Always another party (again and again)

    I arrive unprepared in Spain’s sweltering heat with my photographer in
    crime, J.Roams. I’ve been to Barcelona before, but that trip starts to
    seem more like a cultural expedition compared to what I will experience
    in the days ahead. Jason and I are no strangers to late nights, city
    streets and empty bottles, but we find out almost as soon as we step
    out of our cab and into something akin to a Spanish Mardi Gras that the
    Sónar festival is an everyone’s-invited, three-day bull-run of a party.

     

    [more:]

    Baggage-claimed backpacks still attached, we wait outside the press
    office for our friend Mateo and his crew from Birmingham and Sheffield,
    U.K. We fight off the first of many offers to buy or trade for our
    press passes — a hot commodity we’re told at the office to guard
    tightly. J laughs and reminds them we’re from New York. Mateo and
    company arrive with a handful of tasty treats. Certainly not our every
    day, but this is Sónar. Let the games begin.
    At least three
    things are going on at all times at Sónar, spewing from enormous
    speakers artists from all corners of the world. It’s impossible to see
    everything and easy to find your head spinning. Our first night gives
    birth to our week-long Barcelona mantra: again and again. This
    goes for the next to take the stage, the next brew, the next spot to
    run to, the next dime piece to stroll by in sandals. The crowd is a
    tidal wave awash in drugs, drink and exuberance. You can get swept away
    if you’re not careful.
    Fewer than six thousand people made
    their way to Spain for the first Sónar festival in 1994. Eleven years
    later, Sónar has become one of the world’s premier gathering points for
    electronic-music heads, artists and record labels. It doesn’t hurt that
    it’s held in the heart of Barcelona — a city fast becoming Europe’s
    most popular destination.
    This year’s festival, held in the
    middle of June, was dedicated to the late John Peel, the Radio 1 deejay
    who, until he died last year of a heart attack at age 65, was notorious
    for his dedication to breaking new artists. True to his spirit, the
    Sónar organization has again filled the bill with bands and artists
    they think their crowd needs to see, with little concern for sales
    history or name draw.
    The Sónar name has itself come to define
    progression. There are events dedicated to audio-visual collages, the
    latest in deejay and recording equipment, even music-related cinema.
    The festival’s posters make heroes of conmen and thieves, making it
    clear that the focus this year would be on breaking their own rules,
    meaning that artists who in the past may have been seen as outside
    their realm were now being invited to take center stage. Georgia
    Taglietti, head of Sónar’s international media department and public
    relations, said the idea was to create a “more organic Sónar.”

    How many people were at Sónar this year?
    GT: Eighty-seven thousand over three days and two nights.
    That’s insane. We have big festivals in America, but that’s huge. How do you choose which artists you want every year?
    GT:
    After all these years, every day we have input from the labels.
    Around September we gather up all the material from the labels that
    send us new releases of next year’s albums. Because we do a lot of
    label showcases, lots of them are just campaigning, like, “How many
    artists can we get in?”
    We know you guys are really
    selective. We were talking to Waajeed from Platinum Pied Pipers, and I
    know they really wanted to do it.

    GT: Well, we would have loved
    for them to do it, too. We got input on Platinum Pied Pipers because
    one of my best friends is working for Gilles Peterson, who is really
    supporting them. But we got an input from them around March, and for us
    February is already too late. We don’t really have gaps to fill, so
    it’s almost impossible for someone to get in even if they are becoming
    really massive at the time.
    Is the office open year round?
    GT: Yes, because we do other events too.
    And you have a record label of some kind?
    GT:
    Yes. We have some music that is usually based on the artists involved
    with Sónar. We did a Francois K live from Sónar because a lot of people
    asked us to do it, and that was a really big success. But the label is
    just a small part of the work we do. What we do mostly is events
    abroad, and we also do some booking management. We have quite a nice
    roster of artists, and they like to work with us because they know us
    from Sónar and it’s the same structure. Then we do trend marketing for
    Adidas.
    Everything is based in Barcelona?
    GT: Yeah, everything Sónar is based in Barcelona.

     

    ***
    The cream of underground electronica descends on
    Barcelona with Sónar as the magnet, but before, during and after the
    festival, they will turn up in clubs all around the city to show off
    their skills, their friends and the latest sounds. Never knowing who
    will be on the decks (or in the crowd), there is a good chance you
    could stumble upon some of the world’s best deejays in a very casual
    setting. When you look further than the year-round effort that goes
    into making this festival work, it’s safe to say that Sónar as an event
    is much more than what is on the scheduled roster.
    The first
    night in Barca turns out to be a perfect example of this — an endless
    mission from Placa Reial to a place that may very well be a rumor. We
    know Matthew Herbert and we think we know the name of the club.
    Eventually a cab swoops in to the rescue, and suddenly we are down past
    the beach in a beautiful little spot with inset candles, palm trees and
    a glowing red ceiling. Dani Siciliano is on the decks looking sexy,
    casual and in control. The kids are a mix of Europeans eager and ready
    to get this three-day party rolling. The Jungle Brothers “I’ll House
    You” is probably the only track I know all night, but the good mood is
    contagious and I’m nodding my head to what my man Mateo describes as
    intelligent electro-house. Herbert is there but never gets on,
    preferring to let Dani and the other deejays from his Accidental Label
    set the sound. Later in the night, Brooks is on the wheels and another
    kid gets busy on an effects board — pushing the late-night dancers
    even harder. We leave early by Sónar standards, around 4:30 a.m.
    ***

     

    Somehow Sónar by Day hijacks Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art
    for its headquarters. A beautiful white-tiled complex of high art on
    Friday becomes a massive heap of garbage. You can hear the music just
    fine from outside, and it seems like every kid in the city has come
    down, whether they can get in or not.
    I see a local dreadlocks
    drinking a twenty-two and ask him where he got it. He tells me the way
    in Spanish and when I bring him one back in return (they cost us two
    Euro) he gives us an astonished “Gracias!” It’s pretty easy to make
    friends in Spain.
    We take the big bottles with us into the
    cathedral and are hunted down by a security guard. He doesn’t want us
    to pour them out, just put them in plastic cups so the glass doesn’t
    break. He gives us thumbs up, smiling as we go back in with three cups
    full of brew. The Sónar Lab looks like an abandoned cathedral taken
    over by sweating beat-heads. It’s worth putting up with the heat to
    hear some of the crispy snares and thick bass provided by Multipara
    from the German label Lux Nigra over the typical big speaker sound
    Sónar provides in every venue.
    People dance in place, forcing
    themselves awake by staying on their feet or nodding their heads while
    sitting on the dirty floor. In the other room they have a cement beach
    set up with umbrellas and loungers full with crashing nappers looking
    for a quick recharge. Again and again
    We cool off in
    the gorgeous Hotel B pool overlooking Placa de Espanya and head to the
    Sónar by Night venue completely unprepared. I go to give the cabdriver
    the address and after confirming, “Sónar?” he waves us off with a
    laugh. He doesn’t need directions. That’s where everyone is going. This
    is a complex, bigger than eight Madison Square Gardens. What we
    originally think have to be separate spots are all under one roof. As
    soon as we’re past a security check we get assaulted by the massive
    sound — and we’re still outside.
    On the Sónar Park stage
    Roisin Murphy seems a little overwhelmed by the size of the stage and
    attention of the crowd but still manages to sound sultry and sincere.
    In the next room we find a stadium-sized rave — thumping house,
    blink-blurring lights and bumper cars. Bumper cars! We don’t even pay.
    We just jump in and keep acting like our car is broken — won’t take
    our tokens and we don’t speak Spanish. This lasts about five rounds and
    then we buy five more.
    Georgia said this flash of brilliance
    started around 1998. “We had a night venue that was by the sea and was
    much smaller, and we had an area that was for parking that we had to do
    something with,” she said. “One of my bosses at that time came up with
    the idea: If we have a park, why not do a park kind of thing? And so we started having this one.
    “The
    first year it wasn’t very popular — not that many went on it,” she
    said. “But then all of the [members of the] organization and a lot of
    the artists, just to blow some energy off, went in there. We had a huge
    reportage and Richie Hawkins, Jeff Mills, Jeff Mills’s wife, Laurent
    Garnier, his wife, really just everybody from the back. And the
    audience is just dancing totally oblivious to the fact that all these
    super VIPs were in the bumper cars acting like kids. I think I even
    scraped my knees because we were really playing and going pretty harsh.
    After that we knew it was going to stay.”
    The press area
    within the complex is an oasis. No standing in line for portable
    toilets. Sexy Spanish bartenders. Open air. Plastic patio grass and
    umbrella-covered benches. Friendly international conversation. It
    really makes all our hard work worth it.
    We troop through the
    complex aimlessly, amazed at the spectacle of it all and happy just to
    be amidst so many kids looking for nothing more than a good time and
    finding the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Martin L. Gore of Depeche
    Mode and 2 Many DJ’s providing the soundtrack. These big electro sounds
    can start to blend if you’re not in tune to who or what they are, and
    the night can start to turn into somewhat of a blur. Then suddenly
    we’re outside, walking home under Spain’s rising sun because the bus
    goes in the opposite direction and catching a cab is a joke. This is a
    quicker sober than coffee. But we’re not the only ones walking. We all
    suffer together.
    Sónar Day Saturday finds me lounged out on
    the all-white slant backs in the park’s press area. A little drained, a
    little overwhelmed. People attempting to recover from the night before
    sip from big bottles of water. Others trade their email for beer
    tickets, trying to get the party started again. A deejay spinning a
    rare taste of hip-hop gets me up out of my seat and out to the park.
    J.Roams has already put a store-bought six-pack of Voll Damm Extra Dark
    to his head and is nodding his bright blue NY hat to an ear-pleasing
    blend of Jay Dee, Madlib and DJ Premier. Our friend Mateo — civil
    engineer by day, derelict by Sónar — arrives at the park with a burnt
    out smile and a thumbs up to an offered beer. Again and again
    The
    scene is typical of an outdoor festival: big speakers, beers, blankets
    and bikinis. The acts during the day are generally more laid back, but
    there are always dancers and when a song catches the crowd they come
    alive as if on cue. But as I sip another can and the moon rises over
    the tallest of the MACBA buildings, I force myself to remember that
    this is all just a prelude to Sónar’s fireworks finale.
    Read part 2
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