Dance-music fans in Vancouver haven’t had it this good since newly legal club kids were in preschool.
At a mainstream level, international acts are bringing bass drops to town every week and there are so many massives going on it’s doubtful your body could handle attending all of them. And at an underground level, intimate after-hours gatherings go down every weekend night and the local acts playing them are getting international attention on sites like Boiler Room, FACT, and Resident Advisor.
The scene hasn’t been this vibrant since the heyday of the Lotus Sound Lounge, and the idea of opening a store that dealt exclusively in phat pants was a viable business plan.
At the forefront of the mainstream side of things is Blueprint, a company that’s grown as fast as EDM has in recent years. “Blueprint, which used to be a two-to-three-person operation, is now a 400-person operation,” explains Blueprint’s digital marketing manager, Matt Owchar, interviewed at the Charles Bar in Gastown. He is pretty on the ball considering that the grand-opening bacchanalia for the company’s latest property, M.I.A. nightclub in Gastown, has just gone down the previous evening.
Under Blueprint’s expansive, fun, and fur-lined umbrella are five other nightclubs and an equally large number of dance-music festivals. One of these signature blowouts, the Seasons Festival, starts today (April 1). Inspired by Seattle’s Decibel Festival, this five-day citywide happening includes over 20 shows at all of Blueprint’s clubs as well as a two-day, all-ages main event at the Pacific Coliseum headlined by international tastemaker Diplo and the king of melodic big-room dance, Eric Prydz.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Seasons bill this year is that alongside EDM heavy hitters like Dillon Francis and Tritonal are local talent Bear Mountain and Sabota, as well as artists from underground dance-music labels 1080p, Genero, and Pacific Rhythm. If you were to describe some of these as EDM at one of their shows, the music would abruptly stop with a loud needle scratch, and the entire warehouse would stop dancing and stare at you.
“In our back yard we have all these amazing acts that are making waves internationally. And they’re awesome and they’re credible and they’re worth supporting and putting on a bigger platform,” Owchar declares. “It’s personally satisfying to take a label like 1080p and put it next to all these big-name DJs.”
This is what’ll be going down at the Free Association party on Thursday (April 2) at Fortune Sound Club. Organized by Natasha Lands and Chad Murray, this free event features three floors of electronic beats from some of Vancouver’s top underground labels. (Noticeably absent from the bill is Mood Hut, whose artists are touring Europe.)
With ample posters, photography, videos, and zines made by locals on display as well, it’s safe to assume that most attending this art-school-friendly show won’t be dancing in their underwear and a SpiritHood to Diplo this weekend.
“Going back seven, eight years, people that are now in the underground dance-music scene in the city, they were more in the punk-rock scene. They were dudes in punk-rock bands,” Owchar recollects. “It’s funny how the remnants of that scene have moved into this.”
It’s true. If EDM is the new rock ’n’ roll, then underground dance music is the new punk. An example of this is 1080p, whose sound might primarily be uhn-tiss-uhn-tiss, but whose ethos is pure punk. Launched by New Zealand transplant Richard MacFarlane nearly three years ago, the frenetic label has over 40 cassette releases from local and international acts.
The appeal of cassettes is that they’re fast and cheap to produce. All assembled by hand, they’re more of a limited-run, lo-fi, objet d’art reward for purchasing the MP3s than something most are bumping in yellow Sony Sports Walkmans.
“A lot of people criticize this trend where house and techno has become popular with people who had previously made guitar music. But I think it’s really amazing and I’m coming from that zone,” MacFarlane admits at Matchstick Coffee in Chinatown. “It’s good people are discovering this. In my opinion, it’s a lot more fun than going to see a show with three bands.”
DJing under the name 1080p Collection, MacFarlane will share the stage at Free Association with one of his New York acts, techno DJ-producer Max McFerren (“Everyone wants to come to Vancouver because they hear there’s this insane house and techno scene”), and local celestial house architect Friendly Chemist.
Soledad Muñoz of Genero echoes 1080p’s DIY sensibilities. Her all-female, multimedia project, with a label component, had its first cassette release this past summer, featuring the wyrd electronic pop of Stefana Fratila. Since then, two more have followed courtesy of deep-house and techno producers Regular Fantasy and D. Tiffany.
“I felt like there wasn’t enough female representation within the electronic realm,” she says of Genero’s inspiration, interviewed via Skype from a Portland coffee shop. “I come from a very critical-theory-based practice. But I also think that academia has this separation from reality. I’m very into pop culture. I’m very much into music. And I’m very much into getting together and making things happen.”
If critical theory doesn’t sound exactly, you know, fun, Muñoz rejects the idea that being an academic feminist and having a good time are conflicting notions.
“That’s how it has to be. C’mon, I’m not just inside a room reading books all day,” the Emily Carr grad jokes. “To me it’s about opening the doors and being ‘Yes, we are here and we’re doing it. Everyone come dance with us. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be great, and also we’re very good musicians.’ ”
Performing at Genero’s Free Association showcase are house and techno DJ Jayda G (“She can carry a whole party if she wanted to with her energy”), rapper and R&B singer MamaRudeGyal, and tropical electronic soundscape weaver Ramzi.
Muñoz is quick to point out that the project wasn’t started as a “fuck you” to everyone else in the local dance-music landscape. “I appreciate what all of our friends have done for this scene in Vancouver,” she explains. “The community has made Genero. It’s not just me.”
In fact, none of these upstart labels are concerned about competing with each other. D. Tiffany, whom Muñoz can’t say enough kind things about, has also released tapes with 1080p. At Free Association she’ll be playing in the Pacific Rhythm showcase, and the label plans to release her work on a forthcoming vinyl compilation. Additionally, Pacific Rhythm has a brick-and-mortar store (441 Gore Avenue) where you can buy everyone’s cassettes.
“More and more people are getting into it. 1080p came along. Now there’s Pacific Rhythm. And us. It’s growing and, hopefully, it doesn’t stop at all,” Muñoz says optimistically.
There’s a pretty palpable sense of community bubbling up in Vancouver right now. A healthy underground and a healthy mainstream are byproducts of one another, and this year’s Seasons Festival is building a bridge between the two. When the stadiums and festival dance tents need new sounds to keep partiers moving, they look to the warehouses for inspiration. And when the novelty of the lasers, confetti cannons, LED walls, and DJs hucking cake at you wears off, there’s always room for one more on the city’s dingier dance floors.
The Seasons Festival runs Wednesday to Sunday (April 1 to 5) at various venues around Vancouver.