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Always another party (again and again)

S?nar 2005: Part One

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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