Recently in Forever 21, I heard a curious electro-pop song come onto the store’s music mix. It was reminiscent of Miss Kittin and Felix da Housecat’s “Madame Hollywood,” their funny collaboration on the glitz and glamour of nightlife, almost a decade old now. But instead of glorifying nicotine and limousines, the song I heard in this cheap-chic mecca was talking up techno itself. The female vocalist deadpanned: “I hope they have new records from Detroit at the store.”
True enough, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival has celebrated that city as the “birthplace of techno” since 2000. Every Memorial Day weekend, scores of Seattle-based DJs, producers, and music enthusiasts head there—often stopping off at Montreal’s Mutek festival—to absorb the most cutting-edge sounds. They bring that energy, and frequently those artists, back to Seattle.
Now in its seventh year, Seattle’s own Decibel Festival doesn’t draw six-digit crowds (thanks to its relatively isolated location), but has begun to attract attendees from around the world. Despite a lagging economy, Decibel drew more than 15,000 people last year, with noticeably fuller venues (primarily Capitol Hill clubs) and more involvement and crossover from Seattle’s various dance-music scenes.
“I think more people are getting hip to it—I think Burning Man has [had] a lot to do with exposing people to dubstep, glitch, and bass-oriented types of music,” says Decibel founding director and curator Sean Horton. “I’m hoping next year we can work with Bumbershoot, and do more events at Seattle Center and downtown. I love the small-club scene, but it’s important in growing a large festival program.”
This year, more artists than ever—pushing forward more exciting music than I’ve heard in a long time—are appearing for five days of aural abandonment, visual stimulation, music-industry education, and a lesson in booty-shakin’. To help make the most of your experience, here’s a quick Virgin’s Guide to Decibel. Even if it’s your second or sixth time attending, why not push your boundaries and try something new? Be open, and you could be blown away.
Wednesday Drum-&-bass-heads pining for the Baltic Room’s old weekly (circa 2005 and before) will be pleased to see London’s Klute, L.A.’s Gridlok, and a host of Seattle’s best d&b DJs return to the venue tonight in a big salute to the black-sheep genre (8 p.m.). Klute has proven an imaginative and prolific producer, with releases like 2005’s double album No One’s Listening Anymore.
Alternatively, the Ghostly International showcase at Neumos (9:30 p.m.) kicks off the fest with a warm, mellow program of hip-hop, downtempo, and minimal sounds from label artists Mux Mool, Gold Panda, and Lusine. The latter’s A Certain Distance was a great achievement for the Seattle artist, and one of 2009’s best electronic albums. Pantha du Prince, who indie fans may know through his work with Animal Collective and Cold Cave, is a special headlining guest. His shimmering, melodic techno album Black Noise is high on many lists for 2010.
Thursday What is the sound of a Flying Lotus? Listen and try to describe it yourself. The Los Angeles artist’s recent album, Cosmogramma (a “space opera” on venerable Warp Records) has gotten rave reviews. The FlyLo & Friends showcase at Neumos (9 p.m.) is up against an exciting party across the street at Sole Repair (9 p.m.) for local collective Made Like a Tree. DJs Struggle, Energy Flash, and Lioncub are known for their left-field sounds, including “stripped-down dub and techno, rare oldies, psychedelia, and ethereal house.” Headlining is “analog house savant” Disco Nihilist, from Austin.
Friday Every year, the Optical showcases give ambient fans a chance to sit down and zone out to sounds that can be equally meditative and complex. Case in point: returning artist Murcof, who performs his celestial, classically inclined vibrations at tonight’s Optical 1 (6 p.m.). Joining him are Robert Henke (Monolake) and Mark Van Hoen, whose work as Locust back in the ’90s appeals to shoegaze and Seefeel fans alike.
“We are severely spoiled when it comes to shows in Seattle, and we take it for granted sometimes,” says ambient artist Rafael Irisarri, whose cover as Ghostly International’s The Sight Below was recently blown. He has helped Decibel acquire some of the best like-minded talent for the Optical programming. Scott Sunn, who has made pitch-perfect backdrops for artists like Loscil at similar showcases, will provide live visuals.
Later in the evening, Modeselektor’s utterly unclassifiable beats (9 p.m.) are one of the more unique sounds to come back around to Seattle. If you’ve seen that duo already, two other major showcases are tied for best bet. The Trust showcase (at Sole Repair, 9 p.m.) matches local party-throwers Sun Tzu Sound with young Manchester artist Trus’me. “His first record was based on samples and loops from old soul-disco records. It was in my top-three albums of the year,” says Sun Tzu’s Jason Justice.
And you’ll find Shawn Kralicek (DJ Struggle) enjoying the sounds of the Planet Mu label (at the Baltic Room, 9 p.m.): “FaltyDL has made some incredible stuff in the last year. His All in the Place EP on Rush Hour Recordings is a favorite. It’s the direction I’d always hoped dubstep would go: drawing from all types of sounds to create something fresh.”
Saturday Party on a boat, party in the park, hit up Optical 2 (with Fennesz, 6 p.m.), or just take a nap and get ready for a long night. The rock tonight is Craig and Saunderson at Neumos (9 p.m.), which Craig alone sold out in 2008. That memorable set was a subtly emotional, hours-long journey, the kind most DJs no longer even attempt.
If you can tear away from Craig’s beefed-up redux, the hard place will be the Hotflush showcase at the Baltic Room (9 p.m.). The young UK label has become synonymous with the evolving dubstep strain, which formed from the 2-step beat of garage. Taking it to gorgeously subterranean spaces is label artist Scuba. This year’s album Triangulation is equally suited to vertical and horizontal movement—what sort of dance music could be better?
You’re guaranteed to be fired up from either showcase, so take that energy to the Late Night Soul Kitchen at SoDo’s Motor (2 a.m.). Detroit deep-house king Theo Parrish, of “Falling Up” fame, performs in the wee hours with Boston’s Soul Clap and Seattle’s Pezzner (playing live), whose star has risen meteorically this year with releases on OM and Freerange.
Sunday Still standing? BBC Radio DJ and motorcycle maven Mary Anne Hobbs is ready to assault your senses on the Broad Street Stage (3 p.m.), along with London’s Plastician. Her diverse and deep tastes make for perhaps the most surprising sets on the planet. Jaws dropped repeatedly last year during her set at Neumos.
The Bubblin’ showcase (9 p.m., named for the monthly Portland dance party hosted by DJs Lincolnup and Ben Tactic) features much-anticipated headliner Kyle Hall—new blood from Detroit who’s gotten rave reviews for his modern, deep-but-funky take on house.
And last but not least, the Decibel finale (Neumos, 9 p.m.). If you haven’t been to Berlin in the past 10 years—or couldn’t get into techno mecca Panorama Bar when you were—you should be here. Arguably, the nexus of creativity for dance music has been that city, where finale headliners Cassy and Monolake hold it down and keep it moving.
The bulk of Decibel’s programming is spread among Capitol Hill hotspots Neumos (925 E. Pike St.), Sole Repair (1001 E. Pike St., across from Neumos), Chop Suey (1325 E. Madison St.), and the Baltic Room (1207 Pine St.). This year’s Decibel in the Park (Sat.–Sun.) will be held at the Broad Street Stage at Seattle Center. The all-ages daytime events are an excellent choice for those looking to save a few bucks while getting down. This year’s sit-down showcases, Optical 1 and 2, will be held at Benaroya Hall (Third Ave. and Union St.). Once you’ve picked your shows, it’s fairly easy to bounce among venues to catch an opener here, a headliner there. Buying tickets in advance is recommended—and if you’re planning to attend Saturday’s D25 Showcase (at Neumos) featuring Detroit legends Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson, get them now. Workshops
This year’s Opening Gala and subsequent workshops/conference events—free to the public—are held at Pravda Studios (1406 10th Ave.). As Decibel has grown through sponsorships from Microsoft, Scion, and Red Bull, so have opportunities for attendees. Learn how to build a custom controller, or let DJ/producer Kris Moon explain Serato Scratch Live. Local luminary Jeff McIlwain (aka Lusine) will host an Ableton Live workshop.