclectic and decadent just the same.
Not bad for a Thursday night in Bend—and certainly an indicator that EDM has staying power and, moreover, is spreading quickly. That's a big change from eight years ago when the only club that would host a show like that was The Grove—before it was Seven—and everywhere else had DJs spinning Top 40 Black Eyed Peas and Michael Jackson music.
In those days, if you wanted consistent EDM music in Bend—or, really, in most any city—it meant plugging into the local artists' community and keeping your ear to the ground. After all, social media didn't exist. You actually had to know and talk to people to find out about shows, get the remote location information and maybe even find a ticket for it lying on a shelf in a local shop or record store. Today, though, it simply means flipping open the music listings and heading out to the clubs. There are now a dozen DJs and producers in Bend pushing electronica aboveground and mainstream.
The Underground: Raves
That isn't to say underground is gone—it's still alive and well, even in Bend.
The popular use of the term "rave" dates back to the '80s when it was adopted for large-scale and often illegal secret gatherings of EDM artists and fans in Europe, places where the working class could unwind. Eventually the parties spawned an entire spiritual movement where ravers used music and lighting as a way to disconnect from reality and attempted to fall into trances. They used this as a way to explore their belief structures and engage in spiritual healing.
The parties were also wild gatherings, rife with drug use and sometimes violence. In Britain, local ordinances were passed requiring event licensing and restrictions on sound levels—the result was an us-vs.-them mentality. The notorious London tabloids stirred the hype, littering the public consciousness with articles about police ramping up to go after illegal raves each time summer neared.
When the trend finally made its way to America in the '90s, primarily to cities like San Francisco and L.A., the negative stigma came with it—so did the hush-hush nature of promoting shows to keep them away from restrictions and regulations. The elusive nature of raves and the culture of the people who attended them shaped not just the movement, but the music as well. Absent a legit scene to perform in and a lack of interest from radio stations and conventional concertgoers, the rave began its sideways tumble into music history.
Although that has begun to change, at least one faction of EDM does continue to hold to its elusive nature, even in Bend where raves, now and again, turn up in warehouses or spaces like the Bend Circus Center. But according to local EDM producer Brian Potwin, whose stage moniker is bPollen, they aren't the wild drug-fests of the '90s.
"We'll usually have a light bar at the event," explained Potwin. "People will get there and have a drink or maybe just water or tea. But really, they're there to dance."
Generally, Potwin says these shows still are spread by word of mouth. People who know the right person get invited or are told where tickets are. He also says that they happen about once a month.
"We consistently get 200 people at these shows," claimed Potwin. "We'll have around seven DJs scheduled for the night, and the party will go from 10 at night to seven in the morning."
Cleary, Potwin is right about the non-commercialized promoting of these events. I've never received a press release at the Source for one of those warehouse shows. Yet, increasingly, another faction of EDM is taking a major dance step into the mainstream, showing up as club shows and mixing in with regularly scheduled music events.
Even events like the Northwest's popular Sasquatch! Music Festival have been infusing their lineups with more EDM artists each year. There are even entire, well-marketed festivals dedicated to EDM. In its second year of existence, What The Festival hosts a rollicking festival in the scenic White River Canyon on the eastern flank of Mount Hood. (July 26-28.)
It used to be that electronic shows at Sasquatch were limited to, at best, a medium-sized tent on the Gorge Amphitheater grounds. Typically these shows would happen at the end of the night with the tent hosting mainly comedy throughout the day.
Over the last three years, though, EDM is no longer an afterthought at Sasquatch! In 2010, Canada's Joel Thomas Zimmerman, who drops grinding beats on top of wailing synth as Deadmau5 (pronounced: dead mouse), played to a crowd of thousands at one of the bigger stages at Sasquatch! And last year, EDM star Derek Vincent Smith, who infuses hip-hop beats with ethereal samples as Pretty Lights, headlined the main stage for the first night of the festival.
With over 20 EDM artists booked for the 2013 edition of Sasquatch!, electronic music is now a draw—and that magnetism even translates to smaller cities around the region, like Bend. After all, when the artists are on tour they need other places to play. And as they do, they're also inspiring a whole new group of up-and-coming artists to join them.
Travis Owens of Slipmat Science has been putting together EDM shows for 11 years now in Bend and he has been witnessing the mainstreaming of the genre for a while now. He says it's happening because the ravers are growing up.
"We have lives now and kids," said Owens, who is getting ready to turn 30 and looks like a fatherly version of a white rapper. "The music has changed and grown into so many different genres," he continues. "It's not a bunch of kids partying their asses off at raves anymore. The shows go to 2 a.m., not 6. People accept that because they're not trying to stay out all night. The underground stuff is still happening but it's shifting to the clubs."
As a promoter of these shows, he says the community's opinion of EDM is swinging in his favor.
"In the beginning it was about creating an environment for us to experience the kind of music we loved," said Owens. "The music wasn't accepted by society at the time. There was a negativity about it that stemmed from late-night parties and people over-indulging. We're moving more towards concerts in venues with top-notch sound production focusing on events centered around 25- to 40-year-olds. Not 18-to 24-year-olds. People like to go to the club because it's respectable."
Owen pointed out another trend: An influx of fusion bands in the EDM scene—groups that employ electronic music alongside vocals and live instrumentation.
"There are these fusion bands like Beats Antique and Mochipet," said Owens. "They are getting into the clubs and the shows are getting even bigger."
Beats Antique, which runs sequenced EDM music alongside live drums, saxophone and violin to create an electronic/gypsy music hybrid, is getting bigger every year. It's not only playing festivals but will turn up in Bend for the second time in a little over a year, on 4/20 at Midtown. Mochipet also is currently touring with its album "Rawr Means I Love You." A rollicking eclectic set, Mochipet often plays on stage wearing dinosaur suits and with iPad guitars. (April 12, WOW Hall, Eugene; April 13, Branx, Portland.)
Even ambient EDM music is crossing over with the likes of Scott Hansen, who records as Tycho and weaves live tracks on guitar, bass guitar and drums into his performances.
Owens was excited to see Liquid Lounge last month host a big-name EDM talent like Eliot Lipp, who lives in Brooklyn now, but is a Tacoma native whose music continues to reference Pacific Northwest hip-hop artists.
Such successful shows are pushing Owens to host and promote even larger shows.
"We want to fill up Les Schwab Amphitheater and the Redmond Fairgrounds," Owens said.
The new status quo
With the mainstreaming of EDM, going out in Bend for a night of dancing no longer automatically means you'll be shaking your rump to Michael Jackson or 50 Cent. With venues like Liquid Lounge and Astro Lounge booking more EDM shows than ever before, a night out now means dancing to original music constructed by creative electronic music producers.
Although Bend's bPollen takes his EDM blend of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink of hip-hop, funk, rock and R&B primarily to the underground events, from time to time he'll turn up in a club. And local favorite DJ Harlo isn't shy to spin full '80s dance hits with his own hard-hitting bass beats.
Bend has a lot of EDM talent, actually. And they're getting more ambitious all the time.
Going back to that Thumbprint Collective set for a moment—as I mentioned, Haindel and Rockwell didn't use a laptop. They didn't use a MIDI controller. Instead, they opted for a giant board of actual electronic devices that they played along with a real turn table. No giant catalog of music sequenced at home days or weeks before the show. They created in the moment—an impressive indicator that Bend artists aren't merely along for the ride— they are pushing EDM into something more.
Still, whether artists like bPollen focus on the underground scene or Thumbprint Collective keep it in the clubs, the reason they do what they do seems to be the same. At least bPollen thinks so.
"We're almost glorified librarians," said Potwin. "We take what we love and put intout there for others to enjoy. It's all about having fun. It's all about the dance."
Stage Name: bPollen
Real Name: Brian Potwin
Known for: Playing underground shows all over town and switching up the sound of his sets on the fly depending on crowd energy
Equipment: Vestax VCi400 MIDI Controller, Ableton music production software, Traktor Pro, MacBook
Influences: The Beatles, Beastie Boys, Polish Ambassador, Dirty Bird Records, JPOD
Where you can find him: Astro Lounge, Velvet, Bend Circus Center, various private parties and underground events
Stage Name: DJ Harlo
Real Name: Jason Harlowe
Known for: Getting funky behind the equipment. Loves to go old school and DJ well-known tracks, as well as create his own music
Equipment: Technics turntables, M Audio Keyboard/MIDI controller, Reason music production software
Influences: Teddy Pendergrass, Rush, AK1200, Sam Pool
Where you can find him: Astro Lounge, Liquid Lounge, local festivals
Stage Name: Thumbprint Collective
Real Names: Chris Haindel and Brig Rockwell
Known for: Breaking from the norm and not using a laptop for live performances. Improvising songs on the spot
Equipment: Kaoss Pad, Stanton turntable, MPC, Electribe, effects racks
Influences: Mars Volta, Amon Tobin, Mad Villain
Where you can find him: Liquid Lounge, The Horned Hand, various Slipmat Science shows